And So We Hand The Microphone Over… to You

January 2, 2018

by Larry Brooks

Writing is very much a momentum business.

You know this, I’m sure… you begin a project, you may at first struggle to find the heart of the story, or your voice… you keep at it… it just doesn’t feel right… and then, as you go deeper, it begins to click… and suddenly you are unstoppable.

Sometimes it clicks from the first page. The opportunity here, and what I’m writing about today, resides in understanding the true nature of, and sources of, the intentional act of going deeper, and what that looks like.

It may not involve a keyboard or a notepad at all.

When we read about or hear about writers who have experienced this sequence of experience, it can be easy to hear the wrong things. You might hear that it’s perfectly fine to just scribble away until you randomly sink into a rhythm, without understanding that the pages written prior to that sinking-into moment will probably need a rewrite, or at least a rethink.

Or without comprehending what just happened when that moment arrived.

Or, you might believe that this is an inevitable sequence of events, the nature of the game itself. The only writers who say this – and there are legions of them – are those who experience storytelling and writing that way, without allowing that some writers, even those more successful than they are (who often aren’t as loud about it), do it differently.

Those who sit down to write without a clear or vetted story premise in their head, without understanding that a draft undertaken from an incomplete vision are, in fact, engaging in long-road form of story visualization.

And yet, other options remain available, and they are not remotely an inferior means to the same end.

Often, when you can’t find your voice, it’s because you haven’t found your story.

Break that sentence down. Because when you truly know that it means, doors open before you.

When you soldier on, in search of but not quite yet in command of your story… while telling yourself it doesn’t feel right because – and here’s where you may be kidding yourself – it isn’t your voice that’s the problem… know that this is not the universal conventional wisdom on how this is done.

Rather, it is the seductive easy road that too often leads to the edge of a cliff.

Of all the things that empower us to excellence in terms of writing in context to something – in context to your experience, in context to something you’ve read, in context to what you know – the most effective contextual basis of all is when we write pages in context to what we believe to be the best story that has landed in our mind’s eye.

In other words, when you’ve moved on from the search for the story into the realm of development of the story you’ve finally committed to.

This connects to two of the most misunderstand, and thus often toxic, pieces of supposed writing wisdom floating around out there: that you should just write… and that you should write everyday.

Neither may be the best strategy if you haven’t found your best story yet.

This is where we say: writer, know thyself. For many, the best investment of time you can make is to sit yourself in front of a window with a nice view and lose yourself in the contemplation of story ideas, options, variables and alternatives. Don’t move from that spot until you have a compelling dramatic proposition, can visualize a character that will allow readers to access the story emotionally, that asks the reader to engage rather than observe, that isn’t about something as much as it is about something happening, that calls the hero from one state into another, which is an action state, which is propelled by motivated and empathetic stakes and complicated by formidable antagonism, often in the form of a villain or foil, and finally raises your hero up to confront and step into an unlikely and even unthinkable catalyst of resolution, returning only then to a life that is different than what it was when the story began.

You can nail all that down before writing a single page. If you will allow yourself the time and license to do so.

If drafting pages is indeed your richest turf for story development (all of the above), then you may be on solid ground doing so behind a keyboard. But if you don’t really begin to sing until the story is solidly on rails that are leading somewhere rich and meaningful, then just writing and writing every day is like mowing the golf course before you actually begin to play on it.

Nothing wrong with practice. But practice your sentences and writing scenes that don’t connect isn’t quite writing a story… at least yet. At least until it becomes about a story that has announced itself to you as the story you are telling.

Because writing, per se, is just as much about staring out a window to find the compass heading, pitfalls, nuances and opportunities of a story is every bit as much at the core of the work as being hunched over a keyboard, hoping that the next page might shine a light on what hasn’t yet occurred to you.

Know this, too, if you believe that spontaneity and genius comes only when your fingers on home row. The best spontaneous and creative moments come from within the pages of a story that is already cooking, rather than one that is waiting for the burner to come on.

So here’s the bottom line question, one that defines where you reside on the learning curve. And if it catalyzes an emotional response, might just help you understand the next phase of your journey.

What do you know about storytelling… and what do you know about your story?

The highest ground of storytelling becomes available when those two things are in coexistence in your playbook: the principles of the game itself – with an understanding that you aren’t seeking to invent those principles, but rather, than you understand your job is to leverage them – and a game plan for the story you are setting out to create that has been fueled by that understanding.

