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Fiction Writing 101: Learning to Skate

Writers like to debate things that have absolutely no interest to the rest of the world. Like the difference between an analogy and a metaphor.

Looking it up can be as confusing as trying to convince your know-it-all English teacher – or a writer – one way or the other.  Because an analogy is defined as “A resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike.”  While – on the same page – a metaphor is defined as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

My simple take-away from that: a metaphor suggests an analogy.

This is yet another reason why so many writers drink to excess.

I mention this because, as a blogger and writer of books on the craft of fiction, I am guilty of two things: an affection for metaphors and analogies, and a default to repeating them within the same set of categories, one of which is the beloved (or dreaded, depending on which camp you belong to) sports analogy.

So fair warning, here comes another one, right at you.

And I hope you pay attention, because like so many metaphor/analogies aimed at writers, this one is immensely clarifying.

Maybe a little frightening, too.  But in a good way, it if delivers a wake-up call.

Part of what I do is coach writers – specifically, I coach a given project from a writer – through the use of an unflinching questionnaire that absolutely cannot be hidden from.  You either know your own story or you don’t (in terms of knowing it well enough to write it well enough to sell), … or you don’t even know what that means.

It is the sad preponderance of the latter that informs my post today.

This weekend I was working on a response to the longer version of one of my coaching Questionnaires, from a writer with an immense amount of passion for his story.  This, too, is common, but too often that passion becomes moot when the questions themselves ask the writer to define the parts and parcels of the story itself, in context to the function of those parts and parcels.

Passion, in fact, can be the very thing that derails your intentions. Because passion isn’t enough.  Passion without craft – much like dancing on the wing of an airplane or wrestling an alligator – can get you killed.

That’s the catch, you see.  You can’t just toss a bunch of scenes into a manuscript and hope to sell it under the guise of a novel.  Thinking that if you love it enough, that if you explore it every which way, that it will work.

Without craft this doesn’t work, any more than you can dump the contents of your closet into a garbage bag, take it to the flea market and call it a department store.

There I go, metaphors ablaze once again.

After nearly five hours with this project I emerged from my office weakened, exhausted, angry, frustrated and thoroughly convinced that the entire prospect of coaching writers is like preaching to a political constituency that there are two sides to every story.

See? I absolutely cannot help myself.

My wife asked why I was trembling, and why I was rooting through the bottom shelf of our panty looking for what was left of a fifth of scotch left over from our last Christmas party, when in fact I don’t even drink alcohol.

I just wish I drank alcohol after encountering projects like the one I’d just finished.

My search for an answer was getting me nowhere.

“Deep breath,” she said.  “I’m here for you.  Start from the beginning.”

“Okay,” I said,” closing my eyes to pretend I was in my happy place, which looks a lot like a beach with a buffet in a world in which Donald Trump is bald and gagged.

“This is driving me crazy,” I finally got out.  There was a less than colorful adjective in there somewhere, but it behooves neither of us here.

“Obviously,” she replied.

“I mean, this writer… God bless him… couldn’t answer a single question.  He doesn’t even know the difference between a concept and a premise, and when he got going, what he said was his premise totally disappeared into something else.”

“Nobody knows the difference between a concept and a premise,” she offered, thus defining my contribution to the entire writing world… because there is an immense and critical difference between those two story essences.

“Did I mention he couldn’t answer a single question? Not one, in the entire questionnaire. And yet he treated it all as if this was the next Mockingbird.”

“Too late,” she said.  “That one releases this weekend.”

“He answered them all, but he understood none of them.”

“That, too,” she offered, “is less than surprising.  Not everyone isn’t new at this.”

I nodded until the double negative sunk in, then plowed forward into what is, for us, familiar territory.

“This is the only profession in the world in which people can declare themselves a professional, by virtue of actually creating the product they intend to sell, without having any real sense of the baseline, 101, fundamental principles, architectures, elements and essences that define the very thing they are attempting to engage with.”

