On the Difference Between Writing and Story-telling

Or a brief review of young author I found at a Comic Con
Cover art for the Angelic Divide Trilogy

There are a lot of different skills required to write a novel. Technical facility with the language is perhaps one of the most basic (and most commonly ignored in today's age of instant digital self-publishing). Character development is another and worldbuilding is yet one more. There are myriad more, and plenty of community college writing classes dedicated to teaching them, so there is no need to describe them all here.

What I will do here is break up all of these various skills into two broad categories: Writing and Story-telling.
These categories aren't new. (There is, after all, no such thing as a new idea.) But we'll briefly define them here for the sake of the subsequent narrative.

"Writing" (broadly speaking) is the technical proficiency with which a person conveys ideas with language. This can include grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, employing particular methodologies in character and narrative arcs, etc. A good writer will have good grammar, clear syntax, and excellent structure that college professors will use as examples in all of those writing classes I mentioned.

Story-telling is the abstract ability to, well, tell a story. Telling a story can be broken down into various elements, but a technical focus on all of these elements may result in good writing yet terrible story-telling. I might describe it, then, as the ability to weave a narrative with the proper balance - consciously or not - of those various elements, ultimately resulting in capturing and stimulating the imagination of your audience. Some of those story-telling elements may include how compelling or dynamic the characters are, how detailed the created world is, how the various plot hooks and MacGuffins fit together, or the overall attractiveness of the narrative.

Being a good story-teller does not require writing proficiency and no amount of being a good writer can guarantee a well-told story. And vice versa - being a good story-teller does not make one a good writer. I dare say that most authors today are terrible at one or the other or both of these categories. That doesn't mean you can't be successful. (I'm looking at you, J. K. Rowling. More on that another day, perhaps.)

Now to the good part.

This last summer I went to Denver Comic Con (yes, I know they renamed it, but screw you SDCC and your stupid attempt at a trademark) and while there I came across the table of a young author who remarkably had a half dozen different novels spread across the table. Of course quantity is no guarantee of quality, but I thought to myself that there is some minimum level of quality required for a publisher to keep printing someone's books, so I stopped and took a look. (Note: I've since discovered that her publisher is her own company, which technically makes her self-published, but then starting a business is an accomplishment in its own right.)

The author is Nicole L. Standiford, and out of curiosity and perhaps a little adventurousness, I decided to give her first novel a try. This is my report.

Ascend Through the Darkness, book one of the Angelic Divide trilogy, and the entire trilogy itself, is full to overflowing with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes and unbelievable typos that interrupt the flow and make it difficult to understand certain passages. Many situations and scenes are poorly described, leaving characters with questionable motivations or just feeling incompletely thought out. The book smacks of an overall lack of editorial review (much like the KT Boundary).

The characters are shallow and poorly motivated, especially in the beginning - but then the main characters are teens and most teens are fairly shallow and poorly motivated. Several plot points are poorly considered and often characters develop new interests or abilities in the same sentence where those abilities become necessary (TONS of Deus ex Machina). The story could benefit from having these character traits and abilities established earlier in the story so that it doesn’t feel forced or "convenient" when they come into play.

The first person POV from a 16 year old girl's perspective is hard to follow and most of it is a kind of teenage girl romance angst that had me tempted to give up and put the book down several times. And occasionally the POV switches to another character's point of view, creating a jarring break in reading continuity, yet because of the first person narrative, these moments are necessary to relay vital "omniscient" information to the reader. 3rd person subjective would have been a better POV choice. She could also improve at making sure different characters have a different "voice" (or writing style) to more clearly distinguish between the different perspectives in the writing.

Nicole Standiford is a terrible writer. (Well, as bad as you'd expect out of a 15 year old's school project.)

But in spite of all this, I kept reading (initially because I promised I would). About halfway through the first novel in the trilogy, characters began to become compelling and I found myself getting invested in the story. I had learned how to gloss over most of the typos and power through in order to get to the meat of the narrative. The teenage girl romance angst never really goes away, but the characters start to experience other emotions and to develop other motivations. The story eventually alludes to supernatural explanations for some of the angst, hinting at a deeper conspiracy among some of the more nefarious (hyuck) characters (spoilers below for those interested).

For a book written by a 15 year old for a school project, Nicole Standiford is an excellent story-teller.

Overall, I would rate the novel as being about average quality, with the interesting plot and narrative balancing the poor editing quality. Which is actually quite impressive for a teen writer with no professional editor. And perhaps the biggest difference between writing and story-telling is that writing skill is easy to improve but good story-telling often takes natural talent. Nicole Standiford has a natural talent for story-telling and with some polish she could be great. I look forward to seeing how she develops her skill and her trade in her later books.

Characters: 4/10
Plot: 6/10
Story: 6/10
World-building: 5/10
Editing: 1/10


This brief review also highlights one of the most important reasons to hire an editor. A good editor can fix your grammar mistakes and typos, buff up your sentence structure, and complete some of those half-finished ideas. An editor is indispensable help for a good story-teller to also become a good writer. And on those rare occasions when good writing and good story-telling combine, you get pure literary platinum that leaves you itching, begging for more (I'm looking at you, Patrick Rothfuss).

I should also point out that the Angelic Divide Trilogy is Nicole's first work and she's written extensively since then. She wholeheartedly admitted to me her weakness as a writer when we met at DCC, even encouraging me to ignore Ascend Through the Darkness and start with her newer story, The Dawn. I chose to get both so I could observe her progress as a writer. Unfortunately, being a grown-up with a day job (and DM with a homebrew campaign) has kept me from following through on The Dawn just yet. So this is not a review of Nicole Standiford as she is today, but as she was in 2014-15.



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