Suffering is Optional

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 That has to be true, given the math: unpublished manuscripts outnumber published (or even agent-represented) manuscripts by a factor of…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.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

45 Responses to Suffering is Optional

  1. Hi Larry, I’m a copywriter and I’m investing in my emotional wellbeing by writing more stories for pleasure so very interested to read your hard won tips on storytelling.

    I’ve been quietly stalking you for a while, just decided to reveal myself today as we seem to have a bit in common:)

    I’ve got a manuscript all written but am currently focusing on short stories. That seems to be a good way to pracitise writing stories you can easily share online and much better for someone with a short attention span like me:)

    This is a long list and all writers will be double checking everything they write, editing and honing to try and perfect their writing. But is it really possible to do it alone? Doesn’t there come a point when you just need input from someone wiser? And if so where do you go to get it?

    Thanks so much for sharing your tips.

  2. Ooops, sorry, entered the website address wrong, this is the right url:)

  3. @Annabel — one of the most respected screenwriters in the last 30 years, William Goldman, said something that has been giving hope to all of us: “Nobody knows anything.” Tii true. And that includes so-called gurus (yes, I’m looking in the mirror here) and bestselling authors. While the standards and criteria of great storytelling are precise, judgment of the results is always a subjective opinion. That’s why iconic novels (like Harry Potter) were rejected dozens of times before someone who counted had a positive response.

    So when it comes to finding someone to give input on your writing — and you’re right, we can all benefit from that — the key is to find someone you trust, and with solid reasons. If you ask a critique group for input, they’ll criticize. If you ask an editor to edit, they’ll edit. Human nature. If you ask a friend or family member, chances are they’ll tell you how good it is.

    The whole thing is a process and a journey. As you build your craft, and then juxtapose what you learn onto your own projects, you’ll build more and more trust in your own opinion. Seek input, analyze it, but always do so in light of the basic fundamentals (what I call the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling)… and then make your own call. Half the time the person criticizing can’t even be specific in that regard (what’s really wrong, if indeed anything is wrong at all). At the end of the day we’re all alone with our work long before anyone else (who we don’t know or hire) will ever see it.

    Professional story “coaches” are everywhere (I’m one of them), and, again, we’re all selling opinions. Be careful, be open, be vulnerable, but we wise. Use a filter on what you hear. That’s half the battle anyhow… in life, too.

    My two cents.

    I wish you well on this journey. Let me know how I can help you. There are well over 300 posts here to help you along that path, for starters. L.

  4. Ten good ones.

    Surprisingly, the one that almost tripped me up (aside from the need for a structure – you saved my writing life with *that* one) was Number 7.

    I re-wrote the final quarter of my first book because Matt was rescued. And it reads so much better now.

    So…how did the talk go?

  5. Melissa Montez

    I’m a long time lurker, but the excellent advice is…well, so excellent that I have to say thanks. I resisted organized structure for my first two books (much to my daughter’s dismay. She is a teenaged writer who devoured your story structure ideas and applied them immediately), but I’m convinced that structure simplifies. Thanks again.

  6. Bravo Bravo Bravo!!!!! Fantastic blog, and so so true. Also goes along with Maass’ BreakOut Novel book. It’s all about the story, not the contract. Make a good book great. THEN take the next step.

  7. I teach creative writing, and I’ve noticed the students that focus on improving their stories are the ones who enjoy it more — the ones who focus on “getting sold” almost always suffer like Goth kids at a prom.

    Great post, as always. 😀

  8. Great job Larry!

    Giving us writers constructive criticism to navigate a very challenging world, and making us feel capable of accomplishing the feat when we utilize the right tools.

    Spoken like a great expert! 🙂

  9. Wow, “Don’t write a “small” story without something Big in it.” That’s like one of the Holy Grail components. I sort of knew this, but hadn’t quite realized it yet. You put it into words for me. It’ll go on my whiteboard along with the other critical things you’ve said. Thanks again, my friend!

