Stay tuned for a couple of Storyfix announcements, presented following today’s content.
Most of the time, who makes it and who doesn’t is no accident.
We’re all looking for an edge. Sometimes that search confines itself to the realm of story as a definable essence… a better concept, a stronger premise, a firmer command of craft.
And sometimes we get that definition wrong.
All of that knowledge is out there. But the fine print of this proposition is that we are alone to interpret and apply it to the page. Which in truth means that ten writers might encounter the same conventional wisdom and, when it comes time to actually write the story, execute with ten different forms and levels of craft.
That truth should point us inward, in addition to our efforts to come up with the very best possible story we have in us. Inward, as in… consider doing some work on you, as an author, as a student of craft and an interpreter of information.
Just maybe you’re getting that wrong, as well.
Anyone can take singing lessons, but not everyone can walk away and hit the stage sounding like Celine Dion. Craft favors no one, but performance is a fickle lover, depending on so much more than the notes themselves.
Some call this talent.
I beg to differ. With storytelling, talent can be a learned quality. It is the expression of craft, and when done in a stellar manner, it is perceived as art.
Getting there is a different focus than pounding on a story without a grounding in craft, hoping to find it within your process. Rather your process should leverage craft, not search for it. It is a proactive campaign to make ourselves better writers in a more general sense, writers able to perform instead of simply painting by numbers… even though the numbers are there for a reason.
“Just write” is, in my opinion, one of the most misguided, even toxic pieces of writing advice ever given air time. It’s like telling a surgeon to “just cut.” Just keep digging around in there until you find something you think might be malignant.
Nobody wants that doctor.
Craft is nothing if not a big ol’ pile of tools and principles. And like any tool, you can hit yourself on the thumb as easily as you can drive a nail home with one informed stroke, even after reading the same how-to manual. Craft doesn’t really shine a light on touch and sensibility… which is the golden ring of writing spectacularly.
Here are seven strategies that will, if you really dive in and internalize these nuances over time, serve to make you a better wielder of the writing craft.
1. Learn to write better novels by emulating screenwriters.
In other words, immerse yourself in the pursuit of craft – the good stuff, not the “writing is art, do this any damn way you please” version, which is also out there. Do this earlier rather than after you’ve figured out that the seat of your pants isn’t working all that well.
That’s what screenwriters do. They learn the fundamentals before they write, which is the exact opposite of so many novelists at the beginning of their journey.
If you go on volume alone, there are over 132 novel writing books (this according to Google) for every single screenwriting book on the market (132,000,000 to 735,000). It would seem, by that landslide, that novelists are sucking up this information like oxygen.
But don’t be fooled… screenwriters have it over novelists in terms of actually using the available 101-level learning (books and workshops in particular) by a wide and consistent margin.
Why? Because of when they access that knowledge.
If you could test the level of basic knowledge of craft among writers who have been studying for the first six months of their intention, new screenwriters would blow new novelists off the map, and by a massive margin.
Not because they are smarter. But because they value and seek learning sooner than do novelists. Novelists seem to enjoy the pain of rejection and frustration (which is a polite way to say that they believe they can do it without having a professional show them how), wearing it as a badge of initiation — as if suffering for their art is somehow noble, when in fact it is optional — and too often that’s precisely what finally brings them to the learning of craft. Too often that happens only after they realize they can’t simply make up stories as they please… something a screenwriter would never consider.
Maybe they are smarter after all, at least on that particular count.
Take it from me, I wrote six novels before I cracked open a “how-to” book or attended a workshop of any kind. When I did – it was a screenwriting book, by the way – I finally saw how storytelling was done. Only then did I realize the sheer volume of what I didn’t know.
That’s not remotely an uncommon tale, by the way.
Since then I’ve immersed myself in both worlds (novels and screenplays), and today I find myself writing novels and teaching the writing of both forms (six of those 132,000,000 novel writing books have my name on them). I got into this work precisely for that reason… novelists need to hear and learn – as soon as possible – what screenwriters are exposed to from the very first day of their journey.
