The (Story) Doctor Will See You Now

Happy to report… I’m still in France.

Two weeks ago, also while I was in France, I posted an excerpt from my newly released writing book, “Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant” (Writers Digest Books). Here is another one, this from Chapter 13, “The Doctor Will See You Now,” which refers to the three real life case studies — not from published novels, but from unpublished authors — that follow.

This excerpt helps set up the context relative to the value of reading unpublished (and dare I say, unpublishable) novels, provided you are reading with a full awareness of the principles of effective storytelling.

If you aren’t — and if you’ve ever been in a critique group you’ll know what I’m saying here — you may not be able to tell the difference.

Here then, is the excerpt:

The Best Learning of All

As we move forward in our writing journey we gather knowledge and evolve our skills. Part of that process includes reading the published work of best-selling authors and, sometimes, the novels and screenplays of our peers. What we learn there depends on what we bring to that reading experience. If you are new to writing, then perhaps those published stories appear to be nearly seamless; they almost look easy. Sometimes, in the quiet of our own hubris, we think we could do as well. And so we learn to duplicate what we see in successful works relative to storytelling craft.

But this can be like watching heart surgery from the O.R. gallery and to go home to try to insert a valve into the heart of a loved one in your living room. Because it looked easy. It’s a rather dark and absurd analogy, I grant you, but it’s also apt. In the hands of a professional, the complex can appear symmetrically accessible. Chances are—actually, it’s a certainty—your less-than-fully-enlightened eye doesn’t capture all there is to learn when you read a bestselling novel or see a great film. Many of the details, principles, nuances, and creative moves disappear into the whole of the story.

The theory of spending ten thousand hours of apprenticeship to reach a professional level of excellence has no better testimony than in the field of writing fiction.

I contend that the more you understand about craft, the easier it is to identify both strengths and weaknesses in the work of others, which turns those works into better teaching tools.

And so, now that you’ve internalized this information and stand at the gate of storytelling enlightenment, you are about to enter an exciting new world, the realm of the principles screaming out to you from the pages of those same published novels in a way you’ve never been able to see and comprehend before. Your learning curve is about to go vertical, because this very experience—looking for and recognizing craft in the stories you consume, seeing how they did it, recognizing the principles in play—is the second most enlightening opportunity you’ll ever know in your life as a writer.

This is assuming that you bring along your knowledge of craft as you review published stories. If you’re still guessing or trying to prove these principles wrong, then you’re on your own in recognizing the symmetrical and nuanced beauty of craft imbedded in the complex and distracting ambiance of a well-told story. It’s like looking at an X-ray. It’s almost impossible to see anything of importance until someone with a white coat points it out to you.

Hopefully you now have a white coat of your own to bring to the discussion.

You might be thinking, So you said reading stories from this new context is the second most enlightening opportunity I’ll have. Then what is the first, the best learning experience available?

I was hoping you’d ask.

The only compromise in using published works as learning models is that any problems and miscues that may have existed during development, any departures and fumbling of the principles, has likely already been caught and remedied. Sure, you may find a typo or two in a published book, but we’re talking story-level issues here, and those have been, for the most part, repaired. There’s no case study of revision-in-waiting to be found in a finished David Baldacci novel or a Steven Zaillian script.

The richest learning experience awaits in reading the work of newer writers and their unpublished stories, stories that haven’t yet reached up to grab the bar, even stories in development that expose what the writers aren’t seeing, aren’t getting, and may be tripping over as their stories tumble into an abyss of their own digging.

When you read these stories and story plans with an enlightened eye, with an embrace of all the principles and criteria you have just consumed, this becomes the most affirming, illuminating, and clarifying learning experience of all. Because now you can see how it looks behind the scenes, on the bloody battlefield of story development, where chaos must be confronted and ignorance leading to seductive temptation must be conquered.

I’m betting you can relate to that. 

And I’m trusting that, in these case studies, you’ll quickly see what I saw as the guy doing the evaluation and giving the often difficult feedback.

Read and learn. Other than helping your writer friends or participating in a critique group, this may be the best opportunity you’ve ever had to have a writing epiphany, for realization to manifest before your newly enlightened eyes.

Put your story-coaching hat on and see how a story looks from the outside, with a view toward understanding what went wrong from the inside.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

5 thoughts on “The (Story) Doctor Will See You Now

  1. Assuming that we want to become better writers, and most of us do, reading and critiquing unpublished works is a great way to cement what we think we know about storytelling.

    I can find the flaws in other people’s work really quickly, and over the long haul, this helps me with my own writing, I hope.

    The danger is that we’ll imitate bad writing and structure, so that’s why it’s important to read award-winning novels in all genres, i.e., to offset the bad stuff, right?

  2. You make a good point, Larry, that reading the “after” of good writing is inspiring but maybe, ultimately, not helpful. If we could all be privy to the “during” of a good novelist in action, I am sure we could grasp the lessons for ourselves with more clarity. And I really agree with your point that the easier the writing appears, the harder the writer had to work to make it so. As I used to joke to my editors back in my newspaper about deadlines and my propensity to run long, “I would have made it shorter but I didn’t have time.”

    The only example I can recall of a writer giving us a view of his sausage-making is in Stephen King’s “On Writing” final chapter where he gives us part of a story he wrote called “The Hotel Story.” He first shows the original version — what he calls the story “undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and underwear.” Then he shows how he went back and reworked it, complete with editing marks, making it ready to go out into the world. Most the changes are cuts, to make the story move faster, using Strunk’s famous formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft minus 10%.

    I have gone back more than once to re-read this.

  3. A while back, I read two novels in a row that should never have been self-published, but I found all the errors (structure and otherwise) distracting. Perhaps reading from a different perspective takes time. Then I switched to Patricia Clarkson, and my story sensibilities came alive, allowing me to sit back and enjoy the ride. For now, I think I’ll stay with the professionals. Does that make me a book snob? Perhaps, but I glean more information from bestsellers than I do from shoddy work.

  4. I still believe in reading the “after,” Larry. But I don’t just read a good novel, I dissect it — take it apart, make an outline and show the bones of the plots and subplots, here the action starts, etc. Enjoy France.

  5. The nice thing about writing–as opposed to, say, brain surgery–it that when we make a mistake nobody dies. So go on observing, dissecting, and trying things. See what works. Fix what doesn’t. Rinse. Repeat!

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