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Level Up: A Master Teacher Uniquely Frames the Writer’s Journey

by Art Holcomb

A quick thanks to Larry for making me feel welcomed as we join forces to make STORYFIX into THE premier site for writers anywhere.

For those of you who don’t know me: I’ve been a working professional writer for more than forty years and have been successful at selling stage plays, more than 150 comic books (including The Avengers and The X-Men), screenplays, animation and non-fiction. I sold my first stage play at the tender age of thirteen and I worked with all four modern Star Trek TV shows (TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise). In recent years, I continue to write screen and stage plays, and have dedicated my time to teaching and training screenwriters and novelists through private coaching and my audio training seminars.

In all – and like Larry – I’ve worked hard to make sure that you have the educational information and insights that you need and demand so that you can move ahead in your writing career.

But what exactly does that mean? 

How can we chart our progress as writers? Are sales and self-published works enough to consider ourselves a success?

I believe that writing is an apprenticeship – a profession that requires hard work and dedication, as well as several failures along to way to drive home the points of this craft.  There are actual levels of success in writing, as there are in any other profession and, before we move on, we should talk about those a bit. Because modern-day info-nuggets like hacks, top-ten-lists and secrets to writing are common, but could never be enough to really train you to be a writer.

For our purposes here, let’s divide the career path of a writer into four groups, not unlike those stages your hero may go through in the course of his or her story.

They are:

THE ORPHAN: This is where we all start. We all began with a desire to write but little idea what that means. Perhaps we discovered the emotional satisfaction of writing when we were young and found that getting our words down on paper was a great way to deal with the ups and downs of teenage life, and learned just how our mind and soul worked through the mirror of writing. We tried – and found – that the art of creating could make us feel happy and fulfilled in ways we never knew before.  Words gave us our voice and thereby our power.

In this stage, we had:

  • HEARD that there were books and blogs
  • SEEN the ads for classes and seminars, and
  • WONDERED whether there were conferences and gatherings of like-minded writers . . .

. . . and we continued to write.

THE WANDERER:  This, then, is the LEARNING stage of writing: You fully accepted the Call to Action that your passion demanded. You learn that there are rules to the art and you begin to build your own highly personal writer’s tool box, adding new insights and techniques with every word you wrote. You start to look critically at your writing, and finally gather the nerve to show it to other for comments. You actually completed your first works at this stage and made the stunning realization that you have more than one story inside you. You could not wait to see your work in print or on the big screen. You’ve perhaps made at least one sale by this time and have found a real hunger for more. You could almost feel your future book in your hand and could not wait to see your name on the cover and in reviews.

It’s here that you first become frustrated with your work and started learning that the true art comes in the rewriting – not the first draft.

At this stage, you:

  • BEGAN READING the books and blogs
  • WENT to your first conference
  • TOOK the classes and seminars. . .

. . . and you wrote.

THE WARRIOR: By now, you have finally gone ALL IN! You have chosen your form, and have read all the great writers in your genre. You may have lain awake aching over the fact that you fear you may never be as good as them. You have begun submitting regularly and have written several manuscripts that no one will ever see as you work to build your craft, moving from the traditional role of apprentice to the position of journeyman. By now, you have made several sales and have begun to gather a real following of fans. You are firmly in the CRAFT of writing now and can see on the horizon the level of ARTIST waiting for you. You have seen the wider possibilities of your stories, created worlds in which a multitude of stories could be told, and have move solidly from Writer to Creator.

At this level, you:

  • STUDY the books and blogs
  • WORK the conferences
  • LOVE the many classes you take

and you write…

THE ARTIST: By now, years have passed and your name is known to thousands.  You start receiving fan mail. You are finally writing the works that you were born to write and creating deep emotional stories that inform, delight and evoke real and lasting emotions in your fans. You’re asked to speak at conferences and your body of work is such that you believe it’s time to start giving back to a new generation of Orphans, Wanderer and Warriors. Your books have an honored place on the bookshelves of writers everywhere and younger writers study you and long to write as well as you do.

At this level, you:

  • WRITE the books
  • SPEAK at the conferences
  • TEACH the classes –

. . . and you write!

Can you identify your level?

In the coming months, Larry and I will be talking about different things, sometimes talking about the same things in different ways, but our mission is always the same: to offer quality craft information to you – to cut through all the static of the Internet and the marketplace, to offer information that is meaningful, valuable and rare.

And we’ll talk about each of these levels individually – and what it will actually take for you to LEVEL UP!

In all, we want to talk about the things that no one else is talking about.

So, the next few posts are going to be special:

Today, we talked about the levels and stages a writer goes through. Next time, I will talk about the REAL reasons you have yet to accomplish what you want to accomplish.  There are aspects to your writing life that are missing – I call them the Six Pillars of Writing.

In the coming months, you’ll see us talk about the pitfalls and traps that modern writers – like yourself – face every day.  We’ll explore the fundamentals in a new way and ask you to write the absolute best story of your life. And we’ll discuss in detail both how to best create a novel or screenplay from a single idea – and how to resurrect an abandoned or problem story once and for all.

