How terrible writers get on the bestseller list

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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.

My Theory.

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.

The Differences.

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?

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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33 Comments

  1. Love the distinction you’ve drawn here. I’m definitely a writer struggling to tell a story, and now, finally, on my third novel, the story’s drawing me through the draft and the writing is taking a back seat. I had to come up with the right voice and an outline before that all started happening, and I still consider myself on the writer side of the equation. But reading and writing should be about storytelling, and you’ve made such good points about those popular writers knowing that part of the craft.

    • Yeah, the funny thing is, even us writers need the story to tell. Ultimately, it’s still the story that draws us to writing. You make a great point about voice and outline. It helps if we can get the structure worked out beforehand, then the story can pull us forward, instead of letting us wallow for weeks working on one scene.

  2. Lavender Water: A Writing Blog by Christy Farmer

    I am more of a writer who does not make fun of the *commercially successful* and agree that in order to be a professional writer that there must be a professional attitude. (Excellent post:-))

  3. I always wanted to be a writer, but sense I’m actually a storyteller. But I’ve actually reached a point where I don’t give a hoot which I am. As long as I can write and, hopefully, sell at some point in the future, I’d be in blissland.
    Still, your points are most valid here and should be heeded by writers and storytellers alike.

    • Seriously? Okay, let me lay out one more difference between storytellers and writers. Storytellers tend to just “tell;” writers are better at showing. You are amazing at showing.

      Actually, you might be one of those rare creatures who is equally good at both. I don’t think you realize how good a writer you are. I have no doubt you will sell one day, as long as you keep pursuing that dream.

  4. I’m a writer by far. It’s hard for me to see the big picture sometimes.

  5. This is a fab fab post!! :) I’m coming back to comment when My brain is in order, As I’d love to hear your personal take on ‘what I think I am? Thought provoking little snippet. And controversial regarding which traits you assign to writer versus storyteller. Thanks for a great read, and for the thought train you’ve given me… Dawny :)

  6. I’d say writer is a better description for me. I had never looked at the differences as you described. Thanks for the informative post, it explains the differences I observe in my writers group.

  7. I’m definitely a story teller. Is that a bad thing?

    • Not in my book! No pun intended, but from where I sit, it would be nice to have a storytelling mind.

    • Not at all. It is a great talent to have. And the fact that you are a good storyteller doesn’t mean that you are a “terrible” writer (as the title of this post suggests only to catch readers’ attention). Actually, I think all storytellers are better writers than the average person, and vice versa. The writing just doesn’t come as easily as the telling. Just don’t stop working on the writing side, too. From what I’ve read of your work, you’re getting along fine. : )

  8. I’m trying to figure out where I fit into this! haha
    Great post though!

    • Remember that writers and storytellers do share many of the same skills. And you can’t fit EVERYONE into one box or the other. So it can be hard to say which one you are. But in general, most authors seem to be stronger in one side or the other, kind of like being left or right handed.

  9. I’m with Jinx, I’m not even sure where I fit in. I think I started as a storyteller because I never wanted to be a writer. The compulsion of telling the story created a compulsion to learn everything there is about writing. I learned new things, but also woke up to some things I already knew and just had to utilize in my story.

    I think my way is the easier way. It’s easier to start as a storyteller and learn the craft of writing than it is to be a writer and know the craft but not have a story to tell.

    • Good point, and that goes along with the advice most authors give – to get out the big details in a first draft as quickly as possible (the storytelling), then go back and rewrite/revise (the writing). Even as a writer, I haven’t had much trouble coming up with plot, but it’s boiling it all down to the basics and getting everything to make sense that gets in my way.

  10. A great post and some fascinating comments.
    Like you I’ve read some awful books by writers who seem to be making a fortune, the thing that always disappoints is that they don’t tell a story. Their words don’t conjure up exciting images in my head. I remember having a discussion with my youngest son, who is a writer very much in the way you describe a writer, and he said he couldn’t read Harry Potter because it was ‘poor writing’. I loved all of the Harry Potter books – the images JK Rowling conjured up in my head were fantastic.
    So where does that leave me? I think I definitely fall into the ‘storytelling’ category who enjoys sharing his writing.

    • Hmmm. I would have to disagree with your son. I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but I did read the first book, and found the characters to be well-formed and lovable, the plot engaging, and the voice strong from the first sentence. I can’t say whether Rowling is naturally a storyteller or a writer, but she has definitely succeeded at both (at least in book one). But I don’t think which books you enjoy reading illustrates whether you are a writer or a storyteller–the best books contain the best of both worlds–it’s about how you write., and how you see your own story. I mean, it’s not about what you prefer; it’s about what you struggle with. So it’s hard to say with you. I’ve seen talent from both sides in your writing. : )

      • I have to agree… Rowling is a good story-teller and a good writer, and improves, for the most part (if I forget the existence of her second book) as her series progresses. She has weaknesses, but then so does every writer (except maybe P. G. Wodehouse, and I am not entirely convinced he isn’t a timelord). In any case, I think any writer who “makes it big” becomes a Big target, and takes more flack than they should.

