The Six Pillars of Your Writing Education

November 28, 2017

By Art Holcomb

I’ve been a writing teacher for a very long time.

I started in the 1990’s with a small group of students and, today, I teach classes and seminars in-person and through the internet to people throughout the U.S., in eleven different countries in four different languages.

And, unfortunately, I see the same problems everywhere I go.

What we do, as writers, is separate and lonely.  We write and dream and hunger for the kind of information and guidance that we need to move forward – to level up, as we talked about last time.

I think you are some of the lucky ones – because you’re here . . .

You found Larry and StoryFix and you’re beginning to see that not all craft information is the same.

There are some sources, like StoryFix, which are dedicated to getting you what you absolutely need to learn your craft and thrive.

It would be fantastic if every site could be like this one.

But the internet can be an unending stream of junk information which, at best, is weak regurgitations of classic insights and, at worst, is misleading and harmful.

But that’s even not the biggest problem.

The absolute worst thing I’ve found is that many writers are led to believe that this never- ending diet of craft McNuggets is all they need for success.  That this diet of informational fast food is enough to move them to the next level and show them the path to achievement in writing.

This is simply not true.

This is misleading.

And you deserve much more.

How I began here.

I came to Larry and StoryFix in 2011.  I was already a successful working writer. But I was so moved by what Larry had to say that I sent him a note, telling him that I thought he was on to something very special with this site and his books.

He was kind enough to invite me to guest post and I have need here off and on ever since.

What made this possible is that we were of a very similar mindset.

What drives us both are these two separate concepts:

  • The need to get real craft information into the hands of writers ready to hear it – and actually use it – and…
  • The need to fight back against the well-meaning but damaging information that fills the internet.

So – here it is.

So that there is no misunderstanding about where I‘m coming from, here is a list of what I believe you REALLY need for success as a writer – what I call the Six Pillars of Success:

  • High Quality Craft Information
  • A constantly available Mentoring Relationship
  • A short Feedback Loop
  • Real, Effective Accountability
  • An ever-improving Process
  • Access to Deep Writing

Pillar #1 – High Quality Craft Information

There is a reason why Aristotle is revered amongst writers.

Why Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee are honored names.

And why you come back to StoryFix – and Larry Brooks – time and time again . . .

Because we all are thirsty travelers crossing an unending desert.

From an informational and craft standpoint, the internet – your main source of information about writing – is filled with hacks, tips, secrets, and top-ten lists, all from well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) writers wanting to share their knowledge with you.

Here are some standards by which you could judge any piece of information you’re considering.

  • Is it MEANINGFUL? Does it make sense to you on a craft level? Is it there to make you writing better or is it touted to make your writing easier? Is it appropriate for your level right now? Does it sound like the writer is trying to impress you, rather than seriously help you?

I’ve been writing all my life and one thing has been as true today as it have seen for the last 40 years . . .

Good writing is not easy. It is troubling and difficult.

Why? Because it is meant to be.

And anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

All art must come from some deeper place, and the talent that you seek does not lie on the surface.  Like gold in the ground, it requires hard work and digging to access.  This frankly is because all good things are hard to achieve.

If you find writing to be easy, simple, breezy and completely enjoyable, it’s very possible that you’re not even scratching the surface of what you can accomplish.

  • Is it VALUABLE? Will this information lead you to write something that is unlike anything you’ve ever written before? Can it help you to get published and build an audience? Can you instantly see that what you are able to do with this information is as good as what you see in books, movies, short stories and stage plays? When you share your work with others, are they clearly moved by your words?

Whether it’s for publication or merely for exercise, will this information help you to become a better writer?

  • Is it RARE? Quite simply, will it help make your most recent piece of work the best thing you have done to date? Is it clearly, and instantly better?

That, in a nutshell, is what you want in all the craft information you are considering.

Whether you’re getting the information from a post, a book, or a seminar like one of mine, you want to be ever moving forward. And, if you’re honest with yourself, you can already recognize the difference between information that tells you something that you can really use, and something that simply tells you something you’ve heard many times before.

So, you need to develop some real radar about what is useful and what is not.  In the weeks ahead, we’ll try to help you develop that sense, and teach you to fill your individual tool boxes with valuable tools and insights.

