Monthly Archives: July 2010

What Just Might Get You Published. What Probably Won’t.

A few tough truths for the new and truly committed.

The following presumes you’ve actually written a publishable story.  A manuscript that stands ready to compete against proven professionals and talented first-timers with a story that’s every bit as compelling as yours.

How to write such a story and how to publish one are very different tutorials.  Today’s post is a high-altitude slice of the latter.  And yet, it demands that you wrap your head around the former… and own it.

Before you can fly, you must successfully complete ground school.  Nobody survives their first solo without it.

You must focus on both.  Maybe not simultaneously, but at least with overlapping concentrations.

Craft without art, and art without craft, will not get you published.

Getting published is very much like becoming a professional athlete, a dancer, a musician or a fine artist.  Even a pilot.  It requires solid craft lurking beneath all your abundant art.

You can’t reinvent the game you’re playing.  There are rules and boundaries in play, with subtle differences between genres.  And nobody’s invented a new genre in decades.

Getting published is always a bit of a paradox. 

You must be the same, but different. 

You must be better than good, though once you’re in, once you’ve made it, you need only to be good.

And if you’re not, there are bunch of recent grad editorial types sitting in cubicles who will rescue you.  Not so with the first-time novelist.

And even then, if you don’t sell well enough – which may or may not have anything at all to do with how good you are – you’ll soon find yourself under a bus thinking about what pseudonym you’ll adopt for your literary resurrection.

You must write for yourself first.

And you must respect yourself enough to write well, in accordance with established principles and expectations.

No finger painting allowed.  This isn’t kindergarten, this is the major leagues.

And yet, while you’re at it you must write with the intention of publishing if you want to elevate  your story to that point. Which, from one point of view, means you are no longer writing for just yourself.

Four words to remain sane within this paradox: Read.  Study.  Practice.  Repeat.

Find your voice.  Find your passion.  Summon the discipline required.

Writing a story any damn way you please isn’t a disciplined approach.  Nobody with their name on a book cover writes that way.

Your niche awaits. 

And when you get there, know that you will not have invented it.   

Just might.

Given that your manuscript is already good enough (by whatever measure you care to apply), you just might sell it if you have an agent.  The vast, overwhelming majority of first-time novels are sold to New York-based houses through an agent. 

Overwhelming, as in, unless you’re related to the Senior Editor, you need an agent for your manuscript to make it out of the mailroom.  That’s just the way it is, fair or not. 

And yes, while you hear of the occasional exception to that, you also hear of someone winning the lottery once a week.  Read the fine print on the latter: “should not be played for investment purposes.  Should be played for entertainment only.”

So which are you – writing as a career investment, as an intended profession, or are you writing to entertain yourself?  (If it’s the latter, then may I suggest you begin a diary.)

Or are you doing one in the mistaken belief you’re doing the other?

Perhaps the most naïve and frankly ridiculous comment/question I’ve ever heard from an unpublished writer was this: “Why should I give ten percent of my take to an agent, when I can sell it directly myself?  Or simply publish it myself?”

Because that ten percent is the best money a writer can possibly spend.  And even the smallest of advances gained through an agent who takes ten percent of it will vastly exceed anything you can expect to make by publishing it yourself.

If you have an agent, your odds are – literally – 10,000 times greater than trying to sell to a major publishing house without one.  And infinitely more viable than publishing it yourself.

The most dismal failure of a published book exceeds the sales volume of the highest reasonable expectation of a self-published book by a factor of about ten.

How do you get an agent?  First, by writing a publishable story.  Back to square one.  The endless circle of the publishing paradox.  Hop on, or not, but you can’t beat this system.

Probably won’t.

If, in reading that guy’s question a moment ago, you actually consider it – even for a nanosecond – as a viable, reasonable inquiry, then I submit to you that you probably won’t be published.  At least until you wise up.

Unless, of course, you are shooting low.  There are small publishers out there that buy manuscripts from first-time authors all the time. 

Getting published, and really getting published (in a way that can launch your career) are vastly different things.  You can get your private pilot’s license, which is a respectable achievement, or you can become an airline pilot.  Same difference.

Nothing wrong with small publishers, by the way (my latest book was published by a great one).  It’s just that, if you’re already thinking about the money and you aren’t also thinking about an agent in that context… odds are you don’t get it.

And if you don’t get that, chances are you don’t get professional-level storytelling, either.

Just might.

Your story is the same, but different.

By that I mean, your story fits neatly into a niche, a genre, and fulfills all the expectations of agents, publishers and readers.  It’s solid and it’s ready.

But… there’s something new and fresh about it.  Might be your writing voice, might be the conceptual heart of the story.

Probably won’t.

It’s as good as Grisham.  As bad-ass as Baldacci.  As rockin’ as Roberts and Rowling and as delightful as Demille.

Hear this clearly: the brand name, A-list authors you read have a different standard and a different process than unpublished authors looking to break in.  If you’re playing their game, you’ll lose.

