Little by little, as narrative has transitioned from a means of interpreting human experience to one of interpreting personal experience, and from expression to self-expression, we have lost our focus on story as a means of connection with others.
So let’s start with this: writing is to storytelling what talking is to conversation. Writing is a monologue. Storytelling is a dialogue. You can talk at someone without ever being in a conversation with them. Unfortunately, more and more writers simply write at readers.
Great writers are great storytellers, and they know they’re in a kind of conversation with readers.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s the writing paradigm that we’ve all bought into which creates a natural barrier between writers and readers. Right now the process of story production such as it is begins with an idea, continues with extrapolating that idea to the writer’s satisfaction, and ends with a completed manuscript.
After that, if the writer wants to reach an audience it becomes the publisher’s responsibility, along with all the various supporting strategies now available digitally.
As writers we’ve come to rely on the sense of security that the work of establishing readership is out of our hands and placed into a delicately balanced system of marketing and PR and social networking and cash. It’s branding, it’s positioning, it’s funding. If the book fails it’s because some part of that system – or all of it – has failed. Even when we’re busy with promotion ourselves as writers, the outcome still depends on the success or failure of promotion.
That’s how we’re being brainwashed anyway.
The final fall-back for blame is that the writer wasn’t much good to begin with – or was just too beautiful for this world. Only one of those is ever true – and about 99% of the time.
But the failure of the formula is not the root of our failure to reach readers. The failure is that how the reader fits in is wrong. The whole writing paradigm is wrong, wrong, WRONG.
Now, you’re probably thinking – but isn’t that the way it’s supposed to go? Where’s the pitfall?
Think about it like this:
The job of reaching the reader shouldn’t start with the publisher. It shouldn’t even start with the writer. It should start in the writing.
Now, when I’m talking about the reader, I don’t mean the vague reader-as-theoretical-consumer that writers assume – the imagined persona that comes with the question we’ve all been told by well-meaning advice-givers to ask ourselves at some point – “who is my reader?” – which represents the kind of demographic that would pick up a book like ours.
Some of us imagine a particular friend or relative as a stand-in for this mythical consumer, or we latch onto a more successful author’s fanbase to claim as our intended fans.
Which really only means “I want her buyers or I want his buyers” without ever understanding the most powerful reasons the writer has earned those readers to begin with.
But identifying who your ultimate fan might be is a terrible misunderstanding of the role the reader plays in story creation. We imagine some ghostly set of characteristics hovering in the backdrop that silently love – and buy – our kind of writing.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The reader is not outside the text, watching, assessing, guiding.
For the writer, the reader is not a demographic. Not a consumer. Not even a potential fan. That’s who the reader is after the fact, once the story reaches the marketplace.
Before that point, for the writer, the reader is in the fact, in the story as it’s being created. The reader is as absorbed into the text as the writer is.
But if you as a writer don’t understand what this means, there’s no way you can engage the reader through your creation. And if you don’t engage the reader, no amount of writing or marketing or money or social networking will ever create an audience for you.
A consumer is just someone who buys a product. A fan is a happy consumer.
The reader is the other half of the story-mind. The reader is the other participant in a narrative conversation. If the story has failed, it’s because the writer failed primarily as a storyteller and secondarily as a writer.
Being in that dialogue and getting into the reader’s head is not the job of the publisher, or the social network, or bloggers and book-selling entities. Getting the book into the reader’s hand is the publisher’s job, the job of marketing and promotion.
Getting into the reader’s head is the writer’s job. And writers don’t have a clue how it happens.
It isn’t magic or some mysterious creative force, or luck, that you either have or don’t have. That’s what talent and genius bring to a narrative.
And this is not to say in any way that writers should produce what they think an audience wants to read. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that at all. It’s about understanding how the reader’s mind interacts with story.
The most important factor in reaching the reader is storytelling, and understanding storytelling requires that the writer understand what creates a story beyond just the act of writing.
But right now, storytelling illiteracy is rampant among writers. Storytelling illiteracy has been fostered by the writing paradigm and supported wholeheartedly by the publishing model as an acceptable minimum.
Reaching the consumer is not what creates success. It’s reaching the reader first that makes success even a remote possibility. Yet something goes wrong somewhere between the writer and the writing. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope that the string of plotting details you’ve laid out works and that the outside forces will do your job in addition to their own to get readers interested.
That’s an awful lot of your life and creativity to leave to luck or someone else’s whims.
But in the current writing paradigm, that’s what writers are doing. We’ve all been absorbed into this creed and have even taken the blame for how it consistently fails us.
We’re awful storytellers, and the writing paradigm makes it impossible for us to know it. It privileges writing over storytelling, so writers can spend years in the writing community at every level – from informal writer’s groups all the way up to graduate programs – without ever being taught what creates storytelling, and without ever knowing how badly we’re messing it up.
The insurmountable problems writers are consistently creating in their narratives are developing out of a writing paradigm that sets writers – and publishing – up for failure. In fact, in the writing paradigm, success is the anomaly rather than the rule. There is no other choice.
While we labour away according to a writing paradigm, stories that last grow out of a storytelling paradigm. We no longer have the knowledge or the ability – or justification if you listen to some people – to privilege storytelling over writing. In fact, in some circles incoherence and a complete lack of storytelling are honoured as evidence of literary superiority, but if you look at some of the masterpieces of experimental narrative, there is nothing incoherent about them. They adhere to the principles of storytelling as much as any straight linear work. But the writers then break narrative into bits and pieces so the reader must approach it archaeologically or forensically and representationally and linguistically as a rare thing to be discovered and mentally reassembled. Experimental writers are failing not because they’re too smart for the reader but because they actually believe that the narrative is created out of incoherence. Not so.
We need a new paradigm, and it has to be a storytelling paradigm that gives writers a holistic view of narrative that embraces reader engagement. The storytelling paradigm is the one that accepts that the story doesn’t end with a finished manuscript but rather a finished story.
What a massive difference that makes in the outcome. When the writer has taken control over storytelling, it means that the reader has been engaged before the query even reaches the publisher’s desk. If a story is well-written and well-told, then even with a minimum of marketing effort there’s at least a chance that the groundswell will come from readers pushing for the book instead of the publisher.
Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want to create that hunger in readers?
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