A Follow Up to My Previous Post

In my last post I recommended the film “The Gambler” because of a provocative scene (a monologue, actually) on the challenge and frustrations of the fiction-writing life. 

Several folks have told me they didn’t feel the same.

That it was actually discouraging instead of motivating.  Fair enough.  I get that.  I apologize for not better positioning my perspective within the post.  The last thing I want to be is discouraging, the whole point here is to help you move forward.

Below are some clarifying thoughts on this, some of a highly personal and reflective nature.  (To paraphrase the song… it’s my blog and I’ll wax philosophical if I want to.)

If you haven’t read the post and would like to before reading my response below, click HERE to read it, then come back if you’ like to engage with my response.

*****

I think Wahlberg’s classroom monologue spoke to me because it’s true: in that entire room, at that school, on that day, nobody will be good enough.

You can’t sit-in on the aspiration to write good fiction. Bang out a story between classes. It’s too hard for that to work.

Like Wahlberg’s character (like me, a teacher of fiction writing), I don’t think I ever was, am, or will be “good enough.”

The business itself is a jungle, completely dismantled, for the most part the traditional publishing proposition is a cross between a dream and a lie.  What I heard from Wahlberg’s character is that you have to strive for that genius level, which is always someone else’s opinion.

He didn’t exactly say that.

In fact, he’d written it off as impossible. I haven’t. What’s left is one and only one choice: get better.

There’s only one way to do that, one ticket in (because we sure as hell aren’t born that way) – and that’s craft. Findable, reliable, practiceable… and still, only rarely seized. It’s the science and physics of genius. The principles are so powerful and pervasive that, when you embrace them until they embrace you back, “genius” becomes an achievable goal.

He’s right about one thing: genius is required. Define genius as you may, but for me it means hitching a ride on the power of the genius principles that are available to us. That’s what I write about here.

And so, I was moved when I heard this spoken this eloquently.

I found myself motivated to work harder, go deeper (because that’s where genius lives and suffers), to see if it’s really there or not. Most of us don’t go that deep, we don’t realize that we must. I felt the movie challenged us to have the balls to see what we can really do once you’re all-in, knowing the bar is that f-ing high.

I loved his passion.  I related to that. 

The business had broken his heart.  I relate to that, too.  But unlike him, in sort of a reverse modeling fashion – I haven’t given up.  I’m here, with you, doing battle with these demons, fueling myself – and you – with craft.

Then again, I may be full of complete crap on this, simply hearing what I wanted to hear. But isn’t that what good writing does, putting us in the interpreter’s seat? I just thought it was profound, and the profound always moves me in strange ways.

It makes me want to write.

I wasn’t discouraged.  It didn’t make we want to gamble my life away like the Wahlberg character is doing. But realizing that I already have – I’ve gambled everything in choosing to write for a living – here I am with my meager chips and there’s still a game going on.

Ain’t broke yet, still hoping for the ace to land in front of me, praying I know what to do with it when it happens.

Until that happens, I’m all-in.

All my chips. And as I sit here watching the cards being dealt, I am constantly looking for a strategic edge. So far I’ve only found one thing – craft.

Craft never lies. It never cares, either… it just is. The choice is ours.

I hope this clarifies.

Be bold. Study harder. Write more. Write smarter.

Choose stronger stories. That’s massively important.  Think bigger.

Don’t listen to your characters (they don’t understand the game they’re in) and don’t wait for a Muse to tap your shoulder.

That’s all bullshit. It really is. It’s like trying to attach angel wings to a jet fighter. You have a mission, and it’s on you.   Nobody will rescue you. The only assistance you’ll ever get is principle-driven (as opposed to sense-driven) craft, however it reaches out to you, whoever is dealing those cards.

Storytelling sense, when it works, is nothing other than the principles of craft internalized.

Discover the genius within you. You do that by losing yourself in the work, in the principles that are the actual grist of genius after all.

*****

Thanks Art, for the nudge.

*****

A quick update – my little ebook, “Warm Hugs for Writers,” has been reduced to $2.99.  It’s all in the title, and sometimes that’s just what we need.

11 Comments

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11 Responses to A Follow Up to My Previous Post

  1. Long ago I knew someone who listened to Chet Atkins albums to inspire their guitar playing. I thought “Sheesh; I’ll never be within a million miles of that; it’s depressing!”

    At the time, I was practicing about once a year.

    When I started playing music every single day, brilliant players became inspiration. I’ll never be Tommy Emmanuel or Chet or Django, but I can be good enough for now, and better tomorrow.

    We might look at the same tree, and you see an apple while I just see bark. If I can haul myself upstairs, do the work to get to a new level, I’ll see the fruit as well.

    At least I’m not looking up at the roots.

