From literary agent, Rachelle Gardner’s blog:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Fiction Writing: Craft and Story

As I go through queries and partials, I’m often thinking about the two elements of a good novel: craft and story.

Craft refers to all the mechanics of fiction: plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, point-of-view, etc.

Story refers to the page-turning factor: how compelling is your story, how unique or original, does it connect with the reader, is there that certain spark that makes it jump off the page? Is it sufficiently suspenseful or romantic? Is the author’s voice distinct and compelling? It’s much harder to quantify than craft, and harder to teach.

Of course, the two elements are intertwined, but it’s helpful to artificially separate them, in order to understand why a book is either working—or not.

Lately I’ve noticed amongst my stacks of rejected queries an increasing number of projects that show strong technique, but no originality or heart. In a way, this is good because it shows that writers are paying attention to their craft. They’re taking the time and making the effort to learn to write, which is fantastic.

But it’s heartbreaking to me at the same time. I hate that lifeless feeling of a boring (or derivative or unoriginal) story, perfectly executed. I get the feeling many people are so saturated with media (books, TV, movies) that they are writing not from life but from their perception of life as shown in media. They’re writing stories I’ve seen and heard a hundred times before.

In fact, just this week I read some sample chapters from a newbie writer, and I was impressed with the technical excellence. Nice dialogue, perfect POVs, showing not telling… the craft elements were all there. But the story itself involved a hackneyed plot, a totally uninteresting protagonist, and major predictability. It felt like it was written by a computer program, and it made me sad. I want to teach writers to not only learn the craft, but to also write from their heart. Write with authenticity, write from the depths of personal experience.

I think some writers find craft easier, and others find story comes more naturally. It’s up to you to understand where you stand as a writer, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and make the effort to keep working on both sides of the equation.

And when you read published books that don’t seem to “follow the rules” of craft that you’ve worked so hard to learn, try to determine if maybe that book got published because of the story, rather than technical perfection. (Or it might just be that the author has established a loyal following who enjoys their particular style of storytelling.)

If your storytelling is powerful enough, readers will forgive an awful lot of flaws in technique… and so will agents and editors. On the other hand, all the perfect “craft” in the world can’t make an unimaginative book shine.

If editors and agents are looking at your samples and immediately criticizing your craft, be aware this means they aren’t able to see a fabulous story in there. Either it doesn’t exist to begin with, or it’s camouflaged by your lack of expertise in fiction technique.

So writers, speak up. Where do you stand? Which is harder for you? How do you approach both sides of this craft/story equation?

It’s well-said by Rachelle. I think my stories are perceptions of life, instead of life through my own eyes. Craft is so much easier to work on; just keep reading quality writing, and then keep trying it out on your own. Story, on the other hand, is more difficult to come by. It has to come from within, and no amount of practice or drilling can ever forge something genuine and real. I wish I have that. Really good writers, like Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti and Christie Hodgen, don’t focus a lot of their plot, but make damn sure their characters are richly-painted, thereby moving the story forward with them, throwing in sub-plots along the way. My writing relies heavily on action, on plot. It isn’t a bad thing, but it can also make the writer – and therefore the reader – seem detached from her story and her characters. In my opinin, to really connect with the characters – and therefore to make your readers relate and fall in love with them – a writer should have an opinion on everything, and do the same for her characters. Only then will they take their lives – and the story – by the reins, instead of letting things happen to them, as plot-driven stories often do.

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