Getting Off the Storytelling Dime — How to Start NOW

 “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

A writer friend and regular recently contacted me off-line for some advice.  With a year-off from work on her hands and a strong desire to improve her writing, she asked me how I would spend such a year.   Here is my response.

You state you want to be a better writer, and less strongly, that you “possibly” want to publish at the end of that year.  Actually, my response is to deconstruct that sentence and rebuild it. 

Because the way to become a better writer is to write with the intention of publishing. 

It’s like someone stating they wish to improve their golf game, and then maybe enter and win some tournaments at the end of the year.  That process looks different than the golfer who states “I WILL win a tournament” by the end of the year.  That commitment creates context and colors the entire experience of the year.  Improvement will come quicker, because it must.

The information about how to write publishable stories is out there. And even so, there is no guarantee, sometimes great work remains unpublished.  We never know. 

You don’t need to practice these principles, you need to put them into play.  Which means you’ll practice as you go.  I can teach you the criteria, the format, the process, the sequence, and the bar you must reach.  What I can’t do is put the ideas in your head or the words on your screen. 

A golf coach can show someone how to swing the club.  But the rest is up to them.

Would I enter an MFA program for a year?  No.  Unless you want to write true “literature,” the kind few people read outside of MFA programs.  If you want to write commercial fiction (I’m assuming that’s the kind of work you want to do), you don’t need an MFA.  You need to simply write, and write from an informed perspective. Workshops are good, gobble them up.  Find a methodology, a theory, an approach you like, understand it inside and out, and then put it to work.  Find published work you like, then emulate it.  There are no formulas other than effort-equals-opportunity.

As for a writing coach, that can work, but it can end up being expensive.  It’s often a comfort-level security blanket type of thing, unless the writer is truly unsure of what to write, how to write it and for what purpose it unfolds as it does.  Which is ironic, I think, because such a writer probably is too far behind the learning curve to write something publishable anyway.  But yes, a writing coach can help, someone to bounce ideas and story-planning documents off, and then to show chapters to. 

The real flag in the sand here, I think, is to get clear on your intentions. 

Are you seeking to improve, or to publish?  Of course, in striving for publication improvement is implied and demanded, but the reverse is not true.  Improvement through effort is different than improvement through study.  Improvement through both is best.

Then you need to get clear on what, specifically, you want to write.  You need to define your project, put a fence around it.  What genre, what market, what plan.  Do you have a killer story idea?  That’s the starting point, right after you declare intention.

The best process and the most thorough information in the world can’t turn a bad idea into a good one, or bad writing into solid writing.  That stuff can’t be taught, it must be discovered by each writer in their own way.

A big mistake is that people begin the journey without a truly compelling idea for a story. Their desire is so strong that they settle, they’ll write anything just to be in the game, to be actually writing something. 

The whole proposition can be made or broken right here, right at the starting gate.  The idea you wish to pursue is huge.  Search for it, but don’t rush it, and don’t settle.  Find an idea that keeps you up at night. 

If you have that idea, you need to grow it  into a story, through the creation of a plan for the story.  I call this “ideation” — the evolution of an idea, a seed, a germ of something, into a fleshed out story that others – key word there – will want to read.

In the end, no matter how you go about it, you will have developed a story that fulfills six different requirements (what I call the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling).  Story structure is only one of them.  The Big Idea is another one.  Then there comes character and theme.  These are the four building blocks of your story.  

The other two core competencies become “executional” processes — you need to understand and master the craft of writing great scenes, which are sequenced according to proper structural principles (the milestones you’ve read on my blog), and written with a compelling “voice.”

There is nothing else besides these six things.  And within each there is depth of learning and experience waiting for you.  You don’t have to be other-worldly great at all of them.  But you do in at least one of the four building blocks, and then become very competent in both of the two executional core competencies (scenes and voice).

Are you up for all that?  Even if you don’t feel you “own” these now, simply acknowledging them as the goal puts you miles ahead of most writers. 

