Three Men and a Manuscript: A Forum on the Storytelling Craft

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by Larry Brooks on November 12, 2013

I’ve been itching to post something unexpected, something with great value.  A gift to Storyfix readers, and those who come here because they’ve heard about this.

The following is a little Q&A (2500 words worth) I recently engaged in with two of the bigger names out there in the “writing guru” space: James Scott Bell, and Randy  Ingermanson. We share a lot similar perspectives and values regarding craft, and any similarity you see here to what I’ve been espousing on this site are… well, not at all coincidental.

None of us invented anything relative to craft. What we have done, however, is try to break it down and make it accessible, each of us in our own way.  The more you hear it, the more people you hear it from, the more you’ll recognize the common ground… which are the proven principles of storytelling.

If you like what you read, please forward this to your writer friends, or tweet it or Reddit or however you share content. We’re all in this together… some swimming, some sinking.  Here’s hoping this buoys you with hope and intention.

*****

1. There’s so much “butt-in-chair, nothing else matters” writing advice out there, and it’s creating problems for newer writers in particular. If, in some alternate universe, you were asked to define the Holy Grail of advice-for-fiction-writers, the context-setting, everything-stems-from-this piece of gold… and you only got to chip in one answer, what would it be? My guess is there may be more than one answer competing for this title… so if there’s no breaking the tie, please share those candidates, too.

J.S. BELL: Every scene needs an objective housed in the mind of the point-of-view character. Vonnegut said the character must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. And then you must put obstacles in the way of that objective, or the scene becomes boring. Finally, the outcome of the scene should put the Lead in a worse spot—or maybe give a temporary gain followed by more trouble. Trouble is our business, so we need to make it happen. If the writer uses scene objectives that relate to the overall story question, then the novel has organic unity and feels like there’s forward motion.

RANDY: Success in writing comes from the following three-part formula, which you will repeat until you die:

1) Write fiction on a regular schedule that lets you predict how long it’ll take you to create your next project.

2) Get pieces of it critiqued frequently and apply what you learned to your writing.

3) Read from the recognized experts on the craft and marketing of your work and apply what you learned to your writing.

Why is writing regularly important?  I don’t put much stock in native talent.  I’m sure it exists, but you learn to write fiction the way you learn to play tennis – by doing it.

Why is getting critiqued important?   After all, there are hazards to getting critiqued. We all have thin skins.  There are bad critiquers out there. Mean ones, too. Despite these hazards, every writer desperately needs an outside opinion. You won’t get better unless you know what the problems are in your writing. The only writers I’ve ever seen that I considered hopeless were the ones who couldn’t accept critiques of their work.

Why is studying the experts important? Because your critiquers can tell you what’s wrong with your work, but only a good teacher can tell you how to fix it. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Learn from the experts. Write better next time.

LARRY: A great story is never just about something… a place, a time, an event, a theme. A great story is about something happening.

Write with courage. Jump in. But don’t jump out of the airplane without a parachute. One with the words Principles of Storytelling Craft printed on it, visible from all points on the ground… where the readers are.

2. What do you say to writers who happily pull out a famous exception to the fundamentals we preach – pretty sure it happens to you as much as it does to me – and try to leverage it toward some combination of watering-down or license to go rouge with the principles?  Such as, “Hey, James Bond has no character arc… ever… so you’re full of crap, right?”

J.S. BELL: Besides the admonition that exceptions prove the rules, I would say you have to understand what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. In your example, Bond (like Jack Reacher) is a recurring character created for a particular experience—you know going in what each book is going to be like. Nothing wrong with that. Compare that to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who is on a years-long inner journey, book to book. It’s a different goal, and different set of expectations. The whole thing with writing fundamentals is that they work, have proved their worth time after time. If any writer wants to deviate from them, it should be done with full understanding, and then the writer can make an informed decision about trying something else, you know, like flying a plane with one wing.

RANDY: There are no inviolable rules, but there are plenty of principles of good writing.  The principles are in conflict with each other, which means you have to decide which are the most important and which you’re going to go slack on.

Certain categories are going to focus more on one set of principles and go easy on another set.

And once in a while, you have to violate just about any principle you can name.

But the fact is that some fiction works and some doesn’t.  When it’s working, you can always ask if there are principles you can apply to make it better.  When it’s not working, the quickest way to get it working is to ask what principles it’s violating, and then make any changes that make sense.

LARRY: Writers, as a rule (no irony intended), don’t like rules.  Many are offended when they think they smell one.  Thing is, too often rules are mistaken for principles.  Playing loose with principles can work, but it’s always a calculated risk.  One best made in full command of the principles one seeks to bend.  Ignorant bending can cost you your story.

Most rejections are the result of ignored or lightly regarded principles, often out of ignorance of them rather than deliberate nose-thumbing.