And I’ll bring you Tales from Hollywood and expert information from editors, agents and professionals.

So stay with us and you won’t be disappointed. Many of you have been here for while, perhaps years, and to you we commit to raising the bar even above the high level this site has always aspired to reach.

There is always learning to be had.

In all, it’s going to be a wild ride.

And, as always, just keep writing!

Art

*****
Next Up: “The Career-Making Dichotomies of Storytelling,” from Larry.

We’d like to hear from you. Contact us if you have something specific you’d like us to cover, or to offer this readership community. We can’t promise we’ll get to everything (because there is a hierarchy of urgency to all of this), but we promise to address the things that really make a difference.

Contact us at: storyfixer@gmail.com.

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“The Two Questions” — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

More goodness from our friend Art, who is always worth the read.

The Two Questions

by Art Holcomb

I want to talk to you about a place where all writers get to – regardless of our form, genre or level of experience.

I’m talking about The Big Suck – that place where we have written ourselves into a corner.

Does this sound familiar?

You might have been cruising right along, hero making his/her way through the Special World of the story, fighting the bad guys, getting the girl (or the guy) along the way – basically plowing his/her way through the story and are well into the throes of Act 2…

When suddenly…

Nothing.

Nada.

Zilch.

You come up completely empty and slam into a creative wall.

Maybe your hero isn’t cooperating, or the villain is done something that you just don’t understand.  Maybe you’ve crafted a threat that’s too overwhelming (or worse, isn’t powerful enough) or you’ve suddenly and quite simply run out of ideas.

Worst of all, maybe you’ve gone back and re-read what you’ve just written and realized…

It’s boring. It’s just plain-vanilla, cold-leftover oatmeal BORING.

And then the anger comes.

You suddenly hate the story. You begin to doubt your abilities and ask yourself why you started this foolishness in the first place.

Here’s the good news:

I‘ve been in this hole and I know the way out.

At this point, I want you to stop. Just Stop.

Understand that every writer goes through this. It’s part of the process and there’s no way around the problem.

All you can do is go through it.

The Two Questions

Here’s a technique I learned from one of my mentors and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever met, Steven Barnes ((learn more about him here).

First, take a moment to remind yourself where you are in your story. Reread the last passage. Really find a way to put yourself in the place of the character you’re writing about. Understand their situation. Feel the emotions that the character must be feeling at that very moment.

Now, ask yourself these two questions:

QUESTION #1: What is ABSOLUTE TRUTH about this moment?

What can you say here that is absolute, positively true about what’s happening?

Not what you think the reader wants to hear. Not what you believe would be interesting.

But what is true about what’s happening at this very moment.

This may take a while to understand.  More than anything else, readers want authenticity from their storytellers.  They are in your story at this moment with you so that you can evoke in them an emotion that they cannot get elsewhere. That emotion is best produced by the truth that you are subconsciously trying to tell them through your writing.

Spend a little free-writing time to explore the setting, the underlying motivation of the characters. How would YOU face this problem (this is key to the authentic moment because, in some subtle but important way, YOU are this character)? Try to sympathize with the antagonistic forces involved here.

That is – FEEL your way through the moment.

And then, move directly to . . .

QUESTION #2: What does this moment say about us AS A PEOPLE and about the HUMAN CONDITION?  Regardless of whether you’re writing a science fiction or a mystery or a romantic comedy, every story tells the reader something about who we are as a people.  What our lives are like and what we have to pass along to others.

Regardless of whether you’re writing a science fiction or a mystery or a romantic comedy, every story tells the reader something about who we are as a people. What our lives are like and what we have to pass along to others.

For example, romance stories feed our desire to be connected. Science fiction stories give us a sense of what we are becoming. Fantasies lead us down a path towards our own dreams and alternative realities.

Each story, whether we realize it or not, says something about us as a species.

The Purpose of Story

So, lean into that curve.  Seek out the truth that you’re trying to tell.

You may just realize a deeper level of your own storytelling.

These two questions serve the original purpose of Story from the days of our ancestors. Stories were created by the elders of the village to instruct the young people about what their lives were going to be like. They needed to know what to look out for, to know where they came from and, more importantly, gain some inkling of an idea about where they were going.

For example, the Cave Paintings of Lascaux, France, warned of the danger and glories of the hunt. The tales told around the campfire were the lessons of the day, made all the more important by the power of the Storyteller. The emotions brought forth in the story bound the lessons into the mind of the listeners and they . . . learned.

That is the role of Story. And you, as the Storyteller, can find your way out of the corner by leaning into that curve and going for the deeper truth.

It’s the best way I know to write myself out of a hole.

It might just work for you, too.

Until next time – keep writing!

Art

P.S. – If you’ve enjoyed my posts here in StoryFix and are interested in learning more about our teachings about the craft of writing, drop me an email at aholcomb07@gmail.com and we’ll send you information on our seminars, workshops and boot camps.

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