Monthly Archives: December 2017

Pillar #2 – The Need for a Constant Mentoring Presence

December 12, 2017

By Art Holcomb

For a while now, I’ve been talking about the six pillars of education needed by all writers to succeed.

Pillar #1 was all about the need for high-quality craft educational information.

But the next pillar is something that most writers know in their hearts they need but never believe that will ever have a chance to get – a constant mentoring presence in their lives.

Now I can talk about all the things a mentor can offer: directions, support, and honest critique. But all those things become meaningless unless you can get the one thing that we all absolutely must have sometimes . . .

Answers to our questions – when we need them.

Let’s break that down . . .

ANSWERS:   Your job is to CREATE.  Let that concept settle in for a minute.

Writing is all about you taking your native talents and using them to make connections that are unique to you – and then presenting them to the world.

Your writing is unlike anything anyone else is doing.

Because of that, your journey as a writer is unique.

And there will be plenty of times when you hit a road block or become lost. It is at those moments when answers are the most important thing in the world to you.

Here are some of the questions I face regularly – even after forty years of writing:

  • Why isn’t this working?
  • How can I say this better?
  • Am I reaching the reader?
  • What am I really trying to say?
  • What is the truth I’m seeking?
  • What does my work say about human nature?
  • What the Hell am I doing here?

And here’s where a good mentor can help you.  They will know which questions to answer and which one to let you seek out for yourself.

. . . TO YOUR QUESTIONS:  Now, in almost every case, your questions will not be my questions.  Certainly in the beginning, we seek similar information; if this wasn’t true, there would be no reason for books, seminars, classes and even StoryFix to exist. But your journey is unique and therefore your questions will be unique.  And perhaps, most importantly, it is vital that you really understand – truly understand – the answers you get.  That is when a personal mentor is valuable – they can make sure you really get it before you move on.

. . . WHEN YOU NEED THEM:  The right answer is no good to you if it comes too late. We all know that feeling when we are stalled and have no idea what comes next.  A simple word, a brief explanation, the right direction at a critical moment, is all we need sometimes to get us on our way.  The ability to ask that question and get the right answer when you need it can make all the difference in the world.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

In my writing life, I have had many writing mentors:

  • My sixth grade teacher, Pat Hanzad, who first recognized my abilities and encouraged me to express myself on paper.
  • Sal Orlando, my high school English teacher, who absolutely hated everything I wrote for him.
  • David Gerrold (of Star Trek Tribble fame), my first real writing teacher, who first showed me what I could really accomplish.
  • STAR TREK Showrunners Brannon Braga, Rene Echevarria and others at Paramount Pictures who trained me over the sixteen years I worked with them.
  • And people like comic book legends Len Wein and Jim Shooter, and my great friend – the science fiction novelist Howard V. Hendrix – who were always there with guidance and support.

In each case, I had a personal relationship with the people who helped guide my career.

And that made all the difference.

Books and seminars can really help.  Classes and conferences can be inspirations.  But a personal relationship with a mentor means that you are never on this journey alone.

Through this relationship, you see that writing really is an apprenticeship rather than a long, lonely trek through a vast and endless desert.

HOW TO FIND A MENTOR

It may seem daunting, but mentors are out there waiting for you…

Use what you already have:  Do you already know a writer who has had the kind of success you’d like to have?  Is there someone in your circle who has the knowledge you seek? Take them out for coffee and ask whether you can pick their brain.  Be respectful at all times, but the best writers know that we didn’t get here on our own – others helped us along the way.

We can never repay them for that kindness, but they might be more than happy to help you as a way of paying those people back.

Join a community: The more you mix with successful writers, the more opportunities you will find. Online Facebook groups can be a great way to meet other writers. Local critique groups, classes, conferences and other educational opportunities can give you a way to making personal connections and find great mentoring relationships.

The key thing is to always:

  • Seek out writers who are more successful than you,
  • Be respectful and professional when you approach them and
  • Be honest and genuine.

Take a DIRECTED class or webinar: If you have a need to work on your dialogue skills, for example, find a class that focuses on that single issue and you will see your crafts skills multiply.  But always be sure that you are concentrating on specific and targeted skills sets.  A general class may be interesting, but one that is designed to meet a specific need will be much more helpful.  Places like The Writer’s Store and others available online can get you started.

Hire a consulting mentor:  There are hundreds of writing teachers like myself and Larry who work with developing writers to help move them to the next level of their careers.  Sometimes all you need is a quick conversation for some much needed assistance or direction, or some concentrated time spent working on specific issues like dialogue, plot, emotional impact or career guidance. However your needs manifest themselves, there are people out there to help you.  Larry’s information and services is listed on the site, and you can always reach me at aholcomb07@gmail.com for more information about my seminar and consulting services.

And finally, drop us a comment here:  Larry and I are always looking for ways to serve you better.  If there is a topic that you’re interested in, or a question that we might answer, it could be of interest to other writers and could make for a good post on StoryFix. Feel free to send me an email with your idea and we can see what we can do!

NEXT TIME: We’ll talk about the third pillar of writing:  The Short Feedback Loop.

Until then – Keep Writing!

Art

******

In addition to Art’s contact information (above), you can learn more about his courses and consulting/mentoring programs on his website

Also, you may recall Larry has offered an evolving series of affordable story analysis programs, with different focuses, in addition to his video training programs. The latest evolution will be announced next week, when Larry’s next post goes up.

 

 

 

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Story Structure: Is It Formulaic?

December 5, 2017

By Larry Brooks

Talking to writers about Story Structure is like trying to sell religion (how’s that for a polarizing opening analogy?). Sometimes, no matter how logical you present it, you can’t change someone’s mind. You never stood a chance.

Some writers will never believe story structure – the traditional 3-act paradigm, even with a drill down into its subtleties – is anything other than formulaic. And that “formulaic” is a bad thing.

Politics, too. Just sayin’. I know you’ve been there, talking to someone who won’t hear you, and you walk away shaking your head.

Let me flip that. It’s like trying to sell science. Proven, irrefutable fact.

In either case, there are those who will embrace it – sooner or later, if for no other reason than they are tired of failing – and find their lives to be orders of magnitude more… clear.

Today’s post is for those writers.

Here’s the unexpected truth behind this paradoxical issue every writer must face:

It actually is formulaic. And in a good way. A way that gets you published.

That’s the part some writers resist. That there is something beyond their pretty sentences and deep thoughts that makes all the difference in the world.

There are two liberating understandings here, stuff that most writers don’t get to, especially if they judge and discard the structure proposition at the mere mention of the word.

Some writing teachers don’t even get this. Which means, you may not have encountered this framing device before. Confusion ensues because the debate really isn’t about the existence and essential nature of story structure, but rather, the debate is about the story development process… which is all over the map.

Structure is not process. It is outcome.

When – if – it finally sinks in, the mist lifts, doors fly wide open and the angels weep. It happens when you consider story structure from this unassailable and rarely spoken truth: it is formulaic, and largely a given, within genre fiction. Learning this is, for some, for many, the core essence of the writing journey.

If you try to reinvent the structure of a genre novel, you will likely crash and burn. Every revision strategy offered to you will seek to bring the story back into alignment with the core principles of structure… that were available to you from square one.

Need an example? You write a spy novel in which the spy isn’t given something to do until page 210. That’s a rejection slip, no matter how brilliant your 209 pages of backstory.

By definition, genre fiction is formulaic for a reason: because readers buy these novels because they know what they are getting. They want what the genre promises.

They want the formula.

But when it comes to so-called “literary fiction,” structure becomes a more flexible, less discernible part of the story proposition. The author is free to, basically, invent the form and function of the story on their own terms, from within their own process.

But structure isn’t just about plot. Character, and the arc that demonstrates it, is a structural issue, as well.

Here’s a shocker: a huge percentage of literary novels follow the structural principles – the same principles that drive genre stories – that have become the foundation of my own teaching and understanding (not that I invented them, that’s certainly not true: rather, like all writers must at some point if they are to succeed, structure is discovered, then explored, then mastered).

Not long ago a Storyfix reader sent me this observation about a Pulitzer Prize winning novel:

“I’m currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a literary novel and one of the most beautifully written and nicely observed ‘character’ novels I’ve read in a long time. But here’s the thing. The first plot point? Bang on target!”

Another skeptical writer sent this:

“After downloading “Story Engineering,“ I went on to read Neil Gaiman’sThe Ocean at the End of the Lane” which seems like a very “literary” novel. And I was delighted when, at the 25th percentile, I discovered the First Plot Point; at the 50th percentile the Midpoint emerged, and then at the 75th percentile the dramatic Second Plot point showed up. I had my doubts… I’m amazed that I hadn’t ever noticed this before… now that I see it, I cannot un-see it. My writing is forever changed and empowered.”

Why do some literary novels end up here? Because structure, as a universal architectural principle of storytelling, works. It doesn’t matter that the author has never heard of a first or second plot point, it matters that, however they got there, they reached the point where the story works, where it is optimized.

And when that happens the principles of structure will be visible in the story. Very much in alignment with the generic architectural (sequential) model that describes them.

The question isn’t whether the principles of structure are evident – trust me, they are… in virtually every published genre novel and a huge percentage of literary novels. This includes thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, historicals, and most obviously of all, romance and all its sub-genre variations. Take a hint from the previous italicized word: published. If you’re writing a genre novel that is not built upon the expected structural paradigm, odds are it won’t be published. Which is not to say it’s not any good, but it may no longer be commercial within the intended genre.

Yep, it’s true. It’s a formula, in a business in which that is a dirty word. 

Somebody has to say it. I just did.

And yet, seeking to understand it and apply it within your own work is, for many writers – a great many – the very career milestone that evolves that writer from someone who believes suffering isn’t optional, that chaos and chaotic first drafts are certain and even a rite of passage, to one that pours their art and heart and soul into a framework that is, while flexible, largely already defined and waiting for me.

An understanding of structure can turn a first draft into what is, for writers in blissful denial, a fourth or fifth draft, qualitatively.

Understanding structure can cut a decade or more off your learning curve. Structure isn’t process, unless you want it to be (which is true for many authors). Rather, it is an inevitable outcome for any process that is functional, if not efficient.

Writing a whole bunch of drafts of a novel is the epitome of inefficiency. Ask Lee Childs – he gets structure, which is why his first drafts are a quick polish away from final.

Is he genius? Certainly. But part of that genius is the degree to which he gets the essential nature of story, in a structural sense.

In fact, we can conclude that to some extent, structure becomes a choice we make.

Structure is the canvas for our stories.

All great paintings are rendered to a canvas. Unless they are brushed onto walls (vandalism comes to mind) and mugs and urns and roof tiles, in which case they aren’t mainstream art after all. Art, maybe, but probably not something you find in a gallery (or, applying the analogy, in a bookstore).

The second level of truth I promised is this: the true nature of structure is something that runs very deep. Deeper than most care to dive. It is a four-part (across three traditional “acts”) evolution of the context of a story, as viewed from the perspective of the protagonist. It is the nature of the hero’s journey in a story. What you do within those four parts – within being the key word here – is entirely yours to create… which is why, once again, this really isn’t formula in a derogatory sense after all. Writing within a structural awareness becomes the art of fitting your story within the boundaries of the canvas that will deliver it.

Nobody ever won a game by hitting or kicking or throwing the ball out of bounds.

A story is setup… the hero is rendered human as we see them encounter a problem or challenge… that hero then searches and wanders through darkness, danger and failure a the problem escalate and the stakes loom large… the hero evolves into a problem solver and warrior who summons courage and cleverness… and then, in a way of the author’s choosing, the hero resolves the story.

That’s it. That’s structure. Four sequential parts defined and differentiated by context. With a whole boatload of missions, definitions, milestones, nuance, and application variability, enough to make it anything but formulaic, at least in the way deniers and the naive use the term.

If you’d like to hear a killer analogy for this, one that might jar you into taking a closer look at the structure proposition, look to the right here on this Home page (if you’re reading this on email, click on the title to go to the Storyfix site), and watch the video available in the little window in the middle column (click it to go full screen). It’s a bonafide 30-minute writing workshop (with over 37,000 views on YouTube), with the aforementioned analogy at about the 25-minute mark (which you can skip to if you’re impatient with listening to me talk).

The truth is out there.

The question isn’t whether structure exists in a form that you don’t really need to create for yourself – in the same way that an athlete doesn’t create the playing field or the painter doesn’t create the canvas – or shouldn’t play too loosely with (though it is flexible). The question isn’t if it’s formulaic or not… the question is…

… will you see it? Will you know it when you see it?

Once you do see it, when you understand what classic story structure is, form and function, you can’t miss it in the novels you read.

And you shouldn’t ever again miss it in the novels that you write.

*****

On another note… remember my post a couple of weeks ago discussing and recommending the movie Lady Bird? (If you missed it click HERE; it’s not at all about the wife of an ex-President, by the way).

Pictured below is the reviewer’s grade and synopsis for the film in this week’s edition of Entertainment Weekly. They give it an A-minus, which is rarefied air.

If you haven’t seen Lady Bird, know that this is truly a “writer’s film” – delightful, funny and moving… and you’re missing something special if you don’t.

And by the way… Lady Bird is a great example of classic story structure, at the apex of its intended contextual principles, unfolding before your writerly eyes.

Lady bird pic

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