Quit writing and tell me a story

From a (looong) interview with Algonquin editor Chuck Adams, who was with Simon & Schuster before that, and who selected and edited Sara Gruen’s hit Water for Elephants:

What are you looking for in a piece of writing?
The first thing is the voice. If it’s got a strong voice, I’m going to keep reading. And if a story sneaks in there, I’m going to keep reading. To me, those are the two most important things. I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story. I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they’re definitely not about editors—they’re about readers. You’ve got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you’re telling. You can’t just write down words that sound pretty. It’s all about the reader. You’ve got to bring the reader into it right away. If the writing is poetic and so forth, that’s nice. I’m reading something right now that has an amazing voice, and I’m only fifty-six pages into it, but I’m already getting a little tired because it’s so nice, if you know what I mean. It’s so pretty. It’s like every page is a bon bon, and I want a little break somewhere.

Dangit. I think I tend to write bon bons. No, seriously! I am a writer, and I laugh at my reputation for telling awful stories — you know, ones that I think are hysterical but no one laughs at and then I try to explain the punchline and kill it even more — but Andy, and this Chuck guy, are right: I need to tell a good story.

That’s something Nora Roberts (see yesterday’s post) does really well, and exactly why I always reread her books before going to bed at night whenever I come back to visit my parents in Houston.

More from the interview:

Look at Michael Chabon. He’s had success from the beginning, but it wasn’t until he wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where he took his formula of two guys and a girl and put it against this big panorama—the Holocaust, the Depression, World War II—that he turned the intimate little stories he’d been writing into a big story. It’s not that difficult to do. It’s not easy to do, either. But when you really look at what he did, you just have to come up with the right backdrop and put the story in front of it and make the story one that people really relate to and care about.

I keep saying, “Look, write Romeo and Juliet or write Jane Eyre or whatever. But put it against a big backdrop. Steal somebody’s else idea, but just make it your own.”

Last but not least, something I know I will have to overcome when my time (finally) arrives:

That is the one thing I don’t understand about writers sometimes. It takes so much work to write a book. It takes a lot of ego to write a book. And then they finish it and find a publisher and go, “Oh, I’d feel cheap trying to sell it.” Bullshit. That’s part of the process. You wrote the book for a reason: You want people to read it. Help us. Help us get it out there.

I dunno if it’s the Asian in me, or just a natural shyness, or what, but the idea of actively promoting my own work makes me cringe. I’ve never enjoyed being a salesperson. I always think, Shouldn’t the work/product/service speak for itself? But I guess I have to remember that work/products/services don’t have voices, so I have to lend them my own if I want them to be heard.

That said… PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF BABY PANDAS, IF YOU EVER SEE A BOOK WITH THE NAME KRISTAN HOFFMAN ON IT, BUY IT!

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5 Comments

  1. Kristan – I really like it when you pass on your research about writing and publishing. You read a wide variety of articles and you select great snippets for your blog.

    Living in a predominately asian culture, I’d say you are probably right that it might be where you get your humbleness. But you will find a way to get over it and self-promote and once you do it will be done with a lot of class.

    BTW Water for Elephants was one of my favorite book i read last summer. I devouredit in a single weekend.

  2. For the love of baby pandas (!!), you don’t have to ask me twice.

    I completely agree with the strong voice, like you said yesterday with Nora Roberts and Jhumpa Lahiri.

    It’s a business, writers need to embrace it (like nonprofits are). Being a great work will only help advance it. Remember what my favorite media prof said, about a great ad never being seen? Same goes here. Good thing you’ve got friends in mkt/adv :)

  3. phhhst-
    Thanks! I’m glad you like it! Sometimes I wonder if it’s too… narrow an interest. But I do it (a) for fellow writers, and (b) for myself, b/c I have the worst memory ever and don’t want to have to reread everything to remember my favorite parts ten months (or ten years) from now.

    Awesome, I’ll have to check it out. I saw a coworker with it once too but never remembered to ask if it was any good.

    Angie-
    Haha, I knew I wouldn’t.

    So you’re offering to do an awesome campaign for free, right? ;D

  4. Alex

    I’ll be the first in line. :-D (And BONUS, I might just be able to explain to you exactly what rights you’re signing away in your contract, haha.)

  5. LOL oh believe me, you’ll be reading that contract.

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