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Three Men and a Manuscript: A Forum on the Storytelling Craft

I’ve been itching to post something unexpected, something with great value.  A gift to Storyfix readers, and those who come here because they’ve heard about this.

The following is a little Q&A (2500 words worth) I recently engaged in with two of the bigger names out there in the “writing guru” space: James Scott Bell, and Randy  Ingermanson. We share a lot similar perspectives and values regarding craft, and any similarity you see here to what I’ve been espousing on this site are… well, not at all coincidental.

None of us invented anything relative to craft. What we have done, however, is try to break it down and make it accessible, each of us in our own way.  The more you hear it, the more people you hear it from, the more you’ll recognize the common ground… which are the proven principles of storytelling.

If you like what you read, please forward this to your writer friends, or tweet it or Reddit or however you share content. We’re all in this together… some swimming, some sinking.  Here’s hoping this buoys you with hope and intention.

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1. There’s so much “butt-in-chair, nothing else matters” writing advice out there, and it’s creating problems for newer writers in particular. If, in some alternate universe, you were asked to define the Holy Grail of advice-for-fiction-writers, the context-setting, everything-stems-from-this piece of gold… and you only got to chip in one answer, what would it be? My guess is there may be more than one answer competing for this title… so if there’s no breaking the tie, please share those candidates, too.

J.S. BELL: Every scene needs an objective housed in the mind of the point-of-view character. Vonnegut said the character must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. And then you must put obstacles in the way of that objective, or the scene becomes boring. Finally, the outcome of the scene should put the Lead in a worse spot—or maybe give a temporary gain followed by more trouble. Trouble is our business, so we need to make it happen. If the writer uses scene objectives that relate to the overall story question, then the novel has organic unity and feels like there’s forward motion.

RANDY: Success in writing comes from the following three-part formula, which you will repeat until you die:

1) Write fiction on a regular schedule that lets you predict how long it’ll take you to create your next project.

2) Get pieces of it critiqued frequently and apply what you learned to your writing.

3) Read from the recognized experts on the craft and marketing of your work and apply what you learned to your writing.

Why is writing regularly important?  I don’t put much stock in native talent.  I’m sure it exists, but you learn to write fiction the way you learn to play tennis – by doing it.

Why is getting critiqued important?   After all, there are hazards to getting critiqued. We all have thin skins.  There are bad critiquers out there. Mean ones, too. Despite these hazards, every writer desperately needs an outside opinion. You won’t get better unless you know what the problems are in your writing. The only writers I’ve ever seen that I considered hopeless were the ones who couldn’t accept critiques of their work.

Why is studying the experts important? Because your critiquers can tell you what’s wrong with your work, but only a good teacher can tell you how to fix it. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Learn from the experts. Write better next time.

LARRY: A great story is never just about something… a place, a time, an event, a theme. A great story is about something happening.

Write with courage. Jump in. But don’t jump out of the airplane without a parachute. One with the words Principles of Storytelling Craft printed on it, visible from all points on the ground… where the readers are.

2. What do you say to writers who happily pull out a famous exception to the fundamentals we preach – pretty sure it happens to you as much as it does to me – and try to leverage it toward some combination of watering-down or license to go rouge with the principles?  Such as, “Hey, James Bond has no character arc… ever… so you’re full of crap, right?”

J.S. BELL: Besides the admonition that exceptions prove the rules, I would say you have to understand what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. In your example, Bond (like Jack Reacher) is a recurring character created for a particular experience—you know going in what each book is going to be like. Nothing wrong with that. Compare that to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who is on a years-long inner journey, book to book. It’s a different goal, and different set of expectations. The whole thing with writing fundamentals is that they work, have proved their worth time after time. If any writer wants to deviate from them, it should be done with full understanding, and then the writer can make an informed decision about trying something else, you know, like flying a plane with one wing.

RANDY: There are no inviolable rules, but there are plenty of principles of good writing.  The principles are in conflict with each other, which means you have to decide which are the most important and which you’re going to go slack on.

Certain categories are going to focus more on one set of principles and go easy on another set.

And once in a while, you have to violate just about any principle you can name.

But the fact is that some fiction works and some doesn’t.  When it’s working, you can always ask if there are principles you can apply to make it better.  When it’s not working, the quickest way to get it working is to ask what principles it’s violating, and then make any changes that make sense.

LARRY: Writers, as a rule (no irony intended), don’t like rules.  Many are offended when they think they smell one.  Thing is, too often rules are mistaken for principles.  Playing loose with principles can work, but it’s always a calculated risk.  One best made in full command of the principles one seeks to bend.  Ignorant bending can cost you your story.

Most rejections are the result of ignored or lightly regarded principles, often out of ignorance of them rather than deliberate nose-thumbing.

