Category Archives: Writing Advice
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.
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:
- 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?
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.
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.
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
- Eye Contact
- The Rocket-ship
(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).
Oh, I’d go all right. Straight out the door.
I mean, seriously, people?
(Serenity now, serenity now.)
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.
Before you can tell a character’s story, you have to understand how context creates that particular kind of individual with the specific power to influence the world they inhabit, and thus drive narrative.
Take a look at the list below, then try to identify the novel it describes:
- Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions
- Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love
- With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules
- She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is
- An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society
- They have one daughter together
- The end of a pregnancy almost kills her
- Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand
- Influential people in their social circle turn their backs on them
- She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side
- Others pay a heavy price for their choices
- His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love
- In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices
Now, with a few tweaks on the details this could describe just about any romance novel out there. But this isn’t just any novel out there.
In fact, it’s not even just one novel, it’s two very distinct narratives, one occupying the literary end of the spectrum, the other genre.
How can this be? How can a single, very specific summary fit two totally unique novels?
And get away with it.
And produce two masterpieces.
If you haven’t already guessed, the two novels are Anna Karenina and Gone With The Wind.
How did this happen and still work?
Every single detail of both novels bears specific and perfect working agency for each particular narrative. Agency is a kind of inherent power to influence, in this case in a fictional context.
So how does context work in fiction? Say you took the same narrative summary and superimposed it into Hollywood circa, oh, just now. How would those summary details muscle through?
For laughs, let’s call our fake novel Anna Kardashian and take on context point by point.
- Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions: … so, um … going against Hollywood’s conventions would take our Anna into the realm of .. morals? and sexual decency? Okkaay, sssure.
- Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love: Let’s call him Brhatt Pittsky. He’s an amoral/immoral frat boy she meets at a kegger. Brhatt’s been with some whores in the past but he doesn’t really need them because he can always find girls willing to do the same things for free, so he saves a ton of money that way. To complicate things, one of the girls he uses for booty calls loves him and might/might not already have a child with him. Brhatt’s sole objective is to take Anna’s virginity even though she’s in love with a narcissistic rapper, Kanyley Welkes, who she thinks is totally fabs because of his pseudo-religious prosperity rap message. Unfortunately, although Kanyley is hot for Anna, he doesn’t really love her and wants to marry his cousin to keep it in the family. Brhatt goes after Anna with everything he’s got.
- With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules: Ooh, this is getting sticky already. So Brhatt does everything possible to get Anna to let her guard down, showing up at parties and getting friends to manipulate contact until she responds to his intense pressure. He super wants to video himself taking her virginity and gets her alone unchaperoned one night and convinces her that anything that feels so goooood has to be approved by God. When he goes to tape it, he accidentally presses the wrong button on his smartphone and instead of taking a video he ends up with a very blurry nightvision image of his butt crack.
- She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is: Her motto is: WTF? LOL!
- An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society: she goes clubbing and, unlike everyone else, is not taking obscene selfies of public sex acts, nor snorting mountains of coke. Once their social circle finds out she’s a virgin, from then on that’s all anyone posts about on FB. Brhatt’s friends make up some pretty funny memes about it too, using Photoshop to superimpose Pepe the Frog’s face over hers to show how virgins have to be ugly to be virgins. None of the memes go viral, though.
- They have one daughter together: Of course, she gets pregnant her first time, and of course he denies he’s the babydaddy and demands a paternity test. And of course because the Bible says once you fornicate with someone you’re bonded to them for life, she realises she loves him and dedicates herself 100% to the relationship.
- The end of a pregnancy almost kills her: When her latest pics of the nursery and her mason jar crafts on Pinterest do not go viral she can’t deal and goes on clonazepam. Guys, it was super, super hard.
- Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand: Because they’ve already fornicated, she moves in with him figuring it’s as good as marriage in God’s eyes. She tries to withhold sex so she doesn’t feel bad about herself for continuing to fornicate but he pressures her to do gross stuff that makes her puke and also causes such severe sphincteral atrophy that she needs rectal surgery to prevent excrement from continuously leaking out, but at least it’s not technically fornication. Her frigidity drives him to shag (that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, right?) his booty-call buddy more regularly, and Anna starts getting paranoid about how much Brhatt truly loves her.
