Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Perfectly Good Writing Day in L.A.

Welcome to West Hollywood.  I don’t live here, nor am I here to meet with a movie producer about one of my books.  I am, however, sitting in a mall across the street from the monolithic building where that stuff happens, where the agents are, and so I bask in the glorious reflected radiance of their demographic wisdom.

Somewhere in the building, I’d wager, is at least one of the 46 agents who rejected “The Help” before it raised the bar on modern historicals.

It’s gorgeous here.  It’s about 8 in the morning, warm and sunny, and other than a Coffee Bean and a hungover hipster sleeping next to a fountain, the place is deserted.  I’m in town to speak at the Writers Digest West Coast Writers Conference, a presentation I wandered over here from the hotel to actually write.  Nothing like the scent of tacos and piped-in new age music to stoke the creative fires.

Instead I find myself writing this post.  Gotta work on my time management.

The title of my presentation: Storytelling Excellence Through the Avoidance of Mediocrity.

I have 50 minutes to change the lives of 400 writers who have been wondering about this. A bit like getting one hour to deliver a moral compass to the population of a work-release facility.

The time constraint forces me toward theory, I fear, because those 12 buckets I teach from — the six core competencies and the six realms of story physics — barely fit into the UCLA student library, which is just up the street.

Square One, I think, connects to how one defines “excellence” and “mediocrity.”  These are relative terms, but they become less so when one admits they are in this for the money.  Okay, and of course the obligatory nod to art and redemption.  Wrapping one’s head around the difference is the first order of business.  If you raise your hand, you no longer are writing simply for yourself.

The moment one aspires to be a professional, everything changes.  One is suddenly forced to look mediocrity sqaurely in the eye… and then spit in it.

The discussion, I believe, quickly gravitates toward two levels: the Big Picture of a story, and the Execution of a story.  The former resides at the 3-way intersection of Idea, Concept and Premise.  And the latter — Execution — kicks in when you step off that curb.

The premise of a story can lean into excellence by it’s obvious potential for dramatic and thematic chops (again, “The Help” comes to mind) and when it isn’t — about 8 out of 10 of the stories sent to me for evaluation — the writer is left to, if you will, make that steaming pile of story into chicken salad.  Somehow.

Mediocrity happens when writers settle.  When they grab the first hint of a story beat and move forward with it without vetting better options.  When they make it all up as they go and then stamp “The End” on the last page, without introducing the first quartile to the last.

Mediocrity is when you resolve your thriller or mystery with a fist fight that the hero wins.

Mediocrity is when your historical takes your hero on a tour of the land, falls in love, fights a battle (a dragon, perhaps) and lives happily ever after.

Mediocrity happens when your romance  shows a good girl pining for a bad guy, and she gets a chance to change him, because hey, that’s the power of love.

Medicrity happens when in your heart your goal is to allow your writing, your voice, to carry the day because the story is about “real life.”

Mediocrity is episodic.  Mediocrity depicts characters swapping chit-chat over coffee.

Mediocrity is a story about something, without nothing much happening.

You can do everything precisely right, structurally-speaking, and it still might end up in a stack labeled mediocre.

Excellence happens when story physics drive your creative decision-making.

Another reason today is a Perfectly Good Writing Day

At least for me: Amazon is now shipping my new novel, Deadly Faux, a week before the scheduled pub date.  It’s live, in both trade paperback and Kindle (the Kindle link doesn’t show yet on the main book page, but use the Kindle search and it’s there).  Bookstores should have it in a week or three.

Of course, it is on this day when we writers dust off our holiday card list and roam through parking lots putting promotional postcards under windshield wipers… but I’m too old, cynical and been-there-tried-that to go that route… again.  Doesn’t work, by the way.

Instead, I’m going to try something that, to my knowledge, has never been done before.  

I’m going to write an ebook that does two things: it will deconstruct Deadly Faux in detail, turning it into a laboratory for writers looking for transparency into issues such as structure, context, story physics and the optimization of story.  I’ll use pages numbers and describe narrative strategy, story beat by story beat.

In other words, putting my head on my own chopping block to walk the Storyfix talk.  And hopefully, showcase and discuss these storytelling principles for the benefit to others.

It’ll be line one massive Storyfix post.

The ebook will also be a short “making of” story of the creation and selling of the novel itself, which is a thriller in its own right.  If you want to see what this business looks like from behind the curtain, and how it feels to get lifted up, smacked down and then resuccciated (the book has had three agents behind it, for starters), if you want to avoid mistakes and see what works, and why… then this ebook will deliver.

The ebook: “The Inner Life of Deadly Faux” will be free to Storyfix readers who pick up a copy of the novel.  Just send me your online receipt, or if you bought it old school (as in, at a bookstore), just tell me where that happened and what store.  I’ll send the ebook back to you digitally.

For now this is the only way to get your hands on it, and I hope you’ll agree it’s a win-win (because it’s free, and it’s really not relevant until you have Deadly Faux anyhow).  This offer begins immediately… the ebook is being completed and I’ll ship it out to you in a few weeks.  Time enough to get the novel read.

This has never been done before, in this form.  It forwards my goals on several levels, and being a big believer in the win-win, it is designed to forward yours, as well.  I invite you to go to the Amazon page and read the author blurbs about the novel… if you aren’t buying my hype, I hope you’ll believe what two big name authors are saying about it.

Thanks for helping me write my presentation, and for considering Deadly Faux and the free ebook.








Filed under other cool stuff

How to “Write Like Rowling”

A Deconstruction of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I don’t think of myself as a name dropper, but I do love to show how famous authors and bestselling books adhere to the principles of story structure.  Especially when those authors are still breathing… I get nay sayers who like to cite Shakespeare and Cervantes as examples of… well, nay saying.

The earth isn’t still flat, either.  But I digress.

They aren’t remotely my principles, by the way, I just put them into instructional buckets that I call The Six Core Competencies.  They are universal.  A sort of inevitable outcome of a process of natural selection within the craft of story telling: stories that work, even if their authors have no idea what they’re doing or what to call the structure when they stumble upon it, end up aligning with these principles… almost every time.

When a draft isn’t working, when an agent or editor suggests a change, that change almost always moves the narrative closer to the universal structural paradigm (the one that optimizes available story physics) that awaits… what it’ll look like when it finally does work.

It’s not formula, it’s story physics.  It’s the gravity of storytelling.

And that includes the Harry Potter books.

Author names don’t come any bigger than J.K. Rowling.  And because of that, readers regularly request a deconstruction of the Harry Potter oeuvre.  Some, I suspect, want to see the theories disproved.  Others simply want to see it exposed, lifted from the pages to becomes an example we can learn from.

So here you go.  And I’m happy to give credit where it belongs: I didn’t do this one.

Today I’m referring you to a great website called Write Like Rowling, which offers four posts on this analysis, in addition to other good stuff on all things Rowling.  This link takes you to the first in that series (they’re all there, a click away from this first one).  The author even cites page numbers of the major story milestones, with rationale showing how these story turns fulfill the mission of each.

It’s creator and author, Carolyn, wrote me recently to introduce herself and let me know that Story Engineering has, in her words, changed her writing life, and to alert me to her application of those principles (a test, really) to Rowling’s books.

No surprise (to me, at least), it worked.  Somewhere out there, a guy named Cervantes is rolling over in his grave.


Filed under Six Core Competencies