Three Things You Have In Common With All Writers

February 6, 2018

by Art Holcomb

I’ve seen several thousand students in my career and, from that vantage point, trends and patterns appear.

One of those trends details things that all developing writers get wrong in the beginning of their careers.

So, today, I want to tell you three truths that you need to face about your own writing, your own personal expectations about yourself and the places where you can go astray.

TRUTH #1 –You often invest in the wrong project.

You all know the feeling – at the beginning of our writing career, we tend to stumble across an idea for story that ignites our imagination.  We are sure this notion would make a great play, movie or novel and we eagerly start to work.

And the deeper we go into the project, the naturally more committed we become.

And once we start seeing characters develop and we have a plot pathway for the story, you couldn’t stop us or dissuade us for love or money.

But here’s the deal – Excitement over a notion doesn’t necessarily tell you whether it could actually make a great book or screenplay.  And even more likely – in spite of your excitement – there’s probably not enough of an interesting idea there to even make a good short story.

Actually, the mere fact that you ARE so excited about the idea can really blind you to any inherent flaws and weaknesses.  Frankly, it is this very moment when you are in the most danger as a storyteller.

Remember: The best writing in the world cannot make a great story out of a weak idea, and the fact that you are in love with an idea – that it fascinates and captivates you and that you are filled with inspiration and energy – is absolutely no real indication that it will make a great story.’’

So – what do you really need to look for when considering a story concept?

First, and most obviously, the idea must be story-capable: That means that all the necessary parts must be there to make a great story.

They are:

A compelling HERO,

A palpable and worthy OBSTACLE

A valuable GOAL with life-or death (physically, spiritually or emotionally) STAKES, and

A THEME that can connect and resonate with an audience.

Second, the concept must be something you know enough about to write competently. Military stories, for example – even well-written one, can become a joke in the eyes of the savvy and informed reader if you know actually little to nothing about military lore, procedures, traditions, etc. Unless you read a GREAT DEAL in the genre you want to write in, you may not be familiar with the forms and conventions of that genre to do it justice

And third, a great story must be built – not intuited or channeled. Great stories (and why aspire to write anything else?) are layered and complex things, even the short ones. Working professional writers, from Stephen King on down, do not dream up great stories off the top of their head, regardless of what their reputations say.  The “scripting” process – the time spend actually writing the drafts – is but a small portion of the entire process, which must include time dedicated to “story dreaming,” research, consideration and contemplation.

You only have so much writing time in your life and only so much talent. You need to choose your ideas wisely.

TRUTH #2 – You are afraid of self-knowledge.

Your career is capped – and, by that, I mean completely and totally limited by – your knowledge of the complexity and complications of human nature.

And the only human you will ever have any chance of understanding is YOURSELF. You must use that self-knowledge to inform, motivate and humanize your characters in order to give your readers what they absolutely crave – an emotional experience. If you are not someone who’s comfortable with or willing to delve deep into their own life and emotional history for those tools for your stories, you will absolutely fail to write a great story.

One of the secrets to writing something commercial liable is to write something HONEST.

Professional writers – in my experience – do not approach their own writing by asking, “Is this original and groundbreaking? Will it earn me the respect I deserve?”

Instead, s/he should be looking at it from the inside-out and ask, “Does this story move me emotionally? Is it authentic and specifically drawn from who I am? And will this interesting to others?”

TRUTH #3 – You are impatient.

We, of course, believe that everything we write should be published.  The mere fact that we’ve completed the monumental task of actually completing our first draft  subconsciously means that we’re ready to get an agent and get this thing into print.

It doesn’t work this way.

It has never worked this way.

And the fact that new writers believe this is not their fault.  It’s part of the myth of writing – that it is a communication and not a craft (but that’s a valuable topic for another post).

All successful writers are, actually, really very much like professional athletes

We must MASTER the fundamentals – vast portions of what I write are based entirely on the fundamental of good writing.  Larry and I have brought you books and seminars and posts filled with this information but, if you do not truly embrace it, nothing great can happen.