- Influential people in their social circle refuse to receive them: Obvs! She smells like feces all the time. His rapey frat-boy friends hate her guts more because she thinks they’re a bad influence and won’t let them in the house, thus preventing them from gang-raping her for a rape-fantasy porno they want to post to PornHub.
- She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side: A mousy sister-in-law whose only interest is children and housekeeping. She doesn’t actually so much as stand by her side as just not get all judgey.
- Others pay a heavy price for their choices: Her friends say she makes them feel bad and guilty and shameful about all their out-of-wedlock pregnancies with different babydaddies and the drug use, and they wish she would stop being so high and mighty. And also do something about the rectal leakage. His friends are sick of them both for getting in the way of their viral-porn careers.
- His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love: After trying for too long to undermine her morals and get her to finally do that porno his friends think they can sell on PornHub, he finally does rape her in earnest, then sends pics out in an act of revenge porn. She finally realises that even though they’ve fornicated God will forgive her if she breaks up with him. Probably. But then in an epic turnaround Brhatt realises he likes Anna a little. It makes him sad, but not really.
- In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices: she requires years of therapy and corrective rectal surgery but otherwise just coasts along, eventually getting ultra-religious and distributing L. Ron Hubbard tracts for Scientology. He never finds fame and fortune with his revenge porn which, buried in an ocean of horrific, galling sexual imagery, never, sadly, goes viral. He blames her for his failure. She spends the rest of her life and her family’s fortune hiring lawyers to get the revenge porn images off the net but even after years and decades somehow they always manage to surface. The guy she’s living with, though, is super, super supportive and so sweet. LOL!
Yeah, pretty much the same, no?
The worlds from which Tolstoy and Mitchell drew not only created their particular heroines and all the bit players, those worlds made it possible to drive powerful narrative through context. The characters have agency because the contexts have agency and thus provide it to them.
In a Hollywood context – morally, spiritually, politically, economically – Anna Kardashian could not have been created in a way that might have driven her to Anna Karenina’s particular end. Hollywood has no moral or spiritual or social power to realistically or even hypocritically control, ostracize, and destroy one of their own over an extramarital affair and having a child out of wedlock, or for a defiant need for autonomy when that’s the accepted norm. This strips away the agency of any possible suicide, as well as its power as an end. Oh, Anna Kardashian might still have committed suicide but not with the same causal agency derived from the institutional pressures that snuffed out Anna Karenina’s freedom to choose as a human being and as a woman. Her world had her completely boxed in to an impossible corner, out of which suicide was the only truly autonomous choice she had left, and the only freedom. That’s not within the realm of Anna Kardashian’s story at all, and couldn’t be.
You could try working the morality/sexual decency angle against the business-as-usual moral degeneracy of LaLa Land but a socialite with money in today’s Hollywood has more power to turn away from that influence than anyone else in this life. She is not trapped anywhere by anyone, even if her parents or a trust controls the purse strings. If she finds degeneracy too overwhelming she can find belonging and a moral home elsewhere. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, kept ignorant and uneducated by her society, was powerless to survive alone without her husband’s or her lover’s wealth, nor the isolation of a social world that rejected her absolutely.
Now, make her a Muslim woman in ISIL-controlled Mosul or Saudi Arabia and we can start talking about the power social, economic, and cultural conditions have to control a woman’s autonomy when that woman isn’t even allowed to set foot in the street without a related male chaperone, nor drive a car, nor hold her own passport.
Not in Hollywood, though.
Similarly, the contrast between the decadent antebellum South and the Civil War’s brutality (as well as its devastating economic and social effects) create then drive Scarlett and all the others in the story toward their outcomes. Just as the combination of her low Irish and aristocratic coastal French lineages provide her with the “gumption” that allows her to both understand and navigate her rarified world then survive when it falls, the inbred Southern aristocracy of Ashley and Melanie makes it impossible for them to survive on their own when their world is stripped of its beauty and grace. Rhett, too, as a reject of that world, becomes detached from its value and autonomously survives on his own terms, allowing him to manipulate Scarlett into doing the same except with consequences he doesn’t foresee (because she is not entirely like him, and he is not as entirely unlike his world).
