Be a Storyteller First

It seems to me that there’s so much focus on things that truly do not matter to writing a book.  Authors squabble over passive vs. active voice, whether it’s okay to use adverbs or not, how often you can write a certain word in a scene, etc.  In my opinion, all those little details aren’t that important.  Passive voice is okay.  Adverbs are okay.  If you want to repeat the word “walk” in a scene, that’s okay, too.  The point is not whether you use these techniques or not.  It’s HOW you use them.

The bottom line with any book is the story.  Was it a story that compelled the reader to keep turning the page?  Was it a story that made the reader lose sleep because he/she had to keep reading?

You want to know who cares about these things?  Writers (aspiring or otherwise), editors, and others in the writing industry.  The average reader on the street doesn’t care.  I just spent a weekend mingling at A Taste of Omaha where there were 100,000+ people going by the table an author friend and I were sitting at, and I spoke to enough of them to learn that what readers want more than anything else is a “great story”.  They want an emotional experience.  They want to lose themselves in the book.

Here’s what the goal of every writer should be: Tell a story in such a way that the words fade away so that the reader sees a movie.  The goal of the writer is to make the reader forget they are reading.  If you are going to focus so much on the words on the paper in front of you that you miss the movie experience, reading isn’t fun.  Reading is only fun when it lifts you out of yourself and places you right there with the main character.  I’ve read books where I was so worried the character wouldn’t resolve their crisis that I had to remind myself, “Hey, it’s a book.  This isn’t really happening.” If you’ve ever had that experience when you read a book, then you know what I’m talking about.  Readers should care about your characters.  If they don’t, no mechanical writing thing you did to be a “perfect” writer will do any good for you.

Over and over, I hear writers who wonder, “Why is that crappy book selling?  I mean, come on!  The author repeats the same phrase over and over.  There are “ing” words.  The writing is simplistic–my kid knows bigger words.  What’s up with the words like “just, that, well” and all those adverbs.  I swear, I’m going to pull my hair out if there’s one more exclamation point!  This writer doesn’t know how to write.  I don’t get why people keep buying that book.”

I’ll tell you why readers are buying that book.  They’re buying that book because they don’t care about the petty little things that writers are told to do in critique groups.  All they want is a “great” story, and if enough of them think they have a “great” story, then they’ll be excited to tell others about it.  And that’s how word of mouth happens.  If you write a book that can “wow” a critique group (other writers) but it’s boring to a reader, you’ll never get that word of mouth going.

So my advice to every writer is to forget the other writers and focus in on the readers.  The readers are the ones who’ll get excited about your book and want to buy the other books you publish.  Your reader is your audience.  At A Taste of Omaha, the readers wanted me to tell them about the stories in my books.  They didn’t thumb through them to see if there was active or passive voice, adverb usage, repeat words, “ing” words, impressive words, etc.  None of that mattered to them.  They wanted a good story.

As a side note: the basic grammar rules (capitalize the first word in a sentence, proper punctuation, etc) still apply.  As my 8th grade English teacher once told my class:  The writer’s objective is to make reading easy for the reader.  In my experience, simple is better and sometimes less is more.