Monthly Archives: April 2011

Core Clarification On a Few Core Competencies

(Please forgive the small formatting errors — spacing, to be precise — toward the end of this post.  WordPress isn’t cooperating… wish they’d give me back the previous version, in which any errors were mine.)

Book reviews are tricky from the author’s point of view.  You want ‘em, but you want ‘em a certain way.  And we have absolutely no control over what reviewers write about our work.

With novels, we’re stuck with what they write.  Even if they didn’t get it.  And certainly if they didn’t like it.

But with non-fiction, reviewers are suddenly as much at risk as the author being reviewed.  Because often a review will mention a specific issue or stance, and while we (as authors) shouldn’t comment on their opinions, we are perfectly licensed, even obligated, to pipe up when they represent what we’ve written in an inaccurate way, factually-speaking.

I can’t complain about the reviews of my new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Sucessful Writing.”  There are 33 reviews posted on Amazon as I type this, and a bunch of others on websites here and there.  For the most part they’re great, the book is hitting the mark., and it’s been the #1 bestselling Kindle fiction writing craft book for weeks now.  Of course nothing works for everybody, especially when you happen to be as passionate and, sometimes, assertive as I am.

Some writers absolutely hate it when another writer makes an assertation about writing, which I do, and frequently.  Especially when it doesn’t represent their point of view.  Which, with writing, can be all over the map.

But they aren’t all 5-star reviews.  The good news is that 23 of the 33 are 5-star reviews, leaving eight with 4-stars, and one each that offer 3-stars and 2-stars, respectively.

Won’t comment on those. 

But a couple of the 4-star reviewers, who liked the book enough to give it that grade, tell readers that I make certain statements and assertions in the book that are, to put it bluntly, misrepresented.  A 180 from the truth.  When we’re dealing with something as complex and artful as writing a story, any mistake in understanding the basics can be harmful.  Not so much to me as the author, but to someone reading the review.

So I need to respond.  Which I’ve done in the comment section of those reviews.  Which I offer up here, just to be clear.

The lastest 4-star reviewer said this, and inaccurately so:

I am a bit dismayed by his intimation that fluid elegant writing is unimportant, but in the context of the commercial fiction market that may well be true.

Yes it may.  Here is my response:

I never assert that elegant prose isn’t important, at least to the extent implied here. I assert that such prose WITHOUT the other five core competencies is indeed unimportant, and unpublished. I also posit that “elegant” prose isn’t a criteria at all, simply that clean, professional and compelling prose is. The bookshelves are full of successful and wonderful books that are anything but elegant. This should be great news to writers everywhere, you don’t have to write like Jonathan Franzen to have a successful book, or certainly, to tell a compelling story.
 
Just try writing an elegantly written story… that sucks.  Then again, don’t, you’d be wasting your time.
 
Another review, on another issue, said this:
 
I felt that his extensive use of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” was unfortunate. I agree that Brown follows the recommended structure, but without the enticing clues and mysterious background, I don’t think the book works well. Perhaps this is because I hate chase scenes with no character development. So while I enjoyed “Story Engineering,” I have some reservations about how useful structure is if you don’t have excellent content and characterization.
 
Wow.  Maybe she had taken her Ambien while reading.   Did she miss the part about there being five other core competencies?
Here is my response to this one:
 
This review is fair, but slightly misleading on one count, and I’d like to correct it. While I do cite The Davinci Code as a structural model, I do make it VERY clear that even with this in play, it takes more than structure to make a story work. In fact, I pound home the point, and in multiple places, that one can indeed have all six core competencies in place (only one of which is structure), and the story still won’t find a publisher and/or a readership (criteria that are no longer joined at the hip). I also make it clear that ALL six are required, not just structure. In the case of Davinci, I explain that it was Brown’s huge concept and thematic power (two of the core competencies) that put this book on the map, not the structure, and certainly not his character development (which was fine, but in my opinion, something short of stellar) nor his writing voice. It’s interesting that when something comes along that challenges the world view of some writers, which my book certainly does, they suddenly have blind spots and amnesia about the full -icture scope of what they’re reading. Rest assured, this reviewer is correct, it takes more than structure to write a great story and/or find a publisher and an audience. And rest assured, my book makes this crystal clear.
 
I would never comment on a review of one of my novels, but I need to defend the truth in this book.
 
One more assertation.  Several readers were — predictably — not happy with the assertion that successful stories do indeed have structure, and go so far as to state that to write a story in context to structural principles (which is what the book offers, rather than a forumla or absolutes) is or them at least 9though a few imply it as a universal truth) that writing with structure somehow hinders creativity.
Wow again.  Pass the Ambien.
 
