Writing Advice: “your job is to be a storyteller”

This comes from great historical novelist Bernard Cornwell and applies to songwriting as well.

Take Aways

  • Your job is to be a storyteller
  • It’s all about the story
  • Stories start with a question
  • Dissect successful writing
  • Get a few good, loyal ppl to support you

Writing Advice

Find an agent [Do not represent yourself, alone}

The most important thing, the all-important thing, is to get the story right.  Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story.  It is story, story, story.  That is your business.  Your job is not to educate readers …What will get you published?  Not style, not research, but story.  Once the story is right, everything else will follow.  Rewriting is falling off a log, the hard work is getting the story.  I once wrote a 12,000 word story for the Daily Mail’s Christmas editions.  It took eight days to get the story right and three hours to rewrite the whole thing, and that rewrite included a brand new villain.  But once the story was right the piece could take all sorts of pummelling because the story was strong enough.

Every good story, he said, begins with a question.  And if your opening question is right, then the pursuit of the answer will propel the reader through the book.  More important, it will propel the writer through the book.

I rarely know how a book I’m writing will end when I begin it, and even when I think I know, I usually turn out to be wrong.  How can you know?  Every story is new, and if it is untold, how do you know the ending?  You write to discover what will happen, and it is the excitement of that discovery that should give a manuscript its enthusiasm.

And once you have your story, you must keep it moving….how do you know when you’re losing pace?  How do you know if one scene is too long, or whether a discursive explanation is appropriate in a particular chapter?  In time it does become instinctive, and so it should, but a first novelist may well not have those instincts.  In which case there is only one thing to do, something which I know a lot of professional writers did when they began, and something which rarely seems to be recommended.

…taking apart the existing mousetraps to see how they worked.
So I read them again, but this time I made enormous coloured charts which showed what was happening paragraph by paragraph through the three books.  How much was action?  And where was the action in the overall plan of the book?  How much dialogue?  How much romance? How much flashback (I hate flashback)?  How much background information?  Where did the writer place it?  I already knew what I liked in the books, and I was determined to provide more of that in my book, and I knew what I disliked, and wanted to use less of that, but the three big charts (sadly I’ve lost them) were my blueprints.

I learned to start with a fairly frenetic scene, and to keep that pace going before I slowed it down to provide necessary information.

you will be producing a book (song) that is within a recognisable genre, and you will hugely improve your chances of success if you take the time to study successful works in the same genre.  Why not learn from successful authors?  Disassemble their books, then set out to do better.  If you worry that the long scene in your chapter four is much too long, then see how other writers tackled similar scenes in a comparable stage of their book. The answers to a lot of first novelists’ questions are already on their bookshelves, but you have to dig them out.

Research, how much is needed?… write the book and see where the gaps are, then go and research the gaps.  But don’t get hung up on research – some folk do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.

luck [actually have a few good professional relationships and marriage] in the whole process.  I was lucky in meeting my agent, lucky in finding a publisher who understood that runaway best-sellers are rarely first novels (some are), but that if she coaxed and nagged and edited me through the first four or five then the series might be a success, and I was lucky in having a wife who was prepared to keep the wolf from the door while I wrote those first books.  I am also hugely lucky, twenty -odd years later, in having the same agent, publisher and wife.

your job is to be a storyteller, and if you take the trouble to find out how stories are told

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