Welcome to the first year in the rest of your writing life. What kind of writer will you be this year?
You get to decide that one.
Parents, teachers, role models and a choir of the enlightened will continue to tell us something we need to hear very clearly: success, and what comes with it, is a choice we make.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, just buff it up. If it isn’t working out for you, take the hint and choose to do it differently.
Knowing the difference is critical. In this, and in any year. In writing, and in life.
What we find difficult – and make no mistake, writing a publishable story is the very epitome of difficult – is conquered by a mysterious blending of hard work, smart work and, with many endeavors that involve the exchange of money, serendipitous good fortune.
While there are occasional exceptions, the latter is often the statistical product of the former. With writing, you place yourself in good fortune’s path by being ready with a killer manuscript when the moment arrives.
I know some writers who have been at this for decades, who attend every workshop, read every writing book, belong to all the critique groups… and nothing changes for them. They choose to continue with the pounding of their square peg into the round holes the universe presents to us.
Maybe they love it the way it is. Or maybe they don’t understand they have options. Maybe, deep inside, they yearn to get better at what they do, but aren’t sure what that looks like beyond those workshops and books and critique groups.
All of this is a choice.
But to choose wisely, one needs to be informed.
The following are some ways to think differently – and thus, choose differently – about the stories you write, the way you write them and what you seek to achieve in doing so.
Resolve well. Because we all have to live with our choices.
This year I will value craft as much as I value art.
Understand the difference between writing for pleasure and writing for publication. One is finger painting, the other is construction under the watchful eye of building inspectors and a manual full of codes.
You can paint it any color you want, but if the inspectors say it’ll blow over with the first stiff wind, you aren’t playing by their rules.
To publish, your work needs to align with certain standards and expectations. After that, make your work as artful as you wish.
Art is elusive. Craft is available to all.
This year I will begin the novel I’ve not felt worthy to write.
Maybe you’re not thinking big enough.
Maybe you pick your stories because you need something new to write, the inevitable next project, instead of waiting for a story to pick you and then haunt you until you give it some attention.
Is your story a cool idea or an exploration of something significant? Is it a trick disguised as clues or the unraveling of something poignant and impactful?
How many dimensions are you considering when you choose your stories?
Next time you see a name you don’t recognize on the bestseller lists – it’s rare, by the way – notice how the book that got them there is some combination of completely original, astoundingly powerful and brilliantly executed.
That’s the bar, folks. Make sure your story is up to it.
This year I will learn the difference between searching for my story and writing a serious draft of a story.
Think of your story as an audition. You can’t screw up the first half, then be brilliant in the second half and expect to land the gig. Simon Cowell will rip your head off.
Too often organic writers slip here because they are using the drafting process – it’s writing, after all, right? – to discover their story. To stumble upon it. Once they find it, they seek to forge ahead from there, to continue with something that’s already broken and make it right through a smooth ending.
That just never works.
Too often story planners don’t know the basics of the foundational architecture of what they are planning. They think they can make that part up – they can’t, nor can organic writers – any more than a pilot can make up the principles of aerodynamics before filing a flight plan.
Pants or plan, you can’t write a draft that works until you find your story. Don’t confuse that search with the actual writing of the story itself.
This year I will finally understand why my work hasn’t been good enough to land an agent.
It won’t happen until you wrap your head around the basic principles of story structure – which you can’t make up – and character depth, combined with thematic resonance, scene construction and a professional level writing voice.
This year I will discover the principles of story architecture and see how they unfold in the stories – movies and books – that I encounter.
This may involve putting your story on hold until you finish ground school.
This year, as a novelist, I will discover what screenwriters know.
I’ve said it before, screenwriters begin their journey learning the very thing that some novelists never seem to find, and even some who do fail to recognize as the foundations of storytelling.
Novels are structure. Every bit as much as films are structure. Leave that to chance, or try to make it up for yourself, and you’re in for another tough year.
This year, as a screenwriter, I will learn what novelists understand.
Quid pro quo here – words are important. Timing and eloquence, subtlety and power, balance and edge… these are the chemicals that penetrate the consciousness of the reader.
Too often the screenwriter leaves these things to the actors and the director. With novels, the writer owns all of those roles.
This year I will stop reinforcing that old definition of insanity.
How is your approach to storytelling working for you?
You do get to choose.
This year I will go beyond the rhetoric and embrace the truth about writing.
Your characters don’t speak to you. That’s your inner storyteller telling you that you need to change something.
Every good story does not eventually find a publisher. Editorial inboxes are full of “good” stories. They are looking for home runs, not singles.
Established writers have different standards and rules than writers trying to break in. They aren’t necessarily better, they simply get a do-over in ways that unpublished writers don’t.
Mistakes and weaknesses result in rejection slips, not notes and suggestions.
This isn’t magic, it isn’t whimsy and it isn’t a place for the meek or short-sighted. Leave the magic to your stories, and attack them with the analytical vigor of an engineer.
This year I will seek to deliver the world a story that will outlive me.
Once you get that Big Story in your head, don’t settle for anything less than excellence in your execution. Excellence, that is, in technical craft.
It’s always a two-sided proposition: you need a Big Idea, and you need Stellar Execution. Both in equal measure.
Fall in love with your story before you give it your life.
This year I will finally understand why agents are turning me down.
Ditto all of the above. This is the sum of the journey.
This year I will officially turn pro as a storyteller.
You will establish a schedule. You will set goals. You will solicit feedback. You will study, you will become a scholar of your genre.
You will render yourself fluent in the language of your craft.
You are writing for an audience. For money. For your career. Acceptance of that awareness changes everything.
The Eternal Resolution
This one applies to your life as much as it does your writing. When the two become the same… now you’re in the game:
Find something to die for. And then live for it.