  10. I love #6, which also ties into #1. I need to get my story distilled into a very small space and I need to know where’s it’s headed (i.e. how it’s going to end) if I’m going to know what my story is ultimately about. These are great, Larry. Thank you.

  11. Don’t settle for being an amateur. “Being” an amateur means “doing” as an amateur with catch as catch can, and “having” the final product appearing to be an amateur’s work.

    Can a beginner like most of us be a professional? The short answer is, “Yes.” “Being” a professional means we intend to have a professional result or product. We wear a professional’s hat. That says we “do” as a professional to professional standards (Six Core Competencies). This enables us to “have” the best possible product at the current level of our abilities. Any artistic creativity or talent we have will show its best only if the fundamentals are in place.

    The amateur mechanic might hear a rattle in the engine, jack up the car, and take off the right rear wheel. The professional will do diagnostics, look up references, and correct the offending area the first time.

    As an amateur, I pumped out over 900,000 words over 2 years at a 3,000-word chapter a week for my (current) four novels. Hadn’t the foggiest clue there was such a thing as structure, except I knew where and how I wanted them to end.

    I’m doing rewrites as a professional, Six Core Competencies and all. Will I get everything in Larry’s excellent Story Engineering checklists? I doubt it, but at least I’ll do my best at it. I didn’t do it right the first time through ignorance, but at least this time I have a method to my madness. It will take hours, days, and months, but probably not years to rewrite the four.

    Malcolm Gladwell of “Outliers” fame found the cream of the professional crop had developed their skills over 10,000 hours. Sounds like a lot, right? Maybe so, but it takes a lot longer if you’re not doing the right stuff and are thrashing around being “creative.”

    Do it as right as you can the first time as a professional. Will you become famous and wealthy? The statistics are against you. However, keep going down the professional road, keep producing the best product you can at that particular time, and the odds start shifting to your favor.

    Go write something as great as you can. Then write another and another and another. 5, 10, 20 years down the road you can say to yourself, “Self, I gave it my best shot.”

  12. vic

    This reads like a ‘how to’ manual to write a New York Times bestseller: x + y=£

    What about the sheer joy of writing? The exhaustion, the fear, the exhileration of bending one’s grey matter round resolving a plot point? The passion, the bemusement when a character starts talking back to you and telling you what to write?

    I’m not a published writer, I’d like to be, I’d love to be, I write and I love it with a passion, it’s the love of my life (family excepting of course) but I hope I never follow any formula to get published, that would be horribly depressing.

    I completed NANOWRIMO in November 2010 and it was an experience I’ll never forget, a month of solid writing on the fly, 50 thousand words in 28 days flat, no editing, just pure unadulterated writing for the joy of writing.

    One of the pieces of advice NANO gave was to be prepared for your brain to lead you into strange pastures and follow where it lead, I did and it worked very well. Characters gained more depth and nuance, plots developed which I hadn’t thought of previously and were intriguing. The advice worked and still does.

    Could I have told you in a sentence what the story was about before I wrote it? No, I had the kernel of an idea which I wasn’t sure would go to 50 words let alone 50 thousand. It did and I’m darn proud of the end result even though it will probably never see the light of day let alone get sent to a publisher.

    As for always have an ending, no, I never have an ending in mind, it always comes to me, somehow, out of the ether, but it always comes and I hardly ever go back and re-write, it just happens.

    The telling words in this article are ‘keep producing the best product’ I doubt very much that Thompson, Hemmingway, Kerouac or Wharton felt that they were producing ‘product’ they were writing with a passion not with half an eye on the money.

    Apologies for my half baked rant.


  13. Patrick Sullivan

    @vic: It isn’t like only planners are preaching the gospel of Story Structure. I’m in the middle of The Story Book by Baboulene, and while he’s very much a seat of your pants writer, he still says that when you find problems with the story, structure is the best way to diagnose and fix them.

