Today we welcome author Paul E. Stawski to Words on the Page. Paul has some great insight on writing for readers – meaning writing to sell.
Before I ever became a writer I was a mostly reluctant reader. Then a writer came to visit my sixth-grade class and changed my life. She wasn’t just any writer – she was Lois Lenski, a Newbery-award winning writer. Of course, the Newbery award meant nothing to me at the time. How did I know it was the Children’s book writer’s equivalent of winning an Oscar? Plus, she was already old (at least to my sixth-grade eyes), but she seemed nice enough. After a few minutes talking about herself and her writing, she asked, “does anyone here have a story?” To this day, I don’t know why I raised my hand. The next thing I knew, I – together with two other boys – found myself in the Principal’s office with Ms. Lenski. She asked questions, took notes, and then said to me “I’d like to visit your house and see this pet cemetery of yours.” That afternoon, my sister, Cecelia, my friends, Lynn and Alan and I walked her through the “cemetery” (not at all like the Stephen King one – actually just an easement between our house and our neighbor’s) and I told her the whole story. Afterwards, she and my mother sat at the kitchen table over a cup of coffee. Ms. Lenski continued to ask questions and take notes. Then she left and I went back to my reluctant-reading ways.
Two years later that all changed. A book, “We Live in the North,” arrived in the mail. It was from Ms. Lenski and had a hand-written note inside: “To Paul and Cecelia Stawski, who contributed so richly to my story ‘Auto-Worker’s Son.’ Many thanks and good wishes, Lois Lenski.” The Auto-Worker’s son was me!
Overnight, I went from nerd to most-envied nerd in my eight-grade class. The nuns fawned over me. Boys smirked at me. Girls suddenly found me interesting. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press came out to interview us. “So,” I thought, “this is what writing can do for you!”
I started reading more and science fiction piqued my interest. It was the king of “what if” scenarios and I felt I was their poster child. I mean, if a bona fide writer could find me and my friends interesting enough to write a story about us, then anything seemed possible. I even thought I might try my hand at writing. Before long, essays became my trump card for any test. Teachers read my papers aloud to the class. A college professor asked if she could “keep” my Christmas essay. An “A,” of course.
So it came as more than a bit of a surprise that the writing I did for class didn’t immediately translate to me becoming a published author. I wrote a lot, submitted a lot and got rejected. A lot. The mail came with bills, circulars and rejection letters. A few offered encouragement – “keep trying” – but most were just form letters.
I had to do something. That something was searching out one of my favorite authors, Harlan Ellison, and asking for his advice. It just so happened that he was giving a seminar nearby, so I went to see him and – more surprisingly – he saw me (though – with his legions of fans – I am sure he has no memory of it. I was just another aspiring writer hoping for a crumb of wisdom at the foot of the master).
We only chatted for a few minutes before I got up the nerve to ask if he’d glance at one of my stories. A few seconds was all it took. “This isn’t a story,” he said. Then he gave me a piece of advice that has been invaluable to my writing career. He told me to go out, right now, this minute, and get a copy of Scott Meredith’s “Writing to Sell!”
As many writers, I thought “writing to sell” sounded like “writing to sell-out!” Wasn’t great writing supposed to be the product of inspiration? Wasn’t selling cheapening the whole idea? Ellison’s advice: “Get it, read it, follow it, or do something else for a living.”
I got it. Its formula is simple…but not easy – what worth doing is? You must create a sympathetic character, give him or her a problem to solve, have them encounter obstacles, kick them while they’re down, then – as a result of their own volition – watch them get back up and win the day.
“That’s it?” I thought. Then I thought about how almost every story, book or movie I’d ever read followed that formula. Romeo and Juliet. The Godfather. Star Wars.
And the more I thought about it the more I realized that’s what readers want. To care enough about a character (the sympathetic character you created), to turn page after page of your book and laugh or cry but most certainly root for your protagonist as your story carries on. And then want more.
The reality is that “Writing to Sell” gives a framework rather than a formula. “Writing to Sell” is actually “Writing for Readers” rather than just your mom (who, by the way, thinks you’re amazing). Think about it. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Hugh Howey, you and I all have the same dictionary. It’s how we rearrange the words to tell a story that spells the difference between having a page-turner and well, just words on paper. Or a computer screen.
Since applying what I learned in “Writing to Sell” I won the Highlights for Children fiction contest and used those same principles to guide my non-fiction and marketing writing career (after all, who doesn’t want to read a good story?). It’s also what’s helped me write Alex’s story in my debut young adult novel, BOTH SIDES. The reviews have been great, and I have more than a few people to thank – including Lois Lenski, Harlan Ellison, Scott Meredith and – of course – my readers.
You can find more from Paul on his website (www.BothSidesStory.com) and Twitter https://twitter.com/PaulStawski