She smiled, holding up a hand to stop me from launching down the long list of analogies that clarify this point… doctors… lawyers… pilots… pro golfers… dancers… bridge builders…

… okay, you’re not her, so allow me an analogous expansion of my point…

… imagine someone trying to create a functional piece of software – a pursuit that, like writing a novel, has literally hundreds of variables, variances, elements, gradations of application, it is defined by expectations, precedent, professional standards – without having ever done it before, or worse, without having engaged with the academics and apprenticeship that separates the cans and can’ts without mercy, who haven only rubbed keystrokes with software in their job or on Facebook… in a craft and avocation that doesn’t hold workshops with a Kumbaya vibe in which everyone will succeed if they really really try hard and be good and just stick with it, a place where there are no bad ideas (pitch a bad idea in a meeting at Oracle and watch the wrath of Larry Ellison befall you), and where the results of failure aren’t death or destruction or bankruptcy – using only their experience as a consumer of doctoring and lawyering and flying in airplanes and sitting in the grandstands and auditoriums…

… as a reader of books who dreams one day of writing one…

… and thinking that, with only the leverage of that consumer experience, even if it is avid and frequent, they believe they can actually sit down and do what that legion of trained, tested, accomplished and knowledgeable professionals can do after their 10,000 hours of apprenticeship, even on their first day on the job?

My wife knew this entire list well. 

Because I had been in this verklempt place before after emerging from my office.

My books, my workshops, and the books and workshops of hundreds of others who do what I do, do it better than I do it, as well as the schools and organizations who exist for the sole purpose of preparing writers for this work… it’s all for the delivery of that contextual preparation that is inescapably required before the actual work can stand a chance.

This is why “just write” is perhaps the worst, most uninformed morsel of writing advice… ever.

Here’s what you need to know before your novel will work. 

You need to know what a concept is, what a premise is, and what the difference between them is.  You need to know, or at least subconsciously understand, how to leverage that difference.  You need to recognize both in the ocean of published books that are out there, and how and why they are essential.  Do that well enough and you will come to understand why some books are bestsellers and well-reviewed, and why some aren’t.

You need to understand the hero’s quest, the journey of your protagonist, the hero’s arc as it surfs the dramatic arc, how that differs from a memoir,  a diary-like narrative, or an episodic wandering through a series of adventures and experiences that you think is a novel, but isn’t.  You need to know how and why these experiential musings almost never work in a novel.

You need to understand dramatic theory, the role of conflict and tension in a story, the role of antagonism and a collision of agendas.  How and why this is the most powerful essence in all of fiction.

You need to know why practically every MFA graduate I’ve ever met has asked me why they didn’t teach any of this stuff in their school, and why their work remains anonymous when their true heart’s desire is to reach a wider audience that, like them, never really “got” Moby Dick at all.

You need to understand the physics of story structure, how it matters in every story even if it doesn’t matter what the labels are, how it is story, and how that well-intended guy who says “story trumps structure” has created the most misleading, untrue and confusing platitude in the entire history of fiction mentoring, an opinion echoed by every single last writing professional I’ve ever asked about it.

Thank God my book is outselling his.

You need to be able to describe the source and agenda of dramatic tension in your story, the dramatic question posed by your story, the difference between the hero’s goal relative to action and the desired outcome relative to the efficacy of those actions.

You need to know how your story will end before you can write the draft that finally, fully, functionally, works as best it can, and how to get to that ending regardless of your process.

You need to know that the debate between story planning and story pantsing is a moot and ridiculous waste of time, that process by any name heads toward the exact same destination, and is measured by the exact same criteria and benchmarks.

You need to see through the “wisdom” of famous authors who tell you to do it one way, because it is their way, and… well, see the previous paragraph, then look up the word hubris as context.  The only reason to write 22 drafts of a novel is because you are incapable of nailing it in one or two (and have the wisdom to know this is true), or less than 22, like so many other famous, thoroughly competent and equally famous writers can.

You need to be able to answer the questions.

Which can only happen after you fully understand the questions.

And right there, in that one italicized word, is the difference between every newbie and unschooled and long-suffering failed writer, compared to any writer who still maintains a hope of success, no matter how new they are, because they are still chasing that understanding.

All of that, the entire rambling, slightly crazy, imprecise and irrefutable whole of it, transpired silently between my wife and me over the span of about three seconds of silence.

Because we have been in it together so many times, many of them after I’d emerged from my office with obvious high blood pressure and the urge to throw something heavy through the screen of my computer monitor.

And then, I finally said it.

The best and most concise encapsulation of all of this that had ever escaped my drooling lips… and to my delight, it emerged into the world as a sports metaphor.