    However, when you go down that route, you pay for it with additional time doing all the rewrites for proper foreshadowing of the ending as well as correcting any problems you had in the story.

    To create a great story always requires the journey, the question is are you doing the blind exploration writing prose or during your outline/beat sheet?

    Obviously if you are personally unable to finish a story after the outline then don’t do one, but realize the price paid.

  14. @Vic — passionate response. Please read Bruce’s comment above.

    Once you recognize the limiting beliefs that run through your comments, you’ll have passed a major threshold into the next level, one in which you won’t have to confess, “though it will probably never see the light of day let alone get sent to a publisher.” It’s good that your pride of authorship is all you seem to need out of the time and effort you’ve put into your projects.

    I PROMISE you, Hemingway, Kerouac and the others weren’t writing solely to suit themselves, but within a context that suited themselves WITH an objective of others reading it. Which by definition, whether they acknowledged the word or not, means they knew there was a “product” at the end of the day. Sorry the word offends you, but that’s just semantics. Wondering where you got this naive notion that they never had an eye on the endgame. Writing with passion is not exclusive of writing with an objective of finding an audience, and the latter is almost always (show me an exception) infused with structure. As soon as you realize that structure is NOT formula any more than gravity is a formula for dancing (a tough intellectual concept for some to grasp, it seems), the sooner you’ll find your passion to be truly liberated.

    Ask any successful professional writer, many of whom started the journey with pie-in-the-sky limiting beliefs, like yours. You can’t do this any old way you please, just because it pleases you. In the end, a successful draft is always written in context to a targeted ending, and is never an exploration of options awaiting a final decision on the part of the author.

    This is why 95 percent of passionate, ambitious authors never publish a word (and why those are the only ones that cry like children when presented with the proven real world truth about what it takes). We all get to choose which group we belong to. It appears you have done just that, but I sincerely hope you wake up someday and see what’s holding you back.

  15. Thank you, Larry – I can always count on you to prod me to Never Settle.

    You should also knwo that your book is by my side; which means you’re mentoring me hour-by-writing-hour. I vow to be one of your greatest success stories.

    Thanks, LL

  16. vic

    I am as Patrick says above a ‘seat of the pants writer’ or ‘pantser’ as it was described in a online NANO community. I agree that structure is useful, however in the context that you present it, it becomes constricting and confining with half an eye on the money rather than the goal of actually writing something.

    I remember reading an article by Anne Rice, she said that the best thing a writer can do is write and write hard and not worry about the outcomes.

    Maybe I’m too romantic and should ditch my ideas of starving to death in an attic whilst writing the next Pullitzer prize winning novel and instead follow the formula and feed my family instead.

    Thanks for an interesting and for me, rather provocative article.

    ‘Product’ pfft.

  17. @Vic — when Anne Rice said that, she was talking about the outcome of the manuscript in terms of “will it be published, or not?”, rather than the outcome of the story itself. Read more about Rice, she absolutely doesn’t start her stories with no clue where they are going or how they are going to end. Sometimes writers begin a draft in that way — that’s fine, whatever works — but trust me, when they find their story they do a whole ‘nother draft in context to it. Which is EXACTLY what I’ve said, over and over again… draft away if that’s your chosen process. Doesn’t change what’s true, and what needs to happen before the story will work beyond your own satisfaction with it.

    And, by the way, her stories DO align with the principles of structure, almost precisely the way I interpret and present them here, which are merely models drawn from what universal works, even in Hemingway’s work. Show me a current contemporary novel that is successful that doesn’t align with the principles and physics discussed here, and I’ll back off. Right now, you’re arguing a dead end pitch, the one unpublished, unhappy writers take to their grave… because, like you and me, they’re not Hemingway.

    Glad to hear you’re after the Pulitzer, good luck with that.

