I love the writing craft. I love it the way Adrian Newey loves race car engines. I love popping the hood, breaking out the tools, getting greasy, figuring out ways to build better fiction.
Maybe that’s because in the early years I had to work hard to make sense of it. I was not one of these happy geniuses that has the knack from the get-go. When I made my decision to be a writer, I found instant joy in setting words on the page. The only thing was, those words were not connecting with readers. People who looked at my stuff would say things like, “It’s just not working for me.” Or, “There’s something missing.”
So I doubled down on my study of the craft. I went to my favorite used bookstore and bought an armload of Grisham, Koontz, and King, and didn’t just read them; I studied them. I marked up the pages and made notes in the margins.
Ah, I see what he’s doing here!
This makes me want to turn the page!
I really like this character.
I bought books every month from the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. The chapter on scene and sequel set off Roman candles in my head—an epiphany that I knew would change forever how I approached fiction.
I gave the next thing I wrote to one of my friendly readers, and this time he said, “Now you’ve got it.”
I felt like Orville Wright gliding over the sandy flatlands of Kitty Hawk as brother Wilbur waved his arms, shouting, “It works! It works!”
So if someone asks me what the best way is to learn how to write novels that sell, I’d put it this way:
Write a novel
I’m not being coy here. Write it the best way you know how. Don’t stop for any critiques, self or group. Finish the dang thing.
Then put it aside for three weeks. Print out a hard copy read it as if you were a busy Manhattan acquisitions editor looking at a manuscript on the subway. Have this question in the back of your mind: When am I tempted to stop reading? Mark those spots. But don’t do any editing.
When you’ve finished, make notes to yourself about the seven critical success factors of fiction as they show in your book: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning. How are you in those areas? Be ruthlessly objective. A good beta reader can help. If you want to appeal to actual readers someday and convince them to part with their discretionary income, you need to know if there’s anything disrupting the fictive dream. Quite often you’re too close to the book to see it. Maybe even a lot of it. But don’t despair, because you can…
…Get better at writing novels
I got good at plot, structure and dialogue (because I’d spent a couple of years working hard to figure those areas out). I got published. Then I got a multi-book contract and had the good fortune to work with a truly great fiction editor. In his first editorial letter to me he told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I groused for an hour, then resolved not to have a chip on my shoulder. I followed his advice and lo and behold my books started to pop up on bestseller lists.
So, new writer, get yourself rolling on two tracks—writing and study.
It’s NaNoWriMo month, and all over the globe writers are aiming to produce a 50k novel in 30 days. That’s pressure, especially with Thanksgiving in there. The main benefit of this exercise is seeing how many words you can write if you set your mind to it.
So figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your life situation. Up that figure by 10% and make that your weekly goal.
That’s the writing part.
Add to that a systematic study the craft. There are craft books and courses (I modestly mention). Just as you write to a quota, study to a quota. In 35 years of wanting to do this, not a week has gone by when I haven’t thought about, read about, or made notes about the craft of writing.
Does this sound like too much work?
Does a wannabe golfer just go out and start hacking away (also known as killing gophers)? Or does he get some basic instruction and put in hours of practice?
There’s an old story about a golfer approaching a hole with a big water hazard. He wonders if he should tee up a brand new ball and risk losing it, or use one of his old balls just in case. So he tees up the old one.
A voice from the sky thunders, “Use the new ball!”
Whoa. Obediently, he tees up the new one.
The voice says, “Take a practice swing!”
He steps back and takes a practice swing.
The voice says, “Use the old ball!”
You have to practice a proper and repeatable swing, friends, otherwise you just ingrain bad habits.
Readers don’t spend money to read your bad habits.
“Skill and confidence are an unconquered army.” –George Herbert
* * *
My husband and I hired a private guide to take us on a one-day tour since we were pressed for time. When our guide stopped her car by the side of the road next to a desolate field between two hills, we thought she must have made a mistake. There were no tour busses and no other people around. The three of us got out, walked into the valley, and stopped by a dry creek bed filled with smooth stones.
It was hard to believe the undistinguished field in which we were standing was the location of one of the most famous battles in the history of the world. This was the Valley of Elah, the site where David fought Goliath.
We’re all familiar with the story. Goliath wasn’t just some big guy. He was a giant who taunted his enemies and called them cowards. They were understandably terrified of him. All except David, the young shepherd boy who had no experience in warfare but convinced King Saul that he (David) could defeat the Philistine giant with only his sling.
“Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.” 1 Samuel 17:40
I’m not sure I appreciated the magnitude of David’s accomplishment until I picked up a stone from that same creek bed and realized how small it was. And yet one of those stones, slung more than three thousand years ago, saved the young nation of Israel and changed the world.
* * *
Many parents share the story of David and Goliath with their children to instill courage and faith in their offspring. They want them to know they will face giants in their lives, but they can overcome. However, one thing we don’t often talk about when we relate the story is the skill young David had with a sling.
David was a shepherd, certainly a lonely occupation. He must have spent many months alone, looking after his father’s flocks and protecting them from wild animals. David even explained this to King Saul who had doubted his abilities:
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.” ! Samuel 17:34-35
I’m guessing David got very good with his sling during those months and years. Besides fighting wild animals, I can envision him setting a tin cup on a tree branch and practicing his slinging expertise day after day.
In contrast to the slow-moving, armor-burdened Goliath, David was quick and agile. His stone wouldn’t be effective against Goliath’s armor, but he had a target that would bring down his opponent: Goliath’s unprotected forehead. It only took one shot, and the giant was dead.
* * *
Developing skill is obviously important in any field. I recently read an article on this subject on the Personal Excellence website. A couple of sentences stood out to me.
“… people are often impressed by what others have accomplished without realizing what they went through to get there. We see their accolades and victories, and make gross assumptions about what it takes to succeed.”
I think this is especially true of writers. We all know how to string words together to make sentences, and we’ve read lots of good books. How hard can it be to write one of our own? But TKZ regulars know it is oh, so much more than that.
