Core Clarification On a Few Core Competencies

(Please forgive the small formatting errors — spacing, to be precise — toward the end of this post.  WordPress isn’t cooperating… wish they’d give me back the previous version, in which any errors were mine.)

Book reviews are tricky from the author’s point of view.  You want ’em, but you want ’em a certain way.  And we have absolutely no control over what reviewers write about our work.

With novels, we’re stuck with what they write.  Even if they didn’t get it.  And certainly if they didn’t like it.

But with non-fiction, reviewers are suddenly as much at risk as the author being reviewed.  Because often a review will mention a specific issue or stance, and while we (as authors) shouldn’t comment on their opinions, we are perfectly licensed, even obligated, to pipe up when they represent what we’ve written in an inaccurate way, factually-speaking.

I can’t complain about the reviews of my new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Sucessful Writing.”  There are 33 reviews posted on Amazon as I type this, and a bunch of others on websites here and there.  For the most part they’re great, the book is hitting the mark., and it’s been the #1 bestselling Kindle fiction writing craft book for weeks now.  Of course nothing works for everybody, especially when you happen to be as passionate and, sometimes, assertive as I am.

Some writers absolutely hate it when another writer makes an assertation about writing, which I do, and frequently.  Especially when it doesn’t represent their point of view.  Which, with writing, can be all over the map.

But they aren’t all 5-star reviews.  The good news is that 23 of the 33 are 5-star reviews, leaving eight with 4-stars, and one each that offer 3-stars and 2-stars, respectively.

Won’t comment on those. 

But a couple of the 4-star reviewers, who liked the book enough to give it that grade, tell readers that I make certain statements and assertions in the book that are, to put it bluntly, misrepresented.  A 180 from the truth.  When we’re dealing with something as complex and artful as writing a story, any mistake in understanding the basics can be harmful.  Not so much to me as the author, but to someone reading the review.

So I need to respond.  Which I’ve done in the comment section of those reviews.  Which I offer up here, just to be clear.

The lastest 4-star reviewer said this, and inaccurately so:

I am a bit dismayed by his intimation that fluid elegant writing is unimportant, but in the context of the commercial fiction market that may well be true.

Yes it may.  Here is my response:

I never assert that elegant prose isn’t important, at least to the extent implied here. I assert that such prose WITHOUT the other five core competencies is indeed unimportant, and unpublished. I also posit that “elegant” prose isn’t a criteria at all, simply that clean, professional and compelling prose is. The bookshelves are full of successful and wonderful books that are anything but elegant. This should be great news to writers everywhere, you don’t have to write like Jonathan Franzen to have a successful book, or certainly, to tell a compelling story.
 
Just try writing an elegantly written story… that sucks.  Then again, don’t, you’d be wasting your time.
 
Another review, on another issue, said this:
 
I felt that his extensive use of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” was unfortunate. I agree that Brown follows the recommended structure, but without the enticing clues and mysterious background, I don’t think the book works well. Perhaps this is because I hate chase scenes with no character development. So while I enjoyed “Story Engineering,” I have some reservations about how useful structure is if you don’t have excellent content and characterization.
 
Wow.  Maybe she had taken her Ambien while reading.   Did she miss the part about there being five other core competencies?
Here is my response to this one:
 
This review is fair, but slightly misleading on one count, and I’d like to correct it. While I do cite The Davinci Code as a structural model, I do make it VERY clear that even with this in play, it takes more than structure to make a story work. In fact, I pound home the point, and in multiple places, that one can indeed have all six core competencies in place (only one of which is structure), and the story still won’t find a publisher and/or a readership (criteria that are no longer joined at the hip). I also make it clear that ALL six are required, not just structure. In the case of Davinci, I explain that it was Brown’s huge concept and thematic power (two of the core competencies) that put this book on the map, not the structure, and certainly not his character development (which was fine, but in my opinion, something short of stellar) nor his writing voice. It’s interesting that when something comes along that challenges the world view of some writers, which my book certainly does, they suddenly have blind spots and amnesia about the full -icture scope of what they’re reading. Rest assured, this reviewer is correct, it takes more than structure to write a great story and/or find a publisher and an audience. And rest assured, my book makes this crystal clear.
 
