Jilly: Storyteller v Smooth Writer

storytellerI’m planning to spend today judging romance writing contest entries. It’s time-consuming and headache-inducing, but over the last couple of years I’ve discovered that analyzing other unpublished writers’ work is a great way to improve my own.

I guesstimate that on average it takes me about three or four hours per entry from first read to submission of score-sheet. Multiply that by four or five manuscripts, and you’re talking about a serious investment of time. It’s relatively quick, and usually great fun, to read an entry and reach a first impression. Are the scenes well-written? Do I care about the characters? Would I read on? It’s much harder to pinpoint what it is about the writing that makes me feel that way, and harder still to find the right words to give that feedback to the author in an honest, courteous and professional manner.

The last time I judged this particular contest I was lucky enough to read two very good entries back-to-back that made me think hard about what I’m trying to achieve in my own WIP.

The first story was beautifully written and it slid smoothly into my brain. The world was fascinating, somewhere I’d never visited but could imagine perfectly thanks to the deftly drawn descriptions. I loved the characters, major and minor, and I totally bought in to their relationships to one another. The dialogue sounded exactly right for those people in that town. The pace was snappy, and all the usual building blocks for the genre were neatly put in place. I had a great time reading, and if the rest of the book had been under my nose, I’d have kept going. But it wasn’t, so I read the opening scenes of the second story instead.

Entry Two was engaging, though the prose wasn’t as polished as Entry One. I jolted a bit over the first page, and then I adjusted my reading to allow for the bumps because by then I was so engrossed in the story that it didn’t matter. The opening scene was dramatic, but the best thing about it was its impact on the heroine. She wasn’t in immediate danger, but in that moment it was abundantly clear that life as she’d known it was over. She had to act, quickly and decisively, and she did. I liked her immediately. I liked her style and her resourcefulness. She made an interesting (surprising but smart) choice. I knew it would push her to the limit and I wanted to see her make it work. And when the story switched to a new chapter, I liked the antagonist. His mission was natural, believable and powerful, and it put him on an unavoidable collision course with the heroine. They hadn’t met by the time the pages ended, but it was inevitable that their paths would cross, and that a spectacular power struggle would ensue. I was dying to know what happened next, and if the rest of the book had been available for sale, I’d have bought it on the spot.

It wasn’t until I read Entry Two that I understood how lukewarm my reaction to Entry One had been. Given the quality of the writing, I should have been desperate to read on, but I wasn’t strongly invested, and eventually I realized it was because in Entry One, the critical events affected the heroine indirectly. She was involved, and I felt sure that she would slowly be drawn in until she was at the center of affairs, but in the pages I read, she wasn’t challenged. Interesting things were clearly going to happen to her and the people she loved, but at that early stage in proceedings she could have walked away, and so could I.

I think this may have been the moment I decided not to take any more craft classes until I’m satisfied the content of my WIP is as powerful as I can make it. If my comma placement is iffy and I don’t always capitalize names correctly (guilty on both counts), so be it. Of course I want my writing to be technically sound. I’d love to get my prose as clean and sparkly as Writer One. But if I have to choose, I want to be Writer Two.

Which of your favorite authors would you describe as a smooth writer, an addictive storyteller, or (best of all) both?

9 thoughts on “Jilly: Storyteller v Smooth Writer

  1. Two of my favorite writers have this quality of describing something rather mundane and ordinary, and then suddenly they throw in a shift that makes everything look different. Most recently, one of my favorite writers gave her hero super-powers — he can fight in slow motion, and duck and spin and . . . still run into sword number six, because six swords are too damn many swords. He hit it so hard he got a concussion and was useless for interrogation by the bad guys, who swore, “He RAN into it; I swear, I didn’t mean to clout him so hard.”

    So, I guess I go more for the intellectual and crafty pleasures. Sidney Sheldon is a guy who writes terribly dramatic plots. I remember reading something by him a few years ago, and I was just astounded by the way the plot twisted and turned and seemed almost ready to escape his grasp. But . . . I did not go out and buy every Sidney Sheldon I could lay my hands on, because I don’t really like his characterizations, and I remember his prose being somewhat like a blunt instrument, not a needle full of fun.