James N. Frey, author of the popular craft books How to Write a Damn Good Novel I & II, once gave a talk to a group of wannabe writers. He told them he’d give them ten rules which would guarantee they’d learn to write great fiction. Here they are:
Read! Read! Read!
Write! Write! Write!
Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!
Actually, that’s only nine. His tenth will be revealed anon. Let’s first do a little unpacking.
Read! Read! Read!
By this, Frey meant not just reading fiction, but also widely in all areas. “A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole. As a fiction writer, you need to be curious about the world and read about things you might not be interested in personally. Professionally, you need to be interested in everything.”
I like that. I am always reading nonfiction to expand my knowledge base. I even read random articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica set left to me by my grandfather (who sold them during the Depression). Inevitably, I find something which I’ll work into a short story or even a WIP.
Frey does advise reading fiction in your genre to know what’s going on in the market. True that as well.
Write! Write! Write!
We all know you have to write, a lot, to get good. That’s why I’ve always stressed the quota. As Frey puts it, “The more you write every day, the faster you learn.”
I’d add a caveat to that, however. The basketball coach Bob Knight once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”
In other words, you can write, write, write, but if you’re not also learning how to make your writing better, you’re just ingraining bad habits. You don’t want to be like those thousand monkeys hammering typewriters for a thousand years to randomly come up with Shakespeare.
So you get feedback and study the craft along with your daily writing. When I started on this road I bought craft books by the barrel, because I’d been told you can’t learn how to write great fiction. I knew I couldn’t, so set out to see if I could prove that admonition wrong. I think I’ve made a pretty good case. When I got a five-book contract I started calling it “The Big Lie.”
So write, write, write and learn, learn, learn.
And write not only for publication, but to practice various styles. Find that elusive thing called Voice. Frey offers the sage advice of taking stylists you like and copying their prose, word for word. Not to be them, but to get their cadences in your head, the sound and the flow of the words. Let that all meld in your head and you’ll soon develop a style of your own.
Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!
“Learning the craft of writing is difficult,” says Frey. “Creating stories is sometimes agonizing, rewriting is torturous. Dealing with editors is like being tossed into the lions’ den at lunch time. Then when you’re finally published, often your publisher will not do enough publicity and the critics will probably crown you with thorns.”
Frey wrote this before the self-publishing revolution, but the advice still holds. Even as an indie you have to work through obstacles, like an indifferent or hostile public (file this under “Reviews, one-star”).
So why do we do it? Frey: “To experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend….Living a writer’s life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one’s art, that is its own glory.” (See also the responses to Garry’s recent post.)
I’m reminded of the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. Remember? His soup is so amazing everyone lines up to get it. But you must order it a certain way. No talking in line, no extraneous comments, or you’ll hear, “No soup for you!”
“No soup for you!”
Kramer becomes his one ally, and says to him, “You suffer for your soup!”
The Soup Nazi nods. “How can I tolerate any less from my customers?”
Indeed! We all want to make the best soup. We want to gift our readers the best writing we can muster. That takes work. But when you see the results…when you get an email—that’s not from your mother—telling you how much they loved your story….that is its own reward.
As good old Aristotle put it, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.”
And what of Frey’s tenth rule? It is: “Don’t use too many exclamation points!”
I agree with that!
My eleventh rule would be this: “Repeat over and over the rest of your life.”
Because you’re a writer. It’s what you do.
So what do you think of this list? What would you add or expand?
Tiny Creatures is a new docuseries on Netflix that’s adorable, suspenseful, and masterfully plotted and paced. To check it out I skipped ahead to Episode 6, which features a raven and a rat. And the storytelling craft blew me away. This episode, along with all the others in the series, provide a detailed roadmap driven by obstacles, misdirection, and conflict. Let’s pull back the curtain and peek behind the scenes.
Even with the “Spoiler Alerts” I still recommend watching the episode. I’ve only concentrated on a few areas of craft, and I don’t point out every instance of where it occurs. The full post still landed at 4564 words. Hence why I’ve broken the post into two parts. See what can happen when you’re high on craft? 😉
Before we get to the deconstruction, check out the trailer.
Deconstruction Part I
“Florida, home to the Everglades. A wild expanse of almost two million acres of wetlands.” (We know where we are, but there’s also a hint of mystery and intrigue. What creatures lurk in the Everglades? And that, is the Central Dramatic Story Question—the cornerstone question at the heart of every story that directly relates to the hero’s conflict. Boom! The writer raised the most important question in the first two lines of the script. Notice s/he never outright poses the question. Rather, s/he implants it in the viewer’s mind.) “Isolated among the Everglades stands a fishing shack, the backdrop of two very different animals whose stories are destined to cross.” (There’s the hook. We need to continue to find out where this leads.)
In flies an impressive raven. (Is he our villain or hero? We’ll keep watching to find out.)
“A raven, a sleek bird with glossy black feathers. Behind this polished appearance, the raven possesses intellect as well as beauty.” The camera zooms in on his size and power (hints that he must be the bad guy). “Lately, the raven’s been keeping an eye on this fishing shack, tracking the movements of the human owner, their habits and routine. He knows when the coast will be clear.”
The raven struts into the fishing shack.
“Ravens are quirky characters and this one is keen to explore. (quirky = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character) His eyesight, however, isn’t as sharp as his mind (character flaw). He can’t see well in the dark. (obstacle) But this bird is a problem-solver and he has the perfect solution.”
The raven tugs on the wooden knob of the shade, and the shade rolls up. Cascading sunlight bathes the fishing shack in brightness.
“As smart as a chimpanzee, ravens frequently use their brains to exploit the riches of others. Especially humans. (Notice the word choices; the harsh “exploit” and staccato “especially humans” indicates he’s the villain) And this person has many treasures hidden away, safely out of reach.”
The raven flies over to a tackle box.
“But for the raven this is a test of his wits.” (Tension builds) Raven struggles to break into the tackle box (conflict). “And he does what ravens do best—he improvises.” (problem-solver = psychological trait stemming from past experience, upbringing, emotional scars, memories, etc. = 2nd Dimension of Character. We’re beginning to better understand the raven.)
