The Bottom-line Explanation of the Mass Failure of Authors

… And How to Avoid Being Among Them

 

In the omnipresent kumbayah of the writing community, it is considered impolite, if not impolitic, to utter this truth aloud: most stories fail. Most writers fail.

That has been true since the advent of selling stories for money, and it remains true today, even in a world in which anybody can publish anything simply by pushing a button.

There is a reason—an over-arching, infallible, contextual reason—that tees up a set of powerful, more visible explanations stemming from it.

It is this: more often than not, new writers don’t know what they don’t know.

Some new writers don’t even understand the nuance and depth of what that actually means.

Storytelling, much like walking, seems natural and organic. But while that is perhaps true on the story-consumption side, it doesn’t mean we can all be professional dancers or Olympic runners without learning a thing or two.

They are shocked when told that their novel—usually their first, but unless they figure things out soon, this becomes a foreshadowing of the future—doesn’t conform to the shape and flow and expectations of novels in that genre, followed shortly by outrage that there even are expectations that create a narrative shape and flow that result in dramatic and emotional resonance.

They have misunderstood the axiom that says “there are no rules,” skipping over the part that says, “but there are principles involved.”

That, by the way—the shape and the flow and the expectations—are precisely why newer writers need to hang on to their student card. Because like it or not, like gravity and taxes and the outcome of certain elections, they just are. They’re out there, waiting to make or break your writing dream.

From my perspective as someone who teaches the craft of fiction in addition to plying the trade, the real problem is that this blank page mentality seems to have been legitimized within certain segments of the collective writing conversation. As if there is nothing to know, beyond one’s innate, genetic gift of story sense. As if first drafts will always suck, even if you’ve been writing them for three decades.

As if suffering is not optional.

You may have heard this myth promulgated at a writing conference keynote, for example, by a bestselling author—any number of them, in fact, because this is symptomatic—who, other than the investment of years and gallons of tears and alcohol, cannot come close to explaining how or why their latest book sold four million copies.

New writers in the audience tend to hear that number… four million copies… without hearing the inherent disconnect within the message itself.

Sure enough. Write just like Stephen King. If you can. But it helps to know what Stephen King knows, even if he rarely puts that in a box to share with the rest of us.

This is perhaps the number one, most prevalent explanation behind why writing is hard, why the percentage of wins is low, and why some writers struggle for years without getting it.

Because they don’t know what they don’t know.

Here’s a true story, one that is all-too common.

The story of a writer who didn’t know what he didn’t know. And then, when confronted by the The Truth, he wasn’t sure he wanted to buy into it.

At a writing conference a few years ago I was working the “blue page” desk, where writers dropped in for fifteen-minute consultations, five pages of manuscript in hand. Now, there’s not much that can be learned from five pages, beyond a first-hit assessment of the writing itself, and perhaps, how that one chosen scene plays.

One guy, very serious and confident—a bit of swagger, in fact—brought me his spy story. Before reading his pages I asked him to pitch the dramatic arc, resulting in a curious look. Because dramatic arc, at least as a common term, was one of the things he didn’t know that he didn’t know.

But that he needed to know.

It was an espionage story set in Paris. A retired US spy, formerly stationed there, is called back into service because chatter on the “dark net” has exposed a terror plot involving some bad actors (spy lingo for bad guy) that our hero used to interface with. His assignment would be to infiltrate and expose the terrorists and prevent the bombing.

Which, it occurred to me as I listened, is certainly something a reader would root for, and seems to be the raw grist of significant dramatic tension and a series of surprising twists. So far so good.

I asked him at what point in the story the hero—who had been shown being reactivated, shutting down his real life in the US before leaving, then setting up in Paris as he reintegrated with his former network—actually learn anything that required him to react. To move forward. Discover something. Encounter the unexpected. Or run into something that changed the game and made it all dark and risky and urgent.

He just stared at me, motionless. It was as if Rod Serling had hit the pause button.

“What I’m asking,” I said, “tell me at what point in the story your first plot point comes in?”

His eyes fogged again, so I attempted to clarify: “The key inciting incident. The doorway of no return, the launch of the core dramatic plot after all the setup has been put into play.”

