Text, Lies and Old Tapes – The Secret to Elevating Above the Writing Multitudes

An Essential Post of Monstrous, Manifesto Proportions

I’m on fire about this topic. I’ve written various iterations of it, sometimes using the words “The Lie” within the title. I even have a little ebook by that title. It’s an attention grabber, one that some writers take as a challenge to disprove, because hey, that’s the way they do it. And if they do it, how can it possibly be a lie?

This site is about both process and product. But you’ll always be clear on which side of this dichotomy you are dealing with, and you’ll get the clearest, most succinct and actionable accounting of the parts and parcel and structure of a novel available anywhere, from anyone.

Beginning in November, Art Holcomb will be joining Storyfix as a regular contributor (he already has over two dozen posts here on Storyfix; use the Search function to the right to check them out). Art is perhaps the best teacher of process I’ve met, and his stuff works because it is based on a keen understanding of what a story needs to do, in what order, using specific techniques, standards and benchmarks to elicit specific reader experiences and engagement.

Meanwhile, I’ll be here writing about the cogs in the story machine (as will Art; likewise, I’ll weigh in on process, as well, beginning with the post you’re reading now), the nuts and bolts and rivets and cylinders and belts and nuances that put drama and character into motion within our stories.

Together, our goal is to leave no stone unturned for writers who want to learn this craft from the inside out, instead of just waiting for lightning to strike from a good idea.

Today’s post (see below) first ran on WriterUnboxed.com a few months ago.

Read it here, then go to that site and check out the interesting comment thread. Including the guy who claims anything he’s ever heard about writing that’s useful could fit on a 3 by 5 card.

That’s what I’m talking about. That guy. Propagating The Lie.

******

The Well-Intentioned, Feel Good Untruth About Writing Compelling Fiction

Welcome to The Big Lie

By Larry Brooks

There’s a quiet rumor circulating among newer writers that professional authors know something they don’t. And that those famous A-listers (B-listers, too) aren’t giving it up.

This may very well be the case. Not so much as a conspiracy, but from a lack of an ability to convey—or a willingness to admit—that what they do can actually be explained, or that it can be taught and learned.

Too often they say this instead:

“I just sit down and write, each and every day, following my gut, listening to my characters, and eventually the magic happens.”

And so, hungry writers who hear this may lean into the belief that the craft of writing a good novel is inexplicable. That it’s something we are born with, or not. It is purely an issue of instinct. Maybe even that your characters actually talk to you.

The nights can get pretty long if you’re waiting to hear voices.

The real dream killer takes wing when writers conclude that there really isn’t anything to know at all. Rather, that you get to make it all up as you go.

And thus the Big Lie is born.

There actually is an enormous wealth of principle-based learning to be discovered and assimilated about how to write a novel that works. And there are folks out there teaching it, albeit with different models and terminology… all of which tends to coalesce into a singular set of interdependent truths.

Maybe it’s not a lie when someone repeats what they believe to be true. But belief, especially about the underpinnings of writing fiction, doesn’t make something true.

It may indeed be true for them. But not necessarily true for you.

Clarity requires understanding the differences.

There is no default best way to write a story, nor is there a prescribed path. Anyone who tells you that organic story development is superior to structured, principle-driven story development, including outlining, is wrong, regardless of their belief in that position.

And vice versa. Both are issues of process, and only that. They are choices, rather than an elevated version of conventional wisdom.

But with finished stories, any division between process and product vanishes. At that point, when you deem a draft to be final, what is true for one writer is suddenly true for all.

Clarity awaits in understanding the difference not only between process and product, but between rules and principles, as well. Rules apply to neither, while principles empower both.

Whether by intention, as a product of instinct or pure blind-ass luck, the efficacy of fiction is always driven by a set of core principles. They are not something you get to make up as you go. Rather, they are discovered as you progress along the learning curve.

Not all authors recognize the inherent opportunity in that moment of discovery. Sometimes they need to see the principles at work within someone else’s story… which is the most validating teachable moment of all.

The Author Who Can’t Tell Us Anything

In a recent author profile appearing in Writers Digest Magazine, an 11-million-copy bestselling author confessed she has no idea how she does it. Clearly, after two movie adaptations on top of her book sales, the numbers prove her wrong.

But not knowing how she got there isn’t saying she doesn’t know what it needs to look like when she does. The numbers prove that, as well.

So what is she hiding? Is she lying, is she confused, or is she truly without a clue?

