Writing In A Corset

To be clear, I never said or did that – the corset thing – nor would I. But I would quote it – am doing that now – from an unhappy review for my book, “Story Engineering.” I’m not in the habit of quoting bad reviews, but this one tees up today’s rant, which focuses on a perceived divide out there between writers who value craft, and those who don’t believe in it in favor of simply channeling one’s inner voice and demons and then percolating on it all for what could be years, all leading to a bestselling novel and the perception that this is how it’s done.

For many – newer writers in particular – they believe this because some Famous Literary Author giving a keynote told them so. Maybe that’s where this reviewer heard it:

There is another book about craft, but this is about movies wich (stet) is John Yorke’s “into the woods” (stet). And in page XV (stet) we can find : “You have to liberate people from theory, not give them a corset in which they have to fit their story, their life, their emotions, the way they feel about the world…” Guillermo del Toro. A corset Mr Brooks, yes.

Liberate people from theory. Which is like asking them to figure out the hard things out without any contextual reference points. Just try designing anything with that approach. That’s what this guy is preaching.

Liberate us from the principles that keep us from writing ourselves into a dizzy oblivion of lane changes, proselytization and over-wrought character backstories that hijack the narrative into another dimension while boring reader to tears… theories and principles that help us understand what a novel actually is… yeah, we need to forget all about those kooky fundamentals some of us have learned to value, freeing us to attempt to reinvent a form that has been around for thousands of years.

Those who write this way aren’t reinventing anything. They are simply taking the long road to get there, often backing into it once they do, at that.

As a workshop guy, I actually hear this a lot.

I’m guessing that these Famous Literary Author types were fed this line somewhere in their early writing journey.

They bought into it, Stephen King perpetuated it (he being one of the few who can actually tell stories this way within a reasonable amount of time) and now stand before us with the rationale that their own bestselling novel (the reason they are behind that podium, which is a legitimate counter-point to all of this) is more the product of innate genius and a decade of sweating blood – writing and discarding words in 100K chunks while rationalizing this as the dues we must pay – rather than acknowledging the principle-driven craft of fiction writing (which absolutely does include how stories are structured) that would have perhaps gotten them there in a fraction of the time.

And just maybe, with a better story.

As soon as structure enters the writing conversation, from a podium or otherwise, a lens is applied by some writers, one that doesn’t clarify, but rather, clouds the issue. Because these Famous literary Author keynotes don’t believe there is a structural paradigm that underpins, to some degree (often significant) that renders stories effective. Rather, they believe they made it all up from the thin air of their brain, that they invented whatever it was that made their book great.

Hey, years of pounding on anything, if you have even a shred of literary sensibility – much less genius – will move it toward a form that finally works. And when it does, perhaps leveraging feedback that informed the story’s evolution, it will smack a lot like the very structural, craft-driven principles that they anathematize, which was available from square one for them, as it is for all of us.

Genius, this is not.

I heard one such Famous Literary Author make a quick keynote side comment about craft that went like this: “And sure, we need some craft thrown in, all those semicolons and stuff, we have to get those right.”

Yes indeed. The craft of writing a novel is all about semicolons. Which, if you really think about it, have no business being in a novel in the first place.

At another keynote I heard this spoken with a straight face (his, not mine): “I can’t wait to get to my writing desk in the morning to see what my characters might want to do today.” As if he went to bed the previous night with absolutely no clue. As if the characters are in charge of the story, not him.

They say that, too. And it’s rubbish. It’s hubris, cloaked beneath a false humility, which is what hubris-driven people do.

The book mentioned within this quote-within-a-review and its attribution is from the film world, which is imbued with screenwriting context that suggests certain story beats must appear on a certain page and do a specific thing to the story. Which is by and large true… for them. As a footnote, it is almost always a director who whines about this (as is the case here, rendering the point moot relative to structure in novels), many of which may have a thing for corsets in other contexts, who knows. It is interesting to note, too, that those directors are the ones responsible for changing a script that isn’t working, so I’m not really sure what they’re complaining about… those darn writers who ruin their movies, I guess.

As novelists, especially in deep genre, we have a structural standard that is really more suggestive localization and story management within the narrative than it is a specific target, (other than the midpoint of a story, which is labeled thusly for reasons that are self-explanatory). Novelists have more wiggle room when it comes to how to play into structure, the ability to do just that resulting in precisely what the nay-sayers are holding rallies about: allowing a story to flow in a way that makes sense, rather than jamming it into… well, a corset.

