How to Write Your Best Story
Philip: As an editor of many books of advice for writers (and a consumer of them--I have hundreds on my shelves), I knew there were lots of books on structural stuff (three-act structure, the hero's journey, conflict, point of view . . . ), and many of them are helpful. However, storytelling techniques for writers are something that's just been overlooked. Maybe people think it's too amorphous or hard to teach or something that either you have or don't. But as an editor and book doctor, I knew there were a lot of basic techniques that writers were missing. It's what separates a great writer from a good one. Specifically, it separates what gets published from what doesn't.
WOW: That all sounds great! How is the book organized? Is it an easy read for a busy writer?
Philip: It's a simple organization and a succinct read. I looked at three key areas that make a literary story appealing. And for each, I describe some important techniques. It's an easy read, I believe -- in part because I tried to practice what I preach, using some storytelling approaches! And I threw in lots of brief examples of work from masterful storytellers--from Dickens to C.S. Lewis to Willa Cather to E.B. White and up to modern authors like Neil Gaiman and Ivan Doig.
The three areas I highlight as ways to boost the power or your stories are: intriguing eccentricity, delightful details, and satisfying surprises.
WOW: I love the allteration in those three areas. (smiles) How does "story" differ from "plot"? They aren't the same thing?
Philip: They're connected, but really different in some ways. Although you generally want to have a good plot, it often just doesn't pay off till late in the story, after readers are already either committed--or long gone. Story is what gets them to commit in the first place. It attracts them and keeps 'em enjoying the book page by page. No matter what the plot is doing.
Here's one way to think about it. According to E.M. Forster, author of the oft-quoted Aspects of the Novel, a plot is:
The king died and then the queen died of grief.
For a plot, there's a logical causality to the sequence; one thing spawns another thing.
A story, though, is something different and frankly more appealing from the get-go. A story, I'd say, is:
The king died and then the queen died . . . and there was something quite curious about it. Would you like to hear the story?
This is first aspect of storytelling. "Once upon a time . . . "
WOW: Ah-ha! Thanks for the example. In the introduction (in the book), you state that as an editor and indie-press publisher, you see countless manuscripts that seem to do everything right--good characters, interesting plot. But they are lacking one thing--story. You write, "They don't proclaim: Here is a story worth telling." How will this book help writers with this problem?
Philip: There are very simple methods. For instance, why does this draw readers in? "A most extraordinary thing happened in Petersburg on the twenty-fifth of March." (the beginning of “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol). Gogol goes on with something quite odd: a fellow finds a nose in his breakfast bread-roll. And across town, someone wakes up and is missing his nose. Eccentricity is something that good stories deliver; it's part of what makes a story worth telling.
I would say that too many writers just get distracted with plot intricacies or character development . . . and forget to tell a good story. But as an acquiring editor, I know what catches my fancy the fastest!
WOW: And I'm guessing that would be introducing a good story! What's an example of a favorite technique for storytelling that you recommend in your book?
Philip: Besides the several I've noted, I recommend reading some key passages aloud. Storytellers have often honed their craft with techniques that are revealed in oral practice. It instantly reveals awkward phrasing, pacing problems, etc. That's probably the tip that I typically mention in workshops that I guarantee will help most writers improve their stories.
WOW: No doubt, it has worked for me, too. I always read my work aloud. It's even better if you have an audience when you are reading--even your dog. (laughs) Can storytelling skills really be taught, or is it a natural ability that either you have or you don't?
Philip: Absolutely you can learn them! Learning to tell stories well as a child helps, but you can learn at any point. You don't learn overnight to write like Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson or Tolkien. But a big part is realizing that there's something important here that your stories may be lacking.
WOW: Thank you, Philip, for talking with us about your book today. Where can writers purchase a copy if they are interested in becoming better storytellers?
Philip: The book is available from Barnes & Noble stores or most indie bookstores (you may need to ask them to special order it), or online from Amazon or BN.com. (I encourage shopping local. It's good for your community.)
WOW: Before we let you go, tell us a little about your independent publishing company. Are you currently accepting submissions?
Philip: I run Crickhollow Books, a normal traditional book publishing imprint--normal royalties, modest runs, decent distribution, good reviews and awards, etc. We're like a micro-brew, limited in scope but attentive to the craft of making good books. I'm open to submissions and look at everything that is sent (query first is best). But we only take on a few projects that fit us well. Just check out our website or follow us on Facebook; maybe your first query goes nowhere but something down the line clicks!
WOW: Thanks again, Philip. We appreciate your time in talking with us and helping us to improve our writing.
Interview by Margo L. Dill; To find out more about Margo and read some of her writing, visit her blog at http://margodill.com/blog/.