Today’s topic/title for my 30 day 30 blog challenge is something right up my street, story telling – or storytelling as it apparently now is… although when I check this I find it is a compound word first recorded in use in 1709, so what do I know. So I guess I am a storyteller, not a story teller, although I might be a story-teller which is also used.
I don’t think a story can exist without a story teller and a story listener, even if the teller and the listener are the same person. If you’re making a story for an audience other than yourself, whether you’re creating it by writing it down, or just making it in your head, you have to try and hear it as someone else might hear it – which is quite difficult.
I have always worked hard at my writing, but when a story is running vividly in your head and the words pour out onto the page, sometimes there are just too many of them. When I’m in that sort of phase/role/mood – I don’t know quite how to describe it, the story takes over everything and I write everything I can see in the scenes, everything I can hear, everything ever sense is showing and telling me, and every word that any character utters or sound they make, or thought that they have. Woven in is background information and detail of their previous lives, thoughts, experiences, other things they coincidentally think or notice or feel and I end up with a massive story which has to be whittled down to something readable. In some ways it might seem a waste of time to write so much and then delete it but I guess it’s part of my process, and even after I’ve edited, I retain all that detail in my imagination so I can make sure events, characters, location etc., are consistent and credible.
I have written a series of books about a character and his family; his family are now in a way background, although usually there is some storyline featuring them. In the early books his brothers, parents and grandparents were part of the narrative, but as his life has changed, mainly by having a family but also by ‘growing up’, these characters begin to have more of a walk-on part with little either affecting them or being caused by them. To deviate slightly, last night I started to read the latest in a series of books I have very much enjoyed by a writer I admire – her characterisation, her descriptions of place, her plotting, her incidental information about a variety of subjects have all kept me gripped and is what I have loved and appreciated. Her stories are written in the present tense which usually really annoys me and distracts me, but I measure how much I like her writing by not minding what is actually a foible on my part. However… and you might have guessed there is a however, in this book some of the spark and sparkle seems absent; I am super aware of the present tense, I seem to be plodding rather than skipping through, the deft touches of self-deprecating humour seems leaden, and the amount of back story filled in on all the characters – and even a character written out of the ‘cast’, is distancing me even though I know these back stories, having read the other novels. I will carry on reading, the author is a great writer, and maybe things will gather momentum as we get further in…
However, I had somewhat of a revelation and here I will revert to my books with my cast of characters. My revelation was that I don’t need to fill in every last detail for every character. My main character can meet his brothers, but unless there is some need or relevance to tell readers that one has been married three times and writes children’s books and works in a bookshop, has an allotment, and has two children and is a thoroughly nice and lovely man – then I don’t need a great chunk of exposition and his life story. Ditto the other two brothers, his wife, his grandparents who are dead or his ex-wife – none of that needs to be there unless it is relevant, and if it is then it probably only needs to be lightly sketched in. It should be clear that this will have been part of the previous novels in the series, if my lovely readers want to explore them, but I want each novel to stand alone, and aspects of my main character which were relevant in book one, really aren’t relevant to the man he is in book eight.
This might sound a little dogmatic – actually it was a revelation and I’m quite excited so I don’t mean to be table thumping – or in fact keyboard thumping. This sudden view which came from my mild criticism of a favourite author, combined with me already realising I overwrite, is making me take a second look at my writing habits. Instead of thinking this is the way I’ve always done it, this is the way I do it, I must remember one of my husband’s favourite phrases, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’