Probably none of the above. Rather, her contention is simply proof that, as it is in many forms of art and athletics and academics, doing and teaching exist as different core competencies, only rarely shared within one practitioner.

One might also cynically suggest that this actually proves one doesn’t require any core knowledge to knock a story out of the park. You just need to put in the time, and eventually your instincts will kick in.

Maybe. It happens. But usually it is more complicated than that.

Whether they know it or not, teachers who never circle around to the core principles of fiction as a part of the creative process are peddling the Big Lie.

They will defend their seat-of-the-pants blind process vigorously from behind a keynote podium, yet they have no explanation beyond the principles—which they aren’t talking about—that led to their own writing success.

It’s like your kid designing a paper airplane. It flies, even though Junior knows nothing about aerodynamics. And while you might think this proves the other side’s point, it doesn’t. Because the complexities of a novel that works are more like a Boeing airliner than a paper airplane from kindergarten.

As writers, we don’t know what we don’t know.

When I started writing about writing, I ran into a guy on an online forum who proclaimed this: “I never outline. It robs the process of creativity and the possibility of discovery. It takes the fun out of it.”

So says… that guy. Who is in it for fun.

This may be true… for him. This absolutely is not—it never has been—a universal truth you should apply to your own experience… at least until you should.

The things we don’t know become the learning we need to seek out and discover and understand before we can begin to truly wrap our heads around fiction as a profession. Writing itself is certainly a viable part of that journey, but it is not what unlocks the secret of that journey, in and of itself.

That forum guy was talking about his process, irresponsibly framing it as conventional wisdom. But there are no universal truths when it comes to process, other than it needs to take you somewhere, and that yours might indeed be what is holding you back.

Story doesn’t trump structure. Just as structure doesn’t trump story. Because they are the same things. Both are extreme ends of a process continuum that, if and when it works, takes you to the exact same outcome. Anyone telling you differently is actually talking about their own preferred process, and if they don’t clarify that context then they are propagating the Big Lie.

And thus a paradox has been hatched.

So if not everyone agrees, how then do we pursue the core craft we need to write a novel that works, whatever our process? Even if the folks we admire and look to for answers claim they don’t?

Take the common advice to just write.

Depending on the degree to which the writer commands the core principles, it may be like telling a medical student to just cut. “Just write” is half of the answer, for half of the problem, applying to half of the writers who hear it, sometimes long before they should even consider it. Any more than a first year medical student should consider removing a spleen from anything other than a cadaver.

Because just write is advice about process, not product. Yet when Stephen King advises us to do it, who dares question him… even when they should?

Such advice, framed as truth, becomes yet another part of the Big Lie.

Welcome to the writing conversation.

This seems to be how the entire writing conversation—blogs, books, how-to articles, workshops, conferences, keynote addresses, famous writer profiles, writing groups, critique groups, and (God-help us) writing forums—is framed. And yet, collectively, combined with practice and a seat-of-the-pants ability to assimilate skill and truth as it collides with what we would rather deem to be mystical and elusive, there are things that actually do define the journey of learning to write a professional-caliber novel.

Look in the right places and you will indeed encounter specific principles, propositions, processes, expectations, categories, models, trends and risks that the more experienced writer understands and weighs—perhaps only at an instinctual level, but they exist nonetheless—and that over time the effective writer builds their work upon. Most of them being issues with which the newer writer struggles.

Knowing where you stand relative to these core truths can save you years of exploration and untold buckets of blood seeping from your forehead. Some writers toil for decades without ever truly hearing these truths, or assimilating it if they do.

This is because The Lie is loud, downing what it is you truly need to hear and understand. Because even within The Lie, those truths are at work behind a curtain of hubris or ignorance, sometimes both.

Here is a framework for your learning curve, in a nutshell.

These six things rationalize the consideration of craft itself.

  1. Not all story ideas are good story ideas. Not all of them work. You can’t sit down and write anything you want and expect it to be saved by your brilliant prose. A worthy story idea needs to seed the landscape for the things that do, indeed, cause a fully formed story to work. There are principle-driven criteria in this regard that will inform your story selection instincts, which in turn will help you sort out which is which.

While I have no data for this other than a collective consensus among agents, editors and those who do what I do… consider that half of all rejection can be explained with a recognition that the story idea, at its most basic conceptual level, may be inherently weak. Regardless of how well the story is written or how talented the writer.

  1. A manuscript that seeks to discover the story enroute is at best a draft, and almost never a fully-formed, publishable novel. To label such a draft final, without rewriting it from the context of a fully-discovered story, is to condemn it to compromise.