Not even the LA Riots visited the total destruction of a way of life represented in GWTW to provide a modern equivalent of Mitchell’s complex statement about character and survival.
It’s the conflicted pressures of those contexts that propel Anna to her final scene. The antebellum/post-Civil-War South contexts created Scarlett O’Hara, and for the same reasons Anna is driven toward her suicidal end, context makes that same ending for Scarlett impossible.
In fact, in great fiction the opening lines and scene become the absolute nexus point of all those contexts, out of which the story runs like a torrent on its own power.
Take context away and the only power a story has left is plot and writing style, and those are almost never enough to carry a narrative without leaving the reader feeling like they just ate a meal that was mostly carbs and empty calories.
Why is context so important? Because it’s the way life works, and the best stories tell us the most about ourselves and our world in the best possible ways. Every single experience we have, our history, our culture and social/familial conditions create the context from which our very being arises. And because they create us, they create the directions in which we’re pushed and pulled, and they create within us the agency (or lack of it) to either react from basic animal instinct or respond as conscious beings to whatever happens to us.
Get context wrong or ignore it, and you signal to readers that you don’t understand much about life or people, or that you’re a simple-minded fool.
Take a look at how context has worked in your life and in the lives of the people you know. How are you giving your stories the contextual substance necessary for the kind of agency and self-propelling momentum that can get readers truly engaged with your story?
Necessary parts? Check. Snazzy image of what it’s supposed to look like in the end? Check. Tools? Check. Handy-dandy instruction manual? Check. Armchair generals? Check. Know-how (you’ve used a hammer before) – aaand check.
Yet somehow it’s not working. Where’s the disconnect between the job you think you’ve done and the one you actually did? Where does it all go wrong to make publishers’ veins pop, and drive readers straight to Netflix?
- COMPONENTS: Having all the necessary parts is not the same as understanding what they’re for and how they all fit together. Most writers are task literate (composition) but process illiterate (narrative), which makes getting from beautiful image to beautiful finished product extremely challenging if not impossible. Putting a story together doesn’t make the bits and pieces mean something developmentally, whether the plotting dominoes seem to all line up or there’s minimal plot. That’s what writers get so wrong. But don’t feel bad. Most published fiction demonstrates the same process illiteracy (yes, even famous writers), which is why a novel might tank; the writer’s high-level task literacy blinds publishers to the novel’s deeper infrastructural deficits. Sometimes, the publisher mistakes a pile of random garbage for a highly experimental and non-linear work of art. Readers know otherwise, though. In the aggregate, they know the difference between a pile of random garbage and, say, The Sound And The Fury.
- PERSPECTIVE: You don’t have the right perspective to understand how the image in your head will become the thing itself. This is not your fault. You came to the project impeded by the notion that as long as you had tools and instructions you could get results, but nobody taught you how to see holistically and strategically like an architect and engineer instead of just a putterer or, at best, a builder.
- TOOLS: The best tools in the world mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to get them to work for you. But what if the project calls for tools you didn’t even know existed: you don’t know what they are, where you can get them, or how to use them. How can any project come to fruition with such an impediment? Most possess only the most rudimentary tools. For writers the toolbox might contain lexical, syntactical, scenic, and symbolic tools. What you really need in order to do well, though, is not even on the radar or in your budget (because, believe it or not, projects of this nature require a certain amount of investment). So you end up taking a short cut trying to use a Phillips head when you really need a spline drive, with all the expected results. For writers, that means having minimal (but mostly zero) developmental or narrative tools available.
- INSTRUCTIONS: Instructions are always torture because they’re generalized and have been filtered through the mind of someone who isn’t you, therefore your specific process and task illiteracy are contaminated and obstructed by their general process and task literacy. In the end this difference will cost you in terms of excess or missing parts and a poor quality outcome. And why wouldn’t it? Truly, the project isn’t really yours anyhow, is it?
- ARMCHAIR GENERALS: What armchair generals see is based on what they know, not on who you are or what your project is about. Unlike instruction-makers, the problem with armchair generals is that they likely don’t know more than you, and possibly less. They’d be shouting the same things from the comfort of their armchairs no matter what, so any advice will not likely help you be more knowledgeable or produce a more meaningful outcome.
