Is Your Story Worth Saving?

Of course it is.  It’s yours.  Nobody can nor should they tell you it’s not worth the time to try to save it.

But when it isn’t ready to come out into the light, when it doesn’t really have a shot as is — because on this website and in my story evaluations, this is about PROFESSIONAL-level storytelling — someone absolutely should tell you it needs… whatever it needs.

Really, though, sometimes that assessment in the harshest degree — even when it’s fair and accurate — is more an issue of semantics than it is a pronouncement of death.  Even when it is.

Because anything can be revised.  Sometimes, to the point where absolutely everything in the proposed story has been rethought and rebooted.  Because someone on the other side pointed out why it wouldn’t work otherwise.

Like people with a pulse, stories require certain minimum elements, essences and chemistry to work.  Only here it’s a matter of opinion — someone’s opinion — that makes that call.  The idea, the goal, is to arm yourself with the ability to make that call.

Even doctors in the ER have to make that call on patients… the point at which they “call it” and put away the paddles.

Which poses a rhetorical question:

In the case of a story that has been completely rebooted, have you just “saved” the story, or have you used the experience of the former story to lead you to a better story?

It doesn’t matter what label — first aid, polish, or resurrection from the dead — you put on the resultant reboot process and product.  What matters is understanding when and why this discussion applies to you, and then, what you need to do about it.

Sometimes the news that your story isn’t good enough is the best news of all.  Because you probably thought it was good enough.  The dispenser of that verdict has just, in some combination, given you new hope, a plan, and the saving of several months of pain and/or work.

Even when the thing is dead on arrival.

Whether you listen, or not, is your call.  It, and what you do about it, is a call that makes or breaks your writing dream.

My Job Sucks Sometimes

As a story coach I get up every day to stare down the throat of stories that need help.  It’s the nature of the story coaching beast… if it didn’t require coaching it wouldn’t be on my screen.  That’s why I charge money for this (in addition to the result being invaluable to the writer), because sometimes it’s like trying to turn a 98-pound weakling into its proud parent’s vision of it becoming a first round draft choice… like, soon, after a few more pushups.

And yet, the only way to take that kid/project to that level is to whip up a Captain America level resurrection (you’ll recall he was, literally, a 98-pound weakling who died, then was rebuilt in a lab and zapped back to life, complete with a new body, a new brain and a new mission in life).  That kid wasn’t “saved,” he was essentially replaced.

Make the leap from that analogy to a story that isn’t working at it’s most basic defining level… and you’ve just joined the conversation here.  Save it?  Try to breath life into it by medicating the symptoms instead of the cause?

Or do you reinvent it?  That’s the author’s opportunity.

Here’s what I believe to be true: at the end of the story coaching day… no, every story cannot be saved.

More often than I care to say (and you really don’t want to know), the degree of help required to make a story viable leans into the aforementioned analogy, a story so lacking in weight (while burdened with the misguided hubris of its creator) it’s like a newborn brought into the world without bones or muscle or — again, much too often — a brain.

But dang, that thing was so cute back at square one.

The problem is this: writer has what they believe to be a cool notion for a story… but it’s challenging, complicated, even out there, so writer makes some leaps, asks the reader to suspend logic and belief, then faces more stretches and concoctions just to connect the dots… and before you know it you have the CIA coming to a shy 14-year math whiz  (the hero of this story) with an alcoholic parent to save the world because, gosh darn it, there just aren’t enough really smart and capable people sitting in windowless rooms in a CIA facility that can actually save the world after all.

If your wimpy teenage hero has to hack into National Security servers to get the information required to save the world, when all the police and secret agents and military might on the planet haven’t been able to do just that… then odds are your story is Dead on Arrival.  It’s been stretched and bent and contrived to death.

It’s like lying.  You tell one, it’s a whopper, and then you have to keep heaping lie after lie after lie on top of it to justify the pieces of the original whopper just to seemingly hold the whole teetering facade together.  But oh, that first lie… it was so beautiful.  If only it were true… and so, you bend all logic and reason to make it true in your story world.