This is strategic writing. Versus reactive writing.

Trust me, once you feel the rush of unleashing a fully vetted story strategy into your story world, you’ll understand what it really means to find bliss in the work of writing itself. Rather than the frustration of plowing through the pages without a compass, or an end-game.

Or worse, not knowing good from bad or bad from ugly, because you still think any and all story ideas are worthy. They are not.

Stay tuned here in 2018 as Art and I take a deep dive into both sides of that proposition – the nature of stories that work, broken down into clear and accessible detail, including the processes that will make them work for you… and how to apply them to your premises and story plans developed in context to those criteria, no matter how you render them to the page.

Are there any specific aspects of story craft and process that continues to elude, confuse or frustrate you? Are you conflicted with conventional wisdom that seems to contradict what you believe, or know, or have heard some famous author say?

Please let us know so we can focus there. The great thing about principles, rather than mythologies, is that they are provable and can be pointed to, and they are effective even in small doses. Let us know where you are on your journey, so we can help get you to the next level on the wings of knowing, rather than not knowing what you don’t know.

Sudden bestsellers and one-hit-wonders happen, because exceptions sometimes trip and fall into a pot of gold. But an enduring career… that is always the product of an author who knows.




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to And So We Hand The Microphone Over… to You

  1. I’m fascinated by dialog — and by how many experts *don’t* look past generalities for it. They talk about the needs and principles behind it, give examples, and urge you to “feel your character,” but rarely dig into what actual building blocks might make dialog fit the character and moment.

    • Great topic for a post, Ken. There are several very helpful principles involved, and yet, an “ear” for it is always the best tool. The trick is to apply the principles to develop that “ear,” and along the way, begin to recognize these things in play within the novels we read.

      Look for this one soon. Much appreciated. Larry

  2. Give me a great story, and you’ve got me for the entire book. Give me pretty words only, and I’m liable to drift. Give me both, and I’m in heaven.

    In other words, for me it’s mostly about the story. That’s what I want to escape into, along with characters who make me want to spend time with them. I read an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian this morning that talked about the importance of story and how literary fiction is often lacking it. Here’s the link if you’re interested. I imagine you’ll agree with his words:

    “Often, when you can’t find your voice, it’s because you haven’t found your story.”–Yes! Great advice.

  3. AZAli

    Thank you, Larry.

    I’ve always struggled with writing every day, particularly when I can’t yet visualize what’s happening next.

    If possible, I would like to hear more about writing descriptions and crafting settings. There’s so little about that.

  4. MikeR

    I like to say this: “would you write a really-important business presentation this way?” “Would you write an analysis that’s going to be sent to an important customer in this way?” No, no, no, no, NO! “Of course™” you wouldn’t. Because you’d know that you’d be wasting your time, and that you don’t have time to waste.

    Instead: you would PLAN. “Of course™” you would. You would outline. You would separate the process of dreaming-up possible ideas from the process of selecting from those ideas and arranging them into a usable shape. You might explore alternatives, to see which ones pan-out better than others, but you wouldn’t “just ‘start writing.'” Not yet. “Of course.™”

    (We have a word for people who “just start driving” as a way of figuring out where they are going. We call them, “husbands.”)

    READING a good novel is a voyage of discovery: you turn the pages to see what happens next. (And then you’re able to flip back through the pages and see a glimpse of how the trick was done.) But WRITING such a thing simply cannot be such a voyage. There are decisions to be made. There are alternatives, many of them equally plausible, from which only-one must be chosen … sometimes, “well ahead of time.” Even though your audience will be amazed as they read through your creation page-by-page, YOU must plan ahead. Otherwise, you’ll never get the d*mned thing done . . .

  5. Robert Jones

    Hi Larry,

    Looking forward to what you and Art have in store for the coming year.

    In terms of contemplating a story, I also believe its best to live with your story for a little before diving in. Get to know the characters, jot down a list of scenes, then create an outline. I can hear the pantsers saying this kills spontaneity, but it really doesn’t. Not if you simply list the important action of the scene and don’t go into excruciating detail. You can’t confuse an outline with drafting scenes in a manuscript.

    Thinking back to my early days as a total panther, even those scenes I saw playing through my mind as clearly as if I were watching a movie, only translated in part to the written page. Because I was either not able to consider how best to describe what I initially saw, or would have too many images instead of choosing the strongest ones. And the most common mistake I made in those days of discovery is that what I saw so perfectly in my mind, I also believed was on the page—but it wasn’t. We re-read our words and conjure the memory of those images we saw within our amazing story-vision, then someone else reads and can’t see it at all.

