Category Archives: Editing

The Story Analyst: The True In Medias Res

If you look at the stories that have rooted themselves into cultural consciousness, starting a story in medias res – the middle of things – is understood in a very particular way. But is it how you understand it?

There’s a huge difference in the way great writers begin stories and the way it’s done by the rest of us.

Let’s have a look at how we poor amateurs approach the middle of things.

A writer has a story idea in mind and wants to find a really good place to begin. The sweet spot. The heat, as it were.

Say the story is about an aging spy who is called on to undertake one final mission. Today’s writer might start the story with the protagonist (a Daniel Craig type, of course, buff, gruffly suave, in control) waking up beside some hot dumb-as-bricks supermodel, contemplating in detail his predicament so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. There might be some flash-backing to signal the danger yet to come.

Some might have him already in the middle of the caper, with all the stakes pressing in on him. Or right in the middle of/after a shoot-out.

What’s the problem, you might ask? Isn’t that in the middle of the action? Isn’t that what any creative writer would do?

Not John Le Carre. Le Carre knows the difference between plot and development. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold he starts his story developmentally at a point where Alec Leamas is on the verge of his biggest screw-up yet but doesn’t know it. He’s no Daniel Craig. Mid 50-ish, he’s not fit or buff. He’s unkempt. And he’s a problem drinker (that’s a nice way of suggesting “drunkard”).

There are no heroics. He’s just washed-up, waiting at a heavily guarded East-West German checkpoint for his contact to come across, trying to salvage this one Cold War assignment (of many that have gone sideways on him). In this moment he has nowhere left to go personally or professionally. He’s in the middle of a major disaster in the making. It’s already happening but Leamas refuses to see it or the entire scope of what’s happened to his career. Everything rides on his man coming down that road. Where they are physically and geographically is symbolically significant. The chapter is called “Checkpoint”.

He’s at the checkpoint of his career and life. See what Le Carre did there? Checkpoint? Get it?

Le Carre starts the story, not in the middle of the plotting action or the most exciting or dynamic part of the story. That would be closer to the end when he’s being held by the East Germans and attempts to escape.

Rather, he starts in the middle of things. The lens is pulled back from the action of the story – the spy action and the plot action – to make the opening circumstances reflect the developmental context of Leamas’ life situation, the very conditions that have brought him to this point, and which will drive him straight into the mess he will find himself in later.

But none of it can happen without this opening snafu. None.

What happens on that bridge t-bones what’s left of Alec’s life, sending it on its collision-course.

The place where he begins is more than just the middle of an action or the story. It’s the crossroads of every facet of his life. Note:

He’s a screw up but it’s not all his fault. He’s surrounded by screw-ups and betrayal. The weight of this impregnates the opening scene, but becomes more apparent and consequential as the story unfolds, driving Leamas to the final scene. This is especially obvious when his true lack of control over the situation is revealed. He’s not only hamstrung by the fools and liars who surround him, but what they’ve done to him has put him in the exact position to be used, manipulated, and inevitably betrayed.

Middle-aged. His youth and strength are gone. All he has left is gut-level instinct. And even that is questionable. This is the precise vulnerability that makes him easy prey for his handlers as well as his targets. Had Leamus been younger he might not have invested so much in Liz Gold, which would have changed the outcome in which Gold becomes pivotal; any older and he would have been unable to handle what his controllers knew would be facing him in East Germany, making his placement in that mission unlikely and unsurviveable.

A loner. His life in duplicity has made it impossible to live as a normal human being, but built into that is a deep sense of his lifelong lack of connection to anything – that whoever he was before becoming a spy was exactly what made a life of espionage possible. He never had anything (or anyone) to lose, and this is what inevitably makes Liz Gold so important to the story. Le Carre accomplishes this sense of Leamas’ past with master strokes – Leamas’ transience, his comfort with squalor and rough living, drink, bad neighbourhoods, no mention of family or friends. He was an expendable cog from one system that became an expendable cog in another system, only with higher stakes. A life of too much dissimulation, too much absence (in more ways than one) is the life a loner who comes from dissimulation and absence gets. Yet his loner status and how he musters everything he has left in him as a human being just to embrace love is exactly what leads to the tragic outcome. It’s used against him, but it also becomes the final heartbeat of his humanity. It saves him on the only level left that matters to him.

