Confessions of a Learning Curve Climber

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.

Epilogue:

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.

13 Comments

Filed under Guest Bloggers

13 Responses to Confessions of a Learning Curve Climber

  1. Just signed up for the damn Questionnaire myself, and now I’m shaking in my shoes. 🙂

    • Stephanie Raffelock

      “That Damn Questionnaire.” There’s a nice ring to that! Band-Aides and tissue boxes aside, “That Damn Questionnaire” set me on a new and better course. Bless the teacher who know that the truth will set you free and bless the student who embraces that. You’re gonna love how much you learn. Big hugs and good luck.

  2. I’m already spending next February in Phoenix for Left Coast Crime.

    Now it looks like we’re going to Oregon in April.

    Us reformed pantsers have to stick together, eh?

    • Stephanie Raffelock

      Oh man, do we need to stick together! Viva la reformed pantsers! Hope we see you at The Benson in April!

  3. Christine Lind

    Stephanie,

    Thank you for this post! Larry has made me cry, too. (We had a phone consultation, and I warned him that I felt like crying, and he said: “Go ahead,”—and so I did!). But it’s been worth it – my writing is at a level that it’s actually hard to relate to other writers in any given writing group. I don’t want this, of course, but I feel sorry for them, wandering around in their stories. When I tell fellow writers that I have “structured” my novel, their reaction against it can get so heated that I just keep my mouth shut. It’s lonely at the structured top.

    Structure doesn’t promise that my novel will be successful, only because even the best structure is just one part of the process – but I applied the same principles of story engineering on a short story I wrote this year and I won at least 3rd place on the short list for a prestigious anthology and I will be published for the first time in the fall. I am a believer.

    But I do want to make a comment on multiple plots that I’m not sure is addressed enough. First, Larry has helped me to structure my novel with a framing device and this is in place and working pretty well. But I realized that I also have 3 linear plots going on at the same time where only one is visible and the others invisible and don’t make their way into the novel until it’s time for them to jump in (remember Chinese jump rope as a child? reminds me of that). I call them My Multiple Plots (to differentiate from a subplot – a subplot to me might be the love interest the protagonist is having long with the main plot). So this has helped me to know the difference.

    So basically Every Scene has a “visible plot,” with its “invisible plot,” and don’t forget the “not till the climax plot” and “the plot within a plot,” plotlines going on all at the same time…and they need to be structured for me or there will be crying again.

    The A Plot is always the “Visible Plot,”—the plot that is actually written. It is “The Novel” and “it is the story as it is written.” It is the Storyline or Elevator Pitch. It’s on the beat sheet.

    “B” Plot or Invisible Plot runs parallel to the novel plot that the reader does not know about that is also moving the plot forward – (it will show its true intentions when it’s time for it to shine or jump in).

    “C” Plot or Hidden Plot The answer to the hero’s quest or the “Revelation to be Revealed” –the plot line that will be revealed to the readers, that keeps them in suspense – the plot that causes the reader to rally the hero – the plot line that answers the question in the “Elevator Pitch,” that undergirds how I write the A Plot.

    “D” Plot or The Nested Story or Story Within a Story or Framing Device Plot It contains some backstory, but never moves the story forward – it primarily begins the story and will be at the end of the story and also peppered throughout – it ARCs with the protagonist and is mainly along for the ride.

    These plots, even though they take their turn being the novel plot, have to be structured as their own journey or story from the beginning. I structure them as equals. Even though these plots are not written into the novel at the same time, they have to be structured in the beginning, or I won’t know when it’s time for them to “jump in.”

    I use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method along with Larry’s books. There is really no instruction or a place for my multiple plots. So when I write my beats I write a small sentence for what’s in the “novel plot” but underneath I write the other plot lines for that scene as well.

    If I stay structured I don’t’ cry, even with my multiple plots.

  4. Stephanie Raffelock

    Wow Christine, it sounds like you’ve been through quite the journey too. Isn’t it cool? And congrats on the short story award. Nothing like writing a short story to take you away from the deep water swim of novel writing.