  2. Martha Miller

    Someone much more clever than I, in fact writer par excellence and teacher Marjorie Reynolds, often says: “you probably can’t teach someone the ‘art’ of writing, but you sure as hell can teach them the ‘craft’.
    Right on, Larry.
    You’ve inspired me to go see that film — and to dig in and work a little harder on my craft. Let’s see now . . . where’d I put that second plot point . . . ?

  3. Larry, I really like this post. I didn’t see The Gambler, so can’t comment on whether it’s discouraging, but this is a great line of yours: “I felt the movie challenged us to have the balls to see what we can really do once you’re all-in, knowing the bar is that f-ing high.”

    And this line is truly inspiring: ” You have a mission, and it’s on you.”
    In fact, I love the whole post.

    Writing is hard work. If you don’t like tough, don’t be a writer. If you want the end-goal more than you want the journey, more than you need to keep improving your craft, skill, understanding, ability, need to keep creating, then don’t be an artist at all.

    Nobody owes us anything because we work hard. We owe them the best damn story we can write today, and tomorrow we’ll owe them a better story, the very best we can write tomorrow, and if it’s not better than today’s story, we’ve failed ourselves as well as them.

    Have you seen the movie Whiplash? Larry, you will love this movie. It’s everything you write about. Some people might be discouraged, but I found it very powerful. I’d love to hear what you think when you’ve seen it.

    Meanwhile, keep being honest. Because we have three options:
    We can quit because it’s too hard – better to find that out soon and move on.
    We can fool ourselves that we can do this with just our talent alone and never understand why we don’t make it.
    Or we can know the odds and decide it’s worth it, and work hard at improving our craft, and have a realistic chance of success. But whether we succeed financially or not, we’ll have the satisfaction of doing something we love and doing it well.
    Here’s to the truth.
    Here’s to being the best writers we can be.
    And here’s to measuring that as success.
    Cheers, and Happy New Year.
    Jane Ann

  4. MikeR

    Instead of the word, “genius,” which implies something that only a few of us are (supposedly) born-with and without which one can’t succeed, I prefer to use words like “expert” or “expertise.” These are things that you can become; that you can attain.

    All of us, in fact, are more-or-less “experts at” the things that we have taken the time to do frequently, and that we are determined to do well. But we tend to forget how utterly baffling those things used to be.

    A writer is presented with: a blank page. An empty outline. Non-existent characters. No place. No time. Nothing at all. And, from this nothing, the writer “makes everything up, from scratch.” If you’ve never done such a thing before, or if you’ve done it only a few times, how can you reasonably expect to be an expert at it … yet?

    But what you CAN do, is to “be efficient.” You can create your story through a system of successive refinement, and you can conserve your efforts as you do so. For instance, a one-page double-spaced outline of a scene. A 3×5 filing card. The willingness to keep all the versions that you write, of everything that you write, knowing that you probably will NOT “instinctively” come up with the most-workable idea the first time. The willingness, also, to observe the techniques of others. Like @Larry.

  5. (This comment was sent to me directly from a reader and coaching client… she was having trouble getting her comment to appear – this is a browser issue, by the way – so I thought I’d post it for her here. Her name is Christine. L.)

    I completely got what you were saying about the movie and understood how it resonated.

    It is true that you tell it like it is. It’s hard to take, but if we don’t UNDERSTAND how hard it’s going to be – then how can we possibly be prepared for the battle?

    The only chance we have is to work hard (and I am, that’s why it’s taking so long to get back to you). I am working hard. I have no delusions (thanks to you), I have no naivete (thanks to you), I have the inside scoop on the jungle out there (thanks to you). It’s going to take time to get better. All you’ve taught me is to get better. You’ve never taught me to give up. You’ve always told the truth.

    And the truth sets you free. But it sets you free only if you know and understand the truth. Which is what you teach. And that’s why the movie encouraged you. Truth again.

    But you have to be brave, courageous and full of faith to act on truth. And sadly, most writers don’t have that.

    And please, never stop sharing from your heart. It’s where all the gems are. You don’t have an agenda and that is rare these days. All great thinkers are misunderstood. I have those kind of men in my life – maybe that’s why I get you.

  6. Excellent. Great discussion. Thank you Larry.

  7. MikeR

    FYI, here are two browser-issues and workarounds that I have used with the site as it exists today:

    (1) Mac Safari simply doesn’t work.

    (2) If “Submit” results in a blank white page, press the Back button, then Reload. (Select-all and copy-to-clipboard your text first, just in case.) The screen should reappear with the text still there. Press “Submit” now and it should work properly.

  8. Bill C

    I like both of those posts, though all the genera used, like write bigger, write smarter, choose bigger stories … sheesh, I feel like I’ve chosen the biggest story, written as smart as I can, etc. Maybe I just don’t have “it,” whatever “it” might be.

    But I’m posting this partly to try the workaround for Safari again, but also to ask a question:

    Is anyone else here paralyzed at the point where they think their novel is ready to publish, but they’re unable to “go all in” and put it out there?