Using a hook-shaped tool, the raven breaks into the tackle box to get at some sort of bait scattered across the bottom of the middle drawer. Clearly, the raven is burglarizing this shack to suit he needs. (Burglar = antagonist. Or could he be an anti-hero? We’re still not sure, which forces us to keep watching.)
Camera pans out to the Everglades and the narrator offers more details about the area. “The water is also home to an assortment of wildlife. Unlike the raven, some animals strive for a simple existence.” (A sprinkle of backstory. More importantly, this is the setup to introduce our tiny hero).
Enter stage left: an adorable rat doggy paddles across the water. (cuteness = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character)
(Side note: If you’re not a lover of rats, I get it. I wasn’t either. But by the end of this story, you will fall in love with this little rat.And that, ladies and gents, is what characterization is all about.)
“After a busy night exploring, this drowned rat is traveling home to rest (relatable + we empathize with our tiny hero). Each night she swims from bank to bank to see what she can forage. Just like humans, not all rats are natural swimmers (our hero has a superpower). Those rats who have mastered the art can swim over a mile in one go. With her small frame and streamlined body, she’s a natural, moving effortlessly through the water.” (What other superpowers might she possess? Curiosity and empathy keeps us watching.)
Our tiny hero reaches a drainpipe and climbs inside.
“This is a familiar and safe route. Not many predators can follow her through these narrow tunnels. It was her swimming agility which brought her to this hidden route to her home.” (backstory dribbled in to drive the plot) Our tiny hero crawls farther through the drainpipe. “A light at the end of the tunnel signifies her final hurdle.” <cue dramatic music> She plunges into a U-shaped drain (tension builds). “One that relies on her ability to hold her breath and stay submerged for up to three minutes.” (determination = psychological trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) “A rather unconventional way of entering her home in the fishing shack.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)
Up pops our tiny hero from the toilet.
“Now soaked to the bone, she carries an extra 5% of her body weight in water. If her fur stays wet for too long, she’s at risk for hyperthermia. (more conflict + character flaw) Using the equivalent of nature’s hairdryer to dry off, she adopts an alternative approach.”
<cue dramatic music and slow-motion camera> Our tiny hero twists and shakes her body 18 times per second, loose water spraying in all directions.
“It’s an efficient if not slightly messy approach. Within just four seconds, she’s removed 70% of the water droplets.” She climbs down off the toilet seat and into the main room of the fishing shack. “Unbeknown to the rat, however, there’s a trespasser inside her home.” (First hint of trouble.) <cue dangerous music as the camera narrows on the raven> “And the normal serenity of the shack is swiftly broken.” (Inciting Incident)
Wings outstretched, the raven squawks.
“The presence of the rat irritates the raven. He could easily kill this rodent. But he has other ideas.” (Because we’ve bonded with our hero — the under-rat, if you will — we fear for her safety. There’s no way we’ll stop watching.) Loud screeches from the raven combined with a penetrating glare startle our tiny hero. “Ravens are one of the few bird species that like to play. And the rat is the unfortunate victim of its game . . . and her tale is a tempting target.”
Raven swan-dives off a nearby table—straight at our hero. The chase is on! (1st Plot Point lands at 20-25% — perfect)
<dramatic music enhances the terror> “Fleeing this terrifying predator, the rat seeks sanctuary where she can.” Each time the raven misses our hero by mere millimeters. Camera closes in on the raven’s opened beak, massive black wings, and powerful physique. “This game is a little one-sided.” (And now, we’re certain Raven is the formidable villain.)
Our tiny hero scampers into a hole in the side of a cardboard box. “The raven uses its sharp beak to poke and probe.” (Notice the hard-sounding word choices “poke” & “probe” which only solidifies our theory about the raven) Raven leaps on top of the box, tears at the old packing tape. (Stakes are raised. If our hero doesn’t escape, she could die!)
“But the rat’s size and agility gives her the edge into some unusual terrain. She ceases her opportunity and makes a dash for it. She squeezes through a one-inch gap, leaving the raven still pecking.”
When our tiny hero races across the floor, Raven is right on her heels. But in the mad dash he knocks over a bottle. Liquid leaks out its spout (foreshadows danger + setup of climax).
“Distracted by the chase, the raven loses track of time.”
Outside the shack, a boat docks at the pier. “The fisherman arrives back at the shack, seeking shelter from the midday sun. But for some, the heat of the sun’s rays are welcome to warm, cold blood.” A menacing-looking iguana sunbathes atop a large rock on the porch, and we learn more about him, including his voracious appetite. (This spattering of backstory raises the stakes even higher while conjuring more story questions: Will our hero need to fight the iguana, too?)
Camera cuts back to the raven whose sharp talons pin down a burlap sack. Underneath, our tiny hero struggles to break free.
“The fisherman returns from a long but successful day on the water.” He unloads his gear and clomps toward the front door. “He is unaware of the raven’s game that is still taking place in the shack.”
Cameras cuts back to inside, where our hero whimpers as she tries to flee from the massive raven. (Conflict, tension, action, and rising stakes, combined with rotating motivation/reaction units, along with solid characterization and story questions—questions that must be answered—and the viewer’s breathless with anticipation. We cannot look away.)
“The noise of the fisherman alerts the raven. Realizing the human has returned, the game with the rat is no longer of interest to him”—he soars toward the window— “as the raven spots a more appealing opportunity outside.”
Camera zooms in on bait in a three-gallon bucket.
“Luckily, the pause in the chase allows the rat to escape to her bed.” Our tiny hero careens into an old boot (allowing viewers a moment to catch their breath = smart pacing).
“For the raven, it seems there are bigger fish to fry.”
Camera captures the raven lickin’ his chops as he stares out the window at the bucket (menacing appearance = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character). Raven climbs out the window and stalks the ledge to the front corner of the fishing shack. When the fisherman enters the shack, he seizes the opportunity to raid the bait.
