The goal of today’s post is nothing less than to explain why writing a novel that works is hard.
As opposed to, say, a pile of 50K-plus words poured into a steaming pile during, say, the most recent month of November, that doesn’t.
But if you break it down, there really aren’t that many different things going on, categorically. And with so many of us trying to do it, and so few of us producing a sure thing (this isn’t a knock on the new or struggling writer; so many famous names and titles were rejected multiple times before finding a place in the market, and so many others have one flash of the spotlight and then virtually disappear), why are the odds so long?
Especially since there are more than a few folks like me seeking to clear the air and impart some sense of what works and what may be holding you back.
In an effort to get to that bottom line, I set out to view the problem differently.
To break down what actually happens in the moment of collision between a writer’s intention and action, tempered by the heat-resistant presence of that author’s distilled sense of story.
In the end it all boils down to three things, and really, only three things.
- What we know about storytelling (the sum of what we think we know and actually do know about how a story is built – craft – and what it is built of);
- What we know about the story itself, including the ending (which explains why some drafts work and others don’t);
- and, then, how we steer that ship across the void of the blank page (our story and prose sensibilities).
That last one is the kicker. It explains (or it doesn’t; more accurately, this is just the label on a map about a place we know very little about, sort of like the Marianas Trench of storytelling) why some writers are consistently better and faster than others… writers who seem to wield a natural gift of some kind.
Versus those that think they do. Finally realizing that you may not yet be among that tiny crowd can, for some, be the most empowering moment in your writing journey.
Because that might be when you let craft into your process.
Welcome to The Bermuda Triangle of storytelling.
Because in the stormy, uncharted confluence of these three natural forces of storytelling, some writers get lost and some are never heard from again.
Two out of three of these sub-processes may be good enough… if you have the time or patience for it. But nailing the story reasonably early (for many this means, in this lifetime), and easily (before your world collapses, or before you begin deceiving yourself about it)… that requires firing on all three of these cylinders.
All three of these forces, though — 1) knowledge of craft… 2) a vision for the story… 3) a sense of how to get it on paper — are in the end required, at least in some perhaps unequal proportion. The good news is that each time we give it a try, we make a deposit into the each of these three creative/intellectual accounts.
Soak up enough craft, apply it to your vision for the story, and your story sense is bound to elevate. Do this long enough, in context to the principles of craft, and your story sense will at some point catch up with your enthusiasm.
Analogies abound. I’ll spare you those for now, but let it be said, immense knowledge without some sense of magic and movement does not a singer or dancer or artist make.
The reason we study craft IS to beef up our story sense. To skip the craft in reliance to one’s natural storytelling gifts is like preparing for the Olympic trials without training… because you were born fast and strong.
Clearly, this isn’t math.
It’s more like Olympic figure skating or platform diving, where results and the pursuit of perfection are determined by a bunch of imperfect human beings levying judgment. But even the experts often get it wrong (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, for example, was rejected by 46 agents before one of them had a higher sensibility to the party), thus testifying to the imprecision of story sense.
This little model gives us something to work on and build upon.
Not to mention, something to blame.
From the moment the spark of a story idea lights up our brain, continuing through the entire process up to the moment we set the story free (which is to finish it and move on to something else, whatever that looks like for you), we are juggling these three very different intellectual and creative phenomena. Viewed separately, we can see how they apply (if you can’t, it is a sign that one or more is still underdeveloped). But it is in the areas of overlap where the math becomes vague, where so many have tried to credit an unexplained inspiration or what becomes the equivalent of a muse, or perhaps just plain blind luck, good, bad or otherwise.
In the absence of this understanding, that may be as good an explanation as any.
The principles are always available to tutor your story sense.
You don’t need a “natural storytelling gift” (as some claim) to develop a novel that works, or become a successful career writer.
That’s why Jeffrey Deaver proudly says he writes twenty-two drafts of his novels… which, at a glance, is not the outcome of a highly developed story sense. Rather, that’s Deaver trying to get it right, over and over and over again. He succeeds because he follows proven, reliable, solid principles of craft – he has the requisite knowledge about how and why stories work – and doesn’t settle until he knows as much about his story, from premise through the entire structure, as he needs to for it all to work… and to recognize when he gets to that point.
Novels that fail or under-perform are often simply drafts that the writer didn’t – perhaps cannot – recognize as unfinished. Which is a story sense issue every time (lack thereof, in this example), arising from an inadequate foundation of story knowledge.
Bottom line: you may have been born with The Gift. But most writers who truly hold, nurture and present a solid sense of story, got there as a product of craft, leading them to a vivid vision for their stories.
This is precisely why experienced authors don’t write every idea that pops into their head. They have the story sense – born of craft – to recognize a rich premise and not jump at one that is merely clever.
Story sense is what happens when you lead with craft, rather than relying solely on your gut.
That can work… usually for Stephen King and authors like him. Which means we must ask if we consider ourselves in his league.
If you haven’t checked out my first wave of craft training videos, with a slant toward newer writers, click HERE. Remember, as a Storyfix.com reader you get a 25 percent discount… just use this code – storyfix25off – during the Vimeo checkout process (the Download links on my new training website take you to the Vimeo page where the videos are available).
A new wave of training videos will be launched in March 2017.