  11. Oh, wow this was a great post. I have no idea what I am. I know definitely when I was younger I could’ve called myself a writer. But now I think I’m more of a storyteller. Anyway, thanks for the lovely post.

  12. I promise that I will stop spamming you eventually. You can ask David of the Warden’s Walk blog, he will doubtless tell you that I do this in waves. I hope it is not infuriating. I get onto a reading roll, and when I read I want to comment. If it is too much, give me a comment limit and I will stick to it. ;)

    Anyhow, I had to mull over this post for a few days. You bring up good points that I had not considered before. One does need both story-telling skills and writing skills for a good book. I should be less judgmental when a writer fails to meet expectations in one or the other. However…

    I am more forgiving of story that falls short of its craft than craft that falls short of its story. In the same way, I can appreciate a well-executed painting that has a silly or weak concept, better than a painting with a brilliant concept badly executed. The former is a good painting with a bad concept, the latter is simply a bad painting.

    As you probably know, story-telling has its roots firmly in oral traditions that existed long before writing began, but the oral traditions have their own craft, their own standards, and a good story badly told is no more tolerable to the ear than a bad story.

    I know you are not defending poor craftsmanship or poor storytelling, and I agree that you’ve hit upon at least part of the answer to your title question. I cannot help feeling, though, that there is more to it than just that.

    p.s. I am probably more of a writer, which may be why I am prejudiced as I am. ;)

    • Comment limit??? Never! There’s hardly anything a blogger appreciates more than comments, especially thoughtful ones. :)

      Certainly there’s more to it than just that, and you can’t put everybody into just two boxes, but we have to make generalizations to learn. The important thing is that those from both parties take a closer look at their strengths and weaknesses and make the effort to improve. Though the writers are usually forced to improve, while many storytellers skate by. : )

      • Well of COURSE I am a Doctor Who fan. I was very entertained by your “team TARDIS” comment, by the way.

        I am glad you enjoy the comments rather than being hassled. I go through obsessive reading phases and quiet phases, and I can imagine that, for some people, the excessive reading and commenting periods could be a hassle.

        That is true, indeed.

  13. ms. stephanie, i am very definitely a story teller…descriptive and emotional to the max. i have a saying that i composed, which i post on nearly every writing site that i am on…WRITER’S USE WORDS TO PAINT PICTURES ON THE CANVASES OF THEIR READER’S MINDS.

    well, i give truth to that saying and sentiment with every single thing that i write. i recently joined a writing site called “authonomy”, which is hosted by harper collins publishing, one of the six biggest publishing houses, not only in the us, but in the world, i do believe. anyway, i am posting my newest book, THE IMAYRAN CHRONICLES on authonomy, and this is what is on the “about me” page….

    [[about me

    AUTHOR'S NOTE: IMPERATIVE...READ THIS BEFORE BEGINNING THE STORY!

    In the interest of avoiding negative commentary on this story, I wish to clarify a few things:

    The first being this...this story is told predominately from a "story teller"...or third person...perspective.

    So, save for specific areas, there is little to no dialogue. I do not mix with the world around me (by choice, i might add, for it expects me to conform rather than accepting me as I am), so I am therefore not good at dialogue, since I do not engage it but infrequently.

    Next, I write using descriptives...period. I "paint pictures with words"...and if whomsoever should read this is not overly partial to stories with that particular feature, you are notified herewith, up front, so that you do not waste your time in reading something you will find yourself forced to give a negative comment on, for i fear I do not react well to being told I must change in order to be accepted.

    Next: I do not view life as do most, nor think as they do, nor express myself as they do, so to many, my story may turn them away, being as they may find the means by which i convey the telling of my story not to their taste. Again, forewarned is forearmed. Those who critique my phrasing and story based on their preconceived ideas of what they consider is right, and they judge the story based on those concepts, instead of reading it as a new way of seeing and saying things, those comments will not, if they are harsh, be taken lightly, i will defend myself.

    So, that said, to those who still decide to read the story, please bear what I have said in mind.

    dreamsearcher/maradjen]]

    i placed that warning on that page after receiving two very hateful…and hurtful, comments, which i deleted, with my eyes brimming with tears. i state…boldly and unashamedly, that i am first and foremost a storyteller.

    i have one rather unusual “quirk”…when i am extremely upset, i often writer poetry…and that is precisely what happened the night i read those two comments. the following verse was formed as a result of that experience, and is meant to show that, even if you do not follow what might be considered to be “acceptable norms”, you should never give up on your dreams.

    the verse that was born out of my pain and humiliation at the comments that had been left about my story is called, rather appropriately, THE WRITER’S TALE…

    THE WRITER’S TALE

    In a small lonely cottage, on an even lonelier shore,
    A humble man filled both screen and page,
    With tales of courage, humor, sorrow and fear,
    Tales filled with love, honor, cowardice and rage.

