The Writing Math: Craft… plus Art… equals Performance

By Larry Brooks

Allow me to share the story of a writer you may have heard of, and if you haven’t you either aren’t a mystery/thriller fan (you’re here on Kill Zone, I’ll assume you are) or you aren’t paying attention. His name is Robert Dugoni, the author of 18 novels across three series and one literary novel that just sold to Hollywood, as have several of those novels. He is a multiple New York Times bestseller, with enough other lists and awards and credits to fill up an entire Kill Zone post.

This month we celebrate that an author of mystery and thrillers (legal thrillers, murder mysteries and spy stories) is on the cover of Writers Digest Magazine. (Never mind that WD has labeled this their travel writing issue, the monthly interview here is all about writing novels.) He is one of us, and he has something to say to all of us who ply this craft.

There is an amazing bottom line to this author’s journey, which he describes with perfect focus and humility from a teaching perspective. We’re all on that path, seeking a summit, as he has over twenty years of searching for that intersection between craft and art.

He’ll tell you he’s still climbing and learning, too.

He started out with his skill (his “art”) as a writer—honed through a background in journalism and as a defense attorney—with the risky yet common belief that the story-craft side of things was a no brainer. He’d been a reader of quality novels since childhood, so of course he knew in his gut how a novel came together and what makes it tick.

He believed that’s how successful writers do it. Some of them actually claim it as their experience. They just take a chair and start typing, letting the story flow out of them. It would take him years to realize that such advice is toxic, if not an outright lie.

Those years commenced when he left the practice of law after 13 years to pursue his dream of writing fiction. Full time, cold turkey. What he didn’t know was that it would take six years to arrive at that magic moment when craft and art finally embrace, with a brief time-out to write a non-fiction book that become a 2004 Washington post Book of the year (The Cyanide Canary). After that he went back to his dream and his WIP, which was a legal thriller titled The Jury Master.

Here’s a little more math for you: over those six years, he submitted The Jury Master to 42 agents. A lot of us would have hung it up after such a string of rejections. Sometimes he would go back and tweak the story, but he received very little input that he could use to raise the bar. He was on his own, as most of us have felt at some point in our journey.

In the meantime life continued, and he found himself frequenting a neighborhood bookstore… where he happened upon a shelf he’d never paid much attention to before: the place where the writing craft books were displayed. Mind you, this was the early 2000s decade, and there wasn’t a James Scott Bell or a Donald Maass or a Larry Brooks writing craft books yet. No, in 2004-07 we’re talking Al Zuckerman, Christopher Vogler and Sol Stein, to name a few of that era.

That’s when an epiphany blew up his life. In a good way. He realized he really didn’t know what he was doing as a novelist. Even after all that reading, his “gut” wasn’t getting the job done.

So Dugoni took over a year off to absorb as many craft books as he could, searching out teachers of fiction craft, applying the principles he discovered to the now dog-eared manuscript of The Jury Master, assembling more than few binder full of notes. Finally this lead to what was, in sum, a total rewrite of the novel.

He thought he knew. But he realized—and was humble and hungry enough to admit it—that he didn’t. That he didn’t even know what he didn’t know.

The storybook outcome of this launch phase of Robert Dugoni’s career, the fruition of all that study, was that The Jury Master landed an agent forthwith, and the book became his first New York Times bestseller, and the first of a five-title series featuring hero David Sloan. Who was, of course, an ace attorney with a mysterious past.

Anyone who tells you writing cannot be taught is thus proven wrong.

Or at least, confused. Sure, Robert Dugoni was a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge isn’t accessible to anyone with the discipline to seek it out.

What is hard to teach is how to land on a worthy story idea/concept/premisethat requires a learning curve and a keen sense of dramatic and thematic potential, as well as commercial viability. I’m not saying the craft essential to actually writing an idea as a novel is easily or quickly taught—Brother Bell will second me on that one, I’m sure—just that the information and framing of what you need to understand is out there, relevant and more than ready to change your writing life.

Cut to 2020, and this July cover article/interview with Writers Digest Magazine.

By now Robert Dugoni has sold over six million copies of his 18 novels, including the bestsellers My Sister’s Grave (which launched the 7-title Tracy Crosswhite series), and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (his literary novel), as well as the new Charles Jenkins spy series, with the second title due out end of September.

The author of that July 2020 Writers Digest article/interview was, well, me.

I’ve known Bob for years after hanging out at writing conferences and discovering that, despite him being a pantser and me an outliner, we shared a strikingly similar outlook on the craft. Ultimately he would go on to blurb one of my novels (Deadly Faux) and my 2017 craft book (Story Fix). More recently, he wrote the Foreword to my new craft book (Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves), published last fall.