    So . . . I suppose I have a threshold. And if the writer can get over the threshold, then I choose characterization. But, if the writer is under the threshold for any of the basic skills, I’m less likely to seek him or her out for more.

    • I agree with you about character-driven rather than plot-driven stories. I love the way Chuck Wendig described it – characters poop plot, plot does not poop character (or words to that effect).

      I agree with you about the basic skills threshold too, but once over that hurdle I’m most fascinated by writers who have the knack of challenging their characters in a compelling way. One benefit of e-books is that it’s easier to track down the early, less well-known books of favorite authors and it’s interesting to see that trait in stories that are not so polished craft-wise. Sometimes I even prefer the earlier, less crafty books.

  2. My favorite writers are the standards: Nora, SEP and JAK. All three are smooth writers and good story tellers. I also like Julia Quinn, but I can only take so much witty banter before I have to put her stories down. I haven’t found any new ones recently that I would say have compelling stories but lack good craft. I would get distracted by bad writing.

    I recall several discussions among us 8L about crafting your way into a very dull story and I think that is very true. If the writing is too perfect, it turns into more of a dissertation than a good story.

  3. I love this post! I never had thought of it that way – to be a smooth writer or an addictive storyteller. I hope I’m more of the later, but would actually like to be both.

    I’ve read a lot of Nora, Jennifer Probst and Carly Phillips, but I must say that I’m truly addicted to Kristen Ashley! I hope to be her when I grow up.

    Also I never thought of judging contest as improving my writing, but now that you mention it, I can see why. So that being said, I’m going to volunteer to judge the next time I see an opportunity.

    • Hi Janice, thank you for your kind words 🙂 . Like you, my plan is to become a powerful storyteller and strong from a craft perspective, but for now I’ve decided it’s most important for me to concentrate on improving my story choices.

      I know a lot of people find Kristen Ashley seriously addictive. I’d love to know why you find her books so irresistible.

      I can seriously recommend contest judging as a good way to improve your writing. It’s hard to pick apart somebody else’s story, figure out why it worked for you (or didn’t), and then feed it back to them in a professional and positive way. And it’s amazing how often afterwards I’ve found the exact same problems in my own WIP.

      Good luck and happy writing!

  4. Not in the romance genre, but I think of Mario Puzo right away for an addictive storyteller with craft issues. Re-reading The Godfather (which I have read so, so many times) I always cringe at the grammar, but it’s just got that je ne sais quoi that keeps me re-reading it.

    Also (yes, blasphemy, I know) J.K. Rowling (her craft certainly improved significantly, but it was always the storytelling that kept you coming back).

    And I love love love everything Jenny Crusie does. She’s an addictive storyteller and a master of craft.

    I can’t really think of anybody who’s the Smooth Storyteller that I just don’t care about. Probably because I just DNF those books and fugheddaboutit!

    • Mario Puzo! You just took me a LONG way down memory lane. I read The Godfather when I was still at school. I’d never read anything like it and was glued. Then my dad saw what I was reading and wanted to borrow it, and I was embarrassed about the racy bits, so I ripped the pages out before I gave it to him. He was so disappointed 😉 . And then I had to spend my pocket money buying my schoolfriend a new copy. I must re-read it and see how it stands up. I can remember it really clearly, so I suspect you’re right about the X-factor.

      And you probably know we’re all diehard Jenny Crusie fans (and ex-students) here. She is absolutely a master of craft, but she’s also had the addictive storytelling knack from the very beginning. I love her category stories (especially It Had To Be You and Charlie All Night), and Manhunting. It was a privilege to study with her.

      With you about the Smooth Storytellers. There are books on my Kindle where I have only one title by the author and I know I’ve read it (which means the sample must have been interesting) but I draw a total blank. Archive. Move on.

  5. Pingback: Jilly: Craft Book Squee – Story Genius – Eight Ladies Writing

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