Then his face suddenly lit up like an amnesiac being told he is actually a millionaire.

“Oh, that. It happens on page two-twenty, when someone he thought was an asset tries to kill him.”

“I see. As in, two-hundred-and-twenty?”

“Thereabouts.”

“How long is the manuscript?”

“Four hundred thirty-eight pages,” he said. “Thereabouts.”

We locked eyes. Time froze, the angels wept.

“So you’re saying that you have two hundred nineteen pages of setup in a four hundred thirty-eight page novel… yes?”

A beat. “Setup?” he inquired.

Deep breath. “Tell me what you wrote about for two hundred and twenty pages, prior to actually putting your dramatic arc into play. What happens over that span of pages?”

There was that term again. Dramatic arc. My bad.

Then he smiled. Sort of. Already sure his answer was the prize winner. It was, but not in the way he thought.

“You know,” he said, “the backstory, all about his life as an insurance salesman after his spy career, how he was restless… and there was his marriage breaking up, and his kid flunking out of Stanford…”

I jumped in: “For two hundred and nineteen pages? That’s what the narrative was?”

His smile began to wane.

“Have you ever heard the term, first plot point?”

He hadn’t.

“Key inciting incident?”

Head still shaking.

“Dramatic arc?”

Nothin’.

“Any notion about story structure, the three-act paradigm, the four-part story arc, the contextual flow of the narrative, leading to and then launching the dramatic arc, with at least two primary shifts spaced evenly over the body of the story to escalate tension and create pace?”

Crickets.

I summoned my best smile and delivered my softest introduction to the presence of certain principles that apply to, and are evident within, nearly every modern commercial story, truths that enlightened, trained writers not only know, but understand and practice, including the names you read and admire and wish you could become someday.

Then I recommended a few books, mine included, that might help.

“Sounds like a formula to me,” he said as he got to his feet. Because somebody out there, maybe in a keynote address, had used the word formula in a judgmental, erroneous context.

“That’s just a word. Is gravity a formula? It just is. Same with the principles of solid storytelling.  It’s physics. Literary physics. They just are.”

He shook my hand, almost as if he felt sorry for me.

“I’ll think about it,” he said.

And off he went, about to pitch his novel with the fifty-percent-plus setup act to some agents, who would probably like the pitch, and just possibly, never even ask about how the story is presented.

They’ll ask for the pages, then five months later they’ll send him a rejection slip, without the slightest explanation beyond this being “at the present time, not what we’re looking for.”

And he will have learned nothing.

And thus the writing treadmill goes round and round.

We get to choose. Do we listen to the more informed voices in the writing conversation, or the ones that allow us to hide?

Or do we just run?

*****

Breaking news: Story Engineering (2011, Writers Digest Books), was recently named by Signature-reads.com to the #3 position in their list of “The 27 Best Books On Writing.”

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Case Study: The Untapped Dramatic Potential of Concept…

… When the Premise Doesn’t Pick Up the Ball and Run With It

The traps that would compromise or even sabotage our best story intentions are everywhere.

Even when it all begins with a strong conceptual proposition… which is what’s up with today’s case study.

The author has consented to sharing this story overview here—via answers to the recent (and now shelved, with a replacement version coming soon) Quick Hit Concept/Premise Questionnaire. This is a generous consent, one thattakes great courage. My hope is that you might weigh-in alongside my feedback so that this author might have even more to consider.

Notice how the premise really states a situation, without ever really defining a hero’s challenge and path and goal, which in a good story becomes the core dramatic question explored along a core dramatic arc.

Notice how the weight of the themes tend to overwhelm (this often happens when theme is the initial inspiration), isolating the circumstance (which contributes to the setup) from expository conflict arising from dramatic tension, which in a solid story is what elicits an empathetic response and emotional resonance from the reader.

Rather, in this story the reader ends upobserving, rather than rooting, because there is little to root for.

Notice, in the final answers, how the whole thing changes lanes and becomes about something else entirely (a killer of stories), or at least seems as clear in the setup of a narrative as it is completely void of a third act (parts 3 and 4 of the four-part structure model), thus leaving us without an actionable story plan.