We must practice and train.  I write practice pieces every day – prose and scripts that WILL NEVER be seen by anyone else, as I practice these fundamentals and learn my crafts.  I accepted the fact early on that I might never see my first piece, or even my fifth in print on the screen – but I did know that I would eventual sell if I became good enough. That’s why I practice writing every day – even after 40 years at the craft.

We must be coached. I sought out writers and teachers I believed could teach me something I didn’t know –  and then I practiced it  – under their guidance – until I became good enough to submit.

No one makes it there on their own.  We all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us.  We seek out the best advice possible – and that, in part, is which you’re here on this site today.

So – what do we do?

FIRST, GET SERIOUS. You must say to yourself that this is who I am.  This is what I want to dedicate my life to accomplishing. Because the frank truth is that a great many of you want to be a published writer, but you do not want it badly enough to do whatever it takes.

SECOND, GET THE INFORMATION AND MENTORING YOU NEED. The Second Pillar says that all writers need to have a constant mentoring presence in their life. That means someone who is helping to guide you through the process one-on-one.  This can be through Larry’s books or great video series or through my seminars and writing – or through either of us in person –  but it can also be through any writer or teacher that you can make a connection with.  Look for someone who has done what you want to do, someone with a track record.

THIRD, REALIZE THAT THIS ISN’T GOING TO BE EASY. Nothing important ever is.  If you enjoy the process of writing, if the prose comes easily to you, then there is a very good chance that you’re not working anywhere near hard enough to create the success you desire.

But if you are serious and yearn for that success, you can achieve it. You have found here a community of people with the same dreams and desire – and when you’re ready to move up to the next level of commitment and craft, we’re here for you.

Everyone was a beginning, aspiring writer once.  The difference is – will you remain there?

Until next time, keep writing!




Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series, Art Holcomb posts

14 Responses to Three Things You Have In Common With All Writers

  1. MikeR

    The very best book I ever read about (screen)writing was David Gerrold’s “The Trouble With Tribbles.” This was this now-seasoned writer’s very first successful screenplay, and, while today we can laugh along with it and be thoroughly entertained by it – still, forty-plus years later – David pulls no punches in describing what a professional ordeal it actually was.

    Foremost, he describes the PROCESS. You don’t get to pitch “a script.” You have to pitch a few-page premise in the desperate hope that you will be given the green-light to pitch anything more, thence in the desperate hope that you will actually get to pitch a script … only to watch your precious brainchild turn into a rainbow. (Every modification to the shooting-script was marked by a page in a different color.)

    “From the writer’s perspective,” this might sound horrible … and yet, from the perspective of a production company that has to shoot and deliver a brand-new episode to the network each and every week, there is “a grimly pragmatic sense and necessity to it.” Actually, from the production company’s perspective, “their system works.”

    David emphasizes, throughout his book, that the process taught him a lot and made him a better writer. He also candidly describes the =discovery= process that led to the final script: “A touch of Klingon made it a Story.”

    He describes an =iterative= process of “professional story-making” that, if you can but accept the necessity of it, actually makes perfect sense. (The essential germ of a …) Salable Story really can be expressed in three pages. And if you really want to do this for a =living=, you do not have (your own) time to waste.

  2. Hence why each book is harder to write than the previous one. Ugh.

  3. “Great stories … are layered and complex things”—Yes! I can’t imagine getting all the layers down if I didn’t do a great deal of planning first. Inevitably I would forget something, and a giant plot hole would be my reward.

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  5. MikeR

    Plus, Carrie, “every good story involves =decisions= … tons of ’em, and none with pre-determined or deterministic answers. They’re almost all “your creative choices,” so you’ve got to be working with a process that allows you to make those decisions =cheaply.=

    Referring to “Star Trek” again, you take for granted that Captain “Kirk” and “Mr. Spock” and “‘Bones’ McCoy” and “Scotty” rode the Starship “Enterprise.” But what you might not know is how they actually came up with =all= of those things that I put in “quotes.”

