Mini-Workshop Part 2: The Great Seductive and Often Fatal Temptation of the New Writer

We all begin our storytelling experience as new writers.  And thus, we all have a journey to take.  Each journey is unique, with an infinite number of starting places and contextual baggage to either help us or weigh us down.  Usually both.

Irrespective of those differences however, one thing is true: we all end up – or strive to end up – in the same place.  To become writers of effective stories. 

When we get there, the technical underpinnings of our stories – the physics of them, the forces that make them work – will be virtually the same. 

Storytelling is like gravity – you can play with it all you want, but in the end you have to honor the underlying forces and create your vehicle in context to them, or what you create will never arrive safely at its destination.

The process of getting to that point is the subject of much debate. 

In my view, seeking out the nature and limits of those storytelling physics (forces) is empowering.  It gives us a framework and a roadmap along the way. 

Some writers prefer to set out on foot, foregoing the road and climbing the mountains with a pick-ax.  To learn the physics through the pain of failure and/or the deductive reasoning of a child learning to walk can work, or even simply trying to imitate other writers… it’s all a certain ticket to frequent falls before you begin to walk with confidence. 

In my view, the biggest and saddest mistake a new writer can make is to fail to recognize the physics that govern the effectiveness of what we put on the page.  To believe that there are no rules, no physics, and/or that they reside in some magical, muse-governed realm that is accessible only through pain and decades of experience.

A lot of writers, and even writing teachers, like to say “there are no rules.”  That’s semantics.  That’s rhetoric.  Okay, there are no rules… but there are underlying physics at work… EVERY time.  Violate them, compromise them, and your story will fail.  Period.

That “no rules” thinking is just so wrong, at least if you don’t recognize it as semantics.  This is stuff you can learn, and quickly.  Not easily – it’s complicated, but eventually.  When you do, storytelling physics become the context from which you write.

Those physics kick in on Page One.

Which means that if you use your draft as a means of discovery of your story, meandering in and out of character and dramatic exposition without a clear path… then suddenly you find that path and finish your story accordingly… that can work.  Takes a while, but it’ll get you there.  But… if you don’t go back and revise those wandering first pages in context to the newly-discovered chosen path of your story… it’ll fail.  Or at least, it won’t work as well as it could.

And that’s the Great Trap so many new writers fall into.

You really can plan your story… then write it, then play with it.

Or, you can begin writing drafts as a means of discovering your story, beginning at Square One.

But if, once discovered, you don’t go back and revise your story in context to the newly discovered path of it, it’ll fail.  Every time.  It’s like a cook who begins with hamburger and decides she wants chicken enchiladas before her guests arrive… you have to start over.  Even if the table was already set.

That’s the most common mistake I see in my work as a story coach.  Writers who don’t write their stories in context to something… be they the principles of story architecture, or a story plan… something that becomes the very heart and soul of the story they are working on.

This trap is avoidable.  And we all get to choose.

I’m not saying you must plan.  That’s not a rule, it’s a recommendation… and once you begin to understand the underlying physics, a bit of an inevitability.

I am saying that, to write a successful story, the universal physics of dramatic theory must be honored and observed on the page, at some point, no matter what path you choose to get there.

I originally prepared these two mini-workshop posts for Lisa Miller, who ran them several months ago on her terrific site, which you can check out HERE.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

3 Responses to Mini-Workshop Part 2: The Great Seductive and Often Fatal Temptation of the New Writer

  1. Thanks for another great piece of advice! I have read so many manuscripts that float all over the place and never really come together as a story. It doesn’t seem to matter how cool the stuff is you want to say, if it’s not done right, it just doesn’t work.

  2. Another great post. I can’t count the number of times I’ve chopped off a chunk of the opener, or added another chapter before the scene that was the opener because it wasn’t the real opener. It was just where I started the story.

    Sometimes at that point it takes several tries in the edits to get the flavor of the opener exactly right, make it grabby and shorten it. The new scene may be too long or it doesn’t mesh well with the parts already done. Editing isn’t something that works just in one pass for me.

    It works better to separate it into different tasks and still have certain routine checks going on all the time. Name change incidents are pernicious. No matter how many times I edit, someone is going to find one at the last minute.

    But the most fun and the most efficient way for me to discover the story is to start on page one and keep going linear till I get to the end. That doesn’t mean I might not write up to half again as much prose in the revision, or cut it in half once I’m done. It’s just how my process works best – and that also tends to stick closest to the structures you’ve described. I’ve had more plotting problems trying to pre-plan because the plan falls apart as soon as the characters go live.