I would never comment on a review of one of my novels, but I need to defend the truth in this book.
 
One more assertation.  Several readers were — predictably — not happy with the assertion that successful stories do indeed have structure, and go so far as to state that to write a story in context to structural principles (which is what the book offers, rather than a forumla or absolutes) is or them at least 9though a few imply it as a universal truth) that writing with structure somehow hinders creativity.
Wow again.  Pass the Ambien.
 
Don’t confuse process with outcome. 
 
Process is always personal and negotiable.  While my initial Storyfix posts may not have reflected that strongly enough, believe me, I get it, and these days I represent it that way in everything I do.  But don’t be confused or misled — no matter how you write, if you end up with a successful story it WILL have structure to it, and it WILL look a lot like the fundamental structure that, well, almost every other successful book has. 
Just like an airplane’s gotta have wings.  Don’t get on one that doesn’t.
 
Here are a few of the headers on some Amazon reviews, for your consideration:
 
Should be #1 on ALL writers’ bookshelves.
 
Saved My Novel.
 
Learn how to write a great story!
 
You Write? Remove All Doubt and Buy This Book!
 
The best ever How-To book.
 
It made my life better!
 
The most useful book about novel writing ever written.
 
Essential reading.
 
The Book Every Beginning Writer Needs to Read.
 
Thanks for reading Storyfix today.
 
 

15 Comments

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15 Responses to Core Clarification On a Few Core Competencies

  1. nancy

    I can’t go into a movie any more without setting my timer for the 25% mark. Every film I have seen in the past year follows your structure recommendations. It’s the type of story that gets picked up. What increases my enjoyment is beautiful wording in the script, as in The King’s Speech. I must say, however, that not too many scripts are so eloquently worded. Yet, the stories can be enjoyable nevertheless. Elegant wording is a bonus, but will not satisfy without the other competencies.

  2. Golden

    Larry,
    Here’s my penny’s worth on a different aspect of your post. First, I am glad you responded to the reviews. Second, from the POV of a new writer having to trek through such reviews, its quite difficult to decide which models are good models. I get irritated when people begin to confuse models with methods and processes. A model is a structure — your method or your process is going to be individual. It’s like this: The model is the mannequin, the substance, the structure. How you dress it up is your unique style and perception. Many authors hype their books as being THE book on the craft. Most of them are 98% fluff, 1% craft, and 1% anything else. Geez, I could go on….but I will end with this little note — because Larry’s asking it in his head right now: No, Larry, your book outperforms those types of books I cite in this post. Congrats. 🙂

  3. @G0lden – love the mannequin analogy (I’m an analogy guy, big time). And thanks for the kind words about the book, much appreciated. L.

  4. trudy

    Larry, the bottom line is you give really great, PRACTICAL advice without a lot of gobbledy gook! I get why you read your reviews, but really, I just wouldn’t bother. as my dad used to say ‘everybody’s a critic!’ hugs t

  5. Christie Rich

    Hi Larry,

    I would have to say that the reviewers that gave you less than five stars just didn’t get your book. It seems from the above, that, as you said, they focused on a part of the book that perhaps struck them where it hurt and ignored the rest.

    I feel fortunate to have found your book so early in my writing experience. I read a few how-to books beforehand, and I agree that most of them were riddled with fluff.

    I can’t say that at all about your book. Every word to me was a gem. I felt totally enlightened and more importantly empowered when I finished it.

    There was absolutely no gray involved. How refreshing to have a how-to book that really shows you how. I’m just sayin’. Now off to write a review at Amazon! I’ve never done that before. That should tell you how strongly I feel about what you have to share.

    Christie

  6. As someone who reads mostly literary fiction, and does value a certain elegance of prose, and despises formulaic storytelling, etc., etc., I thought STORY ENGINEERING was great and a badly needed addition to the body of work on craft (god knows that there is so much out there).

    I also knew it would take flak from people who would misunderstand some of your statements as in the examples above: a clear example of people who see what they want and need to see in order to confirm their own bias. Form does not equal formula, but that’s a distinction that many aspiring writers can’t seem or don’t want to make.

