Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Road to Nowhere: One Writer’s Journey Toward Craft

A guest post by Curt Fouts

Before you hop in the car for that cool literary road trip you have planned, check your route and your reason for going. I-70 through Kansas? Not exciting, even if you plan on hitting all the tourist traps offering two-headed cows and 500 pound chicken eggs.

Larry’s recent posts that delve into concept and premise came at the right time for me. Is your Story Worth Saving? was a gut check, coming as it did along with the case studies. I pored over what Larry wrote and scrutinized my own story I had spend years writing, editing, and polishing.

What was wrong? I obeyed the laws of Story Physics. I had engineered a good story. My characters were well-drawn, my hero empathetic. I weaved the themes in ever so delicately, with solid structure and crisp scenes, every dialog a controlled conflict, tension, powerful emotional experience for the reader, pacing…

The first sign of trouble came when I attempted to write the query letter. Writing the synopsis was easy compared to that, and anyone who has done both can see where this is heading.

I suffered through writing more than thirty iterations of the ‘hook,’ the sizzle part of the query letter that captures the essence of your story, but it wasn’t sizzling. It read like a scientific report. It screamed, “So what?” And that’s a very bad sign.

Larry’s posts on concept and premise came along while I was struggling with this. As I studied his words and dived back into my scribbled-over copies of Story Physics and Story Engineering, the sickening realization came over me like a creeping stomach flu:

My premise is not compelling.

I squirmed inside myself, my brain twisted around trying to justify what I had done, attempting to make my work fit the criteria, but ultimately I had to face facts. You can write a well-structured story with all the dramatic elements about a platoon of ants struggling to get the remnants of a nut log back to their anthill, but who would want to read it?

I have read a tower of books on writing and storytelling, and Larry’s works accord with other gurus I admire and listen to like Randy Ingermanson and John Truby, among many others. Why is there so much overlap among so many different gurus, with the rare differences coming mostly in emphasis of one thing over another, or perhaps terminology? Because, as Larry reminds us, these are fundamental principles that go back to the foundations of time, when primitive man sat around fires telling stories to pass on wisdom and to make sense of the world around them.

Most story gurus will recommend you first develop your concept and premise and explore them. Deeply. Probe them, ask what-if questions, flesh them out, even to the point of identifying your story milestones and writing a synopsis.

I would add one more step that many gurus add as well: Use your premise to write the hook to your story, that blurb you see on the back of a book or DVD case, the tantalizing bit of what’s-it-all-about that makes you want to rent this DVD, or take that book home and curl up in bed with it.

Does your hook sizzle? Does it engage your emotions, tease your intellect, pique your curiosity? Titillate you? Does it make you want to dive into the story?

Test your hook out on others. Blake Snyder of Save the Cat fame, may he rest in peace, said he would test out his hooks on people while standing in line at Starbucks, the grocery store, wherever. He would know whether or not he had a good premise based upon the reactions of others. That is powerful advice.

So, I stand by the road, rain pouring down my back, my storyteller umbrella blown inside-out and tattered by the harsh winds of story physics. I cry over my beautiful, shiny literary machine, crafted with so much love over so many years, the dreams I indulged in, my hair flying in the breeze as we raced to Bestsellerville. But now, she’s out of story gas, off in the ditch, perhaps destined for the junkyard. All I can do right now is light an emergency flare, wave my arms and warn you off the route I have taken.

The literary trip you embark upon must follow the laws of Story Physics, and you must plan it using the principle of Story Engineering. But if you proceed from a premise that is not “compelling, interesting, and rewarding,”* your trip to Bestsellersville will end with your beautiful machine broken down in the parking lot of Heartbreak Hotel.

* – Story Physics, p. 34

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Nine Billion Reasons You Need to Opt-in to This Webinar

A crazy, outrageous title, I get that. But it’s literal. It’s a math thing, but it should get your attention.

I’m presenting a webinar this Thursday, May 22, through Writers Digest University (1:00 EDT). It’s billed as an encore presentation, but it’s actually an enhanced version of a previous webinar I did with WD, called “Good to Great“.

That — moving from good to great — should always remain at the top of our goal list.

It’s $89, but Storyfix readers get TEN BUCKS OFF by using this code — WDS522LB — on the registration form. Which you can get HERE, along with the skinny on the webinar itself.  Also… WD will provide a FREE copy of my 114-page ebook, “The Deconstruction of Deadly Faux” (my latest novel, torn apart to see the moving pieces) with the follow-up Thank-you email sent after the live webinar.  It’s a hefty workshop experience in its own right (this is in addition to the FREE concept evaluation, as well).

As an added bonus, I’m offering a $25 discount on either of my story coaching programs (just send me your registration confirmation), plus two of my ebooks (“Warm Hugs for Writers,” and “Get Your Bad Self Published”).