There’s nothing wrong with using drafts as a search and discovery process. It’s called “pantsing,” and it works for many. It also sends many others to an early writing grave, because they don’t recognize it for what it is: a story search process, one of many that are available.

When the story is finished, and when it works, process ceases to count for anything. The exact same criteria for excellence apply to the end product, regardless of the process. You need to write with an ending in mind if you want the journey toward that ending to work.

  1. Genre fiction is not “all about the characters.” Some gurus say this… they are wrong, or at best only partially right. Genre stories are about how a character responds to a calling, to the solving of a problem, via actions taken and opposition encountered, thus creating dramatic tension that shows us the truest nature of who they are.

In other words, genre stories are driven by plot. And a plot doesn’t work without a hero to root for and an antagonistic force to fear. In any genre, conflict resides at the heart of the fiction writing proposition.

  1. It isn’t a story until something goes wrong. Carve this into the hard plastic that surrounds your computer monitor.
  1. A story isn’t just about something. Rather, it is about something happening. Theme and setting and history and character need to be framed within the unspooling forward motion of the narrative along a dramatic spine, driven by things that happen, rather than a static snapshot of what is.
  1. Structure is omnipresent in a story that works. Structure is, for the most part, a given form, not a unique invention to fit the story you are telling. This is the most often challenged tenant of fiction, and the most enduring and provable. Exceptions are as rare as true geniuses.

Structure is not remotely synonymous with formula. But the lack of structure is almost perfectly synonymous with finger painting.

The sooner you get these six truths into your head (among others, including the drilled-down subsets of each principle), the sooner you can truly begin to grow as a storyteller. And when you do, you may find yourself saying this: “Dang, I wish I’d have understood this stuff earlier in my writing journey, instead of all these years of sniffing around the edges of it, believing the wrong things from the wrong people.”

The truth is out there.

But not everyone is talking about it. Because the truth is less mysterious and glamorous and self-aggrandizing than the notion that successful writing is a product of suffering for one’s art.

Hiding beneath the under-informed meme of “there are no rules,” some writers, in the pursuit of that suffering, settle on accepting that few or none of those truths exist. That truly, good storytelling is simply the product of possessing a sense of things. That there are no criteria or expectations.

The only part of this that is true is when a sense of things refers to the degree to which the writer has internalized those six principles and all of the subterranean layers of them that exist.

Let me just say it outright: before you sit down to write a novel the way that Stephen King or James Patterson or the author giving the keynote address writes one, make sure you actually can do what they do and know what they know.

Intention is not the primary catalyst of success.

Some of the best novels, and novelists, are outcomes of a process that makes too little sense, and/or takes decades of blood, sweat and tears, and even stretches the boundaries of the principles themselves.

Rather, it is in the application and nuanced manipulation of what is known to render a novel compelling. Talent is nothing other than an ability to see it when you finally land on it, and to pursue it with awareness. Within genre fiction especially, this set of story forces is established and easily visible. It explains why James Patterson and Nora Roberts and a long list of other novelists can bang out six or more novels in a year, even without a co-author… because they know.

Principles can be taught, and they can be learned.

And certainly, there are gradations in the application of them, in the midst of contradictory opinions about all of it colliding loudly within in the writing conversation itself.

Those gradations and shadings are the art of writing a story. The raw grist of what makes a story tick, however, comprises the craft of writing one.

Know the difference, and you’ll begin to see through The Big Lie.

 

 

 

13 Comments

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13 Responses to Text, Lies and Old Tapes – The Secret to Elevating Above the Writing Multitudes

  1. Oh, yeah, baby! The Big Lie has bitten us all early on. Good for you for trying to save the enlightened emerging writers. “If only I found you earlier in my journey…” is my biggest regret. I thank God a friend told me about Story Engineering, or I still might not be published. Keep on keeping on, Larry! Your work matters to so many of us.

  2. I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said, but I’d like to clarify one thing, and that is that fiction writers often do hear voices, that they sometimes become possessed by their characters. And, my god, it’s so much fun when it happens.

    Except that the characters rarely know about story engineering, so they can take you far away from the story you want and need to write.

    Because it’s so much fun when a character takes over, it may not always be such a bad idea to let the character take the reins for awhile, to see where they lead you–maybe they’ll add depth to your story–but before you include their ramblings in your work, you’ve got to return to your story’s overall plan and objective, and cut out the little irrelevant darlings, no matter how much fun you had, no matter how much magic you felt, in the process of letting them have their fun for awhile.

