A Mindset Shift That Can Get You Published

Today I offer you a new writing mantra. 

In fact, you can start right now – just say the following words, proud and out loud, as fast as you can:

Mindset shift.  Mindset shift.  Mindset shift.

As you just experienced, it’s a lot harder than it seems.  Just like writing a killer, publishable story is a lot harder than it seems. 

Which is why you should adopt an empowering mindset toward your storytelling, instead of the naïve, short-sighted approach so many well-intentioned writers cling to.

Why do they cling to that which betrays them?  Because nobody’s told them differently. 

But if they – perhaps you – can make just one critical shift in their thinking, they’ll be taking a giant leap toward publication.  They’ll be in the game in a way they weren’t before.

I’m not saying you can’t publish without this healthy mindset. 

Heck, stuff happens, crazy people (and celebrities) get published all the time.  What I am saying is that you’ll get there quicker if you can get out of your own way and clear the rubble from your belief system about how an effective story is written.

Notice I said how.  Not what a publishable story is — that’s always a crap shoot — but how it’s written.

It’s about recognizing and understanding the truth, and then incorporating the context of that truth into your creative approach, whatever that might be. 

Because in writing, as much as any other avocation on the planet, the truth really will set you free.  Especially this one.  While a naïve, romanticized and unenlightened mindset will almost always render the writing dream an elusive one.

Here it is.  Get ready for a mind blowing, career skyrocketing paradigm shift.

Or not.  You may already be on board with this and not even realize just how empowering it is.

The Two Realms of Story Development

How do you write a story?  Do you just sit down with your idea and start banging out a draft to see where it will go?  That’s fine, it can work this way, but rest assured, it’s like fighting a forest fire with a bucket and a garden hose.

Or, do you spend time envisioning and planning your story, considering options and weighing choices, before you write it all down?  Or, if you belong to the garden hose group above, you realize that what you’re writing is really just a preliminary exercise in story development, rather than a draft itself?

And once you do write it down, are you doing it in context to the flexible yet unyielding physics of storytelling – if you’re going to defy gravity, or the odds, you’ll need some solid wings under you – or are you simply imitating what you’ve read elsewhere and/or inventing your own dramatic form?

That worked for a dude named Homer, but not for you and me.

I’m not here to argue for one over the other. 

I’ve done enough of that here, and you know where I stand.  Both approaches can work… but only if you understand the next paragraph.

Before you will ever write a draft that works – a draft that is publishable – you must first find your story.  And to find it, you must search for it.  A story is not an idea or even a concept, it is the flight plan that ensues from that starting point.

The point of every flight plan is a destination, delivered with a pleasurable flight experience.  Without either of those, you are skydiving with an umbrella.

Drafter or planner, you need to vet and cull out the many ways your story might unfold.  Consider the possible and the feasible and opt for the dramatically ideal.  All of this in context to an understanding of Big Picture literary principles and mechanics.

Like it or not, this is precisely what you’re doing when you write an early, pre-enlightened draft. 

It is also precisely what you’re doing when you are planning a story in some other form before you write a draft.

You are merely searching for your story.  The business of writing a publishable draft doesn’t begin until you find it.

If you don’t recognize this – and here is the potential mindset shift – if you believe you can just sail along through a draft while waiting for your characters to come alive, to start talking to you (they don’t, by the way; that’s just your literary subconscious whispering that you need to do something different with your story), for the perfect twist to emerge…

… if you do that, and if you just keep going as you sense you are finally on track, that the story is really coming alive now…

… and then you finish that draft, which has been saved in mid-flight, and you call it a final submittable draft…

… then you’re toast.  It just won’t work as well as it could.  Or should.  You’ve just slashed your chances of publication to a fraction of what they could have been.

And yet, this is precisely what an alarming number of writers do.  Because they come to the blank page with the wrong mindset.

In essence, story development separates into two sequential realms: the search for story… following by the rendering of story.

That first realm – the search for your story – can happen in many ways.  It can happen in your head.  It can happen through a series of drafts.  It can happen through an anal-retentive and madly obsessive process of story planning.  Or some combination of the above.

But no matter how it happens, here’s what is unarguably – and in this case redundantly – true: you cannot write a publishable draft until you’ve discovered your story.  However you get there.