A drunk. Le Carre evokes a strong sense that this was written into Leamas’ very DNA, but given his age and what’s become of his life and career it’s the only way left to cope. It’s also what makes him right for the ruse necessary for his final mission. The line between Leamas and the role he is required to play as a disaffected agent ripe for Eastern-bloc harvesting is barely visible, thus making the ruse credible.

He thinks he knows what’s going on. Leamas prides himself on his ability to get the lay of the land, but somehow the landscape has changed under him without his having been aware of it. This peril in knowing is what turns everything inside-out.

Everything rides on his work. Until it doesn’t, and then, in the end, he realises that what matters rides on the choice he makes on that wall. He can choose the agency, himself, or Liz, but whatever choice he makes presents a dire double-bind that will cost him dearly.

To choose Liz is to lose his life. To choose anything else is to lose his humanity.

Wow.

That the story begins on a bridge and ends on a wall is incredibly astute use of metaphor.

Everything about this story mirrors what we already intuitively and instinctively understand about the human experience. We might understand nothing at all about being a middle-aged alcoholic agent but when Le Carre makes a move everything in our gut tells us it’s exactly as it is in the part of the human story where we are all participants. All the internal cogs fit together, meaningfully, and because they do, the machinery powers up and runs on its own momentum.

All because of what goes into that opening scene.

This is what opens the door through which we and Leamas must enter the story. In this opening Le Carre pulls off the other definition of true:

verb
 
  1. 1.
    bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.

As writers we should all aim for that kind of true in fiction. It’s not an inert noun, but a verb. It’s dynamic. It requires something of us, writer and reader alike. Readers care because we recognise in this story and other masterpieces the exact shape, alignment, and position required to communicate human beingness back to us.

Leamas’ moral victory, the most important of his life, must come at the cost of his world (and life), the very conditions set up right at the beginning of the novel. Smiley and The Circus get what they want. Mundt gets what he wants. All this comes at the cost of Leamas and Gold, but even they, too, get what they want: to know love in one another.

What’s so beautiful about it all is that while it’s inevitable, it’s neither predictable nor prescriptive.

Writers – especially those who have come up in the age of narcissism – haven’t figured out how to get much past themselves to offer readers something about themselves. Writer and reader connect when the writer expresses something that also communicates meaning for the reader.

Because that moment – that perfect, beautiful set-up at the beginning of the story, the in medias res – ?

That’s the writer preparing us, not just the story. It’s saying: this is what true looks like. Buckle up.

The next time you’re done reading a novel, go back to the opening scene and check out how contextually relevant it is to what went on in the story. If it’s a particular genre, compare it to a masterpiece of that genre, and how those stories open. Guaranteed the masterpiece is the set-up of a world at a collision point, out of which the character has evolved and the destruction of which proves the test of everything the character had understood about Life and her/his own life.

It’s that in medias res set-up that determines how the character will face it, and what the outcome must be. It’s all interdependent. If it isn’t, nobody will want to read your story because it simply won’t be true.

So how will you create in your in medias res the exact shape, alignment, and position to tell a true story?

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Prompts: The Brainworm Of Voice

If you’re using writing prompts to help fire up the creative synapses, they are likely doing more harm than good, especially if you don’t understand why.

Confession: I hate prompts, if you haven’t already guessed. I despise everything about them.

And because I google the term for research, the gods of algorithm think I must like them a whole lot because suddenly they appear in all my feeds, and not being all that tech savvy I have no idea how to cull them. Seeing them makes my teeth hurt.

Prompts make me want to use the F word. Normally I reserve the F word for unique situations prompting my raging, blood-coloured wrath. And now, prompts.

False.

There. I said it. (Please don’t think less of me).

I’ve increasingly become of the mind that writers must be zealously protective of their own voice, and defiant about outside influence to the point of phobia.

For that reason, prompts are like one of those amoebic brain diseases you get when you’re minding your own business enjoying your tropical vacation. Then – BAM! – half your brain is gone and suddenly you can’t do your own taxes anymore.

It changes who you are.

Prompts come from someone else’s mental space, someone else’s story, someone else’s experiential and perceptual scaffolding.

Someone else’s voice.

As soon as you start answering to a prompt, no matter how benign it might be, you’re moving away from your own voice and individuality, your own originality, your own story, your own possibilities.

Next thing you know you’re Star Trek‘s USS Voyager lost in the Delta Quadrant and, like the hapless Federation vessel, while it took nothing to get pushed tens of thousands of light years from home it will require a potential lifetime, a series of improbable misadventures, luck, and a major con job perpetrated by Future Old You against the Borg Queen just to get back to where you started, and if some unsuspecting redshirt ensign has to die along the way, it’s going to be you.

