Fiction Writing 101: Learning to Skate

Writers like to debate things that have absolutely no interest to the rest of the world. Like the difference between an analogy and a metaphor.

Looking it up can be as confusing as trying to convince your know-it-all English teacher – or a writer – one way or the other.  Because an analogy is defined as “A resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike.”  While – on the same page – a metaphor is defined as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

My simple take-away from that: a metaphor suggests an analogy.

This is yet another reason why so many writers drink to excess.

I mention this because, as a blogger and writer of books on the craft of fiction, I am guilty of two things: an affection for metaphors and analogies, and a default to repeating them within the same set of categories, one of which is the beloved (or dreaded, depending on which camp you belong to) sports analogy.

So fair warning, here comes another one, right at you.

And I hope you pay attention, because like so many metaphor/analogies aimed at writers, this one is immensely clarifying.

Maybe a little frightening, too.  But in a good way, it if delivers a wake-up call.

Part of what I do is coach writers – specifically, I coach a given project from a writer – through the use of an unflinching questionnaire that absolutely cannot be hidden from.  You either know your own story or you don’t (in terms of knowing it well enough to write it well enough to sell), … or you don’t even know what that means.

It is the sad preponderance of the latter that informs my post today.

This weekend I was working on a response to the longer version of one of my coaching Questionnaires, from a writer with an immense amount of passion for his story.  This, too, is common, but too often that passion becomes moot when the questions themselves ask the writer to define the parts and parcels of the story itself, in context to the function of those parts and parcels.

Passion, in fact, can be the very thing that derails your intentions. Because passion isn’t enough.  Passion without craft – much like dancing on the wing of an airplane or wrestling an alligator – can get you killed.

That’s the catch, you see.  You can’t just toss a bunch of scenes into a manuscript and hope to sell it under the guise of a novel.  Thinking that if you love it enough, that if you explore it every which way, that it will work.

Without craft this doesn’t work, any more than you can dump the contents of your closet into a garbage bag, take it to the flea market and call it a department store.

There I go, metaphors ablaze once again.

After nearly five hours with this project I emerged from my office weakened, exhausted, angry, frustrated and thoroughly convinced that the entire prospect of coaching writers is like preaching to a political constituency that there are two sides to every story.

See? I absolutely cannot help myself.

My wife asked why I was trembling, and why I was rooting through the bottom shelf of our panty looking for what was left of a fifth of scotch left over from our last Christmas party, when in fact I don’t even drink alcohol.

I just wish I drank alcohol after encountering projects like the one I’d just finished.

My search for an answer was getting me nowhere.

“Deep breath,” she said.  “I’m here for you.  Start from the beginning.”

“Okay,” I said,” closing my eyes to pretend I was in my happy place, which looks a lot like a beach with a buffet in a world in which Donald Trump is bald and gagged.

“This is driving me crazy,” I finally got out.  There was a less than colorful adjective in there somewhere, but it behooves neither of us here.

“Obviously,” she replied.

“I mean, this writer… God bless him… couldn’t answer a single question.  He doesn’t even know the difference between a concept and a premise, and when he got going, what he said was his premise totally disappeared into something else.”

“Nobody knows the difference between a concept and a premise,” she offered, thus defining my contribution to the entire writing world… because there is an immense and critical difference between those two story essences.

“Did I mention he couldn’t answer a single question? Not one, in the entire questionnaire. And yet he treated it all as if this was the next Mockingbird.”

“Too late,” she said.  “That one releases this weekend.”

“He answered them all, but he understood none of them.”

“That, too,” she offered, “is less than surprising.  Not everyone isn’t new at this.”

I nodded until the double negative sunk in, then plowed forward into what is, for us, familiar territory.

“This is the only profession in the world in which people can declare themselves a professional, by virtue of actually creating the product they intend to sell, without having any real sense of the baseline, 101, fundamental principles, architectures, elements and essences that define the very thing they are attempting to engage with.”