In my experience as a one-on-one story coach, I run into novelists all the time who actually, a) can’t accurately and fully define what a story even is, and b) have spent decades, literally, seeking out the basic and fundamental craft necessary to make a story work, but doing it by trial and error instead.
Sometimes this is true after they’ve read some of the books and attended some of the classes. That initial hubris – that they can feel their way through it – is a deeply held limiting belief that can take years, and a locker full of rejection slips, to let go of.
In the screenwriting world, writers are immersed from Day 1 in learning that really makes a difference: the form and function of story, driven from a context of character-driven structure that creates a linear paradigm for a story – any story – that works.
One of the things I learned early on – and had been told wasn’t true, but it certainly was true, and still is – is that story in film and story in novels are not all that different. In terms of the basic essences and structures, they are almost identical.
Read Screenplay, by Syd Field, and Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, among other screenwriting classics, and see for yourself. Then read some novels and see – marvel – at how they line up. I learned everything I know about the basics of storytelling beginning with the former, and everything I’ve learned about novel writing since (and believe me, that is a huge truckload of assimilation) aligns with the core principles that screenwriters learn in the first term of a college screenwriting class.
Or you can wait a few years, keep collecting rejection slips or those $22 royalty checks from Amazon, until you finally realize the steps you may have skipped.
There are exceptions, of course. You are reading this, so perhaps you are one of them. Then again, you might have many years under your belt and are only now recognizing the power of the principles that have been at your behest all along.
You certainly can learn the basics of novel writing – beginning now – from people like James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, K.M. Weiland, C.S. Lakin, Jennifer Blanchard, Donald Maass and, yes, moi… and hundreds of others who may not yet have a book out on the subject. Websites by real pros, like Art Holcomb (whose teachings cross over from film to novels), abound.
Wherever you find it, the earlier you dive in, the sooner you’ll have your head wrapped around what you need to know.
Just like the A-list, bestselling pros do.
2. Internalize a deeper understanding of the word “story.”
Allow me to use my own experience, and the resulting data, to make this particular point.
I’ve evaluated nearly 700 stories, in various forms, over the last three years, by writers of all levels of skill and experience, each with the intention of seeing their story published. In retrospect, I’d say that one-third to one-half of them had serious issues stemming from the fact that their authors, demonstrated by what they put forth as a story, had real issues. Their “stories” weren’t actually stories, at least in full, after all.
Consider that for a moment. As many as one-half of these aspiring professionals couldn’t define story properly, based on their work. Their sentences were, for the most part, just fine. But the “story” they were telling was… woefully lacking.
Imagine writing a story, believing you know what a story is… and when the ink dries someone like me tells you there isn’t a story on the page after all. Not, at least, according to the criteria I apply, which is the fundamental basis of story in general.
If that data holds true, then one-third to one half of you reading this will be in a similar sinking boat. Some of you after years of pulling an oar and raising a sail.
So what were they, if not a story?
Episodic, memoir-like journeys of a character (I’d call them heroes, but in these wannabe-stories there was nothing heroic going on, because basically there was nothing going on at all, period), without a conflict-seeded “plot” of any kind.
Biographies of fictional characters, peppered with (again) episodic “stuff that happens,” without that stuff connecting to a quest or need of any kind.
Stories that dove deep into important issues, and some not so important, in a way more apropos to a feature article or a white paper at a junior college, maybe a Sunday morning sermon. If you consider the last time you heard a plot within a sermon, you get the idea.
Stories with nobody to root for, because the hero wasn’t asked to do anything. The reader was, by default, being asked to observe the hero, rather than engage with the hero, to root for them, or share empathy relative to a quest or a need of some kind.
Stories that were a microcosm of a protagonist’s life riddled with backstory and inner landscape, with absolutely no exterior, forward-moving foreground dramatic story in evidence.
No drama, no story.
Love stories that were chronicles and documentaries, this-happens-then-that-happens-then-something-else-happens… without the slightest hint of conflict on the page. A diary of a relationship, nothing more. The end.
Upon receiving word that their work really wasn’t a “story” at all, nearly every single one of these writers were, a) shocked, b) momentarily in disbelief, c),apoplectic, d) humbled, and finally, e) very soon a newly converted voracious seeker of craft, as if hoping to make up the time lost – decades in some cases – to the illusion that they could write absolutely anything they want, and if it has a character in it, then you can call it a novel.
