Writing Advice of the Week: Experience is Storytelling’s Companion

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human communication, but that doesn’t mean storytelling comes naturally to the modern person living in 2024. Constant notifications, the ever-present call of the instant-gratification monster, and the practice of violently distilling our thoughts into 140 characters or less has eroded our attention spans and long-form communication capabilities — to great consequence.

A Gallup poll from 2022 showed a sharp decline in reading since 1990. And in 2023, The Guardian reported that children no longer enjoy writing. A quick online search on the “decline of writing skills” shows that the decline has been happening for some time.

But writing is as important as speaking for communication, and since your book is a conversation, you’ll want to have an effective chat with your reader by telling them a compelling story.

At some point in life, you must have heard the idiom, “Use it or lose it.” Generally, this expression pertains to neuroplasticity — the idea that as we age, our brains age and grow (or atrophy, let’s be honest) too. Think about the idiom in the context of writing:

Sure we have innate storytelling skills, but if we’re not using those skills regularly, they get rusty. And rusty storytelling skills make for a clunker of a story.

So, how can we pull those dormant storytelling skills to the surfaces of our overstimulated brains and make good use of them?

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(Image by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly.)

A companion to storytelling is experience, and that’s what your book will ultimately do for your readers: Provide them with an experience.

Now, there are prolific writers who do almost nothing but research and write. Take the late Isaac Asimov, one of the Big Three sci-fi writers. He wrote or edited more than 500 books and tens of thousands of letters. In an interview clip from 1975, Asimov discusses being “drawn to the typewriter at all times,” and shared “the day is lost in which I don’t type.” But Asimov also shared that he had little time to do much else but write. He certainly didn’t have oodles of free time to go gallivanting about town collecting life experiences to turn into book pages.

Asimov provided his readers with experiences because he had deep knowledge of those experiences through the copious amounts of research he was doing on a daily or near-daily basis. But as I shared a couple weeks ago, most of the authors I work with don’t have that kind of time, and I suspect you don’t either. You may be a parent, caretaker, employee, volunteer, or a freelancer writing books or stories as a side hustle after the daily obligations are done. And on busy days, the time left after meeting those daily obligations is squeezed into tiny windows of opportunity.

So, I’m not going to encourage you to take a page out of the Asimovian handbook. Instead, I’m asking you to lean into self-care, especially when the writing feels strained or uninspired.

For me, gardening — even grabbing the shears and just pruning something — allows me the inner mind space I need to create. As the external world quiets around me except for the snip, snip of my trusty tool, my internal world comes alive with characters and settings and colors and moods and plot lines and conflicts and so much more. But I also live in Vermont, so gardening season only lasts about half the year. In colder months, I ramp up my personal yoga practice, or drum practice, or I paint or draw a little more.

While I used to feel a little guilty for prioritizing these practices in my day, as if I were somehow neglecting my young daughter and partner as a result, I’ve learned how much more present and patient and affable and creative I am when I take the necessary time to care for me, not just the people and spaces around me.

Think about where you are in your life’s trajectory, what experiences the characters in your stories are having, and what you may need to learn to relay those experiences to your readers in a way that is unique and authentic to you and your process.

What do you need to do for yourself to feel equipped to tackle your creative writing? To explore this topic more, head over to the Story Empire and read Joan Hall’s article, Writer’s Self-Care — Pursuit Of Hobbies. I suspect you’ll find yourself happier and more in tune with your creative process for having tended to yourself.

When you come back to the writing desk and pick up your pen (or fingers), know that it’ll be easy to fall into the same old self-deprecating judgment processes. Having a hobby or caring for yourself isn’t suddenly going to make you be less harsh in your self-criticism. But don’t go beating yourself up every day because your writing isn’t bookshelf perfect yet.

Remember: When you write the first draft, you tell yourself the story as you need to understand it. When you revise that draft, you begin rewriting your story for your eventual readers. The craft of writing is in the drafts, so agonizing over every little word and sentence and paragraph as you’re putting them on paper can lead to a downward spiral of stagnation.

From time to time, though, we all could use a refresher on being kind to ourselves. If you need a dose of positivity today, check out the article Meg Dowell wrote for A Writer’s Path titled, How To Stop Judging Your Own Writing So Harshly.

And if that doesn’t quite do it for you, Lynette Burrows wrote an article for Writers In The Storm this week titled, The Torment And Bliss Of The Crappy First Draft, which fits perfectly into the self-care for storytelling theme and encourages you, in no uncertain terms, to give up the idea of perfection.

Because, let’s be real: Pobody is nerfect.

