Friday, May 14, 2010

Writers and Storytellers

“By and large, I think writers are the best company in the world, but if they talk together too much they begin either writing the same stories, or writing for each other. A writer should write for people, not critics or other writers.” -- Louis L’Amour

I’m reading a book called The Louis L’Amour Companion, which is edited by Robert Weinberg. The opening quote is attributed to L’Amour in that book. This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, and it was a thought underlying my “Showing versus Telling” post. Most writers are also readers, but I think we forget sometimes that most readers aren’t writers.

I know in my own work that I want the respect of other writers. I suppose that’s true in just about any career path. I imagine plumbers want to be respected by other plumbers because it lets them know that they know their stuff. But there’s a difference. Good “writing” is not necessarily the same as good “storytelling.” Good plumbing is probably pretty much the same everywhere.

In another place in the Weinberg book he points out that L’Amour never wanted to be called a novelist or an author. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. Now, I actually respect L’Amour as a “writer.” I think he could turn a neat phrase and his descriptions of the land, especially, often have some poetry in them. But it’s not for the poetry that I’ve read 99 percent of everything L’Amour ever wrote. It was the story. Often simply plotted, with stark contrasts made between good and bad, L’Amour’s western novels suck you in from word one and compel you through page after page to find out what happens next.

Consider: 1) “It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.” 2) “It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice but, as he had succeeded once, the man known as James T. Kettleman was about to make his second attempt.” 3) “He was asleep and then he was awake. His eyes flared wide and he held himself still, staring into the darkness, his ears reaching for sound.” These opening lines are from three of L’Amour’s best books, To Tame a Land (the Kindle edition is shown below, courtesy of Amazon), Flint, and Utah Blaine. But they aren’t just three of L’Amour’s best. They’re three of the best pure stories I’ve ever read, in any genre. Yet, only the last of the three is also what I consider to be good "writing" per se.

Good “writers” receive the praise of other writers and of critics. They are often loved by a devoted following. Good storytellers are often poorly received by critics but they are loved by millions of pure readers. Perhaps needlessly to say, good storytellers make far more money.

I don’t believe that good storytelling and good writing are mutually exclusive. My favorite books, like those of L’Amour, combine both elements. They are well written, with good language and poetry, and they tell an amazing story. I do think, though, that writers sometimes confuse these two skills and that we’d do well to remember that they are different, and that neither skill is inherently better. Each has its role to play in a fully realized work of fiction.


cs harris said...

Those are three marvelous beginnings. In fact, that first one made me want to start hunting for the book so I could read it. I think what makes the first two examples especially effective is that they very succinctly and directly present the book's "high concept". We can imagine and anticipate the conflict, emotion, and drama of the story to come and we want to go along for the ride.

I think RWA is the best example of what can happen when writers talk to writers too much. As wonderful as it the organization is, it is in many ways responsible for the way in which the romance genre has narrowed down and become hemmed in by "rules" over the last thirty years.

Travis Erwin said...

Critics and writers love the pure writers and the masses of readers rejoice on behalf of the storyteller, but what pray tell, do agents prefer?

I have been a story teller all my life but I've had to work at becoming a writer I'm afraid.

ArtSparker said...

And then there's personal taste...I think the second L'Amour quote has a lovely musicality.

LoveRundle said...

This is a good post. I think it's very easy to get caught up in wanting respect from writers. I would like that. However, right now, the few readers I have on the site I post for, I love. They read everything I write and they stick around. That means so much to me while I'm trying to get my novels published.

Travis: That's a good question.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

Great post I love this-

Good “writing” is not necessarily the same as good “storytelling.”

Lots to think about-I appreciate it.

sage said...

I've only read one of L'Amour's books, The Comstock Lode, a topic I'm sure I know as much about as he did, but it was a fun book. L'Amour suggests that if writers spend too much time together, they sound alike, so maybe writers should talk to other writers in a different genre.

Bernita said...

Charles, you are so right.

BernardL said...

Mr. L'Amour was most definitely the best western story teller I've read. Not that I'm against being regarded favorably by fellow writers but I'd enjoy having a million readers much more than a handful of respectful writer fans. :)

Lana Gramlich said...

I don't know if I'd ever really thought of writing & storytelling separately before. I mean, I get it, but I never paid that much attention when I was reading.

Heff said...

Interesting comparison. Do Authors have "Plumber's Butt", too ?

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, “To Tame a Land” is my personal favorite L’Amour, while “Flint,” also very good, is often considered his best. All are just great stories. And yes, I’ve seen the problems with groups when everyone starts to propose rule after rule and the thing becomes unwieldy and so focused on the insider issue.

Travis Erwin, I’d think most agents would prefer the storyteller because they are going to make their money directly off the rate of sales of their clients. I’m sure it depends on why someone went into agenting, though.