Don’t confuse process with outcome. 
 
Process is always personal and negotiable.  While my initial Storyfix posts may not have reflected that strongly enough, believe me, I get it, and these days I represent it that way in everything I do.  But don’t be confused or misled — no matter how you write, if you end up with a successful story it WILL have structure to it, and it WILL look a lot like the fundamental structure that, well, almost every other successful book has. 
Just like an airplane’s gotta have wings.  Don’t get on one that doesn’t.
 
Here are a few of the headers on some Amazon reviews, for your consideration:
 
Should be #1 on ALL writers’ bookshelves.
 
Saved My Novel.
 
Learn how to write a great story!
 
You Write? Remove All Doubt and Buy This Book!
 
The best ever How-To book.
 
It made my life better!
 
The most useful book about novel writing ever written.
 
Essential reading.
 
The Book Every Beginning Writer Needs to Read.
 
Thanks for reading Storyfix today.
 
 

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A Perspective on Cataclysmic Criticism

We’ve all been there, felt that.  We’ve finished something that we’ve poured our souls into.  Spilled enough blood on it to warrant a transfusion.  

We wait.  We toss and turn.  It’s in the hands of someone who needs to love it – an agent, an editor, a trusted friend.

Or worse, your proofreading significant other.  Who is almost always right.

And then it happens. 

It totally sucks.

That’s not what they’ll say, of course. 

No, it’ll sound more like, “we have to talk.”  There are major problems.  It’s just not working.  Tell me what you were thinking here.

What were you thinking? 

Well, that it was the best you had in you.  That it would launch your Big Career.  That it would make someone at the New York Times Review of Books want your phone number.  And that, while you are welcoming of feedback and expected to hear some stuff, you weren’t expecting a one-way ticket under the bus.

The news hits hard.  Like, an IRS audit kind of hard.  Like, maybe I’m kidding myself kind of hard.

But here’s the deal. 

It might not be that bad. 

Even if the critic is someone with more chops and credibility than Kirkus or Gene Siskel.

Really.  It happens all the time.  It’s really not that bad at all.

In my experience, critics need to justify themselves.  They need to criticize.  And, they have buttons that, if pushed, allow for no recovery.

It’s not that they’re wrong, in fact they usually aren’t.  But what happens is when something doesn’t sit well with them, especially early in the story, the rest is rendered sour.  They can’t get past it.  Like someone from Fox News reviewing a speech at the Democratic Convention.  Nothing is going to work after that first sound-bite.

A fly in the soup might validly send someone bolting from the dinner table.  But it doesn’t mean the whole meal is a travesty, or that the recipe needs an overhaul.

It’s just a fly.  Take it out and the whole nasty “it sucks” problem goes away.

I’ve lived this little literary nightmare several times. 

A character is too flat.  The setting isn’t vivid enough.  There’s too much focus on the sex or the violence or the backstory.

Not all at once, mind you… all of these story-killing flies fluttering in the soup at once would indeed merit a stinker review.  No, these were isolated little ditties of validly criticized minutia, out-of-synch moments, poor creative calls… all easily fixed.

That’s the thing to look for when someone says a story isn’t working.  Is it true, or is it something that is easily fixed?

It’s critical that you drill down beneath the psychology – which manifests as blindness after the shocking explosion of a single moment of distaste – behind the criticism.  Is the color of the house all wrong, even though the place is otherwise an architectural palace?  Is the meal perfectly scrumptious even though it’s served on cracked china?  Is the story stellar even though the main character isn’t as witty and charming as he or she could be?  Or that they swear too much?

Maybe.

Or maybe the whole thing really does suck. 

It’s your job to make that call.

Just as it was your call to create those narrative details in the first place, it’s your job to decide what to do with such input.  It should always be considered, but it should also always be broken down and evaluated.

The total shambles that you turned in might be salvaged with a twenty-minute tweak.  That’s happened to me, too, and more than once. 

Turn a few screws, tighten down a few details, slap on a new coat of paint… and miracles can happen.  You turn it back in, all buffed up and humbled before the genius input of your critic, and you just might hear raves.

Because it was the critic who saved it.  Of course it was.

In which case, you can just smile and say thank you in the knowledge that no story is perfect out of the printer.  You don’t have to reveal that it was always just a spit-shine away from being every bit as good as you thought it was all along.

As writers we live and die with such decisions. 

Fixing what isn’teally broken can sometimes be the worst one you can make.

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