Next time, we’ll talk about Pillar #2 – The need for a positive mentoring relationship in your life.

Until then, just keep writing.

Art

13 Comments

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13 Responses to The Six Pillars of Your Writing Education

  1. Thanks great Information

  2. Love this line: “If you find writing to be easy, simple, breezy and completely enjoyable, it’s very possible that you’re not even scratching the surface of what you can accomplish.” No truer words. Thanks for another amazing post, Art!

  3. MikeR

    The thing that attracted me to @Larry’s original book was one word in the title – “Engineering.” That caught my eye and it did not disappoint. Although the process he described was not unique to him, he described it extremely well and with a palpable passion that the reader should, with diligent effort, succeed. This remains true here on this web-site.

    Whenever you read a completed work, you simply do not perceive the process that went into it – not if those who did it, did their work well. Every scene leads “naturally” to the next. It does not occur to you that the writer (and perhaps also the editor and producer) was making a constant stream of choices, from among a wide variety of perhaps equally-good possibilities, to SELECT the story-path that you then happily followed. And, too many writers of writing-books simply gloss over that fact, perhaps because they’re no longer aware of it themselves.

    The process that both of you describe is, above all, an efficient one, constantly pushing the decision-making earlier into the process, where the decisions can be made less expensively. Yes, you -can- work from an outline. No, you -don’t- have to write twenty pages of dialogue to “see if a scene works.” You can write two.

    • Mike – you’re very astute in culling out something you said in your comment today – pushing the decision-making into the process as early as you can. You can always make shifts, but too often writers are plowing through the snow without a destination, a map, a compass or even snowshoes.

      Thanks for adding value today. Larry

  4. Martha Miller

    Thank you, Art, for a most helpful post.

  5. For me, writing has been a doorway into what Plato called “the examined life.” And I agree that too much of what’s on-line misses the points that you’ve made here, that you must think about how you approach your writing; think about what you are writing; think about whether or not your writing touches someone. We are the first resource to our process — i.e. “what do I know about my own life that informs this story?” Your questions as to how to approach writing information translates to the actual writing too. . . is your scene meaningful? Is it valuable? Is it rare? — well, okay I’m not sure about the rare part there, but I’d ask as you or Larry might – does it move the story forward? That’s a rarity in some work I’ve read. I like your approach, Art. I like anything that makes me stop and “think” (there’s that word again) about what it is I’ve taken on and how I must continue to study, work and nurture it as I develop. Thanks.

  6. Robert Jones

    Art,

    I completely agree with all you’ve said. The quick-fix mentality is, I believe, a sales pitch with a price tag for the uninitiated. Faster word count doesn’t equal quality. And while we all just wanted to dive in and write when we started out, not all of us were not exposed to those touting the quick and easy route prior to Amazon launching their self publishing platform. However, if any writer sticks with a manuscript for several weeks, or months, and it doesn’t set in that it is a fairly complex project they are working on…then my doubts are against their success. Not quick success anyway.

    On the subject of finding mentors, I wonder how many people who haven’t worked in the entertainment industry realize just how hard it can be to find a mentor who genuinely wants to help. Even among peers in the industry, there can be a great deal of secrecy and keeping doors closed against newcomers. Not to say there aren’t good people out there, but it can be tough to get over those early hurdles. Tougher to find information that’s not run-of-the-mill, rehashed, standard fare. Even for those of us who were striving for success prior to the current internet hype, most writing books said the same things. It has always taken time and effort to dig for the gold. So the real question here is: why would anyone in their right mind believe people who have little or no experience can point them to a better way?

    Want truth? Faster/easier is the sales pitch used for every product and service under the sun. A salesperson’s toolbox, not a craftsman’s. Amazon’s platform, simply put, opened a new door to the market—into which selling became possible on the same level to writers as it is for everything from fast food to Fed Ex. What’s that old saying about an educated consumer being the best customer?

    If you find a mentor who genuinely wants to help, you’d best hold onto that relationship as long as possible. And feed your writer’s brain as widely as possible because you’ll write exactly how you eat.

  7. Kerry Boytzun

    Write-on, Art!

    Thought provoking post.

