Or, Ten Ways to Totally Screw Up Your Novel
Yesterday, just before going into a room to give a keynote address to 800 hungry and refreshingly hopeful writers, my wife said this to me over the phone:
“Be positive. You don’t need to tell them how hard this is.”
Good point. A keynote is perhaps not the time to reflect on the height of the bar.
If I hadn’t already been down this road I might not hold that view. I’m still dealing with the fallout from a 2009 keynote in which I told 500 equally hungry writers this: “If you gathered all the Big Career Famous Writers in this entire state, they’d fit into a booth at Denny’s.”
The room split like Congress listening to a State of the Union address.
Hey, I was just trying to help. To get them to buckle down and take craft as seriously as it needs to be taken. Just as seriously as the stuff some writers seem to prefer to discuss at conferences, like how to land an agent and how to market a book.
The cart called, it wants the horse back.
So now, as I write this, I’m at the airport going back to reality – always the feeling when departing a writing conference in which a brotherhood of common interest and shared challenge permeates every conversation – and I just have to let it out.
And this should never divide a room, because it’s inarguably true:
Writing a great story is hard.
Even when the initial seed of the story came easily and the first few chapters drip like butter onto the keyboard. As with a successful first date fueled by ridiculous sexual tension, there is much to encounter and negotiate just around the bend when that particular context wears thin.
Falling in love with your story is easy. Making it last, and then transferring that love to someone you don’t know… not so much.
Which is, perhaps, why Moliere said that writing is like prostitution. You’ve heard that one, I’m sure.
There are so many things we need to understand and put into play as we expand our ideas and instincts into a fully functional story. What those things are called – many of which offend writers who cling to a priority on art over craft, sometimes to the exclusion of craft – isn’t as critical as how they come to eventually manifest on the page.
Call them what you will, standards, criteria and expectations exist.
With so many ways to make a story great, we must accept that there must also be a plethora of ways to screw one up.
That has to be true, given the math: unpublished manuscripts outnumber published (or even agent-represented) manuscripts by a factor of…
… well, I’d be guessing on that one. I’d say about 500 to 1. And that doesn’t count self-initiated digital books, which haven’t impacted the statistics yet in a way that anyone can attach meaning to.
That sad proportion is a call to get deadly serious about our craft. To let go of limiting beliefs that are without basis in either experience or logic.
Lack of ability or experience aren’t the leading causes of rejection. Limiting beliefs are.
The best way to avoid a hole in the road is to see the hole in the road.
Suffering is optional. So here goes.
1. Never begin writing a story without knowing how it will end. Even if you hate “story planning” to the core of your being, you don’t stand a chance until you write the thing in context to how it will end.
Even if you change your mind mid-stream. Always have a target outcome.
Do what you have to do – write drafts, post yellow sticky notes, whatever – to search for your story, or at least its ending.
2. If you choose to ignore the previous tip, then you’d best accept this one: if you stumble upon an ending (or change it) mid-draft, you most likely will need to start the whole thing over, or at least engage in a process of review and revision to accommodate the newly present context of the ending you have in mind, which, if done right, will feel like a rewrite.
Yes Virginia, the ending does, in fact, provide the primary context of a story. If you begin writing without one you are writing without context, and that’s almost always a fatal mistake, often one born of a limiting belief system about how a story is written.
3. Don’t kid yourself about the critical nature – the necessity – of structure in your story. You can’t skip or skimp on set-up, and you’d best have a handle on what an inciting incident is, what a point plot is, the difference between them, or not, the mission they must embrace, and where they are optimally located in the sequence of things. If you’re guessing or ignoring, then you’re rolling the dice on the future viability of your story.
Sure, you can guess right. You can win the lottery this way, too.
All of information required to write from an informed and enlightened context is out there. Its in here. It’s available. To not pursue that knowledge is to dishonor the very avocation you claim to hold dear.
Unless, of course, you are the next literary prodigy. Let us know how that’s working out.
4. Don’t take side trips. Your narrative – regardless of genre – needs to adhere to a forward-moving spine and focus.
5. Don’t write a “small” story without something Big in it. If your story is about your grandmother’s childhood in rural Iowa, you’ll have a better shot if she turns out to be a Senator born of a minority race to same-sex parents in the deep south before being sent to an orphanage in an era long before Lady Gaga informed us that some folks are just “born this way.”
Every writer must decide who they are writing for. If the answer is, “I’m writing this story just for me, anything else that happens is gravy,” then you are operating under a limiting belief system. Short of the isolated example it doesn’t work that way.
The moment you declare you are writing professionally, everything changes. Including any legitimacy when it comes to making up your own storytelling principles, paradigms and standards. In that case the change is this: all assumptions of that legitimacy are rendered invalid.
6. If you can’t describe your story in one compelling sentence, you probably can’t write it in 20,000 compelling sentences, either. Why? Because to write a story successfully, you need to be in complete command of what the story is about, at its highest level of intention and focus.
An enlightened writer knows they need to work on that one sentence before they work on the other 19.999.
That single thing – what the story is really about – is the driving force of the entire storytelling effort. It creates context for everything on every page.
7. Don’t save your hero. Rather, show us your hero earning the title. Your hero needs to be the primary, proactive catalyst in the story’s resolution. Never a spectator to it, never a victim to it by the time the cover closes. Even if the hero ends up dead – it happens – your job is to show the reader some sort of redemptive success in the journey you’ve sent them on.
8. Don’t for a moment believe that the things an established bestselling author can get away with are things you can get away with. And don’t even hint at leveraging any isolated examples to the contrary to justify any compromise to the fundamentals that will allow your story to shine.
9. Don’t overwrite. One man’s perfume is another’s stench – been to a cigar bar lately? – so don’t cloud the air with your words. Less is more. Be clever, be ironic, have an attitude and a voice and a world view. Maintain a light touch with it, ala Nelson Demille.
Like the schmuck at the last party you went to that wouldn’t shut up, don’t suck all the air out of the story with your attempt to impress with words.
10. Never settle. Look at your core concept and ask what you can do to make it stronger. Look at your characters and ask how you can make them deeper, more compellingly complex and likely to elicit reader empathy, which also embraces the nature of the journey you’ve sent them on (plot) and the obstacles you’ve placed before them.
Ask yourself if your story will matter to anyone but you, if it says anything at all about the human experience.
I could rant on, as the list is long and dark. As is the list of things we can do to make a story sing.
So instead, allow me to conclude, for the moment, with this:
Even when you know the tools, it’s still hard.
It’s hard because it’s complex, layered, nuanced and always resides on a landscape already occupied by the ghosts of stories that have come before. The trick isn’t to reinvent something, the trick is to play big within the box into which you’ve willingly climbed. To bring freshness and energy to your tale.
There are standards, criteria and tools that help us do just that, and that will bail us out when we lose our way.
And everybody loses their way. The math proves it.
It’s the writer who not only recognizes rough water, but has the presence of mind to realize when they’re drowning and make a compensatory shift driven by their knowledge of craft, that snags an agent, a publisher and/or a readership.
So now – as my friend Bruce Johnson says – go write something great. And do it in the comforting knowledge that the physics of storytelling apply equally to everyone… at least until they’re famous.
A new definition of irony, that. May we all discover it for ourselves one day.
Read more about “Story Engineering,” including reviews, here.