I tend to view the world through the lens of a writer. Which means I’m constantly assigning meaning to things while scanning for hooks and nuances and story opportunities.
What some people mistake as a dumb blank stare and others as stand-offishness is really me trying to read between the lines.
I view the writing journey as just that – a journey – something to be savored and struggled with. Anything we commit ourselves to – writing, love, a day job, a fitness program – becomes a seminar complete with exercises and feedback and broken intentions, all of it imparting available wisdom for those who take the time to notice.
Like American Idol, for example.
A guilty pleasure of mine. Which is perhaps why I’m writing about it here, trying to attach some measure of meaning to it.
It’s art, it’s craft, it’s talent. Or not. It’s a dream struggling for breath.
Sounds a lot like writing to me.
I can’t help but notice the parallel between what these kids are trying to accomplish and what anyone who has sat down to pour a story onto a page is faced with.
That includes the jokesters who don’t take it seriously, who wrap a gimmick around their voice, usually to mask inadequacies. The self-deluded few who can’t carry a tune yet believe themselves to be supremely gifted, who are invariably indignant finger-flippers as they storm out of the facility. The good-but-not-great aspirants who fail to realize they need a non-gimmick hook to stand out. The inconsistencies and prejudices of the judges who wield the gavel on it all.
It isn’t fair. A lot a great talent goes home. But it is life itself playing out on that stage.
In life, everybody gets rejected. Everybody. It’s who comes back for the next audition that counts.
I just finished watching the first two Hollywood week installments.
What we see are those who seemed worthy, breaking the promise of their first impression. We watch them beg for their lives after Randy has sent them packing. We witness back stabbing, elitism and ego, style trumping substance, and substance trampled beneath a veneer of glitter and bluster.
We see hearts splattering and dreams shattering. And we see doors open as an emerging light ignites hope.
We see life. We see ourselves, and we wonder how we might fare if there was an equivalent competitive venue for our storytelling.
Which there is, by the way. Absolutely.
It’s called publishing, however you wish to define it.
Because what we put out there – either through submission to publishers or our declaration of self-publishing – is subject to the same fickle whims and inequities as those kids on AI are facing.
So what of it? Life hasn’t been fair for a long time, and yet, there are the very consistent physics of intention-leading-to-consequence manifesting all around us. What’s to be learned from this ear-candy analogy for writers looking for an edge to get into the next round?
What makes a dream come true?
There are four variables play on AI.
I broke it down this week. Those singers – and those writers tracking with this analogous parallel universe – have only four weapons at their disposal. Four arrows in the quiver. Four hammers in the toolbox.
They have their voice.
They have their look.
They have their stage presence.
And they have, or at least they need, an indefinable something else. What the departed Simon Cowell called “the it factor.”
Do all four need to be there? Yes, to some degree. Can you make it if one of them is only mediocre in comparison to the competition? Sometimes. If you saw the Grammys you know after watching Bob Dylan that a singing voice is sometimes optional.
But can you make it if all four are simply good, yet none of them stand out and scream, “I’m the next American Idol!” rather than, “I’m the next winner of the weekend karaoke-a-thon at Sparky’s Bar and Grill!”
Something needs to pop. To explode.
And as it sizzles, the others need to be conjured and presented at a professional level.
Look closely at next week’s cuts, and notice who gets on the show and who doesn’t. One of those four things will be off-the-charts compelling for those going on to the next round. The rest… hey, they were good. They got this far.
But it wasn’t enough.
Maybe it’ll be that cute chubby kid we can’t help but root for. Love that guy. Sure, he sings wonderfully, but his stage presence is, well, under development. But he has an off-the-charts X-factor, if not an It-factor.
Maybe it’s the cheery guy with the beard whose voice sounds like a loofa being scraped over a microphone. A growl that sounds good because it translates to passion and soul. His stage presence recalls an orgasm you wish you had. And the sum of it – a guy who looks like he should be driving George Clooney’s car – is astoundingly charismatic.
Josh Groban isn’t threatened, but I bet he’s a toe-tapping fan.
And of course, there is the bevy of hot young starlets betting their dream on their shoes and eye-liner. Is that enough? Not when it’s a commodity. And yet, when you have a two singers of equal talent, one who looks like Britney Spears and the other who looks like Flo at the mall Starbucks, who’s gonna get the nod?
Like I said, life isn’t fair.
And neither is the world of publishing your writing.
But it’s fair enough, because there are laws of physics in play. Dynamics of expectation. They are, in fact, the same imprecise forces we see up on that American Idol stage.
The wise writer notices and makes a plan.
In our case, there are six variables in play.
All six need to be good, even great. But if all six are simply good – even great –that probably isn’t enough. Just like the auditions for AI, in which hundreds of pretty darn good singers are sent packing, it takes more.
It takes at least one of those six things to pop. To explode. To differentiate. To grab and intrigue and seduce.
I call them the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.
They are: concept, character, theme, story structure (plot), scene execution and writing voice. They are non-negotiable, yet flexible.
Voice is a commodity. Just like on Idol. You are not the next Josh Groban of literature, Jonathan Franzen grabbed that golden ring and ran with it. You need something else to establish your differentiated brand, your talent.
Chances are you’re pretty good at most if not all of the Six Core Competencies. Hey, you’re not in this game because you struggle with sentence structure.
But simply knowing that you have to swing for the fences with at least one of those Six Core Competencies could be the thing that launches your career into a higher orbit.
Too many writers don’t embrace that challenge. They try to write just like their favorite author. To blend in to a published crowed.
What do you do better in your stories than any other writer, and that an editor or reader hasn’t seen in a long time, or in that form? That is the question.
The karaoke bars are full of people who sound every bit as good as the lead singer of Lady Antebellum. Trust me, you do not want to be just another storyteller who can write well.
No, you want to be the next Chuck Palahnuik. Who writes like nobody else out there.
So keep singing. Keep going to the audition. Keep working on craft. But do it while thinking Big, and strategically.
Whether in traditional publishing or the emerging self-publishing arena, good isn’t good enough anymore. At least to break in and make your name.
Sometimes you have to scream. And look good in the process.
My new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” is available now on Amazon.com and other online venues, and will be in bookstores by early March.