Montana Musings: Thoughts On a Writing Conference

We hear what we want to hear.

Last weekend I was privileged to take part in a great writing conference thrown by Writers of the Flathead (it’s a lake, folks) in Kalispell, Montana.  A rewarding and very classy experience, run by and attended by warm wonderful folks.

My mind was in overdrive the entire time.

I kicked off the morning session as the first of three presenters, my position on the agenda rendering a sort of keynote context to my remarks.  I figured I shouldn’t just launch into the specifics of three dimensional characterization… you could still smell the coffee and many eyelids were still at half mast.

And, based on a show of hands, over half the people were attending their very first writing conference.  Babes in wonderland.

In my opening salvo I mentioned that, after dozens of these events, I’ve come to realize that pretty much all speakers and instructors are saying the same basic and critical things about writing, only with wildly different takes and approaches.

And I promised that my words would set them free.

Glassy eyes ensued.

But it’s a critical point. 

Successful storytelling has a specific set of dramatic principles in play, and if you’re writing a novel or a screenplay with the intent to sell, your story will end up unraveling in a certain way, in a certain order.  No matter what it’s about.

And no matter what words you or the next speaker you hear use to describe it.

That’s the variance among presenters.  And it’s a good thing. Different approaches toward the same basic structural and dramatic outcome, based on a consistent and proven — and expected — set of basic principles.

Too often the teaching focuses on the approach.  The principles of storytelling – dramatic theory meets scene sequence, the very stuff all these first-timers have most likely never heard discussed – get too little clarity and focus.  And in that deficit resides the risk: writers begin to confuse approach with outcome.

The approach can be anything.  The outcome can’t.

Decide well.  Because some approaches to story development work better than others.  Some don’t work at all. 

But no matter how you go about it, in the end – if you are to succeed – all roads lead to the same destination: a story that adheres to the criteria that drive the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

No matter how they are described.

In hearing about different ways of going about it – somewhere on a continuum between anal-retentive obsessive pre-draft story planning and oblivious seat-of-the-pants random acts of organic narrative with no direction or affinity – many writers get lost in the interpretative challenge.

Storytelling is like gravity.  It’s physics.  And there are many forms, many of them delivering high art, of playing with gravity.

But if you want to fly, you need wings and forward motion.  Those are principles you cannot negotiate.

So it is with dramatic theory and story architecture.

Some writers still hear what they want to hear. 

For example, after breaking a healthy sweat espousing the virtues of mission-driven story development, another speaker referred to me as a drill instructor.

And some, hearing what they want to hear, took that to be a bad thing.

If you want to hear that there are, in fact, no principles in play as you develop your story, you’ll arrive at that conclusion upon hearing someone advising you to play with your story and see what happens.

Principle-free storytelling isn’t what they’re saying.  But it’s what some writers hear

They are confusing approach with outcome.

This is like an architect playing with a sketch to see what happens. 

Doesn’t mean the building that eventually springs from the architect’s work will end up looking like something from Dr. Seuss. 

The objective of story development is to come up with the best possible creative options for the story, and at the right moments in the story.  To get there, you have to consider what came before, what comes after, and the mission of the moment you are in.

Not just what pops into your head as you sit there merrily writing along.

Which is precisely what some writers hear… because that’s what they want to hear.

The drilling continued.

My other session was a two hours condensation of my basic 16-hour workshop — don’t try this at home – on the nature of and relationship between the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

If they thought I was a drill instructor the previous morning, they hadn’t seen anything yet.

But they discovered something in this longer session that the folks who opted out after my strong opening remarks (drill instructors are scary sometimes) didn’t get: I was teaching outcome, not process.

I was modeling the non-negotiable.  For many, it was their first glimpse of the finish line.

And thus the drill instructor morphed into a guidance counselor or wilderness guide.   An interpreter of the vague and amorphous.  

For the folks in that room, the light at the end of the storytelling tunnel was suddenly visible.

Here’s the thing that separates the serious from the deluded.

Before every workshop I give, I ask a question: how many of you want to turn professional as a writer?  To actually accept real money from a publisher?

Everybody thrusts an enthusiastic hand into the air.  They always do.

And when they do, they are signing up for something that they have complete control over: how they get there.

It’s where they must end up, in terms of story architecture, that they have no control over whatsoever.

You have complete control of how you write.  And what you write, creatively.  But how your story unfolds along it’s spine, it’s underlying dramatic power and flow… that’s an expectation you must write toward, not invent for yourself.

But that’s drill instructor talk.  Scary.

