It’s All About the Story ~ Outside the Margins with Kelly Jensen

Join Prism Book Alliance® as Kelly Jensen goes Outside the Margins today.


The day my first book released was rather anticlimactic. The stars did not realign, the poles did not shift and the aliens did not arrive. I may as well have leaned out over an ocean and let a single drop of sweat from my brow join the endless swell of water.

Personally, the experience was rather profound. I dedicated the book to my daughter “in case this is all I ever get published before I die.” Morbid, I know, but you’re listening to someone who regularly indulges in death fantasies. (It’s not as weird as it sounds, okay?) Professionally, I’d survived several rounds of developmental, line and copy edits with my sanity intact. I’d learned a lot and I actually felt like writing another book—I had written another book. And people I didn’t know had paid to read my words. So. Weird.

That last one still gets me, every time. I’m like… you don’t even know me and you want to read my book. You’re so nice!

The biggest difference between life pre-pub and after-pub, however, was the way it affected my reading habits. I’ve always been a voracious reader. I’m the sort of person who can become so absorbed by a book that I forget to eat, or feed the less capable members of my family. I’ve never taken a day off work to read a book, but I have declined social invitations because I wanted to read. And I’ll read anything. Well, most things. I don’t read a lot of horror or urban fantasy and I’m trying to read more non-fiction, but I’m open to anything.

Pre-pub, I’d open a book and read it to the end—no matter how long it took. If I liked it, I’d look for the next in the series (or another book by the author) and toss it onto the pile. If I didn’t like it, I’d move on. Simple as that. I read like a reader. I’d never stopped to figure out why a book didn’t work for me. Sometimes it just didn’t.

Now, I read like a writer and it’s AWFUL. Seriously, it’s… I don’t know how professional editors do it. Do they have a switch in their head they can flip from edit mode to read mode? Or are they so numb to the horrors of what might lurk between unsuspecting pages that it just doesn’t matter anymore?

Increasingly, I toss books because… nothing is happening. I can’t figure out what anybody wants or why I should read to the end. The worst part for me, though, is when I read the sort of stuff I was told to cut, rearrange or rewrite in my books. The scenes that do nothing, long passages of exposition or telling, a prologue, an epilogue and the silly moment—downtime between alien attacks—when I as a writer needed a breath and stupidly assumed my reader would too. There should be tension on every page! (I hear this in my dreams.)

It’s not just professional jealousy, either. That this author has a book deal with one of the huge publishers and a million glossy hardbacks on bookstore shelves. It’s more that I wonder HOW this book got to be on the shelf when it’s full of echoes and awkward sentences. It’s was this and was that and there are too many instances of personal address, too many legs in that sex scene and does he have one dick or two… and oh, my GOD is that a flashback? Four pages worth in italics? Ouch.

Obviously there is no single way to write a book or tell a story, and they in all their wisdom tell you that you have to learn all the rules before you can break them. All true, absolutely. Good grammar makes anything easier to read, even if you’re not aware of how it works. I don’t know how it works. I put commas everywhere—usually when I’m pausing for breath or thinking. I really love commas. (Most of them. There is one I have a particular hatred for, but that’s another post.) I also love this double dash thing —. It has a name, but I always forget it.

Story structure is a thing! Readers expect certain things from certain books. If you’re really clever, you can serve up the unexpected and get away with it, but there are some unbreakable rules.

But! (You really shouldn’t start sentences with and or but.) But… one of my favourite books ever is one I nearly tossed. I was kinda bored during the first half. I wasn’t sure what anyone wanted, except for this one character who obviously wanted out. I kept going, though, because it was an audio book and it was post-apocalyptic. Or mid-apocalyptic.

In particular, I hated this one character. He was just so… not nice. I didn’t really care for the heroine. Or the school teacher, or anyone, really. Then I did care. Because the story had caught me and things were happening and then the guy I didn’t like died. I cried. It was awful. I was driving at the time and I had to pull over to the side of the road because I couldn’t see. Then I rewound and listened again, to make sure he’d actually died even though I bloody well knew he was dead.

Then everyone else died! Then the world ended. It was HORRIBLE. And perfect. Really, it couldn’t have gone any other way. Obviously, this book was one of those exceptions, but it illustrates the point of this really long-winded ramble. (Yes, I have one.)

It’s all about the story.

You can craft the most beautiful sentence. Your grammar can be above reproach. Your book can be edited to within an inch of its life—everything by ‘the book’. But if your story isn’t one readers want to read, it’s all for naught.