She smiled, holding up a hand to stop me from launching down the long list of analogies that clarify this point… doctors… lawyers… pilots… pro golfers… dancers… bridge builders…

… okay, you’re not her, so allow me an analogous expansion of my point…

… imagine someone trying to create a functional piece of software – a pursuit that, like writing a novel, has literally hundreds of variables, variances, elements, gradations of application, it is defined by expectations, precedent, professional standards – without having ever done it before, or worse, without having engaged with the academics and apprenticeship that separates the cans and can’ts without mercy, who haven only rubbed keystrokes with software in their job or on Facebook… in a craft and avocation that doesn’t hold workshops with a Kumbaya vibe in which everyone will succeed if they really really try hard and be good and just stick with it, a place where there are no bad ideas (pitch a bad idea in a meeting at Oracle and watch the wrath of Larry Ellison befall you), and where the results of failure aren’t death or destruction or bankruptcy – using only their experience as a consumer of doctoring and lawyering and flying in airplanes and sitting in the grandstands and auditoriums…

… as a reader of books who dreams one day of writing one…

… and thinking that, with only the leverage of that consumer experience, even if it is avid and frequent, they believe they can actually sit down and do what that legion of trained, tested, accomplished and knowledgeable professionals can do after their 10,000 hours of apprenticeship, even on their first day on the job?

My wife knew this entire list well. 

Because I had been in this verklempt place before after emerging from my office.

My books, my workshops, and the books and workshops of hundreds of others who do what I do, do it better than I do it, as well as the schools and organizations who exist for the sole purpose of preparing writers for this work… it’s all for the delivery of that contextual preparation that is inescapably required before the actual work can stand a chance.

This is why “just write” is perhaps the worst, most uninformed morsel of writing advice… ever.

Here’s what you need to know before your novel will work. 

You need to know what a concept is, what a premise is, and what the difference between them is.  You need to know, or at least subconsciously understand, how to leverage that difference.  You need to recognize both in the ocean of published books that are out there, and how and why they are essential.  Do that well enough and you will come to understand why some books are bestsellers and well-reviewed, and why some aren’t.

You need to understand the hero’s quest, the journey of your protagonist, the hero’s arc as it surfs the dramatic arc, how that differs from a memoir,  a diary-like narrative, or an episodic wandering through a series of adventures and experiences that you think is a novel, but isn’t.  You need to know how and why these experiential musings almost never work in a novel.

You need to understand dramatic theory, the role of conflict and tension in a story, the role of antagonism and a collision of agendas.  How and why this is the most powerful essence in all of fiction.

You need to know why practically every MFA graduate I’ve ever met has asked me why they didn’t teach any of this stuff in their school, and why their work remains anonymous when their true heart’s desire is to reach a wider audience that, like them, never really “got” Moby Dick at all.

You need to understand the physics of story structure, how it matters in every story even if it doesn’t matter what the labels are, how it is story, and how that well-intended guy who says “story trumps structure” has created the most misleading, untrue and confusing platitude in the entire history of fiction mentoring, an opinion echoed by every single last writing professional I’ve ever asked about it.

Thank God my book is outselling his.

You need to be able to describe the source and agenda of dramatic tension in your story, the dramatic question posed by your story, the difference between the hero’s goal relative to action and the desired outcome relative to the efficacy of those actions.

You need to know how your story will end before you can write the draft that finally, fully, functionally, works as best it can, and how to get to that ending regardless of your process.

You need to know that the debate between story planning and story pantsing is a moot and ridiculous waste of time, that process by any name heads toward the exact same destination, and is measured by the exact same criteria and benchmarks.

You need to see through the “wisdom” of famous authors who tell you to do it one way, because it is their way, and… well, see the previous paragraph, then look up the word hubris as context.  The only reason to write 22 drafts of a novel is because you are incapable of nailing it in one or two (and have the wisdom to know this is true), or less than 22, like so many other famous, thoroughly competent and equally famous writers can.

You need to be able to answer the questions.

Which can only happen after you fully understand the questions.

And right there, in that one italicized word, is the difference between every newbie and unschooled and long-suffering failed writer, compared to any writer who still maintains a hope of success, no matter how new they are, because they are still chasing that understanding.

All of that, the entire rambling, slightly crazy, imprecise and irrefutable whole of it, transpired silently between my wife and me over the span of about three seconds of silence.

Because we have been in it together so many times, many of them after I’d emerged from my office with obvious high blood pressure and the urge to throw something heavy through the screen of my computer monitor.

And then, I finally said it.

The best and most concise encapsulation of all of this that had ever escaped my drooling lips… and to my delight, it emerged into the world as a sports metaphor.

“It’s like,” I said softly, reverently, on the cusp of an Epiphany, “like someone who intends to play hockey, who believes they are playing hockey, and doing it at a professional level… before they know how to skate.”

She was already smiling at me.

Nailed it.

They were playing the game, in their own minds, before they had learned to skate.

This, in an avocation in which you must know how to skate at an unthinkably astute and advanced level.  You can’t fake knowing how to skate.

I was mentoring too many writers who had skipped or undervalued or not yet wrapped their heads around Craft 1o1 for the trappings of the casual conversation about writing a novel.

Writers who clung to “just write” as the key to the writing kingdom.

You can attend a thousand hockey games, you can memorize the vast canon of hockey history, but if you can’t skate – skate like a maniac on the verge of control, like the professionals can – then your dream of actually playing the game at that level is…

… well, it’s sadly deluded.

And so the simple question floats between us. 

Dare I ask it of you?

Of course I do.

As we leap from this analogy to the dream of writing novels and selling them for money… I ask you…

can you skate?

Before you pick up a stick or put on a helmet… before you strap on the pads and pronounce words like about and process as if you’ve never set foot outside of Ottawa…

… if you can’t completely and with full assurance define and apply all of those terms and concepts and elements and essences of writing fiction as quoted earlier in that unspoken three second rant to my wife…

… if even a piece of that isn’t yet second nature to you…

… how, then, do you expect to stay upright next to the player who can skate… skate to the extent they completely forget about the ice in deference to the nuance and the bliss of the game itself?

There’s nothing wrong with being new at this, we all were at one point.

There’s nothing wrong with having a list of things you still need to learn… we’re all in that boat, as well, and always.

But sanity, and well as hope, resides in knowing with certainly where you are on that learning curve.  Because such an awareness defines the nature and scope of the work before you.

For the love of Stephen King (a metaphor for God?), at least learn the basics.  And at least use those first manuscripts as a vehicle toward that learning, rather than pounding out 400 pages of utter naive cluelessness that is destined to break your heart – because someone you’ve paid to tell you the truth will tell you the truth, even if it makes him crazy – because you really don’t know what a dramatic premise must say and do, you really don’t understand the role of confrontation and conflict in the beautiful arc of your characters, and you haven’t accepted the principles and criteria and essences that will define and measure all of it, for all of us, one way or another, once we stamp the word FINAL on the draft that we intend to submit.

With this, I will offer one last analogy…

… and it is as irrefutable as, well, as it’s own name, even for those who are offended by or sick of, or seeking to diminish, what is true for just those thin reasons.

Those principles, the ones you may discard or not yet know, are like gravity.

And nobody with a brain can deny, defy or mess with gravity.

Harness it, maybe.  But only if you understand it first.

And like gravity, the principles of writing effective fiction don’t care what you call them, or even if you believe in them. But they will kill or cripple you if you proceed without honoring them – just like gravity – just as they will elevate you to unfathomable heights, like a beautiful bird, once you understand how to harness their power.

Gravity and hockey.  That’s all you really need to understand.

Learn to skate.  Do that, and gravity will serve you as you begin to understand the game.

*****

If you still dare, consider tackling one my coaching Questionnaires (there are several levels and focuses available), as described in the column to the left of this post, and the Coaching page that explains them further. 

If there’s a weakness in your story it will be exposed, and if there’s an opportunity to take it to a higher level there’s a strategy for that, as well.

My objective is not to kill your writing dream.  Rather, it is to give it wings.

Or, if you prefer… skates.

19 Comments

Filed under getting published

19 Responses to Fiction Writing 101: Learning to Skate

  1. You sure you arn’t a golf teacher? Duffers remain duffers because they refuse the fundamentals.

  2. A good wife is a good thing. Mine keeps me sane, too.

  3. Jacob

    Great article which reinforced my need to find a ghost writer. Know anyone who can write historical fiction with an interest in science history?

