Telling Stories Around the Campfire: There’s Always One Guy Who Rocks

I went up to the Edinburgh Festival last week, mostly to hear Neil Gaiman read (yes, again). It also meant that I bought far too many books, more than I’d given myself leave to purchase. I should have expected it, of course, but there you go. The to-be-read stack next to my place at the dining room table is now quite towering and somewhat precarious, but it’s full of good stuff.

The first thing I read was my new copy of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which was different from my current crap edition in that he’d compiled and edited the various British and American versions that were out there to create the “Author’s Preferred Text.” How could I not get it, when even the non-author’s preferred text is one of my favorite books of all time, and the reason I’m writing what I’m writing, studying what I’m studying? That thing fracking launched me.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I read an “adult” Gaiman book, what with the recent popularity of his books aimed primarily at kids, namely Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Good god, the writing is beautiful. The narrative provides so very much characterization, so many twists and turns of phrase. Now that I’ve heard Gaiman read so much of his own work, I can hear his storyteller’s voice in the text, the wry looks up at the audience, the flat tones of sarcasm, the characters’ voices right in key.

Comparatively, I feel like my writing is dry, dull. I focus so much on externals – actions, dialogue, distanced descriptions, that I don’t think my voice has the same connection for the reader that Gaiman’s work does. I don’t feel like it has that wryness, that feeling that you’re sitting next to a very talented storyteller while they weave a tale for you that will keep you captivated long after the campfire has burned to ashes.

For one thing, I’m not a very wry person, not particularly witty. I wonder if it’s a British thing, because if you compare American comedy to British comedy, the Brits come off as much more erudite, and they can do more with the language in little twists and turns. Americans, we’re so in your face, full of one-liners and broad jokes. The subtle wit we love so much from Brit authors like Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, just doesn’t come natural to us.

Perhaps it can simply serve as a reminder that narrative doesn’t have to be stark, stripped down. While I adore Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, I know that level of terseness gets pretty exhausting in longer works.

My efforts to write 3000 words a day are also helping me in this – I feel freer to expand my rough drafts, to keep writing, to worry about cutting extraneous prose later. Maybe in all the thousands of words I’m generating over these few weeks, I’ll find something that makes my voice more than just stage directions. Maybe I’ll develop my own style as a storyteller, one that makes my readers want to hear me read every word myself, something that makes them stay out until the campfire is out and the stars are slipping away.

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