Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

Writing In A Corset

To be clear, I never said or did that – the corset thing – nor would I. But I would quote it – am doing that now – from an unhappy review for my book, “Story Engineering.” I’m not in the habit of quoting bad reviews, but this one tees up today’s rant, which focuses on a perceived divide out there between writers who value craft, and those who don’t believe in it in favor of simply channeling one’s inner voice and demons and then percolating on it all for what could be years, all leading to a bestselling novel and the perception that this is how it’s done.

For many – newer writers in particular – they believe this because some Famous Literary Author giving a keynote told them so. Maybe that’s where this reviewer heard it:

There is another book about craft, but this is about movies wich (stet) is John Yorke’s “into the woods” (stet). And in page XV (stet) we can find : “You have to liberate people from theory, not give them a corset in which they have to fit their story, their life, their emotions, the way they feel about the world…” Guillermo del Toro. A corset Mr Brooks, yes.

Liberate people from theory. Which is like asking them to figure out the hard things out without any contextual reference points. Just try designing anything with that approach. That’s what this guy is preaching.

Liberate us from the principles that keep us from writing ourselves into a dizzy oblivion of lane changes, proselytization and over-wrought character backstories that hijack the narrative into another dimension while boring reader to tears… theories and principles that help us understand what a novel actually is… yeah, we need to forget all about those kooky fundamentals some of us have learned to value, freeing us to attempt to reinvent a form that has been around for thousands of years.

Those who write this way aren’t reinventing anything. They are simply taking the long road to get there, often backing into it once they do, at that.

As a workshop guy, I actually hear this a lot.

I’m guessing that these Famous Literary Author types were fed this line somewhere in their early writing journey.

They bought into it, Stephen King perpetuated it (he being one of the few who can actually tell stories this way within a reasonable amount of time) and now stand before us with the rationale that their own bestselling novel (the reason they are behind that podium, which is a legitimate counter-point to all of this) is more the product of innate genius and a decade of sweating blood – writing and discarding words in 100K chunks while rationalizing this as the dues we must pay – rather than acknowledging the principle-driven craft of fiction writing (which absolutely does include how stories are structured) that would have perhaps gotten them there in a fraction of the time.

And just maybe, with a better story.

As soon as structure enters the writing conversation, from a podium or otherwise, a lens is applied by some writers, one that doesn’t clarify, but rather, clouds the issue. Because these Famous literary Author keynotes don’t believe there is a structural paradigm that underpins, to some degree (often significant) that renders stories effective. Rather, they believe they made it all up from the thin air of their brain, that they invented whatever it was that made their book great.

Hey, years of pounding on anything, if you have even a shred of literary sensibility – much less genius – will move it toward a form that finally works. And when it does, perhaps leveraging feedback that informed the story’s evolution, it will smack a lot like the very structural, craft-driven principles that they anathematize, which was available from square one for them, as it is for all of us.

Genius, this is not.

I heard one such Famous Literary Author make a quick keynote side comment about craft that went like this: “And sure, we need some craft thrown in, all those semicolons and stuff, we have to get those right.”

Yes indeed. The craft of writing a novel is all about semicolons. Which, if you really think about it, have no business being in a novel in the first place.

At another keynote I heard this spoken with a straight face (his, not mine): “I can’t wait to get to my writing desk in the morning to see what my characters might want to do today.” As if he went to bed the previous night with absolutely no clue. As if the characters are in charge of the story, not him.

They say that, too. And it’s rubbish. It’s hubris, cloaked beneath a false humility, which is what hubris-driven people do.

The book mentioned within this quote-within-a-review and its attribution is from the film world, which is imbued with screenwriting context that suggests certain story beats must appear on a certain page and do a specific thing to the story. Which is by and large true… for them. As a footnote, it is almost always a director who whines about this (as is the case here, rendering the point moot relative to structure in novels), many of which may have a thing for corsets in other contexts, who knows. It is interesting to note, too, that those directors are the ones responsible for changing a script that isn’t working, so I’m not really sure what they’re complaining about… those darn writers who ruin their movies, I guess.

