Storytelling and the Marketplace

I’ve been writing a long time. I can divide my writing into three phases: the phase when I was trying to tell a story, the phase when I was trying to write something suitable for an agent, and the (current) phase when I am again trying to tell a story. Writing for word count might be the most obvious difference. (Genre is another, but that’s for another day.)

Now that I’m not beholden to word count, I feel free again – free to follow the story, free to put in what fits and take out what doesn’t. I don’t have that agonizing feeling that I might have a great piece of writing that comes up too short. Or that I need to add some subplots in order to reach the minimum word count I need in order to get my manuscript taken seriously. This is better!

But hang on (I can hear critics say), aren’t the standard word counts a reflection of what readers have said they wanted from a novel? Hasn’t the marketplace determined this length? Perhaps.

But think of an archetypal storyteller. Maybe for you it’s someone at a campfire. Maybe it’s a minister delivering a sermon. Maybe it’s your best friend, calling you on Monday to tell you about her weekend. Maybe it’s an ancient blind poet chanting verse to a village. Or an ancient mariner on the deck of a cruising yawl, underneath the wide-open sky, delivering dark news from the interior.

For me it’s my uncle, brightening Thanksgiving and Christmas with his stories. I know people who can’t tell good stories – their stories tend to meander. They don’t have the same focus. The descriptions aren’t as crisp. When my uncle tells a story, everything he says is essential, and it all drives to some kind of payoff. His stories have no drag.

Now think of how absurd it would be if the archetypal storyteller – these wondrous beasts, these fabulous creatures – were forced to count up their words in advance. And if someone else jumped in and prevented the story from being told. Sorry, people. This story doesn’t have enough words. Try telling a different story that’s not too short and not too long. Why are you looking at me like that? I know how this works. Okay, fine, go ahead, tell this one – as long as you add a few things to make it an acceptable length. Look, this is for your own good. I’m only basing it on what I’ve seen in the marketplace.

But wait, you say. Aren’t those few things the unnecessary, the meandering, the drag? Won’t those few things turn good stories into bad ones?

Who are you to ask those things – these are professionals! So stop worrying! Learn to love the market! They know how this works!

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