storytellers: born, or built?

Rachel commented on yesterday’s post:

Now, I always think of these things: but what happened to the first person ever to write a fiction novel? I know it’s a bit much, but you say that you have to read a lot of a genre to write that same genre. It seems unfair. What happens if you wanna write something completely different? And wouldn’t you be scared of “stealing” ideas?

There are still a few societies in the world where the spoken word is dominant, as it was in all of Europe until the 1700s (or later, depending on the nature of any given community). In those older European communities storytelling was just as important as it is now. This is as close to a universal truth as you can get. Storytelling is the way cultural goods are passed on, how we teach children about the world and our expectations and hopes. Byatt wrote in an essay (which I can’t find right now) that people need storytelling to function, that it’s as important as shelter and food.

So in a society that has no written language, stories get passed along verbally. Parents tell children stories, merchants who come back from a long trip are surrounded by people who want to hear about what is going on in the world. Someone who is especially good at storytelling will have a following. If old Margaret is sitting by the fire knitting, adults and children will drift in and she’ll start talking. She might tell a story from the community’s mythology or a fable, she might recount the day her neighbor, a greedy sort, got his head stuck in the milk bucket. Her audience reflects back to her how she’s doing by gasping or laughing or yawning.

The children are listening. It’s an apprenticeship. They will hear dozens of stories every day, short and long. Some of them will start when I was a girl or back in the days of before the great fire or now that reminds me of McNulty’s son James on his wedding day….

Children listen and learn how to tell a story. They learn about holding back surprises, about the importance of detail, about the narrative arc. They don’t know they’re learning these things, but they are. They will tell stories to each other, practicing, and give each other feedback in quite abrupt ways. Some will grow up to be excellent storytellers and some will never master the fine points, but they will all tell stories. The few with real talent might make a reputation for themselves that goes far beyond the small community where they live.

Writing a novel is a much more complex process, but there are many similarities. There are skills involved that you can only absorb and master by reading like a writer and then writing — in that order. I can tell you about the narrative arc, but you won’t really understand that idea until you’ve read closely — as someone interested in the mechanics of the process. This is the way many skills are passed on. A carpenter looks at a window casing differently than I do, for example. A painter looks at a painting and wonders how the artist got that particular effect. On the way home she thinks about how it might have been done, and she looks forward to trying it herself.

Francine Prose (a favorite author of mine) has a great book out on this whole topic. She provides excellent arguments for the importance of close reading if you want to write. Certainly it’s a far more comprehensive treatment than this little post of mine.

So you do have to read, and you have to read a lot. There’s no shortcut around it. Some people will pick up the skills more easily; some will be innovative in ways that catch on. Is that unfair? Fair isn’t really a word that applies here, it seems to me. Some people have an intrinsic talent for storytelling, the way others are able to solve complex abstract mathematical problems. That’s the luck of the draw. What the Mathematician can do without much thought I can’t do at all, and he’d say the same thing about me.

Finally, on stealing ideas:

Every story has already been told and retold, and will be retold in the future. Some people claim that there are only seven basic plots. I had a look at that idea here.

Does this mean that all authors are stealing? Hardly. If I lift whole paragraphs from another writer, that’s stealing. If a story I read twenty years ago suddenly gives me an idea for a book of my own, that’s not stealing — but if I copy the book in the hope that no one make the connection, that is most definitely stealing. You can’t copyright a plot. If you could, there would be very few new novels published in any given year. The trick is to make the plot your own. It’s the author’s voice that makes a novel unique.

Do you recognize this man?

Edit: sketch moved to the wiki.

I sometimes do drawings or sketches of important characters. If you’ve read Queen of Swords you may recognize this man.Tomorrow when I post some of the background on Curiosity, I may post her sketch as well.And by the way, any sketches I post are my original work and my copyright. Please don’t use them in anyway without getting my explicit permission first.Edited to add:Someone asked about the coloring you see here. This is in fact a pencil drawing, but I decided to do the eyes in watercolor. That accounts for the lack of color in complexion. Ben is tri-racial, and his skin is medium dark with a strong reddish cast.There is an interesting website about the family history of tri-racial groups in Virginia with some great photos, here.

new versus used books

Here’s the summary (and this is my take alone):

1. If you can afford to buy new books, that’s an excellent way to support the work of authors you like best.

2. If you can’t afford to buy new books, the next best way is to borrow from the library. Libraries deserve support. Libraries also support authors.