    You said “Does it make sense to you on a craft level…develop some real radar…”

    Alas, you hit two nails with your hammer: sense and radar. These two areas aren’t developed in school or college. It’s as old as “common sense” where everyone says the other guy’s an idiot. If only “they” changed, the world would be a better place.

    Stories are about that change, the kind you would like to have in your own life to either improve it, or push away something not wanted.

    Today’s common sense is someone repeating what they found on the Internet.

    But one’s own sense and radar for story has a similar bedrock, and that is the dynamics of human interaction–psychology. What you understand about human psychology will make or break you as a story engineer.

    Art says “does this make sense to you?” (Pick any context in life). Sense = the evaluation of your present experience (actual or virtual, ie video, text) using the understanding you currently have as a human. Understanding = wisdom gained through focused actual experience.

    The bomb I dropped is “focused actual experience.” This means your phone is NOT in your hand. Divided focus turns your radar OFF. Radar is an intuitive sense, and a human is no different from an animal in that regard.

    Art laid out several contexts for a writer to be considering at the same time. Do you think he meant, “do this while you’re on your phone?”

    Why am I bashing the phonaholic? Because they can’t walk, ride, drive, or eat without it. These people are not present. Even worse: their Radar-sense muscles are weak as a result. The phone is a receiver overall.

    The writer must be thinking in multiple contexts AS they design, AS they write a scene. To do this requires focused discipline and practice.

    Aristotle would say throw the phone in the garbage after meeting a handful of the humans using them. Yes I have one. No, I don’t glance at it while I drive, walk, eat, or mingle with people—I am present for that. The other day someone told me the doctor’s waiting room had a TV going non-stop, and it was distracting to her.

    Distracting to her what specifically? Answer = her thoughts.

    Writing = thinking out loud (on paper). Writing well is hard. Tweeting and texting is easy. Guess why?

  8. Robert Jones

    Good one, Kerry. Unfortunately, I see those things every day. People are disconnecting from reality and stunting their social skills because its easier for them to connect through a device than other humans. Passions, goals, ambitions fall into obscurity. Precisely why so many believe theirs a quick fix for writing. Their habitual doses of informations comes in sound bites of 3-8 minutes—the span of a typical YouTube post or the length of a bathroom break at work.

  9. MikeR

    @Robert … “what goes around, comes around.” I happen to have a friend who is managing to carve out a niche producing(!) those “sound-bite videos.” Each one of those “three or four minute” pieces might easily take several months – and thousands of dollars, and gobs of committee meetings – to prepare.

    But – “just like any well-prepared work of fiction, whatever the medium” – there are never any loose-ends to be seen; neither any of the oh-so-many (committee) decisions. The completed product simply sails into the marketplace, like any good book should do.

    As though there were really (heh, heh) “nothing to it” . . .

    Sound familiar?

  10. Robert Jones

    @Mike,

    Most definitely agree. There are some great film makers and marketing folks on YouTube. I am not knocking it by any means. Just stating that is the attention span a large part of our audience has become accustomed to.

    Most of the people hooked into the level Kerry mentioned aren’t watching the film or marketing gurus there either. Some do. However, in my personally survey and questions (which I ask all the time, BTW) I think there’s a large part of the audience we are missing as writers. Nothing new. From around the mid-90s, many in the entertainment industry has been trying to keep up with changes made by the internet. A lot of questions about how these changes effect the way product is delivered to the audience, what form it may take in the unforeseen future, is a large part of our difficulty as creators. Because corporations see it as “product,” with a potential revenue. And if that revenue falls below a projected outcome, it is no longer considered cost effective.

    Book stores giving way to ebooks is one example. Comic book giving way to film is another. But this is nothing new. We can go all the way back to old time radio being used to build up revenue for television shows, then sold down the river back in the the 1950s. Creators, like any other business, have to diversify. If your aim is to take your ideas out of a single door, and that door is controlled by a corporation, you’re basically living on a wing and a prayer for as long as you are able.

    Good stories are always going to be viable. But the formats are going to keep changing as long as technology keeps expanding. And getting your ideas in front of an audience who has their phone in their face all the time requires diversity and a certain set of marketing skills. Writers were always told to not rely on publishers, to market themselves. Again, nothing new. But now we have to learn to become a self contained publisher in our own right, do it all ourselves. But we also have a lot more options and potential consultants available.