  5. Yes! I love this! I’m so glad you decided to share your story, Stephanie!

    My personal novel-writing journey has gone something like this…

    I’ve been a fiction writer since childhood. I wrote my first novel back in 2008. Pantsed the whole thing. Spent a year re-writing it and getting nowhere. Set it aside. Decided to do some research to try and figure out what I was missing.

    Found Larry Brooks and StoryFix. Back then he had an eBook coming out called “Story Structure–Demystified.” I printed it out, stuck it in a binder, and read it cover-to-cover. And then I read it again. I was like a sponge, soaking in the information I’d been missing all these years: story structure.

    I still have that binder with Larry’s eBook. It’s in the glass cabinet in my writing space. So I can always remember where my journey really I started.

    From there I began writing about story structure and introducing every writer I came across to StoryFix and Larry’s teachings. I began implementing these principles in my own writing.

    And then I decided to start coaching writers on implementing these principles. Every writer I worked with walked away with a new lease on their writing life. I was hooked. I started coaching more writers.

    Then I hired Larry to review two of my story plans. The first one came back and while I had structure, I hadn’t dug deep enough to find my real story. Still needed developing.

    The second one came back with similar feedback–I had a strong Concept and structure, but no real Premise. And he gave me a suggestion for how to make it work.

    I went back, re-configured the plan, moved things around, took stuff out, added things, and then rewrote the whole thing. Two weeks ago I sent my polished version to my editor and Beta Readers. I’m publishing it in June.

    My journey to self-publication has been 18+ years in the making (7 years actively pursuing it). And I know I never would’ve gotten here if it weren’t for finding Larry Brooks.

    I hope you’ll consider joining us in Portland next April. It’s going to be the writing event that changes your life and ups your game in ways you can’t even begin to imagine right now.

  6. Stephanie Raffelock

    Jennifer, I am so glad you read that binder cover to cover, because it not only helped you, it helped many others too! You are rockin’ teacher and a source of inspiration. To mark where the journey began, what a special joy, a pushpin in the map of all the places we want to go. For me, I wonder if the journey didn’t begin with that baby blue Smith Corona typewriter that my mom gave me for Christmas in my 15th year. But clearly a milestone was beginning to learn about planning and structure with you and Larry. As someone else commented, “us former pansters have to stick together!

  7. Robert Jones

    It’s becoming an old story, really. But I did the same thing Stephanie did. I pantsed my way through quite a few drafts of my first and second novel. My second one looked a lot closer to being a story than the first one did. Unfortunately–as I learned from Larry–you can be close and still not have a story with legs. Take out one of those core competencies and your story fizzles instead of sizzling.

    And here’s a really lousy truth: I knew and worked with writers. A couple of them you might even have heard of. I learned a lot from them, along with some of those writing programs Stephanie mentioned–but no one ever told me about structure. Worse, I read about it being used in screenplays, but never quite made the connection with my novels due to my previous collegues and mentors never mentioning it as being important. UHG!

    Can story ever trump structure? Emphatically, NO! Some clever writers have rearranged structure, tweaked it to allow their plots to evolve in clever ways, but it’s still there. It’s always there. I’ve since gone back and read some of the novels by a past writer who was good enough to direct me on many clever points, a guy who believes character dictates everything in a novel. And what I discovered is he is simply coming at structure from a slightly different angle because he uses it right at the exact story percentages where Larry says all the nice little plot points should be…but doesn’t actually teach it. Hmmmm…I doubt that’s a coincidence.

    Don’t be fooled by those trying to make a point that structure doesn’t matter. They may teach you something you can use. Then you’ll come back and add it to structure, or you’ll flounder. Unless of course you’re some literary genius who can write such masterful prose that makes everything else superfluous. But how many of those are born under a yellow sun?

  8. Stephanie Raffelock

    “Unless of course you’re some literary genius who can write such masterful prose that makes everything else superfluous.”

    Does anyone read just to be seduced by masterful prose? Hang those masterful prose on a story with legs, and now you have something, but not until. Like you, I believe structure rules the day, regardless of what you call it. That’s my story and I’m sticken’ to it! Good comments, Robert.

  9. Robert Jones

    Point taken 🙂

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