How important is story?
Because I am a staggeringly good procrastinator, I read a lot about writing and post a lot on writing forums. This helps me to feel like I’m making progress without actually doing any work.
But you see, I’m coming unstuck. People keep saying that the core ingredients you need to write a great book are great writing and not being an asshole, but that the fundamental non-negotiable is a great story.
Some of them even say that the writing needn’t be amazing, as long as you have a great story.
The problem is, I am not a storyteller. When I think about what I’m planning to write, it doesn’t occur to me that things might happen to people. Instead, I consider how nicely the words might slip together and how I can use them as a metaphor for life. This is a source of endless frustration for the lovely people who are silly enough to offer their help with my writing. When someone says, “What is your plot?” I say things like, “The reader realises the main character’s reality is broken because she is haunted by a past that she doesn’t quite remember, and really, what do any of us know about truth?” And they say something like, “Um, that’s not a story. What if she finds another woman’s knickers in her marital bed?”
So I decided to find out whether it’s possible to write great book, if the best story you can think of involves the time you got a smack because you ate all the Iced Vovos.
Firstly, I found out that this seems quite closely linked to the war around literary fiction, what even is? which has evidently been waging since the dawn of categorisation by genre. My contribution to this is that yesterday I read Mateship with Birds, by Carrie Tiffany, in part due to my raging jealous literary boner and in part due to the excellent things people I know have been saying it. I read that book and I got to the end and I put it down and went, “HUH?” Because it is the kind of book that maybe has a story, kind of, loosely, but ultimately is an exploration of a theme broken up into chapters. What it says is not this happened, and as a result this happened, but actually, what does it mean to be human, and how can I become one, or do I really want to? To be honest, the more confused I am after reading, the better. Other books like this that I’ve read lately include Bereft, Steeplechase and The Age.
Secondly, I found out that the books people buy more than other books are written to be an escape from the real world. Unfortunately my idea of escape from the real world is much more Hunter S. Thompson than J.K. Rowling, leaving aside the fact that they are both also stellar storytellers. People want to turn the page to find out which exciting adventure came next, or whether she managed to score with the hot pool guy, or whether they escaped from the Nazis, or whether he was really the one who murdered the old man at the bus stop. Hell, I want to know what happens next and might not even finish writing this blog post before I do. Do people want to turn a page to find out whether a main character still hates herself or whether she’s managed to project that hatred on to her alienated sister-in-law? If I want to think about those things, I can just put the book down and call my nanna.
Thirdly, I asked some of my lovely writer friends (ones who are good storytellers) to explain to me the importance of story in a book. I told them to go easy on me, please, because maybe I was just born to write conceptual books, because I am a philosopher and possibly even a reincarnation of John Lennon. They told me to please stop calling them, and how did I get their new number?
Then I wondered what a story is, and how I could even know if it was a story until I had written it, which made me want to cut everything, so I stopped. It seems, then, that the answer to my question is another question: what do you want to write? Which is probably why I keep going back to the forums, where the answer is: whatever I want, as long as I don’t have to look at my damn manuscript.
But seriously, is it just a matter of taste? Have you ever read a book that you loved, but that had a shitty story? Am I confusing ‘story’ and ‘plot’? Is this blog post just another clever procrastination tactic?
* brought to you by several days with a cold, during which I wrote and wrote and wrote until my will to live was sufficiently diminished and I could sleep