Monthly Archives: April 2014

Is Your Story Worth Saving?

Of course it is.  It’s yours.  Nobody can nor should they tell you it’s not worth the time to try to save it.

But when it isn’t ready to come out into the light, when it doesn’t really have a shot as is — because on this website and in my story evaluations, this is about PROFESSIONAL-level storytelling — someone absolutely should tell you it needs… whatever it needs.

Really, though, sometimes that assessment in the harshest degree — even when it’s fair and accurate — is more an issue of semantics than it is a pronouncement of death.  Even when it is.

Because anything can be revised.  Sometimes, to the point where absolutely everything in the proposed story has been rethought and rebooted.  Because someone on the other side pointed out why it wouldn’t work otherwise.

Like people with a pulse, stories require certain minimum elements, essences and chemistry to work.  Only here it’s a matter of opinion — someone’s opinion — that makes that call.  The idea, the goal, is to arm yourself with the ability to make that call.

Even doctors in the ER have to make that call on patients… the point at which they “call it” and put away the paddles.

Which poses a rhetorical question:

In the case of a story that has been completely rebooted, have you just “saved” the story, or have you used the experience of the former story to lead you to a better story?

It doesn’t matter what label — first aid, polish, or resurrection from the dead — you put on the resultant reboot process and product.  What matters is understanding when and why this discussion applies to you, and then, what you need to do about it.

Sometimes the news that your story isn’t good enough is the best news of all.  Because you probably thought it was good enough.  The dispenser of that verdict has just, in some combination, given you new hope, a plan, and the saving of several months of pain and/or work.

Even when the thing is dead on arrival.

Whether you listen, or not, is your call.  It, and what you do about it, is a call that makes or breaks your writing dream.

My Job Sucks Sometimes

As a story coach I get up every day to stare down the throat of stories that need help.  It’s the nature of the story coaching beast… if it didn’t require coaching it wouldn’t be on my screen.  That’s why I charge money for this (in addition to the result being invaluable to the writer), because sometimes it’s like trying to turn a 98-pound weakling into its proud parent’s vision of it becoming a first round draft choice… like, soon, after a few more pushups.

And yet, the only way to take that kid/project to that level is to whip up a Captain America level resurrection (you’ll recall he was, literally, a 98-pound weakling who died, then was rebuilt in a lab and zapped back to life, complete with a new body, a new brain and a new mission in life).  That kid wasn’t “saved,” he was essentially replaced.

Make the leap from that analogy to a story that isn’t working at it’s most basic defining level… and you’ve just joined the conversation here.  Save it?  Try to breath life into it by medicating the symptoms instead of the cause?

Or do you reinvent it?  That’s the author’s opportunity.

Here’s what I believe to be true: at the end of the story coaching day… no, every story cannot be saved.

More often than I care to say (and you really don’t want to know), the degree of help required to make a story viable leans into the aforementioned analogy, a story so lacking in weight (while burdened with the misguided hubris of its creator) it’s like a newborn brought into the world without bones or muscle or — again, much too often — a brain.

But dang, that thing was so cute back at square one.

The problem is this: writer has what they believe to be a cool notion for a story… but it’s challenging, complicated, even out there, so writer makes some leaps, asks the reader to suspend logic and belief, then faces more stretches and concoctions just to connect the dots… and before you know it you have the CIA coming to a shy 14-year math whiz  (the hero of this story) with an alcoholic parent to save the world because, gosh darn it, there just aren’t enough really smart and capable people sitting in windowless rooms in a CIA facility that can actually save the world after all.

If your wimpy teenage hero has to hack into National Security servers to get the information required to save the world, when all the police and secret agents and military might on the planet haven’t been able to do just that… then odds are your story is Dead on Arrival.  It’s been stretched and bent and contrived to death.

It’s like lying.  You tell one, it’s a whopper, and then you have to keep heaping lie after lie after lie on top of it to justify the pieces of the original whopper just to seemingly hold the whole teetering facade together.  But oh, that first lie… it was so beautiful.  If only it were true… and so, you bend all logic and reason to make it true in your story world.

But here’s the deal: you really can’t turn a really bad story idea into a really good story, or a really non-heroic protagonist (you wouldn’t believe how many unpublished “heroes” there are out there with backstories in which they are insecure, unloved, timid, frightened and disconnected… newsflash: Superman came out of the womb with powers beyond what any human could imagine)… without replacing that idea and that backstory with a better one.

Bend all you want… but it is that bending and stretching of logic that kills your story as much as the eye-rolling nature of the premise in the first place.

The trouble with this whole business — the business of writing publishable fiction, fiction that sells — is that this is a moving, imprecise, often invisible bar we’re reaching for here.  This is why everybody who tries doesn’t get there.

It’s why professional storytellers — those who have earned the nametag not because of track record, but because of the craft at their command – do.

The sweet spot for all of this resides at the intersection of concept and premise. 

Which leads to a dramatic question.  Which connects to a hero called up to answer and resolve that question.  Which, when perceived as compelling without the need to bend it into something else entirely, becomes the DNA of a story with a shot.

Somewhere in that simple equation writers are deluding themselves into believing they’ve broken the code.  When in fact, their ship is taking on water and won’t make it out of the harbor into the open ocean of an unspooling story.

When you write a story, you are owning the conceit that you know what others will find compelling.  Think about that for a moment… and then look in a mirror and ask if that’s you.

Revision is common. 

It’s expected.  A part of the deal.  A fulfilling phase of the storytelling journey.

Unless it’s an attempt to breath life into the stillborn by bending and stretching the capacity of a reader to believe.  Into an equation that doesn’t add up, and won’t mean anything if and when it does as a result of all the bending of the math required.

Unless the thing is just plain dead already.  If it is, you need to hear it from the perspective of a professional, someone who knows the difference between a player that belongs on the field and one who needs to stay in the concession stand.

What’s frustrating about my job — I think this just turned into a bit of a rant — is that I keep getting stories sent to me that are in, or have both feet already dangling toward — that abyss from which there is no return.

The Fix

The ONLY THING that can prevent that — for you, for me, and in general — is a heightened awareness of what makes a story work.  Which is a story sensibility that arises from, is built upon, the mechanics of how a good story is assembled, and how it is fueled by a concept and a premise (they are different… recognizing that alone is half the battle) that has enough energy and potential and fresh air in its DNA to give the story a shot at a future.

It is, pure and simple,  story physics.  Dramatic tension arising from a compelling (key word, right there) dramatic question, leading to a hero who must DO something in pursuit of a worthy goal, with something blocking the straight line toward the goal.  That’s it, in the proverbial nutshell.

When the goal is to render those narrative physics onto the page, it happens only from a solid foundation of storytelling craft (what I call the six core competencies of storytelling) that seizes that concept/premise promise and molds it into narrative gold.

The trick resides in recognizing what that winning concept/premise DNA consists of (hint: I just told you what it consists of), then summoning the requisite craft to bring it to fruition over the arc of a story that is artfully assembled and rendered.

You can get all six of the core competencies right… and the story can still sink like a stone tied to the foot of a protagonist who never stood a chance.  Just as you can put makeup and clothes on a store mannequin or a corpse that looks like a person, that is in fact beautiful and mesmerizing… but it still can’t walk across a room.

That’s the thing about a good concept.  Many stories can arise from it.  Only one of them is your premise.

Our job is to pick the right one, the best one.  The one that stands a chance in hell in a business in which there really isn’t one, if the statistics are to be believed.

*****

Click HERE to read more about Story Physics, and HERE to read more about the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.

Click HERE or HERE (for a shorter, less expensive level that focuses on concept and premise) to learn more about holding your story plan up to the harsh but liberating light of analysis from a story coach who won’t judge your story, just the DNA it’s built upon.

Prices for story coaching will increase on May 1, 2014.  Those who opt in now will lock in the current fee, regardless of when the submit the materials involved.

 

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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Case Study: Heroes and Villains and Readers Who Can’t Tell the Difference

Let’s call him Joe.

Joe is another of those courageous writers who consented to running their coaching Questionnaire answers (the Kick-Start concept/premise evaluation), with my feedback, here on Storyfix .  He turned me down at first, uncomfortable with the notion that someone out there might want to “borrow” from his concept.

I assured him this wasn’t at risk.  In fact, that in a forum like this, that’s almost zero risk.  Not because the concept won’t spark a moment of envy — it might, actually — but because in a community like this, story ideas are like dreams… we all have them in abundance, and often we wake and don’t remember what all the nocturnal fuss was about.  And even if we do remember, they aren’t worth anything (including being stolen) until they are executed well.

That’s the hard part.  Go ahead, steal an F-35 stealth fighter plane, see what you can do with it.

I wanted to share this because Joe came to this process very enthused.  He didn’t say it, but I think he believed he was ready to write the story, and that it was a solid plan, even that it was a potential bestseller.  To be the bearer of bad news isn’t my idea of a good time, but like a doctor (okay, a vet or a mechanic, if that seems less self-aggrandizing) delivering a diagnosis and a therapy plan to someone who really didn’t know they were terminal, I have no other choice.