    To compare today’s publisher and market expectations with the work of Hemingway and Kerouac and a long list of other iconic and long-dead writers is, well, again, naive. Try telling an art student they need to use the same tools that Michelangelo used. The trouble with this argument is that, in dropping those names, you fail to notice that their work almost perfectly, and almost always, aligns with fundamental principles of structure, among other fundamental principles. The very examples you cite betray you. It’s just that they needed to labor for decades, through alcholism, mental illness and suicidal tendencies to finally arrive at an understanding, if they ever did. Could be they just intuitively understood what works and what doesn’t.

    Maybe you do, too. It’s pretty rare, usually takes a few decades and about 10 million words of unschooled writing for that phenomenon to happen.

    You can cut years off that road to immortality… but then, with your eye on immortality you’re not exactly heeding Anne Rice’s advice, are you.

    Done with, and tired of, the pissing match here, Vic. You’ve lost sight of the fact that I’m just trying to help writers move forward, faster, and along the way I have to deal with push-back from writers with no credibility who don’t know what they’re talking about. Glad you don’t need the help, and, with all your great success, know a better way to get this done — ignore the fundamental principles of literature, as if stumbling upon them is somehow a more noble path — than the rest of us.

    I wish you the best. Truly. But this is sad. Nobody can help you get there, especially if your mind is closed.

  18. Diana

    I don’t know of any current Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, or best selling novelists who did it alone. All of them required some form of education, training, or guidance.

  19. Diana

    This weekend I read great advice online from a NYT best-selling author, and someone had to argue with her. Today people are arguing with you. I don’t get it. You’re both generously offering help to those who want it. I don’t understand why people have to hassle you in return. It serves NO purpose.

  20. Betty Booher

    Okay, so…Nanowrimo….yes, it’s a great way to dive into your characters, and find out stuff you might have taken weeks to learn otherwise, and best of all it’s a great excuse to say, “honey, sorry I can’t go to the movies, make dinner, etc. – it’s Nanowrimo, don’t you know…see you in 8 hours.”

    But….if you don’t spend October figuring out your plot points and pinches and the resolution, you’ll have 62,000 words of, well, backstory…and crazy tangents…and characters that have nothing to do with anything in this book. Actually, characters that may not even DO anything.

    And maybe that’s okay – it’s up to you. But when you have to take that 62,000 words and pitch most of it into the recycle bin and go back to your plot points, pinches and resolution, you start to think maybe next October would be better spent with a beat sheet and 4 large pieces of butcher paper — one for each story part.

  21. Melissa Montez

    Ditto, Diana. And thank you again, Larry, for the invaluable guidance you offer. My husband is a composer, and he knows and teaches that you can arrange your chords any way you like, but if you don’t understand and follow theory rules, no one will want to listen to your music.

  22. @vic, my 2 pence

    “What about the sheer joy of writing? The exhaustion, the fear, the exhileration of bending one’s grey matter round resolving a plot point?”

    Do it first. My ‘grey-matter-bending’ time is before I write *any* prose. 6 weeks of nutting out the plot and character arc before my last nanowrimo and I wrote 92k words in November.


    I might have a 3k chapter mapped with a single sentence. But I knew what it needed to contain, and how it contributed to the overall plot. Believe me, the creativity still flowed.

    If Larry allows it, click on my name and go to my website and use BL65V to get G’Day free (good for only a week). This is what planning ahead produces, six months after I started writing. NO endless drafts trying to find a way to get to the end. NO wondering why the story ends too quickly after the second plot point.

    I could have pantsed this, but it would be another twelve months, at least, before I could produce anything near as readable as this.

    Don’t slam it until you’ve tried it.

  23. (btw, just so we’re clear, I’m not saying this is Pulitzer material and not just because I don’t qualify for Pulitzer – not being an American – but it the best I’ve written to date. Each one is better than the previous)

  24. I’m shocked at the debate about this. It’s only fiar to point out that StoryFix is a FREE education in writing. The site is for those of us hoping for a shot at doing this for a living. I don’t care if I make billions, mind you. I freakin’ love to write – and if I can support myself doing it, I will. Now the fact that my horror stories have structure to them doesn’t mean I love the act of writing any less. Why would it?