    As (producer) Gene L. Coon writes in “The World of Star Trek,” they literally pounded out pages full of names as fast as they could on a typewriter, then sifted through them in committee meetings. (David Gerrold did exactly the same thing to come up with the word, “tribble.”)

    If you’ve written twenty, fifty pages to come up with a scene, let alone (god help us all) a book, you’re much too emotionally invested in it. You’re the proverbial husband who has driven 150 miles before he stops to look at a map. (And I can say that, ‘cuz I’m a guy!) You’ve =got= to have a process that lets you =make= decisions, constantly. So that when you start to drive those longer distances, you know where you are going and why (even if your readers won’t, yet).

    Exactly the same logic applies to other, even much-smaller projects – like that presentation you’re going to make at a very important trade-show next month.

  6. MikeR

    P.S. David Gerrold also reveals that the name of the episode … “The Trouble With Tribbles” … was finally arrived-at only very shortly before the final script was turned-in, when he had decided on “tribbles” =and=had cleared his decision with the studio execs. Only then(!) did the “pun-derful title” follow suit.

    And you thought that it all “just happened that way.” . . .

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  8. Robert Jones


    That “Committee” can be a little too invasive sometimes. I’ve heard some nightmarish tales of committee style projects. I’ve been a part of my share as well. Sometimes the committee approach can work if you have the right people seeing mistakes or portential pitfalls. Other times changes can be a totally arbitrary. I would not want to write film scripts. I was going through the commentary section of The Avengers after it came out on DVD and heard Joss Whedon say there was only one scene in the entire film that made it into the movie as he first wrote it. And he was actually scripting new scenes on the fly while filming it because the committee was still issueing changes.

  9. MikeR


    I daresay that committees exist in publishing projects, too – “are not the fundamental market dynamics exactly the same?

    The central idea, I think, is that “there IS a PROCESS … there IS a PLAN.” Because there has to be. (“We’re in the BUSINESS of doing this, and we have deadlines.”)

    But just-maybe there’s (more than) a little bit of Fiction in the (semi-fictional?) accounts of “the process of writing fiction.” Don’t we all just want to admire Michelangelo’s “David,” without considering that someone probably had to re-sharpen a set of chisels hundreds of times, and to spend who-knows how long working over every square-inch of that marvelous sculpture with abrasives? (Or that the block of stone in question might have contained a flaw in some very-inconvenient place?) Nahhh…

  10. Robert Jones


    Absolutely. Most readers don’t want to see, or understand, the mechanics of what makes a story work. Even DVD extras are mostly actors patting one another on the back, or the glorious aspects of certain aspects of a project. It gets harder and harder to find decent interviews and commentary from the writers.

    I love reading about other people’s process. Writing books and magazines (and of course, Storyfix) are a great source of inspiration for me. As much as great writing. I enjoy frankness. And a touch of the personal. Even writers who just seem to get there with a vague sense of the process, but a keen sense of story structure, can be inspiring. I don’t quite know how some of them manage with the vague part…LOL! And quite often I think there’s an entire sect of writers who fear giving away their secrets. After all, this attitude exists everywhere else creators do their thing, why shouldn’t some writers share the same fear?

    More to the point of Art’s post, I think the more a writer can realize the things they in common, the better off they’ll be. And to add to that, understanding what you have in common with professional writers is extremely important. Knowing they are human being who all struggled with much the same path every other writers does, that persistence can pay off, and knowledge is power—are key factors, indeed. Because we are all riding on the backs of those who came before us. Most people who struggle alone are attempting to reinvent wheels that have been around a very long time. And they may do a fine job of reinventing that wheel without knowledge or having any prior understanding that wheels already exist. But then you show it to someone who hasn’t been living in a cave their entire life and they’ll look at you with puzzlement, or disdain and say, “Yeah? It’s a wheel. So what?” Because you’re primitive wheel probably went out of fashion circa 3,700 B.C. 😀

  11. MikeR

    Sometimes, @Robert, I think that “the secret is … there is no secret.”

    Have all of us somehow forgotten that innocent fifth-grade moment? “TERM paper? What’s a TERM paper?”