- KNOW-HOW: Maybe this is about skill, maybe it’s about talent. Or both. Take a look at some of the DIY web sites out there (I’m looking at you Hometalk, you endless click-baity letdown) and you’ll notice some people who put an excruciating, unconscionable amount of effort and time into creating something awful. All the know-how is there but what they do with it and the direction they take it is just mind-bogglingly senseless, adding nothing to the sum of things for anyone but themselves. Well, writing isn’t a project hanging on the rec room wall for personal pleasure. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as long as that eye is yours and yours alone – or the five people in the world with your exact aesthetic sensibilities or sufficient pity for your dedication and passion. No. Writers must share, and relate, and make others see the worth and meaning of what they see and what they’ve created. If you can’t do that, if you’re the only one who sees it or you can’t make anyone else see it, maybe you’re just not made for this work. You should not be making this dang thing in the first place. So just slowly back away before someone gets hurt. Chances are, it’ll be you.
A few posts back I published 10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story. Here’s another ten.
11. Narrative before writing
In the writing paradigm, writing comes first. Most often, it’s the only consideration. It’s a symptom of our narcissistic age where anything that serves the Self supersedes anything that serves the Other. So naturally we’ve moved away from any narrative approach that puts the reader’s interests on the radar.
You see it a lot at the higher levels of literary writing: the complex or experimental pieces submitted to a group for review, which everyone else feels too inferior or stupid to critique. Silence feeds the writer’s hubris about his/her own intellect rather than serving as proof of the work’s utter failure to reach the reader on any level. After all, everyone knows that if it’s incomprehensible the writer must be extra-extra smart and, well, there’s not much we doofus types can add.
Incoherence does not equal smart. If you’re a writer who thinks stream-of-consciousness means just yakking out whatever comes to mind until the last yellow drop of literary bile has drained out, then you don’t understand that stream-of-consciousness is just fiction that’s been left to the reader to approach archaeologically or forensically. But it’s still narrative and there’s still has to be something there for the reader.
If you’re not reaching the reader through narrative, none of the fancy tricks of writing will help.
The best writers know that communicating with the reader comes before the way you use the language. If you don’t have a story to tell, then all the lovingly crafted language and lyricism or from-the-hip adjectiveless, adverbless plainwriting in the world might as well be left in a journal where you can admire yourself whenever you like.
Narrative is for the reader. Writing is for the writer.
How does this matter? Because as soon as the reader starts noticing the writing, the writer has failed. This has nothing to do with whether or not a writer produces quotable writing or beautiful passages. It means the writing can’t be an intrusive force. Writing should serve as invisible an element beneath the story as breathing, no matter the style.
The greats have always known this.
12. Narrative over ideology
Most writers use fiction as a platform through which their worldview can be realized. Often, they don’t even know this is what’s happening but even if they do they usually lack the objectivity or critical thinking to be bigger than their own perspective. They just want their characters to tell the world how it should be.
First-rate writers do this, of course, but they also simultaneously hold their ideals out at arm’s length, then brutally test them within the confines of their story world. They are able to boldly cope with moral, ethical, religious, political realities that are in direct and painful conflict with their own.
They remorselessly call their own ideals to task.
Great fiction is never an ideological screed or manifesto even when it takes a powerful stance for or against something personally meaningful to the writer. Ultimately, nothing is more important than creating the most honest kind of story, and the born writer knows that’s impossible if it’s filtered through a skewed and rigid ideological lens.
The truth within belief systems comes and goes. The truth that lies beyond that is forever.
That’s what great writers aim for.
Like a martial arts master aiming toward a point on the other side of a concrete block.
13. Humanity over ideology
Having said that, the best novels serve as public demonstrations of intensely personal values. That’s not a contradiction of the above point. The first concern is always the human story, not the screed that will be masked by a story. In fact, the human story is usually so richly expressed, and with such complexity, that even if there’s a position involved it just doesn’t seem like the important part for readers.
That’s because great storytellers don’t pit a particular Me against a particular You, even though the conditions of the story may be highly particularized. They do this by making sure that all their characters are threaded into the larger human tapestry, not just the ones that serve the writer’s value system. Villains exist (they must) but powerful writers approach Other without dehumanizing, demeaning, or demonizing.
