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The Day Your Fiction Writing Career Got Real

by Jennifer on January 6, 2010

By Larry Brooks

Interesting headline.  It’s presumptive past tense and yet for a lot of us it hasn’t happened yet.

The dream is real, but the career… not so much.

But it can.  And it will.  If you read what follows here very carefully and then make a decision to perhaps change how you are going about this.

You may look back and realize that perhaps today is the day a fiction writing future became real for you.

Read ‘em And Weep

I don’t have statistics on what I’m about to throw out there, but I do have more than two decades of working with writers on the issue of developing and writing their stories.  So I think this is pretty close to accurate.

About half the folks out there writing novels have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.

Oh, they think they do.

That belief is based on two things, neither of them remotely close to legitimate as a gate pass into the realm of published authors: they read a lot of novels and believe that, through their vast reading experience, they can see how it’s done… and, they have a way with words.  They can write circles around their friends and peers.  As good, they feel, as the authors of the books they are reading.

Those two suppositions are like saying you can play on the PGA or LPGA tour because you watch a lot of golf on television and you’re really, really good at the local Putt-Putt course.

So what about the other half?

The vast majority of those writers range from devotees of a vast oeuvre of writing books penned by celebrity authors, which offer virtually nothing in the way of technical mentoring, to workshop groupies who hound writing conferences like stalkers.
Nothing wrong with either of those, by the way.

But until you have a context for them—something to fuel it all—it’s like taking a wine appreciation class without knowing how to make wine.  And make no mistake, your analogous goal as a writer isn’t to sip the wine like everyone else, it’s to make it, to craft it, for yourself.

That leaves a tiny percentage of writers who understand that writing successful fiction is a combination of two realms of artistry–the aesthetic and the technical.

Almost all workshops deal with the aesthetic.

How to imbue characters with empathy and complexity.  How to infuse stories with rich themes.  How to write killer dialogue.  How to hyperventilate readers with steamy sex scenes.

It’s all paint and wallpaper and little doilies over the armrests of your narrative.  What it lacks is the brick and mortar infrastructure upon which to hang it all.

A successful story needs both.

It absolutely needs to shine and whisper and seduce and terrify on an aesthetic level.   But it also needs to reside upon a solid and reliable structure that carries the weight of all that drippy narrative goo.

A small, enlightened percentage of writers get this.

And the day you get it, too, will be the day your writing career goes to the next level.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Fact is, there is precious little out there that addresses this technical infrastructure of successful storytelling.  Most plotting books, for example, are described in the softest of asesthetic terms, usually from a character arc perspective.

Even when structure is, in fact, part of the lecture, it gets lost and confused amidst fuzzy language such as The Hero’s Journey or The Power of Myth or even On Writing, in which the most famous writer in the world advises us to just sit down and wing it.

Good luck with that.

Those books are valuable.  But they are almost strictly aesthetic in nature.  Which means they only cover half the requisite ground.

With great respect to Joe Campbell and Chris Vogler, describing the task of structuring a novel using such phraseology is like describing the architectural blueprint for a new shopping mall as “the shopper’s existential nirvana,” or some such vague literary syrup.

The guy operating the crane needs something a bit more specific.

Screenwriters don’t have this problem.

Syd Field’s book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, gives writers of film everything the conventional wisdom of novel writing books, for the most part, do not – it tells you what to write, in what order, why it works that way, and how to connect it all with very powerful aesthetic glue.

Missing such mentoring, we novel writers are left to discover the engineering aspects of developing a story – what to write, and where to put it – for ourselves.  The minority of writers who understand that they need both sides of the creative equation – aesthetic and technical – are out there searching for it.

And when they find it, they are absorbing it, testing it, stretching it and practicing it with the unbridled passion of the newly converted.

The day you join them in this search is the day your writing career gets real.

About the Author: Larry Brooks is a bestselling author and the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional site for novelists and screenwriters.  He is the author of two ebooks that focus on the technical aspects of story development: Story Structure – Demystified, and 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.  His new book, The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, will be published by Writers Digest Books in early 2011.

Ed. Note: The links in Larry’s bio are affiliate links. If you choose to take your fiction career to the next level by purchasing one of his awesome eBooks, Procrastinating Writers will make a small amount of money. Thank you.

Also, after reading this guest post, I went out and purchased Syd Fields’ book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. It is a great resource for learning story structure, as well. It gives a lot of real-life movie examples to help the reader understand how story structure works. I think Fields’ book is a great complement to Larry’s Story Structure eBook. –j.b.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Megs - Scattered Bits January 6, 2010 at 4:38 pm

You can learn the technical details by playing with them and working your butt off, but I’ve always appreciated the helping hands I get when I stumble across things like Holly Lisle’s courses, etc. Speeds up the process illions.

Was a time when I could not write a story right until I had my arms around it and wrapped it in the perfect structure. The structure dictated the way the story would unfold and I could just watch it unroll before me. I learned about structure from poetry, form poetry to be specific. The challenge of writing to exact requirements of language, meter, length, rhyme, etc. forced my brain to understand how structure and content worked together. Then when I applied this to fiction, I learned more than I can say by challenging myself to write to such exacting guidelines until it worked.

I think the technical details of what to write and where to place it are actually PART of the aesthetic. If the key foundational pieces of a story are not in place, aesthetic DOES NOT matter. I have only one completely tossed, utterly ignored novel I ever wrote. The technical aspects weren’t there. The core plan underlying the story was missing. That feeling that the author has things in hand was decidedly absent. All the fabulous writing I had in it was, in my mind and in fact, worthless.

A series of scenes does not a novel make.

Thanks for the post, Larry. Well-said. And congratulations on the book deal!

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