May I pop some champagne?
This past week marked the 10th anniversary of Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books). I’m extremely gratified that the book has helped so many writers, because I needed such help when I was starting out. As I explain in the introduction:
I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of The Big Lie.
In my twenties I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t you’ll never get it.
My first writing efforts didn’t have it. I thought I was doomed. Outside of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, I didn’t get any encouragement at all.
In college, I took a writing course taught by Raymond Carver. I looked at the stuff he wrote; I looked at my stuff.
It wasn’t the same.
Because writing can’t be taught.
I started to believe it. I figured I didn’t have it and never would.
So I did other stuff. Like go to law school. Like join a law firm. Like give up my dream.
But the itch to write would not go away.
At age 34, I read an interview with a lawyer who’d had a novel published. And what he said hit me in my lengthy briefs. He said he’d had an accident and was almost killed. In the hospital, given a second chance at life, he decided the one thing he wanted was to be a writer. And he would write and write, even if he never got published, because that was what he wanted.
Well, I wanted it too.
But The Big Lie was still there, hovering around my brain, mocking me.
Especially when I began to study the craft.
I went out and bought my first book on fiction writing. It was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel. I also bought Syd Field’s book on screenwriting because anyone living in Los Angeles who has opposable thumbs is required to write a screenplay.
And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.
Eventually I was published. Then I started to teach what I’d learned. I wrote some articles for Writer’s Digest magazine that led to
my becoming the fiction columnist, and then to the appearance of Plot & Structure in October of 2004.
When there were no ebooks.
Looking back at the last ten years, I would emphasize the following lessons from Plot & Structure:
1. You can learn the craft of writing fiction that sells.
2. Structure is what enables your story to connect with readers.
3. Don’t just write what you know. Write who you are.
4. Every scene has a purpose, and that purpose can and should be structured for the greatest effect.
5. If you know what effect you want to create, you can learn the techniques for making it happen.
6. Plots will drag unless the protagonist is forced, before the 20% mark, through a “doorway of no return.” This was my biggest contribution to structure studies. It explains how and why a story takes off –– or starts to drag.
7. There are only so many plot patterns. The magic happens when an author puts his unique style, imagination and feeling into the pattern.
8. Compelling fiction is always about death –– physical, professional, or psychological.
9. Act first, explain later. Start with a character in motion, doing something, wanting something. Readers will wait a long time for backstory and exposition if a character is moving.
10. Develop a vision for yourself as a writer. Make it something that excites you. Turn that into a mission. Live your dream.
My great thanks to Writer’s Digest Books and all who have been so complimentary over the years. Your messages, comments, emails and tweets mean the world to me.
Let’s keep the knockout fiction flowing…like champagne!