ArtSparker, it’s definitely a catchy opening, although it doesn’t “sound” poetical to me. But as you say, different tastes.

Christina, I guess I ultimately want the respect of both. It does lead to some hard decisions about ones writing.

David J. West, There’s often overlap of course but they are certainly not identical.

sage, I enjoyed The Comstock Lode but it’s not my favorite of his. I think it would help to talk to writers of a variety of genres. I’m lucky in that, I guess since I know almost now fantasy/horror writers personally

Bernita, thankee!

BernardL, yes, a million readers would sure make me smile.

Lana Gramlich, that’s probably because you’re a pure reader, or relatively so my sweet.

Heff, you shouldn’t ask that question. I might have Lana take a pic of me at work, bent over my desk!

David Cranmer said...

Thought provoking, as always, Charles. I'm trying to think now how many authors have the respect of other writers and mass appeal. Very few.

laughingwolf said...

bang on, buddy!

as for plumbers, like we used to say when i was still working as an electrician: plumbers need to know but two things; turds roll downhill, and payday's on friday :O lol

Steve Malley said...

Well put. And you may have just sold a few more Lamours too... :)

Lisa said...

As a reader, I'm looking for a storyteller.

Charles, I've sent you an email with regard to your book. I apologise for the none accurate info and causing you alarm.

ivan said...

I learned English by pretty well reading Louis L’Amour.
..That and Nicholas Gogol-- in cyrillic --under my desk while the teacher was getting me on to Seeing Spot run with Dick and Jane.
Durn. Had to start school all over again after going through three cultures. Finally skipped into my proper grade, which wasn't very high--but I stayed with Louis L'Amour, and certainly Zane Grey.
It took me some time to understand what were Faded Levis or a Sharps rifles, or six-guns (did they have six barrels?),but I finally seemed to get it.
I wondered why the writing was so vivid,, so exciting so much the the picture of the rugged psychic landscape of where I wanted to be as a European kid who wanted to be a cowboy. (Every Eruopean secretly wants to be a cowboy); I had a makeshift saddle on my front porch.
It was certainly Louis L'Amour that had set me on fire somewhere in the West Texas of my imagination.
The writing was certainly reader-oriented be he wannabe bushwhacker or remustered steppe-dancer like me.
It was smooth, well plotted ( Miss K is going to lose her ranch and the banker want to have his way with her for here to get it back) --and most readable.

Why? Mr. L'Amour had been rejected 300 times and self-published an equal number of times before he got it "on".
He certainly had the practise and he finally got the snap! Not for us weaklings!
Myself, I have been rejected eight times, and I fear I'll never get the snap, though here and there I'd use my clout as a columnist to force-feed something onto my magazine's fiction page.

Show, not tell.
Tell. (Like an academic?)

It's more like English Compositon vs Writin'.

Halfway into my career I conjured, the image in the privacy of my mind, of a fiction writer being much like any number of 19th easel painters, and certainly those afterward in 21st century New York or Los Angeles.

Get up in the morning, crank up on speed--and start creating.
My wonky friend the bookseller insists it's a little like sex, like Burroughs.
Speed and fury of the attack! And then the reward of a literary climax.

Norman Podhoretz says he feels like masturbating after finishing an especially stirring chapter.
Some would say that's what all his work might be, but his MAKING IT was a major seller some decades ago.

Making it.

It took Louis L'Amour 300 rejections to make it?
And there was no sign of him being an onanist, oh no, Though L'Amour is a certainly a cool name.
It was the reader who got the pleasure, vicarious or no.

I don't know what to suggest.

Pretend you're having sex while you're writing?

Is that the road to Writin' from English Composition?

Heaven forbid there should be a countdown.

Jack off?

Well, I suppose it would be a pretty good object of the literary technique knows as overlay.

But seriously, Charles, I haven't read that much of your work, but the key is overlay. That's where english composition turns to writin'.

Check out overlay.

There is a slam overhead up the elevator shaft of the rocket.
Kelvin can make out the shape of the white-clad man above.
There is the the final turn of the hatch.
"You're just about ready to go, Kelvin."

There is still an echo from the gantryman's voice. The gantry pulls away.
Commander Kelvin feels the powerful almost unearthy surge through his suit...
He is on his way.

...That and your three excellent examples of Louis L’Amour openers.

I think he uses overlay.
Threrein, I think, is the secret.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, yes indeed. Maybe we should try to come up with a list.

laughingwolf, payday being the most important no doubt!

Steve Malley, it's probably easier to sell his books than my own.

