Monthly Archives: September 2009

Getting Published: Is Your Story Idea Strong Enough?

The initial idea for a story usually consists of one of two elements: a concept, or a character.  Sometimes it’s a theme, but that makes you the exception (and a lucky one, because theme often gets the least developmental treatment).

If you try to write your story with one and not the other, and if that one is anything short of earth-shatteringly wonderful, the story won’t work.  Not until you add the other.

Which means, not every idea that pops into our writerly brains is strong enough to carry an entire story.  Not unless the concept and the character — both separately and together — are sufficiently compelling.

Because the core concept of a story, best expressed as a what if? proposition, is only one of the six things we need to pull off in order for our novels and screenplays to work (Click HERE for my Six Core Competencies post).

And the same holds true for character.  There are five other things that go with it.

If you’re writing for publication, your idea needs to appeal to your target audience as much as it does to you. 

While that may seem obvious, don’t take it for granted. 

Some writers are so enamored with the notion of actually writing a novel or screenplay that they settle for the first seemingly decent idea that comes along, hoping to bring it to life through the sheer poetic power of their writing.

Maybe, maybe not.  Probably not.  Because a flat concept in an otherwise competent story is like eating a gloriously prepared meal without a main dish.  The potatoes are wonderful, but hey, where’s the beef?

And a rich character – yes, that’s an idea, too – without a fascinating story to tell is a cake half baked.  Chewy, but not so tasty.

Great ideas infect our imagination. 

They grab us like an addiction, they wake us up at night, they make us want to talk about them, test them, stretch them or simply run our fingertips over the sheer luxury of its texture.

So how do you know your idea is strong enough? 

Listen.  It will tell you.  Because it won’t go away.   It will demand you add the other elements to it so that it might live.  I nursed one idea for nearly 25 years before I wrote it — just sold the novel, too, it’ll be out early next year (more on that, rest assured).

Can you express our story idea with a killer what if? question?  One that demands an answer?  One that leads you, beckons you, toward ensuing what if? questions that, if taken far enough, become an irresistible storyline?

Until you can, then you’re not ready to write it yet.  Or if you’re a panster (contrary to popular rumor, I love pantsers.. more than any other type of writer, you can benefit from what I’m doing here on Storyfix).

If your idea is a concept, an irresistible what if? proposition, then you aren’t done until you have a compelling character to add to it. 

If your idea is that character, then you need to concoct a rich storyline before she or he has a shot at an audience.

Either element alone will remain on the plate, virtually untouched.

Here’s a few compelling ideas – either what if? questions or character sketches – that kept their authors up at night:

–         what if you could raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?  (Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt is the character that made it happen.)

–         what if the Catholic Church has been protecting a dark secret for 2000 years? (Dan Brown brought Professor Langdon to this one and made about $300 million in the process.

–         What if the Los Angeles police department buried a murder case in order to protect it’s own pre-Rodney King racial bias issues?  (Harry Bosch, the detective that won’t go away, thanks for Michael Connelly.)

–         What if a 14-year old murder victim could speak to us from heaven, and in doing so sought to find her own murderer?  (Alice Sebold, thank you.)

–         What if a mafia kingpin had two sons who looked a lot like Al Pacino and James Caan? (The king of character-driven storytelling.)

–         What if vampires went to high school and fell in love? (Coming to a cinema near you, for the next ten years.)

If your story idea begins with character, with no conceptual hook in sight – a perfectly valid and common jumping off point, by the way… my most successful book, Darkness Bound, began with a juicy vision for my antagonist – then the strength of the need to attach a story to that character will lead you toward a lively conceptual landscape upon which to turn that character loose.

And vice versa.  Because both are fundamental to great storytelling.

Concept plus Character – a Sum that Exceeds the Parts

If your concept isn’t the strong suit of your story, then character must fill that role.  And in doing so, character becomes concept by virtue of our not being able to get enough of that particular hero and the world in which you’ve set her/him.  Harry Potter is built on this dynamic, we care much more about Harry than we do the solving of his book-specific, plot-driven problems, interesting as they may be.

In Harry Potter, the world in which Harry lives is the concept.

So which came first?  Concept or character?  Both are story ideas.   You’ll have to ask J.K. Rowling that one. 

And the answer doesn’t matter, because before Harry Potter could ever work, both had to be realized on the page.

Bottom Line

So where your idea is concerned,  don’t settle.  And don’t rush it.  Allow the concept to steep in its own juices, to infect your brain with potential outcomes and the inspiration for compelling character journeys.

If that doesn’t happen, if the idea doesn’t nag you into submission and if it doesn’t naturally inspire a character or a storyline to explore, I suggest you put the idea aside and extend your creative antenna for the next one.

Because not every idea turns into a concept, and not every concept will become the character-rich story that will break you into the business.

But a fresh, compelling and inherently rich concept, one that a juicy character can sink her or his teeth into, just might.

19 Comments

Filed under getting published

Should You Be Obsessed With Getting Published?

crea8con pic 5I love talking to writers about writing.

Sometimes I get downright evangelistic about it.  Yeah, that’s me, delivering a keynote at the recent Portland Creative Conference in front of about 500 or so folks who didn’t expect to see a fiction writer pounding the podium like a starry-eyed politician stumping for votes.

I work myself into a lather because I see too many writers who don’t get it.  They say they get it, in the same breath where they say how much they want it.  But when you show it to them, when you explain the odds and what it really takes to climb that mountain, they slink back into their chair and lower their eyes.  

