Ours is an opinion-driven avocation. From stellar manuscripts that are regularly tossed under the bus to the same old worn out A-list mediocrity, it’s all a bit of a paradoxical crap shoot.
We writers have opinions about more than the end product of our efforts. We have opinions about what a story should be. And, more germane to this site and this post, how to write one.
Well duh… especially me. I just wrote a book about it. Doesn’t make my opinion perfect or better than yours, it just makes it, well, a target. One that, according to feedback, is smack on the mark for many. Not all of whom are new at this.
Not that I’m uncovering anything new here.
Just rearranging, clarifying and separating the myriad facets of storytelling into some newly cast buckets.
As I consider this post, I’m sitting in a Sheraton in Salt Lake preparing to give a keynote address tomorrow at a large writing conference. And then a workshop on Saturday. Am I nervous? Always.
About the content? No. About a room full of opinions which at this point are up for grabs… absolutely.
You see, I want them to get it. To understand that I’m not challenging their status quo, I’m expanding and empowering it.
The nice fellow who picked me up at the airport today informed me that half the room (my perception, not his precise words) tomorrow will have been published. In fact, he’s been published. The woman who was in the car with us has her first book coming out in a few months. With the explosion of digital self-publishing, everybody who wants to lay claim to being published can do so.
That, however, is no longer the point. Storytelling is the point.
The conversation reminded me how humbling this writing guru thing can be. I’m certain that the room will be well stocked with writers who are more talanted than me, more successful than me and, for better or worse, have opinions about writing that are different and more evolved than mine.
And that’s cool. I’m here to learn, too.
In fact, my new friend told me about one published novelist who will be in the room (gotta admit, hadn’t heard of him, just as I’m sure he’s never heard of me) who said that we should forget all this structure nonsense, that a novel only needs three things to work.
Those three things weren’t specified.
Another opinion joining the chorus. Can’t wait to meet that guy in the foyer after my speech.
I’m not threatened by better and more successful authors than myself — happens everywhere I go — in fact, it’s fun to swap stories and bat ideas around. Truth be told, the more successful the author, the more likely they are to buy into my Six Core Competencies approach, for the most part (two words: Terry Brooks). Because when you boil it all down — the different ways to describe how this should be done — most informed views are basically recasting the same set of fundamentals within different paradigms cloaked in different words.
You say potato, I’ll say patatto, and we’ll both put the same gravy on the outcome.
And it’s all good. The more we hear it, explore it, debate it and rip into it, the more we’ll understand about the art and craft of storytelling.
As long as you don’t believe the earth is flat, the moon is made of cheese and stories don’t hinge on certain physics and principles. Those aren’t opinions as much as they are some combination of denial and naivete.
And they’re out there.
You see, they wanted this writing thing to be fun. To be spiritual. To be something they could invent for themselves. They don’t want some guy — any guy — telling them that they should do this or that with their story, they want to just make it all up for themselves as they go.
Imagine if your surgeon or your airline captain or your lawyer believed that about their craft.
A shame, that. Because the truth about the fundamentals of successful storytelling is available to everyone, and the means and timeline of discovery are completely within our control.
All this brings me back to a life principle that is wildly, ragingly, in play in the writing world:
We are what we think. And we bear the consequences of who we are.
If we reject structure, then we are unstructured. If we reject principles, we are unprincipled. If we reject teaching, then we reject learning. And in doing so, we limit ourselves.
So here’s the question for today: is your opinion about the writing process and the underlying physics and principles of effective storytelling empowering you, or limiting you?
Simple question. With unfathomable consequences for writers with serious intentions.
In my humble opinion, the art of writing resides in the way principles of dramatic fiction are grasped, rendered, stretched and made profound — through craft — rather than the way they can be circumvented or ignored.
That’s not art, that’s narcissism wearing the face of naivete.
As T.S. Elliot said:
When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost… and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.
And so tomorrow, I will chip my opinions about storytelling into the crowd in the hope that someone out there finds clarity that has eluded them. And that the guy who thinks a novel needs only three things realizes we’re already on the same page… only mine has more lines.
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