On Relevance – Part II by Janine M. Donoho

The view from our balcony in Leavenworth.
I had the opportunity to attend Write on the River in Wenatchee this May. Actually, my friend and critique partner Anjali Banerjee was a speaker, so we made it a girlfriend weekend of three that included best buddy and fellow writer Kate Breslin. Since Kate ended up coming a day late due to her spousal unit’s truly wretched bout of gastroenteritis, on Friday before the conference I assisted Anjali as she visited two schools. Incredible writer and presenter both, she gave four different and delightfully relatable programs for various elementary school grades. Introducing her, then juggling props, especially wrapping and unwrapping children in a stunning sari that belonged to her mother, I got a good taste of the peripheral nature of a sidekick. Yes, ‘relatable’ and ‘peripheral nature’ both refer to relevance.
 
Then on Sunday, opportunity again shone when Larry Brooks, who writes critically acclaimed thrillers, spoke passionately about The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. This offered another view of storytelling as espoused by Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” and more recently by Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel”. However, Larry’s approach, soon to be followed by his book on the subject, clarified the process even further. One of the samples he gave for dissection was the movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox. Dutiful student of the craft that I am, the movie arrived via NetFlix the following week. It delivered on all of Larry’s elements.
 
However, the shocker of the day arrived as an aside. Larry claimed that actual writing, that sublime weaving of words, comes in dead last when weighed against concept, theme, character, structure, scene execution and writing voice. Last.


Leavenworth goat–apropos of this writer’s journey.
As a writer enthralled with both the import and nuance of words, this served as a body blow. All the books on my shelves, also known as ‘keepers’, are well written. However, Larry’s notion does explain many of the big brands in publishing, some of whom no longer write their own novels. So to be relevant to publishers, the six core competencies are paramount, while beauty and specificity of your words rank much lower. Ouch.
 

Which means I need to review my stories for those competencies–again. Maybe you’ll want to do the same. Perhaps publishers will overlook that they’re also delivered with well-written language. We want to be relevant after all.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Dennis R. Thompson
    Aug 18, 2010 @ 18:27:51

    Wow. Quite a heartfelt plea. The raw honesty of it is "relevant" in itself. You are a great writer and it is quite normal to doubt yourself. I think, however, your latest blog answers your own question here. The 6 areas above the actual writing need genuine attention in all our work. I targeted an audience that really needed my novel, then funnelled all the character and voice into it I could. Don't give up Janine–the very act of writing is creation. It is legacy. You have two wonderful legacies right now (that I have read) and I hope you do many more. Dennis R. Thompson, author of 4th and Forever

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