    This all ties into the “work” Art mentioned. Did someone say there was a quick fix route to all of this? BWAHAHA!!!

  11. MikerR

    @Robert,

    To my way of thinking, the (only) difference between an e-book and a paper book is medium … and a forest-full of pine trees who breathe a collective sigh of relief. The economics of the transaction have not been altered: only the price has changed.

    But “the paradox of creativity” really has not changed at all: the actual creation of “a creative product WORTH SELLING, which will then BE SOLD,” … face it, “costs money.” And that means “business,” not just “creativity.” You’ve got to produce something that a publisher will INVEST in. And, you’ve got to internalize that “you never would have heard of Stephen King” had this process not been in place.

    Furthermore: the image of “self-publishing” is not what it’s cracked up to be, since the MARKETING segment is completely absent. More than four years ago now, I spent a few pleasant weeks self-publishing “a modest MS-Word document, which I think is fairly good,” in every one of the usual places .. Kindle, Amazon .., and at the end of these four years I’m pleased to say that I have earned (so far) EIGHTY-ONE DOLLARS. It really is a good book. Unfortunately, no one on Earth even knows that it exists. So it goes. (And, “as I expected.”)

  12. Robert Jones

    @MikeR,

    Send me a link to your book, please. And yes, that has been the case with many people, including some I’ve known personally. It’s really all a crap shoot. Traditional publishing is as well. You may get a few books on shelves, and maybe a better advance than $80…if there’s a larger publishing house involved. There’s no garuntee either route.

    Let me give you an example of traditional publishing. Small press, no advance and they own your work for about 5 years. Large press, if you can actually get them interested, 3-5K advance in most cases (unless you can land a good agent, which is next to impossible in its own right), and they might own your work for up to 7 years. Better, but not by a whole lot because there’s still no marketing unless you get on there “A” list. Yes, this is a physical list of authors who they decide to invest in and promote.

    The rest of the pack, probably 95-98% of published authors that get slated goes through a process that looks something like this:

    A mid-sale might be around 25,000 copies. That could be a lot less these days, BTW. And there’s no telling where the bean counters are going to place you in the pack. You might be assigned a print run of 18,000 copies, coming in just under the mid-sale mark. With a small press, way less. This isn’t exactly huge numbers globally. And in order to make a check beyond that five grand you were initially payed, all 18,000 copies need to sell out and the publisher needs to get orders equal to that first print run in order for them to decide to do a second printing. Some smaller companies are doing print on demand now, which means you’ll get even a smaller amount than Amazon is forking out. I know a guy who got picked up by one suck company and he got one check within the five years they owned his work—for $3 and some change. Consider that even next to you $80!

    Without marketing, you need to work your ass off and hope to make a splash large enough to generate sales and reorders with any traditional outfit. A lot of orders. So the crap shoot Is still a crap shoot. This is why Larry and Art urge people to leverage as much craft as possible. Why? Because word of mouth can be one of the biggest factors in notching those sales. And regardless of what happens with our first book, we need to keep working on the next one, and the next one, until we break out. Most successful authors wrote several novels before you heard of them. Writing one good book is the first hurdle. And please don’t underestimate that first hurdle because it’s huge. However, there needs to be backup. An assault, if you will, in waves. Not everyone is ready for that. Not everyone can do it. Best advice from teachers of my past is to make sure you love your craft first.

    And once again we come back to those looking to short cut craft. Most truly creative people are hungry. They lap up the knowledge and experience of it all. It’s like food, they need it to survive, they strive to get better. Everyone else is trying to reinvent the wheel. That goes not just for younger writers, but those from other aspects of business who try to turn writing into a production job, word count equals more product, equalling larger cash amounts for their time—in theory. I’ve read some of their books. Some say they came to writing because of a love of fiction. Some have even been successful. Those who had a bit of insight into craft and have worked toward that end. I’ve read that too, concerning the successful ones. We all need a sense of business and marketing. On the other hand, building a novel and a piece of furniture are worlds apart.

    You can’t escape craft, or the constant work involved. Whether you plan or throw yourself into the fray by the seat of your pants. Which is the point of these posts. We all have to keep marching, keep learning. I know I’ve said it before, but learning is optional. Without learning, however, nothing really changes in life, or our pursuits 😀

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