But here’s the deal: you really can’t turn a really bad story idea into a really good story, or a really non-heroic protagonist (you wouldn’t believe how many unpublished “heroes” there are out there with backstories in which they are insecure, unloved, timid, frightened and disconnected… newsflash: Superman came out of the womb with powers beyond what any human could imagine)… without replacing that idea and that backstory with a better one.

Bend all you want… but it is that bending and stretching of logic that kills your story as much as the eye-rolling nature of the premise in the first place.

The trouble with this whole business — the business of writing publishable fiction, fiction that sells — is that this is a moving, imprecise, often invisible bar we’re reaching for here.  This is why everybody who tries doesn’t get there.

It’s why professional storytellers — those who have earned the nametag not because of track record, but because of the craft at their command – do.

The sweet spot for all of this resides at the intersection of concept and premise. 

Which leads to a dramatic question.  Which connects to a hero called up to answer and resolve that question.  Which, when perceived as compelling without the need to bend it into something else entirely, becomes the DNA of a story with a shot.

Somewhere in that simple equation writers are deluding themselves into believing they’ve broken the code.  When in fact, their ship is taking on water and won’t make it out of the harbor into the open ocean of an unspooling story.

When you write a story, you are owning the conceit that you know what others will find compelling.  Think about that for a moment… and then look in a mirror and ask if that’s you.

Revision is common. 

It’s expected.  A part of the deal.  A fulfilling phase of the storytelling journey.

Unless it’s an attempt to breath life into the stillborn by bending and stretching the capacity of a reader to believe.  Into an equation that doesn’t add up, and won’t mean anything if and when it does as a result of all the bending of the math required.

Unless the thing is just plain dead already.  If it is, you need to hear it from the perspective of a professional, someone who knows the difference between a player that belongs on the field and one who needs to stay in the concession stand.

What’s frustrating about my job — I think this just turned into a bit of a rant — is that I keep getting stories sent to me that are in, or have both feet already dangling toward — that abyss from which there is no return.

The Fix

The ONLY THING that can prevent that — for you, for me, and in general — is a heightened awareness of what makes a story work.  Which is a story sensibility that arises from, is built upon, the mechanics of how a good story is assembled, and how it is fueled by a concept and a premise (they are different… recognizing that alone is half the battle) that has enough energy and potential and fresh air in its DNA to give the story a shot at a future.

It is, pure and simple,  story physics.  Dramatic tension arising from a compelling (key word, right there) dramatic question, leading to a hero who must DO something in pursuit of a worthy goal, with something blocking the straight line toward the goal.  That’s it, in the proverbial nutshell.

When the goal is to render those narrative physics onto the page, it happens only from a solid foundation of storytelling craft (what I call the six core competencies of storytelling) that seizes that concept/premise promise and molds it into narrative gold.

The trick resides in recognizing what that winning concept/premise DNA consists of (hint: I just told you what it consists of), then summoning the requisite craft to bring it to fruition over the arc of a story that is artfully assembled and rendered.

You can get all six of the core competencies right… and the story can still sink like a stone tied to the foot of a protagonist who never stood a chance.  Just as you can put makeup and clothes on a store mannequin or a corpse that looks like a person, that is in fact beautiful and mesmerizing… but it still can’t walk across a room.

That’s the thing about a good concept.  Many stories can arise from it.  Only one of them is your premise.

Our job is to pick the right one, the best one.  The one that stands a chance in hell in a business in which there really isn’t one, if the statistics are to be believed.


Click HERE to read more about Story Physics, and HERE to read more about the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.

Click HERE or HERE (for a shorter, less expensive level that focuses on concept and premise) to learn more about holding your story plan up to the harsh but liberating light of analysis from a story coach who won’t judge your story, just the DNA it’s built upon.

