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.