You have to be better than they are.  In some cases, that’s a high bar.  In others… very doable.

What will make your story better?

A stronger, more original concept.  A cleaner, more compelling writing voice.  A strong, unforgettable character.  A theme that alters perceptions and changes readers.

Or simply, the integration of six core storytelling competencies that exceeds the sum of those parts.

Just might.

You have a vision for your story.

Your writing process isn’t a search for the story, or even an exploration of it.  Rather, it’s a passionate execution of it. 

The “it,” in that case, being a completely fleshed-out, realized story plan – however you get to that point – that leaves nothing to chance and no storytelling stone unturned.

Probably won’t.

You have the core of an idea in your brain, and because it’s so compelling to you, you allow it to write itself.  To just open a valve and let the words pour out of your head.

To listen for, and then follow, characters who seem to be talking to you.

For professional level writers, Rhis is the stuff of first drafts and story planning. The means to an end.

For less than professional writers, this is the end instead of the means.  And thus, it becomes the stuff of frustration and fodder for naivety.

If you don’t recognize, or believe, that there are expectations, principles and paradigms into which your story must fall into compliance, then you aren’t ready to write it at a professional level.

The journey, then – at least when it works – becomes the pursuit of that understanding, every bit as much as the pursuit of the next great story idea.

The published writer knows the difference.

Just might.

Your ending is astounding.  Something that blows readers off their easy chair.

Notice how many times your favorite A-list author, while spinning a great tale with witty narrative and a slick hero, fall short of this standard.

Earlier I said you have to be better than they are.  This is one way to get there.

Probably won’t.

When you settle for less than that.  When you think your idea, your writing voice and your likeable character is enough.

It isn’t. 

The pile is full of manuscripts with just those descriptors.  Unless your ending drops jaws and demands a re-read, chances are it won’t sell.

Just might.

You won’t quit.  Ever.

These stories are everywhere, and they illustrate a prerequisite more than a fluke.  In a recent post I talked about a writer who had a story that was rejected 400 times.  Rather than quit, she self-published and promoted her novel via Kindle.  Sales ensued, gaining the attention of a major house, and now she has a three-book contract.

The road is long and dark.  You have to become your own light along the way.  The burning flame of your passion to learn — not just to write — is the best way to see and sidestep the  multitude of potholes in that road.

Probably won’t.

If you’re doing this for any other reason than the inherent joy of the story itself, and the process of parenting it into existence.

If you’re doing it for the money, do the math.

If you can ignore that answer, if you realize that you’re writing your story for yourself and for publication at the same time – a critical difference, one you need to comprehend on both sides of the coin – then you have a shot.

Writing for yourself, without regard to the expectations of the publishing world, wont’ get you published.

Writing stories that seem to be just like what everybody with a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble is writing probably won’t, either.

You must defy the logic and the odds of showing up big at both. 

Going too far out on either end of that continuum puts you in a crowded place.  And hardly anybody sitting next to you there will either know how they got there or why they’re stuck there.

Larry’s new book, “Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out next February (2011) from Writers Digest Books.  You can get a peek at the cover, and even pre-order a copy from Amazon.com, HERE.

His new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published,” will be available within the next two weeks.  If you’d like to pre-order at a discount, send $10 to Paypal (storyfixer@gmail.com), and you’ll receive your PDF as soon as it’s released.  The regular price at that time will be $14.95.

If you’re in a writing/critique group and would like to order multiple copies of “Get Your Bad Self Published,” send $7.00 for each recipient (5 copy minimum order) to Paypal (storyfixer@gmail.com), along with the email addresses of each recipient.

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The Most Important Question(s) in Storytelling and the Ensuing Two Questions That Allow You to Answer

Is it okay if I admit that I love today’s post?  Because I do.

Maybe because I’ve been tinkering with it for weeks. 

I write about things that lurk in all corners of the writing room, some hidden and lurking in the darkest corners, others sitting on desk begging for attention. 

Sometimes they’re subtle.  This one is isn’t.

This one is huge. 

It’s straight out of Writing 101, smack from the middle of Square One, and no matter how far down the road we are, a return to this fundamental persective can empower, resurrect or otherwise save a flagging writing dream.

You have to get this stuff down.  

Whether you do it naturally or you have to staple a note to your forehead, if you write stories you must pay attention to what today’s post is sticking squarely in your face.

Let that process begin, or at least reignite, here and now.

###

In our last post, I introduced (though I certainly didn’t invent) the notion of boiling your story down to a few simple questions that, in essence, define the very things your readers will want to know.

You have to know them first. 

And then you have to get clever, strategic, even postively Machiavvellian, about teasing them along toward that denouement. 

Readers want to be sucked in, manipulated, double-crossed and then brought back home… they want to take a journey with you… and then they want to be paid off with an ending that delivers the goods.

Even if this sounds obvious at first blush…

… it’s always good to look at things from multiple and even simplified perspectives.  This question-posing technique, in particular, can do everything from conquering writer’s block to putting your story over the top in terms of its dramatic potential effectiveness.