Or by turning them into caricature.
Similarly, the characters representing the writer’s values don’t get the kid glove treatment either. The writer has the magnanimity to make their ideal pitiful, ridiculous, mock-worthy, or even contemptible, all without losing their purpose.
Strong writers write from – and to – an essential humanity against which no particulars of any ideology are able to survive. There is no Me and You.
It’s just Us.
14. Reader before writer
Similar to Story Before Writing, but not quite.
A good host makes sure their guests have the best time possible – even if the host has spent the entire party serving canapes and topping up drinks and whisking away dirty dishes.
Writers are inviting readers to a narrative party. Writers who put their own needs and ego ahead of the reader’s engagement is like inviting a bunch of people over then serving rain juice and sawdust crackers (because converting your guests over to your dietary morals was your true ulterior motive), and spending the entire time making sure you’re the one having the best time.
A really great host (even if not a great human being) will make an effort to give guests something worth coming for – and hopefully worth coming back for next time. Otherwise, don’t have a party. Sit at home with your rain juice and sawdust crackers and enjoy them the way they’re meant to be enjoyed – solo.
Give the reader something more important than what you want.
15. The second glance
This is a quality that adds longevity to a story. It’s a deep complexity that makes the story somehow different the next time you read it. And there always is a next time when a story is among the best. Read this post for a more detailed look at what goes into giving readers a chance at the second glance.
THE REAL DEAL
It doesn’t matter whether it’s lyrical or the flattest prose possible, writing that lacks clarity, control, and confidence is like listening to a third rate actor butcher an Australian accent. The agonizing effort and lack of skill and overconfidence scream out from the text.
The best writing just disappears into narrative. How and when to use punctuation, vernacular, switching back and forth between voices and times and points of view – all happens like a great conversation that veers from news to the utterly private to politics and religion without awkward pauses or anyone even noticing the switch.
Don’t know if you have clarity, confidence, or control? Let’s give’er a go. This sample has everything I usually seen in manuscripts. Lots of adjectives and adverbs, time flips, over-the-top actions, digressions, regressions, unbelievable dialogue/vocalizations, odd metaphors.
Kimmie trudged her way heart-breakingly across the dark and creepy room screaming and crying, so hard it was like her heart had exited her body and was now in the room and it was going to beat her to death with its throbbing pulse. She trudged on, her feet like lead torpedoes, a fist in the air, her mouth in a hideous, malformed grimace, saliva slathering down her chin, tears pouring like a water spout.
“No, No, NOOOOoooo,” she kept crying.
With shoulders shaking with every heaving sob, she shook her clenched fist and lamented grievously, “DAMN YOU!!!!”, and when she reached the fireplace mantle she let out an animalistic “RRRRrrrr!” as she beat the fireplace mantle with both fists, screaming wildly and painfully, then sweeping the candlesticks and remote controls and vases off. They start falling around her sobbing shoulders in a rain of glittering glass and flashing metal and glowing plastic, and as her perceptions gear down into slo-mo, she stupefyingly watches the candlesticks fly by like existential nunchuks, end over end, their brass glinting in the twinkling light of the hot, searing sun.
The remote controls make contact with the gleaming marble of the old Victorian fireplace mantle made of hard wood, and split open like rectangular electronic skulls, their brain matter exploding off in every direction like the shrapnel that had hit Joe back in ‘Nam in the MeKong Delta when he served as a gunner in the Brown Water Navy and they used to patrol through snipers and booby-trapped sampans, and he’d tell her the mosquitoes and leeches were almost worse than the war itself.
Suddenly she sees the vase spinning through the air toward her, the beautiful, gorgeous yellow bohemian art glass vase in mint condition with hand-painted white roses that he’d bought for her at a flea market in Sacramento back in ’78 when they were still young and in love and he still thought about all the little things that make a relationship worthwhile, and it was such a good deal at forty five dollars and some change and went perfectly with her decor, so she reached out one hand like a ninja and saved the vase. Then she crumpled to the ground, still clutching the vase, and sobs incoherently, “why me, why me, why me? WHYYYY?”
You’re welcome. Indeed, why any of us?
