Will Worsley

Storytelling Revisited

It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to be able to devote my time to creative writing. Now that I’m retired, I can finally do that.

This blog will be dedicated in part to capturing some of the challenges of being a new author in the 21st century, in a publishing industry vastly different from the one I knew in 1983 when I left Time-Life Books to get an M.B.A. Along the way I’ll review some books that intrigue me, and on occasion I may even regale you with an article on how to invest. Something useful is bound to emerge. Buckle up.

One of the first things that struck me in 2016 when I sat down to write Investing in Vain was that I had long since forgotten whatever I may have known about the art of storytelling when I was a graduate English student at UVA in 1974. I had studied creative writing under Peter Taylor, then the foremost short story writer in America, but little of practical value was left.

What I learned at Time-Life Books in the late 1970s was more lasting. TLB was a kind of boot camp that took young writers apart and put them back together to do things the Time-Life way. To survive the fierce competition there, I was forced to abandon my academic writing style and learn to write tight copy for a readership of millions. How tight? One time, while we were doing a history book about women in aviation, they gave me a thick folder of research about a photograph of Amelia Earhart standing under an airplane and asked me to write a one-line caption for it. I had to tell the reader when the picture was taken, where Earhart was going, why she was going there, what she was wearing, and what model of plane she was flying–in one line that ran across the gutter of the book. My editor was amazed at the number of three-letter words I managed to come up with.

All these decades later, writing my first novels, I have had to relearn the art of storytelling. My dusty diplomas in English were of little use: critiquing a novel is very different from writing one. Time-Life had taught me how to write non-fiction, to get to the point fast and deliver information efficiently. Novelists need to do that sometimes, but more often they must do the opposite, concealing facts until they’re needed, taking readers on a long, looping journey through a world they’ve never experienced. People read novels not to get information but an experience, to lose themselves in another world. Description, dialogue, and character development make fiction what it is. Feelings outweigh facts.

Fortunately, over the course of the 30 books I worked on, Time-Life Books taught me how to edit myself. Switching back and forth from the right-brained task of creating to the left-brained one of analyzing the creation is a critical skill for a writer. I also saw in those earlier years that the whole world badly needs editing. No one can be objective about his own writing, not even trained editors.

By now it’s become clear to me that writing is a skill I can never master, and that’s a good thing. Mastery would turn writing from a challenge into a tedious bore. UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, remarked gleefully in his old age that “although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.” It’s the same with me. I’ll always be a struggling young writer.