Having written for Writers Digest many times, I pitched the editors on the interview, and they didn’t hesitate. The transcript was over 7000 words, and if you’ve ever edited and assembled an interview toward a coherent through-line narrative, you know how long it takes to get it down to 2500 words. WD loved what he had to say, and asked for an additional 800 words. The interview not only covers the timeline of his career, it also delivers abundant take-aways and learning that will be well worth a hungry writer’s time.

In this interview Robert Dugoni has given us a master class on how to avoid the most common mistake and pitfall that explains the 96 percent failure rate of manuscripts submitted to agents for representation (this via The Huffington Post; rejection is almost always a combination of less-than-compelling or original story ideas—which is indeed hard to teach—alongside a flawed sense of structure, character, flow, or simply the writing itself… all of which reside at the very teachable heart and soul of craft).

Which brings me back to today’s title. It’s that word: performance.

Robert threw it in at the end of the interview, and it was something I’ve never heard a writer say before. It froze me with introspection. He says that when a writer has internalized and assimilated and worked with the core principles of storytelling craft—to the point that she or he can see it just below the surface in the books they read, and within their vision for the stories they want write—only then can they truly and effectively sit before the blank page and actually perform. And when that happens, when the writer truly knows how a story should work, it becomes a blissful experience.

This is true regardless of one’s writing process preference, pantser and planner alike. Craft empowers both, the lack of it compromises both.

We perform, in the same context that any professional puts themselves in front of an audience to present their art, relying instinctually on the compounded sum of their years of study and practice of their craft. Singers. Actors. Editors. Athletes. Doctors and nurses and their medical peers. Therapists. Shrinks. Mechanics. Pilots. Designers. They are all artists. But before their art can work at a professional level, a level where people pay money to experience their art, they needed to build a foundation of craft, of the knowledge of their chosen field of work.

Writers who struggle for many drafts over what is often many years are, in fact, searching for and struggling with their handling of those core craft principles. Some aren’t even aware of what they’re missing. All of us know that feeling, just as Dugoni did for those six early years and those 42 rejected drafts.

But he’s a testament as to what can happen when you truly submit to the truth that it is craft will set you free, and allow you to set sail in pursuit of your writing dream.

As a footnote, Robert Dugoni continues to teach at conferences and runs his own annual retreat. Not because he needs to—before the virus and with his prodigious output, he was traveling to book signings nearly every weekend—but because he truly wants to give back, so that we don’t burn six years or more of our life, as he did, chasing something that can outrun us if we aren’t sure what we’re chasing.

Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks is a former Kill Zone blogger who has maintained his own website, Storyfix.com, since 2010. He is the USA Today bestselling author of six thrillers and four books about writing fiction, including Story Engineering.

His latest, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves,” was published last November from Writers Digest books, a division of Penguin Random House.

 

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Fiction Research Links

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I came across some great resource links over the years and thought I would share some with my TKZ family. I’ll group them in no particular order.

MEDICAL:

This first link is to a site in Australia, but when I couldn’t find a similar one for the U.S., this serves the purpose. It gives writers a good visual as a reminder of what an Intensive Care Unit in a hospital looks like and the terminology: What’s in an ICU?

The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying – Wonder what’s in there? Plenty of weird topics alphabetized.

BioMed Search – Medical Resources – This has tons of medical resources on all sorts of illnesses, procedures, case reports, treatments for illnesses, surgical procedures, etc.

EMedicine: Medscape – Want to see what blunt force trauma does to the head and skull? This site is not for the squeamish. Various medical specialties are listed with slide show pictures. There’s also extensive resources on surgical procedures, pediatrics and general disease conditions.

FORENSICS:

This link has many resources, especially when you look under Forensic Resources Tab: American Academy of Forensic Sciences AAFS

Computer Forensics at SANS – Digital Forensics

Top 50 Forensic Science Blogs

CRIME SCENE:

This link has resources for writers to research crime scene cases and chat in forums to ask questions and get advice from detectives. Writers can research old cases and they even have an online store for fun purchases. Crime Scene

Crime Scene Investigator Network – This link gives writers plenty of resources on crime scene procedures and evidence gathering, with photos, forum to ask questions, videos, and case files.

Crimes & Clues: The Art & Science of Criminal Investigation – Ever wonder what a CSI job demands and the pay? This site has that and more. Profiling articles from top FBI agents, interrogation techniques and cases, courtroom testimony, various studies on forensic science, death investigation with pathology and entomology.

MISCELLANEOUS:

Police One – A solid resources for all things police: uniforms, gear, police cars, radios, body armor, body cams, police procedure, etc.

