By Larry Brooks
Adam and Brent (who go by A and B, respectively here in analogy-land). Both have a novel in their heads. Both have big dreams for their books. Both can write sentences that would make the ghosts of Hemingway and John Updike exchange high fives.
Which is why they became writers in the first place. The reason many of us took up that sword.
Adam’s book is about a guy who loves a woman who doesn’t love him back. That’s all he knows about it when he sits down to write. It’ll come to him. He trusts his gut and the creative process, which is isn’t sure how to explain, because someone told him it is not describable. He’s not really sure why he trusts his gut, but he does.
He’s never read a craft book (other than that damn Story Engineering, which suggests there is actually a wrong way and a better way to structure a story, based on the forces of story that always apply, for better or worse, so screw that…) or been to a writing workshop. But he’s hung out on online forums full of writers who have, who sound like they know what’s up, none of whom have sold anything but are self-published because, as if they could be if they wanted to be, quoting all kinds of folks who say publishing is dead anyhow. These same folks have all read On Writing and hey, if Stephen King can write a novel out of the right side of his head, so can they. And him. Besides, he once saw a DVD based on a Nicholas Sparks novel and he;s pretty sure he can do better.
Adam believes that if you just write, no matter what you write, everything will turn out fine.
What could go wrong?
Brent’s novel is about a wounded ex-Navy Seal who must step away from his MMA career to single-handedly rescue the widow of his Seal Team Six buddy killed by an IED in Iraq. She has been kidnapped by vengeful terrorists who have taken her in an act of jihad, with plans to post her beheading on YouTube if the US does not confess to being the Great Satan that it is. He must act alone because a coalition of CIA, FBI and military decision-makers, including the White House, refuses to acknowledge the incident that resulted in the terrorists’ thirst for revenge in the first place, in which the nephew of a Saudi oil baron, now an ISIS fighter recruited for his trust fund, was KIA.
Brent has studied the best craft books, including Story Engineering and Plot and Structure and the Snowflake Method. He’s been to workshops, had his work analyzed by professionals, subscribes to the best blogs and generally understands the breadth of things that an enlightened novelist needs to know.
He’s made his own decision on these counts, as we all must. In his case, applying the discipline and focus he learned from his military training. He’s studied and vetted with an open mind and seen the proof of his decision in the bestsellers he reads.
Two writers. Two stories. Two journeys of preparation and a resultant and divergent breadth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling
Cut to a year later.
Adam has his book up on Kindle. Bought a cool cover from a guy on Fiverr. The manuscript was 168 pages long, but nobody can tell that on Kindle, so he’s safe from judgment. After six months pimping it on social media and taking out pay-for-click ads on Amazon after a withdrawal from his IRA. After twenty-two four and five-star Amazon reviews from other writers with whom he’s made I’ll-review-your-book-if-you-review mine agreements, and a two-star from a guy who said the writing was fine but the story was sophomoric, he’s sold 122 copies and is hard at work on his next novel. Which is about a guy who goes back in time to meet Annie Oakley, because he’s had a thing for her since grade school. At night he washes down 10 milligrams of zolpidem with a jolt of ZZZ-Quill, because for some reason he doesn’t understand he doesn’t sleep well.
He has absolutely no idea how his path has differed from the growing body of self-published authors who reportedly are making massive money. He thinks it is unfair, and that his time will come.
Brent was turned down by nine agents before he met one at a major conference who invited him to submit a partial. The agent was blown away – “not only do you write sentences that would make the ghosts of Hemingway and John Updike bump fists, but your story moved me to tears while shining a light on the hidden agenda of our middle East military involvement, putting me right in the middle of it all alongside a hero that embodies the best of us, making it easy to root for a guy who will honor his promise to a dying fellow soldier to watch over his wife and kid” – and, within a week, had scored a two-book deal with Penguin and is getting inquiries from Will Smith’s production company.
Adam thinks Brent got lucky, too. Right time, right place.
He never thought to add: right story.
Brent has never heard of Adam. Nobody has. Except those guys online who proudly say “I don’t plan for plot, I just write from my heart, because doing it any other way takes the creative fun out of it, and hell, you end up changing everything anyway,” as if they know this to be true for all. Adam commiserates with them regularly.
Two writers, one with a well-developed sense of story, the other… not so much.
An investigative journalist, if anybody cared, could dig into a comparative study of these two journeys, which exemplify two ends of the writing process continuum, and expose certain enlightenments and potholes that will serve any writer willing to let go of tired old belief paradigms and allow the truth of the writing craft, the principles that drive it, into their heads and process, or it will sink them like a book thrown into a canal.
Neither writes cops to being either or a planner or a pantser. After his study of craft, Brent realized it doesn’t matter, because the very same criteria for story excellence apply to both.
Other than knowing readers need to like his hero, Adam has no ability to recite that criteria. James Patterson didn’t tell him in his Master Class, Stephen King didn’t tell him in his book, either. Just write, they told him. Go out there and find your story.
Not every writer will choose the right path. Both end of the continuum will believe they’ve chosen the right path for them. Until, based on results, they no longer believe.
Craft will be waiting for them if that happens.
Such an investigative report would conclude that compelling, functional stories require two things:
- a writer who understands all the nuances and realms of a novel, including the forces of story that cause readers to engage, such as emotional resonance, vicarious experience and dramatic tension rendered powerful because of stakes, empathetic motivations and the vividness of the reading experience; and
- a story idea which has, at its very core, the raw grist, the open-ended potential, the intrinsic commercial appeal, to push our emotional buttons, wrest our attention away from the real world for a few hours, invite us into a vicarious story world full of drama and colliding philosophies and the promise of the unexpected and the delivery of ultimate resolution that rocks the reader’s world.
Just that. Easy peasy. Just open a vent in the right side of your head and let it all pour out, just like Stephen King and the army of advocates for leaning on nothing other than the seat of your pants, which will grow numb and weary for all the years spent planted in a chair in pursuit of the fruits of such a process. Which some will reap, and many others will continue to read about, and believe.
Or… you can dive in. Learn the substance and nuance of craft.
Own the principles of structure, rather than fight them off. Master the realms of story forces and the list of requisite core principles. Own the essence of structure, rather than fighting it off with a mistaken belief that it will restrict you. Master the realms of story forces and the list of essential core competencies, instead of trying to convince yourself that you either possess that mastery, or they aren’t important. Seek out multiple points of view from a short list of credible writing teachers, noticing how they are saying the same things using different models and approaches, not all of which are bestselling authors in their own right, because that is not the measure of a teacher any more than a .355 career batting average is the criteria for a successful major league manager.
And when you have all those principles lodged in your writer’s head, when you know them well enough to recognize them when you see them in play, go out and look for them in the novels you read. Test what you think you know. Let the real world of fiction convince you of the realities of the principals involved.
Come to understand that your story idea matters, every bit as much as your sentences and your ability to craft scenes. When your story sensibilities advance to a place where you can apply those criteria at that level, even before you write a word, then you’re not only in the game, you’re already ahead of a large percentage of authors who have chosen otherwise… because it was hard.
Which type of writer are you?
Are you Adam, with your fancy sentences and your refusal to buy into the cult of craft, believing the Great Lie that says you can get there without it, if you just write, writing the stories you want to write, the way you want to write them, in the naïve belief that just writing will somehow allow your number to be called?
Or are you Brent, with a killer story idea people will pay for, if done rigtht, and the depth of mastery of craft to pull it off?
You never know if your story idea is good enough. But if you just write with a base of craft in your quiver and a criteria-meeting, conceptually-driven story idea in mind, that story might just have a shot.