    Sure, there’s still time I don’t think about structure. When I’m writing in my journal, for example, or making up a story for my friend’s little kid. But if I’m going to sell somebody a story, it had better be worth their bucks. To deny that story structure isn’t important to this end is pretty much saying you don’t care about the reader’s time or investment.

    So Larry, please keep the info coming – and now that the converted truly benefit from the time and energy you put into your blog. I’ve learned a ton, Sir, and the journey is a lot more fun b/c of it. Peace, LL

  25. Larry, I for one totally appreciate your tell-it-like-it-is attitude. I appreciate it because I now know what I need to know in order to get published. I didn’t know that before I read this blog and I think I was more obsessed with the dream of getting published than I was with the actual writing of the story. Now it’s the opposite. I just want to write something publishable–even if I never actually publish it! You and your blog have grounded me as a writer. I really can’t thank you enough for that. Hopefully one day I’ll be sitting in that “Denny’s booth” 🙂

  26. flibgibbet

    I don’t know how any would-be writer can argue that having an end goal in mind is unnecessary when attempting to write a good story. It’s like arguing that you can tell/set up a good joke without knowing the punch line.

    Writers who believe this fantasy must also believe that their prose is so life-changing, readers won’t care about the lack of plot or purpose.


    I applaud that you find joy in writing, but you seem to be ignoring the obvious. While a writer finds joy in writing, a reader finds joy in reading. At best, it’s a symbiotic relationship. At worst, it’s a writer so in love with their own words they think the reader is too moronic to understand how great the writing is. Happily, you’re not alone in your view.

  27. Larry,

    Enjoyed your keynote address at Storymakers. You were positive, realistic, and motivational. Everyone, even the published authors, got a lot from your address and class the next day. (Who knew that 2 hours could just go by so quickly.) Thanks again for coming and sharing your wisdom with us.

  28. Joyce Smith

    Thank you so much for the Keynote address you gave at the Storymakers Conference. It seemed to be a huge success didn’t it? Well even so, I ended up not being able to take your class and also missed out on buying your book. So this is the question… is it possible to get a signed copy from you? Can I send you the money for one? If so let me know how much and if you can sign it for me.
    Thanks, Joyce

  29. Larry, you were fantastic at Storymakers, both in the keynote address and in the Master Class. As you know, I’m a longtime fan, but you surpassed even my sky-high expectations going into the weekend. All my friends were thrilled and energized as well. Thanks so much for your generosity and passion.

  30. Damien

    Dear Mr. Brooks,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. You make some very solid points which I completely agree with. I recently gave a workshop on ‘cultivating creativity’ at the university where I am a writing and ESL teacher. I placed a major emphasis on ‘objective based creativity’, which I defined as starting a story with the end in mind.

    People sometimes get the wrong idea when they hear ‘objective based creativity’ and think that I am suggesting a technique that will, um, constipate their creative process and therefore their creativity. If you just got an unpleasant visual, sorry…

    But knowing how the story will end is a great way to produce work and avoid the frustration that comes with wandering, aimless writing. Furthermore, it makes rerouting your story so much more pleasant. I recommend the same technique for students writing essays. Know where you’re going and aim to get there. If changes occur along the way, then fine, go with it. These things are not set in stone.

    Thank you for the interesting post.


  31. @Damien — thanks for your thoughts. I love your term, “objective-based creativity.” It’s aligned with the term I like to use: “mission-driven storytelling,” which translates to “mission-driven scene writing” and “mission-driven creativity.” Good to be on the same page with a pro such as yourself. Thanks again. L.

  32. Thanks for this post Larry.

    I’ve been struggling with a manuscript I don’t believe in anymore. I’ve been forcing myself to not write anything else because I feel like I need to finish this before moving on. I don’t want to become a writer who has a handful of MS’, but none completed.