    Storytelling is an ancient art. The stories handed down to us through the ages are the fittest of the fit: they evolved in ways that lived to see another day. So if there are structural elements that they have in common — and there are — there’s a reason. This shit works.

    Form does not contain or control the story. Form releases the story, gives it shape, and allows it to be what it needs to be.

    Anyway, Larry, the book clarified some important points for me, and my novel-in-progress will be stronger for that.

    Thanks.

  7. Curtis

    This must never be settled. The story, its craft and the writing of story is a quest in itself. Statement, re-statement. Understanding, misunderstanding. Clarification, confusion. Each and all necessary for refinement, improvement and progress.

    To fool with story is to handle a diamond not a chunk of lead. The finer the diamond the more brilliant each facet.

    Larry, just keep thinking and writing. Story needs a spokesperson with some punch.

  8. As always, nail on the head. I’m just now dealing with my first “Amazon” reviews, all positive, but really interesting when you see how others perceive your work. Thanks for helping me deal with it.

    PS. the link in your emailed post goes to the wrong story, I just left this comment in the 4-27 post and reposted it here

  9. @Justine AND Curtis – brilliantly stated, both of you. Thanks for contributing to this conversation, and for your kind words.

  10. @Jim — WordPress and I aren’t getting along lately. Probably (okay, certainly) my fault, as there’s a new release out and it’s beating me down lately. Thanks for the heads up.

  11. Larry,

    I’ve said it before to you…”I love your book.” In response, to your post, I will be posting on the April 30th on http://www.speculativesalon.blogspot.com/ how terrific your book is. Some writers are obvisously not ready to hear what you have to say, but more are.

    Elizabeth

  12. Gina

    Larry, I appreciate that you clarify book reviews. It helps people not to be misled and it shows integrity on the author’s part. I wish more authors would do that. So many people are quick to argue against structure. I wonder how many of those same people argue against the need for a writer to have formal education. (That is always an ugly argument, which I do not want to unleash here– but nonetheless I wonder if there is a parallel.)

  13. Larry, I just went to Amazon and added a brief review. Mine was titled “My writing BIBLE!” I’ve also featured SE, storyfix.com, and Get Your Bad Self Published on my new blog, The Write Enchilada. What can I say? I’m a disciple. Keep up the AWESOME job helping us writer entreprenuers!

  14. Larry–Yesterday I finished the book. Today I am going back through and taking notes. I’d memorize the whole thing except that, well–at my age? Not likely to happen.
    Still, this is exactly what I have been looking for. Thanks so much! Hopefully, some of your self-confidence and, dare I say hubris, will wear off on me.

  15. Steven W. Black

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been reading the archives and this was what I was reading when I felt the need to respond.

    I don’t understand the complaints you sometimes get about structure. I mean, I really don’t understand it.

    Ignoring the fact that anyone who wants to see their book one day turned in to a movie might want to consider the fact that movies (and plays before them) have a rich history of structure and any script would require a structure if one was not clearly present. — Such things lead to movies which are quite unlike the novels: the recent War of the Worlds movie suffered from this as the H.G. Wells novel is basically a guy wandering around aimlessly.

    As I said, ignore that. Say, you just want to write a good book, maybe you’re deaf and blind and have never heard nor seen a movie/play/performance. You only care about written words to the exclusion of all else.

    Have they never read poetry? Poetry is all about structure. Sure, there are some people who complain about poetry being too structured and prefer to write their poetry in raw word-vomit form. There are even people who prefer to read poetry styled after word-vomit. However, the classic poems, the poems that last, the poems with the broadest popularity — they’re all heavily structured.

    Then look at other things people write. Schools explicitly teach how to structure various types of essays to meet their various needs. I’d be willing to bet that all well-written communication has some sort of structure and the best structure for the communication fills its inherent needs. Stories have needs, and a structure helps to fill those needs.

    I made a complaint about H. G. Wells earlier. The thing is, he was writing to a different structure. His structure was based upon the popularity of — generally true — travel stories to exotic lands. Basically, he was writing to a non-fiction structure. This means that a movie version of War of the Worlds would have been better adapted to screen as a mockumentary and not forced in to an action-drama.

    Anyway, I’m really digging your site. I’m reading Story Engineering now.