Lisa O’Donnell is one of the tight-knit team of tutors on our online creative writing courses, as well as being a Commonwealth-Book-Prize-winning author in her own right. She’s helped many of our students develop their stories – including Jane Harper, whose debut The Dry has, this week, been named Crime Novel of the Year at the British Book Awards. Here she bangs the drum for Story Story Story. Have you found yours yet?
I’ve taught many a talented student and have come across some truly incredible prose. I have praised those students, admired their sharp sentences, their worldly insights and their language so sweet you could pour it on a pancake. But being a great stylist isn’t enough if you don’t have a story. Often my students come to the course with an idea; a seed of a story – and then it’s my job to help them nurture that seed, and make it flower into a fully formed novel.
I love working with writers who have a great idea for a novel – but all too often that seed of an idea doesn’t get the water it needs. It’s suffocated by pretty words and characters who are effectively ‘homeless’ because the writer has no story for them to belong in. Remember, stories should not be over-complicated: In fact a strong story arc should be so simple that it can be written on a post-it note – and that’s something I ask all my students to do in the first week of their course. They can then stick those post-it notes on their laptops or writing desks as a constant reminder of what’s at the core of their novel.
Recently, one of my students told me they didn’t believe in story. That’s fine for a modernist in the early 1900s, but this is not the early 1900s – and books are competing for people’s attention with Netflix, TV and social media. E-Book-buyers can download between 10% and 30% of your novel to read for free before deciding whether they want to pay to download the rest. So you’d better get your story up and running – and strong – in your first few pages to make sure they don’t move on to the next book or TV serial or game.
You should be working to develop a story which can be communicated in a synopsis of not more than a page (not more than about 500 words). In my experience, I’d say that if you can’t do that for your novel, it indicates a problem with story.
My grandfather was a storyteller. He never wrote a book, or even really picked up a pen, but he could engage you straight away.
“Did I tell you about the time the soldiers came and shot my school teacher?”
I’m glued to my chair. I know what the story is and I know the voice that shares it. There doesn’t have to be a twist or a high maintenance plot …
“Gaelic was forbidden,” he says. “You could not speak it and you could not teach it.”
My eyes are wide. The chocolate digestive I’m holding is not making it to my mouth. I am captive.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not down on pretty words or modernists from the early 1900s. I love them both and I feel for your beautiful prose and I admire your skill with a pen, and it might just be enough to hold your reader’s attention, for a time. But if you don’t have a strong story, your reader will ultimately tire and look the other way. So will an agent or a publisher.
The language of your intended novel, the insights and the sharp syntax only matter if it supports a story your reader wants to hear.
My grandfather knew nothing of literature. He didn’t get much schooling, but he knew how to tell a story. He was direct, he kept it simple and he imbued every story with voice – a voice I trusted. More than that, he always delivered what he promised. That story about the school teacher who was shot teaching Gaelic – you’re not going to forget that, are you? Behold – a story.
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