Monthly Archives: October 2009

3 Storytelling Exercises That Can Get You Published

Our stories are very much like lovers.  We choose them as a reflection of ourselves and our needs.  They’re seductive.  Compelling and oddly rewarding.  Warm.  Dangerous.  Sexy.  Fulfilling.  Fun.  And, if we’ve chosen well, they’re deliciously challenging.

They’re also a little needy and insecure.  Sometimes unpredictable, even fickle.  Often high maintenance.  Occasionally jealous.  Prone to random acts of cluelessness.  And they’re expensive, especially when you consider that time is money.

It’s so easy to fall in love with them.  We get lost in what we’re creating.  We can even lose ourselves in the process.

Love It or Leave It 

Truth is, if we’re not in love with our stories we should coldly kiss them goodbye.  Because other than a little casual gratification – the witty exchange, the fantasy moment, a vicarious unburdening – it just isn’t going anywhere.

If it isn’t working for you, as sure as gravity it won’t work for your readers, either. 

But the real risk in writing for publication is this: the reverse is not remotely as true.  It may be magic for you and still fall flat on its ass when you send it out into the cold cruel world. 

Because fiction, like the people who read it, is fickle.  You never know what will work.  Twelve publishers, professionals all, rejected Harry Potter.

The best you can do is shoot for the moon and keep on writing.

Here are three little tests to help you make that happen… better.

These humble exercises are viable and valuable because of one thing I said above: we can get lost in our stories.  Which translates to – we forget we’re writing for others (at least if you’re shooting for publication) and not just yourself.

And if you are writing for yourself first and foremost, you can check that publishing dream at the door.  It just doesn’t work that way.  There are standards and expectations out there, and you better wrap you head around them now.

Which means you need to ask yourself some tough questions.

Exercise 1:

Imagine that someone has just read your novel or screenplay, and that they freaking loved it.  As in, it was absolutely the best thing they’ve ever read.

Now imagine that same someone telling someone else exactly that – I know, it’s easy, it’s literary masturbation, but go ahead – in great and glorious detail.  They are explaining why your story was the best thing they’ve ever read.

Now… complete that monologue.  What are they saying?  Why is your story the best thing they’ve ever read?

Sobering, isn’t it.  You need to be writing a story that aspires to this level.   You need to be that in love with it. 

And mostly, you need to have an answer to that question.

Exercise 2:

Imagine that an agent or editor has just cracked open your manuscript.   It’s the end of their day, they’re tired, they’re grumpy (you’ve got good odds on that one, no matter what time of day it is), they’re cynical.  They’ve seen it all, rejected it twice. 

Maybe they’re even one of the geniuses who rejected Harry Potter and they’re still pissed off.

And now it’s your turn.

The question: what might they encounter in your manuscript that will cause them to put it down?  Maybe even throw it against their office wall.  What is it about your story that is too familiar, too trite, too flat, too slow, too boring, too been-there-done-that, too out there, too amateurish?

The answer just might be none of the above.  The answer might simply be that there is just no compelling reason for them to accept the damn thing.

Sobering again, isn’t it.

Exercise 3:

This time don’t imagine at all.  Open your manuscript to any given page.  Do this several times with complete randomness.  Do this many times, in fact. 

At any given moment in your story, what are the stakes?  What is at stake in that particular scene, and what is at stake in the larger context of the story itself?

At any given moment, what is the reader rooting for?  Anticipating?  Feeling?

At any given moment, what is the relationship between the hero and the quest you’ve given to her or him? 

At any given moment, what is the pace of the story you are telling?

You need a compelling answer to each of these questions for every page you encounter.  Not that every page should be a pivotal moment, but rather, you are checking to ensure that every page is in powerful context to the pivotal moments that came before it and will come after it.

The bar is high. 

Are you reaching for it?  Or are you so in love with your story that you’ve forgotten that someone else needs to be compelled to fall in love with it, too.  That someone else’s tastes and criteria and hopes aren’t the same as yours.

Remember, the reader won’t know or understand your story anywhere near as deeply or personally as you.  Your job is to narrow that gap. 

Your job is to make your story theirs, as well as yours.

Do this, and do it with courage, high art and the discipline of solid story architecture, and you will publish it.  At least, with a little luck and significant effort in the marketing phase.

That and the actual writing are the only things over which you have any control at all. 

These questions, these collective value-adds stemming from these three exercises, are precisely what agents and editors are looking for.

And not coincidentally, so are readers.

Always has been, always will be.  In a publishing world where everything is changing rapidly, these literary truths trump everything else.

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Watch and Learn: 10 Television Shows for Writers

telvision head

(Quick side note: check out my guest post today on Copyblogger.com — “Why Content is No Longer King.”)