As novelists, especially in deep genre, we have a structural standard that is really more suggestive localization and story management within the narrative than it is a specific target, (other than the midpoint of a story, which is labeled thusly for reasons that are self-explanatory). Novelists have more wiggle room when it comes to how to play into structure, the ability to do just that resulting in precisely what the nay-sayers are holding rallies about: allowing a story to flow in a way that makes sense, rather than jamming it into… well, a corset.

The irony is often lost on Famous Literary Author as he/she tells us how real writers go about their business.

Here are a couple of validities that arise from the calmer middle ground.

An analogy helps put a fence around what the structure conversation for novelists actually is, and is not.

Consider the world of sports. Contests unfold upon fields and courts, each of which has its own set of lines. Boundaries, within which the game is played. If the ball or the puck or the shuttlecock lands outside those lines, if someone steps over one of them at the wrong time, bad things happen. Not a total failure, per se, but a failed moment that becomes a consequence of not looking down.

Those playing fields and courts, those lines, are unassailable parts of the games that are played upon and within them. Nobody questions or ignores them. Nobody feels they can or should move or reinvent those lines, which constitute nothing short of the way the game itself is to be played.

If we are writing genre fiction in particular, the same can be said of the structural expectations that define our game. Readers plop down their money with an expectation of something, include how the story will flow. There hasn’t been a bestselling “experimental” genre novel in decades, but there have been wildly creative ones that play within those genre lines.

And yet – and here is where the corset accusation falls apart like something found in the attic of a century-old second-hand store – nobody at the professional level who is actually playing these games – theirs, or ours – claims to be constrained. Squeezed at the hip, breathless and outraged. Rather, they understand that within those lines, or upon the stage, or within our genre expectations, infinite creativity, flexibility and surprise is abundantly available. That it is, in fact, encouraged and rewarded.

Barishnikov never felt constrained because he could not dance his way off the stage and into the box seats for a foot rub. At least at the Bolshoi, he couldn’t. Roger Federer isn’t posting rants about the fact that he can’t win a point if his serve lands beyond the service line.

So who is propagating this approach, anyhow?

Too many writers have been taught that they must suffer greatly… precisely because they believe there are no boundaries or principles that guide them. And yet, such a belief becomes the main constraint on their writing. They are like teenagers turned loose in New York city with no map and no phone, with money to spend and a finite window in which to play. What to do? Well first, get lost…

This belief system is why novels from Famous Literary Authors often take years to get right. But as it is in life, if you have no principles, if you believe in nothing other than your own brilliance and unrestrained will and the freedom to make up your own rules, you have infinite ways to screw it all up.

The conversation is muddied even more by the fact that often those authors (who may have indeed recently sold millions of copies of that ten-years-in-the-making literary behemoth) can’t actually explain how they got to where they ended up. Or why it works. (The last such keynoter explained his success because his novel was narrated by a dog… literally, a dog reincarnated as a human, but with his superior dog’s world view. That’s a genius concept, by the way… and it is precisely what explains the novel’s market appeal, rather than some deeper meaning to mankind that took the writer years to understand

The irony is palpable. After all that suffering and swimming against the current of craft, after all that feedback and revision and catharsis, the draft that worked for them actually did align with the very principles of craft that were available to them at the idea stage. What to do with an idea isn’t cosmically mysterious, it’s driven by craft if you let craft guide you. One’s knowledge of craft is the means of vetting an idea in the first place.

Listen closely, and you’ll realize those keynoting literary authors are talking about process, not product. For them it’s all just one big amorphous, vapourous precipitation of ethereal pondering called writing, and for them it takes years to summon forth.

Find your truth, the keynote speaker tells us with ominous gravitas.

Dude, I write violent psycho-sexual thrillers (some with corsets involved) in which guys like you get thrown off trains to scare the locals. Tell me what being true even means in that context.

It’s lit-speak. Rhetoric. The narrative of not really knowing, but faking it until you do. If you are treading water you are not yet drowning. Meanwhile, some writer floats by in a raft called craft, tries to throw you a line, and you wave it off.

Listen to such preachings. And then hear it for what it is. Writing advice, from any source is like that old adage about fortune cookes, where you add “in bed” to the end. When someone tells you what process you should use, which process is best, add “for him/her” to the end of it.

The best process, in any genre, is one that is informed by the principles of quality storytelling.

And when someone credible talks you about craft… listen hard and then take notes. Listen and read as much as you can, and then notice how all the real craft guys are saying the same things, almost exactly by intention if not the same vocabulary applied… because that is how stories are built, no matter how you get there.