This is the fatal mindset that condemns so many stories to the slush pile. 

If you use drafting as a means of searching for and culling out your story, or worse (because drafting can work as a search tool), if you think you can just make up your story in sequence and then change things mid-stream as better options and ideas come along…

… and then if you finish that suddenly englightened draft, the first half of which is a random or even slightly inefficient search for your story (which it will be), and the second half of which has been written in context to the killer story you’ve finally landed upon…

… if you do this…

… you will most likely fail.

Why?  Because an effective, publishable story needs to be written in context to a full understanding of the Big Picture from the very first page.

Which means, if you arrived at the point in your draft where you finally wrap your head around your story, when it all comes together for you, you’ll need another draft to actually write the whole thing the right way.

And that is the second realm of story development.

Nobody’s buying a ticket for a flight bound for Miami that takes a hard left over Kansas and heads for Quebec.  No matter how smooth the landing.

If you use some form of story planning to discover and optimize your story, then your first draft might actually come close to the mark.  Because it will unfold in context to solid story architecture and rendered in context to ideas and choices that have been vetted and culled.

A story written this way doesn’t turn on the gas in the middle, it’s working from the first page forward.

This mindset is as liberating as it is powerful and valid. 

I’m not suggesting you become a planner if you are, by nature and preference, a pantser (an organic writer who makes it all up as you go along, letting the story unfold organically and in context to what’s already been written, for better or worse). 

What I am suggesting is that you recognize that your draft doesn’t stand a chance until the story is solidly, front to back, fully conceived.  If you haven’t landed on a theme, a pace, on context and sub-text, if you haven’t discovered what your character arc is, if you don’t know how things are going to end… 

… you won’t write optimally effective narrative until you do know these things.  To get published, your story needs to be optimally effective, beginning on page 1.

If you’re a freaking genius – Stephen King comes to mind – then you can do all this searching and vetting and culling in one pass right out of your head, perhaps even as you write.  This, too, is a risky mindset, because that level of genius – it’s a myth, really, King has written hundreds upon hundreds of stories and is a practiced story architect in every conceivable way – is rare.

Like, Holy Grail kind of rare.

Trust me, King and his few and far between prodigy peers do all their story planning in their heads before they write a word.  They do it instinctually, and with an innate sensibility that allows the story to spill onto the page the first time, or close to it.

Are you really that good?  How’s that working for you so far?

Only when fully conceived, however that happens, will your story become fully and gloriously realized.  And that never happens in the middle of a manuscript.

If you’d like to learn more about how to get published, please consider my new ebook, Get Your Bad Self Published, for the unvarnished, impolite truth about what sells, what doesn’t and why.

18 Comments

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18 Responses to A Mindset Shift That Can Get You Published

  1. Excellent verbalization of the inner process. Now I know why I have to handwrite all kinds of stuff before I sit at the computer and do a rough outline and begin writing.

    All the scribblings in my notebook (character details, snippets of backstory, turning points, connections, conflicts) used to seem disjointed thoughts and free association. (Actually, a lot of them were clustering excercises.)

    But now I see that, in my own way, I’m searching for and creating the story. Makes a lot of sense and gives me a few more insights about the process.

  2. Love this post. It’s exactly what I am going through at the moment. I alternate between the two methods when I search for my story. First I do as much planning as I can with an outline, and when I feel I have a solid storyline to work with, I write a first ‘test draft’.

    Most of the time, I will find a more dramatic, better storyline halfway through the test draft. I keep going and I try the new option out thoroughly, and when the draft is done I go back to planning, fitting my story around this better end.

    Sometimes I feel as though I work in circles, but I only have to look at the early version of the story to know I’m doing the right thing.

  3. Your post is spot on. Sadly, I learned the hard way. I wrote five lousy seat-of-my-pants, let my characters-lead-me-by-the-nose monstrosities that earned me a few well deserved rejections.

    I took a year off to study craft and returned to my most promising manuscript ready to do the work needed to produce a publishable story. Basically, I learned the lesson you just shared. I needed to know my story from start to finish in order to make it work.

    Two years, one massive rewrite, and three major revisions later, I finally had a story my agent felt was ready to submit. Was the work worth it? Yes. Will I start my next story without a plan in place. No way!