The ball is in your court.  What do you want to pursue?  What is your story?  Is it worth a year in your life?  Are you willing to not settle and not compromise, to build this thing the way it needs to be built?

If you understand the above process and criteria, you are miles ahead of most new writers.  Trust me on this.

Opening quote by Geothe.  But then, you knew that.


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7 Responses to Getting Off the Storytelling Dime — How to Start NOW

  1. Dale

    Another post that really hit home for me. I’m in the “ideation” stage of my next novel. While I absolutely agree that practice and study in combination are the way to go, what really hit me here was your comment about not “settling” on an idea. I’ve been guilty of that–going for a “standard” idea rather than a “killer” one that keeps me up at night.

    This post really brought that point home 🙂

    Thank you!


  2. @Dale — yeah, that point about the power of the initial idea is huge. A massive percentage of perfectly well-written novels and screenplays get rejected precisely because the ideas that resides at their core aren’t compelling enough. Name-brand authors get away with this because they can, but publishers are looking for “breakout” material from new writers, stories that are fresh and original and compelling, even out-of-the-box. So good-on-you for feeling this one, Dale, it could be the very thing that gets you published. I hope that happens.

  3. I really enjoyed an can appreciate this article, Larry.

    This is great advice. And, might I add that your reader could have easily dropped some major cash (or wasted a few years) to get the same knowledge via other avenues.

    You’re the Mother Theresa of the burgeoning writer. Thank you. 😉

  4. Patrick Sullivan

    If I had a year off to work on writing without any other worries in the world I tend to agree with one point you mentioned but didn’t push much. Writing conferences. Stuff like Clarion seems like an awesome idea, but who has the mix of the however many grand AND the ability to drop the rest of their life for all that time to do it?


    Overall though I think this isn’t even a writing lesson, but more importantly a life one, and one I know I need to work on. You have to learn to never settle. If you shoot for the moon you might get into space at best. Shoot for the stars though, and if you really go for it at worst you hit the moon, which is still better than 99% of everyone else.

  5. Larry – You are knocking it out of the park lately with stuff like this! Thanks for your insights.

    A question about the “ideation” theory; don’t you think those “killers” can come sometimes after you’ve pounded out pages of junk? I’ll sit down and start on one idea then “watch” as the really good one comes out, evolves. If I waited for the “home run” to pop into my head, I might never sit down at the keyboard. Your thoughts?

  6. @Patrick – interesting, I’ve noticed that “writing lessons” and “life lessons” are often very much the same thing. I think the more we pay attention to that, the better we’ll all be. I mean, if what we pour our passion into doesn’t teach us something about life, how valuable is it? Thanks for pointing that out here.

    @Mike – anywhere we find our ideas is a good thing. I do think that, in any case, a story should begin with an idea, and if the writer already knows it’s “junk” then perhaps it isn’t worth the effort. There are plenty of ideas waiting to hatch that aren’t. That said, you’re right, sometimes what we believe is worthy turns out to be junk (or, we just can’t make it happen on the page), but in doing so we come up with an even better idea.

    Guess what I’m saying is… evolving good into great is a wonderful thing… but beginning with junk really isn’t. I urge you to adopt a middle ground here — don’t write until you have an idea that excites you, and then if you discover a better idea along the way, don’t hesitate to trash the first and pursue the new. Hope this helps… it’s all opinion anyhow, and like I said, whatever works is a good thing. Good luck with your projects! And thanks for hanging out here on Storyfix.

  7. Hi Larry,

    This is just what I needed to hear. At the moment I’m sitting under a pile of English papers that need to be marked (which means no time for writing), and I have 2.5 months to get myself in order before my new child arrives.

    What am I planning to do with the next year of my life? I won’t be working (more time to write), but I’ll have a baby who needs constant care. Given the right attitude, vision, and planning, this could still turn out to be one of the most productive writing years of my life.

    Your post has inspired me to set some real goals for the coming year.

    Thank you.