    Answer: “it’s your first non-trivial(!) writing project, and it sucks.” However, your teacher told you what to do and you didn’t listen, did you? (S)He said to “start with an outline.” But, not knowing any better at the time, you instead decided to “pants” it. Sure was a long Wednesday night, was it not, when the paper was due Thursday morning? (Especially before there were word-processors!)

    There’s a process, and that process is all about efficiency. It’s all about “making decision-making cheap.” And, first acknowledging that there are constant decisions to be made.

    Yeah, it never occurred to you that, when your mother gave you a peculiar look and told you to make do with the typewriter-ribbon that you already had, she was an experienced former college student. She knew. You didn’t. Yet.

  12. Robert Jones


    Apparently we are on a similar wavelength because I was thinking very similar thoughts just this morning on the whole planning Vs. pantsing issue.

    I used to think, like many writers, that planning somehow took away from my writing time. I just wanted to dive in and get the story going. Later I discovered planning doesn’t take away from my writing time, but saves me a ton of time. Because there are so many other things to consider when writing a novel, you’re always flushing out parts of the story, discovering things about characters, building a believable world. Having a road map on where scenes begin and end only helps to keep me on track when I start drafting. Otherwise, there’s just too much to consider—and that can mean many more drafts to do.

    Personally, I think the planning stage is just as exciting and creative as any other part of the process. The research part always opens doors to ideas I never would’ve thought of on my own. Outlining a basic idea of each scene helps me to see what works and what needs cutting before I start to write (although there are still always things to add and cut later).

    And I always start filling up a notebook while this is going on with whatever comes to mind, whether it gets used or not. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to newcomers is to live with your story and characters for a little while first and resist the urge to dive in quickly. I know if my notebook is filling up with ideas I won’t lose interest, that it will be a project that will spark enough creative fire to get through it. A novel is a huge undertaking. You can’t just run through the drive-thru and order up the various parts of a meal and put it all together because your hungry for McDonald’s today. Tomorrow ou may want pizza. And ultimately, you have to learn to cook each aspect of the meal yourself, serve it to guests and hope they’ll like it enough to keep eating. And ideally, come back for more another time 🙂

  13. MikeR

    @Robert –

    I’m very glad that you mentioned a notebook. But you forgot to mention the number-two pencils and the still-manual pencil sharpener mounted on the wall. (I don’t think you can find such a thing anywhere anymore.) I keep a journal on all of my projects, sometimes calling it my “captain’s log,” and I usually slow-down and write in it in the (first-light) morning, with a sharp pencil and a nice cup of coffee.

    And: “no eraser.”

    A principle that I follow is: “never actually throw anything away.” Not anything. Not ever. Shove it into a ‘waste-basket folder’ if you like, but don’t actually destroy it. (A newspaperman would maybe call it “the morgue.”) If you’re penciling, draw an “X” through it and shove it in a box, not the shredder. If you feel that you’ve absolutely ruined a scene and need to start over, very well … but do NOT discard the old version. (In fact, on my Mac, I am very careful to “lock” such things.)

    My “captain’s log” really is a diary. Once I’ve written something there, I know it’s like that poor little insect that just got stuck to the board with a push-pin: it’s been captured and it’s never going to fly away. (And, it’s fresh. Young or old, your memory isn’t.)

    Writing is a creative process, not a deterministic one. Ideas don’t pop out of your head wrapped in ribbons and a bow. Your inevitable “false starts” and “explorations” are not WASTED effort. Treat everything that you write – whether it is finished prose or a sketch or a draft or a mere working-document – as precious. If it’s in any way related to the project (or might it turn out to be the next one?), catalog and keep it.

  14. Robert Jones


    I have a pile of old notebooks and legal pads as well. I saw one of those old pencil sharpeners in and antique shop a few weeks ago. And I use gel pens these days instead of pencils. And I usually carry a pocket notebook with me…although I’ve dictated messages to myself using my phone as well. Why not make use of that technology? I usually write the messages in my notebook later though, unless it’s something I can immediately use when I next sit down to write.

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