by Gayle Towell
The first article in the Indelicate Editor series discusses the importance of content before craft, because the ultimate starting point in telling a story is, wait for it: having an actual story to tell. I know, right? Who’d have thunk it?
Meet Mr. Purpleprose. He dresses like a lumberjack except he isn’t a lumberjack (maybe he feels a connection to lumberjacks because of all the trees that have to die to make the paper he craps his prose onto.) He says, “plethora” and “if you will” a lot. He reads literary journals cover to cover with the intent of repurposing the prose into his own writing. He might be a nice guy and all, but he uses writing as a substitute for masturbation. Sure he gets off on it, but it’s not that great and certainly no one else is feeling the benefit.
Yet Mr. Purpleprose thinks he’s going to win the Pulitzer because he’s got this genius way of describing a sunset as a metaphor for blood spilling from war-torn corpses of freedom fighters with heroic ideals, because blood and sunsets and war and heroic ideals, he has learned, can all be arranged to evoke pathos if strung together just right. Now, sure, Mr. Purpleprose might impress sycophants who want everyone to think they’re smart by pretending to “get” whatever gem might be buried in bloody sunsets. But technique is a tool, just like words are a tool. And any skilled craftsman knows that it doesn’t matter if you have the finest lumber and top-of-the-line DeWalt power tools if you’ve not got plans to build something useful.
Can’t tell if your writing emphasizes content over craft? Did you just look down and notice that you, like Mr. Purpleprose, are wearing plaid? Take a moment and answer the following two questions:
Question 1: Why do you write?
Do any of the following sound familiar:
- I want people to like me
- I want to be famous
- I would like to be perceived as witty and insightful
- I need to justify my hipster glasses
- I majored in English, but don’t want to teach it for a living, and this is the only thing I could come up with to do that would make it seem like I had a good reason for being an English major
- All the cool kids are doing it
If you said no to all of those, you’re lying. Personally, I find that people liking me is very important.
What about these reasons for writing:
- I have to
- I need to
- It feels like I’ve got stuff inside busting to come out.
- It’s an outlet for all the shit that eats me.
- I fucking love it and want to marry it.
Desire for fame and fortune comes with being human, but you need at least some of what’s going on in that second list if you want anyone to connect with anything you produce.
Question 2: Where did you get your story idea?
Was it any of the following:
- I saw a TV show or a movie or read a book with a similar idea and thought it was so cool that I’d copy it
- I have a political agenda I would like to further and my characters are empty vessels ripe to carry my message
- I thought of what all the cool or dramatic things were and tried to put all of them together to make the coolest story so people would think I’m cool
- I’m not really good at coming up with ideas so I just picked a writing prompt and went with it.
If so, that isn’t necessarily going to result in failure, but maybe these are better answers:
- It’s based on people I know or something I’ve experienced (even if loosely)
- It was in me and I had to get it out
- I don’t know (I’m a fan of this one, personally. Vague and noncommittal)
- It just felt right.
- I saw it in a dream.
A good story isn’t built off romanticized notions of what something might be like, or the hope of generating greatness by rearranging words to a formula prescribed by Ploughshares. A good story feels like something first and foremost. It touches on some part of the human experience we all have on the tips of our tongues but never have the courage to spit out. Now, this doesn’t mean it can’t be about aliens, or you can’t write from the POV of a cat, or you can’t play with language. But it’s got to have a heart in it somewhere.
“But how?” you ask, “Do I find this inner drive, this fount of substantive content?” Well, everyone’s got it. Even Mr. Purpleprose.
Lock yourself in a room devoid of all external stimulus and write like no one’s ever going to read it. You might surprise yourself. If you let something come out—something that pushes from the inside like an epic bowel movement—then you’re sitting on gold even if your grammar is crap. And by “sitting on gold” I don’t mean you’re guaranteed fame or fortune or even publication in your best friend’s online zine…heh… I just mean it’s less likely to suck.
A good story with bad writing can be edited. But lack of a story with a spine to it? You’ve got nothing to work with even if you lug around Roget’s and read every damn edition of The New Yorker.