  3. Chris Waller

    I’d like to point out that someone who claims to be a “pantser”, namely Stephen King, also has a BA in English. I sincerely doubt he was given a degree for just for his creativity. If he didn’t demonstrate a deep understanding of grammar and writing mechanics, he wouldn’t have gotten out of his freshman year with passing grades.

  4. Kerry Boytzun

    I think that many people get the idea that a story is about “characters” when they watch Outlander TV series. I haven’t read the books but we’re now in season 3. Someone tell me what season 3 is about (what is happening)?

    Answer: backstory.

    The concept of Outlander is “what if a modern day woman fell back in time to the Jacobite revolution in Scotland–and she fell in love with a rugged Scottish hunk?

    The first season was very good. However at some point the writer decided to have the female protagonist to go back to the future and have their baby. Okay–where does that leave the story concept?

    Tell me what the story concept is now–that the outlander is no longer OUT?

    Answer: you are waiting for the couple to reunite! Therefore is there any risk of either of them dying? NO! All that’s happening is filling in backstory of what these characters do until they meet again in the future.

    But the novels are very popular because at their heart–it’s the ROMANCE crowd where modern girl meets dangerous old world hunk. Yum!

    As for the rest of us–SNOOOOOOOZE. Wake me up when there’s stakes and something to root for.

    BUT–the novels sold $$$$$$$$$$$$$$. And the TV show is on Starz.

    My point is that writers are learning the WRONG ideas from the “success” of Outlander. Season 3 has ZERO ZERO story. It’s a documentary on backstory.

    People watch SHAMELESS and think it’s a good TV show because it’s shocking and has some “moments”. Shameless is very unrealistic and actually is conditioning people to ENABLE destructive people to get away with ruining people’s lives, getting them killed–because you can’t do harm. Bullcrap! Nobody in real life would put up with a Frank and he would be laying at the bottom of the river. Same goes for the psycho kid that burns animals, and the like. This is quality TV? It’s mind pollution. But so is Big Bang Theory where the so called lovable asshole that thinks he is smart–is shoved down your throat to be a guy to root for. But in real life he would also be floating down the river and–he’s not smart, only has a good memory.

    Present day we have $$$ comic movies by Marvel, etc that are written for 13 year old boys who want to blow crap up and see skimpy naked women. BORING.

    Trust me that people argue with me about the above shows and defend them like they’re high conceptual quality food for the mind and soul. Bullocks!

    Thus, these kinds of people EASILY believe you can write whatever you want because these shows are just like it.

    Another new show that sucks is The Deuce where it’s all about watching the forming of a group of people that eventually will create a porn industry. That’s called backstory and BORING. What is interesting–sorta–is people creating a porn movie when it was illegal and the pimps didn’t want you to cut into their racket.

    Yes I believe in what Larry and Art promote. But what I see in Hollywood today shows that there is a HUGE contingent of Hollywood pushing crap that has a lame concept and no story.

    Makes it real hard to convince new writers on creating something properly.

  5. MikeR

    Absolutely =the= =best= eye-opener that I ever read about “writing for a LIVING” came years before @Larry wrote the first of his fantastic books. This was, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” by David Gerrold. It was the autobiographical tale of this “then (ahem …) green-behind-the-ears” “would-be (ahem …) screenwriter,” successfully selling his STAR TREK screenplay in the world of 1960’s television.

    He described the entire process – from a two-page “story premise” to a rainbow-colored shooting script – along with the UNcertainty, potential legal troubles (yes, Harlan Ellison had the legal right to kill the whole thing at its birth, instead of writing him a letter of encouragement), and grueling work, that finally lead to one of the most-iconic and most-remembered episodes of the original series.

    Therefore, when as a =writer= you “just read a book,” please know to look behind the scenes. The thing that you now hold in your hand is in fact a professionally-created and very-commercial consumer product. The original writer did not merely “toss it out and forget about it.” Along with a rather-large number of unsung professionals, (s)he coaxed it (by means of a creative =process=) all the way to the ground – and, into your hands.

  6. Robert Jones

    It would seem I am coming into this discussion a few days late.

    @ Chris Waller: I’ve been pointing to that English degree Stephen King acquired early on for years. It doesn’t seem to register with a lot of folks. Congrats for getting that deeply ignored secret weapon in the “King Arsenal.”

