June 2018


There is the view, and there is the window. The view is the story: the events as they are, plain as day. The window is the language, the lens through which you see the story. There is some argument as to which one should emphasise and to what degree, but I think we can all agree that the story itself has to be more important. I mean, I don’t care how ornate and decorative your window pane is, if it just looks out onto a brick wall I’m not interested.

Then again, it’s just as wrong to discount the language completely in favour of story. Plenty of writers do this, seeking to remove themselves utterly from the story they’re telling, trying to create the most unimposing window pane with crystal clear glass through which we can take in the grand view unimpeded. To do anything but that, they argue, is merely egotism and accomplishes nothing other than to get in the way of what’s really important: the story.

I sympathise with this view. I’m a lover of stories and storytelling and I, like them, believe that the actual story is the most important thing – the whole reason anyone really sits down to read in the first place. No one opens a book with the desire to read beautiful words or be captivated by delivery – it’s the story they really want, even if they may say otherwise.

But to say that the story is the be all and end all is not right. For one thing, if you remove yourself utterly from your books, then what are you selling that any old fool with a pen and paper couldn’t write? Your skill? Your cleverness at weaving complex plotlines together in a neat little package? Unless you’re a one in a million individual, there are already a bunch of people doing this way better than you probably ever will. Original ideas? No such thing – at least not in any meaningful sense. Quantity? Maybe, if you also have all of the above and are willing to churn out millions of words a year of technically correct, well structured story in language that isn’t awful.

No, the only real selling point you have – the only thing that will truly put you in a league of your own – is what Steven Pressfield calls the ‘Authentic Swing’ (Great book, by the way, go read it.). It is your voice, your worldview and your personality – the very things the die-hard story only people would have you erase from your work.

No one can write a Stephen King book but Stephen King. Anyone can write a Mills and Boone romance. No one can write a Harper Lee book but Harper Lee. She only had to write two books in her entire life – meanwhile ghost writers at institutionalised book factories like Mills and Boone flood the market to scrape a living. They have to flood the market. Because what they’re creating is the equivalent of a cheeseburger meal from Mcdonalds.

Don’t get me wrong: I eat cheeseburgers all the time. I like them, they taste good and fill me up. But do you want to be the scrawny guy at the window slapping together a thousand burgers a day as fast as his acne scarred hands can manage, or do you want to be the master chef, sizzling sirloin steaks to perfection and glazing them in his secret sauce, the stuff people will drive to taste from miles around because damn it the steak everywhere else just doesn’t taste the same

So by all means, prioritize the view: the structure, the characters, the twists and turns – the story. But never forget about the frame: the language, the style, the brush that colours all and belongs to you and you alone – your voice.

Don’t be a hack. Don’t even be an accomplished, prolific, successful hack. It’s not as fulfilling, not as personal, and not as fun. Be yourself.

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