Even if it’s true… which it absolutely is.

So instead – in direct contradiction to that raised hand – some writers hear what they want to hear.  

Because the truth is a challenge, a high bar, and a mandate. 

You can’t have it both ways. 

If you want to write a story for your kid, for example – one with no hero, no conflict, no-setup, no turning points, no resolution, just vivid descriptions of candy canes hanging from fluffy clouds – have at it.  There are no principles, because your hand isn’t in the air, there’s no professional future there.

Never mind your kid will be bored silly, by the way.

You can’t aspire to becoming a professional and then discard or evade the truth of what you must know, how you must execute and the level at which you must perform as a storyteller.

Okay, everyone assume the push-up position.  On my count…

I hear what I want to hear sometimes, too. 

It happened in Montana, in fact.

After my morning session, having worked myself up into my usual lather of passion and enthusiasm for the craft of storytelling, an attractive woman approached me in the lobby.

“You look hot,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling oh-so-modestly.  “So do you.”

She grinned, way ahead of me.

“No, you’re hot.”  She used her fingers to indicate quotation marks for clarity.  “Your shirt is soaked.”

Like I said, we hear what we want to hear.

Writing – and teaching writing – always finds a way to humble us.

If your hand is in the air in answer to the question – do you want to turn professional as a writer? – then allow me to humbly recommend my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published.”  The no-bullshit, clearly-stated way to that particular outcome awaits you there.


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18 Responses to Montana Musings: Thoughts On a Writing Conference

  1. Normandie Hill

    I loved this post Larry! “You look hot!” That’s hysterical.

    I’ve been enjoying your blog. I write erotic fiction, and your tips on structure are very helpful.

  2. The objective, I believe, is that we must get better with each story we write.

    ut you can’t get better unless somebody points out, directly or indirectly, what is failing.

    Last year my NaNoWriMo effort was 100% pantsed. (And I *will* get back to that story some day.)

    Then my lack of story structure was very clearly pointed out to me (indirectly by Larry) and my next story (cleaning up the draft now) is 100% better than the previous work.

    (There’s another story, almost completed prior to last year’s NaNo, that had a major renovation to fit structure that I’d put at 50% better)

    Add the conscious character development and with the preparation I’ve done in advance of this year’s NaNoWriMo I’m actually feeling confident, for the very first time, that I can write a pretty damn good tale.

    Drill Instructors are a required evil. Thanks for all of the guidance over the past 9 months.


  3. “Thank you,” I said, smiling oh-so-modestly. “So you do.”

    This sentence is an example of the first plot point, the mid point, the 2nd plot point, pinch points, and the four story parts participating in a chrash test demonstration at 50mph. 😉


    Good morning Larry:
    Being a seminar attendee, this post dispelled sleepy eyes for outright laughter. I know the players mentioned. But on a more serious note, let me add that when I took your 3 day writing class over 4 years ago, I had a complete rough draft of my manuscript.
    I wish I had been a wet-behind-the-ears newbie as half of those people at the conference, because even though I HAD outlined before writing, I missed so much that the manuscript had to be started over. All those words went down the drain. Or maybe I saved them, cramming plot points in with a jackhammer.

    Regardless, my lack of knowledge led to a painful 3 year process of trying to save the baby from the shredder.

    The smart people at the conference will thank their lucky cosmic stars for being in the right place at the right time.

    On another note–were your ears burning yesterday? You know my amazing writers’ group—The one with the dog, another saving the kid from a life long jail sentence? Oh—and the good looking chick? We’ve got a business proposition for you as our documents reach critical stage. We’ll be in touch for manuscript reviews.

  5. Abby Smyers

    Larry –

    As another attendee, I do as Robin says, “thank my lucky stars” to have met you and heard what you have to say. I am new to the game (bringing glass bottles and everything) and I appreciate your dedication to helping and teaching.

    Writing is after all work. Fun–yes, but you still have to do the work. It was a pleasure meeting you and I hope our paths cross again.

    Happy writing —

    “The Buddhist Bartender”

  6. @Shane — damn, and I proofed this thing to death. As did my wife. Got me on that one. Ironically, that little problematic sentence is an example of “seeing what we want to see,” as well as hear. I survived the crash test though, and healed the thing. Thanks, as always, for hanging here.

