I’ve been sort of sick since the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I had a couple of days off over that holiday, and I spent them not feeling well at all. By the following Sunday, I was feeling better, but not 100%. Just not contagious. I didn’t miss any work, and I haven’t really been staying home either. But I’m still coughing and blowing my nose like crazy.
What’s that have to do with the titular question? Absolutely nothing. I post it because I’ve been thinking about it lately. A “troll” on a Facebook group I frequent is bashing self-published authors, and suggesting that none of them can write worth a lick. That we are ruining the “industry” such as it is. One of his posts grabbed a snippet of a sample from another member’s work, and then tore it apart.
Well, maybe “tore it apart” is a little strong. He pointed out that the author used “blonde” rather than “blond” as the adjective for a character’s description, and that “mousey” didn’t mean the same thing as “mousy.” (The latter I didn’t know, actually. I assumed “mousey” would mean “like a mouse” but apparently it denotes a color while “mousy” means “like a mouse.”) He criticized some of the telling rather than showing, and I mostly agreed with his criticisms.
But did those details detract from the story being told in the work of genre fiction? I don’t know, because I didn’t read the author’s story, but in the limited reading of the sample, I was intrigued by the story.
So I started thinking: what’s the difference between good writing and good storytelling? Does something have to be written to perfect English standards in order to tell a good story? Do those “show don’t tell” rules have to be followed? Do you have to “kill” all or most of your adverbs?
Lots of us don’t have formal training in writing. I didn’t. I have been writing since I was in grade school. I always did well in writing classes, better than most of my classmates. I was a STEM guy in college and professional school, but I found the time to write a few articles for the school newspapers and even had an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune once. (Want to read it? Here’s the link: MAN’S DESTINY IS IN SPACE. )
But I’ve also been reading since, well, since I could read. I’ve read mostly genre fiction, but I’ve read extensively in many different genres. I’ve read self-published works and traditionally published works. I’ve put a lot of money in publishers’ and authors’ pockets over the years. When you read a lot, you get a feel for the cadence of good writing. You start to “feel” when something doesn’t sound right. When there’s a better, shorter, more clear way to say the same thing. To show the same thing, rather than just describing it with words. I don’t know how to explain it. How can that be taught in a college creative writing course? Will someone with four years of classes in creative writing, and a major or a minor in the subject, be able to do it better than someone with fifty years of reading experience?
I kind of don’t think so. Good writing and good storytelling might not be the same thing, but good storytelling is improved by good writing. Good writing isn’t enough by itself, however. Imagination and passion about the story you’re telling goes further, in my opinion, than flawless writing.
No one’s writing is 100% flawless. Mine certainly isn’t. Just this post, written off the cuff with no planning, has plenty of “errors” in it. But I think it made my point.
If it’s a choice between a good story and a boring story told with elegance, I’ll take the good story almost every time.
Kudos to you for saying all this. Storytelling has been around for a long time, and ancient storytellers only made sure their audiences understood and enjoyed their stories.
Consider The Canterbury Tales: Modern audiences won’t understand them in their original form, but the stories are still good. Same for Shakespeare’s plays with their Elizabethan English—Hamlet alone is a great story that has spawned many other stories.
I’m reading a story where the author confused “reign” with “rein”—my editing eyes caught that—but did I stop reading in disgust? No. The plot, characters, and other story elements propelled me forward. I’m certain that at a price of $2.99, the book was self-published. (Big Five ebooks are generally way above my $6 threshold.) I don’t care. So far it’s a good story, so I’ll keep turning the pages on my Kindle.
I’ve known editors who are sticklers for enforcing CMOS rules too. Hard-boiled mystery/crime writers like Hammett and Leonard didn’t care about CMOS; they cared about telling a good story.
Here’s a quote from Tom Clancy that sums things up: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.” The author then publishes the story so readers can read it—it doesn’t matter where or how.