    Plot and characterization are tightly fused when my first draft is linear-organic. After that, any insertions are in the point of view character’s well established voice. I know them. I’m not guessing it and I’m not constructing them from outside.

    I’ve been doing the Triage pass on my 2011 Nanowrimo. I’ve come to the conclusion that I could make it a short 60k horror novel by tightening a lot and adding a little more information. Or I can make it flow much more smoothly and come out a lot scarier by adding the adults’ point of view. Show some of the interactions between parents. Show how they worry about the kids and what supernatural events are scaring the pants off them while I’ve got the general pace of the reveal going.

    I might include one or two short scenes from the supernaturals’ viewpoint because they’ll add punch to the scenes with the kids. They’ll raise the stakes in ways I was aware of while writing but in its present form, the reader’s not aware of those additional risks.

    This article is brilliant.

    Every writer reinvents the process of writing a novel. There are hundreds of different processes that all need to be learned, some so simple everyone learns them absorbing his or her native language, others so sophisticated that only pro novelists and a very few independents grasp them. Or only a few pro novelists and a great many forgettable novels don’t have those subtler levels.

    With this article you’ve made it clear to me how it is we can all work in such widely different ways yet come out with something that’s recognizably a novel. The tasks all need to be done – but in the order that works best for you, in the circumstances most comfortable, enjoyable, efficient and effective for you. That’s where everyone’s different.

    I’ve got physical reasons why immersive concentration without interruption work better for me than stable working hours. Once in a while I can tie my habits to my disabilities and realize that I’m doing it again. Something that would be cumbersome to an abled person is convenient for me. If I’m lost in the world of the novel, I don’t have to sleep on a 24 hour schedule. If I have to sleep 14 hours that day and still wind up awake for 16, it’s not going to be a 24 hour day. I’ll get up at a different time every day and if what I’m doing isn’t on the clock, it doesn’t matter.

    But with memory problems, keeping continuity and characterization is a thousand times easier with that immersion. I never lift my attention from them. If I get interrupted by something that gets too much of my attention or get too sick to work for more than two days – the whole thing falls down. Depending on how much book I got done before picking it up again, I need to reread it from page one yet try to stay out of Edit Mode in order to keep from derailing by imposing the editing process too early. Attempts to edit while writing the story fail miserably.

    Yet friends of mine write slow and steady drafts that seem perfect as they flow, because they’re editing and writing at the same time. They outline and then craft every sentence and paragraph carefully, that becomes relaxing and they do a good job on it. To the point where editing is either editorially guided or just a last proofread to catch what they missed. It’s not me but works for some people.

    It may work really well for someone who’s got an hour to write and holds down an immersive day job that completely distracts them from the novel.

    Your articles go right to the nuts and bolts in a way that crosses the lines of process. That’s what I love about them. If I ever got hit by the magical health fairy with her sledgehammer and all my disabilities vanished, I might turn into one of those page a day super-editors and enjoy it. Or a mad outliner sketching dozens of novels between paintings and casually choosing which one to write first come November.

    Editing makes me laugh at the stuff that gets cut, then gasp with delight at the things I was nervous about that turned out to be the gold. All of my critiquers nixed my narrator for the saber tooth cats novel, yet the parts I just wrote from the cats’ point of view shone and worked well. It’s a cat lover’s delight watching very big cats be cats and they’ll get emotionally attached to cats. Some of my research is going to drop out of the book, implied rather than stated. That won’t matter as long as I’m consistent with what’s known at the time of writing.

    It’s thanks to all your prep articles that my writing is improving to the next level. My editing process was weak compared to the rest. I learned these skills in the order I did under the conditions I did. I knew that was what came next, but have only done it several times and am still discovering my editing methods.

    What’s odd is that for short stories I’ve got a good editing routine, it’s more that I have to adapt to a good editing routine for projects that can’t be edited in one pass.

    I’m going to relax and take my time, but keep a promise to self to work on it every month till it’s done. I’m sure the next time will be easier by familiarity, everything that worked will be more constant. It may take several novels before I’ve got my novel editing routine as streamlined as my story editing routine. It’ll come. I just need to trust my learning curve and know that part of it is adapting to my physical limits and new living situation.

    Everything else I’ve done since I started packing to move to San Francisco has taken months longer than planned, so I’m not going to beat myself about not getting to my actual edits beyond planning them.

    Maybe “Plan the Edits” will turn out to be an essential part of my editing process anyway – in which case this is a wonderful discovery and something to remember when scheduling.

  3. Great post, and well-timed, since my editor has me doing a complete rewrite on my novel. Well, hopefully not a complete rewrite. One key event needs to move, and then a lot of the other pieces should fit together much better.