How Larry Brooks Helped Lead Me to My Path to Publication
I don’t remember what classroom I sat in, or which teacher was my guide, but one day as I scratched away in my composition notebook at my tiny wooden desk in Green Tree Elementary School, I picked up the trick I’ve been using ever since to present my thoughts upon the page: the outline. That organizational tool’s ability to plot a premise, build its argument, and cap it off with a conclusion, powered me through school from my first book report to my final term paper.
When my daughters began their own editorial explorations, I shared the outline as the trail of conceptual breadcrumbs they could lay down to help them find their way. That began my writing relationship with both of them—one that continues to this day—although the red pen is just as often found in their hands as in mine.
Ten years ago, when the challenge of writing a novel lured me from the poetry I’d puttered with for so long, I turned to my trusty prose pal and used an outline to sketch my first plot. Soon, I was off and running, creating scene after glorious scene, and, ultimately, a wonderful mess. I tried free-writing my way out of it, eventually penning a therapeutic essay I titled 80,000 Mistakes. In it I fussed and fumed about the 80,000 words I’d tapped into my Mac in the early morning hours, trying to build a story arc that finally collapsed under its own weight. But I ended my sorry screed with a promise to myself: I simply would not quit till I’d figured out the novel’s form.
I filled my Kindle with every book that looked like it could help me crack the craft—more than two dozen of the titles that every hopeful Hemingway knows, mixed with others that only a form freak like me would read. The light began to shine with books like John Truby’s, The Anatomy of Story; it taught me how to lay that all important foundation—the premise—in a way that would carry me, if not to publication, at least to a tale that might add some meaning to my life. Jack Bickham’sScene & Structure was another bright spot, one that revealed why the stories I struggled with had been so episodic. From it, I learned the cause and effect relationships that create the chain-drive of a story, linking the series of scenes and sequels that keep readers’ fingers flipping far past bedtime.
But the tome that brought it home was Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. It was the bridge I’d been searching for—one strong enough to support the weight of 100,000 words or more, to carry the world I’d built in my head to shine within my readers’ hearts.
I used my skills as a graphic artist to make a map of Larry’s formula, memorialized as the four-page “novel blueprint” you’ll find linked at the end of this post. I pasted the damn thing onto a foam core wall and posted it behind my laptop to refer to every single morning as I poked through my first novel, trying to put into practice again and again the principles I finally learned well enough to write from by heart.
I caught fire from my new learning, giving a couple of talks through the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance to pass on what I discovered in a Keynote presentation, complete with screenshots showing how I’d woven Story Engineering into my Scrivener template to keep me oriented as I dove in and out of scenes. I even convinced Boston’s Grub Street writers’ center for a guest spot in the big leagues, presenting at their national Muse and the Marketplace writers conference. There, in a room full of other hungry story structure seekers, I was rewarded with the questions and comments that let me know I was playing a small but vital role in passing on the torch that Larry first lit for me.
The Winter Queen was the first novel I built from Story Engineering. It rests right where it belongs —deep within the depths of my hard drive—as the fertile failure that taught me so much. My second, however, was (will be?) published onSeptember 27 by Harper Legend, a brand new imprint of “visionary digital fiction” from HarperCollins. I’m currently deep into the creation of its sequel, using the same Story Engineering concepts and constructions that have carried me so far.
Recently, I’ve been sharing what I’ve learned with members of the Pine Cone Writers’ Den, the ten-member writing group that meets monthly in my home. I sent one writer the novel blueprint a few weeks ago, and was delighted to hear it helped her break through to her book’s final phase of development. I invited another member over one Saturday morning, stretching a copy of the blueprint across my kitchen table as we discussed her memoir’s big story beats. We traded the red pen to plot just where those pivotal posts might fit within Story Engineering’s structural plan. I sent her home with that map and the hope that it serves to help stitch her string of moving spiritual passages into the published piece that finds the audience she deserves.
It’s too early to tell just how far those principles may take her, or the rest of us. There’s no question, however, that the most important book I ever read about the way to build a story will always play a part in mine.