Botanical: Modern Herbal – A solid research source for herbs and poisons

Poison Plant Database

Firearms Tutorial – This is a resource for firearms with basic terminology, Lab procedures, examination of gun shot residue (GSR), and a study of ballistics, among other things. But since we have a resident expert in John Gilstrap, I would encourage anyone to start with John’s posts on guns here at TKZ – links below:

The Truth About Silencers

Cla-Shack

Choose Your Weapon

GENERAL WRITERS RESOURCES:

Internet Resources for Writers – Tons of resources on all topics for writers from networking resources, craft, research and business links.

The Internet Writing Journal: Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers – Lots of links on crime research, police procedure, forensics, government sites, and types of crimes.

CHARACTERS:

Building Fictional Characters – Lots of helpful links to resources on the topic of crafting characters with recommended instructional books. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also include our own TKZ resources on author craft through James Scott Bell (his list of books on writing are HERE) and Larry Brooks. Larry’s craft resources are listed HERE.

I hope you’ll find these links new and interesting.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What writers’ resource links have you found useful? Any topic from business/promotion to craft and research.

 

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How to Handle Critiques

After undertaking quite a few first page critiques here at TKZ, it occurred to me that it might be timely to (re)consider the role of critiques and, perhaps more importantly, how a writer should handle the feedback received.

Receiving criticism, even when constructive (but especially when it isn’t!)  is never a pleasant experience (and trust me, I’ve been there many, many times) but it’s a vital part of any writer’s review process. The tricky part comes when the feedback provided isn’t consistent – which quite often it isn’t (Hint: when the feedback is consistent, it’s usually worth considering!). As we’ve seen here at TKZ, reviewing someone’s writing is a very subjective experience. So how should a writer handle multiple points of view, advice and feedback?

Here are some of my thoughts – based on my experience with beta readers, reviewers, writing groups, agents and editors….

Trust the opinion of those you admire and who genuinely want you to succeed in your writing.

I would say everyone who provides feedback here at TKZ is supportive of the brave souls who submit their work for a first-page critique – so this comment is more directed to other reviewers or writing groups, where sometimes the quality of the feedback provided may be colored by differing degrees of experience as well as intention (just saying!) so make sure the advice you’re getting is from people whose honest opinion you admire and trust. This also means not seeking opinions solely from friends or family members who may hold back on giving you an honest appraisal out of fear of hurting your feelings.

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

If everyone has difficulty say with the voice or POV you’re using in your work, even if their advice differs on how to fix that, I’d genuinely consider the issue. If a consistent ‘flaw’ is identified by multiple reviewers, then it’s always worth take a close look at the problem even if, as the writer, you disagree with the solutions offered.

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

There’s not much a writer can do with ‘I just didn’t like the character’ feedback so it’s much better to focus on specifics rather than vague generalities. That being said, if everyone gives you the same (albeit vague) feedback, then fundamentally something isn’t resonating with readers so, as a writer, I’d take that feedback on board and see what I could do to fix it.

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

Sometimes, when my agent has identified an issue I haven’t even thought of, and none of my beta readers have identified, I’ll go back to them with her comments – and 9 times out of 10 they will agree…so it’s always worth bouncing ideas and feedback with your reviewers. This often leads to greater clarity and consistency in terms of what may not be working in a story.

When multiple, conflicting, but specific feedback is given, go with what feels right for you… 

This is the trickiest aspect of dealing with inconsistent feedback and, as writer’s gain more experience, it does get easier to identify what rings true and what doesn’t. In one of my writing groups, I’d sometimes get random feedback that I quickly realized was completely wrong for the genre of book I was writing, or which led me down a path that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s extremely hard, though, to sift through all the comments given in a writing or critique group and know what feels right. In that situation, I’d go back to my initial comment about relying on the feedback of those you trust and admire and who really want you to succeed in your writing.

But also take a big step back to see what the heart of the issue might really be…

One of our TKZ alumni, Larry Brooks, identified it best in his book ‘Story Fix’ – where he noted that what brings a story down is often less about the writing and more about the inherent appeal and strength of the story itself. So when digesting the plethora of feedback  you’ve received, I’d initially classify the advice into two buckets (1) feedback on the actually mechanics of your writing (weak grammar, clumsy sentence structure etc.) and (2) feedback that goes to the heart of the story you are trying to tell (POV, appeal of characters, dramatic tension etc.). It’s much easier to fix issues that reviewers identify in bucket number (1). Feedback the falls into bucket (2), may require you to take a long hard look at the concept and premise of your story. That doesn’t mean despairing, it just means going back to identifying the core of story you are hoping to tell and seeing whether it holds up under scrutiny. That could be the first step in identifying what is going wrong and the best way of rectifying it.

So TKZers, what advice would you give, particularly to our brave first page submitters, on handling multiple, sometimes inconsistent, feedback when it comes to your writing?

