Monthly Archives: August 2009

How to Double the Effectiveness of your Writing/Critique Group… Overnight

I figure I have to earn the right to sell you something.  The following post is a blatant effort to do just that.  One with a TON of value.

When it’s done, there’s a SPECIAL OFFER for writing/critique groups.  It’s a group-discount on my ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”

Safe to say, these tips are right from the wheelhouse of what your group is all about.

You asked for it.  The feedback, that is.  You’ve signed up for the abuse, disguised as constructive feedback, and very possibly for the right reasons, too.  Because even if your critique group is composed of people with no more publishing experience than you, chances are the collective wisdom of your combined storytelling wisdom exceeds the sum of the parts.  Especially your part.

Then again, maybe you’re there for coffee and chit-chat.  If that’s the case, what you may hear is gonna hurt like hell.

But here’s an inherent risk with critique groups.  It has to do with the fact that nobody steps up to tell you the one single thing you need to hear, the Big News that will make or break your writing dream.  At least for the story you’re sharing with them.

This truth harkens back to two ancient pieces of conventional wisdom:  “You can’t make a silk purse out of a cow’s butt.”  Or if you like, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken… droppings.”

Which translates to this: you can’t make just any story work.  You can write the hell out of it, give it a superstar protagonist, make it glow in the dark of an otherwise empty room… but if the heart and soul of the story itself has all the appeal of a Rush Limbaugh stool sample… if it just isn’t interesting… if it sucks… then it still won’t sell.

And somebody needs to know enough, to care enough, to tell you that.

Most critique groups won’t go there.  They’re too polite.  They figure your story is your “thing,” and it shouldn’t be messed with. 

Well, if it sucks, then you absolutely should go there.  To do otherwise is to back away —  to play nice — from the very mission of the group itself.

Would you help your kid write a book report… if it was the wrong book?  Didn’t think so.

The Concept at the heart of your story, the Big Idea of it, is one of six things — I call them the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling — that must be delivered with freshness, sizzle and inherent appeal before the story will sell.  Yeah, I know, exceptions abound, but they’re usually either written by estalished authors (who can get away with it because brand equity) or the statistical abberation the comes with any truism in the arts.

You can’t make just any story work.  Nobody can.  The seed of it needs to glow in the dark at the moment it is stated as an isolated, pure idea, without a hero, without a theme and without a story… just an idea.

A great conceptual idea becomes the platform for all of those other things.  It becomes the stage upon which your hero can conduct a magical journey.  It becomes the podium behind which your story can pitch a compelling sermon.  It becomes the line drawing for a sparkling architectural masterpiece.

Without that great idea, it’s like a chef trying to turn a slice of baloney into a gourmet meal.  Not gonna happen, even if you’re Martha Stewart incarnate.

That one thing — the recognition of the inherent appeal of a story’s centerpiece heart-and-soul idea — can be the most significant opportunity a writer needs to recognize and wrestle to the ground.  The critique group to which that writer belongs can serve them better — and each other — by recognizing this and not backing away from the tough conversation it can be.

Because sometimes the idea needs only a twist, or a swift kick in the pants, to elevate to the level it needs to be.  To become that stage, that podium, that mouthpiece for your creative muse to sing its song to the world.

THE OFFER: if you’d like your writing/critique group to have 101 new things to talk about — 11 of which comprise the most powerful and important writing truths I’ve ever come across — then here’s today’s deal.

If you order 5 or more copies of “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters” within the next week (or so… hey, I’m easy), I’ll deliver them to you for FIVE BUCKS EACH.  That’s half price.  Which was already half of the original price.

To take advantage, you’ll need to use PAYPAL (the normal ordering channel doesn’t allow for this level of pricing creativity).  Send $5 for each copy you want to this Paypal destination: storyfixer@gmail.com.

Then, send me a email (or embed this info into the Paypal order) giving me the email address of EACH recipient.  I’ll manually send out the ebook to each member of your group within a few hours (usually almost immediately, as I’m here at the keyboard 24-7 it seems.)

Five ebooks, five email addresses… 25 bucks.  Eight ebooks, eight email addresses… 40 bucks.  You get the math.  Now get the benefit of this deal… order today.

You’re welcome.

ALSO… click HERE for a pretty cool INTERVIEW with the Storyfixer (who, by the way, flinches whenver he refers to himself in the third person, just so you know).  Storyfix is really picking up steam… this is a consequence of that.

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Story Structure: A Kinder, Gentler First Plot Point

Pop quiz: what’s the most important moment in your story?

When we first meet our dashing hero?  Nope.  

That sky-is-falling plot twist in the middle when all hope is lost?  Nope.

