A few weeks ago, I participated in a “boot camp” offered by Writer’s Digest, “Agent One-on-One: How to Craft Query Letters & Other Submission Materials That Get Noticed.” The repeated focus on “story” contrasted that of my previous writing experience, with its emphasis on literary craft. Over and over, the participating agents said, “We want to know that you can tell a story.” Perhaps my previous experience created within me the expectation that everyone just wanted to know that I could write a good sentence. Maybe I created that expectation myself. In any case, this boot camp got me thinking about how the story can sometimes be ignored in the literary/MFA world while other elements take center stage.
And all that led to this, my imagining my reviews, written by literary craft obsessed readers. Here goes:
“For quote attribution, no one uses said better than Brown. Brilliant!”
“He could’ve written slowly walked, but instead Brown writes strolled. Boo-yah!”
“Every character only uses age-appropriate vocabulary. You won’t have a six-year-old saying aspirate. Brown nails it.”
“I haven’t seen a writer understand show/tell this well since my kindergarten days.”
“You won’t find Brown using exclamation points unnecessarily. Win!”
Yes, I’m sure as literary agents look at my query and synopsis, they are evaluating whether or not I can “write” (whatever that means), but the emphasis seems more on whether I can tell a compelling, structured story. I wonder if workshops might begin with people pitching their story ideas—and having those stories discussed—before going into the world of craft. At my MFA, one of the faculty members said that there are two types of writers: those that write a great sentence and those that tell a great story. I always aimed for that “writing a great sentence” kind of brilliance, but now I wonder: If the story sucks or is non-existent, what’s the point?