Friday, December 12, 2014

It’s about 'People' stories that include action, not 'Action' stories that happen to include people

By now, having turned seventy-eight, after telling my stories for nearly ten years, you might think I’ve learned a lot about storytelling. Perhaps so. But there is so much I don’t know. I still have a long way to go. A while back I was reminded once again of that.
Actually, though it had me squirming a bit I was glad, in an uneasy sort of way, to have her input. After all, she was supposed to know what she’s talking about. She works for an agency that represents writers, trying to sell their stories to publishers. She (I’ll call her Suzie) knows what her publishing clients want. And what they want---whether the story is a whodunit, a dark and sinister vampire saga, or a steamy romance---is fast-moving action, the kind that grabs the reader on page one and never lets up.
Pretty hard to argue with that, eh? And I didn’t, at least not until Suzie, who had been assigned to critique my Second Chances story for an contest, explained that the first chapter was a “painfully slow” start to the book. Should I have let that upset me, even a little bit? Probably not. Did it? Yeah it did, at least “a little bit”---maybe more. Actually, the first time I read her appraisal it felt like our conversation was over before it had begun. It was later that day, when I reread Suzie’s blunt critique, that I began to sense why she and I were not seeing eye to eye about something I take very personally. 
I began by asking myself where I’d gone so wrong. How had I missed the mark by so much? It took me a while to realize that, regardless of Suzie’s opinion, I was telling the story I wanted to tell the way I want to tell it. Granted, a better writer could tell it better, but this was my story. I had said what I wanted to say in my own way. 
You see, in the books Suzie represents (I’ll call them “action” stories) the characters are there to keep things moving at the desired pace---acting and reacting in ways that move the storyline along. That is their role in the scheme of things---to provide the action, piece together the clues, stand up to the bad guys, and take chances---all in the name of advancing the plot. At every turn the players are there to serve the story.
Small wonder that Suzie struggled with my unorthodox tale. The folks I write about are October seekers---seniors looking to overcome the challenges of October life. And just because they are rarely expected to save the world from nuclear disaster, don’t be misled. Their stories do include an abundance of age-appropriate action. They too will take chances, stand up to bad guys, and have their adventures.
But instead of serving some predetermined story line their actions, and my reason for telling the story, are always about the persons I have created and how they deal with their October challenges. The purpose of the story is to know those people better---to understand what they are dealing with and how they cope. Their adventures---in the form of conflict, disappointment, and wrong turns---are meant to illustrate their personal trials, rather than to simply keep the story moving ahead. As one of those “Octobers folks” that is the part that interests me.
By the time I had worked my way through that line of reasoning I realized that I had answered my own question. It wasn’t Suzie’s answer, but it worked for me. I was ready to admit that if the characters’ main role in a story is to keep the plot moving toward some intended action, then my October tales simply don’t pass muster. One of my friends, who usually reads mysteries---page turners she can’t put down---found Second Chances to be a relaxing read, a bit like reading about her senior neighbors.
So if the purpose of my stories is to meet individuals I can relate to and explore how they deal with the trials and traumas of a particular time of life---what I call the October Years---then I’m satisfied with my result. I try to cover both the “people” and the “action” parts of the story. But for me the emphasis will remain on the “people” elements.
A while back I offered a post titled He writes what? I ended that piece by admitting that I was “staking my claim in the tiniest slice of the writer’s market.” After all, I’m telling relational stories about October Years persons playing out what I call their “geriatric adolescence.” Often as not they have come to the game with two strikes against them, and a life-view that is scarcely imaginable to younger readers. Not exactly mainstream, eh?
Yet, though that is still my goal, I also sense something else at work. You see, Suzie was right about Second Chances. The story does begin slowly---though I might debate her “painfully” description. In any case, it starts that way because instead of teasing the reader with tantalizing hints of a crime, a conflict, or a romantic conquest, I use those first pages to introduce people and their situations---to set the scene I will be following for two books and seven hundred pages. Truth to tell, I was not ready to move on to their adventures until I (and the reader) knew more about them and what they were dealing with.
So here I am, an admitted amateur, still writing relational stories about old folks. They are indeed “people” oriented stories. I suppose that means the “tiniest sliver of the market” keeps getting smaller. If I wasn’t having so much fun doing what I do I might be tempted to try a different approach. But as long as those special October people keep taking me to places I rarely visit on my own I’ll keep doing what I do, and try to do it better.
In the meantime I once again invite you to take part in my very informal readership census---a matter of providing nothing more than your location. My last request produced responses from Ontario, Canada, Kentucky, and Tri-Cities, Washington. I'm hoping to expand the field.
The process is incredibly simple. Just click on “No comments” or “Comments” at the bottom of the page. Under “Select profile” scroll down to click on “Anonymous.” That allows you to respond without giving out any personal information. “Enter your comment” by simply filling in your city and state, and anything else you wish to add. Then click on “Publish.” It’s as easy as that. I would really like to see how far afield these scribbles of mine are read.

1 comment:

  1. I agree! The story should be about the people. Character development should dictate the plot, plot dictating character. At least, that's how my favorite books are written. I think you do a great job with this too!