Almost always, when someone uses the example of an iconic novel to make me wrong (one guy said he wanted to come to my door and throw classic books at me; I gave him my address but he never showed), they are going back dozens, even hundreds of years.  That says it all… the earth was flat once, too.

The place you can find legitimate contemporary rule-benders are in the literary and experimental genres, where risk is the genre, and the survivors few and far between.

3. There’s a new website out there (which I won’t identify or promote) that’s all about how and why non-literary fiction (genre stories) is destroying the world and anyone with a brain should avoid it and read the stuff he likes. How do you differentiate ‘literary fiction” from commercial/genre fiction, and how do you respond to literary aspirants who are already playing the superiority/free-pass-on-fundamentals card?

J.S. BELL: We live in a free country with a First Amendment. We have choices about what we want to do with our writing. We all know that “commercial fiction” is so called because it makes more money. That does not, however, mean that the writing itself must be, perforce, inferior. I would place Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly and several others I could name right up there with the best of the supposed elite of “literary fiction.”

I’ve read some excellent literary fiction, and like it. But I’ve also read some dreadful Lit-Fic that was supposed to be great because a critic said it was. Let me put it this way: the best literary fiction I’ve read is that which does not consider Plot a four-letter word (bend that one in your mind), and has a basic understanding of structure.

There is room, of course, for experimental fiction. That, by definition, does things decidedly anti-fundamental. If the artist wants to do that, that’s fine. But there is a reason such is not called “commercial.”

Just know your reasons and your passions and your writing goals, and choose accordingly. I don’t think there’s any reason a writer should not choose to try to make a living at this, and then strive to make each book the best it can be.

RANDY: This smells like a basic conflict in values.

The vast majority of readers read to be entertained.  Genre fiction is designed to be as entertaining as possible, possibly at the expense of other elements, such as voice, style, theme, etc.

If you value the literary elements and don’t value entertainment, then you have every right to write literary fiction that is not entertaining.  Nobody is stopping you, and you can be as smug as you like.  However, you probably won’t get that many readers.

If you value entertainment and don’t value the literary elements, then you also have every right to write entertaining shlock that the critics will sneer at.  You might do well this way and if so, you can laugh all the way to the bank.

But you can also value both entertainment and literary elements.  These are independent things, so you can value BOTH of them highly, which might make you both rich and critically acclaimed.

Every writer gets to decide for herself what she values and then write fiction in line with those values.

LARRY: I find it interesting how often “literary” sensibilities find their way into genre fiction.  The work of Dennis Lehane, for example, isan A-list name if ever one.  He works in mainstream adult contemporary fiction that is not considered, officially at least (he’s not partying with Jonathan Franzen, to my knowledge) part of the literary genre, yet his is some of the most literary work you’ll ever read.  He just adds a compelling plot while he’s at it.

I think that’s it.  It’s the focus and intention of the plot, or the lack thereof, that leans into literary, or not.  It’s more than voice, more than character… it’s the relevance that earns the tag, I think.

4. Best novel you’ve ever read, in terms of modeling the principles of effective storytelling… and why does it get your vote?

J.S. BELL: I have many candidates, including some obscure titles like the 1950s paperback original Big Red’s Daughter by John McPartland. If I may share a blog post I did on why I loved this book, it will answer your question more fully:

http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2013/05/11-keys-to-making-novel-page-turner.html#.UgOjGo7ohn8

In fact, when I think of the novels I’ve read more than once, I think of The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler and Cancel All Our Vows by John D. MacDonald. Both of these writers stand equal, in my mind, with any of the great literary writers of our time. Isn’t that interesting? Their books tell as much truth about the human condition as any other novel I’ve read and just happen to be compulsively readable as well.

RANDY: It’s hard to choose just one, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins did a lot of things right in this first book in the series.  I found myself so sucked into the story that my inner critic pretty much took a nap.  That’s good writing.

Ender’s Game.  Orson Scott Card does a great job of making an epic tale personal.  Again, reading this book causes me to drop my analytical side and just enjoy the story.

The Harry Potter series, books #4 through 7.  J.K. Rowling did a nice job in the first few books, but she really hit her stride in Book #4 and she continued at that same high level all the way through to the end.  There are some flaws in the Potter series, but it’s hard to think of a book that has a better story world.

The Pillars of the Earth.  This is widely considered to be Ken Follett’s best work, and I would agree.  It’s a long book with several major characters.  In my opinion, Follett puts you inside the skin of his characters better than any author on the planet.  And he does it superbly in this book.

River God, by Wilbur Smith.  This is an action-packed adventure story set in 18th century B.C. Egypt.  Smith does a great job of convincing the reader that you are there.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.  The premise is weird, but Niffenegger makes you believe it.  I never found the time-line confusing.  This is another one where my inner critic fell asleep.

