Monthly Archives: September 2011

Epiphany: The Bottom Line, Revealed

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been in a street fight for the last 30 months.

Pantsers vs. Planners.  Jets vs. Sharks.  Right vs. left.  Good vs. Evil.

You would not believe — I’ve only shared a sliver of it — the vitriolic venom sent my way when I’ve suggested that there exists an underlying, matrix-like set of structural principles and aesthetic sensibilities that, like the Gods looking down from Olympus through their enchanted reading glasses, determine the fate (readability, publishability) of our stories.

I’ve been misunderstood.  And indeed, I’ve been guitly of misunderstanding.  And… I’ve been overwhelmingly reinforced by a small army of writers who get it.

My position has… softened.  I’ve realized that the “fight” isn’t what I thought it was.  That there is significant gray imbued in all of this discussion about the writing process.

But there is no gray at all in the truth about what makes a story tick, and the precision of that truth.  We don’t get to define, or reinvent, the word “tick” in this context.  Not if you intend to throw your story out there with the intention of finding an audience.

I think I stumbled up on it.  I wrote it in my post of two days ago.  One sentence.  Not planned, but totally pantsed in the throes of writing that post.  Here it is again, slightly paraphrased for even further clarity.  It bears repeating. 

It warrants posting on your computer, maybe tattooing onto your body if you’re still confused:

Write your story however you need to write it, process-wise.  But don’t turn a blind eye to what’s true about the story itself, however you get there.  About what the story demands from you before it will work.

That’s non-negotiable.

Which means that, at the end of the day, planners and pantsers are two names for the very same pursuit.  Same game, different paths and styles.  But there is only one finish line.

So I’ll stop the divisive ratta-ratta if you will.

Like many Epiphanies, the problem is simplied when clarified.  And the polarization vanishes like smoke blown away in a relieved sigh of recognition.

I still have strong opinions about the creative process. 

You can build a castle with a blueprint and a forklift, or you can built it one handful of sand at a time.  The latter may be more romantic, it may be the only way you can wrap your head around it, but that doesn’t change the above Epiphany.

I still beleive that the more one understands those principles and criteria, the more the writer will be prone to plan, or at least realize the “search for story”  in real-time, rather than continue to just write with blind trust that there is some muse sitting on that Olympus cloud that will show you the path.  Or at least how your story will end.

Either way, though, the truth is clear.   Only the path remains shrouded in an intoxicating mist.

If you’d like to learn more about the principles and criteria mentioned in this post, CLICK HERE.  My little Epiphany changes nothing that I’ve written in that text. Or dive into the roughly 300 other posts on this website that scrutinize and contextualize them.

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A Free Sample Chapter From Victoria Mixon’s new book, “The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practicioner’s Manual”

New Peer Review Submission from Evonne M. Biggins: “The Perfect Shade of Gray” (YA).  Please honor her with your feedback.

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Back last winter, when Larry and I were both voted Top 10 Blogs for Writers, we traded guest posts—his Self-Editing at the Story Level on my site A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, and my The Bootstrapping Writer—The Secret at the Core of Competency here on Storyfix. Then a few weeks ago, I interviewed Larry for the re-release of his previously-published thrillers. We had a great chat, and everyone got a fascinating birds-eye view from Larry into what it’s really like to be a bestselling author.

Now Larry has invited me to guest post for him again here with an excerpt from my new book, The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, which was just released on September 30. Thank you, Larry!

Searching for Entertainment-Industry Intelligence

by Storyfix guest blogger Victoria Mixon

My husband and I fell in love under the shadow of SETI.

SETI, in case you don’t know, stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. When one morning sixteen years ago my new boss (and future husband) pointed out that the company we worked for was right down the hall from the SETI offices, I laughed out loud. I didn’t know you could rent office space in Silicon Valley from which to search for ET!