Writing is not like a parade where some clown broadcasts fistfuls of candy while we toddle around like drooling idiots hoping to get more than the next kid.

We’re bloodhounds on a scent trail. That scent trail represents the stories that are in us to tell. Prompts act like some perp planting false scents to take us off the trail so we never find our mark.

If you’re unable to find anything to write about unless someone prompts you, you need to ask yourself if this is the right road for you. Any teacher who thinks prompts are actually helping (because any writing is good writing, right?) is probably not very knowledgeable about issues around Voice and originality.

Writers should be following our own instincts, our own storylines. Everything that exists to pour into a story should well up from within our own internal resources and personal inspirations. It’s the only hope we have to earn Voice, and thus our uniqueness and originality.

Try picturing Graham Greene responding to this: Tell the story of Hallowe’en from the perspective of a piece of candy. (Thanks, writingprompts.tumblr.com).

Having said that, if you must use them here’s my take on how to avoid allowing them to become developmental poison to you as a writer as well as your projects.

Never use anything but a neutral, non-intrusive prompt. If you have a teacher trying to strong-arm you into anything but, refuse.

Don’t do it.

A neutral prompt is one that introduces minimal outside influence or undesirable voice, ideas, style, or tone into the writer’s work. These would mostly be one word prompts, and are so nondescript they can be easily inserted into any story idea.

Door.

Bread.

But. BUT…

Even that seemingly innocent prompt could take you away from the story that’s waiting inside you to be told anyway. That prompt could end up being a creative McGuffin, a false lead that takes you on the wrong scent trail, the wrong conclusions.

That’s not even the scariest part. Most of the time there’s a prompt list made available as though giving you an option among many is the good part.

  • Outside the Window
  • The Unrequited love poem
  • The Vessel
  • Dancing
  • Food
  • Eye Contact
  • The Rocket-ship
  • Dream-catcher
  • Animals
  • Friendship

(courtesy of thinkwritten.com)

That. That right there is a narrative brainworm. All those specific words – together – came from someone else’s subconscious core, biases, and perceptions. Those words have a deeply subconscious meaning to the prompt creator, not you. They will never be about you or your own originality and Voice.

Prompts are always about the prompt creator. As a result your mental space has just been subconsciously hijacked by someone else. Whatever your story is, this annoyance is now in your way whether you like it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Say you’re writing about your expedition into the Amazon in search of your grandparents’ story after they died of gullibility in the great mythic rubber fields of Fordlandia. But say you’re all bunged up creatively and you enroll in some writing class hoping to git ‘er done.

So you sit down eagerly rubbing your hands together awaiting instruction. Teacher says, “I want five hundred words on the writing prompt he suffered from personal anarchy. Go. (taken directly from @writingprompt on Twitter).

Personal. Anarchy.

Really?

Oh, I’d go all right. Straight out the door.

I mean, seriously, people?

(Serenity now, serenity now.)

Right.

That’s not just an intrusive prompt, it’s patently awful. It’s highly suggestive of someone else’s (very questionable) voice, thinking, ideas, and tone.

No prompt should ever take you away from the possibility of telling your story your way. As soon as you let someone else’s voice dictate anything in your work, you’re doomed.

And what if it is a simple prompt like bread? What if it starts you thinking about food symbolism, and you go off on this tangent about the body of Christ and breaking bread with someone?

What effect does that have if a circle metaphor would have worked far better to support your story and characters?

Deep down, those are very different symbols with different allusions. Getting it wrong could throw the context of your entire story off kilter. Readers have a gut instinct for wrongness even if they can’t pinpoint its sources.

It’s so easy to lose your voice, and so very, very hard to regain it.

If you need inspiration, trust your own gut and your own developing Voice. Just look around your world, what matters to you. Use anything that speaks to you when you’re stuck. It’s that speaking part that’s coming from the core of who you are that matters most, and it will lead you on your own journey.

Because then, what you’re writing about – whatever it is – has already begun taking you to the next part of your journey, and because you’re bringing that speaking part along with you, it will add itself as a vital part of the whole, assuring that not a single step in your personal journey as a writer has been wasted.

Do that, and the story inside you will begin to emerge right alongside your authentic Voice.

Trust you.