The irony is often lost on Famous Literary Author as he/she tells us how real writers go about their business.

Here are a couple of validities that arise from the calmer middle ground.

An analogy helps put a fence around what the structure conversation for novelists actually is, and is not.

Consider the world of sports. Contests unfold upon fields and courts, each of which has its own set of lines. Boundaries, within which the game is played. If the ball or the puck or the shuttlecock lands outside those lines, if someone steps over one of them at the wrong time, bad things happen. Not a total failure, per se, but a failed moment that becomes a consequence of not looking down.

Those playing fields and courts, those lines, are unassailable parts of the games that are played upon and within them. Nobody questions or ignores them. Nobody feels they can or should move or reinvent those lines, which constitute nothing short of the way the game itself is to be played.

If we are writing genre fiction in particular, the same can be said of the structural expectations that define our game. Readers plop down their money with an expectation of something, include how the story will flow. There hasn’t been a bestselling “experimental” genre novel in decades, but there have been wildly creative ones that play within those genre lines.

And yet – and here is where the corset accusation falls apart like something found in the attic of a century-old second-hand store – nobody at the professional level who is actually playing these games – theirs, or ours – claims to be constrained. Squeezed at the hip, breathless and outraged. Rather, they understand that within those lines, or upon the stage, or within our genre expectations, infinite creativity, flexibility and surprise is abundantly available. That it is, in fact, encouraged and rewarded.

Barishnikov never felt constrained because he could not dance his way off the stage and into the box seats for a foot rub. At least at the Bolshoi, he couldn’t. Roger Federer isn’t posting rants about the fact that he can’t win a point if his serve lands beyond the service line.

So who is propagating this approach, anyhow?

Too many writers have been taught that they must suffer greatly… precisely because they believe there are no boundaries or principles that guide them. And yet, such a belief becomes the main constraint on their writing. They are like teenagers turned loose in New York city with no map and no phone, with money to spend and a finite window in which to play. What to do? Well first, get lost…

This belief system is why novels from Famous Literary Authors often take years to get right. But as it is in life, if you have no principles, if you believe in nothing other than your own brilliance and unrestrained will and the freedom to make up your own rules, you have infinite ways to screw it all up.

The conversation is muddied even more by the fact that often those authors (who may have indeed recently sold millions of copies of that ten-years-in-the-making literary behemoth) can’t actually explain how they got to where they ended up. Or why it works. (The last such keynoter explained his success because his novel was narrated by a dog… literally, a dog reincarnated as a human, but with his superior dog’s world view. That’s a genius concept, by the way… and it is precisely what explains the novel’s market appeal, rather than some deeper meaning to mankind that took the writer years to understand

The irony is palpable. After all that suffering and swimming against the current of craft, after all that feedback and revision and catharsis, the draft that worked for them actually did align with the very principles of craft that were available to them at the idea stage. What to do with an idea isn’t cosmically mysterious, it’s driven by craft if you let craft guide you. One’s knowledge of craft is the means of vetting an idea in the first place.

Listen closely, and you’ll realize those keynoting literary authors are talking about process, not product. For them it’s all just one big amorphous, vapourous precipitation of ethereal pondering called writing, and for them it takes years to summon forth.

Find your truth, the keynote speaker tells us with ominous gravitas.

Dude, I write violent psycho-sexual thrillers (some with corsets involved) in which guys like you get thrown off trains to scare the locals. Tell me what being true even means in that context.

It’s lit-speak. Rhetoric. The narrative of not really knowing, but faking it until you do. If you are treading water you are not yet drowning. Meanwhile, some writer floats by in a raft called craft, tries to throw you a line, and you wave it off.

Listen to such preachings. And then hear it for what it is. Writing advice, from any source is like that old adage about fortune cookes, where you add “in bed” to the end. When someone tells you what process you should use, which process is best, add “for him/her” to the end of it.

The best process, in any genre, is one that is informed by the principles of quality storytelling.

And when someone credible talks you about craft… listen hard and then take notes. Listen and read as much as you can, and then notice how all the real craft guys are saying the same things, almost exactly by intention if not the same vocabulary applied… because that is how stories are built, no matter how you get there.

Oh, we love our characters, too, just as much, in fact, as Famous Literary Author. But armed with craft – including structure – we know what to do with them – we actually give them something interesting to do in a story – how to propel them down a dramatic path that asks readers to root for them, rather than just observe them outgrowing a crappy childhood.