3. There are times and situations in which buying a used book is reasonable. If the work is out of copyright or out of print and/or if the author has been dead for a while.

If I buy a copy of a book new, I am then comfortable buying a second copy used if it’s for my own use.

If the author is new to me, I will get his or her work out of the library until I decide whether or not I want to purchase the books new.

Once I decide to buy a used book, I will try to get it from a nonprofit. For example, a library or school sale. There are a number of organizations that collect and sell used books for non-profits. The most visible one is Better World Books.

These are my guidelines. Everybody has to decide for themselves how best to proceed.

things to hate about books

1. I despise those on-the-fly dirt-cheap editions of out-of-copyright classics. The ones so poorly put together they won’t last more than two readings. The ones with paper of such piss poor quality that as far as depletion of the forests is concerned? Insult to injury. I despise the way Barnes & Noble and the big publishers package up Austen and Dickens and Cicero and Moliere like trollops and send them out to make a quick buck.

War and Peace 1946 ed
War and Peace 1946 ed

If you’re dying to read War and Peace, for dog’s sake, don’t waste your money on shitty editions that will sit on your coffee table and look like the worst kind of posturing.

Go to the library. You’ll find a decent edition and you’ll be supporting a community resource. Or, if you’ve just got to have a copy, this is the time to go to a used bookstore, one in your town or online. Tolstoy doesn’t need the royalties anymore, and you might just find a really solid edition. One advantage of finding an older edition of an out of print book: sometimes you’ll get a bonus. An envelope stuck in the middle addressed to Mrs. Mabel Winterbourne, 41 Handcross Lane, Luton, Bedforshire with a 1932 postmark. A receipt for a suit that was drycleaned in 1973, three piece, wool, for six bucks. A movie ticket stub for Easy Rider, Last Tango in Paris, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Who knows, the spark of a story idea may be waiting at the end of chapter four, a simple folded piece of paper with a scribbled note: tell her you didn’t mean it.

Then again, if you’re a serious scholar of Russian literature, you will have to reconsider. You’ll want to look into the translation, and maybe even spring for the critical edition.

2. I heartily dislike bookclub editions, which aren’t much better than abomination number one above. A slightly better quality of binding, bad paper that feels almost sticky to the touch and will turn yellow in less than a couple years. Yuck.

Do you really need a bookclub to tell you what’s out there to be read? If you’re reading this, you know how to get around the internet. There are hundreds of websites and weblogs that will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about books new and old. Don’t let yourself be led by the hand. Go out there and make your own decisions.

3. It makes me laugh (and not in a good way) to see the big chain stores who sell abomination number one (and sometimes even get into the act by coming out with their own shitty editions) complaining to publishers about abomination number two because they don’t like being undersold. For example: U.K. Booksellers Threaten Publishers Over Cheap Book Club Editions

Payback is a bitch, or put much more eloquently by Elbert Hubbard: “Men are not punished for their sins, but by them.”

4. I like independent bookstores and I want to support them. But I find it hard to promote a bookstore who (1) sells my novels at full price and then (2) stocks used copies of that same novel on the same shelf. There’s a lack of logic there that ticks me off. I imagine a reader standing there in front of the shelf. You, maybe. You’re looking at Queen of Swords, new, $27. That’s a hunk of money. You’re thinking you haven’t paid the phone bill yet this month and really, you could get it for ten bucks less someplace else. But wait. There’s a used copy, and wow, only $14.

I can’t blame you for wanting to pay your phone bill. I absolutely understand and appreciate the fact that you really want to read the story, but $27 is just too much of an investment. What I don’t like is that the independent bookstore who wants my support has pretty much forced you to buy used, which cuts me out of the equation. If they only had the new, $27 copy on the shelf, no discount, you might think about it but most likely you’re going to leave and get the book someplace that’s selling it cheaper. But if the used copy is there, what are you going to do? It’s obvious. And it makes me really, really cranky — not with you, but with the bookstore.