Good Writing vs. Good Storytelling

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Today I am working on the 1st chapter of my first book … yet again.

Why would I do this when I am almost 30% done writing the second book? The reason is because I have been uneasy, nay unhappy with that chapter ever since I did my major restructuring.

What happened was that my first book was too big. I originally wrote it to 154,000 words—way too big for the Christian publishers—and so I cut it down to 123,000 words. Still too big.

So a few months ago, I did a radical thing. I cut all of the first nine chapters, and then cherry-picked the best writing and fit it back in. What I ended up with flowed nicely, and my novel was down to 109,000 words.

Flowed nicely? Not the first and second scene of chapter 1.

It turns out that both scenes were EXCELLENT writing, from my perspective. I loved them. I was happy with the way they were written.

So what was wrong?

It wasn’t good storytelling.

By that, I mean that it didn’t flow right. Scene 1 had nothing to do with Scene 2, and so I shoe-horned them together to get them to fit, but it never felt right to me.

Unfortunately, I sent this shoe-horned version out to some agents. Ah well! I’m fixing it now. I’m moving scene 1 (excellent writing) a bit later, and bringing back in some writing that I had cut.

The story will now flow. The action will be exciting. Everything will fit.

So … remember, just because you know how to write doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to tell a good story. The two aren’t the same, as I have so painfully learned. Both must work together to create a properly crafted novel.

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7 thoughts on “Good Writing vs. Good Storytelling

  • Good for you for revising the opening after receiving feed back from some agents.

    I’m puzzled by something though. How can a fiction excerpt be excellent writing if it isn’t also excellent storytelling? Do you mean the sentences flow and paint a good picture, but don’t fit within the storytelling structure?

  • Marcus,

    Thanks for stopping in! How’s your novel coming along? Last I knew you had given a sample to Randy Ingermanson at Mt. Hermon. You’re right on with your thoughts. The picture, the mood—everything can be right on, but the structure needs to be there for it to fit in.

    What I was attempting to do was to point out that individual sections might be excellent, but how they are put together is not. The flow isn’t there, the arch is flat or broken.

    In my case, since I was editing and moving things around, I had two excerpts that I thought were great writing—but they didn’t belong together. It was a non-sequitur, the second didn’t follow the first properly to make the story flow.

    Sure, I wrote some stuff in the middle to provide a transition, but it wasn’t enough. The solution was to do it different and replace scene 1 with something that actually was continuous and connected with what followed.

    I guess for someone who is not editing, the lesson is to watch the arch of your story and make sure you’re keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Individual scenes, even paragraphs can be excellent, but they need to connect in a meaningful way to the what comes before and after.

    -Robert

    p.s. And actually I didn’t make this change based on feedback from anyone, even the agents I had sent to. I just knew, deep down, that something wasn’t right. I should have listened to that voice sooner rather than later.

  • I’m also just now planning a major re-write of the prologue and first chapter of my novel. The concept/story of the first chapter has been the same for a long time, ever since my first draft, but after spending some talking it out with one of my readers, I’ve determined it is not a crucial scene to the rest of the story. I need to start in another point in the background of the story, which will hopefully help it tie in better with the major character motivations and plot lines.

    It can be a daunting task, but I’d rather spend the time now making it as perfect as possible before I query agents. As the story stands now, I would reject my own manuscript if I mailed it to myself.

    Robert, how do you decide when your story is ready to send out? Is it just something you know?

  • Steven,

    Good for you taking the time now to straighten things out.

    I don’t know if I’m the person to ask about the “how to decide when you’re ready to submit”, but this is what I have done:

    I paid for two professional critiques from the same person, the second one after I had done my best to follow the advice from the first time. Often the first time only reveals the major things, and after you take care of those, there are other issues that come to the surface. I used Jeff Gerke over at WhereTheMapEnds.com, but there are lots of great people to do this with:

    http://www.wherethemapends.com/writerstools/writers_tools_pages/editorial_services.htm

    Beyond that, get as many critiques from writing partners as you can. When they tell you it’s ready, then that is a good sign.

    The problem is that, as a writer and a perfectionist, I tend to never think it’s ready, but then I think I can’t wait forever, so I send it off anyway. I originally sent to only a single agent, and revised after that for six months. This is my second round, and I realized I jumped the gun a little bit.

    You’ve got to go with your best hunch, but then if you’ve made a mistake, you pick up the pieces, edit again, and find a new set of agents.

    Unfortunately for me, the Christian Fantasy market is pretty small, and I’m out of agents after this round. Next I’ll target the smaller publishers that still accept manuscripts without an agent.

    After that … who knows?

    Thanks for stopping by, and all the best with your novel.

    -Robert

  • I’m a perfectionist as well and am concerned I will never think it’s ready. I have a few reading partners, but they’ve been fairly slow in getting their critiques back to me. How many critiques from writing partners have you had? I had 5 people read it for me, but only one has given me their feedback thus far.

  • Robert,

    American Midnight clocked in originally at something like 130,000 words. After the last draft its now being published at aprrox 101,000 words!

    I follow what you’re saying about good storytelling…the story has to flow naturally after our cuts! And after toiling so many hours…we authors can loose persepctive!

    Oh the value of fresh eyes!

  • Steven,

    It’s hard to find someone who will give you a critique of the entire novel, so if you’ve gotten one already, that’s excellent.

    I’ve only had partial critiques (like Jeff Gerke) outside of family. Thankfully my wife is an excellent editor, and my kids, too. My daughter, Adele, has a very different perspective on writing than my own, and so we balance each other out.

    Only this week have I been getting critiques of the opening chapters of my novel (thanks, Brandon and John!), and that has been really helpful as I prepare to submit to another agent this weekend.

    -Robert

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