While we watch the raven feast, the narrator offers us a few more fascinating details. “With no teeth, the raven pecks at the food, swallowing whole the more manageable pieces.” (These tidbits allow us to better understand the raven, and to envision what he might do to our sweet hero.)
Little Miss Rat emerges from the boot. The camera flashes outside to the iguana, increasing the tension of the scene. Our tiny hero could be up against two villains! (raises the stakes even higher)
“Capable of smelling food from a mile away, the scent of fish entices the rat to leave her hiding place. Similar to ravens, rats are not choosy to what they eat (similar character flaws). There’s more than enough food here for both of them.”
Our innocent hero totters up to the bait bucket. Glowering, Raven towers the rat, his talons latched onto the rim.
“Though still leery of the raven, she hopes this distraction will allow her to break cover and grab a quick bite, unnoticed. But the beady-eyed raven hasn’t learned the art of sharing.”
Raven squawks (motivation), which wakes the sleeping iguana (reaction). Our tiny hero runs and hides, leaving the two bad guys to square off. (tension mounts)
“Woken by the commotion from the raven, this sensitive lizard doesn’t hesitate. Its instinctive reaction is to run.” But when the iguana charges (motivation), the raven leaps off the bucket (reaction) and the bait splatters across the porch. The iguana escapes into the surrounding landscape. “In a flash, it’s gone.”
But the fisherman hears the crash from inside and peers out the window. Raven makes a mad dash to gobble up as much bait as he can swallow.
The narrator hits us with this as a clever misdirect: “Ravens can learn to either like or dislike a person, depending on how they’re treated. And they never forget a face.”
Da, nah, nah. <cue dangerous music>
The fisherman storms outside with a broom. (Now it looks like the human might be the real antagonist of the story. Is the raven an anti-hero? But if that’s true, then why does he keep tormenting an innocent rat? Raising story questions forces us to keep watching.)
Broom in hand, the fisherman chases the raven across the porch, screaming and yelling, and we watch this play out in silhouette through the window (1st Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 37.5%).
With the raven gone, our tiny hero can finally rest. <cue sweet music>
“Both the rat and the raven are blissfully unaware of the danger being constructed outside (This line subtly signals that they are, in fact, dual protagonists). Humans also hold grudges. And the raven’s actions have consequences.” (The fisherman sure looks like the real villain now, doesn’t he? Just when one answer is revealed, the writer raises another story question. How will the human punish the raven?)
On the porch sits a wired trap baited with fish. Our tiny hero is sleeping soundly in her boot when she’s awakened by the raven screeching outside.
“Trapped and outsmarted by the fisherman, the raven calls for help.” Poor Raven is caught in the trap (gaining empathy for our anti-hero).
The camera pans over to our sweet rat emerging from the safety of her bed.
“A social animal, the rat can sense the raven’s distress. Unnerved by the calls for help, her instinct draws her to the raven. (instinct = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) Arriving to see the trapped bird, a sense of empathy washes over the rat. (compassion = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) She approaches cautiously. She has not forgotten the raven’s torment yesterday.”
The raven and the rat gaze into each other’s eyes (this Mirror Moment bonds the two heroes).
Camera closes in on our tiny hero’s sweet face. “Her sense of compassion overrides her concern.” In a bold move, she climbs up on the door of the trap and gnaws on the rope securing the top of the door to the metal bars (the act of facing her fears = 3rd Dimension of character, her true character). “Equipped with super strong teeth, rats are capable of chewing through concrete, glass, and even metal. Although not quite as a clever as the raven, rats are super smart. (yes, the repetition is a writing tic, but it’s invisible to the viewer due to the high tension & action. See what good plotting and three-dimensional characters can mask?) Unsure of when the fisherman will return, the rat works as quickly as she can to gnaw through the rope.”
The rope falls to the deck boards and our tiny hero drags open the door, freeing the raven. <cue dramatic music> (Midpoint Shift, perfectly placed at 50%.)
Raven cocks his head and stares at the rat. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky. (story question: will they meet again?)
The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn the rat to get out of sight (his actions/behavior = 3rd Dimension of Character, his true character). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.
As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + more story questions. Will our heroes soon face this beast?)
Of special note for Part I: Through characterization, did you notice how the writer periodically forced the viewer (reader) to change their perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we’ve encountered so far? Storytelling at its finest, folks.
The following is a true story. While reading, take note of the bracketed MRUs [Motivation-Reaction Units in red] and scene/sequel structure in parenthesis (in blue), and my unrest can double as a TKZ lesson. 🙂 We’ve talked about these subjects before. Industry professionals write with the MRU (also called action/reaction) construction without conscious thought. For a new writer, learning this rhythm and flow can be a game changer.
For the last five days I’ve been in the middle of a crow verse raven war. I love both species, but I also understand why they’re fighting. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
It all started last Wednesday when a vicious red-tailed hawk chased Shakespeare — the runt of my beloved crow family — past the dome window in my living room [Motivation].
Big mistake. No way could I not get involved (Scene Goal).
So, I bolted outside to help [Reaction]. Allan, Shakespeare’s older brother, was with her. Both seemed exhausted [Motivation](Scene Conflict).
I called for Poe, their mother [Reaction]. She called back, but she wasn’t nearby [Motivation]. I called again and again, each time panic rising in my tone [Reaction].
Poe soared into the yard, landed on “her” tree branch, and gazed down at me [Motivation]. I pointed over to the left and screamed, “Hawk! The babies are in danger!” [Reaction](Scene Disaster)
And Poe took off in that direction. Seconds later, a chorus of caws erupted in the treetops. It’s not smart to anger a mother crow — any crows, for that matter. Perched atop the tallest conifer, Poe called for the rest of her murder.
The hawk froze, like, “What the heck’s going on? Did that human call for backup?”