Why?  Because writing is hard

Everybody wants a you-can-do-it! locker room speech.  They want to hear that if you just stick with it long enough, your writing dream will come true. 

Well, maybe.  But the real truth… that’s harder to swallow. 

My whole schtick is to show you what that means.  And if this seems like a locker room speech, so be it.   But the key to getting out of the locker room and onto the playing field is here, too.   It’s not buried, it’s the front and center point today.  In the next sub-head, in fact, coming at you in about two seconds.

The rah-rah is optional.

That key is delivered in one word: knowledge.

I don’t know everything there is about writing or about getting published.   Nobody does.  But I’ve been there, both on the bestseller and best-of lists and under the bus.  I’ve been studying and teaching the craft of writing for two decades, reading the work of both published and unpublished writers, so I know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

Here it is, in a nutshell: you can’t do this thing casually and expect to succeed wildly.  You need to prepare like an athlete trying to make the Olympic team.  You need to sacrifice, to suffer, to pay your dues.

As a writer with a dream, you can’t just imitate what you read without striving to understand what’s really going on behind the page.  That won’t get you there.  You must combine a thirst for knowledge about the craft of writing with a work ethic that exceeds that of your competition.

Just like an elite athlete.

Because like it or not, admit it or not, getting published is a competition.  There are only so many open slots out there.  Being good isn’t good enough any more.

Key words: intensity, passion, commitment, consistency, persistence, faith.

The most key word of all: knowledge.

The Power of the Sports Metaphor

The parallel between writing and athletics is one of my favorites.  Because I’ve been there, too.

I was never an elite athlete.  But I was a professional athlete for five years, and I’ve competed at a high level in several other sports. Including the sport of writing.

I’ve seen who makes it and who doesn’t.  And even when it doesn’t seem fair, I understand why it happens.

Go back a few lines to those key words.  That’s why.

I have a friend who plays on the PGA tour.  He’s barely thirty and has won well over ten million dollars, including two championships and dozens of top-10 finishes.   If you follow golf you’ve heard his name.

He’s not an elite athlete, either.  In fact, where golf is concerned, there really aren’t very many true athletes out there at all.  The game isn’t about that.

Which means, as it is with writing, success isn’t dependent on some gift from God.  It’s dependent on effort.  And not just the quantity of your effort, but the empowered quality of it.

Trust me, God will be on your side once you understand this.

My friend – who is on a first name basis with God, by the way – works harder at his craft than anyone I’ve ever met, in any pursuit. And by working, I’m not just talking about hitting balls – he seeks knowledge each and every day. 

That’s what the game of golf – and the game of writing – is all about: knowledge.

He’s not quite a household name – yet… his best days are still ahead – but by any measure he’s living his dream.

Because Ben Crane remains obsessed with that dream.

When he was a kid he carpeted his bedroom with artificial turf and practiced his putting long into the night.  Every night.  For years.  Until he made his high school team.  Until he got a college scholarship.  Until he won the Pacific Northwest Amateur.  Until he was a nationally ranked junior.  Until he made the Nationwide tour.  Until he got his PGA tour card.  Until he made his first cut.  Until he made his first million dollars.  Until he won his first PGA tournament, and then another.

Until an injury required him to completely rebuild his swing, from the ground up.   

Guess what… he still putts in the middle of the night.   And most importantly, he still seeks knowledge as the centerpiece of his game.

In athletics and in writing, it’s not who you know, it’s what you know.  That’s why both are higher and more noble pursuits than either business or politics.

The Sad Truth

I’ve met writers who have been at this for decades, and who, when you dig deep, still know virtually nothing about what they’re doing.  Sad but true.

Imagine you had a goal to turn professional at your sport.  To make the tour, to compete in the Olympics, to get drafted and wear a professional uniform.  To go up against the very best.

What would you do to make it happen?  How hard would you work?  How obsessed would you be?

I’m thinking that if this were the case, you wouldn’t be remotely casual about it.

It’s defining the word hard that’s the problem here.  Because it’s too easy to spin your wheels in the name of hard work, but without getting anywhere.

Would you talk about it more than you practice it?  Would you work on your game every now and then?  Fit it in when you could, when you felt like it?  Put other things first, yet in the same breath tell everyone that this is your fondest, dearest dream?

Ask an audience at any writing conference who would like to turn professional, and virtually every hand in the place goes up.  Way up.

Well, guess what – the odds of turning pro at the game of writing, of making a career of it, are about the same as turning pro as an athlete. 

Too many writers don’t seem to understand this.  Sure, they practice.  But they don’t combine practice with the seeking of requisite knowledge that will allow them to emerge from the masses to reach their goal.

The real question is – are you obsessed? 

How badly do you want this?  Are you really working hard enough?  What are you sacrificing to make it happen?  Are you writing smart, or are you still doing it your way, by the seat of your literary pants, because that’s just how you roll?

Obsession without a plan, without knowledge, is a formula for madness.  But obsession in context to a plan… that’s not crazy, that’s hope.

You can’t have a plan without knowledge.  Make of that what you will.

That’s why I pound the podium.  That’s why I’ve created Storyfix, and why I get up at 4:00 am most every day to work on it and my other writing projects.

There is only one thing we have control over in this business – our effort.  Both in terms of intensity and focus.  That’s it.  Everything else is out of our hands.

You can sleep when you’re dead.  Right now, you’re alive.  You’re a writer.

The knowledge is out there.  In fact, it’s right here.

The putter is ready and the night is long… what are you waiting for?

Find something to die for.  And then live for it.

Photo credit: Scott Huber

21 Comments

Filed under getting published