Category Archives: other cool stuff

A Return to Hardcore Story Craft

Hey storyfixers… I know I’ve been MIA for an inexcusable length of time. Thanks to Art Holcomb for filling the void a few times while I went about the business of reinvention, rejuvenation, ducks-back-in-a-row stuff, and a general inventorying and understanding of why people read my work, why they come and then go away, and what writers are truly looking for when it comes to mentoring, teaching and the discovery of totally free information that will take them deeper into the craft of writing and the pursuit of their writing dream.

Some may believe – inaccurately – that the title of this blog, and of my latest book (Story Fix), imply I’m all about editing and rewriting, when in fact the most valuable thing to be found here is a perspective on what it takes to develop and implement a viable story from the square one comprised of a compelling premise (emphasis on the word viable, because not all ideas are worthy of a story… this being one of the most toxic misbeliefs floating around out there) using provable, universal and perhaps heretofore unclear (and therefore rarely or vaguely described within the general writing conversation) principles of storycraft.

Let me state the complex in a succinct way:

I believe in, teach, write about and can substantially prove the value in mission-driven, criteria-based story development. I’m betting you may not have heard the writing proposition framed quite that way… and I’m also betting than the notion of criteria – not a magic pill, but a strategic logic – already appeals to you. Especially if you’ve been at this a while.

Too many writing gurus preach benchmark-free story development. And yet, stories that work always – not almost always, but always – touch on specific benchmarks, structural and otherwise… so why aren’t we talking about and writing in context to them?

We’re going to continue a deeper dive into all of this.

If you seek an alternative to the vague frustrations of “writing what you feel, because there are no rules, damnit, so we can just write without thinking about it too much,” all without some sense of how to navigate the creative options along the path… if you seek that higher ground, you’ve come to the right place.

I’m certainly not the only “guru-type” selling you the truth (Art Holcomb, for example, is spot-on with everything he says about storytelling, as is James Scott Bell, among others… read us all, and soon you’ll notice the commonality, as well as the nuanced differences), but I have coined some specific labeling and modeling, perhaps uniquely so, that many say make these principles immediately accessible.

I’ll also shine a light on what’s risky, and what isn’t valid thinking.  

Take the common advice, “just write,” for example.

“Just write” can, if taken in a less than fully-informed way, become the most toxic writing advice you’ll ever hear. Yet, if you can wrap your head around the core principles you’ll encounter here (including the over 700 posts that are available in the Archives; use the search function to find articles on virtually anything concerning the craft of storytelling), you’ll find a rich new context from which to write your stories. You’ll discover an informed context, rather than simply writing what you feel without an understanding of how that fits into a professional storytelling paradigm.

Those who succeed at the “just write” approach usually do so – and will defend that advice vehemently – precise because their core storytelling instinct is already informed by these principles. Even without knowing that’s what’s going on.

I read recently (in a Writers Digest article) that mega-author JoJo Moyes (11 million books sold, and counting) claims to not know how she did that, and that when she begins a new book she feels totally lost. That’s what I’m talking about… obviously, her instincts are keen and her ear highly developed… perhaps, as she claims, without even knowing how or why.

Better to know, I hope you’ll agree.

This is advanced stuff.

And yet, it is the very foundational bedrock of what the new writer needs to understand. It is, in that way, paradoxical in nature, because the advanced craft of writing is no more than a deeper understanding of what newer writers must encounter and grasp (even if only instinctually) before they can truly get far from the starting gate.

So that’s my ongoing platform: framing the most basic, hardcore criteria and nature of the elements and essences of storytelling in ways that will clarify and make them more accessible to both the new writer and the working writer going forward.

If anything has gained me a spot at the table when it comes to writing about writing, it is that I seek to cull out, summarize and present the elemental essences of a story – both in terms of parts and reading experience, in function and in form – in a way that resonates with many. Even – perhaps especially – after they’ve heard it from others, or in courses from names like James Patterson that are really, when you boil it all down, some form of “this is how I do it” shallow rehash of the obvious, without a real thinking-writer’s template for understanding what a story needs to be, regardless of how you get there.

Even the novels of the deniers demonstrate the very principles that I will show you. Everything I offer up has that end-game in mind: a story that works. Really works.

Without bloodletting, suffering or years of frustration over a massive pile of rewrites.

Do you really want to take years to get there, and then not truly understand how you did what you did? And then, how to do it again, even better?

Can you really do what Stephen King does, the way he does it and advises you do it, too? Have you bought into the myth of relying on under-informed instinct, when you have access to the learning that will turn on the light of a higher understanding?

If you know what you’re doing – and believe me, this is something that can be learned – you can nail your story in two drafts. Art preaches this, too, in case you need outside confirmation. The more you understand about story criteria, the more you’ll apply it to the stories you develop.

Almost always, when “famous novelist” writes about writing, they will be focusing on process – their process – rather than the criteria and fueling of the end-product. It’s like LeBron James talking about his training and diet, rather than the fundamentals of the game he plays. Like, how to play defense against Stephen Curry.

So what’s next here?

I’m developing a multi-part series on “Core Craft for the Emerging Novelist,” which exists within one of my new video modules, as well. Look for at least 14 posts in that series.

I am doing a deconstruction of the novel, “The Girl on a Train,” which illustrates how the principles become visible, and therefore, confirming your understanding of how and why those principles apply. Look for that soon, inserted within the multi-part series I just mentioned.