As for me and Jim Bell and other writing guru types who spread the gospel of true craft, that’s us outside the conference cocktail party, hitting balls back and forth on the court that defines our game, hoping we can land a few between the lines.

You are invited to join us.


Permission to pitch?  It’ll be quick, I promise.

fiver-poster I am on the cusp of launching a new craft-driven venture, wherein I produce and market video-based training modules leveraging the clarity of the Powerpoint experience and the narrative intensity of being spoken to in a visual context. Just like in a live workshop. I’m calling it The Storyfix Virtual Classroom, and there will be many modules online very soon.

I’m inviting you to opt-in to my mailing list for this, to be among the first to learn about new programs just as they are released, and to receive perpetual discounts and other bonuses – training and otherwise – that aren’t available to non-list writers. As a further incentive, you’ll receive the first training module out of the gate: Essential Craft for Emerging Novelists, which will be designed to lop years off your learning curve with one hour of focused training.

It’s hardcore craft training for serious authors. I hope you’ll join me.

By the way, the opt-in form below DOES work. Nothing happens when you hit SUBSCRIBE, at least that you can see right away (this is Mailchimp’s system), but you will receive an email at the address you submitted (from Mailchimp) asking you to confirm. (Several people have written saying the form isn’t working…  you just have to go to your email and complete the confirmation process there; if you are in doubt, email me – at storyfixer@gmail.com – and I can either confirm you’re in, or put you on the list myself.  Thanks for your interest!)

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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

23 Responses to Writing In A Corset

  1. James

    I tried to opt in but the site would not let me, how else can I try?

    • Jaimi Sorrell

      James, I’ve hit the same thing. I tried in three different browsers but it doesn’t go anywhere. 🙁

      • Jiame – can’t explain, this is Mailchimp’s form. Send me your email (storyfixer@gmail.com and I’ll manually get you on the list. Apologies for any inconvenience. Larry

    • James – can’t explain, this is Mailchimp’s form. Send me your email (storyfixer@gmail.com and I’ll manually get you on the list. Apologies for any inconvenience. Larry

  2. Thanks James. I’ve heard this… but when I check it from my end, it works. Maybe try the form on the Home Page of Storyfix, left column. That seems to be more reliable. Another thought… it may actually be working and you don’t know it yet, because they don’t provide a “confirmation” screen right after you sign up. But when you go to the email you provided, there should/could be one there, which is where you confirm your sign-up. Hope that’s the case for you, this is how it’s happened for most who believe “it isn’t working” at the sign-up stage. Thanks for your interest, hoping this works for you. Larry

    • Jaimi Sorrell

      Thanks for that, Larry! I went to opt in using the sidebar on the site itself, and it immediately told me I was already on the list. Try that, James! 🙂

  3. I find that having a well-thought-out plan and structure to my stories frees up my characters. It certainly doesn’t handcuff them. Understanding theme and context and where they are in the plotting gives them an added depth that has real meaning and adds momentum. Searching for those things while writing seems, to me, a huge waste of effort and time. It’s like pouring a foundation without a blueprint.

    Recently, I was wondering, why is it in every other profession craft (understanding and mastery of it) allows you to call yourself a professional, but not in writing fiction. And only when you have mastered craft, in those other arts, are you allowed to break the rules.

    But what do I know. Thanks for the article.

  4. I believe I opted-in. I double check. If you don’t find me on the list, please add me. I’d hate to miss the modules.

    If you need a pick-me-up after this rude corset comment, check out the comment section on this post, a conversation between me and David E. Hermens: https://www.facebook.com/ellej.rossi/posts/1571738379506858

    Your teachings hit the right writers. That’s all that matters.

  5. Larry Brooks writing in a corset? Please, none of us wants to go there. But here is the “there,” that I do want to go: Plot is basic. Without it there is no freedom. I have to give credit where credit is due. This a play on a quote by Karl Marx. The original quote is this: “Order is basic. Without it there is no freedom.”

    A music teacher gave me the quote when I was in my twenties. He said it in response to my wanting to play jazz. The rest of his rant that day was that if I wanted to play jazz, I had to know my scales in each key. I had to know the circle of 5ths and the circle of 4ths. I had to understand and study the basics in order to have the freedom that so many musicians love about jazz.

