We love to deride them. The Stephanie Meyers-es and Dean Koontz-es of the world, who, despite lacking unique voices, characters, and descriptions, not to mention decent editing, are rolling in big piles of cash while the rest of us—real writers—are still flipping burgers at the Happy Clown. Indignant, we make fun of poorly-worded sentences, point out every typo with visceral satisfaction, and mock-gag at cheesy dialogue. It is the sheer magnitude of their success that makes them at once a mystery and an easy target.
Today I seek to solve that mystery—and to shrink the target.
There are writers who tell stories, and there are storytellers who write. The commercially-successful yet grammatically-challenged authors like Meyers and Koontz are storytellers who write. And while writers like myself have an awful tendency to insult them whenever possible, storytellers do have talent. In fact, there is a lot both types can learn from each other.
Storytellers are big-picture people. They are good at identifying major plot points and conveying those points simply and clearly. They are good at pacing, and using every scene to push the story forward. Their work is mostly composed of action and dialogue. But they have trouble with the details, with the close-up shots like character development, voice, theme, and setting. Grammar and punctuation are often just an afterthought.
Writers are detail people. They’re good at finding new ways to describe scenery, at creating unique characters, at using metaphor and analogy. Their work is thick with narration, description, and introspection. But they struggle with discerning the important parts of the story from the unimportant parts. They can write whole paragraphs that sound beautiful but put a drag on the story’s pace. They have trouble simply telling people what their books are about, and some of them have trouble coming up with a plot to begin with.
My advice to the storytellers: Many storytellers seem to be successful whether or not they put the extra effort into the writing, but don’t let that become an excuse. If you have completed a book in less than six months, don’t call it finished. Spend some more time on it—a year, at least—focusing on the writerly side of your craft. Dig deep into your characters and the poetry of the narration. Seek to create something not just entertaining, but beautiful.
My advice to the writers: Don’t attack the commercially successful storytellers; try to learn from what talents they have. Study the way they handle the movements of the story. What scenes do they play up? What scenes do they skim over? What makes it interesting?
As long as there is more to learn—which is always—it is our duty to do so. That’s what makes us professionals. That’s what makes us worthy of being read.
Are you more a writer or a storyteller? What do you struggle with?