The Fickle, Frustrating, Beautiful Arc of your Writing Career

Being a guy – sometimes known as the guy – who can take too long to get to a salient point (because I believe in the power of contextual setup… see, I’m doing it right now), allow me to begin today’s post what just that.

A salient, career-making point of awareness.

Here it is. It may not knock you off your chair.  But look closer.  Because this might just tell you everything you need to know about where you are, and why.

Some truths are like that. They are insidious in their subtlety.

Your success isn’t solely about what you write.

Over time, your success is largely driven by what you know.

A few posts ago I mentioned a wildly successful author who, in her interview with Writers Digest Magazine, seemed not to be all that confident that she knows anything at all about how she writes what she writers. I’m pretty sure that’s not true (she built her readership over 10 novels and then her eleventh sold 5 million copies; as luck goes, that’s a whopper of a lottery ticket).

Whether this can be explained as an over-wrought sense of humility or she truly can’t tell us why her stories work… who knows.

Doesn’t matter.  Because when it comes to the craft of writing compelling fiction, I guarantee you that she does know what she is doing.  (Her name is JoJo Moyes, by the way, and I have nothing but the highest admiration for her and her work.)

Don’t take this one for granted. Nailing a novel is a little like self-diagnosing your own health issues. You can guess right. You can stumble across the right solution without ever really understanding how you got there, or the criteria for what you’ve just backed into. You can become famous from that good guess — or if not a guess, then a keen sense of story that, for you, doesn’t yet have names for the parts — and then, going forward, never really be able to articulate why your story works.

That one sounds like this: “I dunno, I just sit down and listen to my characters, I just follow them, I really don’t know where I’m going with it all…”

Unspoken translation for such a writer’s take on what happened: aren’t I a genius?

Or perhaps: I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing.

Thinly veiled hubris? Even thinner self-awareness? Not so thinly-veiled cluelessness?

Doesn’t matter. Don’t be that writer. The road is longer and steeper when you lean into that perspective.

Rather, seek to know.

What we know breaks down into two categories.

Both of which become context for the writing of a novel that hits all the bases and polishes them to a glowing sheen (or perhaps, a raw serrated edge, depending on genre).

First, there is the deep and wide ocean of craft.

In my teaching work I’ve attempted to categorize them (six realms of story forces – what I call story physics – that tell us why our stories work, and thus become a checklist to assess the efficacy of what we’ve written…

… and then, six core competencies that tell us the things we must do with those six realms of story forces. In the context of today’s title, do them consistently and with a growing sense of mastery.

Don’t like lists? I get that. But these lists are like gravity.

They’re simply there. Bundle them any way you like, but they are waiting to make (when you get them right) or break (when missing or done poorly) your story.  Here they are:

       The Six Realms of Story Forces/Physics              

  1. A concept-rich premise.
  2. A powerful dramatic proposition/arc.
  3. Properly modulated pacing.
  4. Reader empathy for your hero.
  5. Delivering a rich vicarious experience.
  6. An optimized narrative strategy

 The Six Core Competencies

1. The sense of what is conceptual                                                                                    2. The ability to write rich characters on both sides of the hero/villain scale.                  3. A sense of thematic relevance.                                                                                    4. A solid grasp of story structure                                                                               5. Knowing what makes a scene work.                                                                            6. A clean, compelling writing voice.

If you’re thinking this is a lot to know, you’re certain right about that. But, in my view, pretty much anything and everything we need to know and do falls into one or more of these twelve buckets.

Each of these is a matter of degree and precision, as well.

One writer may believe that a story about a CPA who can’t quite get her Schedule C to make sense is dramatically compelling to the rest of us… while another might not understand that they are simply writing about an arena (time or place or some avocational, occupations or societal niche), rather than writing about something dramatic that happens within that arena.

I hope you’ll read that last sentence again. This one tanks more stories – and over time, careers – than any of form of misunderstanding or rejection.

It all boils down to your own personal story sensibility. That’s the entire ballgame, right there. A rich and thorough story sensibility is informed by all twelve buckets (each of which is a deep well of specific issues, elements and essences) on those two lists. It is the very thing that explains consistent A-list success.

Because to a large extent those writers get it better than the rest of us. If you’re searching for the “it” in your career, these two lists are where the answers await.

Or not. And that’s the frustrating part. Because…

Secondly, we must know how to navigate today’s “publishing” landscape.

Today more than ever, and stated quite simply, if you’re not the game and using the right tools to compete, it may not matter how well you understand those twelve buckets of craft.

Because it absolutely is a competition, not so much with other writers, but with agents and editors who have already made up their mind about your story before you sit down in front of them at a workshop, and readers who are fickle and largely driven by an ADD-type of awareness span.

