Stories Without Heart

You will probably have read plenty of quotes along the line of ‘If you want to be a writer, you have to write.’ Right?

Stephen King said something of the sort and many others did too. The basic idea is that dreaming about being a writer is one thing, but actually doing it is something else. Sitting down in a chair and writing, though it can lead to a few problems, is far better than doing nothing at all. But there are things to watch out for on that route.

Budding authors are full of creative ideas and imaginings. As an editor and publisher, I have had my fair share of conversations which consist of the wannabe author launching into great detail about his or her latest project, beginning with the first chapter and informing me with ongoing vigour about ‘what happens next’, on and on, trying to paint a picture for me which they can clearly see unfolding and which fills them with excitement, but which of course I would have to read the novel to see myself. Writers are usually filled with passion about the books they are writing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have learned not to be surprised, though, when I learn either that a) nothing or very little is actually put down on paper or typed into a computer or b) the writer has written hundreds of thousands of words of essentially aimless material. Years pass, and stories either grow dim or just grow, like a kind of seaweed, until they choke themselves.

Of course, to be a writer, you must write. The writer who talks but doesn’t write is in a worse situation than the one who writes and writes and writes to no constructive end. But both would be helped enormously if they were able to recognise one thing:

Successful stories are about something.

That sounds too obvious, but what I mean is that they are about more than just a series of events, however elaborate, however colourful, however dramatic those things might be. We would be getting closer to the mark if we said that good stories were about a set of characters, but even that doesn’t quite capture what I’m trying to say.