Focus on the Words

Over the last few weeks, pages of ink have been written about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces.  I’ve added to this mass of communication myself with a couple of entries (my last one was January 14). Much of the controversy has been about how the publisher (and Frey) called the book a memoir and investigative reporters revealed the book has some fiction sprinkled into the nonfiction (which is an admitted problem).

This morning I spotted a well-written essay from John MacDonald in The Arizona Republic.  He made up some dialogue for Oprah Winfrey that he would have liked for her to have said. Here’s the paragraph that caught my attention, “Does it matter whether the book is fact or fiction? Of course it does, but not enough to throw it in the trash. Had it been properly sold as fiction, I would have felt just as much emotion, cried the same tears and been every bit as happy for the main character’s trip back from the gates of hell. So after we all calm down, after we vent our anger, let’s talk about the story. Let’s focus on the words, because words matter.”

When we reach the last page of a book, whether you have read fiction or nonfiction, the key is whether you held a great story, well told. As an editor, I’ve seen stacks of submissions from people who want to get their work into print. The great irony is they haven’t learned how to tell a good story. They want their prose to appear in print—but it’s boring and lacks the skills of a storyteller.  Some of this skill can be learned and developed. The first step is to recognize your own need to grow as a writer, then take whatever steps you need to take to improve your skills.  If you need to attend a writer’s conference, then plot a strategy and get to one. If you need to write, then write shorter forms such as short stories or magazine articles and get that work published.  You will be able to hone your skills on a much shorter form of writing than a lengthy novel or nonfiction book. Focus on the words.

3 Responses to “Focus on the Words”

  1. relevantgirl Says:

    One thing that has helped me in story writing is to continually spin them, even as I write nonfiction. Telling/writing stories, even in short 300-word bursts train you to tell in the three-act structure. The more you work on the small scale, the more you’ll be able to carry the weight of a novel through to a satisfying conclusion

  2. William G. Says:

    Excellent advice, both in the post and in the comments so far.

  3. Bob Says:

    Frey’s problem was that he didn’t trust his story enough. His editor, if they had their BS meter running higher, could have helped save him from himself.

    Is the Frey affair a lesson on how stories can tell the truth, or in how stories can deceive? I haven’t decided yet.

    Good advice on storytelling. Our magazine turns down hundreds, maybe thousand of submissions each year because there’s no story in them.

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