Some of the most successful writers are the ones quickest to confirm that perfection is a myth, and this makes sense. Successful writers are often those who understand the importance of revising and editing to get to their definitions of done. And those successful writers also modify their definitions of “done” as they learn and grow and develop their storytelling crafts.

Shirley Jump is a modern prolific storyteller with more than 100 book titles under her belt, and she openly discusses mistakes she’s made throughout her writing career. This week, Shirley discusses boring openers, lack of conflicts, too much telling, and more in a beautifully candid video aptly titled, 5 Mistakes That Got My Books Rejected And How I Fixed Them for her channel, Write Better Fiction with Shirley Jump. Also, Shirley raises monarch butterflies, and I’m fairly certain I have an eco-warrior crush on her now. Anyhoo . . .

To support and expand upon some of the issues discussed in Shirley’s video, this week’s writing advice feed had several articles that caught my eye, so I’m sharing them with you.

If your belly is squeezy because you’re worried your characters don’t have enough character, Hugh Cook tells us that “effective characterization lies at the heart of all good fiction” in an article he wrote for Elizabeth Spann Craig titled, Make Your Characters Leap Off The Page.

There are six facets of characterization — dialogue, appearance, action, thought, authorial interpretation, and interpretation by another character. All writers use these facets to round out their characters, and Hugh discusses the four most common strategies used to get it done.

Dialogue and internal thought are especially important if you want to immerse the reader in the viewpoint character’s experience and perspective. Your viewpoint character may make assumptions or judgments based on the ways in which others act or respond to them. They may also change their vocal cadence, syntax, and body language in moments of duress.

Here’s a for-instance:

The door closes behind you before you can flick on the overhead light. It’s pitch black. You slide your hand along the wall where the light switch should be, but your fingers come away empty. The switch must be here; it has to be! Who in their right mind would build a room without lights in it? When you still can’t find the switch, your heart starts to race. You swallow, hard, and your throat constricts. What were once gentle, trusting brushes become wild slaps on the dark wall that sting your palm. You start to panic. The darkness is all enclosing. I can’t breathe. Just when the burble of a scream slides its way up your throat, your pinky violently catches on the switch, flooding the room with light just as a friend walks in, lifts an eyebrow at your raised hand, asks why you’re sweating. You tell them, “Couldn’t find the light switch.”

Notice how different the experience was from the words used to describe it?

This little paragraph isn’t going to win any literary awards, but if you’ve ever slapped a dark wall in panic, or run up a set of stairs just knowing you’re being chased by invisible creepies, you know how powerful the smallest things — like light switches or a door knob — can be. And the importance of the small things isn’t isolated to horror.

If you find yourself struggling to relay the experience your character is having in a way that feels real to you and your eventual readers, head over to Killzoneblog.com and read the article, One Word Holds Power by Sue Coletta.

And, in sweet serendipity this week, Marissa Graff for Writers Helping Writers wrote an article titled, Three Easy Steps To Generate A Goal Using Fear As Motivation. (In the paragraph above, the goal seems to move from “find the light” to “don’t die,” which is a wild progression but panic knows no bounds.)

Marissa’s article differs from others about motivations and goals because Marissa started not from a place of conquest but from a place of loss. She shared that “losing something the character already has can be every bit as motivational and arguably more compelling than starting out with a precise goal of obtaining something they don’t have.”

Yes. And I’ll point out that both scenarios can be true: Your character can start with a precise goal of obtaining something, then lose something important to them, which results in their recalibrating their original goal — even scrapping it altogether — to form a new goal depending on the circumstances.

And though your characters are fake, they should feel as real as a certain wooden doll felt after a certain blue fairy listened to the wishes of a certain Italian inventor.

Because even though your story is a work of fiction, facts matter.

While some readers will be more forgiving than others, most readers are likely to question your honesty and integrity if you fill your work with unintentional inaccuracies. From simple snafus like purring lions to anachronisms like luggage with wheels on it in a story set in the 1940s, doing a little bit of research to ensure your storytelling provides a believable experience is key.

Marti Johnson agreed with the importance of accuracy in storytelling this week in her article, Fiction Isn’t Fact, Right? So, head over to Writers’ Rumpus for more on facts in your fiction.

When you’re through with this week’s advice, I hope you find those dormant storytelling skills coming alive from your research and experience so your story purrs as loudly as a lion. Oh, wait . . .

Have Feedback?

I’d love to know what your favorite piece of advice for this week was, so let me know what resonated in the comments below so I can do more of that in the future.

And Maria collects more advice links each week than I can possibly share in a single writing advice article, so be sure to check out the overflow for some extras.

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Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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