Story Is King - How eBook Publishing Inspired Me To Hone My Storytelling Skills

Bird of Passage

At some point over the Christmas viewing marathon of the last few months, somewhat prolonged because of the appalling weather (Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Pride and Prejudice, Casablanca,  ET, Singin’ in the Rain – I was doing that alright -  Brief Encounter, thank God we didn’t have a power cut) I distinctly remember hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber say ‘story is king’ and although I have some reservations about the ALW bandwagon, I found myself in broad agreement with him. Which might have come as something of a surprise to the writer I thought I was, even five years ago.

I don’t know when this all began for me, but I suspect it was post millennium, when my previous literary agent was struggling to place a new novel with various publishers who were all telling her how it was ‘wonderfully written, but too quiet’ and no, they couldn’t possibly market it in the current difficult climate.’ That difficult climate, incidentally, seems to have been current for an awful long time and predates the recession by some years. I was lamenting my fate on a message board when a colleague pointed out (sympathetically) that publishers were always looking for the holy grail of wonderful writing allied to a stonking great story, but if they couldn’t have both in the same book, they would settle for the stonking great story any time.
 Back then, although I found my colleague’s observation to be accurate, I don’t think I learned my lesson. In fact I would say it is only over the past year or so that I have taken it on board. I have a close friend with New Age tendencies, who is always saying things like ‘the universe is trying to tell you something, Catherine.’ Well, now, I’m listening. And the fact is that I have become enchanted by story, as enchanted as I used to be when – as a very little girl – I listened to and then read for myself, the stories in the illustrated Wonder Books which had once belonged to one of my aunts, and had then been passed on to me.

Several things have contributed to this. That ‘stonking great story’ line has been working away in my head like yeast. The films I named above have one thing in common – they are all fine stories, and of course some of them are very fine novels too. It is through the medium  of those powerful tales that we are engaged, while in the sheer pleasure of our absorption, (even when the stories themselves are sad) we learn something about ourselves – and others - as human beings.  

On Christmas morning,  pottering about the kitchen, (as if I hadn’t had enough TV for one holiday) I found myself watching the Nativity,  the beautiful version with Andrew Buchan as a bewildered Joseph and Tatiana Maslany as a totally believable Mary, and becoming captivated all over again by a story which was as familiar to me as my own name, the drama and humanity of it, the way in which it engaged me on practically every level: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and last but by no means least, purely as a piece of  entertainment.
Some years ago, as a reasonably well established playwright trying to break into television, I had struggled to please a string of script editors, until I realised that (a) the script editor earned his salary by stringing me along with endless unpaid rewrites and (b) television really wasn’t for me – although the money was an enticement. Unfortunately, it was more like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Just when you thought you might have got there, the whole thing shifted.

Recently, it struck me forcibly that all the gatekeepers I had ever encountered seemed to have quite different ideas about what they wanted from me but none of them had really taken on board who I was as a writer and – more importantly - who my potential readers might be. This realisation was both liberating and alarming, because so much of my focus had been on pleasing these same agents and editors who were - on the whole - nothing like my potential readers. The trouble was, I didn’t know who those readers were either.
Dealing in antique textiles - my lucky dragon - not for sale!

One of my other jobs involves dealing in antique and vintage textiles online and sometimes writing about them. I’ve been doing it for some years now and I could describe to you in great detail who my customers are, (many of them come back time and again and send me nice emails in between times) where they live, what kind of things they like, and why I’m so fond of them. But when it comes to identifying my readers, I’ve realised that - like so many writers – I’ve trusted other people to do that for me.
The other thing these gatekeepers had never stressed was the importance of story. They had talked about characterisation and pace and structure and plot. But the endless ‘rules’ of plotting are not the same thing as telling a good story. Not one of them had said ‘For God’s sake,  just go away, find out and then tell the story, from the bottom of your heart.’

Would it have made a difference if they had? Maybe.
When I was finishing the final edits for my most recent novel, Bird of Passage, (now doing quite well on Amazon Kindle)  I saw that what had started out as a piece of reasonably well written but rather wishy washy fiction, had actually – over several drafts, a few years and a lot more experience - turned into a real story.  I don’t know that it’s a stonking great story, (although I think my next novel, The Amber Heart, might well be) but it’s certainly a good story, a story of love, obsession, and cruelty, told from the bottom of my heart. And it's one that I hope a number of people will find moving and engaging.

It perplexes me that I had managed to go through an intensive arts education, with an honours degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University, followed by a postgraduate degree from Leeds University, followed by many years of writing, publication, production and  a certain amount of success, all the while receiving advice from artistic directors and script editors and book editors and agents – and nobody had ever pointed out the simple truth that story is king. At university, I specialised in Old English & Mediaeval Studies. This literature – spanning many centuries - is crammed with wonderful stories illustrating timeless truths about the human condition, but you’d never have known it from the way we studied it. The fact that Beowulf, Gawain and The Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales and The Icelandic sagas are as powerful and engaging now as they were when they were first written, was treated as a commonplace irrelevance. ‘If you like that kind of thing, that’s the kind of thing you like,’ said one of our tutors, looking down his academic nose at us.
Maybe I shouldn't have expected anything different. And maybe I should have known what I needed to do, all along. But the truth is that if you can't tell a good story, even if you are the most celebrated of experimental writers, with a deeply intellectual following, few people will want to listen. Robert McKee says that the essence of good story is unchanging and universal’.  Your first imperative, as a writer of fiction, should be to get your head down and tell a good story.
Now, I'm trying, and what a sheer pleasure that is turning out to be!