    I want to go on record as being a Stephen King fan for years. However, long before his book “On Writing” was published, I had a dream to write exactly as he described in that book. It’s the ideal most of are subjected to when we first start thinking about writing a novel. We’ve all seen that idea of a writer portrayed by Hollywood in just about every movie that the hero happens to be a writer.

    The story usually goes something like this:

    Writer has a goal to write a novel.

    Writer quickly developed writers block due to interior/exterior difficulties, preventing them from seeing the way to meet their goal.

    As the deadline closes in—and the writer comes to an epiphany resolving those pesky inner demons, their muse shows up. Sometimes figuratively, occasionally quite literally!

    Writer’s finger race the clock as they pound away at the keyboard, their story now flowing like a gift from the gods.

    Everyone loves the completed book. The writer’s job is done and hailed as a hero…HOOHAH!

    I don’t know Stephen King. I’ve never sat in his studio and observed his process. If he has captured this ideal, that’s great. And if this process made his career what it has been from book one, he is to be congratulated indeed. On the other hand, His book is also a memoir of a distinct life that created a unique individual. More than this, we could take a hundred different people and place them in a scientific experiment where they were all subjected to the exact same events that Stephen King went through since birth and we probably wouldn’t get another writer of the same type or style. We may not even get a single writer at all.

    We all have similarities as a race. We all have differences as well. Mentally, physically, and chemically. And as individuals, we all have to face a time when we decide what’s right for us, what works with our own complex makeup.

    Learn as much as you can. That’s standard for whatever field you want to work or play in. The learning will come from a combination from books, teachers, and experience. Then take what you’ve learned back to squares, back to you. Filter it. Digest it. We are all made up of thousands of fragments from all we’ve heard, read, and viewed within the context of our craft. It never stops. There’s never an end in sight, if you love what you’re doing and have a good imagination. But it doesn’t happen by ignoring the mechanics of whatever you saw that pulled you into this fold in the first place. If so, the learning has already stopped. And learning is optional!

  7. MikeR

    @Robert …

    “In the end, Stephen King wrote a thoroughly-entertaining NOVEL about ‘writing.'” We all bought it (heh …), and we all certainly rejoice that he survived his horrible accident. I’m sure that we all (in fact) learned quite a lot from it as we read it for the first time.

    Are we entirely surprised, then, that none of us subsequently threw it away? But rather that, in spite of(!) its “professional mythology” that so many other writers have spoken of (and warned us of …), we still keep it in-hardback on our shelves, and even re-read it from time to time? (And, believe it or not, often still learn something new?)

    Stephen King did not actually “pull the wool over our eyes.” Rather, he might have – in some sideways way – given all of us an object-lesson about our own craft, by writing “a work of fiction” FOR -US-!!

    “A work of fiction,” as we all know, is not anything that is actually “false.” Rather, it is “an artfully-constructed thing.” It is purposely contrived to suit the purposes of its intended audience, and … (lo and behold! here is the magic!!) … it actually DOES!

    Like any willing reader (and consumer) of any other good book that I have ever read – including “On Writing” – I entered into the writer’s own world willingly, and emerged from it satisfied, often “having learned something.” Now, as a student of the same craft, I try to regard it on more than one level. But to this day I do not feel “ill used.”

  8. Robert Jones

    @MikeR:

    I completely agree…it is a highly entertaining work of factual fiction which includes some pointers about writing. Is it the be all and end all of King’s process? I don’t think so.

    I originally purchased my copy on audio because it was how I first encountered it—while looking through the audio section to find something to listen to while I was working. I saw that it was read by Stephen King, who delivers his own material in a way that only he can. And I have admittedly listened it it several times since that day.

    Originally wanting to be a pantser, as well as a fan of King’s work, I was hungry for more. But whenI looked up interviews and snippets of SK speeches on the internet, what did I find? Mostly I found he delivers a lot of anecdotes about his experiences. He is great at marketing himself. He entertains his audience while selling himself. We could all take lessons on that score.

    If you listen to those clips, writing is merely a backdrop for everything else. Like his tales in “On Writing,” his anecdotes circle around the time he was writing this book or that. A Large part of marketing (as YouTubers well know) is inviting your audience into a slice of your life. A slice determined by you. If fans haven’t read the books SK mentions during the slices of his life served up during his presentation, they’ll want to by the time he is done talking. If they are already fans, maybe they’ll want to revisit those books with the new insights they’ve learned about the life and times of the author while he was writing or promoting that work initially.

    Get the picture? So yes, there are things I have continued to learn from that book—and the author. It’s all about perspective, which does inspire and influence craft 😉

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