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Over the End of the World

One of my twins loves reading pre and post apocalyptic YA novels, but even he has reached saturation point. There’s really only so many stories you can digest involving the horror, chaos and disintegration of society that comes from either impending doom or the aftermath of an end of the world scenario. In many ways, our mutual ‘apocalyptic’ fatigue (after all, I’ve read almost all the same books) is indicative of market saturation as well as stagnation. It also raises issues, to follow on from Jim’s post yesterday, about how writers nurture their ideas to execution.

I think it’s safe to say the market has pretty much covered these scenarios:

  • contagion/epidemic
  • alien invasion
  • ecological disaster
  • Impending meteor/asteroid strike
  • vampires/werewolves/demons/zombies/robots/monsters/mutations etc. taking over the world
  • government conspiracy/police state/total control/thought control/emotional control
  • evil schemes that generally involve youths in competition to kill or hunt each other down and/or destroy society

Note: Feel free to add to this list by the way…

But the key element I think (at least on the fatigue front) is that many novels now feel merely derivative of stories that have come before and which deal with the same or similar ‘apocalypse’ event. It’s hard, given what has already been written, to come up with a new idea or new way of executing that idea that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed. It is, in some respects representative of the classic dilemma facing all writers – namely, how do you put a new/fresh/unique spin on an idea/mystery/predicament that has already been done to death? This is where I think it is critical for writers to take a step back when considering their idea for a novel (before what Jim calls the ‘green light’ stage) and evaluate the key elements of concept and premise (that my fellow blog mate Larry Brooks is so good at describing).

I jot all my ideas down in a notebook – most of which will never develop into a completed novel – either because the idea itself is to thin, or the execution/story that surrounds the idea doesn’t turn out to be novel enough, or complex enough to sustain itself. When considering any new WIP, I take my idea, produce a detailed proposal and then (because I’m an outliner) map out the plot for the story. As part of this process, it soon becomes apparent if the idea cannot sustain a novel, especially if I couldn’t answer these critical questions:

  • Why should readers care about my story/idea?
  • If it deals with well worn tropes, what makes my idea or POV unique or significantly different (I don’t count trivial distinctions)?
  • How would this story stand out from all the other novels out there?
  • Even if I think the idea is sufficiently novel to warrant a story, do I really know what the concept/premise behind this is in sufficient detail (anyone who’s read Larry Brooks knows that many stories collapse because a failure at the concept or premise stage).

At the moment (thankfully) I’m not considering any a pre or post apocalyptic story ideas. Although my son and I have reached the tipping point we could still be brought back with a unique twist/edge or story about the end of the world. The key issue I think is that, when considering a new idea, read extensively before committing to the story. In a crowded market, you have to stand out (even when you’re writing about chaos and the end of the world…)

So, are there any types of stories you are totally ‘over’? How do you approach developing your ideas when facing a a crowded/saturated corner of the market?

 

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Revisiting the Middle

Thanks to my fellow TKZ blog mate, Larry Brooks, who provided me with his ebook ‘Stuck in the Middle: Mid-Draft Saves for your Story‘, I thought we should revisit the saggy middle and look specifically at some great questions to ask before addressing the dreaded mid-draft slump.

Larry outlines some key issues that I think all authors should consider when they are mid-way through their draft novel. He poses these as a series of questions that highlight some of the critical issues that can plague a book and which can lead to a slump in the middle. I encourage TKZers to check out the ebook which goes into greater depth that my blog summary, but in the meantime, here are some of the key questions Larry raises (hopefully I’m not misquoting Larry here with my summary version!)

  1. First off, authors should take a step back and ask themselves whether the premise of the book itself is sufficiently strong to sustain a reader’s interest for an entire book – often times the premise is simply too weak dramatically, either because there isn’t enough of a dramatic arc to the book, or because the key characters don’t have enough to achieve/do for a reader to root for them.
  2. Second, an author should also check that their core story is sufficiently well defined. Is there a compelling dramatic question being asked and answered in the book? Often the middle sags simply because it doesn’t enhance or advance the overall dramatic arc of the story.
  3. Do you have sufficient plot points that keep the story moving along, providing sufficient tension to engage the reader throughout the book? Sometimes the middle drifts because the plot points to the story haven’t been spaced or placed appropriately.

As Larry points our the middle chapters of a book should continue to ‘elevate, escalate and surprise’. They should also provide a critical transition between plot points as the key characters move through the overall story arc.

Hopefully, I haven’t misquoted Larry’s key questions to much, but I encourage all writers to step back and consider these kind of issues when diagnosing what isn’t working in their own work. All too often we focus on the mechanics rather that the overarching questions of premise, core story and plot that need to be addressed to ‘fix’ the problem.

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