Ocean Girl, no problem. Thanks for the email though.

ivan, I realized today as I was writing about L'Amour that he's probably even more of an influence on my storytelling than I had thought. I know I see elements of his work, especially in the Talera novels. I remember reading some author who said he would look at porn until he was highly aroused, but not masturbate, then go and write. It seemed to work for him. I might just have been Tom robbins but don't hold me to that.

the walking man said...

Thomas Harris is a good writer...Norman Maclean is a good story teller.

I for one never talk to writers about writing because usually when we get together they are smoked out, blown out or drunk. I think I like it that way.

laughingwolf said...

always, charles ;) lol

btw - have been a huge l'amour fan for a long time... unlike you, have only read about 70-80% of his tales

laughingwolf said...

other than plumbers, the pipe trades include pipe- and steam-fitters as well as instrument mechanics/technicians, so they are are a pretty bright bunch... we just choose to tease em... and they us ;) lol

Scott D. Parker said...

Excellent post, Charles. I had an idea for a similiar type post for Do Some Damage...but you said it better. O like the idea you and David had about making a list of writera who are respected by peers and loved by readers. Just this week, a friend of mine commented that he loved Dan Brown's writing style (in that his books are written in a way that makes them hard to pit down). I agreed and said I knew few who openly professed love (or like) of Brown's work. It hits upon your thesis: Brown is a storyteller.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, I haven't read anything by Maclean but I'll agree about Thomas. I used to know the drinking writers. Not so much now.

laughingwolf, well one does support the tribe, whehter htey be writers or pipe fitters or what have you.

Scott Parker, I'd agree. Dan Brown falls on the storyteller side rather than on the writer side. I think that's what a lot of people are responding to in his stuff.

Travis Cody said...

I've been thinking about your last post, and this one made me think even more. You're a great advocate of the rewrite as an important tool in the writer's tool kit, as am I.

I know that one thing I struggle with in my own work is my internal editor. What I'm trying to teach myself how to do is just focus on my story when I sit down with a fresh idea. I'm trying just to write through the idea and get a good story down while shutting off the internal editor who wants to stop and polish as I go.

After the story is told, then should come the fun of the rewrite and editing process to polish up language and make improve the writing.

Spy Scribbler said...

"We forget sometimes that most readers aren’t writers."

Amen. I definitely agree 100%.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, apparently L'Amour did very little rewriting, or so he says. He certainly did write on a typewriter, which I can understand tends to cut down on one's wish to do rewrites. I still love the rewriting process myself, although, like you, I'm trying to do first drafts faster these days.

Natasha Fondren, yes, I think we really do.

Erik Donald France said...

Sounds about right, my friend. Have noted this before, but my father is a huge L'Amour fan.

However, I also like nuance, where things are shady. You can have both: as in Sergio Leone flicks.

Middle Ditch said...

Opening lines are as important as the last line closing a chapter. The one you chose are brilliant. My absolute favorite story teller, as supposed to novelist, is Wilbur Smith. He also has you gripped from beginning to end and you live the lives of those in the story. And that is what a good story, like a good film, is about.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik Donald France, that's definitely one thing about L'Amour. His characters are usually black and white, and I like the shade myself. I like L'Amour's work but wouldn't want to limit myself to that.

Middle Ditch, I've read a couple of things by Smith and enjoyed them. I've got a couple more around here too. Maybe it's time to give another one a try.

Scott D. Parker said...

All this talk of L'amour and I have a hankering to read him. To date, I've only read one short story, the title story from "Night Over the Solomons." I went to my parent's house today and rummaged through my grandfather's box of LL books. I found Flint (based on your original post), Hondo, and Bowdrie's Law. Think I'm going to have to see what all this fuss is about.

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott, "Night over the Solomons" is definitely a very minor L'Amour work. Flint is great and Hondo good but not quite as fine. I also really like the short stuff about Bowdrie. Kind of western mysteries.

Cloudia said...

Yeah, he had that "something extra" beyond talent and story...that touch of magic!

Aloha from Spring Time in Waikiki, Charles

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, indeed. It would be nice to be so annointed

Clare2e said...

I think after some significant practice, I've become a serviceable writer, but I dream of being of great storyteller.

I'm not sure the second category is as much touch as feel. Writers I've worked with who have it just have it, even as I bleed blue over their typos.

Charles Gramlich said...

Clare2e. My favorite examaple of a pure storyteller is Edgar Rice Burroughs. When you analyze his works carefully you are left shaking your head at mistakes and poor grammar and constructions. But when you just let yourself read you get locked into the story.

Michelle's Spell said...

Learning a lot from LL about plot, a big weakness for me. His plots are so strong that they make you miss your connections at airports. Seriously. I don't remember a lot about his books, but I do remember not being able to put them down. Big accomplishment for anyone.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

That is a really good point. I think it gets lost in a lot of writing circles where the writers concentrate so much on become erudite that they loose the readers.