Within moments, the rest of Poe’s family soared in from all directions and attacked. [Motivation] I stood motionless, awestruck by the intelligence of my black beauties and the bond we’ve developed [Reaction](Scene Reaction). For any hawk lovers out there, s/he’s alive. At least, I assume so. Angry caws trailed into the distance as the crows escorted the hawk out of their territory. If you’re wondering, Shakespeare and Allan flew away unscathed. 🙂
Later that same day, my husband and I had just finished lunch when a second commotion exploded outside [Motivation].
I had no idea my day would take such an ominous turn.
When we rushed into the yard [Reaction], I found a raven with an injured wing [Motivation]. My heartstrings snapped in two [Reaction]. On one hand, I refused to sit by and let that raven die. On the other, I couldn’t blame Poe and Edgar for protecting their chicks. Ravens tend to target a crow’s nest for an easy meal.
How could I be angry over the corvids acting on instinct? If an intruder was sniffing around my home, nothing could stop me from defending my family.
Even so, I couldn’t let the raven die. I’m just not built that way.
After four hours(!) of trekking through the woods after “Rave,” I came to the conclusion that I’d never catch her (Scene Dilemma). But I had to do something (Scene Decision).
I called New Hampshire Fish & Game (Scene Goal). A large part of their job is to help wounded animals, right? Well, not exactly. Much to my dismay, their “rules” don’t apply to corvids [Motivation].
The officer’s response infuriated me [Reaction].
“Since we’re talking about corvids,” he said, “it’s best to let nature take its course. We don’t respond to these types of calls because crows and ravens aren’t endangered. Besides, there’s plenty of them in the state.” (Scene Conflict)[Motivation]
“There’s plenty of people in the state, too, but I’d still try to save a human life.” [Reaction] #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter!
Needless to say, the phone call rolled downhill from there. I was on my own (Scene Disaster). My biggest problem? How to sneak food to Rave without upsetting Poe. Which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
I waited for Poe and the gang to make their daily rounds in search of intruders within their domain. In a country setting, a crow’s territory stretches for several acres.
Once caws trailed into the distance [Motivation], I bustled up the walkway—my gaze scanning the sky—headed toward the woods where the raven was hiding out [Reaction]. As soon as I’d hustled halfway across the dirt road, Poe rocketed out of a nearby tree [Motivation].
I tried this all damn day. And every single time she busted me. I flung up my hands and tried to reason with her (Scene Reaction)[Reaction for MRU, too]. “Listen, Poe. The raven’s no longer a threat. Can’t you please — please — leave her alone long enough for the wing to heal?”
That didn’t go over well (Scene Dilemma)[Motivation].
I tried again (Scene Decision). “Tell ya what. If you let the raven heal, I’ll reward you with a juicy steak.” [Reaction]
Better, but a little more convincing was in order. [Motivation](Scene Goal)
“Hey, how ’bout you two come to an understanding? You’ll leave her alone if she promises not to go after the chicks once she’s airborne.” [Reaction]
Poe cocked her head, as if to say, “You can’t be serious. That’s not how this game is played.” [Motivation](Scene Conflict)
“Fine! Then you’re just gonna have to get comfortable with me feeding her. I refuse to abide by your stupid rules.” (Scene Decision) And I stormed off. [Reaction]
Not my finest moment. Whatever. The neighbors already call me “that crazy crow lady,” so if anyone saw me arguing with Poe it wouldn’t even faze ’em.
As darkness rolled in, I lost track of the raven. There wasn’t any more I could do but pray she survived the night.
First thing Thursday morning, guess who’s waiting for breakfast? [Motivation] I brought out the leftovers from a roasted chicken [Reaction](Scene Goal). The raven grabbed the carcass by the spine and hopped toward the woods. A few feet away she must’ve thought better of it. Stealing the whole thing could paint an even bigger bullseye on her back. Rave tore the chicken down the middle, stuffed one half in her beak, and left the rest on Poe’s rock.
I didn’t see Rave the rest of the day. (Scene Conflict)
On Friday night a tornado-like storm hit our area, complete with 50 mph winds, downpours, and lightning strikes. [Motivation](Scene Disaster) If the raven survived, it’d be a miracle.
Eagle-eyed on the woods the next morning, I waited for hours as sunbeams speared across the grass. My beloved crows arrived on time. But no raven. Did Rave perish in the storm? In front of the window I wore a path in the hardwood floors. (Scene Reaction)[Reaction for MRU, too]
Time slogged. [Motivation]
About 10 a.m. I peeked out the window one last time before hitting the keyboard [Reaction]. And there stood Rave, well-rested, hungry, and disappointed to find the rock empty [Motivation]. The millisecond I stepped on the deck with a fresh plate of raw bacon [Reaction], Poe and the gang emerged from surrounding trees [Motivation](Scene Dilemma).
Uh-oh, now what? [Reaction]
While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions. They dared not attack her, though. I have a strict “no fighting” policy, and they know it.
Thick tension engulfed the yard. [Motivation]
To create a diversion, I tossed half the bacon in the woods and half on Poe’s rock [Reaction](Scene Decision). Which seemed to satisfy everyone. The saga, however, continues…
In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”
I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)
But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:
As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.
Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.
All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.
So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.
But that’s not good enough.
Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”
Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.
But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.
Create a self-study plan.
There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.
Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.
Then move on to the next factor.
Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.
Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.
Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.
Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.
It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.
A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.
Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.
I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.
I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
You know how sometimes you get home from a social gathering and think of the perfect line you didn’t say?
It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where George is in a meeting and is gorging on the shrimp tray. Another guy says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” Everyone laughs at George, who has no comeback.
So he spends the whole episode trying to come up with the perfect rejoinder, and to set up another meeting with the same guy. The line George settles on is, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”
This line fails to impress Jerry, Elaine, or Kramer. But George insists that’s the one!
Near the end he has his meeting, and has brought the shrimp himself. He stuffs his face until his rival once again says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.”
With a smug smile, George stands and says, “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”
But then his adversary immediately comes back at him: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time bestseller!” And once again, everyone laughs at George (which is really sort of the premise of the show, right?)
I thought about poor George the other day as I was considering how to take advantage of unbidden suggestions from our deep writer’s mind, as poised against “the best laid plans…” It’s a matter of three things, I think: awareness, craft and risk.
