The seventh in a series of posts on what elevates a story to greatness.
Contrary to how adamantly I pound the metaphoric table as I offer my views on structure and the principles of narrative, nothing about this stuff is an exact science.
Writing is like any other form of art and entertainment – getting it onto a major public stage is subject to the influence of trends and the very human assessment of those whose job it is to anticipate them.
And who get fired when they don’t. Which makes them very, very picky.
If you had a religious thriller in the inbox when The Davinci Code hit, your chances of publication were orders of magnitude greater than if you mailed it off as part of the reactive wave of been-there-done-that submissions hoping to cash in on that juggernaut.
My own novel – written before Davinci hit – experienced such a fate. It’s out now, but it took five years for the door to open.
It’s like figure skating or gymnastics or even a beauty pageant. There are indeed standards and expectations that seem to be precise, but – based on results – at times these ideas seem like a moving target.
When someone like Nelson Demille ends a #1 bestselling novel by having all the evidence go up in smoke because it happened to be in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9-11, it calls everything we know about storytelling into question.
But don’t be fooled.
Chasing the Money
When an author establishes a certain amount of fame and brand equity based on sales, they suddenly have different standards than the rest of us.
Ever notice how the work of some (an unnamed few) big name authors seems to have been stronger in the beginning of their career? And yet, with what may seem like complete and utter mediocrity – and there are many exceptions here, the vast majority of successful long-term careers earn their qualitative keep – they keep publishing while your vastly superior work continues to get tossed under the bus.
Or so it seems at the time. The good news is… you may be absolutely right.
Such qualitative abberations on the part of the rich and famous manifest in two ways.
First, when they turn in a manuscript that needs work – even if it basically sucks – the publisher will work with them to fix it. Whatever that means.
And in that case they don’t spend years polishing and revising – like we do – they spend only long enough to get it to a point where it blends in without any glaring weaknesses.
You and I don’t get that accommodation. We just get rejected.
The other way is that the standards of execution are much lower. A famous author can get away with plot points in the wrong place, fuzzy lines between contextual parts, even a rescued hero or a deus ex machina that a school kid could recognize.
The Illusion of Competence
And therein resides a huge risk for those of us who are reading these novels and deconstructing these movies in an effort to learn and understand the principles of effective storytelling.
Sometimes it’s like trying to learn singing by listening to a Bob Dylan record. Or seeking to learn golf by watching Arnold Palmer swing a club, which looked as if someone had stashed a bag of tees where the sun doesn’t shine.
I frequently hear from readers who seemingly challenge the structural principles with a sentence like this: I was reading (insert famous author name here), and from what I can tell the first plot point doesn’t happen until the middle of the book, and the hero’s journey began on page 4. Does that mean this is okay?
In a word, no.
Don’t imitate Stephen King or Dan Brown. Or Arnold Palmer. Ever.
It also means something else.
Half the battle of deconstructing and analyzing stories is the ability to know what you’re looking for and being able to recognize it when you see it on the page or on the screen.
Remember, we don’t get that free famous author pass.
As a learning exercise, it is as valuable to spot a mistake as it is to recognize competence. And trust me, there are plenty of mistakes in a lot of published work out there.
There’s a reason American Idol uses Randy, Kara and Simon as judges.
They’re pros. They get it. They know it when they see and hear it.
And yet – which you’d know if you’re watching this year’s crop of finalists – even they allow sub-par talent to reach the big leagues.
Because like writing, singing is not an exact science.
The result of literary hero worship is often a rationalization of writing that fails to demonstrate a well-honed command of craft.
Michael Jordan shot and made a free throw in an NBA game with his eyes closed. Show me the coach who teaches his young players to do things that way and I’ll happily concede that the principles of great storytelling don’t work.
It may sound harsh, but there are only two words that apply to someone who rationalizes a departure from fundamental principles because an author they admire seems to have gotten away with it: ignorance… and naiveté.
Both can be deal killers. Or better, career killers.
Rather than spotting a variance and trying to defend or rationalize it in the name of art or something validated by fame, the enlightened author uses that opportunity to recognize an aberration… and learn from it.
That simple shift turns ignorance and naiveté into working smart.
And because there’s nothing simple about what we’re tying to do when we set out to sell what we write in an imprecise market dictated by the judgment of folks who may not be any better at it than you – who are driven almost exclusively by the pursuit of gross revenue, for which, ironically, the only standard is the very same set of storytelling principles you are pursuing – that’s the best tool any of us have.
That includes your pursuit of knowledge, as well as your actual writing.
People who fight off the truth, who rationalize exceptions and try to make conventional wisdom wrong or mundane, separate themselves from growth.
Challenge, yes. Just make sure you understand the landscape before you throw down.
Sometimes working smart involves not only rethinking your work, but rethinking how you go about learning the craft itself.
If you’d like to assess that I know from where I speak — also a less-than-precise science — I invite you to read the reviews of my latest novel here.