Prices for story coaching will increase on May 1, 2014.  Those who opt in now will lock in the current fee, regardless of when the submit the materials involved.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

11 Responses to Is Your Story Worth Saving?

  1. MikeR

    … To write a story not only worth saving, but worth publishing, and to do so -efficiently- so that the entire effort isn’t just a waste of your time.

    Writing looks easier than it is because, every time you pick up a story at a newsstand, you’re looking only at the completed, polished, proofread and edited work. (If you want to see the rough stuff, grab a typical e-book. Hint: you’ll be glad it was a freebie.)

    When you read, you don’t see the decisions that the author made. No, you see only the conclusions. You don’t see the choices; only what was chosen. But, when you are =designing= a new story, it’s all about decisions. And, about an =efficient= way of making those decisions.

    For instance, I’m now thinking about two story plans at the same time. In each case I’m focusing most attention on both the concept/premise upon which the story is based and on how the resulting story will =end.= “It all comes down to this, therefore, what is ‘this?'” Yeah. I’m stacking the deck. You betcha. Flip straight to the end of the book and work backwards, figuring out what rabbits will be needed and where the hats need to be placed. The second idea, which is a thriller whose concept/premise should scare every modern parent’s pants off (he said, mysteriously …) ought to boil down to a five-page double spaced synopsis and a questionnaire that @Larry will love. It won’t get written until it does.

  2. You are so quotable sometimes; “Just as you can put makeup and clothes on a store mannequin or a corpse that looks like a person, that is in fact beautiful and mesmerizing… but it still can’t walk across a room.”
    Love that…and sadly, so true. Mindy

  3. As a songwriter who sometimes teaches songwriting, this feels familiar, yet I’ve never made the connection from song to novel.

    My father and all his brothers and most of our neighbors were natural musicians and storytellers. Growing up in the woods of Wisconsin, playing music and telling stories was our TV (we were a little behind the times; it was 1965 and we still didn’t own a working TV.)

    Immersed in live music and good stories from birth, I forget there are people who didn’t have that luxury. Instead of building on a foundation of instinct they have to learn even the basics.

    Which means I forget that some stories’ only value is, as you say, to be a launching pad for something entirely new, only this time, done right.

  4. Robert Jones

    I’ve been lucky enough to be born into a life where the “critique” has been a constant. I’ve written stories and drawn pictures for as long as I can remember. But nothing hit me like my first professional critique. I was 18 or 19 and I moped around for at least a month afterward. What happened after that is I got angry, but focused. I channeled my frustration into buying books about art and reading them (and applying what I read) from cover to cover until I milked them dry. I learned that whenever I felt myself plateauing into a comfort zone, yet still felt what I was doing didn’t look as good as the people I admired, I would kick myself in the butt and drag myself up to the next level.

    Any creative endeavor worth doing is not about stroking your ego. Though it may be hard at times to separate the ego from the experience. It is a journey that often teaches you more than you currently realize. Especially when you’re in the early stages of craft. But it never stops–unless you stop yourself, give up, or become complacent.

    My first attempt at a novel was no different. It was the sort of melodramatic story most young people write, filled with the sort of high-adventure Hollywood might be proud of, but doesn’t necessarily work in a novel. I was lucky enough to work with–and even become associated with–a number of professional writers working at various levels. I sent some snippets of my writing to a novelist who was good enough to look at it. His first critique was that it was so melodramatic, it was nearly laughable. OUCH!

    However, knowing from prior experience–which became a career in one avenue of the arts–I understood what had to be done. And even though I had little time then, I studied craft and undertook to become a more serious writer in my spare time. The more I learned, the more I became gripped by the urge to do it. That first novel has a concept hidden in there that I may rework one day. It won’t be the same type of story if that ever happens. Because it didn’t take very long in my learning of craft before the knowledge I was accumulating turned me into a different type of writer. Consequently, I no longer wanted to pursue that first story any longer.