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Hilarious: Jane Austen Gets The Old Writing-Workshop Makeover

SCEW - SC iconWho among us hasn’t been on the receiving end of – and dealt – such an incisive critique? Read, weep:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonreed/jane-austen-receives-feedback-from-tim-a-guy-in-her-mfa-work#.atQrxBVg7

My game-changing story development system is soon to be launched on Kickstarter, so if you want to get updated so you can be among the first to change how you create stories, please subscribe to or follow this blog.

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The Story Analyst: With A Premise Like That, Who Would Want To Read This Book?

sclogo (3)See if you know who wrote this.

Here’s the premise. A poor, oddball social outcast salvages a steam engine to win a girl who offers herself as a marriage prize in exchange.

And now the summary. Sit tight, it totally gets better. Totally. A poor, oddball outcast is walking to church one day behind the pretty orphaned niece of a shipping entrepreneur, and after she writes his name in the snow along the roadside he falls obsessively in love with her – which is always the best kind of love.

... erm, hopefully with ... a finger?

I’m sure she used her finger but still, if that’s not love what is?

Her uncle’s ship, invaluable because it’s the only steam-powered vessel anywhere and is the source of his wealth, runs into a reef, but with the treacherous conditions and impossibility of the task, nobody wants to lift a finger to go get it for the old coot. The girl, who sure has a high opinion of herself, promises to marry anyone who can salvage the engine. Obviously selling yourself for an engine beats, say, getting a job to help out a bit. Imagine the shot to her ego when the only taker is the village weirdo.

I choo-choo-choose you!

So the young man sets out for the reef determined to win his prize of an insincere but sweetly naive tease.

The bulk of the novel is about his resolute pig-headed struggle against the sea, starvation and thirst, and the work of trying to jerry-rig a way to remove the engine without destroying it (all without the proper tools) as the ship slowly breaks apart.

All for this totally worthy woman.

[spoiler alert: end of the novel discussed ahead]

After a superhuman psychotic amount of effort he eventually saves the engine and, half dead, sails back to the village to claim his wife and reward. Now, by this time he has been written off for dead and his beloved has already forgotten about him and fallen in love with someone she just met a moment ago. Upon our hero’s return he overhears the girl accept a marriage proposal from the much better looking, less weirdo-ish Anglican priest from the “in-crowd” – a bit like the head cheerleader throwing over the kindhearted but pimply D&D freak for the football captain. Rather than force her into marriage our friend instead arranges their wedding and helps them board a ship to whisk them away to a happy life together. Then he climbs up into the rocks along the seashore to an indentation at the crest that forms a rock-chair. As he watches their ship disappear into the horizon, the tide rises and he allows himself to drown. The end.

Oh, and plus there’s a haunted house.

Because what literary masterpiece ISN’T made instantly better with a haunted house?

And a monster octopus.

Ditto.

And smugglers.

And it’s a statement about the Industrial Revolution.

Did I mention the haunted house?

Um … what? Who would read that? More to the point, who would write it? It sounds like some terrible manuscript Elaine Benes would be asked to edit for a job in publishing.

He was a simple country boy. You might say a cockeyed optimist, who got himself mixed up in the high stakes game of steam engines and international shipping. … Well it’s a story about love, deception, greed, lust and…unbridled enthusiasm. … aw, crap, I don’t even know anymore

So who wrote it?

Victor Hugo, that’s who. Yes, that guy, the Les Miz guy. It’s Toilers of the Sea, and it’s one of the most taut, harrowing stories you’ll ever read. You will swear at that idiot Gilliat, you will pound your fists against air because of him, you’ll white-knuckle it through gale-force winds and feel rigging lash and snap through the air around you. You will loathe and admire him and curse him and feel for him and cheer for him –

Hey little buddy.

– then on the power of pure adrenaline (because you will, I promise you, be completely, physically wasted) you will stand straight up from wherever you were when he dies in that damned rock-chair and you will make weird chuffing noises like “bu – he – I – he – b – ” then you will lay or sit right back down, hold the book to your chest, stare out into the literary void and say, “Merci, M. Hugo – or should I say mercy.”

When you’re able to stand again on your own, the first thing you’ll have to do is hobble over to see your doctor, who’ll ask, “What brings you here today (you hypochondriac)?”

You’ll say: “I need to see a physiotherapist.”

“Oh?” You’ll get that look, you know, the down-the-nose look that says what now, moron? “Hurt yourself?”

You’ll squinch your shoulders a bit, avoid eye contact. “Uh, yup. Hurt myself.”

“What did you do?”

“I uh – ” (quick, think, do you say you hurt yourself READING?)

