Please don’t get too excited by those odds.
I’m not implying that one-out-of-ten writers will one day publish a novel or sell a screenplay, or will write one what will become another of those unlikely self-published success stories.
Nor am I implying that one-out-of-ten manuscripts are even salable. No, that particular statistic is more like one out of – and I’m spit-balling here – 500 or so.
The odds suck. This isn’t a game for the feint of heart. But it is a game with a set of principles and models that, if you let them in and embrace the struggle, will give you a fighting chance.
Which is why I sometimes come off like a hard-ass here, hammering home the importance of the principles of storycraft, as defined and packaged by what I call the Six Core Competencies, and empowered by the various realms of what I call Story Physics.
Contrary to one early (and confused) reviewer’s take, they are not remotely the same things.
All of which, by the way, is almost exactly what other writing teachers have been harping on, with a variety of approaches and vocabularies, for dozens of years now, at every writing conference you’ve ever been to.
Process is personal and negotiable. Story architecture and all of its nuances… isn’t.
That 1-out-of-1o statistic?
That’s from my own experience in coaching stories. I’ve read over 400 story plans (via my three levels of story coaching) in the past 15 months, and the numbers break down like this:
Only one out of ten stories sent to me for coaching are solid in the major areas of story architecture and physics.
Which is to say… the concept is compelling, the premise arising from it is sufficiently dramatic, the First Plot Point is functional and in the right place, the hero earns that title in the right way, and the story resolves in a fashion that will make readers glad they stuck around.
Basic stuff. And yet, nine-out-of-ten of you get it wrong.
Proof positive that, even when you’ve been at this a while, this is a really hard craft to wrap your head around. There’s absolutely no shame in working on a story that isn’t ready yet. Or when it is, isn’t good enough. Everybody who isn’t named Stephen King goes through that experience.
I’m not saying that the one-out-of-ten nail it. Simply, that they haven’t swung and missed. That their story plan reflects a solid grasp of these principles. That they deserve a competitive place in the slush pile.
From there the question becomes, for those one-out-of-ten writers: are you hitting a single, a double, a triple, or a home run?
Or will you simply get into the game and still go 0-for-4?
My goal as a story coach is to improve your odds on all counts. Here’s how.
A summary of those swings and misses.
Concept problems – concepts that aren’t conceptual at all, that are really a premise (which is NOT the same thing as a concept) without a source of compelling energy driving it. In other words, a “story idea” that isn’t yet good enough… if “good” is measured by its ability to compel, by its freshness and the perceived ability to execute and compete at a professional level.
Notice how none of that connects, not even a little, to how well the writer writes. Your sentences don’t matter. Not in the least. If, that is, your story isn’t working.
I see a lot of ideas, presented as stories, that aren’t yet a dramatic premise based on a concept. In other words, an under-cooked story plan. Or a plan-in-progress. In essence, a project that is still in the search for story phase.
Which is fine, by the way, if the submitting writer gets this and is seeking feedback on how to finish that search. The more troubling — and prevalent — issue is when the writer believes the story is fully realized, and it’s just not.
About seven out of ten stories I see are guilty of this one.
Lane changes – stories that start out as one thing, the offspring of the union of concept and premise… and then become something else entirely (sometimes more than once) as the story unfolds. The premise is abandoned, the First Plot Point is rendered moot, and a core story never really emerges.
This is both a conceptual issue (the lack thereof) and a structural issue. I’ve seen stories that offer a First Plot Point that sets the hero down a certain path, sometimes promising… which turns out to have nothing at all to do with the story in the second half of the novel or screenplay. A fatal error, that.
Your First Plot Point is a promise. One you need to keep.
Four out of ten fall victim to this mistake.
Also, stories that confuse hook, inciting incident and First Plot Point… without nailing any of them. That’s a handful of story killers before you are a hundred pages in.
Mangled or weak First Plot Points are a death sentence for your story. About six out of ten take themselves out of the running on this count alone.
Episodic stories – without a core dramatic focus on a hero with a specific quest stemming from a specific problem or need or goal. Something with stakes, with opposition ahead.
Basically, a character doing this and that, and then that and this, without a core source of purpose or conflict. An “adventures of…” type of story. Almost always a fatal flaw, as well.
Half of the stories I see jump off this cliff.
Hero growth stories – wherein character arc masquerades as dramatic tension.
In every story analysis I do, I ask the writer to define what the hero needs or wants in the story. This leads to the story’s dramatic question, and thus, the primary source of dramatic tension.
No dramatic tension, no chance of publication. Period.
Answers that are too soft and unclear, that simply drive toward a character’s sense of being and understanding and growth, without a core external need present as the catalyst that motivates character arc… this is the sign of a story that’s already in trouble.
Character is only ONE of the six core competencies required of a story that works.
I’d say that four out of ten of the stories I see fall into this particular abyss.
The Fix Is In
All of these story killers are fixable.
(And thus we transition into the pitch portion of this post. I hope the above content has served you well.)
Because, in context to the Questionnaire that is the basis of my story coaching programs, they are almost always easily visible.
In fact, since I’m quoting percentages here, about half of the projects take the writer a month or more to get to the point where they even submit the Questionnaire. Why? Precisely because it IS so visible.
In this way, the Questionnaire becomes as much a story development tool as it is a story evaluation template. By the time I get it, the writers who aren’t among those pronounced guilty of the story crimes defined above – the one out of ten – have already identified and addressed their own issues.
At least to a great extent. My job in the process is clarity across these benchmarks, and usually some suggestions on how to improve the specific issues that are bleeding the story dry of its potential.
One out of ten get affirmation, often with some tips on how to make it even better.
Nine out of ten get the help they need. Even when it hurts.
New Pricing Structure
I’ve recently raised my fee for the basic “Story Coaching Adventure” level of this service (from $1oo to $150).
Why? Because I’ve been over-delivering in terms of the time it takes and the impact of the verdict. And frankly, based on feedback, it’s worth a heckuva lot more than the former price. In many cases it will save your story from a nose-dive. In others, it will create a vision and path to help you take the story to a higher level, sometimes to the point of salability.
The new fee reflects an updated and more focused Questionnaire, and the program now offers a 7-day turnaround. (A 24-hour RUSH option is offered for an additional fifty dollars, for midnight oil.
Click HERE for more on this $150 story coaching service.
For a quicker, cheaper hit… my “Kick-Start Conceptual Analysis” remains ridiculously priced at $35, focusing on what the name promises: the nature of your concept as it relates to premise, and how you launch that in your story at the First Plot Point. These now come with a 48-hour turnaround.
It’s like running your story through an MRI machine. You may or may not require surgery or therapy. Usually some therapy. Good to know before you spend a year of your life writing it.
Click HERE for more on this $35 level.
Of course, the executed manuscript itself is the final test. I do those evaluations, too (my fee there is $1800, also a slight increase; please please please DO compare that to other story coaching services, which don’t include the contextual Questionnaire phase).
Is your story ready? Are you among the one-out-of-ten?
Good to know.
Either before you write it, or before you submit it.