A guest post by Stephanie Raffelock… about a “steaming mass of poop.”
Larry Brooks made me cry. An ego bruising, embarrassing cry.
He did it by asking a simple question: What is the dramatic goal of your hero?
I answered every question he put forth in that scary, unflinching Questionnaire he uses in his coaching programs… all but that one.
It was like when my mother asked me if I had taken her beloved blue Mustang without her permission and I told her, “I have so much research to do at the library. I have a paper due.” I never did answer her simple question–“did you take the freaking car or not!?”
A series of questions loomed on the rest of that damn Questionnaire.
After answering the first few, the harsh truth began to reveal itself. In spite of intelligence, a modicum of humor and a great passion for the written word, I would not recognize the components of a good story if I tripped over them and landed in a puddle of my own shock and awe.
Welcome to Novel Writing 101.
By the time I got here, I had a degree in creative writing and poetics. I’d received awards and accolades for both short stories and blogs. I’d been published in magazines and newspapers, and I knew how to crank out a mean essay (like this one). So now I was ready to write a novel.
I mean, how hard could it be?
Like many who came before me, and many who will come after, I wrote my first two novels by the seat of my pants. For some, this is a revered state. They proudly tell you that they are “pantsers.” I, unfortunately, had no such pride (it does work for some, who understand what I had yet to internalize), just a mess of 60,000 words or so that didn’t hang together.
Every day for a month I got up and locked myself in my office for a few hours, and I wrote. Every day, because I didn’t have an understanding of structure. Instead I sat with my laptop and just made shit up. And I felt so righteously creative doing it, too. But when I got to the end of each of the first two novels, I didn’t have a story. Hell, I didn’t even have an antagonist!
How is it that a creative writing major, who shined in her studies could write such a hot, steaming, mass of poop?
For one thing, I don’t know of any writing program in the country that is teaching story structure. That’s a sad truth, but writing programs nurture the creative and not the practical. The creative without the practical is what gets you that steaming mass of poop.
After I dried my eyes and dusted myself off from the humiliating encounter with Brooks, I got the gift he intended: the novel is a muti-layered, heavily nuanced form, best not left to writing by making shit up as you go. Respect it. Respect the forms and functions and targets and criteria that apply to any novel in any genre, and have hundreds of years of proof behind them, because every book that’s ever been commercially successful has aligned with those principles.
And that’s when I began to study story structure.
Larry recommended story planner and coach, Jennifer Blanchard, to help me take my story to the next level after his initial feedback (it may have had something to do with some of the names I called him at the time). I bit the bullet and signed up to work with her. It is humbling, and also a great deal of fun, to be learning from a woman who is young enough to be my daughter.
Jennifer, by the way, is a passionate practitioner and spokesperson for the very same principles that Brooks used to crush my belief that my original story had legs.
Step by step, she took me through the principles of Story Engineering (Brooks’ first writing book), and helped me to plan and plot a story.
From idea to concept, premise, plot points, pinch points and character development, we worked together for a month before I wrote a single word of prose. The exercise not only changed the way that I write novels, it changed the way that I see the world: there are stories all around us in the people we know. When the next-door neighbor tells me about her trip to visit her aging parents, I’ll be darned if there isn’t a hero, a villain, if there aren’t obstacles to overcome and conflict to negotiate, demons to slay, and a desired goal motivated by stakes that matter.
I watch television and movies through different eyes now.
Where’s the first plot point? What does the hero want? Why am I rooting for him?
And in my own life: Flying on a small plane from Medford to Portland recently, looking down at the green landscape, I had this sense of the story of my life, the arch of it, the conflicts and tension that pushed against me and changed me. Wow, I was a hero, and I was winning against all those obstacles that had a different plan.
Jennifer is a great coach.
She’s part of my team now, a go-to training wheels kind of teacher who got me to the point of working from a detailed scene list that I used for novel number three. Honestly, I don’t have a clue if novel number three is publishable, but I do know that for the first time I have a story that hangs together beginning to end, and I am proud of that. It is my best work to date.
Larry Brooks still makes me cry, but now it’s because I appreciate the brilliance and beauty of the message and the material that he brings to the writing world. You gotta love a guy who wakes you up to what you really want by telling you the truth.
Okay, I get it. I’m a rookie.
Derrick Jeter was a rookie once, too, and he was the best rookie that he could be. I want to be Derrick Jeter. I want to practice and work and when I get it right, do it again. Armed now with the truth, I am ready to take it all on.
Working with Larry and with Jennifer, I embraced the notion of being a novelist. I respect the craft of novel writing enough to want to study it, learn it and integrate it, thereby respecting my readers enough to want to give them a good story.
We live in a fast, digitized world, where people abbreviate their words (that drives me crazy) and do their lives in limited character sound bites. Writers, I believe, are entrusted with the sacred task of being the keeper of stories, the full and rich stories that connect us all.
I haven’t read the latest talked about writing book whose cover reads “Story Trumps Structure,” but I can tell you that I hate the title. It goes against the grain of what I know in my bones to be true. Hey buddy, I want to say, story IS structure!
To take on the mantel of writing novels that illustrate the flux and flow of this human condition, you need to be able to know how to block out a good story, then those seductive prose and the sparkling word-smithery that you worked so hard for in grad school will have something to hang on that is worth reading.
The books and the coaching were not enough!
I wanted a chance to sit down with Larry Brooks and Jennifer Blanchard in a classroom setting and keep going. But most workshops are just a day or an afternoon, maybe two days if you’re lucky. What potential might be unleashed if there were four full days of workshop, a novel intensive?
I gathered up my business acumen, years of implementing the art of logistics, and pitched Brooks and Blanchard on creating the best kick-ass writing workshop in the known Universe, and to my delight, they said “yes.”
The result is Your Story on Steroids: A 4-Day Novel Development Intensive. April 3-7 of 2016, in Portland Oregon. That’s a long time to plan, so don’t miss this opportunity to live the same Epiphany that I did, and then some.
Mark your calendar and visit the enrollment website at: www.novelintensives.com … or you can email me at: Stephanie@novelintensives.com, and I’ll add you to my emailing list and keep you apprised of the event.
Thanks to Stephanie for her passion, and for putting all those names she called me into context. And for creating this amazing, ground-breaking workshop opportunity next March, in Portland OR, at the famous Benson Hotel. Bring your story and a vision for your career, and prepare to put both on steroids with an expectations-exceeding, career-igniting experience.
If you want that same damn Questionnaire experience, and perhaps the Epiphany that often results, click HERE for more on my coaching services, of which there are several levels.
If you’re in a workshop kind of mood and can’t wait until next spring (not an either-or, I suggest you do both), I’m doing two monster workshops in the near future:
June 26, 2015, in Denver CO, an all day intensive on what it takes to write a great historical novel. Click HERE for more on The Historical Novel Society Annual Conference, with a keynote from Diana Gabaldon.
August 7 – 9, 2015, in Portland OR, at the annual Willamette Writers Conference, a monster event. I’ll be doing two focused workshops on Friday and Saturday, and then an all-day Master Class on Sunday. Click HERE for more info.