“- I pulled something – “ (think, think -)

But the words will just disgorge into the room: “- See, there was this IDIOT, and he was trying to salvage this steam engine off Guernsey and it was so cold and I – sorry, he – didn’t have the proper clothes and there was this storm, and the ship started breaking up on the rocks and there wasn’t enough food or water and I – he – he had to get this engine off the wreck and it was days and weeks and – I don’t know, I lost track of time, it was like war, it was this war with the elements and this octopus monster and my own – his own – stupidity and all I wanted was to get that damned engine off that damned ship – and now my back and muscles are killing me -”

“You did say therapist, right?”

Ahh. That’s what happens when you take a weird, unworkable premise and give it to a master, and he proceeds to PHYSICALLY. HURT. YOU. WITH. IT.

Now, why is it that we all probably have way better premises stashed away somewhere along our writing experience, and all we manage to do is write an awful story?

Well, for one, Victor Marie Hugo knew how to tell a story. We don’t.

What’s interesting is that telling a great story can still go hand-in-hand with some tremendous flaws. We can all agree that ole Victor Marie had a tendency toward the melodramatic. But it’s so delicious! He also frequently just droned on and on and on about background facts in punishing detail but man, it’s so worth powering through to get to the good bits because usually that, together with the big picture and including the droning parts, is so much more important than any flaws.

There is nothing particularly likable about the premise of Toilers of the Sea. The protagonist is the kind of poodley oddball you’d feel burning holes in the back of your head without having to even turn around to see him there. The kind of guy who would make hang-up calls. Lots of them. Every day. Watch you from a parked car down the street. The girl’s a bit of a jerk whom you suspect will never really care for him no matter how good he is because of his position. Almost the whole story is this grueling struggle for some dumb engine. There’s just so much to turn a reader off. It’s not sexy. It’s just sad and exhausting.

And 1000% worth reading. It’s Hugo’s unsung masterpiece, unfairly eclipsed by you-know-what.

So what’s our old pal Vic doing to make it work?

He knows how to break your heart with all the qualities you don’t want to like about it. Gilliat’s life is bleak, and his obsessive love for Deruchette, as wrong-headed as it is, gives him a little hope for something deeply human: to belong – not to the girl herself but to what she represents, and that’s life inside the circle of human connection. Belonging. To be a part of the whole instead of apart from it.

His struggle for the engine becomes a stand-in for the epic human struggle to change the course of a life that otherwise has very little going for it. Little by little the reader goes from wondering why Gilliat would even bother, why he doesn’t give up in the face of so much catastrophe, to understanding that he’s not fighting for an engine at all or for Deruchette’s love, but rather for simple hope and acceptance. We don’t believe in Deruchette’s love or sincerity, but he does. He has to. Nobody can live as an outcast without suffering, and even the risk of death is not too great if it will mean an end to the suffering of exclusion. So when Deruchette goes, Gilliat’s hope goes too. Despite expending all he had, he still loses. There’s nothing left in him to fight again for even a shred more of hope and he can’t live on as an excerpt – so he can’t live on at all.

When Hugo is done with us, we understand how epic the human spirit truly is to create change – for the heart, for the soul, for the body, the family, or the conditions we can no longer endure as they are. There is a bit of Gilliat in all of us. Hugo shows us how much the human spirit can expend of itself and endure for hope and, when Gilliat sits in that rock-chair to slowly die, how easily it can be broken when hope is gone.

In fact, it works because Hugo chooses such an odd premise instead of just vomiting up one more iteration of the same ideas everyone else is kicking around, and because he knows that the story is a stand-in for something much, much more valuable.

Don’t be afraid to offer the reader an unusual premise for an unusual story. But kick it up by making it about way more than what it appears to be at first glance.

It’s that second glance that changes everything.

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The One Fatal Mistake Writers Make And How To Fix It (Text Version)

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookWhat if I told you that something you’re doing right now as a writer is actually making it almost impossible to reach readers, whether you’re published or not?

You’d think that with all the writing going on today, and all the advice out there about writing, we’d be churning out more masterpieces than ever. But it almost seems like the opposite is true. So what’s going on?

As an editor I see the same problems over and over. As a writer, I repeat the same problems over and over. We all do. Editing obviously helps with a lot of minor issues, and even some major flaws can be fixed with editing. But the one quality that counts most, and the one failure that’s consistent in the writing I see – and in my own – is the one that can’t be fixed with any amount of editing.