The best impromptu line I ever delivered came at one of the Men of Mystery gatherings. This is an annual event in SoCal which brings in fans of mysteries to listen to fifty authors pitch their books for one minute each—and then enjoy a nice lunch and a keynote.
This particular year the ballroom was packed.
As the microphone made its way down my row, the author two tables away spoke about his noir series and how it takes place in the “seamy underbelly of the city.”
The next author was a fine fellow named Mike Befeler, a senior citizen writer of what he calls “Geezer lit.” These are mysteries set in places like retirement homes. Mike made his amusing pitch.
Then the mic came to me. And I said, “Mike, I have one question. In your genre does seamy underbelly have a different connotation?”
The laughter was explosive. It’s probably my favorite moment as a public speaker. Everything just fell together. First, the conditions, of which I was acutely aware, because I was actually listening. Next, the craft of the English sentence, forming one for the best effect. Finally, taking a risk, for how many times have we heard a comedian tell a joke and get crickets in return?
Fortunately, it all worked out. It will in your writing, too, if you learn to listen to the book, respond to it with craft, and risk some writing time. Yes, it could turn out to actually be the wrong move. But sometimes you have to write to find out.
This applies whether you are a planner, a pantser or some sort of breed in between. When you’re into the actual writing, the book should start to take on life. It should whisper to you on occasion, and sometimes maybe make some demands.
It might be a character who talks back to you. I wrote a novel once with a fairly detailed outline. It was about a lawyer being stalked by an old enemy, putting both him and his wife in danger. I had planned to have the wife get out of town for awhile and stay with a relative.
But when I got to that scene, the wife refused to leave. I tried to get her out the door, but every move I attempted felt false. I finally had to accept the fact that the character was right.
Which meant, of course, adjusting my plans. As I recall, it took me a couple of hours to move around the pieces and account for the ripple effects. I made use of my novel journal. This is a free-form document where I “talk” to myself about the book. I usually do most of this in the pre-planning stages, getting to know the story and characters, setting down plot ideas and delving deeper into why I am drawn to this story.
But the noveljournal is an extremely valuable tool during the writing itself. (For Scrivener users, the “Project Notes” pane is a great way to do it.)
Now, you pure pantsers are always doing a lot of listening. Your challenge is to know which voices to heed! Often you don’t find this out without a lot of wandering around in the woods, falling into bogs, retracing your steps and realizing that wasn’t such a good voice after all.
Plotters, on the other hand, often resist listening at all because their outline is a finely-honed edifice they are loathe to mess with.
In either case, the more craft you know, the better moves you will make. For example, if you’re aware of what needs to happen structurally, at the very least you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration. As I mentioned in a comment to Joe H. yesterday, it’s good to have a map of the signposts.
And then, finally, it comes down to risk. There should always be some risks in your writing, or you’re not pushing yourself far enough along. And you know what else? Taking risks is one of the great joys of writing, no matter how it turns out.
I experienced that just a few weeks ago. I was rolling along in the first act of my WIP. I had a map of my signpost scenes, and knew the “mirror moment.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, and I mean way out of the blue, one of my characters said something that was so shocking, so upside-down turning, that I literally sat back in my chair and stared at the screen.
I hadn’t planned it, I never anticipated it. This one line would completely change the trajectory of the novel. I had to think about it, and you know what I decided? It’s one of the best doggone twists I’ve ever come up with (or should I say my book came up with it and fed it to me?) So I’m keeping it, man. I went into my novel journal and started justifying the change and creating a whole new backstory.
In my humble writer’s opinion, it is much better than what I started out with—because I listened to the book, am trusting my craft, and am taking the risk.
And loving it.
You will, too … if you listen.
Do you ever hear your books talking to you? How often do your characters wander off your chosen path? How does your craft serve you in those times?
I love having Brother John Gilstrap back on TKZ. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s the Conor McGregor of writing bloggers. Witness his post last week, Tell the Damn Story. It’s a straight right to the chops.
John and I have gone around on this topic in the past, and I’m inspired by John’s post to do it again today. But rather than get all Floyd Mayweather about it, I’d like to start by looking at where we agree.
There is a lot of good packed into the simple admonition to tell the damn story. To me the gist of this advice is: You are a storyteller, and that is your first and greatest function. So don’t get tied up in “rules” and analysis when you are writing. I even wrote a post on that subject called Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due to Over-Analysis.
John and I agree that when you’re sitting at your typer, with the story in your heart and head yearning to get out, let it out! Get it on the page!
Where John and I part ways is on what to do to make the story better, both before and after the typing.
John says he holds this truth “dear”— “that no one can teach a person to write.” I could pounce on that, but I believe the disagreement may come down to what John means by “to write.” A few lines later John says:
I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling.
Ah! Then “to write” for John is tied up in that thing called “talent.” There’s where we could spend more time, talking about what talent really is and how it might be coaxed … or coached.
Further, what John calls “honing and developing” I would simply call “teaching.” So if we parse our terms precisely, I believe John and I would agree that in some measure you can teach a writer things that will make their fiction better.
I also agree that there are some people who are not, as John puts it, “wired” for storytelling. But you know what? In my twenty years of teaching and reading countless manuscripts, I have run across very few who fit this description. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve taught do have story sense, because how can you avoid it? We grow up reading and watching story after story. We press our reality through the gauze of beginning, middle and end. And most people who come to a workshop do know how to string coherent sentences together. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them stack those sentences in the most effective way.
A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writer’s includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.
I liked this up to and excluding the last sentence. We do agree on this basic point: someone with talent can be made better at what they do through lessons. The boy George Gershwin had monster talent, but he needed lesson after lesson for that talent to shine through.
Still, you only get a Gershwin once in a lifetime. But there are countless superb piano players who make good money in bars and restaurants and hotels. They please a lot of people with their music.
It’s the same with writers. There are not many Hemingways or Chandlers, but there are (now) thousands of fiction writers making bank writing entertaining, well-structured, satisfying novels and stories.