If this sounds like you, start asking yourself if each word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and scene answers to clarity (are you communicating something that serves the purpose of your story?), control (are you using only the most value-added words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes?), and confidence (do your words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes represent your authenticity and mastery as a human being as well as a writer?)
Just like memorable, effortless conversations are a rarity in life, it’s a rarity in fiction.
Writing is the expressed You.
Voice is just you.
If you were standing with a group of people at a party and you started talking like your writing, would people start inching away backwards, then spend the rest of the night avoiding eye contact with you, and every time you came near they’d hide out in the washroom until the coast was clear?
When you know who you are you have a voice. When you have a voice, you have the control and confidence to make powerful use of it. When you make the most powerful use of your voice you don’t need tricks to impress anyone.
A writer able to write from his/her own authenticity and mastery is a writer with a powerful voice.
19. Authenticity is internal
Related to voice, but not quite. You won’t find out how to become your most authentic self as a writer by letting other writers tell you what that should look like.
If you need prompts to write or you have to look to others for ideas, the road toward your own true voice will be a lot more difficult.
First-rate writers have the opposite problem: too many ideas and not enough time to make them all happen. That’s not to say there’s no writer’s block, but that’s something completely different.
The only way you can become authentic is by staring yourself down in your own existential mirror to find out what you’re truly made of, because this is where all writing starts.
It’s not good ideas. It’s not using the latest software or joining the hottest group or enrolling in the best writing program.
You are It. The Source. The Root. The Cause.
It’s all in there, and you’re the one who has to get it out.
That’s where authenticity comes from, and it’s where you’ll find your voice.
19. Allowable Input
The more serious/credible the writer, the fewer people they allow into their creative world.
First rate writers do not expose themselves or their writing to third rate talent. Or second-rate, for that matter. Sometimes not even first-rate, because who is worthy or not is so personal and subjective.
That’s because first rate writers protect their voices and their ideas with a jealousy bordering on pathological. There will usually be one or two people they can entrust with their work and their voices.
Take a page from their behaviours. Choose carefully who you let influence the kind of work you produce, your ideas. Ask yourself: can this person help your writing become the most you – or the most them?
It’s your voice.
It’s your voice.
20. Mastery is all DIY
Nobody can make you a better writer than you are willing to be – and it all comes from inside you, not from being around the right people or getting a hand-up. Even opened doors and knowing the right people won’t help if you don’t show up prepared with the goods.
It’s something you have to do for yourself.The learning curve is yours, it’s steep, and there’s no short-cut.
There is never a short cut.
A follower of this blog brought up an excellent point about an earlier post quoting John Irving:
Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?
She confessed that while she appreciated – aw, heck, I’ll just let her say it herself:
I appreciate the quote, but I have to say it does make me feel badly about myself. What kind of a storyteller am I? Is “beginner” allowed? How do you get to know the whole story if you don’t commit yourself to writing it down?
For some insight on what John Irving meant and the difference between writing and storytelling, read the commentary on that post. The Know Your Story series that will begin with this post will be strictly to help writers find their way toward what Irving meant by knowing the story before you start writing the story. In other words, narrative – the part you’re delivering to the reader.
Seinfeld famously proclaimed to be a show about nothing. But we all know it was anything but. It was a canny satire on our society and on what we’ve become within it. Had the show come into existence out of Soviet Russia, it would have been its own canny satire on their society. I mean, let’s face it, Kramer being picked up off the street in broad daylight by the internal police of the US Postal Service has a very different tenor than a Kramerski being picked up off some Moscow street by anyone. We’re different societies but what would have stayed the same is our fundamental take on our own in/humanity and how we can frame our responses.
But to say that it was about “nothing” is about the most gutsy way to make fun of human stupidity. It’s absurdly existential, almost “nothingness”, but not quite. Because we can’t take ourselves that seriously, after all.
What if their one word hadn’t been “nothing”? What if it had been “friendship”? Or “absurdity”? Doesn’t it totally take the wind out of the show’s sails to lose that winking consciousness? It’s because the show nailed it with “nothing” that it somehow dug itself deep inside our perceptions of our own time, allowing us to laugh at ourselves in a different way from, say, Friends, which was about almost the same things – a pack of disconnected NY idiots living rectum-deep inside each others’ lives and doing stupid things all the time. Difference? One took itself seriously, the other knew it couldn’t possibly. Seinfeld knew we’re the sideshow. Friends played the sideshow straight. There is a knowingness about “nothing” that will put Seinfeld on a completely different map than Friends when we’re looking back at some of the most important shows of that time.