Writers just don’t know how to tell a story.

And if you can’t tell a captivating story, how will you ever get published? How will you get read, or if you do get published how will you find an audience? Because being published is not an indicator or a guarantee that you will ever have readers. If you’re writing, you must want readers, right? We’re all in this to one day be read.

But writing is what writers are interested in. Writing, and getting published. Everyone is writing everywhere, and wherever you look someone is telling writers how to write so they can get published. So much writing, and so much writing about writing.

Such a huge waste.

Writing isn’t what gets you read. It’s what gets the story out of your head, but it isn’t what gets the story into the reader’s head.

There’s one part of the narrative process everyone’s skipping over, the one part that’s most important to get right and the least understood, and that’s storytelling.

And to be clear, storytelling is not plotting. You can have a so-called plotless novel that’s a storytelling powerhouse, and you can have a heavily plotted novel with no storytelling value whatsoever. Writers focus obsessively on the one quality that almost doesn’t even count as long as you can string sentences together, but they do almost nothing to nurture storytelling – the one  thing that brings the reader into the story. They don’t know how.

I certainly never did.

Just ask any editor or publisher and they’ll tell you that incompetent storytelling is such an overarching deficiency that editors aren’t eager to commit precious resources to fix something the writer doesn’t even understand about her or his own work.

Think about it.

It isn’t writing that keeps readers turning the page. If it were, lyrical literary works would be bestsellers all the time, and some of the worst writing out there wouldn’t be turning some people into millionaires. Really riveting storytelling can blind a reader to terrible writing. And on the other hand, beautiful writing keeps the reader mired in the words, not in the story; it can blind the writer – and sometimes publishers – to the importance of storytelling.

It’s all about storytelling. It answers for reader engagement in a way no other part of writing can. It is the narrative transportation system between the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind.

As a writer, I’ve never had problems getting my queries read. About 90% of the time I get a full manuscript request. At times I’ve gone up to two years into the consideration process before that final rejection. I’d lick my wounds, then go back to the writing.

And I’d keep going back to the writing when writing wasn’t the problem. It was the storytelling. I could see the lack of storytelling in my clients’ submissions, or in too many of the novels I was reading, but never in my own. The more contact I had with other writers’ work, the more I began to recognise that it was a universal fatal blind spot.

So the question is, what makes up storytelling? What urges readers to give up their weekends and forego sleep to plough through the pages of someone else’s imaginative output? What makes so many readers go back to the same stories over and over again throughout their lives?

Now, let me give you a bit of background so you can judge for yourselves my qualifications to even talk about this issue. I’ve been editing and writing for nearly thirty years. I have a business degree with a specialty in marketing but strategy also fascinated me. My master’s degree is in literature and creative writing, with a specialty in composition rhetoric.

These divergent backgrounds have helped me approach problem solving for writing from a completely different angle than other writers and academics who are producing all the workbooks and guidebooks advice blogs and writing methods and software out there, who all approach a textual problem with a textual solution.

So, there are some unusual skills I bring into not just diagnosing the problem, but also finding a solution to address all the problems writers face in story development.

Putting aside uncontrollable variables like genius and raw talent, I started analysing the best fiction ever written with an eye to understanding what it is about their shared storytelling qualities that has made devoted fans of readers generation after generation. Despite widely varying writing styles and voices and approaches, I wanted to know what storytelling choices in the most enduring fiction out there, literary or genre, keyed into reader engagement.

Then I went to work putting what I was learning into context.

I asked myself: what does it take to get the story that forms in the writer’s imagination to take root in the reader’s imagination?

If you trust Dickens and Tolstoi, Graham Greene and Hemingway, if you trust Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and Stephen King and Margaret Mitchell, and all those other great writers we’re still reading today, storytelling is everything. Even character development works synchronously with story development. If you have poor story development, characterization suffers. It has to. What happens to character depends on what happens to story. It’s why the most memorable stories also usually produce the most memorable characters.

I began to analyse method to the story process in a way I had never seen done before – not online, and not in any of the textual material that’s available.

If you think about the story as a body, you have to have a skeletal system that provides form and structure. In order for it to make sense, the parts have to connect to each other in a specific way to give the whole its shape. The same is true in something like architecture. You can have the most outrageous appearance on the outside of a building, but if you don’t abide by certain physical principles of structure and engineering the building simply won’t stay standing.

