Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

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.

 

 

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Navigating These Four Writing Dichotomies Will Dramatically Increase Your Effectiveness and Efficiency as a Writer of Fiction

by Larry Brooks

A four-part primer on how to compete at the highest levels of the writing game.

The word dichotomy isn’t one you hear all that much in the writing conversation. At a glance it sounds more apropos to a discussion about insects or surgery – “I’m having a dichotomy next week but my insurance won’t cover it…” – and yet, when you drill down into these truths, you’ll find pure gold if you allow yourself to think that deeply.

Sometimes, deeper thinking is precisely what we need as novelists. Because when we write from the seat of our pants, that becomes the diametric opposite of deep thinking. Some writers advocate the opposite: don’t think, just write.

If your seat of the pants is highly schooled on what it takes to make a story work, then by all means, have at it. That “highly schooled” criteria may be the difference between you and the established novelists who love to brag that this is how they develop their stories (and even then, it’s a fuzzy, inaccurate description of what is really going on).

Just consider the anatomical source of your voice when your seat-of-the-pants is doing the talking.

Feel free to right click on the word dichotomy, right here and now, and then click on synonyms within that sub-menu, and you’ll get a feel for where this is going.

Too often writers accept the first thing they learned, or the easiest thing to access (cluelessness defaults to just making shit up), or what Famous Writer X says (almost always applying to their own process, which may not be the optimal process for you) as unassailable conventional wisdom, when in fact, too often, those things are half baked and half true, or just plain toxic.

“Just write,” for example. You’ll hear that, a lot. But beware. Because it’s only half true, and for far less than half of the writers who hear it. You get to decide which half of that proposition serves you.

In this series I’ll introduce four of these liberating differentiations, and explain how harnessing these nuanced understandings will make you a better storyteller… immediately. They are:

               Concept vs. Premise

               Character vs. Plot

               Process vs. Product

               Structure vs. Random/Episodic Meandering

Today, by way of launching this four part series, we’ll cover…

Part 1: Concept vs. Premise

Have you ever heard someone describe their story idea and thought to yourself, dang, that’s a killer story. And yet, it may not even be a story yet. This happens all the time.

Or maybe you didn’t think that. And yet, what you heard might indeed turn out to be killer story idea.

For example, if two decades years ago a writer would have said to you, “My story is about a paranormally gifted kid who goes to a school for children just like him,” that may or may not have registered with you as the ignition spark for the hottest story idea of the last half century.

Notice that it’s still up to the writer to make it so.

The idea – the concept – is merely a landscape for the story. The rocket fuel for it. Consider, though, that rocket fuel without a vehicle – the rocket itself – it just a tub full of smelly liquid.

If concept is the fuel, then premise is the vehicle.

It is the marriage of concept and premise that becomes a bonfire of potential in the hands of an author who renders it to the page in a way that leverages all the available tools of the craft.

So when you hear a “story idea” – or more apropos, when you have one that excites you – you need to ask yourself this: what is it? Is it an idea, a story, a concept or a premise?

The newsflash for many is that all four of those are contextually different things, different phases of the story development process. This truth is rendered complex and confusing by the fact than an idea can take the form, or at least the label, of any of the other three.

When a writer attempts to write a draft from an idea/concept that is not yet installed within a viable premise, this becomes the prototypical tormented writer situation. Any draft written from that subset of required awareness is nothing other than a means of searching for, ferreting out, the premise. As opposed to the enlightened writer situation, which is the case when the difference between concept and premise is fully understood.

The goal is to assure that you are the later. That you are an enlightened writer.

This becomes a vernacular issue, one that is exacerbated by some of the most experienced and even famous writers (and reviewers, as well, who mangle these terms on a regular basis). It isn’t that they don’t know the difference, it’s that they have melded them into one starting block criteria, without understanding that the new, emerging writer requires more clarity.

To make my point, let me resort to a ridiculous example.