Oh, we love our characters, too, just as much, in fact, as Famous Literary Author. But armed with craft – including structure – we know what to do with them – we actually give them something interesting to do in a story – how to propel them down a dramatic path that asks readers to root for them, rather than just observe them outgrowing a crappy childhood.

As for me and Jim Bell and other writing guru types who spread the gospel of true craft, that’s us outside the conference cocktail party, hitting balls back and forth on the court that defines our game, hoping we can land a few between the lines.

You are invited to join us.


Permission to pitch?  It’ll be quick, I promise.

fiver-poster I am on the cusp of launching a new craft-driven venture, wherein I produce and market video-based training modules leveraging the clarity of the Powerpoint experience and the narrative intensity of being spoken to in a visual context. Just like in a live workshop. I’m calling it The Storyfix Virtual Classroom, and there will be many modules online very soon.

I’m inviting you to opt-in to my mailing list for this, to be among the first to learn about new programs just as they are released, and to receive perpetual discounts and other bonuses – training and otherwise – that aren’t available to non-list writers. As a further incentive, you’ll receive the first training module out of the gate: Essential Craft for Emerging Novelists, which will be designed to lop years off your learning curve with one hour of focused training.

It’s hardcore craft training for serious authors. I hope you’ll join me.

By the way, the opt-in form below DOES work. Nothing happens when you hit SUBSCRIBE, at least that you can see right away (this is Mailchimp’s system), but you will receive an email at the address you submitted (from Mailchimp) asking you to confirm. (Several people have written saying the form isn’t working…  you just have to go to your email and complete the confirmation process there; if you are in doubt, email me – at – and I can either confirm you’re in, or put you on the list myself.  Thanks for your interest!)

Use the form below to opt-in this mialing list, or click HERE to view the trailer and then opt-in this mailing list, which (as I state above) will trigger an email asking you to confirm (through Mailchimp). It’s free, of course, and there is always an opt-out available. And I promise I won’t bomb your inbox with unrelated stuff.

Also, by clicking that link you’ll be able to see the new trailer I’ve produced for the program, which I hope you’ll agree is pretty cool. Your feedback is always welcome… this program is for you, help me make it better by telling me what, specifically, you’d like to see covered in these trainings.

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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Art Holcomb on Writer’s Block

A quick overview from your Storyfix host, and then, an opportunity to listen in via teleseminar as Art delivers an effective and perspective and an empowering solution to writer’s block.

Art’s teleseminars are career-changing events, by the way. Life changing, even. This will his fifth so far, all of them worth every cent and every minute (which, because they are pure audio, can happen in your car, as you sit in front of your computer doing needlepoint… however you like to listen and learn).

This new one is 45 minutes of pure Art Holcomb goodness on the pure hell of writer’s block.

But first, my theory on Writers Block:

You’ve fallen out of love with your story.

You’ve engaged, but then your story got argumentative. It didn’t do what you wanted it to do. It came up short of your hopes and expectations. And now it is stubborn, just sitting there waiting for you to do something about it.

That puts you in that completely frustrating space – what we call writer’s block – which sucks no matter how you explain getting there. My theory aligns with what Art discusses under #2 below, perhaps explained by #3, leading to #1 and then, without a solution, to #4.

Writer’s block can actually be a blessing… if you can get beyond the sticking point. The very fact of being blocked says something positive (while also saying something that needs attention) about your story sensibility… it’s not working (either the story or your story sense), and so you stop.  Perhaps a good thing.  Much better to wait it out, to pound it out – using that same story sensibility to arrive at a better plan – than say “screw it” and finish and submit something that doesn’t work as well as it should.

Here’s Art on the basis of this exciting new teleseminar:

I’ve (Art) broken the notion of writer’s block down into four phases and parts, each of which gets you stuck, all of which need consideration as you work your way through it toward a better storytelling place.