You can’t just throw something together and hope it will turn out right in the end, yet writers do this all the time. Editors and readers know when you’re offering them a mess, even if you don’t realise it. Even stream of consciousness is purposeful and still great storytelling in the hands of a master. You have to compose deliberately, consciously, with a keen eye for cause and effect. Everything in narrative is connected, but not in the way writers think framed in a series of plotting details.

Then there’s the musculature that provides force and locomotion. If it functions well it pulls the reader along as though the story has a will of its own, and the reader has no choice but to submit. If it doesn’t function, it trips the reader up. It moves one way then another or shifts focus until the reader finally gives up long before the story actually stops moving and dies – which is usually well before the last page anyway.

So there was this idea that something has to keep a story together to give it authority and credibility so readers can trust that the writer knows his or her own creation and what to do with it. Something has to keep it moving to generate the kind of page-turning momentum that gives storytelling vivacity.

But none of this matters for writers unless you address three other problems in story development: continuity, management, and tools.

Serious writers have always intuitively known that uninterrupted story development was crucial to storytelling, and to solve the problem they’ve done everything from writing on the walls to taping sheets of paper together to keeping bulging files and plastering sticky notes everywhere.

What other choices are there? Designers have blueprints and computer-aided design. Composers have scores. What do writers have that can help them manage story development?

The answer has always been inadequate. Paper. Then computers.

No workbook or guidebook or complicated software can ever do the job properly. The forms are not a good match for narrative function. And the hallmark of excellence in design is the perfect fit between form and function. Form must properly fill the gap between function and need.

In fact, the tools writers use every day – the paper and screen forms – actually contribute to the problem for writers simply because the act of turning the page or tabbing over to another screen disengages the writer from story flow. There is no way to access every part of a narrative at once. And if you want strong story development, this is critical.

Then there’s the problem of how to deal with the constant change that comes with each draft and rewrite. Writers try juggling it all in their heads but there are a lot of dropped balls in every manuscript, and a lot of balls still being juggled that should have been dropped, which only contributes to the mess industry professionals see ever day.

What are writers to do, then?

Well, I’ve taken everything I learned about storytelling, and everything I assessed about the writer’s needs, and designed a revolutionary new premium story development tool that will do what no other workbook or guidebook or software can. It will turn writers into storytellers.

It’s like nothing writers have ever seen before. It’s so groundbreaking that Writer’s Digest, part of the largest media empire in the world dedicated to writing, wants a first-run copy to assess for a possible feature article.

 

Follow this blog for updates so you can be among the first to turn your work into the kind of story that will keep readers turning the page.

NarraForm, the world’s only panoramic storytelling tool, providing writers with the continuity and perspective needed for beginning-to-end control of story development, has launched on Kickstarter. It’s the only story development aid anywhere based on unique storytelling benchmarks found only in the best fiction the world has ever seen. Become a backer and be among the first to change how you create and develop stories, and at great values that won’t be possible once NarraForm goes retail.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

The One Fatal Mistake Writers Make And How To Fix It

Is there really only one?

Mistake? No.

Fatal – ? You tell me.

(full text here)

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January 31, 2015 · 9:30 pm

The Story Analyst: Character vs. The Moment

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookBelievable characters work in a kind of inviolable synchronicity with story itself. Sometimes character is more important than almost any other part of the story, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Other times, as in much genre or pulp fiction, characters are little more than lightly sketched catalysts for the story’s unfolding details.

So what makes a character credible?

Whether you’re writing cardboard characters or hanging a literary skin on a complex psychological, emotional, intellectual, and experiential scaffolding, there must still be something true about them for the reader. The best opportunities to use character to create energy and momentum for a story is through moments of decision or crisis. Growth – or lack of it – should not only enrich the story’s path, but also solidify the reader’s trust even when they hate what the character does. A reader who throws a book down and screams, “That would never happen!” is very different from one who screams, “That’s not what I expected to happen!” As a writer you want to aim for taking characters in a direction that both works for the story and takes the reader by surprise.

Here’s a great example. Apologies to those who are not Walking Dead fans. Also condolences. Truly. The following scene hails from the Season 5 premiere, and it depicts the moment when Carol and Daryl reunite after a long separation brought about when Rick, the de facto leader of our merry band of survivors, expelled Carol from the group when she broke the only rule that safeguarded their humanity: she killed the living who were not an immediate threat to personal or group safety.

Now, Carol and Daryl were developing a romantic relationship when all this happened. This scene nakedly exposes how they feel about each other. But it also reveals so much more.