Every day, I sweat my sentences. I sit down to write and I usually delete the first paragraph and rewrite it. Then rewrite it again. Then the magic happens and I stop thinking about words. I start thinking about my characters and what they want. I start plotting out the action—seeing every move in my head, or standing and grabbing a passing child to reenact a fight sequence with me. I taste the food they’re cooking; I smell the leaf mulch in the forest. I feel the joy and sadness and pain. I’m in the story.

This is what I want for my readers—this is what every writer wants for their readers. For them not to notice the commas, the echoes that squeaked past multiple edit rounds, or the fact they could only have sex like that if his head was on backward. (Sorry, so sorry.)

How do I deliver it? Practice, definitely, but also maybe passion. By believing my stories are worth telling, worth hearing. By loving my characters enough to listen to them. Some of us are natural poets and some of us are only moved by circumstance. When you fall into a story, not only do the words not really matter, they become more beautiful anyway. It’s as though you’re singing for a while, without really noticing.

You’re just telling stories, and I have to believe that’s the most important part.

~Kelly Jensen

About Kelly Jensen

If aliens ever do land on Earth, Kelly will not be prepared, despite having read over a hundred stories of the apocalypse. Still, she will pack her precious books into a box and carry them with her as she strives to survive. It’s what bibliophiles do.

Kelly is the author of a number of novels, novellas and short stories, including the Chaos Station series, co-written with Jenn Burke. At lot of what she writes is speculative in nature, but sometimes it’s just about a guy losing his socks and/or burning dinner. Because life isn’t all conquering aliens and mountain peaks. Sometimes finding a happy ever after is all the adventure we need.

You can chat with Kelly on Twitter @kmkjensen or visit her blog at where she rambles on about anything and everything.

Comment Contest
One random commenter with thoughtful, relevant comments will win a $25 gift certificate each month in 2016.
This post may contain affiliate links.
Prism Book Alliance® assumes no liability for the ownership of photos or content used in guest posts and interviews.  The post author assumes all responsibility and liability for this content.

6 thoughts on “It’s All About the Story ~ Outside the Margins with Kelly Jensen

  1. I hear you on the changes that occur when you step over that line between reader and writer. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy reading as much, it’s more that I get annoyed and frustrated by any little thing that pulls the curtain back and reveals mechanical workings behind the story. I mean things like grammatical errors, horrible characters, terrible plotting, and yes, rambling, repetitive, self-absorbed monologues. I want to be immersed in the story. The writer’s failure to craft well, brings the set crashing down. Suddenly, I am reminded there is no real risk. None of this is real. There is no reason to care. Have I read mediocre books and enjoyed them? Yes, but the whole time I was aware I was just reading a story someone made up. In the end, those books are forgettable.

    Nice article, Kelly. 🙂

    Laurel W.

    • Yes, that’s it exactly. I think I’m reading as many books and enjoying about the same number, I just get frustrated more easily – and definitely toss more. I agree that you can forgive a lot of faults for an entertaining story, but once you get to the end, you’re less likely to pick up another one.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  2. So true – and I can’t turn off my proofreader brain when I read. I’ve tried really hard, and it can’t be done. So I notice all those typos, all those anatomically impossible scenes, all the inconsistencies in physical appearance, and most of the wrongly placed commas and hyphens. If the story is really good I can usually look past them. If it isn’t (and my page limit for when it has to get really good has shortened over the years), I remember the 500 or so books I have on my shelves and Kindle waiting to be read and move on. I’m not getting any younger, and life is too short to be annoyed by books that I wish were better. There are too many great books out there waiting… and I have the rest of Chaos Station to finish:)

    • Agreed! Life is too short for mediocre books. I can sympathise to a certain extent. By the time we get to copy edits and proofreading rounds, we’re so DONE. But that’s all the more reason to pay close attention, eh?

      Enjoy the rest of Chaos Station!

  3. It always makes me sad when writers say they have trouble reading for enjoyment anymore.

    I’m lucky in that my brain starts off in default ‘reading mode’ and only clicks over to ‘writer/editor mode’ if I’m having trouble getting into a story. Then I stop and figure out what’s bothering me. Sometimes I put down the book. Often I push on for another two chapters and the book engages me again.

    I very much agree that it’s the story that’s important. I can forgive a lot of writing flaws for a good story. (The Martian by Andy Weir is a good example of this.)

    • I still get a lot of enjoyment out of reading. On the one hand, I’m maybe a little more picky. On the other, though, if I genuinely like the story and the errors/editing don’t make it impossible to read, I can be chill about it.

      I loved The Martian. I do remember it being a slow read and having to skim some of the science and math bits because it was all Greek to me. Overall, though, great story.

Leave a Reply