About Me

My Photo
I'm a novelist and playwright, traditionally and independently published.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Story Is King - How eBook Publishing Inspired Me To Hone My Storytelling Skills

Bird of Passage

At some point over the Christmas viewing marathon of the last few months, somewhat prolonged because of the appalling weather (Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Pride and Prejudice, Casablanca,  ET, Singin’ in the Rain – I was doing that alright -  Brief Encounter, thank God we didn’t have a power cut) I distinctly remember hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber say ‘story is king’ and although I have some reservations about the ALW bandwagon, I found myself in broad agreement with him. Which might have come as something of a surprise to the writer I thought I was, even five years ago.

I don’t know when this all began for me, but I suspect it was post millennium, when my previous literary agent was struggling to place a new novel with various publishers who were all telling her how it was ‘wonderfully written, but too quiet’ and no, they couldn’t possibly market it in the current difficult climate.’ That difficult climate, incidentally, seems to have been current for an awful long time and predates the recession by some years. I was lamenting my fate on a message board when a colleague pointed out (sympathetically) that publishers were always looking for the holy grail of wonderful writing allied to a stonking great story, but if they couldn’t have both in the same book, they would settle for the stonking great story any time.
 Back then, although I found my colleague’s observation to be accurate, I don’t think I learned my lesson. In fact I would say it is only over the past year or so that I have taken it on board. I have a close friend with New Age tendencies, who is always saying things like ‘the universe is trying to tell you something, Catherine.’ Well, now, I’m listening. And the fact is that I have become enchanted by story, as enchanted as I used to be when – as a very little girl – I listened to and then read for myself, the stories in the illustrated Wonder Books which had once belonged to one of my aunts, and had then been passed on to me.

Several things have contributed to this. That ‘stonking great story’ line has been working away in my head like yeast. The films I named above have one thing in common – they are all fine stories, and of course some of them are very fine novels too. It is through the medium  of those powerful tales that we are engaged, while in the sheer pleasure of our absorption, (even when the stories themselves are sad) we learn something about ourselves – and others - as human beings.  

On Christmas morning,  pottering about the kitchen, (as if I hadn’t had enough TV for one holiday) I found myself watching the Nativity,  the beautiful version with Andrew Buchan as a bewildered Joseph and Tatiana Maslany as a totally believable Mary, and becoming captivated all over again by a story which was as familiar to me as my own name, the drama and humanity of it, the way in which it engaged me on practically every level: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and last but by no means least, purely as a piece of  entertainment.
Some years ago, as a reasonably well established playwright trying to break into television, I had struggled to please a string of script editors, until I realised that (a) the script editor earned his salary by stringing me along with endless unpaid rewrites and (b) television really wasn’t for me – although the money was an enticement. Unfortunately, it was more like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Just when you thought you might have got there, the whole thing shifted.

Recently, it struck me forcibly that all the gatekeepers I had ever encountered seemed to have quite different ideas about what they wanted from me but none of them had really taken on board who I was as a writer and – more importantly - who my potential readers might be. This realisation was both liberating and alarming, because so much of my focus had been on pleasing these same agents and editors who were - on the whole - nothing like my potential readers. The trouble was, I didn’t know who those readers were either.
Dealing in antique textiles - my lucky dragon - not for sale!

One of my other jobs involves dealing in antique and vintage textiles online and sometimes writing about them. I’ve been doing it for some years now and I could describe to you in great detail who my customers are, (many of them come back time and again and send me nice emails in between times) where they live, what kind of things they like, and why I’m so fond of them. But when it comes to identifying my readers, I’ve realised that - like so many writers – I’ve trusted other people to do that for me.
The other thing these gatekeepers had never stressed was the importance of story. They had talked about characterisation and pace and structure and plot. But the endless ‘rules’ of plotting are not the same thing as telling a good story. Not one of them had said ‘For God’s sake,  just go away, find out and then tell the story, from the bottom of your heart.’