I think the reason I chose each of these is that the authors are operating at a very high level in almost every single aspect of their fiction writing.

LARRY: I love the work of Colin Harrison, whose book Afterburn (2000) was the runner up on several “best book” awards lists for that year, after Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I also soak up anything by Nelson Demille, and consider his Up Country (2002) a modern masterpiece and the definitive novel about theVietnam experience.

5. You somehow (maybe in your next novel) get to meet yourself when you were younger. He doesn’t recognize you, of course, thinks you’re an old fart and, besides, he’s not listening to anybody at that stage. What would you tell him relative to writing, and to life itself, and how would you break through the inevitable resistance to those truths?

J.S. BELL: Don’t stress so much. You’re all in a dither about whether you’ll “make it” or not. Hang on to the joy you felt when you first started writing and it all seemed like a wonderful dream, and the words flowed. Even though you needed to learn the craft, your enjoyment of the process was infectious. Don’t take rejection personally. Use it as a motivator to get better. The two things you have going for you are determination and a work ethic. Don’t lose those two things!

RANDY: First, be aware that it’s extremely hard to make a living as a novelist. It’s easy to believe that all novelists are millionaires, because most of the novelists you can think of are doing extremely well.  But you won’t earn a living as a novelist unless you’re in the 99th percentile, and you won’t earn a GOOD living unless you’re well up in the 99th percentile.

This means you have two options:

1) Have a day job.

2) Be exceptionally talented, be an exceptional marketer, or be exceptionally lucky.  You need at least one of these three, but there are no guarantees unless you’ve got all three.

Second, the money isn’t the reason you write fiction.  You write fiction for one reason only: Because it’s in your blood.

If writing fiction is not in your blood, then get out now, because you’ll never be happy as a novelist.

If writing fiction is in your blood, then by all means write fiction, develop your skills, learn to be a good marketer, and pray for luck.  But even if you never see financial success, it won’t matter, because the only thing that matters to you is that you’re writing fiction.  You don’t have to justify your fiction writing to anyone. It’s none of their business how you spend your life.

Third, in 2010, e-books will suddenly take off and the world will change overnight.  Be ready for this.

LARRY: Don’t do it for the money. Write what you love. And, love what you write, but work hard to earn that love by learning and practicing the deep art of storytelling craft.  You’ll save yourself a decade or two of Xanax if you do.

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JAMES SCOTT BELL is the bestselling author of such thrillers as Don’t Leave Me, Try Dying and Watch Your Back. His novella One More Lie was the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award. Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writer’s Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing for Publication, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Visit his website at: www.jamesscottbell.com

RANDY INGERMANSON is known around the world as “the Snowflake Guy” in honor of his wildly popular Snowflake method of writing a novel. He is the award-winning author of six novels and the best-selling book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES.  He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley and works as director of software engineering for Vala Sciences, in San Diego.  He lives in the Pacific northwest, where he sees to the needs of three surly cats.  Check out his web site for novelists at http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

LARRY BROOKS is the creator of Storyfix.com, and the author of the writing books Story Physics and the bestseller, Story Engineering. His latest novel is Deadly Faux, from Turner Publishing.

Read the latest review of Deadly Faux HERE.  

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The Most Important Question(s) in Storytelling and the Ensuing Two Questions That Allow You to Answer

Is it okay if I admit that I love today’s post?  Because I do.

Maybe because I’ve been tinkering with it for weeks. 

I write about things that lurk in all corners of the writing room, some hidden and lurking in the darkest corners, others sitting on desk begging for attention. 

Sometimes they’re subtle.  This one is isn’t.

This one is huge. 

It’s straight out of Writing 101, smack from the middle of Square One, and no matter how far down the road we are, a return to this fundamental persective can empower, resurrect or otherwise save a flagging writing dream.

You have to get this stuff down.  

Whether you do it naturally or you have to staple a note to your forehead, if you write stories you must pay attention to what today’s post is sticking squarely in your face.

Let that process begin, or at least reignite, here and now.

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In our last post, I introduced (though I certainly didn’t invent) the notion of boiling your story down to a few simple questions that, in essence, define the very things your readers will want to know.

You have to know them first. 

And then you have to get clever, strategic, even postively Machiavvellian, about teasing them along toward that denouement. 

Readers want to be sucked in, manipulated, double-crossed and then brought back home… they want to take a journey with you… and then they want to be paid off with an ending that delivers the goods.

Even if this sounds obvious at first blush…

… it’s always good to look at things from multiple and even simplified perspectives.  This question-posing technique, in particular, can do everything from conquering writer’s block to putting your story over the top in terms of its dramatic potential effectiveness.

And, just as critically, it might rescue you from a mistake you weren’t even aware you were making.