Many of them have been my students.
John and I also agree that “working one’s butt off” is a non-negotiable for anyone to make it as a writer. But I am puzzled by his disdain for the classroom. What’s wrong with listening to an experienced writer sharing techniques that make fiction better, stronger, more compelling, and deeper? Why isn’t that something an ambitious writer ought to be anxious to seek out?
At the very least it might save that writer years of frustration and rejection.
Working with a good editor is another way fiction writing is taught. Now, really good fiction editors are rare and always have been. I had the good fortune to work with one of them, Dave Lambert at Zondervan. He was the reason I chose Zondervan over three other publishers back in the day. Dave was famous for his “Dave letters” — multi-page, single-spaced documents of pure insight and instruction. I was a pretty good writer before Dave. He kicked me up several notches. Without his instruction, and my working hard to incorporate that into my pages, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.
So to me the big disagreement with John comes down to his statement: “The breakthroughs—the true light bulb moments—can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair.”
That’s like saying to a hacker killing gophers on the golf course to just keep hacking, you’ll find your way eventually. Meanwhile, year after year, he continues to stink and give gray hairs to the groundskeepers.
I react this way because my experience is the opposite of John’s axiom. I did write and write, to no avail and no “breakthroughs.” Indeed, I was told several times that “writing can’t be taught.” So I gave it up. For ten long years.
When I finally felt I had to try again, I decided not to listen to the naysayers and started studying the fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month (penned by Lawrence Block, followed by Nancy Kress). I bought writing books and joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One of the featured titles, Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell, gave me the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had in my writing life. It was a huge breakthrough, and led directly to my stuff starting to gain interest, and eventually to sell.
When I wrote, I wrote. But I also valued my study time. And as I tested things on the page, I began to formulate my own theories and techniques and then teach them to others, many of whom have written to thank me for helping them along the fiction journey.
Where would I be if my desire to write had stalled again at the man-made wall with the graffito Writing can’t be taught? In the introduction to Plot& Structure, which keeps selling, I went so far as to call that “The Big Lie.” Because it is.
And now let’s get this deal about “rules” straight. Artists hate that word, because they want to be free! So fine! Don’t use that word!
But do think in terms of fundamentals and guidelines, the tools and techniques that work, that have stood the test of time, and will work for any writer. They are there not only to help you as you try to figure out what to write next, but to help you understand why something you’ve written doesn’t work, and how to fix it.
Perhaps this will ease the conscience of my blog brother: The most important thing a writer can do is produce the words, to write his own stuff, every day if possible. To a quota. That’s always the first and most important thing a writer does. It’s the first advice I always give anyone who asks me what they need to do to become a successful writer.
But I also say this: the writers who have the best chance to make it, to have a career or a good part-time income, will also study their craft with diligence and desire, and without a chip on the shoulder. I’ve seen it happen time after time after time.
I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.
So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.
The books Sarah mentions are Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and my own Plot & Structure. And she explains exactly what she learned from each.
That was back in 2009, just before her debut novel came out. You can check out Sarah’s career trajectory here.
So leave us not speak in extremes. Don’t give us a blanket “writing can’t be taught,” because that is demonstrably false.
On the other side, don’t speak about iron-clad rules. There are critique-group commandos who will take a tip or suggestion and turn it into a law. Like the now infamous Don’t start with the weather. The real guideline should be Don’t start with the weather unless you know how to use it to hook the reader! (For further elucidation on these , see my post on Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore.)
That’s my case. Fiction writing can be taught .. and learned … and practiced .. and made profitable. I know because I’ve got a huge email file of testimonials to prove it … and I’ve lived it myself.
Being an L.A. boy, I grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Rams.
Roman Gabriel, quarterback. The greatest defensive line in football history, the “Fearsome Foursome” – Lamar Lundy, Rosy Grier, Merlin Olson, Deacon Jones. Coach George Allen. Defensive end Jack Youngblood.
Jack Snow. Eric Dickerson. Hacksaw Reynolds. Fred Dryer.
Heck, even Joe Namath for three games before his knees gave out for good.
Yes, there was another pro team that showed up in L.A. And even though they had my man Marcus Allen, it was hard to adopt them. Although I did meet Al Davis once. He showed me his Super Bowl ring. It was as big as a Volkswagen.
But then, in 1995, the Rams skipped town and parked themselves in St. Louis.
I gradually lost my rooting interest in the team.
But now, now! The Rams are back home (yeah, I know, Cleveland fans, the Rams started out in your fair city. But cheer up. You have the Browns!)
And in the recently concluded NFL draft, the Rams made a bold move, trading away a whole bunch to get the #1 pick. They used it to snag, it is hoped, their franchise quarterback,––one Jared Goff of the University of California, Berkeley.
Now the question is, will Goff be the guy? Or will he be a bust? Or something in between? I’m pulling for him all the way, and initial reports on his leadership and work ethic are good.
But what caught my eye, and leads me to today’s post, is what one of his Cal teammates said about him.
Zach Kline is a senior at Cal, the quarterback who watched Goff from the bench. Here’s what he had to say about Goff but, more importantly, about himself:
“I knew as soon as we were competing … he was a great player. Like, look at him. He’s No. 1 for a reason. There are few guys that are ready to play their freshman year. … Competing with Jared is probably the most beneficial thing that’s ever happened to me in my career. He made me kind of assess my play and all that. Because I know I’m a good player, and to be able to compete with him, it helps you and encourages you. When you play with good guys, you raise your game.”
That makes me like Zach Kline (which I will continue to do except when Cal plays USC). Because Kline demonstrates the heart of a champion. You don’t look at your competition and fold; you let competition push you to get better.
Writers need to hear that. Because it’s quite easy for our ilk to fall into the pit of envy. You see someone from your critique group get a big contract. Or somebody you’ve met at a conference going indie and making crazy sales. You know you’re good, maybe you think you’re better than that person who just hit the jackpot. Envy may sneak up on you and grab the back of your brain. Ann Lamott talks about this in Bird by Bird:
If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with [envy] because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you. You are going to feel awful beyond words. you are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything . . . If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed . . . It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.