This market landscape is shifting like the rim of an active volcano. It’s a function of knowing and doing.  While knowing and doing also applies to craft, in this context is applies to getting our work out there, And it’s not what it was a few years ago, nor is it anything like what it was 10 or 15 years ago when we still hoped to see our book in the window at Barnes & Noble.

You’re competing on that front, too, by the way, with the likes of Nora Roberts and David Baldacci and Stephen King. So as they say on the Lotto billboards, adjust your dreams accordingly.

There are also things we can’t know.

And in not knowing we can lay some sort of calming, rationalized claim to sanity.

Because luck remains part of the math of getting a novel out there. A right-place-right-time flavor of luck. This luck is certainly driven by persistence – that much hasn’t changed – but the sad truth is that you can write a novel that blows some of those A-listers off the page, that is worthy of a Big Fat Award of some kind, and yet you may not ever see it in print, or your readers might just fit into a couple of booths at Denny’s.

I have to be careful with this one. The Kumbaya of writing conferences is sometimes antithetical to the truth… and this is the truth.

Which leaves us with this: we do the best we can do, we seek to grow our knowledge on both of those fronts, and we keep on truckin’.

Which brings us full circle to why we starting doing this in the first place: we love to tell stories.

That remains the most accessible outcome of all. Leading to the best possible paradox of all – the more you know, the better your stories will be, and the more likely you’ll be to get lucky.

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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.

9 thoughts on “The Fickle, Frustrating, Beautiful Arc of your Writing Career

  1. Makes perfect sense to me, Larry. The luck factor is a bit disheartening, but it does play a major role in the “overnight success” stories. However, I choose to believe that by remaining a life-long student of the craft we’ll drastically increase our chances. And it’s blogs like StoryFix and TKZ that keep our momentum moving forward.

    • Thanks for the kind words, and for chiming in. And, for your contribution to the craft conversation through your blog and your work, which is a classroom for it.

  2. Those of us in it for the long haul write because we can’t *not* write and understand it’s a constant learning curve. I’m struggling with my 3rd book in a new series, and the biggest reason I’m struggling is because I now know so much more than I did when I started. Heck, even more than I did two books ago. As I learned at one of the first writing conferences I attended, “only trouble is interesting” and my characters need more trouble.

    (side note – one of my crit partners is from the UK, and when I was leaving comments to another group member that she needed to throw a monkey wrench into her plot, I jokingly translated it as a “spanner” for the Brit. He replied that yes, he knows what a monkey wrench is, but the correct term is “gas grips.” So now, we’re telling each other our stories need more gas grips.)

    As for your part 2, I was at SleuthFest last weekend, and sat it on an editors’ panel (which I recapped on my blog) and all I can say is I’m glad there are more and more options out there for authors.

    • Yet more proof of still another old adage – the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. Also, I am also glad for these emerging options, even if it throws more textbooks on the study table for us to dive into.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment today!

  3. I do believe in the old cliche (which are all based on truth, after all, for that is why they are repeated) that the harder one works, the luckier one gets. And even if the results are not what we dreamed, there is value in John Wooden’s definition, that we’ll have peace of mind in knowing we did the best with what we have to become the best we can be.

    Let me add a tweak to: You’re competing on that front, too, by the way, with the likes of Nora Roberts and David Baldacci and Stephen King. So as they say on the Lotto billboards, adjust your dreams accordingly.

    Those are lottery winners, who got their tickets because of their talent and hard work. But there’s another level now, ever-growing, of those making a whopping good living (or at least a welcome steady income stream) by being prolific and professional and perspicacious (you can thank me for the alliteration later). That is, approach this like a business, but one you put your heart into, and be disciplined and patient, and there is a new place at the publishing table for you.

    • Perspicaccious. See, I learn something new every day. There’s a little red line under it though, somebody needs to tell WordPress about this. ☺

      Re your tweak… I agree. I hope you didn’t think I was inferring that those famous authors are in any way lucky, or at least luckier than the rest of us can be. By “competing” I meant their publishers buy that window space (no, it’s not because their cousin works at that B&N), which they won’t do for the rest of us until we can compete with them on the sales front. All of which – because everything does – ties back to craft, which is equally available to all.

      Which of course, you (Jim) know well, given your status as a major voice in this chorus. Which is good for me, because standing next to you (or perhaps more accurately, behind you), I can listen in when I get off-key.

      • *** By “competing” I meant their publishers buy that window space (no, it’s not because their cousin works at that B&N), which they won’t do for the rest of us until we can compete with them on the sales front. ***

        This point was made very well by Neil Nyren of Putnam at SleuthFest. What your publisher does for you varies with what they think you will do for them.

  4. Larry, a late response, but just wanted to say thanks for the post.

    Your books have proven extremely helpful. For example, your discussion of set up has helped me see the difference between set up and back story. A manuscript I’ve struggled with, needed the set up. It wasn’t back story, as a few editors told me. It’s going back in.

    I’m working my way through the books a second time. Lots to digest.

    Thanks!

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