3 Storytelling Exercises That Can Get You Published

Our stories are very much like lovers.  We choose them as a reflection of ourselves and our needs.  They’re seductive.  Compelling and oddly rewarding.  Warm.  Dangerous.  Sexy.  Fulfilling.  Fun.  And, if we’ve chosen well, they’re deliciously challenging.

They’re also a little needy and insecure.  Sometimes unpredictable, even fickle.  Often high maintenance.  Occasionally jealous.  Prone to random acts of cluelessness.  And they’re expensive, especially when you consider that time is money.

It’s so easy to fall in love with them.  We get lost in what we’re creating.  We can even lose ourselves in the process.

Love It or Leave It 

Truth is, if we’re not in love with our stories we should coldly kiss them goodbye.  Because other than a little casual gratification – the witty exchange, the fantasy moment, a vicarious unburdening – it just isn’t going anywhere.

If it isn’t working for you, as sure as gravity it won’t work for your readers, either. 

But the real risk in writing for publication is this: the reverse is not remotely as true.  It may be magic for you and still fall flat on its ass when you send it out into the cold cruel world. 

Because fiction, like the people who read it, is fickle.  You never know what will work.  Twelve publishers, professionals all, rejected Harry Potter.

The best you can do is shoot for the moon and keep on writing.

Here are three little tests to help you make that happen… better.

These humble exercises are viable and valuable because of one thing I said above: we can get lost in our stories.  Which translates to – we forget we’re writing for others (at least if you’re shooting for publication) and not just yourself.

And if you are writing for yourself first and foremost, you can check that publishing dream at the door.  It just doesn’t work that way.  There are standards and expectations out there, and you better wrap you head around them now.

Which means you need to ask yourself some tough questions.

Exercise 1:

Imagine that someone has just read your novel or screenplay, and that they freaking loved it.  As in, it was absolutely the best thing they’ve ever read.

Now imagine that same someone telling someone else exactly that – I know, it’s easy, it’s literary masturbation, but go ahead – in great and glorious detail.  They are explaining why your story was the best thing they’ve ever read.

Now… complete that monologue.  What are they saying?  Why is your story the best thing they’ve ever read?

Sobering, isn’t it.  You need to be writing a story that aspires to this level.   You need to be that in love with it. 

And mostly, you need to have an answer to that question.

Exercise 2:

Imagine that an agent or editor has just cracked open your manuscript.   It’s the end of their day, they’re tired, they’re grumpy (you’ve got good odds on that one, no matter what time of day it is), they’re cynical.  They’ve seen it all, rejected it twice. 

Maybe they’re even one of the geniuses who rejected Harry Potter and they’re still pissed off.

And now it’s your turn.

The question: what might they encounter in your manuscript that will cause them to put it down?  Maybe even throw it against their office wall.  What is it about your story that is too familiar, too trite, too flat, too slow, too boring, too been-there-done-that, too out there, too amateurish?

The answer just might be none of the above.  The answer might simply be that there is just no compelling reason for them to accept the damn thing.

Sobering again, isn’t it.

Exercise 3:

This time don’t imagine at all.  Open your manuscript to any given page.  Do this several times with complete randomness.  Do this many times, in fact. 

At any given moment in your story, what are the stakes?  What is at stake in that particular scene, and what is at stake in the larger context of the story itself?

At any given moment, what is the reader rooting for?  Anticipating?  Feeling?

At any given moment, what is the relationship between the hero and the quest you’ve given to her or him? 

At any given moment, what is the pace of the story you are telling?

You need a compelling answer to each of these questions for every page you encounter.  Not that every page should be a pivotal moment, but rather, you are checking to ensure that every page is in powerful context to the pivotal moments that came before it and will come after it.

The bar is high. 

Are you reaching for it?  Or are you so in love with your story that you’ve forgotten that someone else needs to be compelled to fall in love with it, too.  That someone else’s tastes and criteria and hopes aren’t the same as yours.

Remember, the reader won’t know or understand your story anywhere near as deeply or personally as you.  Your job is to narrow that gap. 

Your job is to make your story theirs, as well as yours.

Do this, and do it with courage, high art and the discipline of solid story architecture, and you will publish it.  At least, with a little luck and significant effort in the marketing phase.

That and the actual writing are the only things over which you have any control at all. 

These questions, these collective value-adds stemming from these three exercises, are precisely what agents and editors are looking for.

And not coincidentally, so are readers.

Always has been, always will be.  In a publishing world where everything is changing rapidly, these literary truths trump everything else.


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10 Responses to 3 Storytelling Exercises That Can Get You Published

  1. Poets suffer from some of the same maladies. I just discovered this blog and I like it. I’m going to keep an eye on it. Keep up the good work.

    BTW, my step-grandchildren call me “Poppy” too! 🙂

  2. I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now, mostly catching up in the archives. Extremely helpful stuff. Thank you! I linked to you from my blog in my current post. I think any beginning writer will find what you’ve presented both understandable and applicable.

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    Rather brutal assessment, but then you have to steel yourself for harsh rejection if you want to get published, so might as well beat yourself up before they do.

    Of course that also seems to make the dating analogy even more apt, have to get used to rejection before you get a girl 😉

  4. Monica

    I just discovered this blog thru the Structured Stories series, and it may have saved my story. I see the good advice keeps on coming. I’m so glad to have found this site!

    I’m subscribed and ready for more!

  5. Posts like these are keeping one of my crappy manuscripts off a publisher’s desk. But I’m not disheartened; just the opposite. I completely agree with you, and every one of those tests is inspiring as well as a reality check. If I aim that high, I may just write something half decent, even if I don’t succeed by the standards you present. The truth is, until one of my stories makes the hair on my own arms stand on end, then I’m just going to keep learning, keep reading and keep working at writing better.

  6. some of the best things to possibly do with a manuscript that anyone’s ever suggested. and one of the reason I just spent the last two months chucking ideas without writing them.

    oh, well. back to the drawing board.

  7. Michael V. sent me over to your blog and I think the timing is perfect as I shall be pitching a couple of agents this weekend at a writers conference. I’m writing a memoir and read an article recently by Mitch Albom, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” where he stated that we all like to write about our lives, and who cares? A memoir needs to have an uplifting quality that inspires and influences your reader, I hope to have accomplished that. We shall see. Thank for the great advice.

  8. The key sentence that I read in all of the above is “Make your story theirs.” So many times I find myself writing to please or entertain the same person–myself. How awful.

  9. Mystified that your terrific manuscript hasn’t been snapped up by a high-powered literary agent? Guess what, it’s not them, it’s you. http://bolstablog.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/unpublished/

    Phil Bolsta
    Author of “Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything” (www.sixtysecondsbook.com)

  10. This was a very eye-opening post. But it also just depressed me because I realized that I don’t currently have any viable story ideas. Damn it…