You’re going in for a medical procedure, and you know in general what the problem is, and what the procedure is, but the terms you use to describe it sound like this: Well, I have a hormone imbalance, one of the hormones is too high and other is too low, and they’re going in to take out the thingy that produces it and put me on some medicine – can’t recall what it’s called – to make up the difference in the right proportions.

Is that wrong? Not at all. But is it a functional starting point for the person who is actually going to do the procedure on the patient? Same answer: not at all. Because it is both incomplete, imprecise and largely, because of it’s over simplification, useless.

Chances are that, in saying that, your listener – part of your golf foursome or the guy in line behind you – isn’t going to ask for more details. And yet… what if your doctor was this imprecise and perhaps confused about the exact terms and parts and substances involved?

Unthinkable, right? Well, as the author of your story, you are the doctor in this example, not the patient. Later, after your book is successful, you can stand in front of a room and adopt a faux-humble context that claims you never really knew where your genius idea came from.

You either knew, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, and the book is nonetheless successful, that genius you are bragging about probably spent a decade writing the sixteen drafts required to finally hit all the right notes.

Concept versus premise: even your favorite author and everyone in your critique group may use the terms interchangeably. Trouble is, you may not be able to get away with it.

Even better, you shouldn’t want to get away with it. Because life is too short, and novels are too complex, to rely on blind luck or some inner instinct that you can’t describe.

So what is the difference?

An idea, a concept, and even a premise – none of those are a story.

At least, they aren’t if they are properly labeled within your process.

And if you accept than a concept and a premise – both of which might be the story idea – are different, which they absolutely are, then you can leverage the power of each to combine them into a whole that exceeds the sum of the parts.

They are like strength/speed and accuracy are to athlete shooting or throwing a ball. Without both, you can’t play in the big leagues.

Concept is very much an idea.

In fact, it is often the first form of a story idea that strikes you. Rarely is the story idea a premise, though sometimes the idea arrives as a vision for a character.

Concept is a framework for a story, a proposition for the playing field and contextual or literal setting for a story, without it being a story yet. Before you add a character and a plot.

The concept for the Harry Potter books is.. simply stated, Hogwarts – a school for paranormally-gifted children. It becomes the playing field, the landscape, for all the Harry Potter stories. For all of those stories… eight novels, totaling eight different stories told from one concept, and one macro-arcing storyline that is born for that same single concept.

Episodic primetime dramas on television are all driven by concept. Take the show Castle, for example, which ran for seven seasons. One concept: a famous author works with a New York detective squad to solve crimes, applying his sense of the criminal mind (as demonstrated in his novels) to the work in the real world. From that one concept comes 182 different premises… one for each episode.

The best example I know: Superman. The proposition of Superman. Alien child crash lands on Earth, is raised by human parents, grows up to demonstrate super-human powers.  If you stopped there, and simply chronicled all that… you would not have an effective story. Yet.

Because there isn’t a premise on the table… yet. Because a concept, that concept, is not the premise.

One of the ways to distinguish between the two is to understand that a rich concept can give birth to more than one – multiple, in fact –story. A great concept can become the baseline proposition for a series.

The Hunger Games, all three books and four movies, stem from one concept. Which began as an idea that expanded into that story landscape, and which expanded even further – by adding a hero, a dramatic proposition, stakes and antagonism – into separate premises, one for each book, one for each movie (which were adaptations of those initial three premises).

The upside of this understand empowers you to avoid using a draft to find your premise. When your concept has already fueled a premise that meets the criteria for a story (see the previous paragraph), your draft actually has a shot.

But not until.

*****

Click HERE to learn more about the definitions of concept and premise, and how to apply them to your story development process. Use the Search function (right-hand side of this home page) to find other posts on concept and premise.

Click HERE to read a post from a published novelist (Carrie Rubin) who recently sat through my full day workshop on this topic, and was moved to write about what it felt like to go home and apply this perspective to her work.

And click HERE to access a 90-minute video tutorial on this topic (see video #4 of the five shown on this menu).

Next up in this dichotomy series: character vs. plot.

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