When everything comes together, that visceral oh-my-god resolution just before the credits roll, with tears flowing, hormones raging and adrenalin pumping like beer at a sausage festival?

Nope again.  

The following could change your writing life forever.

The most important moment in your story is when everything changes for the hero.  When what the hero believes is her reality experiences a sudden shift.  Suddenly there’s a new deal on the table that sends your hero down an altered, unexpected path.  And, as part of that new deal, the reader gets a sense of what stands in the hero’s way.

That moment changes your story.  And in doing so, it could be argued that this is when your story really begins.  Everything that happened prior to it was just a set-up.

It’s called the First Plot Point.  And you can’t mess with it.

For many writers this is the single most illuminating piece of writing wisdom they’ll ever hear.  Because you can’t write an effective story until you accept and understand this at the very core of your gonna-be-a-huge-bestselling-superstar self.

In the story of your writing life, your First Plot Point may be right here.   Right now, as you read this.  Because if you haven’t wrapped your head around this principle, chances are you’ll never sell a story.  But when you do, you’ll have immersed yourself into the realm of story architecture, and that may be precisely the thing that gets you published.

A sudden shift.  A new deal on the table.  A new path for you.

And the only thing that stands in your way is your willingness to engage and understand.

Timing isn’t optional.

Here’s shocking news for psychotically organic storytellers: you don’t get to say when that happens.  There’s a narrow little window of expectation as defined by accepted story structure principles – the First Plot Point needs to happen at about the 20th to 25th percentile of the story.  Right after you’ve set it all up.

Non-negotiable.

Too early and you’ve shortchanged your opportunity to do that.  The more invested the reader is in the characters, especially the hero, the more the stakes of the story have been made relevant to those characters, then the more emotional vicarious empathy the reader will experience when that MMM (Most Important Moment) arrives. 

That emotional investment is the single, most critical variable that makes your story work.  Or not.

This requires ample set-up time.  In fact, that’s precisely the mission of everything that happens in your story prior to the First Plot Point.  If, in the definition of an effective First Plot Point, we need to shift the hero’s journey going forward, then we need to have introduced and defined – to have set-up – the stakes of that journey beforehand. 

You have about 60 to 80 pages to make that happen.  If something huge takes place earlier – and it certainly can – you’re still obliged to deliver an effective First Plot Point at the proper moment.  Something needs to happen, and in the proper place, that creates a shift that defines a new hero’s quest.

If you raise the curtain on that moment too late, your story suffers serious pacing problems.  It’ll lack a reason to be.  You risk losing your reader, which in the case of an agent or editor means putting the manuscript in the return mail.

Blatancy is optional. 

Usually, in defining the First Plot Point, I cite an example that’s as much in-your-face as it is true-to-life.   But not every story likes it rough.  You don’t have to smack into an iceberg or receive a blackmail threat or get a terminal diagnosis to have an effective First Plot Point.

Sometimes your hero’s world is rocked with a whisper.  A few unexpected words, a meaningful glance, the seemingly random passing of two souls on a street.

Sometimes less is more. 

The moment when everything changes.

Allow me to illustrate with a true story from my youth.  I thought I was in love.  Her name was Tina.  We’d been dating about a month, and things were ramping up on all levels.  I met her friends.  She met mine.  We shared our dreams.  We liked the same things.  Sexual chemistry ensued.

It was the first act of our emerging love affair.  And then everything changed.  Subtly.  Seemingly without significance.  But it completely altered my Tina journey.

We were walking in a park.  Hand in hand, the whole sappy visual.  I made some reference to the future, assumptively so.  I saw her expression shift, her eyes grow distant.

And she said, “If I’m around, that is.”  And she wasn’t kidding.

From that point forward, everything changed.  My quest had a different context, a new goal.  I had an obstacle to overcome, and it was my own inner demons that stood in my way.

Tina was gone a month later.

Life is a story sometimes.  And even then, it has story architecture.

In the current movie 500 Days of Summer – which, by the way, is a sparkling example of storytelling creativity, one that adheres to the contours of story architecture in subtle and illuminating ways – the First Plot Point unfolds in almost exactly the same way, with nearly identical words, at precisely the proper point.  Check it out, you’ll see.

And if you haven’t yet comprehended the nature and effect of a killer first plot point, you will.  Without an iceberg in sight.

As for me, my love story concludes blissfully, though it took years to write that ending. 

Her name is Laura.

We’re working on the sequel as we speak, and it’s a thriller.

 

CLICK HERE for a feature article about the Storyfixer on a prominent writing site, which also has a review of the new ebook, 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.

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