  1. Fear– Which, no matter how you break it down, comes back to the fear of being judged.  Something that is ingrained into or psyche since we were children. I talk about the Life of an Artist and give examples from Stephen King to Pablo Picasso. I discuss the difference between the writer and the writing. Dealing with this fear is a major reason I do The Trainings, where the students write and then submit—and keep submitting—until the piece is fully in place. Only through knowing what such scrutiny feels like will a writer abate their fears.
  1. Weak Premise– Lack of a powerful premise means that there isn’t enough raw grist that creates the necessary compulsion to carry the writer through Act II, at which point the story fails. This is the major reason we all have half-finished works in our desk drawers. I created the “Ten Steps to Building a Better Story” seminar (one of my four previous presentations) to directly address this. It forces the writer to deeply examine the elements of the premise and tighten/strengthen the idea… or choose to discard it and look for something deeper. This is consistently reviewed as one of the most important techniques I teach.
  1. Lack of Craft– If you don’t have the skills, you cannot write a good story. Craft is the basis of what we do. We know what Craft means to a writer. I will show you why and how to move toward craft, which is out there. Not everything you hear about craft is completely focused and clear, and not everything will appeal to your sensibilities. Which is why we need to immerse ourselves in it, to find and latch onto the version of it that speaks to us as individual creative professionals.
  1. The “Thing”– I discovered this late in my teaching career. Soooo many would be writers start out wrong and got the steps to building a career jumbled, and then did something (the Thing) before they were ready: submitted a weak script that went nowhere. And so they rush to find an agent, which may resulting in hearing back from someone was blunt about the quality of their work… and so they quit.  I even had a very successful novelist (6 books, hundred of shorts stories) who had his agent die in the middle of his career – and never was able to get back on track – and so he quit.

There are so many paths to finding ourselves stuck.

Whatever the event is, some writers never really talk to anyone about it and never found a way to get back on the horse. A couple of sessions with me and I can usually get them back on track, but it’s all talk therapy. I can usually get a writer and the story back in place, with motivation restored and sky high, by the third one-on-one call. (One-on-one work is an option, especially if you hear something in the teleseminar that rings true… which I guarantee that you will.)

The workbook that comes with the teleseminar is a series of exercises to use to dig down to underlying causes of writer’s block, which makes the case for more education (with me or someone else) and ways to dissipate fears. This workbook is approximately 10 pages, and is part of what you pay for when you opt-in.

My teleseminars—especially this one—will be interesting to writers who have experienced writer’s block, as well as the writer who fears it’s just a matter of time before they’re affected by it. Those effects can range from debilitating to devastating and, sadly, there is usually no external cause. The alpha and omega of the problem resides within them.

That’s why I created the course.

TITLE:  How to Defeat Writer’s Block – FOREVER!

PRICE: $37


INSTRUCTIONS:  Payment instructions (either through PayPal or by check) are included at the bottom of the website page. There is no cart or automated fulfillment site. It’s just me and you, working on this together.

Hot new novel recommendation:

A really intriguing mystery/thriller in the tradition of Michael Connelly was recommended to me (a vivid Los Angeles setting, a take-no-crap detective that harkens the likes of Harry Bosch), and it turned out way better than I expected.

It’s called By Reason of Insanity, by new indie author MGM Meddis.

The book pits a morally-incorruptible reluctant hero LAPD detective—he’s not nearly as archetypical as this makes him sound—against a femme fatale (same disclaimer) who seems to get off on walking a thin line between seduction and self-incrimination, a dance in which hubris is always the undoing of the perp. The narrative includes the villain basically spilling it all to her prison psychiatrist, which plays against an evolving dramatic real-time thread that begins with the calmly executed shooting of her scoundrel husband and extends to the detective who must unravel her labyrinthine scheme to get away with it all, while resisting her considerable seductive charms.

I’m thinking this one will make one heckuva film, so grab it now and start casting it in your mind. My money’s on Ryan Gosling and either Emma Stone or Mila Kunis, with J.K. Simmons as the long-suffering LAPD Lieutenant who has to keep his thoroughbred investigator in check; this supports my contention that when we cast our stories with actors who fit, this keeps us in the right lane as we develop our characters… if you can’t hear that actor saying those lines, the dialogue needs an upgrade.

You’ll like the writing, too. That’s why I’m recommending it here.

Available on in Kindle and paperback.


Check out the NEW TRAILER for my brand new Storyfix Virtual Classroom training program!

And sign-up for that mailing list for new program/module announcements and ongoing discounts (list members only) for all programs in the program!

Check it out HERE!



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)