“It’s like,” I said softly, reverently, on the cusp of an Epiphany, “like someone who intends to play hockey, who believes they are playing hockey, and doing it at a professional level… before they know how to skate.”

She was already smiling at me.

Nailed it.

They were playing the game, in their own minds, before they had learned to skate.

This, in an avocation in which you must know how to skate at an unthinkably astute and advanced level.  You can’t fake knowing how to skate.

I was mentoring too many writers who had skipped or undervalued or not yet wrapped their heads around Craft 1o1 for the trappings of the casual conversation about writing a novel.

Writers who clung to “just write” as the key to the writing kingdom.

You can attend a thousand hockey games, you can memorize the vast canon of hockey history, but if you can’t skate – skate like a maniac on the verge of control, like the professionals can – then your dream of actually playing the game at that level is…

… well, it’s sadly deluded.

And so the simple question floats between us. 

Dare I ask it of you?

Of course I do.

As we leap from this analogy to the dream of writing novels and selling them for money… I ask you…

can you skate?

Before you pick up a stick or put on a helmet… before you strap on the pads and pronounce words like about and process as if you’ve never set foot outside of Ottawa…

… if you can’t completely and with full assurance define and apply all of those terms and concepts and elements and essences of writing fiction as quoted earlier in that unspoken three second rant to my wife…

… if even a piece of that isn’t yet second nature to you…

… how, then, do you expect to stay upright next to the player who can skate… skate to the extent they completely forget about the ice in deference to the nuance and the bliss of the game itself?

There’s nothing wrong with being new at this, we all were at one point.

There’s nothing wrong with having a list of things you still need to learn… we’re all in that boat, as well, and always.

But sanity, and well as hope, resides in knowing with certainly where you are on that learning curve.  Because such an awareness defines the nature and scope of the work before you.

For the love of Stephen King (a metaphor for God?), at least learn the basics.  And at least use those first manuscripts as a vehicle toward that learning, rather than pounding out 400 pages of utter naive cluelessness that is destined to break your heart – because someone you’ve paid to tell you the truth will tell you the truth, even if it makes him crazy – because you really don’t know what a dramatic premise must say and do, you really don’t understand the role of confrontation and conflict in the beautiful arc of your characters, and you haven’t accepted the principles and criteria and essences that will define and measure all of it, for all of us, one way or another, once we stamp the word FINAL on the draft that we intend to submit.

With this, I will offer one last analogy…

… and it is as irrefutable as, well, as it’s own name, even for those who are offended by or sick of, or seeking to diminish, what is true for just those thin reasons.

Those principles, the ones you may discard or not yet know, are like gravity.

And nobody with a brain can deny, defy or mess with gravity.

Harness it, maybe.  But only if you understand it first.

And like gravity, the principles of writing effective fiction don’t care what you call them, or even if you believe in them. But they will kill or cripple you if you proceed without honoring them – just like gravity – just as they will elevate you to unfathomable heights, like a beautiful bird, once you understand how to harness their power.

Gravity and hockey.  That’s all you really need to understand.

Learn to skate.  Do that, and gravity will serve you as you begin to understand the game.

*****

If you still dare, consider tackling one my coaching Questionnaires (there are several levels and focuses available), as described in the column to the left of this post, and the Coaching page that explains them further. 

If there’s a weakness in your story it will be exposed, and if there’s an opportunity to take it to a higher level there’s a strategy for that, as well.

My objective is not to kill your writing dream.  Rather, it is to give it wings.

Or, if you prefer… skates.

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A Post for the New, Unsure, Intimidated First-time Novelist

If you’re considering writing a novel, if you’re serious about it but not certain where or how to start, or you’re simply intimidated by the sheer mystery of the process… I have some good news to share with you:

That’s a good thing. You should be intimidated.

But you shouldn’t be confused about where and how to start.

First time novelists who are not intimidated by the mountain of principles and criteria that inform this craft, who come to the process of writing a novel armed only with their experience as a reader (which translates to this: you’ve read a novel, or decades worth of novels, and you believe you can do as well, that it’s not that hard – beginning, middle and end, that’s all there is to it, right?), who think they’ve intuitively assimilated the necessary arc and flow of story and character…

… if that’s you…

… then you already stand apart from those other folks who are sheepishly standing outside the writing room, into which you’ve charged confidently.