In this scene the two are drawn like magnets, running into each others’ arms with almost childlike abandon. Daryl, self-styled white trash, tough guy, bad boy, bites back a big gut sob just having her in his arms. He steps back, hesitant, like a little boy who doesn’t know where to put such big emotions, but the best he can do is drop his head against her shoulder and let her hold him. It’s almost mother/son-ish.

But why doesn’t Daryl kiss her? Why doesn’t she kiss him? Glenn and Maggie would have (kissed each other, that is). I mean, Carol salvaged Daryl’s crossbow (sniff) and brought it to him. His crossbow, people. Sniff. If that’s not love, what is? That’s how gals like Carol roll, right?

That’s so romantic.

Should they have kissed? What would it mean if the writers had given them that “first” in this scene? Sure, it would have pandered to a moment of high emotion, and to the viewers’ desire to see these two find something beautiful in each other in such an awful world, but it would have done nothing to reflect or explore – or further – character. Nor would it have served as a social commentary about the world before and after zombification.

It reveals so much more about who these people are and their social conditioning to have not kissed. Obvious is that the feelings these two have for each other are singular, and belong only to them and between them, but the missing kiss suggests that while they clearly have cared about each other, the blush might be off this rose. Maybe Carol and Tyrese bonded just enough to make her doubt her feelings for Daryl. Maybe what Daryl experienced with Beth on the run, then losing her the way he did, hurt more deeply than it appeared.

There’s a wall up between them. That much is clear.

Let’s take it up a notch. The moment reveals some residual resentment or reticence after having been ex-communicated and left to fend for herself. Who knows what she experienced out there on her own? Carol’s doubt about her acceptance by the group and by Daryl could also be implied. Don’t forget that Carol was in an abusive marriage before the swine Ed got what he deserved: a zombie to the jugular and a few well deserved blows to the brain stem delivered by Carol. Carol’s whole past with men is in that not-kiss. It is not easy for abused women to trust – not men, yes, but they don’t trust their feelings or their gut instinct either. How could Carol physically give herself over to any man after Ed, but more importantly how can she trust her attraction to someone who, for all intents and purposes, is (was?) a whole nuther level of human scum who shared a bloodline with the likes of Merle?

Oh, we all love Daryl but let’s face it, he’s not exactly the kind of fella a well-bred lady would take home to meet the folks, even if there aren’t any folks left to care about social niceties. In that not-kiss moment Carol probably went with her primal attraction and ran to him, then thought, “Carol, what are you doing? Sure, he’s hot but do you really see yourself scrubbing out the skidmarks in his gotchies while he gets pig-eyed over a barrel of rotgut? Didn’t you learn your lesson from Ed?”

The not-kiss also reveals Daryl’s inability to accept himself yet as part of this society – one made up of the same types of people who wouldn’t have even made eye contact with him in the before-time. Maybe he even picks up on Carol’s hesitation or doubt. Right now, in this moment in all its raw emotion, Daryl’s pre-zombie identity is painfully still very much in play. It’s what impels him to move aside despite his feelings and his need for Carol, to make way for Rick. Who, by the way, made the high-handed executive decision behind everyone’s backs to exile Carol to begin with. Daryl’s before-self is still holding him back from allowing love, friendship, passion, romance – and even the brotherhood that Rick proclaimed last season. He steps aside because he knows he’s not Rick’s brother, not his equal. Not anyone’s equal. That’s the Daryl who didn’t matter to anyone peeking through. When he’s killing walkers there is a sense of simpatico between Daryl’s former self and his survivor self. But what is Daryl in love? What is Daryl with love?

Daryl don’t know.

Nor should we.

In one curious omission during a critical scene – the lack of a kiss – who Daryl and Carol were, who they are, and who they’re becoming – are all exposed in one shot. That’s credible character development.

Not kissing means that viewers have something to anticipate. A kiss would have left no room for guessing. Maybe it will still be a private moment between them later on, and in nine months baby Judith will have an ersatz brother or sister. Or it could mean the dissolution of their relationship because Daryl will realize he has to keep his walls up if he wants to survive.

For Daryl and Carol, kissing would have told us about what was. Not kissing told us about what could be. It’s fraught with possibility. It keeps viewers moving forward. It’s the not knowing that’s so delicious.

That’s how writers can create moments that are not just true for character, but sizzling with potential, all without compromising the credibility that readers and viewers depend upon in good storytelling.

Create moments like this in your writing, and you will have readers kissing your hand. Or not.

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