But as it happens, SETI, in spite of its X Files-type mission, enjoys a serious reputation among scientists and serves as a funding clearinghouse for a great deal of astronomical research, with enormous grants from some very highly-placed institutions indeed.

All this is by way of explaining where I spent a certain weekend last summer.

My husband had spent the week right before that in Boston leading seminars at one of the major Linux conferences, where he was approached by the SETI people to attend their first annual conference. He was one of a handful of open-source advocates invited to be involved in a discussion on moving SETI’s software to open source. He was also invited to their black-tie gala, at which astronauts, Star Trek stars, and big names in astronomy got up and talked about the future of space exploration. They were holding this conference at a large hotel in Silicon Valley, only a few hours’ drive from where we live. So we went. Of course!

But the really important part of the conference came the day after the black-tie gala, when we attended a talk by the Director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange on the question: How can we better bridge the gap between science-fiction entertainment and science?

We watched a wonderful pastiche of movie clips to illustrate this intriguing question, and afterward the Director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange spoke long and eloquently. She brought up several points that, in my mind, all fit into the puzzle the same way:

• Laypeople learn “science” from sci-fi entertainment
• Using science in sci-fi entertainment significantly influences the behavior of ‘consumers’ (a sitcom featuring science about breast cancer resulted in a major increase in women across the country getting check-ups, a sitcom based on forensic science resulted in a four-fold increase in enrollment in forensic studies programs)
• The difference between a hacker staring at a screen for twenty seconds and yelping, “Eureka!” is a far cry from the real hacker who stares at a screen for weeks on end before unraveling the complexities in their way
• The stories of scientists and their search for information often make gripping telling
It’s more interesting to know the truth

She explained that the National Academy of Sciences consults, when asked, on sci-fi movies and TV shows (which is where this Director’s job comes in). They also, when not asked to consult, stand by watching the ensuing confusion.

“What can we do about this disconnect?” The Director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange asked.

She described the elitism among scientists that keeps them from being interested in fiction, the lack of understanding among many writers that science-fiction must be based on—who knew?—science. She even told us about her scientist husband’s attempt to write a screenplay on what he knows about the potential and lack of potential in time travel, outraged by the ignorance displayed in time-travel sci-fi. (”This is really hard!” he finally said.)

She proposed a Writing Workshop in which writers and scientists would be paired off, so the scientists could keep the writers in the real world while they developed their stories.

Fabulous! I thought, This all makes perfect sense.

The truth is that a storyteller is dependent upon the facts of the reality they share with their reader—the hidden life-&-death struggles controlling all human character, the cause-&-effect of events in a temporal world, the meticulous, sensitive selection and accumulation of real details—to create a reflection of life that, when gazed into, resonates with a profundity that’s always present in reality but often missed.

Storytelling is not something that interferes with life. It’s not about faking or trivializing reality for the sake of the writer. Storytelling is about waking the reader up to the life that’s really there.

We must look for true aspects of character that we find utterly riveting. Explore real needs that power enormous agendas. Find ways to embed in these riveting characters with these powerful needs the counter-needs that create, deep inside them, internal conflict that rings inside the reader with devastating recognition.

I know this person,” the reader thinks. “With all their beauty and horror, their insight and idiocy, their innocence and corruption. This person is me!

Then we give our characters some fascinating premise. What if ionizing the air could bend lightwaves to alter the paths of lasers? (An example of true science from the Director’s talk.) What if time machines were possible, but altering the past through time travel were not? (Another example.) What if ghosts were the vibrations of the subatomic ‘strings’ that once made up the body of the living, continuing to reverberate after the body is gone? (I made up that one.)

What kind of nightmare could that create?

We put our characters into that nightmare.

And we design a plotline—along the lines of classic structure—around deeper and deeper exploration of the detailed, proven science that not only makes that nightmare possible but contains the only conceivable antidote.

We illuminate the eloquent search for truth that drives us all.

Please check out Victoria’s blog at A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall. She spends a lot of time horsing around on Google+ and Twitter.

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