Don’t wish for heads to blow up. Up your own game instead.
The crucial thing is not to compare yourself to another writer, but to see what they do well and try to do the same with your own writing.
Elmore Leonard was a master of dialogue. You read his dialogue and you’re like a second-row cellist listening to Yo-Yo Ma. You give him is due. You nod in appreciation. Then you dig into your own technique and figure out how to improve it.
And how do you do that?
Focus on the area you want to study, one of the seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice and meaning.
Select from your collection of writing books (What? You don’t have a collection of writing books, highlighted? Start collecting!) those that have chapters dealing with the area in question.
Select from your favorite novels those that do well what you’re studying.
Schedule concentrated study time for six weeks.
Read and study, writing practice pages doing that thing. Many writers of old used to copy, word for word, examples they admired. It gets the technique into your head.
Look at your WIP. Find places to improve, based on what you’ve learned.
Measure your progress against your own standard. That’s your real competition – you.
Go back to Step 1.
And that’s what a writer should do about competition.
The playing field upon which writers wrestle their stories to the ground is defined by genre, confined by boundaries, littered with principles disguised as rules and complicated by waves of conventional wisdom colliding in workshop conference halls like peals of ominous literary thunder.
Established pros regard these questions as pillars of the novel, internalizing them to the extent they become second nature. They know that until those questions have compelling answers, the writing process isn’t over.
How one pursues these answers is up for grabs.
Answers to these questions may come prior to a first draft, or somewhere along the drafting process itself. Both are simply different paths toward the same destination, one that doesn’t care how you get there but will shred your story if you stamp the word “FINAL” onto the cover page before you do.
Here, then, are those seven questions in an introductory context. I’ll dive deeper into each in future Kill Zone posts.
1. What is conceptual about my story?
Every novel has a premise, for better or worse. But every premise does not necessarily have something conceptual within it. They are separate essences, and both are essential.
The goal is to infuse your premise with a conceptual notion, a proposition or setting that fuels the premise and its narrative with compelling energy.
The hallmark of a concept is this: even before you add a premise (i.e., a hero and a plot), something about the setup makes one say, “Wow, now that sounds like a story I’d like to read!”
2. Do I have an effective hook?
A good hook puts the concept into play early, posing a question so intriguing that the reader must stick around for an answer. It provides a glimpse of the darkness and urgency to come. It makes us feel, even before we’ve met a hero or comprehend the impending darkness in full.
3. Do you fully understand the catalytic news, unexpected event or course change that launches the hero down the path of his/her core story quest?
Despite how a story is set up, there is always an inevitable something that shows up after the setup that shifts the story into a higher, more focused pace. In three-act structure this is the transition between Act 1 (setup) and Act II (response/confrontation), also known as the First Plot Point, which launches the dramatic spine of the story.
Once that point in the story is reached there is no turning back, either for the hero or the reader.
In any genre it is easily argued that this is the most important moment in a story, appearing at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark within the narrative.
4. What are the stakes of your story?
Thrillers especially are almost entirely stakes-driven. If the hero succeeds then lives are saved and villains with dire agendas are thwarted. Good triumphs over evil and disaster. If the hero fails people die, countries crumble and evil wins.
The more dire the impending darkness, the higher the stakes.
5. What is your reader rooting for, rather than simply observing?
In any good novel the hero needs something to do – a goal – which can be expressed as an outcome (stop the villain, save the world) and a game plan (what must be done to get to that outcome).
A novel is always about the game plan, the hero’s journey. The outcome of the quest is context for the journey.
Great thrillers invest the reader in the path toward that outcome by infusing each and every step along the way with stakes, threat, danger and obstacles the hero must overcome.
It is the degree of reader empathy and gripping intrigue at any given moment in the story that explains a bestseller versus an also-ran.
6. How does your story shift into a higher gear at the Midpoint?
In a novel, pace is synonymous with change, unexpected twists that the hero must confront. I’ve mentioned the First Plot Point already, but nearly as critical is the Midpoint context shift, which as the name implies occurs squarely in the middle of your narrative.
Here the astute author pulls back the curtain of the hero’s awareness, or if not, then at least the reader’s comprehension of what is really going on. It is a reveal, a true twist, because now we know that things weren’t quite what they seemed.
From here the hero proceeds with more proactive intention, rather than the previous phase of stumbling through the weeds of not knowing.
7. Do you have an ending?
Many organic (pantser) writers claim to not know how their novels will end as they begin to write. Fair enough, that’s a process, one that works for many who use their drafts to discover and vet possible ideas and outcomes.
But before a draft will work at a publishable level, the author must know how the story will resolve, which leads to yet another draft once the best possible ending becomes clear.
If the writer does not do that next draft, and if they stamp FINAL onto the draft that finally nails an ending… well, this explains a great many of the rejections that befall otherwise excellent authors.
Because the ending becomes context for a draft that works, beginning at page one. Foreshadowing, setup and pace become impossible to optimize without knowing how it all ends.
Story planners develop an ending before they start, allowing them to pepper the narrative with foreshadowing and on-point exposition that avoids side trips and pace-strangling narrative lulls, as well as fewer exploratory drafts. Drafters use their story sense to discover their end game, then go back in and cut out the fat, adding tasty bits of foreshadowing and necessary setup as required.
Seven questions… leading to a novel that works.
When you read about an author who went though 22 drafts to finish (sometimes bragging about it), know that, for 21 of those drafts, having less-than-stellar answers to one or more of these questions is the reason.
Just as amazing are authors who, armed with a keen understanding of these questions and an even keener sense of what works and what doesn’t, nail their novel in two or three drafts.
Your process is your process. When these questions drive the criteria you apply, how you get to “final” no longer matters.
Now your process, whatever it is, has a checklist to work from in this regard.
This is Larry Brooks’ first Kill Zone post. He’ll be posting here every other Monday. See the About TKZ page for some backstory on his writing books and his novels.