Until then, here’s some hardcore content for you to chew on… right now.  This link will take you to a post I wrote for Brian Klem (October 2013), which first appeared on the Writers Digest website that he manages.

A little taste of what is possible when you hunger for more craft.

 

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The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling

The goal of today’s post is nothing less than to explain why writing a novel that works is hard.

As opposed to, say, a pile of 50K-plus words poured into a steaming pile during, say, the most recent month of November, that doesn’t.

But if you break it down, there really aren’t that many different things going on, categorically. And with so many of us trying to do it, and so few of us producing a sure thing (this isn’t a knock on the new or struggling writer; so many famous names and titles were rejected multiple times before finding a place in the market, and so many others have one flash of the spotlight and then virtually disappear), why are the odds so long?

Especially since there are more than a few folks like me seeking to clear the air and impart some sense of what works and what may be holding you back.

In an effort to get to that bottom line, I set out to view the problem differently.

To break down what actually happens in the moment of collision between a writer’s intention and action, tempered by the heat-resistant presence of that author’s distilled sense of story.

In the end  it all boils down to three things, and really, only three things.

  • What we know about storytelling (the sum of what we think we know and actually do know about how a story is built – craft – and what it is built of);
  • What we know about the story itself, including the ending (which explains why some drafts work and others don’t);
  • and, then, how we steer that ship across the void of the blank page (our story and prose sensibilities).

That last one is the kicker. It explains (or it doesn’t; more accurately, this is just the label on a map about a place we know very little about, sort of like the Marianas Trench of storytelling) why some writers are consistently better and faster than others… writers who seem to wield a natural gift of some kind.

Versus those that think they do. Finally realizing that you may not yet be among that tiny crowd can, for some, be the most empowering moment in your writing journey.

Because that might be when you let craft into your process.

Welcome to The Bermuda Triangle of storytelling.

Screenshot (108)

Because in the stormy, uncharted confluence of these three natural forces of storytelling, some writers get lost and some are never heard from again.

Two out of three of these sub-processes may be good enough… if you have the time or patience for it. But nailing the story reasonably early (for many this means, in this lifetime), and easily (before your world collapses, or before you begin deceiving yourself about it)… that requires firing on all three of these cylinders.

All three of these forces, though — 1) knowledge of craft… 2) a vision for the story… 3) a sense of how to get it on paper — are in the end required, at least in some perhaps unequal proportion. The good news is that each time we give it a try, we make a deposit into the each of these three creative/intellectual accounts.

Soak up enough craft, apply it to your vision for the story, and your story sense is bound to elevate. Do this long enough, in context to the principles of craft, and your story sense will at some point catch up with your enthusiasm.

Analogies abound. I’ll spare you those for now, but let it be said, immense knowledge without some sense of magic and movement does not a singer or dancer or artist make.

The reason we study craft IS to beef up our story sense. To skip the craft in reliance to one’s natural storytelling gifts is like preparing for the Olympic trials without training… because you were born fast and strong.

Clearly, this isn’t math.

It’s more like Olympic figure skating or platform diving, where results and the pursuit of perfection are determined by a bunch of imperfect human beings levying judgment. But even the experts often get it wrong (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, for example, was rejected by 46 agents before one of them had a higher sensibility to the party), thus testifying to the imprecision of story sense.

This little model gives us something to work on and build upon.

Not to mention, something to blame.

From the moment the spark of a story idea lights up our brain, continuing through the entire process up to the moment we set the story free (which is to finish it and move on to something else, whatever that looks like for you), we are juggling these three very different intellectual and creative phenomena. Viewed separately, we can see how they apply (if you can’t, it is a sign that one or more is still underdeveloped). But it is in the areas of overlap where the math becomes vague, where so many have tried to credit an unexplained inspiration or what becomes the equivalent of a muse, or perhaps just plain blind luck, good, bad or otherwise.

In the absence of this understanding, that may be as good an explanation as any.

 

 

The principles are always available to tutor your story sense. 

You don’t need a “natural storytelling gift” (as some claim) to develop a novel that works, or become a successful career writer.

That’s why Jeffrey Deaver proudly says he writes twenty-two drafts of his novels… which, at a glance, is not the outcome of a highly developed story sense. Rather, that’s Deaver trying to get it right, over and over and over again. He succeeds because he follows proven, reliable, solid principles of craft – he has the requisite knowledge about how and why stories work – and doesn’t settle until he knows as much about his story, from premise through the entire structure, as he needs to for it all to work… and to recognize when he gets to that point.

Novels that fail or under-perform are often simply drafts that the writer didn’t – perhaps cannot – recognize as unfinished.  Which is a story sense issue every time (lack thereof, in this example), arising from an inadequate foundation of story knowledge.

Bottom line: you may have been born with The Gift. But most writers who truly hold, nurture and present a solid sense of story, got there as a product of craft, leading them to a vivid vision for their stories.

This is precisely why experienced authors don’t write every idea that pops into their head. They have the story sense – born of craft – to recognize a rich premise and not jump at one that is merely clever.

Story sense is what happens when you lead with craft, rather than relying solely on your gut.

That can work… usually for Stephen King and authors like him. Which means we must ask if we consider ourselves in his league.

*****

If you haven’t checked out my first wave of craft training videos, with a slant toward newer writers, click HERE. Remember, as a Storyfix.com reader you get a 25 percent discount… just use this code – storyfix25off – during the Vimeo checkout process (the Download links on my new training website take you to the Vimeo page where the videos are available).

A new wave of training videos will be launched in March 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                      

 

 

 

 

 

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