As an organic/pantsing, free-writing exercise… maybe this would work itself out. But as a story plan, it is only half there, and even then, is problematic.

After reading the author’s statement of concept, take a moment and ask yourself what story you might cull from that proposition, and where that inspiration might take you.

This is a study in story sense that is unfocused and unsure, without ever reaching a cohesive destination.

All of it fixable, but only with a clear hero’s quest—one with a more empathetic and rootable vision—in mind

My comments are in red.

*****

What is the CONCEPT of your story?

What if a kid looked white, grew up thinking he was white, and later found out he was black?” What would happen? How would he feel? How would his ideas of identity change? His view of race in general?”

Nice, especially in terms of one of the criteria for a strong concept: the notion that several stories—even many different stories—could be written from this singular conceptual idea or propostion.

There are other criteria that apply as well, and this one works particularly well relative to the potential for dramatic tension, and the creation of an “arena” (racial tensions, in this case).

Of course, we still need a premise that works, but this is a good start.

Restate your concept using a “WHAT IF…?” proposition:

What if a blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy discovers he is black in 1960s Alabama?

Even  stronger, now that you added this placement in time (which is fraught with drama and tension, and – especially – emotional resonance). This thematic arena is what made “The Help” work as well as it did, and is a good example of concept in play. Because time/place/setting/arena can indeed be conceptual.

What is the PREMISE of your story?

Let me share what I’m looking for in this answer.

I mention this, because sometimes a strong thematic and setting-oriented concept (which is what you have) can lead the writer into a trap… they end up writing ABOUT this condition and circumstance and setting, but do so as a “series of things that happen, this is what it was like”… instead of what we need to see, with is a linear dramatic story.  A plot.  A hero with something specific he/she needs to do, or solve, or accomplish, or avoid/survive, driven by stakes, leading to an opportunity to become heroic… and with an opposing force (a villain, an antagonist; racism is NOT sufficient antagonism, it needs to have a face, be a character, be a villain… like Miss Hilly in The Help), all of it driven by emotionally-resonant stakes.

Concept doesn’t do all of that. This becomes the job of premise.

I see this so often, I feel the need to forewarn. Hopefully, I didn’t need to mention it, because you’re already there.  Let’s see.

I started with the premise of a 12-year-old boy (Mark) on a baseball team in Montgomery – a team that was beginning to integrate. Not by choice but by law. He and his teammates are not in favor of this and give the ‘colored’ kids a hard time. One colored kid (Bo) is a great pitcher and Mark tries to befriend him in secret. They get to know each other and then Mark gets a letter from school telling him he is expelled due to the discovery that he is colored (Mark’s dead father was mulatto).

Already an emotional-button pusher.

By the way, this could be (probably is) your First Plot Point moment (occurring from 20 to 25 percent into the narrative).

Mark refuses to believe he is colored and immediately assumes its payback for befriending Bo (at this point, he does not listen to anything his mother tries to explain). She kept the secret, hoping he could ‘pass’. Now Mark wants nothing to do with Bo. Why? Because Mark’s goal is to get an afterschool job to help his single mother pay the bills, and most of the errand boy type jobs are with businesses owned by the Justice family, who are racists (in the book, I show that not all whites in AL were racist at that time, based on info from my husband who was raised there during the 60s).

So Mark has a problem, and a choice: “un-friend” Bo so he can help his mother… or, not bow to social pressure, even when there are consequences.

Good… and so far, a continuing setup. Now, you need to give Mark SOMETHING TO DO, rather than a situation to exist with in, however emotionally resonant. It’s a good/strong setup, too… but until you put Mark in motion (because is NOT a documentary about “what it was like to be him,” but rather, a DRAMA about him setting out to accomplish something specific, with stakes and opposition), it is not a strong novel. Add that hero’s quest for Mark, and it will be.

Mark has been trying to get in good with his teammate Billy Justice in order to get the job (not really an admirable thing, to “use” the guise of friendship to advance one’s self). So the story follows Mark as he tries to overcome the obstacle of prejudice in order to reach his goal.  (That’s a bit of a rationalizing over-generalization which really doesn’t describe Mark’s problem, however. He’s facing some tough choices, created in the context of racism, but he still must be called to do the “right thing.”)