Almost always, when someone uses the example of an iconic novel to make me wrong (one guy said he wanted to come to my door and throw classic books at me; I gave him my address but he never showed), they are going back dozens, even hundreds of years.  That says it all… the earth was flat once, too.

The place you can find legitimate contemporary rule-benders are in the literary and experimental genres, where risk is the genre, and the survivors few and far between.

3. There’s a new website out there (which I won’t identify or promote) that’s all about how and why non-literary fiction (genre stories) is destroying the world and anyone with a brain should avoid it and read the stuff he likes. How do you differentiate ‘literary fiction” from commercial/genre fiction, and how do you respond to literary aspirants who are already playing the superiority/free-pass-on-fundamentals card?

J.S. BELL: We live in a free country with a First Amendment. We have choices about what we want to do with our writing. We all know that “commercial fiction” is so called because it makes more money. That does not, however, mean that the writing itself must be, perforce, inferior. I would place Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly and several others I could name right up there with the best of the supposed elite of “literary fiction.”

I’ve read some excellent literary fiction, and like it. But I’ve also read some dreadful Lit-Fic that was supposed to be great because a critic said it was. Let me put it this way: the best literary fiction I’ve read is that which does not consider Plot a four-letter word (bend that one in your mind), and has a basic understanding of structure.

There is room, of course, for experimental fiction. That, by definition, does things decidedly anti-fundamental. If the artist wants to do that, that’s fine. But there is a reason such is not called “commercial.”

Just know your reasons and your passions and your writing goals, and choose accordingly. I don’t think there’s any reason a writer should not choose to try to make a living at this, and then strive to make each book the best it can be.

RANDY: This smells like a basic conflict in values.

The vast majority of readers read to be entertained.  Genre fiction is designed to be as entertaining as possible, possibly at the expense of other elements, such as voice, style, theme, etc.

If you value the literary elements and don’t value entertainment, then you have every right to write literary fiction that is not entertaining.  Nobody is stopping you, and you can be as smug as you like.  However, you probably won’t get that many readers.

If you value entertainment and don’t value the literary elements, then you also have every right to write entertaining shlock that the critics will sneer at.  You might do well this way and if so, you can laugh all the way to the bank.

But you can also value both entertainment and literary elements.  These are independent things, so you can value BOTH of them highly, which might make you both rich and critically acclaimed.

Every writer gets to decide for herself what she values and then write fiction in line with those values.

LARRY: I find it interesting how often “literary” sensibilities find their way into genre fiction.  The work of Dennis Lehane, for example, isan A-list name if ever one.  He works in mainstream adult contemporary fiction that is not considered, officially at least (he’s not partying with Jonathan Franzen, to my knowledge) part of the literary genre, yet his is some of the most literary work you’ll ever read.  He just adds a compelling plot while he’s at it.

I think that’s it.  It’s the focus and intention of the plot, or the lack thereof, that leans into literary, or not.  It’s more than voice, more than character… it’s the relevance that earns the tag, I think.

4. Best novel you’ve ever read, in terms of modeling the principles of effective storytelling… and why does it get your vote?

J.S. BELL: I have many candidates, including some obscure titles like the 1950s paperback original Big Red’s Daughter by John McPartland. If I may share a blog post I did on why I loved this book, it will answer your question more fully:

http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2013/05/11-keys-to-making-novel-page-turner.html#.UgOjGo7ohn8

In fact, when I think of the novels I’ve read more than once, I think of The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler and Cancel All Our Vows by John D. MacDonald. Both of these writers stand equal, in my mind, with any of the great literary writers of our time. Isn’t that interesting? Their books tell as much truth about the human condition as any other novel I’ve read and just happen to be compulsively readable as well.

RANDY: It’s hard to choose just one, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins did a lot of things right in this first book in the series.  I found myself so sucked into the story that my inner critic pretty much took a nap.  That’s good writing.

Ender’s Game.  Orson Scott Card does a great job of making an epic tale personal.  Again, reading this book causes me to drop my analytical side and just enjoy the story.

The Harry Potter series, books #4 through 7.  J.K. Rowling did a nice job in the first few books, but she really hit her stride in Book #4 and she continued at that same high level all the way through to the end.  There are some flaws in the Potter series, but it’s hard to think of a book that has a better story world.

The Pillars of the Earth.  This is widely considered to be Ken Follett’s best work, and I would agree.  It’s a long book with several major characters.  In my opinion, Follett puts you inside the skin of his characters better than any author on the planet.  And he does it superbly in this book.

River God, by Wilbur Smith.  This is an action-packed adventure story set in 18th century B.C. Egypt.  Smith does a great job of convincing the reader that you are there.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.  The premise is weird, but Niffenegger makes you believe it.  I never found the time-line confusing.  This is another one where my inner critic fell asleep.