    And, I have to admit that all this “Author Platform” stuff is part of the problem, too. Color me overwhelmed, I guess.

  9. David V.

    Great stuff here Larry. I also got to tell ya that this post really spoke to me because you weren’t just breaking down story structure. You broke down the truth and the big picture (deeper than story structure). Thanks because it was a great read.

  10. Hey Larry,
    Happy New Year,

    There’s something to think about floating around in the ether relative to the second scene in the script. Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, fill-in-the-blank blockbuster author (with few exceptions) were all professional writers long before they sold millions of books. Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule? The authors mentioned worked long and hard for years to get to this level. As Larry shows on this blog, those stories work within a precise framework of structure, and it’s no mistake because these are professional authors that know what they’re doing. Dan Brown spent a year researching the Da Vinci Code before he started to write. Are you ready for that level of professional commitment?

    Another thing that can’t be overstated is that the manuscripts for these professional writers didn’t go into a slush pile, they were brought/sent in by trusted sources and read.

    I’ve worked as a gatekeeper in the music business for many years and that is how submissions work. I’m certain the book world (fiction) is very much the same way. 99% of work that gets through comes from a trusted professional source. Including getting an agent, if that makes any sense.

    So what does this mean? It means get good. Get real good. That means serious commitment. The Beatles played over 1,000 live shows before they appeared on Ed Sullivan. That’s commitment, and its why we’re still talking about that performance 50 years later. It’s the same in any creative art, and here we are back to the 10,000 hour rule.

    And the concept has to be huge in 2015.

    Great stuff all around Larry…(Engineering/Physics)…And no B. S.

    I’ll be in touch,

    George Glennon

  11. Larry;
    I’ve been following you for a while now. Your Story Engineering book has revolutionized my writing. Now I understand the structure that I’ve been intuitively striving to achieve since I started writing.

    This post and the comments here really speak to me. My father and I came up through the precision machining and tool making craft. Once I grasped what you describe as the development of the writing Craft something clicked into focus for me. It perfectly aligns with my life experience. No other writing teacher has ever made that connection for me.

    I’d always thought of ‘successful authorship’ as being sort of capricious involving equal parts of massive effort, some magical ill-defined ‘writerly zen qualities’ you only get by “experience”, and a lot of providential coincidence. The only commonality I could see was persistence until “something” works. So I’ve been patiently climbing the 1,000,000 word mountain.

    However, what you describe is totally analogous to the life long process that a person follows to progress from a ‘machine operator’ to a ‘master toolmaker’ in the machining trades. That is something I understand intimately. It’s a life long process.

    A ‘machine operator’ can competently run a precision manufacturing machine that someone else sets up for him/her. (following a writing template by rote “Heartsong Romances” style);

    An ‘apprentice’ works under the direction of a ‘Master’ doing scutwork, learning the basics of the craft, picking up the ‘tricks of the trade’ by observation and instruction (I guess that’s like the wannabe’s working through the writers group/critiquing phase and maybe doing lower level freelance/journalistic $$ for words kind of work for copymills);

    A Journeyman is someone fully versed in the standards and practices of the machine trades who can go anywhere in the world and do workmanlike machining and setup work (That would be like the established freelancers and ‘midlist’ authors who teach the newbies, and make a modest living by feeding the equivalent of the old pulp Sci-Fi magazines and grind out ‘well written’ copy for businesses, run of the mill magazines and websites.);

    Then there are the “Master Toolmakers”. These are the experienced hands who have paid their dues working though all the phases of machining until they come to set the standards of the profession. There’ll be a few in each shop. They lead the journeymen ‘production machinists’ under them, figure out how to do the ‘impossible’ jobs, do the most precise work and define the cutting edge of the profession. (these would be the reigning masters of the writing world who can publish anything and hit the NYT best sellers list. Some of it is name recognition but mostly it is conscious effort and unconscious competence manifest in the style and skill that makes a story live. They define the application of “Story Engineering” and “Story Physics” plus the knack of ‘hitting the reading public’s sweet spot’ every time they publish. They know how to use all the resources to make it work consistently.)

    In the machining trades the hierarchy was traditionally based on the consistent precision of their work. A master tool maker can consistently turn out work that won’t vary more than +/- 0.0001″ dimensionally using manually controlled machines. By contrast a machine operator can consistently put out work that varies by less than 0.005″ to 0.010″ dimensionally. Modern computer controlled machining centers have changed the trade somewhat, now a master toolmaker has to be a master of programming as well as a master of machine evaluation so they can sort out the advertising claims from the real world delivered results; but it amounts to the same thing.

    A Master, what I believe you called Writing Genius, Larry, is someone who by dint of experience and training is on top of the technology and technique of their Craft such that they come to define excellence of execution.

    Thanks for this post. It all makes a lot more sense to me now. Bottom line is I just have to keep working the Craft till I master it, should I live that long.

    Write on bro.

    dave 😉