The Writing World According to American Idol

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 and other online venues, and will be in bookstores by early March.


Filed under Six Core Competencies

17 Responses to The Writing World According to American Idol

  1. “His stage presence recalls an orgasm you wish you had.”

    Probably the best statement I have ever read on a blog. Maybe anywhere. And perfect for a Friday.

    That’s aside from the fact that I loved the American Idol comparison to writing for publication.

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    Really looking forward to the book hitting. I got an email from amazon that my preorder had been bumped up to a delivery date of Wednesday (Amazon Prime subscriber) from the original date of the 28th… along with two other books I also ordered that are through the same publisher (one of them being Maass’s new one).

    I’m going to be flooded with awesomeness, now I just need to get this outline sorted out so it feels right…

  3. Brian C.


    I’m pretty sure I’ve read every article on your website, but for some reason ‘swing for the fences’ struck me somehow differently today.
    As a commercially unsuccessful songwriter and musician myself, I must admit that American Idol makes my skin crawl. So, of course, I rolled my eyes at the title of your column. Actually considered skipping it altogether. But to keep my perfect record intact, I didn’t.
    Swinging for the fences suddenly has a whole new meaning in the context of your left-field analogy.
    I just felt like I had to pass that along—how ironic it would be if my flashing light-bulb moment came as a result of American Idol.
    As always, thanks for the wisdom and advice.


  4. Random reader and first time commenter here.

    Me and my girlfriend have been watching American Idol this season and writing more consistently (well, me anyway) then we’ve ever written. This was a great analogy … it’s always good to get creative perspectives on something your passionate about.

    This blog in general has put lots of things in perspective for me when it comes to writing. I feel like it’s one of the things that has given me “permission” to write and has helped me realize that writing may have fundamentals but it’s an evolving craft that is different for each writer.

    So, thanks.

  5. Six Core Competencies. Work on them, make them have a contest among themselves to be the best and sweat some blood.

    Then we’ve got to deliver. Got to ship the goods. Perfection isn’t going to happen, so ship your best shot out the door.

    American Idol contestants probably worked on their basics a lot. But one thing they do that most of us don’t is they ship. They put it out for the world to see.

    Almost all will fail. Has anyone kept statistics on the “failures” who went off, worked on their act, and came back? With us, that’s called subitting to Yet Another Agent or Publisher.

  6. Well done. Brilliant analogy.

    So true about having that “it’ factor. There are many, many good and talented writers who are unfairly sent home with nothing. It’s not that their writing was bad, it’s just that it wasn’t memorable.

    Keep practicing, work on your presentation and figure out a way to stand out from the crowd – excellent advice.

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  8. This post hit me right between the eyes. I’ve been selling, but it gets too easy to write just well enough to get to the next round… making the contract. That’s no way to maintain a readership, and in today’s writing climate, that’s not only dumb, that’s suicidal. Gotta swing for the fence every time. Thanks for this.

  9. Shirls

    The thing is: all of those contestants BELIEVE they can do it. Which at least got them this far. Would-be writers need this same belief in themselves if they are even going to begin their novels. I know this sounds obvious but how many of us get gripped by stage fright before we’re even out of the traces? What a tangle of a metaphor.
    But hooray – your book which has been on pre-order is now availble and if the couriers’ strike here gets over with quickly I should have it soon. And yes, I’m holding my breath.

  10. I confess,I’m not TV watcher. I have only seen American Idol sporadically but enough to get your drift in this post. You hit this one out of the park for me. Being a writer is one of the hardest things I have done in my life ( I am a nurse practitioner). I have spent the last two years learning my craft~having picked the most challenging genre,memoir. I feel like I am in grad school,sweating bullets. But it’s all by choice and it is a passion that I am committed to. So thank you for the powerful reminder of the importance of finding my own edge and believing in myself when the stage is bursting with talent. Write On!

  11. Yesterday I attended the writing equivalent of American Idol auditions. It reaffirmed the subjectivity of agents’ reactions to writing and how crucial the ‘it’ factor really is. I’ll post a blog about it next week.

  12. @Kelly — notify me and I’ll link to it from here. Sounds interesting. L.

  13. An unabashedly avid AI fan, I heard the clink of the lightbulb going off when I read this piece. Many consistent writers have at least one of your Core Competencies. The real job is strengthening and polishing the rest.

    Great article. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. This is my first time here after finding your site through Write It Sideways, I’m so happy I clicked on the link.

  14. @Selena — great to have you here, thanks for stopping by. Let me know if you’d like to see something specific. L.

  15. Great analogy, Larry! I love it.

    The UPS man just brought me Story Engineering, which I pre-ordered weeks ago! Can’t wait to sit down and first devour, then slowly digest and synthesize!

  16. Patrick Sullivan

    I’m jealous Luisa, mine’s not arriving until Tomorrow (along with the other two writer’s digest books I bought that came in early, glee!)

    Larry’s going to the front of the pile, though Maass is right behind. So much writerly goodness.

  17. Hi Larry. I just posted the blog I mentioned last week. Here’s the link: