One Writer’s mid-week Writing Secrets 1: Tell a Story.

            Sorry, I don’t have a link but I would recommend reading the Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, August 29-30, 2009, page W3 in the culture section. The article is by Lev Grossman, and it is titled: Storytelling. Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard.  And it is subtitled: A novelist on the pleasure of reading stories that don’t bore… My response is: Amen. Whether you are writing fiction or embarked on some journalistic enterprise (or writing journalistic-fiction which is all too common these days) it helps to have a story!

            Grossman blames our view of what constitutes “great writing” (literature) on the modernists in the 1920s who objected to the Victorian novels that tied everything up in a nice, neat ending. Faced with all of the changes that came with modern life, these authors said, (recognized) that life did not work out in nice and neat ways, and so they produced such works as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Ulysses,” “A Passage to India,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “The Sound and the Fury,” and so on. These all may be great books in their way, but the truth is (and Grossman says it well) they are too hard on the reader. As he points out, “imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up “The Waste Land” and saw that it came with footnotes.”

            To be sure, all of these great works by great writers have produced in us a sense that quality writing must be like theirs: “Mainstream” or “Literary;” yet, like the impressionist painters that revolutionized the art world, they have had their day. The day of the “Mainstream” or “Literary” novel (so-called) is over. To put it more succinctly: modern literature had its time and place, but we are now living in a post modern age.

            Thank goodness story is making a comeback. Clearly, story is what readers want. As Grossman points out, “Sales of young adult books (where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed) are up 30.7% so far this year (through June, 2009)… while adult hardcovers are down 17.8%. Nam Lee’s “The Boat,” one of the best reviewed books of fiction in 2008 has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback according to Nielsen Bookscan… (while) the author of the “Twilight” series, Stephanie Meyer, sold eight million.”

            My point would be that it pays to have a story to tell. Readers want this. Writers – Serious Writers are discovering this. Agents and Publishers are a little slower, but I believe they will follow the money. My hope is that someday maybe even the reviewers will catch up.

            You remember story: Beginning, middle and End. Yes, I said end. True, these days we might not wrap everything up in a neat Victorian ribbon. (The lessons of the modernists were valid to some extent). In our day, Scrooge might have a relapse. (We would call that a sequel). But still, a story ought to have some resolution, some conclusion; it needs to reach a point where one can honestly type: THE END. It should no longer be acceptable to end a story, “because my fingers got tired of typing so I went to bed.”

            “But what of Great Literature and true Stream of Consciousness writing, and etc.?” As Jessica would say, with a snap of her gum, a click of her tongue and a roll of her eyes, “That is so last century!”

Writing Tip 1:
Tell a story. Tell a good story. Grab the reader. Take them through whatever twists or turns exist, and when you are done, let them go. This can still be great literature, and I believe it will be how the future sees literature. You can say all you want to say about life, liberty and the pursuit in a story. You can make great points, Dickens did, but first of all make it a good read, because if it is good enough, along with lasting beyond the lifetime of a blog, someone just might pay you for it.

— Michael

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