This is a yellow flag. What does this mean – “follows Mark?”  Can you see how this promises a bunch of stuff, an episodic series of moments and circumstances that show Mark in this frustrating, angry, unfair place?  But it isn’t moving forward toward something… until you state what he does about it.

The story doesn’t work as a documentary, simply allowing us to observe a hero in a situation.  Rather, as readers we need to root for him to take action that leads to a satisfying outcome. Which is a different thing than simply observing.

The novel, as described here, is about showing us this circumstance.  But it should be more about showing us what he DOES about it… how those efforts are opposed (antagonism from an external source; i.e., a villain), creating tension and conflict… how he ups his game to get to the goal (which must be much more succinct that “get the job” – because simply getting the job is NOT particularly heroic, even with these motives.

It’s not heroic because of the moral cost of his choices. Our stories need heroes, not people who buckle to weakness. At first… sure. But ultimately, Mark needs to triumph over this situation and do the right thing.

What are you asking your reader to root for? It can’t be to just “get the job.” Rather, we need to root for Mark to CHANGE things, to create fairness and opportunity, not just for himself, but for Bo, as well. To step into the risk of doing the right thing. To show these people what is right, to show them how things must change.

That, the reader will root for. Because it is so much more emotionally-resonant that him just “getting the job.”

In the interim, he rejects the colored school he must attend, tries to get back in Billy’s good graces, and refuses to fix his friendship with Bo.  (This is him buckling to social and peer pressure, without realizing or having the courage to do the right thing by Bo.  But the reader will root for NONE of this. These can’t be his goals – at least past the story’s mid-point – because this isn’t the story arc… the arc needs to be the exact opposite of this.)

(Reader note: this is example of the author’s story sense not serving the opportunity here. A good idea, rendered impotent because of the stated direction of the context of the hero’s arc, as described. It won’t work like this, unless there is some contrary resolution at the end, which hasn’t been hinted at yet.)

A better story requires rethinking:

The story should ultimately show Mark embracing his true race, fitting in at the new “colored” school (because that’s one inequity he can’t fix realistically), while STILL winning over Billy, and becoming friends with Bo because it’s WRONG and weak if he doesn’t.

As told, Mark becomes part of the problem. A better story would show us Mark becoming part of the solution, a beacon of hope and courage. In other words, a hero.

If you head in that direction (perhaps in the next paragraph), then you’ll have a nice story arc. But if you don’t… you’ve sabotaged your own story. More clearly put, it’s not good enough yet, it’s off the mark (no pun), and needs further thought and development, toward what I’ve described here.

The ‘ah ha’ moment for him is when he is betrayed after trusting, and finds that his friendships were based on color and not on who he is as a person.  (Sounds like the midpoint context shift turn, to me; it also sounds like you might turn this around…)

In the end, he embraces both worlds in order to survive and make peace with himself.

That’s it? It’s a good statement of intention, but without any “plan” or description on what or how, specifically, he does to embrace both worlds.

And “making peace with himself” is an outcome, not the plot or the story goal.  

You’ve SKIPPED the entire meat of the novel: what Mark DOES about this situation, to fix it.

You’re not done. You have a strong concept, but an incomplete premise.

You describe a story about a boy who is on the wrong path, who rejects and fears doing the right thing, who gives into fear and peer pressure. All of this is bad… all of this is what he must OVERCOME, not embrace.

Then you very briefly – too briefly – mention an “ah-ha” moment without coming anywhere near telling what it is, how it changes him, and what he does about it…

… which IS (or should be) the entire second half of the story. And it’s not here.

What are you asking the reader to root for and care about in this story?

Mark’s struggle both internal and external.

This is incomplete. We don’t root for the internal struggle; rather, we recognize it as a factor—an obstacle—conflicting the external struggle that we do root for.

As we watch the hero move through the arc of the story, we root for him/her in the moment… and we also root for an OUTCOME to it.  In this case, for Mark to get it, to do the right thing, to step into risk with new courage… to do the right thing for the right reasons (not self-serving reasons).

