A great story isn’t enough

Since I specialize in memoir/biography, I get a TON of queries from writers whose lives run the whole spectrum of fascinating to humdrum yawn-ville. The yawn-villes are easy to weed out. But the fascinating ones can drive me to drink when the stories are fabulous, but the writing is abysmal. Quelle frustrating.

A great story isn’t enough. And yet I fear many writers think the exact opposite and believe they can pretty much screw it up and it’ll still sell because…well…it’s a great story. For an editor, it’s like sitting on an electric fence. I have to weigh the benefits of burning my bum against gazing at a fabulous view. The ultimate outcome may be that the view wasn’t worth a burnt bum because the fog rolled in and I ended up not being able to see anything.

The metaphor I’m going for is that the fog is the writing quality. I may sign a new author whose writing skills aren’t up to par in hopes that the story will outshine the negatives. I’ll also pray that the author is able to do the rewrites to my satisfaction.

But who am I kidding? It hardly ever works out that way. If the manuscript is that abysmal in the first place, then what makes me believe it’ll improve during rewrites? The only way that’ll happen is if I have a very heavy hand in those rewrites. And I just don’t have that kind of time or interest to teach someone how to write. At some point, I have to say no.

The Breaking Point

Ok, that said, I am a story whore and there is a point at which I’ll decide that the view is definitely worth a very singed-to-cinders backside. But it has to be so huge that every cell in my body is twitching and pinging. Most don’t come near my breaking point, and it’s relatively easy to walk away.

Aim for success

So what do you do to avoid this? Well, learning how to write is a grand start. Just know there are very few natural writers, so you need to learn the elements to good writing. That means understanding the rules of writing (so you can become adept at breaking them in the future). It means appreciating the nuances of voice, pacing, flow, development, fluff, backstory, how to effectively use a prologue – and deciding if you even need one. And yes, Gertrude, this takes time. Lots of it.

Or consider a ghostwriter. I talk to many folks who are in hurry and don’t care so much about the writing aspects as they are with getting their story out. Why struggle with what you don’t know? There are very good ghostwriters who can do this for you. ‘Course, if you’re in that category, chances are very strong that you’re not reading this blog.

Always keep at the forefront that a great story isn’t enough. After all, if you can’t effectively communicate it, then what’s it worth?

8 Responses to A great story isn’t enough

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    And lots of reading. You can’t learn to be a good writer without reading.

  2. Dan Holloway says:

    This is fascinating, because whatever you say about the writing it is so clear from your words how much the story takes precedence – I imagine the workings of your brain as you calculate as a margarita-fuelled graph where writing is the y and story the x axis – and if the x is low the y is never going to make it up but if the x is high there’s a point down to which you’re willing to go on the y.
    There was a big discussion about this on Harper Collins’ Authonomy recently – as you probably know their editors take alook at the top 5 voted books each month, and for over 2 years there have been some beautifully written books and not a whiff of a contract. Then at the end of last year along came a book where the writing was almost incomprehensible, but the book was a true life story of one woman’s extraordinary survival under the Khmer Rouge that was so gripping you got the impression from the editors’ comments the contract had been offered before they’d even opened the actual ms. There was widespread consternation from all the wordsmiths of beautiful prose, of course, but it makes perfect sense

  3. I think you nailed it, Dan, though, unbelievably enough, margaritas aren’t involved in the decision process. It comes down to what I believe will sell. Sadly, I do turn down well-written books because I don’t see a big enough market for it, and I’m the first to say that it sucks.

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    I’m not sure I’d sign a contract with HC right now. Lynn, what’s your take on their ‘morals’ clause? As a bisexual pagan, that makes me distinctly…nervous.

    And those well-written books that don’t have a huge market…THAT is where self publishing comes in.

  5. I think any morals clause is a straight-jacket. I can see the reason for one in certain occupations…but PUBLISHING?? Who are publishers to determine the behavior of their authors? Now, that doesn’t mean they can’t toss an author for outrageous behavior that damages their ability to sell the book – but that sort of thing is already covered in most contracts.

    As for the self-publishing – I’m still ambivalent about that because most authors have no idea what it takes to sell a book. It’s expensive and time-consuming. You could either blow your money becoming your own publisher, or blow your money giving it to a vanity press, who will do nothing for you.

    Personally, I work too hard on my writing to let it slip into the cracks. Rather than putting good money after bad, I might work on my platform so I become a bigger target. If I have a solid promo plan that identifies my readership, then it’s possible I’d be looking at a contract rather than a rejection.

  6. Maggie Dana says:

    As a reader I’m so greedy I want gorgeous prose AND a captivating story. As an author, I strive to provide both. Oh, and I’m also a book designer and typesetter so the font and layout have to meet my picky standards as well.

    Lynn, your blog is a valuable and much-needed resource, especially in today’s bewildering world of publishing. I’ve been in it, one way and another, for three decades and I’m still learning (and loving the learning), but I’m saddened to see it being diluted by the tsunami of self-publishing.

  7. Frank Mazur says:

    Maggie, I always loved those Knopf volumes that included a page at the end informing the reader about the type that was used and what it was based on, etc. It was a classy item that I seldom found in the books by other publishers. I suppose the extra page is expense that many outfits don’t want to have.

  8. Maggie Dana says:

    Frank: If it’s there, the ‘About the Type’ page is my first port of call. That is, of course, after I’ve already driven myself potty trying to identify the typeface. Sometimes, I’m successful; often, not. Books published in the U.S. rarely carry this information; those pub’d in the U.K. often do.

    As for the extra page … there are frequently blanks at the end of a book and I’d love to see them filled with useful information such as the font and its history and a few other tidbits. Sadly, they’re usually left blank.

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