Because nobody, sometimes over years of moving within the writing community, had told them differently. And yet, because they’re smart and hungry, they recognize it, they sense it, the moment it is spoken aloud.
When was the last time someone at a writing workshop or conference, an instructor or otherwise, told you that your story idea wasn’t strong enough, or that your execution wasn’t really a story after all? Doesn’t happen. Instead you get the pabulum of complacency, urgings to make your hero more relatable or to do this or that, the rhetoric of cluelessness.
Skip the 101 of truly understanding “story” at your own peril. The pros you read certainly didn’t.
3. Understand the nuances of the relationship between character and plot.
I wouldn’t go so far as to state that character in commercial fiction is over-rated. It is, perhaps, overly focused-upon.
In my workshops I often take a poll in the first several minutes, asking everyone to state the most important and necessary word in fiction.
Many get it right, sometimes with a synonym of the right answer… which is “conflict.” No conflict, no story.
But some, an alarming percentage, answer with the word “character.”
That’s not a bad answer, because character is certainly an element a story cannot do without. But it is not the most critical essence of a story, the thing that makes it work.
Character is important. Critical, in fact. But not the most important word in fiction. Because, like a car with a beautiful and comfortable interior and smooth ride, it isn’t a car until an engine is put in… and in fiction, the engine that drives everything is conflict.
The ensuing discussion is often fascinating.
Those who answered with conflict quickly concede that, duh, character is essential. But it isn’t a story, not really – certainly not a publishable story – until conflict is put into play.
This, by the way, is spot-on accurate.
Conflict is what gives character something to do.
Those who answered with character contend, sometimes, that conflict is assumed, of course, because after all… no conflict, no story. So we are on the same page after all, though possibly writing in different genres.
But there are some – often a graduate of an M.F.A. program; these folks can become the most avid conflict-advocates of all, because what they were taught has not gotten them published, or even close – who insist that conflict (plot) is optional, or even that it is a lower breed of fiction that isn’t “literature” after all.
And they may be half right about that. In commercial “literary fiction,” the most important word is character. And yet, conflict is indeed there, subtly moving characters from action to action for reasons that make sense.
The point being, if you’re writing in any other genre – including adult contemporary, that doesn’t neatly fit into a genre niche – conflict (in the form of plot) is the central heartbeat – the engine – of your story. Even if your story is “character-driven.”
Conflict is the opportunity to strut the stuff of your wonderful characters, and thus, is your friend and greatest asset in your desire to write character-driven commercial fiction, regardless of genre.
Proven pros know this. And so, they value the nature, depth, nuance and meaning of the source of conflict in their stories – again, the plot – every bit as much as they do the facets and backstories and potential of their cast of characters.
4. Recognize how your writing process serves you… or not.
If you want to see a Hatfield vs. McCoy’s throw down at a writing workshop or via the comment thread in a blog post, suggest that story planning is a superior writing process as compared to pantsing (organic seat-of-the-pants story development using drafts rather than notes and outlines)… or — and this is important to note — vice versa.
That debate is quickly rendered moot with the understanding that, when all is said and done and the manuscript is ready to submit, the criteria and benchmarks of an effective story are exactly same, regardless of the process applied.
You can argue issues of efficiency, or the bliss of the journey, or the pitfalls of either process… without ever winning. Because there will always be a divided room – frankly, the largest percentage of writers do some of both at some point in the process – driven by what works for them, or not.
It is the “or not” of that statement that is problematic.
Some writers are deeply rooted in a process that isn’t serving them. Turning in pantsed drafts that aren’t ready, they haven’t landed on the best available core story, or drafts that lack the fresh impromptu energy of a draft that has had the life outlined out of it before a single page had been written.
The irony is, both of those worst-case outcomes suffer from the same diagnosis: the writer never landed on the optimal story emerging from its stated premise… or… that premise was never fully functional or compelling in the first place.
Which, again, is something no one will every tell you, other than a paid story coach. Leaving us to make that critical call, even though we may not be fully or best prepared to do so.