It seems you want to write about the struggle as a primary focus. But is he really struggle, or just choosing?   Ultimately, the story should be about his victory within that inner struggle, manifesting as choices and actions in confronting his exterior antagonist. Which in this case is vague. There is virtually nothing at all hindering him along the path, he simply gets to choose. And when the consequence of his choice move him toward morally ambiguous and self-serving outcomes, that’s not heroic, nor is it something we are rewarded for watching.

The story you are describing reads as perhaps too episodic.

You have some work to do on that front… because none of that “take the high road” context is described here, and for the most part, not even alluded to.

What do you believe will distinguish your story in a crowded marketplace, setting it apart from and above the competition to attract the attention of agents, editors and readers?

I put this concept out last year in a pitch party where six agents and four editors requested to see the manuscript.

They asked to see it because the concept, at a glance, is compelling. They assumed the story would turn the corner and become about Mark’s fight to do the right thing, as an empathetic hero’s quest. That is what they were hoping for, because that’s where the emotional resonance and payoff come from.

So the concept attracted attention, yet the premise (maybe even the writing) was off. A few agents asked that I re-engineer the book and re-submit.

Precisely what I’m recommending, as well, per these notes.

You don’t have the best story yet, or even the right story. Or at least, the more complete and compelling story. Because ultimately you don’t have a story that brings us a hero to root for. You have the setup for one, but you imply this is the whole narrative… and it doesn’t work because it’s incomplete. If this is all it is, then it isn’t working that way.

And to the extent you don’t imply it, you don’t actually describe a story path in the second half of the novel that brings out his heroism through courage and empathy.

Second, this is not a book about racism in the normal sense. This is more a story about how one wraps their head around a life-altering situation at a time when being ‘the wrong color’ in the wrong state, at the wrong time, had enormous consequences.

Which isn’t enough. You are saying here—this is a story about a situation. Which works only for the setup portion of a story.

What you’ve given us is a story about Mark’s attempt to avoid doing the right thing, to get what he wants by doing a work-around of some kind that serves him.

In its current state (as an MG in first person) I do not feel I can do it justice, mainly because I came to the realization that I cannot write the MG voice; it’s just not in me.

Voice isn’t the problem here. The context of the story has a hero’s journey and quest is the problem.

In the new version I am writing the boy as 14, he is off to baseball camp in Alabama where he was born but has not been since he was four. His mother has relocated him to Bridgeport, Illinois and has remarried. It is 1970. (Montgomery did not integrate schools until that year so prejudice was still very much alive in the attitudes of residents). His mother has not told Mark or his stepfather that he is black. She does not want him to go to Alabama and checks out the camp instructors thoroughly but never says why. So, the first line of chapter one is: When Mark told his mother that this year’s baseball camp was in Alabama, her rosy cheeks went pale.

Nice line. But… where is it taking the narrative from there?

At the camp, one of the white instructors gets hurt and is replaced with a very fair-skinned black man who is an ex minor leaguer. This is significant to Mark’s goal because he has spent most of his young life trying to please the man he thought was his father – who does not like sports and gives his attention/affection to the younger brother who is his real son.

I already don’t recognize this from the previous answers.

Therefore, the book unravels the reason for his mother’s deception/secret, the real father’s reaction/rejection to learning he has a son, the treatment by the kids on the team, and Mark’s discovery that his real father is dying of prostate cancer.

But the book isn’t about THAT. That’s an issue, yes, but as context for the story you promise in these answers. You seem less than clear what the dramatic spine of this story is, and needs to be.

Is it a story about a boy and his father? Or his mother? Or his friend, Bo, and the racial issues that separate them? Can it be all of these? Perhaps, but only in context to a core dramatic thread that is clearly dominating the forward motion of the narrative… which isn’t established here.

You need to rethink and expand on the concept as it informs a revised premise, to bring it around to the solutions-orientation I explain here.

Hope this helps you rethink this, beginning with a clearer understanding of why it isn’t working.

 

******

As part of what’s next, I recommended that this author study my new video, “The Beautiful Collision Between Concept and Premise” (91 minutes), which you are download HERE and HERE, as part of my new Storyfix Virtual Classroom series of hardcore craft training modules.

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