I think the reason I chose each of these is that the authors are operating at a very high level in almost every single aspect of their fiction writing.

LARRY: I love the work of Colin Harrison, whose book Afterburn (2000) was the runner up on several “best book” awards lists for that year, after Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I also soak up anything by Nelson Demille, and consider his Up Country (2002) a modern masterpiece and the definitive novel about theVietnam experience.

5. You somehow (maybe in your next novel) get to meet yourself when you were younger. He doesn’t recognize you, of course, thinks you’re an old fart and, besides, he’s not listening to anybody at that stage. What would you tell him relative to writing, and to life itself, and how would you break through the inevitable resistance to those truths?

J.S. BELL: Don’t stress so much. You’re all in a dither about whether you’ll “make it” or not. Hang on to the joy you felt when you first started writing and it all seemed like a wonderful dream, and the words flowed. Even though you needed to learn the craft, your enjoyment of the process was infectious. Don’t take rejection personally. Use it as a motivator to get better. The two things you have going for you are determination and a work ethic. Don’t lose those two things!

RANDY: First, be aware that it’s extremely hard to make a living as a novelist. It’s easy to believe that all novelists are millionaires, because most of the novelists you can think of are doing extremely well.  But you won’t earn a living as a novelist unless you’re in the 99th percentile, and you won’t earn a GOOD living unless you’re well up in the 99th percentile.

This means you have two options:

1) Have a day job.

2) Be exceptionally talented, be an exceptional marketer, or be exceptionally lucky.  You need at least one of these three, but there are no guarantees unless you’ve got all three.

Second, the money isn’t the reason you write fiction.  You write fiction for one reason only: Because it’s in your blood.

If writing fiction is not in your blood, then get out now, because you’ll never be happy as a novelist.

If writing fiction is in your blood, then by all means write fiction, develop your skills, learn to be a good marketer, and pray for luck.  But even if you never see financial success, it won’t matter, because the only thing that matters to you is that you’re writing fiction.  You don’t have to justify your fiction writing to anyone. It’s none of their business how you spend your life.

Third, in 2010, e-books will suddenly take off and the world will change overnight.  Be ready for this.

LARRY: Don’t do it for the money. Write what you love. And, love what you write, but work hard to earn that love by learning and practicing the deep art of storytelling craft.  You’ll save yourself a decade or two of Xanax if you do.

****

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the bestselling author of such thrillers as Don’t Leave Me, Try Dying and Watch Your Back. His novella One More Lie was the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award. Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writer’s Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing for Publication, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Visit his website at: www.jamesscottbell.com

RANDY INGERMANSON is known around the world as “the Snowflake Guy” in honor of his wildly popular Snowflake method of writing a novel. He is the award-winning author of six novels and the best-selling book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES.  He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley and works as director of software engineering for Vala Sciences, in San Diego.  He lives in the Pacific northwest, where he sees to the needs of three surly cats.  Check out his web site for novelists at http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

LARRY BROOKS is the creator of Storyfix.com, and the author of the writing books Story Physics and the bestseller, Story Engineering. His latest novel is Deadly Faux, from Turner Publishing.

Read the latest review of Deadly Faux HERE.  

{ 9 comments }

Marina Sofia November 12, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Oh, I love this! Plain-spoken, practical, sensible and very useful rather than just inspirational. Great job, everyone!

Jan Rydzon November 13, 2013 at 6:58 am

Great insights and advice from three outstanding writing gurus!
Thank you.

Cole November 13, 2013 at 7:56 am

Wow – that was as though Superman, Batman, and Wolverine all got together to explain how superpowers work. Thanks, guys. A very refreshing reminder of why, how, and what to write!

Matt Duray November 13, 2013 at 11:32 am

Great post, thanks for sharing. I’m gonna have to check out a few of the books mentioned…

Larry November 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm

I love what Jim (J.S. Bell) says in his first response here: “Trouble is our business.” That’s so… perfect. He should entitle his next writing book with it, and if he doesn’t, I may borrow (and attribute) it. Genius.

Shaun November 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Sharing is caring. Always appreciate it. I’ll have to check some of those books out in future. Thanks for sharing.

James Scott Bell November 14, 2013 at 7:27 am

Nicely done, Larry. Thanks for the great conversation.

MikeR November 14, 2013 at 8:38 am

I liked this quote from the linked-to forum page: “Great fiction is, above all, an emotional ride.”

And this one: “… much more interesting than a one-note evil villain.”

A. J. Abbiati November 15, 2013 at 10:35 am

Very insightful post! Thanks for sharing, Larry.

I especially liked the distinction between “rule” and “principle.” That’s one I’ll be using frequently from now on!

–Jim

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