Here’s why you should consider this.

Take a good close look at this number: 9,000,000,000. That’s nine billion.

That’s roughly the number of ways you can screw up your novel. Any novel. This is a mathematically defensible assertion. (The actual number is a bit higher, to be honest, but I’ve rounded it off… because after all, it’s scary-surprising in either case.)

I can hear you now: “huh?”

We all want to write the best story possible. On a scale of one-to-ten, a score of “10” is great. Nines and below… really good, then good, then descending to decent, going down from there to average and then… blah.

And while we can rate the overall story in this manner, so too can we rate all the various parts and sub-sets and qualitative measures that combine and contribute to become that overall story. In fact we should look closely at those building blocks, even if our readers don’t (they just experience the whole and cast a vote from that).

I’ve boiled the categories of things you need to do well (the Six Core Competencies) and the reasons they work, or not (the Six Realms of Story Physics), into 12 “buckets” of story content as defined by their respective roles and missions in the process and the end-product. “Dramatic tension,” for example, is one of those categories. There are 11 others.

Because two of them on each list overlap, and for the sake of this analysis, the number of things we need to knock out of the park to write a great novel is ten. The goal is a grade of “10” for each. To make it the very best it can possibly be.
If you’re into math, you now know where that big number comes from. Ten billion — ten to the tenth power — is the number of possible qualitative gradations. That is a lot of variable decision-making on our writing table.

These issues are all soft and imprecise, which makes the rendering and the grading all the harder. One option is to ignore a given issue of storytelling altogether, which means it’s either a “1” or, if you luck into it organically, maybe a higher number. But rarely do you get a “10” by not proactively going for it.

By now you’re thinking, so what are those ten issues and standards?

Here you go: concept/premise, character, theme, structure, scenes, writing voice, dramatic tension, pace, heroic empathy, vicarious experience. Each of these is either a core competency or an issue of story physics, or in the case of two of them, both.

On a qualitative scale of bad to wonderful, you (or a reader) could score each element from 1 to 10. Think of this as a control panel with ten dials, each knob going from 1 to 10. You read a novel, you love the writing style but the plot leaves you flat… that’s a 7 and a 4, respectively. You set the level of excellence through the way you’ve integrated each element into the story, through your skill and awareness… or maybe some degree of luck.

A perfect novel would get tens across the board… but that one hasn’t been written yet. In fact, out of those ten billion possible combinations of qualitative outcome, here’ s an even more astounding number to consider: the number of ways to get to ten out of ten is… exactly one.

So let’s assume that a really stellar novel, or even one that is a slam dunk to find an agent or a publisher, averages a grade (a qualitative assessment) of 7. Some of them you nail (9’s and 10’s), a few are just fine but not remarkable (5s). The average, the goal, the dividing line between good an great, is 7.

That’s what you need to qualify for this league known as “great.”

Trust me, if all of these show up at a level of “7” or better (and some of them need to be better) in your manuscript then you’re in the game… any higher then your name may be John Irving. Any single category that is sub-par (below a 5) would, like a fly floating on the perfect bowl of chowder, pretty much ruin the whole thing.

So there you are, pondering, considering, taking stabs at and manipulating ten critical and absolutely necessary essences of your story. Shooting for 10s, settling for 7s.

Which means there are 10,000,000,000 (ten billion– that’s not a typo) possible combinations. Because each of the ten categories has ten possible levels… 10 to the 10th power equals ten billion.

Leaving us with 9,999,999,999 combinations of scores across the whole that are compromises in some way.

Because we’re talking about the average score across ten elements, the math required to come up with a precise number of combinations for “7” or better is staggeringly complex to the point of being inaccessible, it’s not simply 7 to the 10th power, because of the variables (how many 2’s and 3’s are in there to off set a couple of tens, with the others coming at at 6 to 8… you can see that’s a problem for MIT or NASA).

The precision of that number isn’t important. That’s why I’m rounding off. Let’s just say, though — because it’s true — that if you can average 7’s across the whole scoreboard, there are still over NINE BILLION combinations of scores – which reflect your application of creative craft — that come up short.

That’s over nine billion ways to screw up your novel.

If the math has already fogged your mind, then just consider this: we need to understand the difference between an element that is a “10” compared to a “5,” and empower ourselves with that awareness and some tools to help elevate our craft to a higher level. To avoid those nine billion potholes in the road.

That’s why you need to attend this webinar. It’s a rare opportunity to discuss the craft of writing a novel from this broad perspective.

And those freebie spiff perks (see above) don’t hurt, either.

Feeling lucky? Would you like to have more than luck in your corner? Tune in, that’s what this is all about.

******
Wenatchee writers click HERE for your workshop slide decks.

 

 

 

 

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