    In hindsight, several things are apparent. Early on, all ideas are very exciting. They tend to sweep us away. But what are they based on? TV, movies, early attempts/choices for reading? I agree that those early influences can inspire the seeds that make us inevitably turn to writing. On the other hand, if a writer never grew, never learned anything beyond those early attempts/experiences, it would be a sad world for fiction indeed.

    Critiques can be hurtful. They might tear that seemingly magical excitement into shreds. Deep down, it’s up to us all as individuals to evaluate those scraps, to learn, find a more solid footing. You may end up glueing those scraps back together more effectively, or turn to spending your time reading and writing better stories–as I did. When you can look back on your early critiques with a smile, or even a bit of embarrassment seeing how bad some of those early attempts truly were, then you’ll thank your teachers and mentors who have spun you around, turned you in a different direction, stopped you from hitting that wall before it was too late.

    Critiques never get any less embarrassing. Especially if we can’t see the ship wreck before it happens. We’re all too close to our own work and that causes mistakes to occur sometimes. But remember, I’ve talked to writers who have been at it for a very long time, have had great success even…and the best of them have admitted that they ALL seek help. It’s just easier to find when you’ve been in the business for a long time and know other writers.

    These days we are lucky. We don’t have to operate in the dark only to get hammered by agents, editors, and the reading public who won’t always explain why they rejected your “brilliant” work. Because Larry can save you time and embarrassment on that score. Whether you currently realize it or not…it has placed you on a better path, opened your eyes and made you see what all the excitement (or ego) blinded you to previously. A lesson well worth the money in its own right.

  5. Can all stories be saved by tweaking? No. I’m going to be a little harsh here and say that the issue sometimes boils down to a problem of ego. It’s essential to separate BEING A WRITER from THIS PARTICULAR PAGE. The two things are entirely different.

    A person sits down, maybe with a glass of wine at hand, and types a novel. He types and types, but he doesn’t THINK. If he did, he would be forced to admit that what he’s typing isn’t working. Somewhere deep inside, he knows this, but his ego focuses on “the wonder of me.”– “Look, everybody! I’m a writer! I’ve written a novel!” So he forges on, beating the book over the head, requiring reassurance and massaging of his feelings.

    This is so unnecessary. If a person has written a novel, then yes, he’s a writer. It’s admirable. It’s wonderful. That’s a given. ‘Nuff said. He deserves applause.

    Now–let’s move on to dispassionately and objectively think about what is on this particular page. Some stories can’t be saved. The necessary tweaking would result in essentially starting a whole new novel. And that’s okay!

    If a writer can get beyond his ego and focus on the page, there will be other pages, other novels–hopefully better ones as he continues learning.

    As the TV show said, “There are a million stories in the naked city.” You’re a writer–Go find ’em! 🙂

  6. Excellent post and great comments, as always.

    Larry’s ‘Story Engineering’ was a wonderful find for me. It helped me turn an abandoned pile of short stories strung together into a coherent story, but even then, my beta reader tore it to shreds. It is so true that you cannot see that your own baby is ugly. You’re too close to it.

    I pouted and sulked, and then I dove deeper into storytelling principles studying the craft. Maybe I’ll get there someday…

  7. Robert Jones

    @Curt–You WILL get there one day. No ifs and no maybes allowed. Its all in the learning and the learning takes time. People have gotten used to seeing writing portrayed as a person who sits at their computer (or typewriter) in movies without a clue as to what they should say. They may struggle a bit trying to locate their idea, but once they do they’re off and running and everyone loves the end result. We never see revisions. When they do show snippets of writing on the screen, it’s pretty bland stuff actually.

    Then we have Stephen King turning out best sellers and advocating pretty much the same method in his book, “On Writing.” It sounds like such fun. I’ve always wanted to be able to write a novel that way. God knows I’ve tried. It doesn’t work for me. And based on all the e-books I’ve looked at on Amazon by folks who took similar paths, I’m going to say that this is a method that doesn’t work for a lot of people. At least not those who don’t have a backlog of craft knowledge crammed into their little gray cells–and maybe some experience tossed in for good measure. Of course we can’t overlook the handful of gifted people who can trudge into something like this and make it work out of sheer will, or because they’re some kind of prodigy. But that’s not the norm either.