    Aye, both screen and page the man would fill,
    Then the stories he would send on their way,
    To editors and agents, with their critical eyes,
    But ‘REJECTED’ is all they ever had to say.

    Most of the stories were, in truth, really quite good,
    “So why all of the rejections?” one might inquire,
    The man would shake his head sadly, then sigh and say,
    “Emotional, descriptive tales, it seems, they don’t desire.”

    You see, the man wrote with passion, and fire of soul,
    Painting pictures of past, present, and time yet unseen,
    But it seemed the modern world had no time for tales,
    Not shown on technological devices or movie screen.

    Then a letter came one cold and blustery winter day,
    That the writer read with tear dimmed, disbelieving eyes,
    “Your story was accepted, and we’d like to publish you.”
    The writer’s shout of joy shook the very skies!

    Those who’d called him a fool for spending his time,
    Writing stories they claimed none would ever read,
    When the writer’s success came, were the first in line,
    With tales of hardship, their hearts filled with greed.

    As for the stories that had been rejected and packed away,
    They were brought back out into the world of light,
    For it seemed the world wanted more of the writer’s tales,
    Once they finally recognized how well he did write.

    But the thing that truly gave him the greatest pleasure,
    Was the wide eyed wonder of children as they heard,
    Him speak of the worlds of wonder hidden in books,
    As he told them of the power of the written word.

    But the writer never let the fame and success go to his head,
    And he continued, between tours and promotions, to write,
    Till the day arthritis began to cripple his weary hands,
    And cataracts began to dim his sight.

    The writer had married, a son and grandson he now had,
    He had lost his much loved wife when his son had been born,
    His son became his soul reason for continuing to live
    But for several years he could not write, as her loss he did mourn.

    The writer’s son grew up reading, and listening to his father’s tales,
    And the desire to follow in his father’s footsteps gradually grew,
    His dad’s greatest joy was the day he looked in his eyes,
    And said “Dad, I want to be a writer just like you!”

    The writer slipped away one soft summer night,
    And if one visits the writer’s grave, on his tombstone one finds,
    Engraved are the words the son had heard his dad say all his life,
    “Writer’s paint pictures on the canvases of their reader’s minds.”

    maradjen (copyright 02-09-2012: Marantha Dreamweaver Jenelle)

    THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS THIS, DON’T EVER GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAMS, BE THEY HUMBLE OR GRAND. TO DO SO WILL BE THE SAME AS GIVING UP ON YOUR VERY SOUL, FOR THAT IS WHERE YOUR DREAMS BOTH SPRING FROM AND ALSO DWELL.

    ms. stephanie, of all of the people that i have met in life, you have been one of the ones who has inspired me and opened my eyes to parts of myself i never knew existed.

    and i think that there are others who would say the same. your wonderful and inspiring inmon prompts taught me to stretch beyond the comfortable little niche i had carved for myself with regards to what i thought i could do, you made me see myself in new ways, and made me stretch outside my comfort zone.

    your inmon prompts challenged both my mind and my creativity, and took me to places i never knew dwelt within me…even though some of them rather shook me up in their darkness.

    i cannot speak for other writers, but i can speak for myself when i say that you are truly a very special, talented, loving, caring, generous woman, and i honor and respect you, and am so very proud that you call me friend.

    you are, in short, ms. stephanie, a bright, brilliant diamond amongst the cut glass and paste imitations of the glitter and dross of this world.

    blessings, sweet lady, and i humbly pray you will forgive the length of this post.

    LONG LIVE MS. STEPHANIE

    AND

    LONG LIVE INMON!

    MARANTHA DREAMWEAVER JENELLE

    • Ah, I’ve had some bad experiences with writing forums, too. Well, with one writing forum. I was looking for advice on a query letter, which a whole group of people offered. They were pretty nice, but they offered conflicting advice, and no one would say if the latest draft was any better than the previous one. They were all honestly trying to help, but they didn’t help me much at all.

      It’s inexcusable for people to leave nasty and hurtful criticism like you experienced. With that being said, make sure you don’t close yourself to constructive criticism. We must constantly work to improve our craft, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon our true selves. What you said above, despite being brought on by inexcusable criticism, kind of makes it sound like you’re not open to any suggestions for change, which is dangerous. We have to take a hard, honest look at our work to recognize the difference between what really is our unique writing voice, and what is simply a stubborn refusal to try something new. Without having read The Imaryen Chronicles or those comments, I can’t say this is what you’re doing, but just something you want to be careful of.

      That’s a beautiful poem, and your saying about the canvases of our readers minds is lovely. I’m glad to know you!

      And long live Marantha!!!

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