    Thanks for another helpful post, Larry.

  4. Brilliant.

    The 1st draft that is waiting for me, patiently, to revise had a solid story from the outset. I had the concept, twists and plot (and hook) almost immediately. I planned it, of course and in the planning found a few additional things it needed.

    The one I’m planning now, though, is just an idea and the ‘finding the story’ part is a lot more challenging.

    But it’s not a mindset change. Those questions you posted awhile back (everything you need on one page – that one) help change my mindset back then. The are extremely helpful Maybe not helping me find the story, but helping me understand where I should be looking.

    As usual…

    Thanks

  5. Excellently developed thought process. The “search for the story” analogy was particularly enlightening. A lot of finding it is emotional, though, a feeling for the characters and their choices rather than the laying out of destinies like a railroad; it leaves room for surprises.

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  7. Oh No! As a confirmed, proud, and yes, unpublished, pantser, I am horrified that I might have to plan! I suppose that’s why I have four full novels that have never gotten anywhere, and frankly, neither do the stories.

    I do love writing by the seat of my pants as it is nearly as good as reading a story by someone else. The problem is, the story wanders and doesn’t always go where I want it to go. Sort of like going to a party; you meet a lot of interesting people, but nothing much gets done.

    Perhaps there is a happy medium. I will plan my stories and then let the characters develop within the plan. Do you suppose that will work? Please say it will!!! (I am kidding and see your point! I have to get better at planning!)

  8. Trish

    I so needed this post today, Larry. Thank you. For some reason I was feeling like not actually writing the book (fingers on the keyboard, words on the page, etc.) meant I was not writing at all. I needed the reminder that playing with ideas – testing and discarding plots, characters, etc. IS part of writing. And if I really do this well now, the actual writing (fingers on keyboards, words on the page) will be better. Thanks!

  9. Diana

    As an organic writer, it’s been harder than heck to incorporate structure, but I am and the product’s improving. Thanks.

  10. Hi Larry,

    I have to agree with Tony, that one post from a little while ago is printed off and sits beside me when I consider a new book. That was my mindset change!

    I get the first half of those points down then start. By the time I’ve reached that last note I made, then the rest has appeared. It doesn’t take me long. Just a few hours, but it saves me weeks in revisions and thinking time.

  11. Just an additional thought in support of everything I’ve read here.

    Last year when I submitted my entry for Debut Dagger I spent the bulk of my preparation time putting together a 500 – 1000 word synopsis. And when I look at it now, a year later, I can’t believe how all over the place it was. It’s no wonder I didn’t hear back from them.

    It was roughly around then, Feb of 2010, that I found this site.

    This year, the synopsis is a piece of cake. Easy as mashed potatoes. The story was built from the ground up. The synopsis ends up being four sections, mirroring the four sections of the novel. Telling the story (which is what the synopsis is) is so much easier when you actually know the story.

    Now I’m not saying I’m going to get shortlisted this year, but I’ve got a hell of a better chance than I did last year.

  12. Hi Tony, I think that’s what’s made a difference in my own synopsis writing. I was always lost trying to give my story structure. Whereas now I have the structure in place and just need to lay it out for the synopsis.

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  14. Monica

    The mindset shift happened over a year ago for me, thankfully. I used story structure for the first time last year for Nano, and then again this year. I can happily say I got better even at planning, as I didn’t “run out of story” half way through the month. I worked many months on revising last year’s story, finding I needed to add many more scenes and even characters that I hadn’t realized I needed. This year, my outline was much more complete.

    I’ve only just begun my revision, still doing a cold read of the thing, so we’ll see how I do. But I’ll never write without planning or using story structure. Thank you, Larry!

  15. I studied your Structure Series before I wrote my NaNoWriMo project this year, and let me tell you what a change it made in my story crafting! My whole story was planned (either in my head or my many notebooks) and I knew where to go from the first line. Thanks! The editing process is a completely different thing too now that I know what things to look for when I’m editing. No more line-editing pages that will eventually go to the trash bin.

  16. @Yamille — music to this old Storyfixer’s ears. Thanks for your support and participation! L.

  17. Thanks for a great post. very informative. I totally agree with you, having is the right mindset is most important of all. I Have already shared this post with a few of my friends and they loved it.
    Thanks

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