The writer pays for just this type of feedback, the kind that will save you a year of your life writing a draft that won’t work, going away with a notion of roadmap that will save the story, or at least give it a chance.

The problem here is, once again, a concept and a premise that don’t know one from the other, and then a story plan that doesn’t live up to the missions and criteria of the various elements.  Joe had read — studied, he assures me — Story Engineering, so this evaluation reflects a common challenge for the new writer.

In essence, this stuff is a lot harder than it looks.  An idea you are passionate about does not legitimize the compromise or redefinition of what a novel requires.  That’s like saying a supermodel can be a good actress, simply by the jaw-dropping nature of their looks.

You can’t shortcut it, you can’t bend the definitions, and most of all, you can’t/shouldn’t confuse your passion for a story idea with the discipline of getting the moving parts in the proper form and function to make that idea work.  In this case I don’t think Joe was “bending” the definitions, per se, but rather, that he hadn’t really wrapped his head around them.

Don’t let your killer story idea blind you to what must be done with it.  Those are the very things that make your killer story idea WORK, no great idea ever has stood alone.

As usual, your input is appreciated.  This is an concept and a theme that can work, should work, but (IMO) needs a complete architectural overhaul before it will.  Let’s help him get there.  You’ll see that I’ve mounted a soap box toward that end.  In reading again before this posting, I was tempted to add even more feedback… but I’ll leave that to you guys for now.

You can read the feedback to the story plan here: Bully concept.

(I’ve additional feedback in the comment thread below; it’s the #2 placed comment, after Robert Jones’ usual brilliant take on it all.)

Click HERE and HERE for more on these coaching programs.  “Save a year of your life…” just sayin’. 

*****

Here are some conference/workshop dates on my calendar, in case you’re in a traveling sort of mood (or you already live on the West coast).

May 16-18, Wenatchee WA — the annual “Write on the River” conference.  Click HERE to see a summary of the sessions; I’ll be doing a 101 structure workshop on Saturday, and a three hour Master Class intensive on Sunday morning for those who want a Big Picture context.

May 22 — I’m doing an online webinar for Writers Digest University, an upgrade reprise of a session called “From Good to Great.”  Look for signup details soon (click HERE to read a summary of the previous version of this; the analysis included will be different, and the content shifted toward front-end viablity… just what Joe needs in the case study above).

July: stay tuned, I’ve been invited to teach in Beijing — not a typo — in conjunction with the Chinese publisher who is releasing Story Engineering there, in their language.   Never been there, travel tips happily accepted.

August 1-3, Portland OR: teaching once again at the Willamette Writers Conference, doing three sequential sessions on building your story from the idea (blank page) up.

August 15-17, Los Angeles CA: the West Coach Writers Digest Conference — A Novel Writing Intensive.  This just came in as I was writing this post, but I’m so in.   May be doing a day-before “masters” class (a separate ticket), as well.  I did this one last year, a really amazing experience.  Check back for updates on specific sessions, and check all the Writers Digest online venues (and the magazine) for registration info.

October 3-5, Edmonds WA: doing a Friday intensive (long) sesssion at the annual “Write on the Sound” conference (not to be confused with the Wenatchee WA “Write on the River” conference… those WA writers really like their bodies of water).  A great event, lots of great sessions all weekend.  Website is not yet updated, check back for registration (it’s still early, many conferences don’t open up registration until 10-12 weeks prior).

October 11-12, Tampa FL: presenting at a retreat for the Tampa Area Romance Authors (TARA).  Not sure if you have to join to attend, but I’m betting they’d love to see some new faces.  (Same story, website needs updating on this retreat, but there is general contact info available.)

October 24-26, Surrey, British Columbia: presenting at the Surrey International Writers Conference (specifics to be determined; check the website later, like the others).

 I’ll update these as information hits the airwaves.

*****

New Review Online

As I’ve mentioned, my first published novel, Darkness Bound, (Onyx; it was my USA Today bestseller), was published in 2000, and has been recently republished by by Turner Publishing, who published my entire backlist in conjunction with the release of Deadly Faux.

Well, a reader has posted another review of the novel, which you can read HERE.  The story is dark and dangerous and sexual (be forewarned, if not enticed), but in a good way, and Wayne’s review is a nice overview of the steamy  psychological context of the story.  (The cover shown is from the original edition.)

*****

 

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Filed under Case studies