At some point in your journey your process will become refined. You will have heard both sides, tried both methods, and will recognize where your strengths reside relative to the pure kick of either pantsing a draft or planning one to the n-th degree.
Pros have found their process. One serves them, rather than sabotages them. If your track record keeps yielding results that are less than hoped for, take a look at the process you apply to the generation of those drafts, and consider trying something new.
Who knows, you might change uniforms after all, and your work may finally get the attention it deserves because of doing so.
5. When an idea for a new story hits you… run from it.
In fact… run like hell.
Most writers – newer ones in particular – are hungry to land on their next story. So anxious, in fact, that they end up investing time in a story that really was never there in the first place, responding to an initial jolt of hope and energy, without looking deeper to see if there is truly 400 pages of conflict-driven, character-steered narrative there at all.
Mediocrity is everywhere you look. What you might think is your next silk purse of a story idea may actually end up, after hundreds of pages of giving it a shot, a cow’s ear all dressed up for a night on the town.
It’s like dating in this regard. Hopefully, when we do it right, we don’t marry a blind date on that blind date,or a more traditional first date, or even all that quickly after the initial blush of chemistry and attraction and even lust have blurred our vision. That particular mistake plays a role in the majority of young marriages that end badly, and soon.
And, sadly, in the preponderance of rejected stories out there. Too many never stood a chance, they were dripping with vanilla and a too-familiar sense of flatness from square one, even though the writer – who may love vanilla in their own kitchen – couldn’t sense it in time.
But remember, you are cooking for others now. What you think is a great story may or may not play to the crowd on Broadway.
I heard this recently at a writing conference, in a keynote given by a famous New York agent who claims it is the best writing advice he’s ever heard: when you get a new story idea, turn away. Run away from it. Don’t be tempted to anoint it your next story right away… or ever.
Then see what happens. Does the idea haunt you? Does it return and demand some mindshare, inviting you to look closer?
If it does… run away faster. First impressions are strong medicine, and great stories need depth beneath that surface. Set a higher bar for your stories, and assume that any new story suitor isn’t up to your high standards.
Become a raging snob about the stories you will put your name on.
And then, if it refuses to fade away, allow yourself to court the idea for a while. Get to know it, explore it, expand it, see how it bends, see where it breaks. Do this in context to a fully-informed filter that understands what a great story is, and what the criteria for that crown consists of.
Don’t settle. Don’t rush. When the story is right, it will anoint you before you anoint it. Let it come to you, make it chase you down, and play hard to get when it does.
The result might just be the best story you’ve ever written.
6. Strive to be the same… but different.
The vast majority of fiction sold today resides in a specific genre. A categorical niche where readers expect and find certain in-common topics and essences – these are called tropes – and writers feed them to readers like candy with the assurance that they know precisely why they’ve come, and they won’t be happy campers until you’ve given them precisely that.
There is also nothing wrong – in fact, it can be strategically brilliant – to offer a mash-up of genres, which is referred to as “cross-genre” storytelling in the publishing business, which has seen many smash bestsellers emerge with that tag.
What was the Twilight series if not a mash-up between the romance genre and the paranormal vampire genre?
Mistakes happen, however, when writers declare a story to be within the tropes and expectations of a given genre, and then change lanes with a focus elsewhere. If you try to write a “character-driven” serial killer novel (that, too, is a genre, because the major genres – thriller, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, have all sub-divided with the specificity of a given focus within that genre; romance, for example, has a long list of sub-genres that basically embrace all other available genres, as well as inventing some of their own, like “time travel romance,” for example) that doesn’t deliver on the expected tropes, then readers will stay away in droves.
Notice that McDonalds hasn’t tried to sell us veggie burgers yet. We drive to the golden arches for a reason, and that reason drives everything we find on the menu.
And yet, how do you distinguish story within a genre in which the tropes and expectations have been defined for you?
The answer is to accept that genres are, by and large, formulaic. The tropes and expectations unfold within the same basic structure that drives any and all genres (structure is universal, it is not genre-dependent, while content-focus with a genre differs from other genres, and is pre-ordained). Your first order of business is to give readers what they expect, what they come for.