    On the other hand, I’ve witnessed what some people would call a hidden gift, or talent coming to life in various forms of art. I’ve seen kids come right out of high school without much ability to draw outside of crude figures and graffiti scribbles from their notebooks, little cartoons that might amuse their friends. But after a few years of learning their craft, they turned into fairly solid artists. It always began with an attitude that believed they would succeed and some overpowering, unconditional love of whatever it was they were doing that became their art. Then they had to study things like perspective, anatomy, shading, paint theory. They learned how to use the tools of the trade, experiment with them to see which ones worked best for achieving their vision.

    In the end, craft polishes you, gives you benchmarks for understanding if your story is working, or if you’re just amusing yourself with doodles in your notebook of ideas where ego may inflate fleas into dragons. The better you understand the criteria, the less chance you’ll slip into obscurity. It’s a set of mental tools and skill-sets. And each one you master puts you that much closer to writing a story that’s truly solid. It doesn’t mean everyone will like it. But it’ll be solid. It’ll be your vision brought to life.

    It’s an achievement at least as thrilling as climbing Mt. Everest. It’s just a question of time and how badly each of us wants it. Then damn the critics who’ve never managed to make the climb for themselves!

  8. MikeR

    Don’t worry, @Joel – it cuts both ways. It’s 2014 and I don’t own a TV. I haven’t owned one in twenty-five years. Don’t miss it one bit, either. 🙂

  9. MikeR

    Personally, I think that “fiction writing” carries with it a fairly hefty set of -unrealistic- expectations, which are not even shared by “nonfiction writing,” much less more-ordinary things such as, say, “creating a decent PowerPoint (yuck) presentation.”

    In all of these “other” endeavors, the need for preparation, planning, and a very-efficient way of “zeroing in” on the best content and delivery, would be assumed. And one of the key reasons for this, of course, would be that: “we have hands-on experience(!) in [trying to] doing it.” We all wrote term-papers. (Yuck!) This isn’t our first (yuck!!) PowerPoint.

    And yet … we dream of “just sitting down at Page-1 and writing our blissful way to THE END,” just like @StephenKing [if you bothered to actually pay attention … DIDN’T(!)] said he did(n’t). We dream of being @JKRowling, and, since this =is= a dream, we omit the stolen nappies and the coffee-shop that was warmer than her flat. Simply because most of us (full disclosure: including myself, =yet= ) do not have “hands-on experience,” the illusions fly. (And illusion-peddlers cheerfully sell them.)

    Any work of fiction that you pick-up at a bookstore is actually the product of a helluva lot of hard work by many more people than just the author. (The same is true, by the way, of every song that you hear on the radio, =and= every commercial =and= every radio program.) Nearly all of that “helluva hard work” is, of course, BY DESIGN “invisible to you.” (Craftsmen, generally, prefer to be un-noticeable.)

    But, if you actually want to be(come) a =commercially= =successful= writer of fiction, you’ve got to [first, recognize the need to(!)] learn how to do it. You’ve got to know everything that there is to know “behind the little curtain” so that your audience can gasp at “The Wizard of Oz” that you have created.

    “We now know a thousand ways not to invent a light bulb.” – Thomas Edison
    … and no one, nodding-off beneath their reading lamp with a copy of YOUR BOOK in their lap, will ever [care to] [wish to] know. (Nor would you =ever= wish to tell them!)

  10. Robert Jones: Thank you for the words of encouragement.

    MikeR: Yes indeed, as Larry taught me through this blog and his books, for the non-gifted among us, a lot of thinking and laying groundwork goes into good fiction, before we ever sit down and type “It was a dark and stormy night…” 😉

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