    Now there was a brief period of time in the 1960s where musicians under the influence of funny green stuff postulated, “anything can be music.” Train whistles, dogs barking, glasses breaking. That theory brought us short-lived, never to be liked album cuts that no listener, with or without the funny green stuff, ever revisited. EVER. Why? Because the arrogance of lofty ideals not backed by substance are something that no one wanted to listen to, not when there were songs with a bridge that you could actually sing along with.

    Similarly with the art form of the novel, Mr. Brooks’ corset not withstanding. The story of Persephone follows the form of Story Engineering almost to the letter. Poetics, a treaties by Aristotle was a Story Engineering type of instruction about the importance of structure. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Lofty Literary. As a writer especially one of the literary ilk, you should know your history and then you can blame it on the Greeks instead of Mr. Brooks. But I digress.

    Here’s what a good plot gets you: something that happens outwardly that allows your characters to develop and change. Characters cannot develop or change unless they are responding and/or reacting to something . . . like something happening, as in a well-structured plot! Change is an arc, because no one really likes change, so it is a journey. It’s structure. The nuance of inner thought and emotion can only happen WHEN there is a plot stimulating the inner life of the character. Characters cannot live in a vacuum. Well, I guess that they can, but then that’s like recording train whistles and dog barks and calling it music. I have Larry to thank for underscoring the difference.

    • @ Stephanie – well said. A guest post in itself. I appreciate your passion for the craft, you are a case study on what it can do for a writer who is willing to immerse.

  6. Kerry Boytzun

    When an actor gets his/her lines in a screenplay, many times the lines are just a guide. If you have a better way to say it, fine as long as the meaning of the scene stays intact. The scene has been designed to allow the actor to “act” his interpretation of what the emotion is.

    So the scene itself is structured in what that actor is going to say and do within it.

    To write the actual scenes as if the characters are telling you what they want to do–is idiotic. The actor can’t change the scene and go off-track.

    A story is about someone being presented with a life-changing scenario of either they adapt or remain steadfast. This ranges from: City Hall just annexed your land–get out; you just fell head over heels with the neighbor’s daughter that just moved in–but she has a lunatic boyfriend who is cheating on her; you are hiking in the woods and come across a dozen people all shot dead with a suitcase of money in the hands of one of the dead guys (No Country for Old Men–director screwed it up, BTW); your nice old boss retired and is replaced by a lunatic who wants you to quit.

    Tell me how your characters can do whatever they want in the above concepts? So if they can’t, then where does one draw the line with structure vs free wheeling? If you don’t hold to your premise of your concept–then you will create irrelevant scenes that will be boring, confusing, and likely skipped. If you don’t have a strong premise then you can’t end the story well because there is no problem to solve.

    The bottom line is anyone who tells you they just wing it for writing is being intentionally inaccurate.

    **The number one reason people stop reading a novel or watching a story: there was nothing “happening.”

    But that’s not specific enough.

    What they really meant was there wasn’t anything “that made sense, that they could follow that was fulfilling.” When this error has occurred, you get comments like “boring, idiotic, unrealistic, out of character, dull, off the rails.”

    However–there are a huge…huge amount of people who want to write whatever they want and believe they can–because they can type it all up and give it a title. Just like art. Vomit some paint and throw some food on the canvas and call it done.

    Structure-less pizza is some kind of strange casserole that was dumped on a pan and thrown in the oven.

    Nothing I want to eat.

  7. Jaimi Sorrell

    I just encountered this with a friend’s story I was attempting to edit the other day. It read like a round robin written by six different authors, although it actually was only written by one. Her POV character at the beginning was completely different from the one at the end. It was a muddled mess, with no discernible throughline. At times I got a vague idea of what it was supposed to be about, but then it would jump the tracks again.

    I tried to explain this, especially that it needed to end with the same POV that she began with, not with someone else entirely… and her response was a frosty, “Sure. It doesn’t conform with what is established practice. But I don’t like to be bound by convention, I like to be original.”


  8. Okay, I just checked, and the opt-in form below DOES work. Nothing happens when you hit SUBSCRIBE via the the form on the opt-in page, at least that you can see right away (this is Mailchimp’s system), but you will receive an email at the address you submitted (from Mailchimp) asking you to confirm.

    Several people stated here that the form isn’t working… but I just checked with three different test emails, and they all went through… AFTER completion of the second step, with is to go to your email and complete the confirmation process there with a single click on the link provided there. If you are still in doubt, email me – at storyfixer@gmail.com – and I can either confirm you’re in (Mailchimp allows me to view the names on the list, and date of sign-up), or put you on the list myself. Thanks for your interest!