Which group would you choose?

Again, if you’re looking at the prospect of writing a novel and you’re not sure how to start, you’re one of the lucky ones.  Because you are about to get that answer.

By enrolling in a process of learning the principles before you write your novel, rather than using the process of writing as the means of that learning, you’ll be years ahead and medically on safer ground than the confident, naive writer who thinks this is something you just sit down and do.

Because the weight of writing in ignorance will most certainly crush you, sooner or later.

A quick story.

Back in the day I wrote corporate media for a living, and had a few young writers working for me. One of them was from a small town in Washington, where his father was the town’s go-to physician. A man to whom everyone looked for help, for wisdom, and for information. The First Citizen of everything within a hundred miles.

Easy for such a social context to go to your head, I would think. That’s certainly what happened here.

My co-worker’s father had always wanted to write a novel. He was a big Tom Clancy fan, so that was the genre he chose – technically complex military intelligence novels dripping with testosterone. He’s read hundreds of ‘em. Knows that game inside and out.

So upon retiring, he announced that writing his novel would be his first order of business. He had a title, and was already sending letters to agents and telling his friends what a great movie will result from the novel he’s working on. Harrison Ford would star.

And he was dead serious.

I asked my friend if his father had taken in any learning, via writing conferences or how-to books. He said no, his expression dropping. He added that when he’d posed this question to his father, the response had something to do with having spent years healing disease and taking out rotting organs from sick patients, saving lives and healing disease, so how damn hard can writing a novel actually be?

Nobody within that hundred miles dared challenge that belief system.

Three weeks passed.

One day I asked my friend how his father was doing with the novel, if he had started yet. The answer made me choke back laughter. Because his father had finished his final draft, a week earlier.

All 112 pages of it.

That was 22 years ago. Since then I’ve occasionally looked for Dr. X’s name on Amazon.com, but it never pops up. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe he wrote a dozen or so more 100-page spy novels without having a clue what he was doing wrong, no doubt complaining that the game is rigged, or at least unfair.

Life has a way of teaching us that which we refuse to acknowledge. And when it does, it’s usually not pretty.

Who knows. But I know one thing… he was in that writing room too soon, that’s for sure.

A Few Initial Goals for the New Novelist

1. You need to figure out what kind of novelist you want to be, process-wise.

Not in terms of what genre you’ll write within, but rather, how you’ll go about writing your novels.

There are two polar opposite means of writing a novel, with infinite gradations of middle ground that most writers end up engaging with to some degree. But to begin, you should attempt to understand if you are a…

- A Story planner (also known as a plotter)… one who seeks to discover as much as possible about the story before starting in on a draft, including the developed premise, the character and his/her backstory, the core dramatic question leading to a core dramatic arc, the opening hook… the first plot point… the midpoint… the exposition across the four contextual quartiles of the story… and most important of all, the ENDING.

That’s right, you need to know your ending before you can ever write a draft that works at a professional level.  Professionals know that.  New writers need to know that.

But there’s another way to cover all these bases, which is by adopting the approach of…

- A Pantser… or, someone who writes a draft by the seat of their pants. This is just as viable an approach as is story planning… but only if you understand that your early drafts are the means of discovering your story, and that a draft absolutely cannot and will not ever work until you fully discover the story, including how it ends.

And, it won’t work until you are in possession of the requisite knowledge that will empower your pantsed drafts toward effectiveness.

People who tell you to pants, that this is the best and only way to do it… they know. You don’t. So pick your process carefully.

Some writers are pantsers by default.

Because they have no idea how to plan a novel.

Others write that way because it brings the best out in them.  They’ve learned the ropes to the extent required to make this approach work.

Write this down: the criteria, benchmarks and content of story are not process-dependent.

A story doesn’t care how you wrote it, but it does care about the infrastructure and resonance within the narrative itself. All of which are principle-driven and not something you get to make up on your own, any more than you can hit a golf ball any direction you want and still be playing the game of golf.

The criteria for success are exactly the same for both of these approaches. Ignorance is an equal-opportunity dream killer, whether you plan or pants your stories.

You have to know what and how to plan or pants before either will work. 

