Thursday 29 September 2016

What do you think makes a good story?

I once joined my local writers' group purely for the pleasure of meeting fellow wordsmiths. Yet I came away with a whole new appreciation of what it means to write. It seemed, after just two stints with the group, that my view of what makes a story great varied widely to others.

It was both a revelation and an inspiration that still echoes years later.

Writer, Machine, To Write

But first the revelation…

It was some years ago now. I had been toying with the idea of writing a crime novel for a long time but needed a kick up the proverbial. Always a very solitary writer, I have never really enjoyed collaborating with others on written pieces, and this despite over a decade in the media industry. This time, however, I decided I needed to shake things up.

It was time to stick my head out of my cave and connect with others.

So I looked up the number of my local writing group and gave them a buzz. I was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed to come along to their next session, the following week, at a local cafe. Which I did.

Now, I'm not sure how most writers' groups work, having never been to one, but this one followed a fairly simple routine. We would all settle in at the caf', order our preferred poison (latte and choc brownie for me in case you're curious) and begin to discuss what we'd been writing that previous week. Eventually a few brave souls would offer to read a bit of theirs out, and the rest of us would offer words of encouragement, wishing we had the courage to do likewise. Then, when that was over, someone would offer up a 'writing exercise'.

This happened each week, apparently, but always had a different focus. Today the focus was a postcard someone had brought along. It was of a field of poppies, a shed in the far distance, and a bleak sky. We were to use that as inspiration to write, giving ourselves 10 minutes to do so before each reading our offering at the end.

I was nervous but excited. Invigorated, too. So off I scribbled! I wrote with fervour and ferocity, scratching down the tale of a child lost, of a shed that offered redemption from the threatening night, of a bird that helped the child find her way home.

There was a beginning, a middle and an end. I thought I had done good.

Then, the 10 minutes up, we each took turns to read our stories out. Turns out I had not done 'good' so much as 'different'.

The first woman who read hers had latched on to that shed and described it in minutiae, every rotting timber floorboard and cobweb-covered crevice. Another writer rambled about the clouds above in vivid, florid detail. A third was fixated with the mood, the ambience, the bleaky bleakness of the night sky.

Not one of the eight writers had an actual story of any kind. Or none that I could see. They had words, they had adjectives, metaphores and similes. But none went anywhere. None did anything.

Nothing bloody happened!

Had I misunderstood the exercise? Were we just supposed to describe the postcard but not actually tell a story?

It was now, finally, my turn to read aloud and I was almost too scared to do so. For a few terrifying minutes I felt like a failure. I hadn't stopped to spend too much of my ten precious minutes on description. I had simply created a story, set up a conflict, and resolved it at the end.

They all listened politely, nodded their heads and smiled. I don't know if any of them even noticed the difference but I sure did.

The following week the focus for the free-writing exercise was a small, pink crystal someone had brought in, and I tried very hard to be descriptive, really I did. But ten minutes later, eight writers had described the crystal in exquisite detail and one had told of how an unassuming crystal had saved the diamond queen from the demon rocks.

That was the last time I attended that group.

It's not that I thought myself better than those writers, or worse for that matter. It's not that they weren't talented. It's just that their idea of writing differed so markedly to mine.

Prose vs plot

I learned that day that there are at least two types of writers: those who focus on prose and those who focus on plot. And I am so clearly—so unapologetically—in the latter. I love words, really I do, but in my world they have a purpose that goes beyong describing stuff. They must advance a plot. They must present a story. They must DO SOMETHING! Otherwise, they're just, er, words.

Words are like bricks in a wall. Pretty bricks make for a pretty wall, but I'm more interested in where that wall leads, and what the hell lies behind it.

It's little wonder, then, that I went on to forge a career as a mystery writer (which must be second only to sci-fi in the tightly plotted genres, surely?).

Yet sometimes, in quiet moments when I find my writing verging on the florid, I think back to that group and those descriptive writers. And I know that they inspired me in ways I never realised at the time. They showed me that while I may be no poet, no siree, I sure know how to tell a decent story, and isn't that what good writing is really all about?

It is in my book.

Happy plotting everyone!

xo Christina