Would it have made a difference if they had? Maybe.
When I was finishing the final edits for my most recent novel, Bird of Passage, (now doing quite well on Amazon Kindle)  I saw that what had started out as a piece of reasonably well written but rather wishy washy fiction, had actually – over several drafts, a few years and a lot more experience - turned into a real story.  I don’t know that it’s a stonking great story, (although I think my next novel, The Amber Heart, might well be) but it’s certainly a good story, a story of love, obsession, and cruelty, told from the bottom of my heart. And it's one that I hope a number of people will find moving and engaging.

It perplexes me that I had managed to go through an intensive arts education, with an honours degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University, followed by a postgraduate degree from Leeds University, followed by many years of writing, publication, production and  a certain amount of success, all the while receiving advice from artistic directors and script editors and book editors and agents – and nobody had ever pointed out the simple truth that story is king. At university, I specialised in Old English & Mediaeval Studies. This literature – spanning many centuries - is crammed with wonderful stories illustrating timeless truths about the human condition, but you’d never have known it from the way we studied it. The fact that Beowulf, Gawain and The Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales and The Icelandic sagas are as powerful and engaging now as they were when they were first written, was treated as a commonplace irrelevance. ‘If you like that kind of thing, that’s the kind of thing you like,’ said one of our tutors, looking down his academic nose at us.
Maybe I shouldn't have expected anything different. And maybe I should have known what I needed to do, all along. But the truth is that if you can't tell a good story, even if you are the most celebrated of experimental writers, with a deeply intellectual following, few people will want to listen. Robert McKee says that the essence of good story is unchanging and universal’.  Your first imperative, as a writer of fiction, should be to get your head down and tell a good story.
Now, I'm trying, and what a sheer pleasure that is turning out to be!



9 comments:

Maggie Craig said...

I couldn't agree more!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thought you might, Maggie!

Jennie Walters said...

Completely agree with this, Catherine. Good stories can be quiet too, though - not a huge amount actually happens in 'Brief Encounter' but the strength of emotion and the perfect timing make it compelling. Think your phrase 'telling it from the heart' is spot on.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

You're right about Brief Encounter - but I'm not sure contemporary publishing would agree with us. Maybe readers would, though.

Susan Price said...

Catherine - this may sound snipey and trollish, but I don't mean it to be. I'm really curious. What did you think was important, if not story? What was it you were trying to do, before?

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Not snipey at all! In fact it's an excellent question, and one which has given me even more food for thought. I don't really know what I thought. I suspect it's partly down to having studied English at university - and I'd be interested to know what anyone else thinks - but there's a very snobbish element to Eng Lit studies, which leads lecturers to give a real body swerve to anything involving story. They will talk about structure and metaphor and characters and even plot but when we were reading, for example, Nicolas Nickleby, nobody ever said 'And by the way, this is a damn good story!' Or if they did, they seemed to think it didn't matter - were almost embarrassed to refer to it! There was a sense in which telling a good story and telling it well was presumed to be the easy, facile bit when in fact I've come to realise that it's the heart of everything worth doing. And I now think that creative writing classes may well be compounding this. I can think of a recent example of this attitude - the excellent Call The Midwife - wonderful stories, beautifully and satisfyingly told -slagged off in some quarters. 'More BBC drivel packed with the usual cliches' was one comment I saw. Nicely calculated to make all those who watched it and thoroughly enjoyed it feel somehow inadequate. So I suppose there are people trying to write who have been somehow conned into thinking that story doesn't matter - and you're right to ask the question - if not story, what does matter?

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post, Catherine. Completely agree about the importance of telling a good story! But I suspect the literary snobbery that still abounds in the Booker etc tends to forget that.

Susan Price said...

Thanks for the thoughtful answer, Catherine! I never studied literature at University, but I've certainly come across that attitude. You find it in Art too - the automatic sneer at illustration, at the idea of drawing well. 'Oh, that's easy.' Well, no, actually, to be able to draw like Beardsley, or Ingres is NOT easy, and it's breathtaking.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Oh yes! That's so true.