Saturday, 24 September 2011


‘Harken!’ cried the bard, and struck the strings of his lyre.  The mead-hall fell silent and listened.
          ‘With a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you,’ said Philip Sidney, in surprise, ‘ with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.’
          It wasn’t only in the halls of the rich that people fell silent to hear a story.  In small towns and villages people gathered together in one house, to save on fuel and candles, as they sewed, knitted, repaired or made tools. The visitors brought food and drink with them, and to pass the time they told stories.  The Scots called such a gathering a ceilidh.  Growing up in the industrial Midlands, I never knew the word, but knew the concept: “Dad – tell us how you gave Gran’s best sheets to the rag-and-bone-man… Mum, tell us about the shop with the parrot…”
          The storytellers knew their audience, because they were part of it.  They picked up from the air whether the company wanted – even needed – a merry tale, an encouraging tale, an eerie tale, or a sad one, to let the tears flow.
          Words have power – I found myself writing about their power in my Ghost World books.
Some people believe this is only true of the past.  People now don’t want story-tellers, they think – now people have television and YouTube.
          I often go into schools and tell stories, and I can tell you authoritatively that this isn’t so.
          I have told stories to crammed rooms of 60 children, all of them sitting open-mouthed and round-eyed, holding their breaths.  You can feel the story buzzing in the air.
          I’ve told ‘Mr. Fox’ and had a group of technicians stop work to listen, and applaud at the end.
          I’ve watched as children with unfocussed eyes, unconsciously acted out the story, lost in their own heads.
          Words, and stories, have power.  When I describe Ambrosi’s listeners in Ghost Song helplessly acting out his stories, I described what I’d seen.
Cruikshank's storyteller
          A story springs to life when you tell it.  I’ve several times told what I thought was a mildly scary tale to a class, only to find that somewhere in the space between us, the tale took on ferocious strength.  I think: I can’t tell anymore of this!  It’s too scary! – But I can’t stop either, because of all those avid, listening faces.  A story has the onward power of a train.
          Story-tellers and listeners – story-tellers and readers – it’s a tight bond.
          Increasingly, publishers have been intervening, saying, 'this writer’s  last book only sold X amount.  We won’t publish any more.'
          Saying, 'Your central character’s a woman, so you must have pink and sparkly marketing.'
          Saying, 'Love the book, but you must make the gay character straight – readers don’t want short stories – don’t want novellas don’t want to mix sci-fi and romance – don’t want heroines over 20.'
          Story-tellers know what their audience wants because they are part of that audience.  The Marketing Department doesn’t, because they aren’t, and only read spread-sheets.
          One of the many things I love about the internet is that it’s putting story-tellers and story-lovers in touch again, with comments flying back and forth.
          Try ReVamp
          Try Authors Electric!
          Try ABBA
          The publisher is being shoved out the door, while storytellers and listeners crowd round the fire again – albeit a virtual fire on a computer screen.
          Ceilidh!  Pass the scones and whisky.

Website - 

          I'm afraid Blot is still asleep from last week...


JO said...

Love the line - a story springs to life when you tell it! I might have to put that on my writing wall. Thanks,

madwippitt said...

So true ... my mum can no longer read even large print but she is still a voracious reader through audio books - and thank heavens they are still free for partially sighted people ...
I've always got out an audio book for long car journeys but more recently (partly due to helping mum select her audio books) have started listening increasingly to them myself at home: I have one that I listen to in the car (which takes only cassettes!) plus CDs for my portable jobby when I'm weeding in the garden or last thing at night. Even when they are well-known stories that have been heard many times before they take on a whole new life when you hear them being read to you. The right reader is really important though -I love Stephen Briggs' narrations of Terry Pratchetts books, but Tony Robinson drives me up the wall ... Sometimes there are some real surprises: Christopher Timothy was an obvious choice for the James Herriot books - but by golly he nailed the voices - you wouldn't know it was the same person!
A message for Blot(t) from the wippitties ... GRRRRRWOOOOF! If that doesn't wake him up in time for next week they'll be paying him a personal visit and it won';t be to offer him more avocado ...

Penny Dolan said...

There's a real magic to a told story. The telling is shaped by the responses of th elisteners as much as by the storyteller.

Must look out for the Stephen Briggs readings. One wants the reader to be skilled but "invisible" and I suspect the exuberant TR wouldn't be a natural at that.

Anonymous said...

I just stopped by to see what you were up to since I recently finished reading "Ghost Dance" (love the Ghost Word sequence so much) and discovered this lovely post.

Everything you say here is so true! The fact that creative industries have become just pure business saddens me. Maybe I'm just looking back with false nostalgia but it seems like in the past publishers, television producers, and movie makers took more risks and gambled on more stuff that wasn't just pure audience-pleaser. (Movies are the worst about this lately, I think.) I know it's a fact of publishing, but the thought of anyone asking me to change something in my story--be it a gay character in a YA novel, a strong woman who doesn't conform to expected stereotypes, a subplot they think won't "sell"--for marketing or commercial reasons really disturbs me. If the change is to genuinely make the story better, that's one thing and I would do it (almost) enthusiastically, but for money? Argh. I cringe.

In a way I think people are attracted to blogs and the internet seeking what they're missing. Not just the stories that they aren't being told, but also the personal touch of a storyteller. Even in this post you display it, as I can just imagine the gathered children and the technicians, caught by the power of a story. There's something so powerful about the in-person experience.

It's funny and a bit ironic that we take to so much to computers to be social, to tell stories and make connections nowadays. I say that as an introvert who is more comfortable behind the screen texting her friends than in front of a real human being...!

Anonymous said...

(Also, thanks for the shout-out to Re-Vamp :) )

Susan Price said...

Thank you for all your comments. Elsie, I think you're right about the internet - it has brought people together in communities in so many ways.
And I enjoy ReVamp - it's a pleasure to give it a shout. I look forward to buying the anthology.

Anonymous said...

This post made me quite emotional as it sums up so much of what I think myself. There was a quote I remember from long ago that went 'even bad bands can see their audience' which summed up how I felt about writing - it always felt a bit like shouting into a void. But storytelling is a different thing. The best thing to happen to me in my writing is getting involved in real-life writers groups where you can get together with other people and read your work out and hear others' work read out too. Lucky schoolchidren to hear you reading out a scary tale! And whilst I'm quite down on the internet a lot of the time, it cheers me to read your observations about how it's giving readers and writers their freedom back again.
(And as LC said - thank you for the Re-Vamp plug :-)

Leslie Wilson said...

Excellent blog, Sue, and what I find too is that kids listen better to someone just talking to them (ie, when it's me) than they do if I use powerpoint. Even for a talk, there is that power of the storyteller. Mind, I 'm telling them stories from my family history and my own life. Leslie

Susan Price said...

'Even bad bands can see their audience' - I like that!
And I think is Leslie is right about powerpoint too. I've seen some wonderful powerpoint presentations by authors, but I always simply talk to people. There's no technology to go wrong - though I have sometimes lost my voice!
I have many times been startled by the huge difference between writing or reading a story quietly, by yourself, and telling it to an audience.