Here’s they type of questions I’m talking about.

Will your hero reach her or his goal? 

Will he get the girl? 

Will she find love afterall?

Will she survive? 

Will he ever walk again?  See again?  Play the piano again?

Will what needs to happen actually happen in time? 

Will romance ensue?  Or will it flame out? 

Will she get from under her father’s thumb? 

Will he live out from under his family’s name?

Will the antagonist do irreparable harm? 

Will the antagonist be brought to justice?

Will the rules of the game change?   

Will the hero get the job? 

Keep the job? 

Succeed at the job? 

Find a way to work around the boss-from-hell? 

To kill the boss from hell?  Or at least, get her fired?

Will a moral line need to be crossed? 

Will she be forgiven? 

Will others understand? 

Will the cost exceed the benefit? 

Will he get away with it?

Will the inner demon be conquered?

Notice these are, for the most part, yes or no questions.

That’s on purpose. 

Because it forces you to keep your focus on the primary storylines – one, maybe two, with one or maybe two sub-plots– rather than wandering around in a narrative daze, trying to write a story that’s all things to all readers. 

Too many questions can turn your story into something bigger.  Unwieldy big.   Boringly, unfocused big.

You want to write a page turner, not a character-drenched biography full of side-trips and backstory.

Asking the right dramatic question is perhaps the most important part of storytelling.  If you’ve not given it much attention, focusing on details, characterization and the wonder of your linguistic gifts, you may just be missing the point.  Which in this case is synonymous with opportunity.

 Also, notice that these questions aren’t focused on theme. 

They are guiding you toward plot, toward exposition.  The idea isn’t to pose a question such as, “Will love conquer all?” — which is purely thematic — but rather, will the specific characters in your story find love, or not?

Theme is what your readers will take away from the reading experience.  These questions aren’t about that, they’re about what you, the writer, will do within your story to lead them toward that experience.

And now, for my favorite moment in this post:

Notice, too, that the genius of this technique…

… isn’t being able to answer these questions, but rather, to simply ask them.  To propose the right questions and get rid of the wrong ones.  To prioritize.

Read those three sentences (such as they are) again.  They’re huge.

To create a story spine, instead of a slice-of-life with too many problems to solve and cul-de-sacs to navigate.

And because all of the answers are probably yes – and if you’ve noticed that with any degree of impatience, then grab on, because you’re about to get the entire point right here…

… they force you to square off with the next two levels of questions, which are equally powerful and astoundingly brief.

Because for every yes answer you must answer the question of how.

How will you make that “yes” answer happen?  Make it fit?

Make it exciting, dramatic? 

Make it pay off?

How will you get there?  That answer defines whether your story will work, or not.

And if the answer to a dramatic question happens to be no, then the next question, instead of how?, becomes why?

Which in either case leads you to the next most important storytelling question of all.

Because without this one, those first level of dramatic questions won’t matter. 

Your job as a storyteller is to make things interesting.  Make them meaningful.  Deep.  Seductive.  Compelling.  Frightening.  Illuminating.  Interesting.  Gripping.  Memorable.  Relevant.  Challenging.  Engaging. 

Irresistible.

Asking those first-level dramatic questions doesn’t do that, it merely points you toward a means of doing all that.  It gives you clarity, and from that clarity comes the opportunity to really create something fresh and worthwhile.

It forces you to ask… how?

And your answer to that question is the stuff of stellar storytelling.

Because anybody can write a love story, a mystery, a thriller.  Just completing a manuscript and qualifying for membership within a niche isn’t the point.

Making it sizzle… that’s the point. 

Making it stand out.  Making it work in a way that, even if it’s slightly familiar (and aren’t all mysteries and thrillers and romances slightly familiar to some extent, and isn’t that the point?), satisfies and lingers.

You have to have a killer answer ready every time you ask how.

And for that – to answer the most important questions in storytelling – you need the most powerful question in storytelling.

The two most magical words in all of literary creation:

What if… ?

The moment you think of those two words as a tool – as a means of answering the question of how?” – rather than a cliché, your writing will turn a corner.

Because right here is where even the most skeptical of organic writers and painstakingly anal of story planners arrive at an identical point in the creative journey.

You don’t have to settle

You can dream as big, as outrageously, or as cleverly subtle, as you choose in selecting and crafting answers to the how? question with a series of genius what if…? propositions.

But only if how have the right high level dramatic question at the story level preceding it.

When you can answer all these questions, at all three levels – the basic dramatic questions that define your story… how you’ll get there… and the best what if? questions you can come up to make that journey compelling – you’ll have everything in your tool chest that you need to write the best story you have in you.

Think of your favorite stories… can you state the dramatic questions that reside at the heart of it?  Let’s hear from you on that. 

So many stories… so many questions.

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