Most new writers adopt the pantsing mode at first, sometimes on the advice of experienced and even famous writers. But consider this: how can you possibly know what those experienced and famous writers know, which is essential to their success as a novelist who uses drafts to find and develop your story?

You can’t. Neither can a story planner who doesn’t have all that in their head.

Which leads us to recommendation #2:

2. Discover the principles of craft…

… which are out there hiding in plain site, everywhere you look, but for the most part are foreign to readers who haven’t anointed themselves as authors. It’s like flying in an airplane in this regard – you’ve been sitting back there in coach for years, observing how a plane backs up from the gate, taxis to the runway, hits the gas, pulls up, retracts the gear, and then finds a heading toward the given destination.

Soft drinks and crackers ensue.

But I ask you… does that experience qualify you to sit up front in the cockpit and actually fly the damn thing? To do so safely?

Of course it doesn’t.

Become a student of craft.

Seek it out, immerse yourself in it. I have two writing books out (Story Engineering and Story Physics) that will help you, with a third coming out in October, and there are dozens of other good books on the topic. Read James Scott Bell and Randy Ingermanson for starters. The 101 is absolutely essential.

Know that there are surprises awaiting you. Common structural and narrative paradigms that show themselves in every publishable story, almost without exception. New writers don’t know them, any more than you’d know how to bring a patient out of anesthesia if you found yourself alone in an operating room.

Feel free to write as you go. Just know that the worst advice in the history of writing is “just write,” if that means you do so without also seeking and discovering the principles that every single published and publishable novelist relies on.

You may think you know them because you are an avid reader, but I promise you, you don’t. Not until they are shown to you in the context of story development. And then…

3. Study the principles in the real world of fiction, both books and films.

Once initiated, there are things about every single story you’ll read or watch that you didn’t notice before, things that are as essential to the story working as landing gear is to getting that airplane down safely.

Once introduced to this stuff, you can’t unsee it. You will suddenly see behind the curtain of what makes a story effective… when perhaps you didn’t even realize there is a curtain.

Go hunting for knowledge. At first the principles might just hang there in front of you, seemingly context free, and you might view them as formulaic. Fair enough, but you’ll soon learn that formulaic is the wrong word, any more than the presence of a beating heart in your chest being essential to your life is formulaic.

4. Play the long game.

Here’s a formula for you, one that never fails: knowledge plus affirmation plus application plus perseverance equals… not necessarily success as a certainty, but it ensures your membership to the club. It gets you into the writing room in a way that is authentic, surrounded by folks who know what you know.

In closing…

… since I’ve used this analogy twice now, let me share something a reader of this website said to me a few years ago. He, too, was a doctor… a brain surgeon, in fact.

He said that, like my friend’s father, he believed there was nothing he could not learn and do intuitively, because by necessity he was intuitive for a living, cracking into the skulls of patients not sure what he’d find, terrible black smears of death, using his intuitive base of knowledge to do what must be done to save that life.

He’d taken all the basic principles that got him to that place for granted, because he could.  They had become second nature.

And now, as he also sought to become a novelist, he realized something to be true, something that he’d never imagined or considered, or would have rejected had someone told him. And that is… the amount of core baseline knowledge that a successful writer of novels must have, must internalize to the point they become the stuff of intuition, the number of variables in play, is every bit as complex and voluminous as his work as a brain surgeon, because both are issues of nuance, variance, perception and irrefutable science, rendered with high art.

And both have lines on the playing field you cannot cross, because death is the outcome if you do.

Or you can hang out in that writing room, huddled in a corner with my friend’s father, looking for comfort as you realize, beginning with your first attempt, that this notion of writing a novel is two things:

It is bigger than you are, if you haven’t honored the level of craft required. It’s like so many professions and avocations in that regard, it looks easy from that seat in coach, but you’ll be dead or humbled within seconds if you don’t have the requisite knowledge backing your intentions.

And then, this being the good news, the great and astounding news, is that the journey can be blissful. Because it demands that you become one with the requisite craft.

Once joined, it will never fail you.

It’s all out there. Point your journey toward it, and write your novels in humble context to all you learn and all you observe.
Once you know, rather than find yourself guessing, write your story any way you choose.
All of us, published or not, are engaged in that dance.

*****

Check out my latest post over at The Kill Zone Blog, this one entitled: “The Secret Compartment in the Writers Tool Box.

 

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