In many ways, the world of book publishing parallels that of musical performance. Both are beautiful, exhilarating, and demanding. And both can sap creativity. Where the ultimate product is art, inevitable conflicts between the needs of business and creative expression exert themselves. When it comes to breaking in those with technical brilliance have an advantage, but to rise to the top, something else is needed.
I once represented my college as the soprano member of a vocal quartet in an honors choir made up of students from colleges throughout the western United States. We prepared on our own, and then met for three long days of intense rehearsal. Yes, there was glitz and glory in our single performance, but it wasn’t that I remember most about the experience but something that happened during one of the rehearsals.
I don’t even remember which musical passage we were struggling with at the time, but our accomplished director refused to let us get away with good enough. He pushed us, irritatingly so, until in a moment of delirious harmony, glorious sound filled the rehearsal chamber. In the awestruck silence that followed tears pricked my eyes.
Our director thumped his chest. “Ever feel that?” He paced before us, meeting eyes. “You all have a lot going for you, but no matter how technically brilliant you become, the ability to feel the music is what will help you most. Never lose that.”
I have never forgotten his words. In my studies I knew students who could execute a passage of music to perfection but who lacked the passion to bring it alive. By contrast, I have seen a graying grandmother with a quavering pitch move an entire congregation to tears with her simple song. I say this not to invalidate the quest for excellence but to illustrate that feeling the music always trumps craft.
In writing, there is storytelling and story crafting. Yes, we must strive to perfect our craft and even consider our market’s wishes, but it’s even more important to tell a story that resonates on a deep level. If we lose our passion for story, we will also lose readers. It’s not enough to hone our craft until it shines. Producing a story that sings should cost in terms of creativity, drawn as it is from our very soul. It is this that separates artists from artisans.
Because writing does not exist as art alone, however, I will add some technical tips for engaging reader’s emotions. I almost hesitate to do so, in case anyone latches onto these techniques as the way through. They illuminate the story path but are not the path itself.
Tap a universal experience. A mother’s arms, teenage acne, and rejection in love are but a few commonalities to which we all can relate. Writing about universal experiences in an evocative way breathes life into writing.
Write to the senses. Use taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound to bring a fictional world to life. The more vividly you imagine your story’s scenes, the easier this becomes.
Show rather than tell. Create fully-realized scenes readers can step into. Narrative has its place to help in pacing as it skips us past unnecessary details, but most often passages of telling would be better if written as scenes. I got tired of hearing this advice given by rote with no explanation of how to do this, so I filmed the video 5 Ways to Show Not Tell in Fiction Writing for my Live Write Breathe site for writers.
Create a sympathetic situation for your main character. The reader wants to identify with and care about the main character. Provide a gripping opening scene to meet your reader more than halfway. Be careful here, though. There’s a difference between engaging a reader’s emotions and manipulating them. Being faithful to your true story will guide you.
Have someone react. Not allowing room for reaction is a common failing, but this technique is so powerful it should never be ignored. As an example (spoiler alert), in the movie The Hunger Games, when Rue dies, the heroine grieves for her. If she didn’t, we wouldn’t feel the loss as deeply as we do. The riots that break out are also a reaction that stirs our anger at the injustice of the games.
Watch this part of the movie, and then imagine the scene with minimal reaction and you’ll see what I mean.
Hone your craft. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than clumsy storytelling, so do study craft. But remember that craft is no substitute for inspired storytelling.
There will always be tension between the business and art of writing, but that doesn’t have to be bad, not when you consider that the best fiction marries fine storytelling with excellent story crafting. It is even possible to thrive in the tension between business and art.
Today, January 3rd, marks the release of WayFarer, book two of my epic fantasy trilogy, Tales of Faeraven. In celebration, for today only my publisher is offering a discount of 50% on purchase of WayFarer from the Pelican Books site.
When I first started writing this trilogy without agency representation or a publishing contract, fantasy was a hard sell, but this was the story I felt. It’s been a rough journey to publication, but well worth it.