And, just as critically, it might rescue you from a mistake you weren’t even aware you were making.

Here’s they type of questions I’m talking about.

Will your hero reach her or his goal? 

Will he get the girl? 

Will she find love afterall?

Will she survive? 

Will he ever walk again?  See again?  Play the piano again?

Will what needs to happen actually happen in time? 

Will romance ensue?  Or will it flame out? 

Will she get from under her father’s thumb? 

Will he live out from under his family’s name?

Will the antagonist do irreparable harm? 

Will the antagonist be brought to justice?

Will the rules of the game change?   

Will the hero get the job? 

Keep the job? 

Succeed at the job? 

Find a way to work around the boss-from-hell? 

To kill the boss from hell?  Or at least, get her fired?

Will a moral line need to be crossed? 

Will she be forgiven? 

Will others understand? 

Will the cost exceed the benefit? 

Will he get away with it?

Will the inner demon be conquered?

Notice these are, for the most part, yes or no questions.

That’s on purpose. 

Because it forces you to keep your focus on the primary storylines – one, maybe two, with one or maybe two sub-plots– rather than wandering around in a narrative daze, trying to write a story that’s all things to all readers. 

Too many questions can turn your story into something bigger.  Unwieldy big.   Boringly, unfocused big.

You want to write a page turner, not a character-drenched biography full of side-trips and backstory.

Asking the right dramatic question is perhaps the most important part of storytelling.  If you’ve not given it much attention, focusing on details, characterization and the wonder of your linguistic gifts, you may just be missing the point.  Which in this case is synonymous with opportunity.

 Also, notice that these questions aren’t focused on theme. 

They are guiding you toward plot, toward exposition.  The idea isn’t to pose a question such as, “Will love conquer all?” — which is purely thematic — but rather, will the specific characters in your story find love, or not?

Theme is what your readers will take away from the reading experience.  These questions aren’t about that, they’re about what you, the writer, will do within your story to lead them toward that experience.

And now, for my favorite moment in this post:

Notice, too, that the genius of this technique…

… isn’t being able to answer these questions, but rather, to simply ask them.  To propose the right questions and get rid of the wrong ones.  To prioritize.

Read those three sentences (such as they are) again.  They’re huge.

To create a story spine, instead of a slice-of-life with too many problems to solve and cul-de-sacs to navigate.

And because all of the answers are probably yes – and if you’ve noticed that with any degree of impatience, then grab on, because you’re about to get the entire point right here…

… they force you to square off with the next two levels of questions, which are equally powerful and astoundingly brief.

Because for every yes answer you must answer the question of how.

How will you make that “yes” answer happen?  Make it fit?

Make it exciting, dramatic? 

Make it pay off?

How will you get there?  That answer defines whether your story will work, or not.

And if the answer to a dramatic question happens to be no, then the next question, instead of how?, becomes why?

Which in either case leads you to the next most important storytelling question of all.

Because without this one, those first level of dramatic questions won’t matter. 

Your job as a storyteller is to make things interesting.  Make them meaningful.  Deep.  Seductive.  Compelling.  Frightening.  Illuminating.  Interesting.  Gripping.  Memorable.  Relevant.  Challenging.  Engaging. 

Irresistible.

Asking those first-level dramatic questions doesn’t do that, it merely points you toward a means of doing all that.  It gives you clarity, and from that clarity comes the opportunity to really create something fresh and worthwhile.

It forces you to ask… how?

And your answer to that question is the stuff of stellar storytelling.

Because anybody can write a love story, a mystery, a thriller.  Just completing a manuscript and qualifying for membership within a niche isn’t the point.

Making it sizzle… that’s the point. 

Making it stand out.  Making it work in a way that, even if it’s slightly familiar (and aren’t all mysteries and thrillers and romances slightly familiar to some extent, and isn’t that the point?), satisfies and lingers.

You have to have a killer answer ready every time you ask how.

And for that – to answer the most important questions in storytelling – you need the most powerful question in storytelling.

The two most magical words in all of literary creation:

What if… ?

The moment you think of those two words as a tool – as a means of answering the question of how?” – rather than a cliché, your writing will turn a corner.

Because right here is where even the most skeptical of organic writers and painstakingly anal of story planners arrive at an identical point in the creative journey.

You don’t have to settle

You can dream as big, as outrageously, or as cleverly subtle, as you choose in selecting and crafting answers to the how? question with a series of genius what if…? propositions.

But only if how have the right high level dramatic question at the story level preceding it.

When you can answer all these questions, at all three levels – the basic dramatic questions that define your story… how you’ll get there… and the best what if? questions you can come up to make that journey compelling – you’ll have everything in your tool chest that you need to write the best story you have in you.

Think of your favorite stories… can you state the dramatic questions that reside at the heart of it?  Let’s hear from you on that. 

So many stories… so many questions.

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