  7. Hahaha! This is classic, Larry. I wasn’t even talking about proofing errors here (hell, I didn’t have my proofing brain on, so I didn’t even notice that). I was just envisioning the sound of a car crash when you said that line to the lady then realized what she really said. 🙂

  8. Phyllis Quatman

    Larry, our critique group spent hours yesterday on the three dimensions of character, with me providing comments off my notes from your two hour workshop. Invaluable stuff that provided me with a big ‘ah ha’ moment: My manuscript, while structurally sound per your story structure advice, lacked much character arc. Back to the beginning to rewrite the set-up phase. Thanks again for coming to our conference and yeah, we all thought you looked hot!

  9. Mary

    I liken writing workshops to riding lessons and clinics. I’ve been involved with horses for 30+ years and the effort to direct the actions of a large animal with its own thoughts and desires is endlessly fascinating.

    Grasping story architecture is like understanding equine biomechanics. The rider must feel the correct moment to ask the horse for a movement. The horse can’t move a specific leg when it’s planted on the ground; however, if the rider asks the horse to move that leg just before the animal shifts its weight it’s possible to influence the placement of the leg and foot. Additionally, the rider must make sure that his or her position in the saddle is not interfering with the movement requested.

    Trainers and clinicians have a variety of methods to explain and demonstrate how the rider can accomplish the desired movement from the horse. They are all basically teaching the same thing, but expressing it in a different manner by suggesting a variety of mental images for the rider.

    Your explanation of story architecture was the concept that synthesized all the WW conference workshops I’ve attended. It’s the biomechanics of writing a publishable novel. Doing what’s needed at the right point in the story to produce the desired result.

  10. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    Enjoyed the post.
    As far as I’m concerned, you can look “hot” two ways at once!
    Kudos for your enthusiasm; drill instructors have produced some great people over the course of history. Thanks for challenging us as writers. I hear you.
    Cheers, Kelly

  11. @Phyllis — thanks for making my day, and on two levels. 🙂

    @Mary — I love analogies that we can apply to writing, and this one is genius. Thanks for “spurring” us (sorry) on.

    @Dawn, Abby, Phyllis and Sue — loved working with and hanging with you guys, Kaplispell is now officially one of my favorite places on the planet. Hope I can return someday soon. I’m all ears. And Abby… thanks for “the question.” We should all ask ourselves that one. Back atchca.

  12. Kathy Mathews

    I was one of the lucky attendees at the Flathead workshop. I saw your “drill sargeant” presentation and attended your 2 hour session (that had with 16 hours of great information crammed into it!) I was thrilled and relieved to find you, for I am a planner. That’s the good news…and the bad news. I am as diametrically opposed to the “pantser” as you can get. In fact, my dilema is that I am so caught up in planning that I can’t get words on paper. Have you encountered this often? Am I the only one with this disease? Any words of advice for the soul on the opposite end of the pantser spectrum? In any case, loved your presentations and I would consider the source and take the “drill sargeant” comment as a compliment 🙂

  13. @Kathy — I do know the feeling. There comes a point in the planning — both in a macro-sense for the story, and a mirco-sense for the scenes, which you can plan down to the nth degree, too — where the story demands to be written. When every scene is the right exposition, tailored the right way, timed perfectly, with a deep cut into it and a nice thrust to transition forward (sounds kinky, I know, but hang in there with me)… when you can see the story so clearly in your head that the only next step is to write it. To give birth to it. If you are resisting that moment, then perhaps you aren’t done planning after all, there could be something nagging at you that isn’t quite ready. Then, when you do get to the writing, rest assured more new ideas and moments will occur to you that will make your scenes even better than you’d planned. That’s the beauty of story planning — usually the changes that come during the writing phase are value-adds, rather that mistake-recovery or filling in what wasn’t there. It’s always a struggle and a process, both during planning and the writing… find a way to experience bliss as you do both, in the knowledge that you are doing this THE RIGHT WAY. Best of luck, please keep me posted! L.

  14. Curtis

    “You can’t aspire to becoming a professional and then discard or evade the truth of what you must know, how you must execute and the level at which you must perform as a storyteller.”

    Why not throw that paragraph in about every third or fourth post. 🙂 All drill instructers have a mantra. Course the last one I heard, his wasn’t printable.

  15. Gina

    What an absolute pleasure to read your posts.

  16. @Curtis, absolutely agree with your suggestion. May print that bit out and put it above my writing desk.

  17. The old drill sergeant never gets enough credit, after all they are only there to teach us how to keep our bad selves alive, just like you.

    My favorite growl from my drill sergeant: “smoke ’em if you got ’em, the rest of you start doing push-ups.”

    choices, choices,


  18. Megan

    Will you let us know next time you offer your 16-hour workshop? I’d like to attend… and I’m local to you.