Would you rather be a good storyteller or a good writer?


I AM ADMONISHED on a weekly basis.

Sometimes daily.

“You showcase books on Caleb and Linda Pirtle,” I am told.

“We do.”

“Don’t make mistakes,” they say.

“What kind of mistakes?”

“Be careful when you choose books to promote.”

“What should I be looking for?” I ask.

“Good writing.”

That’s what it’s all about.

When they say that we should publish books with good writing, they mean something else.

Don’t publish books with bad writing is what they are really saying.

“What’s good writing?” I ask.

“You know,” they say.

“I don’t.”

“You’ve read a lot of books,” they say.

“I have.”

“Then you know what good writing is.”

I don’t.

I know what I like.

I don’t know what everybody else likes.

Once I tried to figure it out.

I don’t bother anymore.

I’ve read books that may have sold only a few dozen books.

And I loved them.

I’ve read books that have sold thousands, even millions.

And I hated every word.

Don’t like the authors.

Don’t like the books.

Won’t read any more of them.

I have no idea what good writing is.

But I know what makes good books.

Somerset Maugham is the one who finally explained it to me.

He said: “If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”

And it doesn’t.

Readers remember stories.

They seldom remember words or how beautifully they were strung together or arranged into sentences.

For example, I’ve heard a lot of readers and writers criticize the pure, literary writing talents of Stephen King.

He’s not a stylist, nor does he claim to be.

King says simply: “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”

Millions love his stories.

So tell a good story.

That’s what readers want.

It’s not so much about the writing.

It doesn’t matter.

What makes a book good?

It’s always about the storytelling.

I have never heard anyone finish a book, set it aside, and talk for hours about an author’s use of adverbial clauses or, God forbid, that he hung a participle out to dry.

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  • Good storytelling, for me, has to be accompanied by basic competent writing (another imponderable), or I can’t read it long enough to tell if it’s good storytelling.

    But with all the books in the world, why would you read one that is badly written?

    I will settle for being invisible – for slipping a story into a reader’s brain without getting caught. Which is why I don’t like literary fiction in general – it seems to be begging for attention. But that’s just me.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      The critics love literary fiction, and I admire and envy great writing as well. But quicker than later, the writer has to tell me a story. But that’s just me.

  • jack43

    Easiest question ever asked. Good storytelling beats great writing every time. However, really bad writing can distract from a good story. Blatant errors are like speed bumps in the road jarring the reader and keeping them from cruising along the plot line. It’s much the same in film making. We should never be aware of the camera. In reading, the writing should be just good enough that we aren’t aware of it.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Amen, Jack. You and are cut from the same bolt of outdated cloth.

  • Darlene Jones

    Bad writing can ruin a good story. Great writing can stay in a reader’s mind for a long time, but only if it supports a good story – A Cup of Tea by Ephron and The Uncommon Reader by Bennett are two examples.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Darlene, I believe our first goal is to tell a good story. Then we can go back and polish up the literature.

  • Good storyteller, any day! Though, ultimately, I’d like to be both. 🙂 There are some NYT bestsellers out there that tell a great story but that aren’t written so well. But the fact they hit the NYT list despite the good writing says something. Readers want the story, first and foremost. In the end, though, I think good storytelling AND good writing combined are what make for a phenomenal author.

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