  4. It takes balls to say you want to be a novelist. It takes bigger balls to actually learn the craft, and even at that there are no guarantees. “Understanding” the dimensions, the multi-layers of craft are a constant study, from which there is no return.

    Story is what being human is about. I wonder, as I go around the rink on my wobbly skates, just why it is so difficult when the very thing that defines us and connects us as human beings is so elusive when we try to capture it in words.

    Filling out that damn Questionnaire is like a quest for the Holy Grail. It changed my life though. It made me a respectful, albeit struggling student of the craft. Did I tell you I signed up for skating lessons?

  5. Yep, great stuff here. I loved that you integrated a personal story into the lesson as well. I’m back to putting on my skates and trying this hockey thing again.

  6. Wow. You should get fired up more often, Larry. This was one of the most uplifting, inspirational, Story Engineering-esque posts I’ve ever read. Loved it! And yes, I grasped the message too. Now, breathe…in…out…in…out… 🙂

  7. Larry, you’re SO quotable today.
    Do you mean I can’t do this, “dump the contents of your closet into a garbage bag, take it to the flea market and call it a department store.”
    LOVE THIS! ““Okay,” I said,” closing my eyes to pretend I was in my happy place, which looks a lot like a beach with a buffet in a world in which Donald Trump is bald and gagged.”
    THIS IS SO TRUE. THX 4 ALL U DO. “My objective is not to kill your writing dream. Rather, it is to give it wings.”
    Love today’s post. My sympathies to your wife, who like my husband often goes thru the same thing.

  8. You need social media sharing buttons on this blog so we can share your brilliance with the unsuspecting world.

  9. Rob

    Not to be contrary (okay, maybe just a little), but I know and associate and am friends with a bunch of professional fiction writers, including a few best-sellers and award winners. I can guarantee you if I asked them what the difference between a premise and a concept is, they’d wonder what the heck I was talking about.

    Perhaps it is simply a question of labels?

    If I had to guess, I’d say premise is related to a theme or moral of the story? And concept would be more like the “idea” of the story (i.e. “scientists clone dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber and create a live dinosaur amusement park.”)?

    Am I even close? 🙂

  10. @Rob – knowing the difference between a concept and a premise isn’t the ticket to getting published, which means there are a lot of published authors who don’t know the difference. So ask away, that proves nothing and, if they don’t know, it means nothing. Stephen King says to forget about story planning, which is terrible advice for at least half of the writers who are publishing today, so go figure. Those published friends of yours who don’t know the difference between concept and premise… they’re missing out on some real gold.

    Concept is the presence of something WITHIN the premise that is compellingly conceptual. A premise is difference: it is, in essence, the plot, boiled down to a few sentences. Not all premises are infused with something conceptual, which is why we SHOULD know the difference, because usually, when there is something conceptual in play, the premise is better.

    It’s a level of depth of thinking and analysis, and not everyone is capable of going there. Hope you can.

  11. @Rob Let me give it a try: I think your premise is fine. The concept would be: what if we could bring extinct animals to life in the current time? You’ll notice that’s a pretty broad idea: it could relate to humanoids or animals in any prehistoric time period. Your premise narrows it down to a definite idea of what the story will be about.

    I had five stories published before I even heard of the difference between concept and premise. Yet, I had those ideas in my head, just without labels. I would guess your friends have had the same experience. For new writers, learning about concept and premise can help them become more aware of what story they want to write.

    Hope this helps.

    • Rob

      Thanks, Nann. That makes sense.

      I went into the archives and read a post with more detail on this subject and it (kind of) clarified things.

      The beer analogy in comments went a long way in helping this beer connoisseur. 🙂

      • Rob… love Nann’s response… did mine not help clarify?

        • Rob

          Oops. Somehow I missed your reply. Not enough coffee this morning, perhaps. 🙂

          I’m pretty sure I have the gist now. And I think I understand where you’re coming from.

          The concept is what’s cool about your premise. It’s the “oh, neat” part. The premise describes how that “oh, neat” thing will play out in a particular story.