    However, I feel like I’m struggling with the last 20K words because I didn’t flesh out the ending when I got started. Yes I had an outline, and I knew mostly how it ended, but it wasn’t as important to me as getting started. And, you’re absolutely right (I can see that now) about the ending dictating the rest of the story. Right now, I have 80K words with a sorta direction! No wonder I hate what I have!

    Thank you again for this post, it’s a must see for all writers!

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  34. Rebecca

    Sorry… but as a Kerouac fan (and someone who wrote a 10,000 word dissertation which got a first….) I have to say this:

    Any biography of Kerouac will tell you that he endlessly redrafted On the Road *with the intention of suiting a publisher*. He tried his damnedest to do so whilst keeping things intact, but what got published sure as hell isn’t the original scroll (which you can now buy: read both).

    Dharma Bums, his second most “readable” has a solid structure, as does his other famous one Big Sur – and he planned it like this. He endlessly wrote in countless tiny notebooks and journals (in which he also planned) and *then* he sat down to type. He very rarely did the “stream of consciousness” thing without any work before hand. In fact he viewed writing pretty much as Larry – as work. This was due to a massive Franco-Canadian, immigrant work ethic and a belief that writing wasn’t as ‘proper’ as the manual jobs he’d seen men doing whilst he grew up. Poor Jack felt he had to work at his writing because otherwise he wasn’t worth anything.

    The books he actually did write with little planning and redrafting are often a crock of shite, with a few gems of sentences strewn throughout. Tristessa is messily plotted with shallow, race-stereotyped characters. The original Scroll is still beautiful genius, but nowhere near as good as the redrafted OTR.

  35. I’ve made two attempts at NaNoWriMo, now, and have stayed with the writing group that came out of the last attempt. I watched and asked questions about how others wrote. One fellow-writer had a thorough outline she was patiently working through.

    Both my NaNos got terribly lost because I was going more-or-less at random. Didn’t work. I started a new, shorter story: just one scene. It gave me a setting and some characters. Then I did an outline.

    I finished it the other day. The climax was hard, but incredibly satisfying. I was able to give the story pace and the characters development. I knew how more-or-less where it was going, although a lot of the details were up-in-the air.

    Knowing pretty much where I needed to take the story so early on turned out to be incredibly important.

    My next story is going to have an even better outline.

  36. It took me a long while to warm up to your manner, Mr. Brooks, but I do see the wisdom in your words.

    Thanks for helping.

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  39. Neil

    @Lung Cancer Symptoms – well said. I find myself craving a Spam sandwich, for some reason.

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  41. Cassie

    I’m a fairly new writer in the sense that, I wrote quite a bit in elementary school, then stopped in high school to pursue other interests until my senior year, but didn’t really decide to pursue writing as a career and lifestyle until my freshman year in college, three years ago. That said, I am often second guessing myself, wondering if I made the right choice, if I’m really cut out for being a writer (that is, a person who writes, not necessarily gets published).

    I felt overwhelmingly comforted after reading the part about using the ending as context for your entire story. It’s rare that I don’t start writing a story without first knowing the ending (often, it’s that one ending scene that inspires me to make an effort to imagine everything else leading up to it). After reading this article, I feel like I must be doing something right, at least in that respect. Thank you.

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  43. Some excellent tips here. I especially like the one about know your ending before you start. This is key, because unless you have a goal then you’ll just be wondering around like a crazed man, waffling and creating pointless interactions. Before you know it you’ll have 150,000 words down and no end in sight

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  44. Just stumbled upon this blog through twitter and may I say some excellent points you make and some interesting follow up comments. I am not an author by any means but I have written a story which is now published as an ebook on Amazon worldwide. The story is based on true events and its been published for 72 hours and to my complete surprise have sold a number of copies and have had two excellent reviews. I will continue to read your blog as I wish to excel in writing as it has become a bit of a bug now! Oh, by the way, the book is called, Wrong Place Wrong Time.

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