  9. MikeR

    Maybe your perception of what you’re doing really is that “you can’t wait to find out what your characters will do next,” but I seriously doubt it. This implies that the experience of CREATING a very complex work-of-art (a novel(!)) is equivalent to the experience of EXPERIENCING it as a Gentle Reader. It is not. It can’t be. And, I think that any writer-god who suggests it is being dishonest.

    In Engineering, there’s a dread word: “scrap.” In accounting: “sunk cost.” You spent time and money for it, but you have nothing to show for it: it’s worthless. Well, “time is money.” If you spend days of your time and write thousands of words, only to throw-away those words and therefore your time, let’s face it: you’re doing something wrong. You’re not being efficient. You’re making the cost of change, therefore the cost of considering alternatives, far too expensive, far too soon. And what exactly do you have to show for it? Scrap. But the problem isn’t really “you, as a creator.” The problem is your process, and in your wholly-unrealistic expectations of that process … or your failure to perceive the need for process.

    “Creation of an artistic work,” of any sort, is hard work, but it really isn’t magic. It’s craftsmanship, applied within the context of a project that WILL take a long time to complete. As the Director of your personal project, time-and-resource allocation is of course entirely up to you, but simple common-sense says that you need to be efficient.

    Processes such as those which you espouse in Story Engineering … which of course are derived from other well-entrenched descriptions of the writing craft … are ones which are BATTLE-TESTED by people who must not only produce great stuff, but do it on a deadline. If anyone pooh-poohs those principles with a negative review, the review means nothing at all. The principles A-R-E sound.

  10. MikeR

    Here’s another way to look at it …

    How many of you (show of hands, please?), in your $WORK, are Managers?

    So, how much do you make per year? Let’s say, $100,000.

    Okay, so here’s the business plan: “YOUR employee, who makes (therefore, costs) $100,000 per year plus benefits), is gonna sit right down for the next year and ‘just start doing it.’ Without a plan, without any idea how s/he’s gonna get there. Just go to it, just like [s/he thought] Stephen King told her to do …”

    Please sign here, Mr/Ms. Manager.

    Huh? You say that you’re not about to do any such thing??

    Well, what WOULD you require of your employee, during this $100,000, year-long project?

    The principles of “good business practice” have not changed and will not change. Neither will the “good business reasons” for them.

  11. Mike… brilliant. As usual from you. Thanks for adding value to this conversation.

  12. Quick NOTICE – if you tried to sign up to the mailing list and were confused or discouraged because after hitting SUBSCRIBE nothing happened (as in, an on-screen notice of some kind)… that’s been fixed now (“all by self” as my kid used to say). After submitting the form you should see a notice explaining that a confirmation link has been sent to the submitted email address, which requires you a click from you to complete the sign-up process.

    This is a good thing. List providers like Mailchimp take great care to ensure that the opt-in nature of things is confirmed, ensuring that you will receive the true value you’re signing up for. I’m committed to that… I hope you’ll join me in this new training adventure, and take advantage of the discounts offered when you belong to the mailing list. Thanks much – Larry

  13. Excellent Work in article it’s a very helpful for me thanks to share this info.

  14. Larry;
    I don’t remember the Latin, but an old Latin proverb says “Don’t let the Bastards grind you down.”

    I thank God for your Story Engineering book. I’d spent years doing the 1,000,000 word climb and still didn’t “know” what a good story looked like. I had some decent ones, by instinct, (I read a lot); but I didn’t “know”.

    I recently presented a very cursory, Graphical, presentation of Story Structure to a Writing Lifegroup at my church (two sessions and a lot of pictures) [hey I’m a recovering Engineer, I like to draw pictures]. Then we started in as a group to analyze some popular genre books and movies using a worksheet of questions (derived from your story structure).

    First up was a Novella I had published in a friend’s Anthology (futurist, high-tech space opera/romance….with dragons.). Using my checklist their consensus analysis taught me stuff I didn’t know about myself, my writing in general and this Novella in particular.

    Your methodology rocks, bro.

    Keep it up.

    dave (Newburydave)

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  16. Cory Reynolds

    Really, if I had to get up everyday and write without knowing where I was in the process, or where my plot was even going (even though I believe it will all work its self out after the next draft), I would likely feel the need to motivate myself with “what are my characters doing today?” and other head games. It’s tough enough as it is, why make it infinitely more difficult when you don’t have to?

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