In Praise of Love Stories (and a Valentine's day giveaway to all my readers)

Kindle version, cover by Alison Bell
Ever since I've started publishing my novels and stories (and a few plays) to Kindle, I've decided to stop apologising for something that seems to come naturally to me. Appropriately enough for this time of year - it's writing love stories. When I think about it, I've written love stories (and quite a few love poems too) all my working life - beginning a very long time ago with a short story for She magazine called Catch Two about a young woman and an older man, trapped in a lift.
There were love poems, serious and quirky, many of which have been anthologised (including a much- loved poem called Thread, in Antonia Fraser's Scottish Love Poems anthology.) And there were many plays for radio which - although not only love stories -  were so often also stories about love.

Well, I'm in good company.

Not, you understand, that I'm comparing myself to these writers - but some of my very favourite authors, such as Thomas Hardy and the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell,  Jane Austen and countless others - even Shakespeare himself - wrote about love in all its fascinating manifestations. Moreover, we're enthralled by the stories of so many people, fictional and factual, because they are wonderful love stories: Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Napoleon and Josephine, Lancelot and Guinevere, Heloise and Abelard, Dante and Beatrice, Diarmuid and Grania, Robert Burns and Jean Armour (I'm working on that one myself at the moment!) Posh and Becks...enough already.

I'm not sure when I first began to feel faintly guilty about my own literary themes. Was it when somebody asked me for the umpteenth time what I wrote about, and I found myself strangely reluctant to admit to writing about love, actually? Was I afraid they might think I was trying to outdo Barbara Cartland, in pink chiffon and mascara? Not, you understand, that I have anything at all against romance. I confess to being a deeply romantic individual - I cling to it in the face of age and experience - and I like a good happy-ever-after romance as well as the next woman. Besides, I hate the kind of literary snobbery that seeks to place everything in a hideous hierarchy of worthiness. But perhaps I already had a creeping perception that any reference to the subject of love - coming from a female writer - practically guaranteed that the work in question wouldn't be taken seriously.

Does this happen to male writers? I think not. Perhaps the critics expect them to write seriously about love as about everything else. Perhaps they just assume that the male perspective will have more 'gravitas'. You know - a little like the old joke.
'I make decisions about the really important matters,' says the man. 'Like how to achieve world peace and what's wrong with the government. My wife just decides the unimportant domestic stuff like where we live, and how we spend the money and where the kids go to school and silly little things like that. '
Personally, I've read sugary nonsense by a few well-regarded male writers which has been hailed as fine writing and I do sometimes wonder why nobody has noticed. But since I'm not in the business of making enemies, I won't name names!

Anyway, back to love. At a time when I was still hoping for more conventional publication deals and scanning Scottish publishing websites, I had the heart-sinking perception of just how macho those sites were. No love stories for them, it seemed. Have things changed in the intervening period? Not much, on the evidence of a quick scan this morning.

But I know when the realisation that a love story was the - er - kiss of death struck me with some force. It was when The Curiosity Cabinet was one of three novels shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and eventually published by Polygon (although it's now mine again, and available on Kindle) Even though no less a critic than John Burnside had praised it as a 'powerful story about love and obligation' a member of one of the Scottish book groups, asked to report on the shortlisted novels, described it as a 'guilty pleasure'.

Why guilty?

Surely not because it's - perish the thought - a story about love? So is Bird of Passage. Although it's definitely a bird of a different and much more heartrending feather.

Cover art by Matt Zanetti

The truth is that some of the greatest stories ever told have been love stories so I'm resolved to stop apologising for writing them, even though I know I'm going to have to explain that most of mine don't end happily ever after. Like life, they tend to be a mixture of sadness, change and hope for the future.
My next novel, The Amber Heart is - among other things - a love story. The driving force of the whole thing is a passionate, pretty much disastrous, lifelong love story, based very loosely on a real life and equally disastrous love story from my own family history. A Polish love story. A bit like Gone With the Wind, but with even stranger names. Coming soon to a Kindle near you.

Meanwhile, in honour of St Valentine, I'm planning a couple of Kindle Freebies - Bird of Passage, and The Curiosity Cabinet. Love stories, both of them.
I only ask one thing. If you download either or both of these novels, read them - and find that you enjoy them - please do me the big favour of telling your friends!
Both will be free to download on 14th of February. Go on. Even if you still think it'll be a guilty pleasure, you know you want to!

Catherine Czerkawska