          Or I’m still totally clueless. But, hey, I’m trying, right? 😀

          • Rob – you’ve got it. “Neat” being synonymous with “conceptual.” It’s really simply once you work through it to this point. It’s just a level of breakdown and clarity that some writers, even published ones, haven’t considered, or don’t want to bother. Either way, it’s an extremely helpful tool. Glad you got it. Larry

        • PsiB

          1.
          As a premise for Jurassic Park, Nann’s suggested the following is fine:
          “scientists clone dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber and create a live dinosaur amusement park.”

          Which suggested to me that Nann’s believes it could be better. I would agree. It seems like it’s part concept with parts ‘premise elements’…but it seems more concept-rich than premise-rich.

          A premise is “a framework for a conceptually-enriched dramatic story with a routable hero thrust into a compelling quest (a need to fill, a problem to solve), facing opposition and threat, with stakes hanging in the balance.” In the premise above, the main hero “Dr. Grant” is not even brought into the mix nor do we get a sense of what the quest is and what specifically is at stake relative to Dr. Grant’s mission, i.e., as it relates to the core story in the first film.

          Each film in the ‘series’ has a different premise but each film is based on the same concept.

          So I would think that the premise could be substantially improved to reflect what happens in the first film, i.e., the plot. I do think the concept that Nann wrote is darn good.

          Am I way off?

          2.
          I think Mr. King may indicate he doesn’t story plan, but I think he must story plan in his head. I don’t think we can compare someone at his level and his years of experience with those of us trying to learn the craft and even with those of us that are just turning the corner into publishing. I mean, it would be like comparing a major league baseball player with a kid in little league or even a guy in the minors. The kid in little league has to think of a lot of things that the major leaguer takes for granted, not because the major leaguer doesn’t consider all those things but because the major leaguer can go through that stuff in his head almost instantaneously– because of the years of experience. He can see one pitch, for example, and know it’s a curve ball or a slider and he can anticipate ahead of time what that pitch might be based on the count, the particular pitcher on he mound, the inning, even the weather and a dozen more clues…. the kid has to work all this out more slowly, more methodically, maybe get a lot of extra coaching on the sideline, write stuff down (outline on paper, ( – :,) and on and on. My point is, Mr. King works out his stories, plans them out, even if he does so rather quickly and crudely and doesn’t write them down…

          3.
          With respect to these terms — there are some teachers who use these terms in different ways and even, in some instances, interchangeably. That’s a shame. What Larry brings to the table is CLARITY and PRAGMATISM… he defines things in ways that make sense at any level you are in your writing life—at the beginning level all the way to the level of the hardened (many years) professional… ‘idea’, ‘concept’ and ‘premise’ are each different things and serve different functions and understanding them gives you a leg up in writing the strongest possible story that you can. However, understanding all of this doesn’t guarantee you will generate great concepts and premises. It takes time to develop (and we each develop at different rates–some are slow at the start but eventually find their strides; others get the basics very quickly and come up with great concepts and premises but then have a slower learning curve as they develop other parts of the story, or are slow to find a stride in the writing phase, etc.) and get to the point where you can recognize a good idea, recognize you’ve got a solid concept, recognize you’ve got a solid premise….and then to bring into play all of the other elements of “story” until you finally produce something that rises to your highest potential–and something that readers will enjoy.

  12. @PsiB – thanks for this really thoughtful and insightful comment. Really adds to the discussion here.

    Wondering, too, what the “Psi” in your user handle might mean? I went through a bunch of workshops under the “Psi” banner… any relationship to that?

    • PsiB

      It doesn’t mean anything other than it’s a mix of my initials, PSB, and sounds a bit like CSI (crime scene investigation) and Pi (3.14…) which goes along with how I enjoy drilling down on subjects, etc., particularly the craft of writing and science-related stuff; and lastly that it’s the abbreviation for pounds per square inch, which is also has a hint of drilling down or putting pressure on a subject, hopefully to understand it better.. Now I’m wondering what Psi meant for you when you used it in your workshops? My favorite handle is one that a friend uses in another writing group: Skeptikoi.