If you’re writing a slasher novel, let there be blood.
If you’re writing a hot sexy thriller, let there be femme fatales and sexy spies and murderous hunks.
If you’re writing a mystery, let there be a puzzle to solve.
And yet, the trick is to dress up the expected tropes with something fresh, a new twist on the familiar, an exotic locale, a thematic arena that pushes buttons (like a love story among nuns, for example), or the source of unexpected genius colliding with an unlikely source of darkness.
Be the same, genre-wise… but be different, style and set-dressing-wise and exposition-wise, with powerful themes and a narrative full of shock, awe, surprise and warm hugs in the right places.
Successful genre stories break out for two reasons: they deliver the expected with stellar vividness and sensual resonance, and they change things up with the delivery with fresh ideas that plow new ground… all within the tropes of the genre itself.
The world doesn’t need another vampire story. But it does need a new vampire story that gives us something we haven’ seen before, complete with the fangs and blood and sexuality we signed up for.
7. Acknowledge the End-Game of who you are really writing for.
This last one really separates the published from the frustrated, careers from one-hit-wonders.
As writers, we are constantly advised to “write what we know,” and just as much, “to write what we want to write.”
Be careful with that last one. Because it just might bite you back.
Writing what you know and what you want is not a problem if those things align with what readers want. That’s the goal… to sense what will play in the marketplace, and deliver a story you would want to read, provided it aligns with it. When you and the reader are in the same place, good things happen.
Notice that lawyers writing legal thrillers is always a viable pitch. But grocery checkers writing grocery checking thrillers… not so much.
If you don’t give a crap about your readers, if you proudly proclaim that you are writing this for yourself, and only yourself… then you take your chances with others agreeing.
But the real pitfall, the deepest one with the poisoned spikes pointing upward from its floor, is when “writing for yourself” embraces an ambivalence, even a disdain, for the conventions of commercial fiction itself. You may have gotten into the business for yourself, for the love of writing and the love of stories you want to experience, but the moment you declare your professional intentions the dime flips and you have more than yourself to consider.
If it pleases yourself to write a story with no inherent conflict in play, then you are shooting yourself in the foot, and you will be left alone with your defiance. We hope you like your story, because nobody else may read it.
If it pleases you to write a story that violates every convention of story structure and dramatic theory, knock yourself out. Just know that you have, in essence, written your own rejection slip, as well.
Writing for yourself, when you are a professional, by definition implies that you want what your readers want, and you want to give it to them in a format and within the parameters of execution that align with the tropes of your genre and the fundamental tenets of how modern commercial fiction is built.
If you’re a professional, or you want to be, then you won’t want to try to reinvent those wheels, because you know they defy reinvention. Rather, you embrace the conventions of today’s fiction within its genres, because you know they work for you instead of forcing you into a corner of your own preference.
Which means you have to discover them, learn them, and master them. Whether you’ve been at this for a month or for two decades, that much is true and non-negotiable.
Making things up, outside of or in rejection of today’s principles, in either defiance or ignorance, will get you exactly nowhere.
You’ll be alone in that corner if you don’t open your heart and mind and eyes to what works, and why. The true art of fiction writing at its best, regardless of genre, is to give the expected a kick in the pants without knocking it down, to infuse it with your own voice and your own take on the world, and in a way that will reach out to touch others and open their eyes through your story, to embrace them and gift them with a reading experience they won’t soon forget, because it moved them, perhaps in ways you could not have foreseen.
That’s the magic of it, really. Readers are as discerning and individual in their desires and tastes as we writers are. And so the best we can do it reach out to them, extending a virtual hand or embrace, in the hope that they will respond.
Readers owe us nothing. And if you’re doing this right, you owe them everything you have in you to deliver that stellar level of experience.
With these seven principles embedded in your vision and your process, your chances of doing so are infinitely greater than otherwise.
If you’d like a peek at the cover of my new writing book, available from Writers Digest books in October 2015, entitled:
… click on the title to go to Amazon.com, where it is available for pre-order.
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… and a few longer ebooks for $2.99, including a conversational forum with James Scott Bell and Randy Ingermanson and me…
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