    No matter how you come at your first draft, it’s a smattering of dots that begin to form the larger picture. Once you achieve some distance, you can see the weak, or missing areas. And depending on how much of the big picture you’ve brought back with you from the dreamy pantsing netherworld, it may take several more drafts to translate it into written words.

    Eventually you get wise and try to find ways to save all those trips to the story store by creating a shopping list first. Then maybe you’ll actually be able to narrow things down to two or three drafts and be relatively sure your story is working. Once you get the recipe down, you can always come back to pantsing with a better sense of how to make things work in your favor. However, my hunch is that you’ll see every aspect of creating a story is spontaneous and just as much fun as ever. Maybe even more so when you’re more confident about wielding your craft.

    That’s my two cents worth on this subject 🙂

    • MikeR

      Let us always remember that Charles Schulz, every day, started his day by “being spontaneous” on a little note-pad, where he doodled with his pencil before reaching for “another sheet of Strathmore paper.”

      (His biographers never said how many of those note-pad pages he tucked into his desk-drawer as sources of future inspiration, but I daresay that he did this frequently.)

      Apparently, he never “drew an actual comic-strip” as a way of deciding whether-or-not the completed(?) strip “would work.” Obviously, he had found a way to determine whether the strip should be drawn, and if so, just what it should contain, before he actually spent an hour-or-so drawing it.

      Guess it pays to take a life-lesson from someone who “produced – and sold – 17,897 products, one-at-a-time, by hand . . . !!”

  6. Can’t wait to see what you have in store! Happy New Year!!!

  7. Eric Neil

    I’m a long-time pantser who after some twenty years has finally realized I’m on a dead-end road. Hundreds of unfinished novels and short stories. I’ve been working with your books and articles, have learned a lot, and am excited about this way of working.
    But I struggle with key plot point decisions and committing to one path. I always have a bunch of ideas for a given plot point–different times in a characters life to start the story. Should event X be plot point 1 or the mid-point or the climax? Different way to tell the story in each case–which is the best story? Each of these possibilities trigger several possibilities for the other plot points and so on until I’m paralyzed.
    I’m thankful to be avoiding finding all of this out after hundreds of pages, but I’d be grateful for any advice you can give in upcoming articles on this decision-making process. Which plot point is THE plot point?

    • MikeR

      “The ultimate decision, Author,” is yours. But there’s always room for another book. After laying out a set of possibilities upon your examining-table, PICK ONE, but then shove the others into a box and put them safely on a nearby shelf.

      (In other words, “don’t throw them away – don’t lose them – they’re still ‘your ideas,’ and therefore they’re still valuable.”)

      Remember – it might quite-truthfully be said of the entire television industry that their entire living consists of coming up with “the same thing, only different, week after week after week.”

      A key idea that they use is “successive refinement.” Ideas that have not been used =yet= are simply consigned to what a newspaper called “the morgue.” Ideas that don’t make it through the next round of review-meetings are not thrown away …

    • Robert Jones

      Hi Eric,

      First off I want to agree with MikeR that you should throw nothing away. Some of those ideas may be quite viable in an altered form later on.

      As to the questions you’ve asked, if you haven’t read Larry’s “Story Engineering,” that would be an absolutely great place to start in terms of learning the criteria for all the key plot points—as are many of the post here on Storyfix regarding those subjects.

      As far as spinning out of control with too many ideas, choices certainly have to be made. Understanding what makes your characters tick may suggest the likely route to take them on their story path. For me, the best way to deal with too many ideas is to write a list in order to get to the freshest, or best of the ideas. Once I start listing those possibilities in the form of a list, it seems to dispense with them. Also, you’ll most likely find the initial ideas are often the most common, off the top of the head stuff that will not always energize readers to keep turning pages. And getting them down on paper works as sort of a sifting process. When stuck, I’ve made lists of ideas that went on 20 or 30 topics long, struggling to find the right one. However, once you have to start having to push yourself for the next idea, you know you’ve exhausted all the easy ones and are closer to striking gold. Once you find a really good choice, the right choice, you are a lot less likely to meander into all those lesser choices. I never have once I got them out of my head and decluttered, so to speak.

      You are not the only one who has been here. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at negotiating the process. So will you 🙂

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