Novelists are loath to admit they watch television.  It’s like a chef admitting they enjoy a dripping hot Whopper every now and then.  With extra cheese.

And while there’s an abundance of unabashed crap on television these days – and if it’s not complete crap then it certainly qualifies as guilty pleasure – there are a handful of programs that are worth your writerly attention.  Because not only is the writing spectacular, there are abundant and exemplary literary lessons at hand.

What follows is a list of ten such programs. 

Now, before the hair on the back of your cardigan goes erect, allow me to qualify.  There are some really fun and even legitimately good television shows that didn’t make this cut. 

Why?  Because this is about writing, not about the aforementioned guilty pleasure.  Many fun programs are factually compromised in order to squeeze them into a 60 minute box (like C.S.I. and its many rip-offs), many are too soapy to qualify as remotely literary (Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, about a dozen others), and some are all concept (Flash Forward, Lost, Dollhouse, The Forgotten, about a dozen more) to an extent that an ending never materializes.

These entries are here for a reason. 

As a rule the chosen programs illustrate the role of the hero in a great story, and they deliver an empathetically-driven emotional ride that profiles a flawed protagonist as they beat down a deserving baddie (a can’t-miss hook).  All have crackling dialogue and character depth, and each viewing leaves you with a visceral hangover that validates the sense that you’ve just had an emotional-intellectual experience.

All of them make you want to write, to aspire to that level of excellence.

Watch and learn. 

House (Fox)

For my money, the best-written program on television on a consistent basis.  A very flawed and complex hero, dramatic tension, abundant sub-text, superlative and highly intelligent dialogue that will make you feel positively stupid because you can’t talk or reason that way.  This program goes deeper than anything you’ve seen on television before.

The Good Wife (CBS)

The poster program for delivering plots that engage a visceral empathy through a hero that overcomes huge emotional odds to make the world right for those victimized by predatory entities.  Also, an engaging arena.  This is Boston Legal without the over-the-top, self-aware stupidity.  Stunning.

Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

This new Showtime comedy has unprecedented character depth.  Watch it to see just how flawed and dark a protagonist can be and still enlist your empathy.

Burn Notice (TNT)

An unassuming spy who each week helps a little guy find justice while seeking his own vindication and identity.  Crackling good fun with a lot of literary meat.

Castle (ABC)

Okay, this one is a bit of a literary stretch.  But the hero is a bestselling novelist who helps the local cops solve cases, so it’s close to home.  They actually hired someone to write a novel (“Heat Wave,” under the name Richard Castle, the hero of the show) that parallels the novel the character is writing on the show.  It’s already on the NY Times Bestseller list and is selling at #7 on Amazon.com (check out the reviews).  Behold, the power of the media.

Dexter (Showtime)

The darkest concept ever – the hero is a serial killer, one who genuinely gets off on his hobby.  And yet, you root for him every week.   Watch and see how it’s done.  The fact that this is based on a bestselling novel (so is Bones, by the way, or in that case, on a bestselling novelist, Kathy Reichs; that said, Dexter is orders of magnitude better) says something about this one.

Californication (Showtime)

If your vanilla sensibilities are easily tweaked, skip this baby.  But if glib dialogue floats your literary boat, this story about a novelist turned father and college lit teacher will shock you into admiration.

The Sopranos (DVD series)

The classic character-driven, arena-intense program of all time.  Just try to look away.

Six Feet Under (DVD series)

This is an arena-driven program (welcome to the world of morticians) that is addictive and fascinating in its characterizations and shocking plots.  Raw and bold.  Don’t miss the series finale at the end of season five (Episode #63), perhaps the finest one hour of television ever produced. 

Everwood (DVD, the best cancelled series ever)

There’s a guy named Greg Berlanti working in Hollywood, and if you see his name attached to a show, watch it.  Ironically, most of his programs have been cancelled, and when you see one you’ll know why: this stuff is too intelligent and real for the general public.  But not for you, a writer who lives and breaths intelligent and real.  Everwood is perhaps the best episodic character program ever done about family dynamics, period, even better than monsters like Six Feet Under because it doesn’t rely on an arena/concept to make it fly.  Only on superlative writing, week after week.

Got others?

There are other programs that certainly qualify as worthwhile.  Many others.  Even if it isn’t entirely literary, there may be something of value we can learn as writers. 

Even from sitcoms.  Even from reality shows.  Even from network news features like Dateline or 20-2

Then again, a good fat Whopper can be just the ticket once in a while.

I encourage your recommendations for television that will make you want to attack a keyboard.  The idea isn’t to write television, it’s to write novels and screenplays – to create stories – with depth and edge and provocative excellence.

Television as inspiration for writers.   Who’d a thunk it.

Photo credit: Mr. Thomas

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