Fear, Control, and Bad Writing

Back in the early 1980s, a national newspaper reporter paid a visit to Wilk Peters, a retired librarian in Baltimore. Peters, the son of a Texas sharecropper, had an unusual gift for languages. He spoke and read six languages--including French, German, Spanish, and Russian--and at 82, was teaching himself Italian, in preparation for a trip to Rome.

Peters had gotten an award for his work as a volunteer translator, helping out stranded travelers. The reporter interviewed Peters, produced a story about Peters's good works that ran, and then disappeared.

Some time later, c "The Ballad of Old Man Peters" won the Pulitzer Prize.

The difference? One reporter went into with blinders on. He knew the story before reporting it, and missed out of the opportunity of a lifetime. Franklin went in curious, and found something glory.

Franklin describes how he got Peters to tell his story in his book, "Writing for Story":

"I didn't get that story first. A national newspaper reporter got to Wilk long before I did. Mr. Peters received a certificate of appreciation from a local church where he served as a volunteer translator for down-and-out foreign travelers. The reporter heard about it and went out for an interview.

But the reporter made a fatal error: having been attracted by the certificate, he assumed the certificate was the story. He produced a long, static piece about what a great translator Wilk was, and how much good he did for the travelers. It was, well...a nice story.

I was also fascinated with Wilk's good works, but I approached the problem differently. What, I asked, motivated this black sharecropper's son to learn six languages. Why did he expend so much effort to learn them.

Well, shucks, Wilk said. He was just interested in languages.

The earlier reporter had been satisfied with that answer. I wasn't. Mere interest is simply not sufficient to explain the heroic effort. So I sat Wilk down for an in-depth interview about his life, before he finally got tired and told me what really happened."

The rest is history. "The national news reporter's story was soon forgotten," Franklin says. "Mine made me a tidy bundle of cash, and is still being reprinted. The difference? The other reporter didn't look for the complication and I did."

Stephen King says that "fear is at the root of most bad writing." The other root of bad writing? Giving up too early. Assuming you know the story, and not doing the hard work of listening, digging, probing. Of not being curious enough.

Too many writers settle for mediocrity and miss out of greatness. Take Ted Dekker, the Christian suspense novelist. Dekker's a good writer but he could be great. Why isn't he? This interview explains why.

Gina: Do you do extensive plotting?

Ted: Oh yeah, I mean I’d love to just write a story and discover how it all comes out. I think King has said he does that. But, I’ve got too many twists. I’ve got huge challenges in my stories for my characters. I’ve got to know how it’s all going to work out. Otherwise I’d be wasting a lot of time on major rewrites. I write a rough draft and about half way through I start keeping a list of changes I may want to make. I don’t always need to make the changes, I see how it goes. If I need to, I do, then I take the rough draft to my editor and we talk it through.

Dekker is afraid to follow Stephen King's advice. King, if you've not read his book On Writing, believes that stories are "found things" and compares writing to archeology. You start digging, he believes, and then discover the story.

King, who's sold probably close to a 100 million books, had his books turned into major motion pictures, and probably made more money than God, is someone worth listening too.

But Dekker thinks he knows better, just like that newspaper reporter thought that Wilk Peters just liked languages.

We live a world where miracles and wonders abound. Where around every corner, and in every life, are marvelous stories.

Please don't miss them.


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