Friday, February 23, 2007

Storytelling Trumps Everything…

I and my fellow Drunk Writers have a few rants we enjoy when out for a night enjoying our beverages of choice.

My personal favorite, and one Molly and Maureen are bored to tears with, is great story telling trumps everything.
To me, specifically in books, great storytelling trumps clumsy or uninspired prose, clunky dialogue and even spelling mistakes.

I judge a couple of contests a year, and always find them interesting, partly to know what editors are receiving and partly to know what other authors are writing.

To me a contest entry works if the story engages me. Again, crazy simple, but we’ve talked about the many rules there seem to be out there. I judge other people’s work by my basic rule. Am I entertained while reading this?

Now I know this is a subjective thing. But I’ll read something that is polished to perfection, prose is lovely, not a comma misplaced, but the story itself is derivative, dull and the pacing is usually dead slow.
I’ll read something else where the story is fascinating, great characters, questions are raised and I’m dying to find out the answers, and I don’t care if there are a few spelling errors, misplaced commas, or anything else that doesn’t draw me from the story.
I’ll always give the better story the highest marks.
And then the list of winners comes out, and the dull, perfect prose story is on the list of finalists, and my fav - nowhere to be seen.

We should praise perfection, we should honor polished -- but at the expense of storytelling?

Is this why so many editors say they have little luck finding new authors on the contest circuit? I’m beginning to think so.

This isn’t meant as an insult to anyone who is finaling in contests. One of my critique partners has an excellent track record on the contest circuit, and her books are great examples of wonderful storytelling.

But I think of the amazing entries I’ve read that haven’t finaled, and I really hope those authors don’t get discouraged. Because sometimes great storytelling breaks rules, creates characters that stray from our idea of what’s acceptable in a hero or heroine, asks questions that aren’t easily answered and doesn’t immediately tell the reader everything that’s at stake for the protagonist.
Tough to judge in a first chapter contest.

And possibly great storytelling is polarizing. Some people will love it and others will hate it..

I’ll know I’ll love probably love it.


Maureen McGowan said...

Great post Sinead! You know, I was just part of a discussion yesterday on one of my loops where an author was talking about how her first book that sold did really poorly in contests and with her CP's and beta readers. Everyone wanted her to change it to fit the "good writing rules" we all have drilled into us.

Luckily, she didn't listen and got published.

Christine said...

I love a good story and can forgive almost anything if it captures my attention. There are TV shows where the acting was "okay" but the story was so interesting I couldn't help but watch.

I think that's one of the reasons I never bothered with contests. My voice just doesn't fit the standard rules.

Sinead M said...

I hear you Christine. I think both Maureen and I can tell you horror stories of some of the comments we've received, on manuscripts that got us both agents.

Melissa James said...

Hi, Sinead,

Maureen invited me to comment here because I was saying something similar on our agency loop yesterday. I only ever won one contest - it was judged by READERS. Writer-judged contests are harder for me because I don't follow "rules". the entry I won the contest with, broke every "Rule" known to writers. I even got a two-page list of reasons why it would *never sell* and it bombed out of every other contest judged by writers.

It sold. Her Galahad was released by Silhouette Intimate Moments in 2002.

I think every book I've written (and sold) has broken at least 20 so-called rules - because, as you say, I concentrate on the story. I get a storyline I am overwhelmingly (oops, an adverb!) enthused about, and I just write it. I have trusted CPs that tell me when I repeat something, but they don't fuss with my voice or tell me the rules.

Because, really, how many FANTASTIC books have you read that you knew broke every rule, but you adored it anyway?

So did the editors, obviously. :-)))


Maureen McGowan said...

LOL about the adverb, Melissa!

One thing that kills me in a lot of contest entries these days, is when a writer who's obviously been told not to use adverbs, leaves off the "ly" making the sentence grammatically incorrect -- but avoiding (they think) the dreaded adverb.

Eg. He sang loud vs He sang loudly

Not that I'm a stickler for grammar in commercial fiction. I mean, we called this blog Drunk Writer Talk instead of Drunken Writer Talk. :-)

Sinead M said...

Hey Melissa,

I love your example. So great. I've found the major drawback for me are how so many judges detract for non-perfect behaviour by either the hero or heroine, but isn't that the point of a character arc? And characters I want to write about, flawed, imperfect people who especially at the start of the book, make decisions that aren't necessarily heroic, but are different by the end.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I'm beginning to think contests can be so misleading. Maybe if we don't expect too much from them -- or go into it with out eyes open regarding the subjectivity of it all.

And with everyone following rules we're all writing the same book -- which is why we're all complaining about not reading great romances these days.

Storytelling Trumps Everything is now a mantra -- like scenes must do three things and don't eat all the cake. Thanks Sinead

Abby said...

"But I think of the amazing entries I’ve read that haven’t finaled, and I really hope those authors don’t get discouraged."

They DO get discouraged. That's why contests really don't do it for me. I was amazed at how discouraged I was by the comments I got - I thought I was tougher than that. But those same 30 pages, without a word altered, got me two full MS requests. So even if it doesn't sell, at least I know it doesn't suck as much as the judges thought.

How many writers put good work in a drawer after bombing out of a few contests?

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