Sometimes the blank page mocks me. I face it many times each week in the creation of these posts, and each time I ask myself, what can I say that might make a difference?
How can I help my readers reach their writing goals today?
Sometimes it feels like this daily calling sends me, and this site, bounding off down a circular path. Revisiting the past, retreading previously covered ground.
If I hadn’t been an athlete all my life, this might be the source of anxiety. Okay, it still is, but I draw upon my sweaty past to reconcile the fear that readers will feel like they’ve been here before.
Those who protest this cycle – show me something new, damnit! – are the poster children for the reason we need to revisit the basics. Over and over and over again.
Because those who do not value the fundamental principles of storytelling, and who are assumptive about their command of them, do not publish. Ever.
Are you in command of them? Really? Don’t nod too quickly.
Because the most obvious one of all is the one that will bring you down quickest.
Writing a story is no more or less complex than mastering a sport.
If you’ve ever tried to do that, you know what I mean. The subtleties and nuances of the game make or break you. At least if you are aiming for a professional level of performance.
And if your goal is to publish, that’s precisely the level you need to reach.
In sports, though, retreading the hallowed ground of fundamentals isn’t bad, it’s an expectation. It’s called spring training in baseball, training camp in football and basketball, and while it doesn’t have a name elsewhere, pre-season training is a fundamental part of the process in any sport.
It’s called practice. And inherent to it is an understanding of the game itself.
In writing, more writers who claim to be actively pursuing professional status don’t understand this game at the most fundamental of levels, than those who do.
Never has a coach opened pre-season practice by saying, okay folks, today we’re going to show you a brand new way to swing a bat. And yet, during spring training each player takes hundreds, even thousands of swings under the watchful eye of a mentor who knows.
Because if you get it wrong you will fail.
And if you don’t practice it – in the case of writers, if you don’t understand it – you will eventually get it wrong.
Whether we’re professional writers or relief pitchers, we rely on – and should return to – the fundamentals on a regular basis. We study them, we exercise them, we commit them to muscle memory.
Because we know we cannot succeed without a mastery of them.
Here’s the wisdom, though. When we say success depends on subtlety and nuance, this assumes that the fundamentals are solidly in place.
And that isn’t always the case. Writing conferences offering programs full of subtlety and nuance are full of such case studies.
Subtlety and nuance without an underlying base of fundamental understanding and mastery is nothing short of a nice try.
Most rejected stories are nice tries.
They bear a resemblance to the texture and nuance of a professionally told story, but something is missing. Something is wrong. Something isn’t good enough.
And sometimes – too often, in fact – everything is perfectly executed at a professional level, complete with nuance and subtlety… and the story still doesn’t sell.
There’s a reason for that.
The reason goes back to the most basic fundamental principle of all.
It resides at the very genesis of the decision to write a story.
The destiny of a story is cast in that moment, before a single word has been written, before a single neuron has been employed to bring it to life.
The single most critical, sensitive and all-powerful moment in the story development process is when the nature and power of the idea announces itself. The story’s heart and soul, it’s concept. It’s reason for being. Compromise here, and your story will punish you for it.
If that idea is weak, no degree of artful execution on the planet can make it compelling.
Is your story idea worth of the year of your life you will sacrifice to it? Why will anyone care about this? What are your standards for answering that question?
More than any other, this issue divides the published from the unpublished.
For every 1000 manuscripts submitted, perhaps only 100 are actually competently told to the point of being publishable. In other words, these writers have delivered on the six core competencies of storytelling required to reach that level.
Why, then, will only 10 of those 100 get a publishing contract?
Because those 10 winners have a more compelling story idea than the other 90, which in some cases may actually deliver equal or even superior execution.
A great trap awaits at the very gateway to the process of writing a story.
And that is the fact – the phenomenon, really – that the allure of storytelling itself, the very notion of actually finishing a manuscript, makes the writer blind to the prerequisite power of the idea itself.
The writer is so enthralled with the notion of writing a story, so attracted to the mechanics of it and so seduced by the vision of seeing it on a bookstore shelf, that they adopt an idea that is less than it must be to succeed.
It’s like falling in love with someone else because they are beautiful. That attraction is addictive and wildly exciting.
But you don’t know until you live with the person if the relationship is going to last. That initial attraction is never enough to stand up over time. More is required of the lasting relationship that sexual chemistry.
It’s like a group of athletes trying out for one last spot on a roster. All of them have an equal grasp of the game and the same basic skill set. Who gets that uniform? That one that, at her or his core, is the better athlete. Even if their skills aren’t as good as some of the folks who will go home empty handed.
So it is with our stories.
Are you in love with your story idea, or are you in love with the notion of writing it?
Just give me an idea and I’ll make it work… is the epitaph of deceased writing dreams.
One of the biggest breakthroughs you can have is a writer is the realization that you can’t make any idea work. Even if you execute the hell out of it.
You can’t breath live into the dead. The six core competencies model isn’t a formula to bring life to the dead. Indeed, a compelling story concept is one of those six core competencies.
You can’t turn a cow dropping into a silk purse, even if you have the most expensive and beautiful sewing machine on the planet.
Because there is no market for purses made from cow droppings. No matter how well crafted and aroma-free.
Is your story idea a cow dropping or a sheath of beautiful silk?
You can’t save an inherently dull or inconsequential idea, even if you slather it with character and stakes and poetic prose.
This decision-point – is my story idea good enough? – is where art resides, every bit as much as it does in your words. Some people can smell a great story idea, some can’t. Personal taste and aesthetic preference is something that can be neither taught nor channeled.
The former get published, the latter usually don’t.
Think of your story idea as a life force…
… that spark of energy that causes the human heart to beat. All our medicine and technology cannot bring life to the still-borne, nor can we save a patient whose body wants to release its life force to the universe.
We can only put it on life-support, a functioning body with no soul. And it will never open its eyes.
You can and should play God with your story. Indeed, if you don’t who will? And within that analogy, you need to do what God does – she/he, however you define God, infuses the body with life.
So it is with our stories.
Wrap your head around that principle, then get honest with yourself about the stories you’ve chosen to write. When you create a balance between the life force and the nutritional regimen of your story, you’re on your way to success.
If the idea, at its heart, isn’t as good as your ability to write it, then don’t sell yourself or your writing dream short.
Place the bar high. It’s the only way to give your story the wings it needs to really fly.