What one thing is your story about? This must be a moral, psychological, philosophical, spiritual, or emotional point, because we respond viscerally to the roiling mess that defines our very humanity, which distinguishes us from animals. Find that one apt, incisive word to encapsulate the story you want to write.
This is so hard it hurts, because really, no story is ever about one thing, right?
Except they all are. Well, the best are.
If we were to divide storytelling into two categories – For The Writer and For The Reader – this would be a strategic device mainly for the writer, the bull’s eye whose center the writer aims for every time, with every word and paragraph and chapter, with that one idea in boldface across its middle.
The benefits of getting this right serve the reader too, yes, in the long run. But only if it serves the writer first.
Whenever a word, sentence, paragraph, scene, character trait or choice ceases to serve the one word, it is no longer the story you intended to communicate.
Try. Here are some of my best guesses:
- Misery: possession
- Anna Karenina: genuineness
- Gone Girl: self-deception
- Middlesex: identity
- The Quiet American: treachery
Yes, Anna Karenina is about adultery, love, romance, society, but what brings the story to its awful boil is the way Anna’s need to be genuine to her own ideals – in opposition to all those other things – plays out. Levin’s story is pushed through the same sieve. As is Kitty’s. If it were not about genuineness, it would not be much of a story. Just stuff happening.
Find that human center of your story. Name it. This is so important that if you get it wrong, it will bruise the delicate reader like a pea under a pile of mattresses. S/he will know you are claiming to be Seinfeld but delivering Friends, or vice versa. Or worse, the not-Seinfeld kind of nothing without the sly wink. If it doesn’t click with our moral, emotional, psychic cores it will have no pull for the reader. Or the wrong pull. Tap into human need, fear, anxiety –
Think about it. Would you rather read a story about alcoholism, or one about disintegration? The Shining knows.
Someone wrote a very promising supernatural story – I won’t name it because its quality doesn’t justify free promotion – in which a quirky, phlegmatic stranger appears in the protagonist’s life. Spoiler: turns out he’s an angel with a miracle earmarked for the end of the story because the protagonist is so deserving in his goodness.
Deserving was clearly the story’s one word. It was practically horse-whipped onto each page.
What did the protagonist do to deserve a forthcoming miracle? He spun a zany cast of friends around him who kept up several unrelated and pointless running subplots. He let his Alzheimer’s dad live with him and didn’t complain. He didn’t hate his ex-wife. Took care of his son.
With every chapter the steam just drained out of this story as it darted between wacky sitcom schtick and the everyday toils of the Everyman to build up to … absolutely nothing.
When the miracle is finally delivered (spoiler: the protagonist’s only child is saved from drowning and his wife comes back to him when she realizes she made an oopsie.) the reader is left to ask what part deserving had in anything.
The focus on deserving had this effect: it made the miracle mysterious but the deserving unearned – if the miraculous can even be deserved to begin with.
It’s the deserving/earning thing that’s suspect. The idea that anything in the realm of the mysterious can be earned or deserved (over all others striving for same) suggests something very dark and horrifying and categorical about our individual worth in the world.
The truth is, like the ordinary, the miraculous just happens. There’s no scale measuring our worth that triggers its dispensation. Go to Lourdes and pray, and if anything were to happen it would not be based on how much anyone deserved it. There’s always someone who can claim to deserve it more.
If we deserve a miracle it pits our worth as human beings against the randomness of the human experience. We deserve cancer? We deserve to be T-boned into oblivion on our vacation?
Deserving is the wrong one word. It cannot be sustained in any way that makes sense in reality, even factoring in the divine. Who decides? God? Then why bother with a story attempting to justify why this person and not that one deserves the miracle more? It’s something that absolutely cannot be justified by people sporting more than one brain cell.
Let’s change the one word. Putting the story’s focus on miraculous would make human ordinariness miraculous and the miraculous mysterious, even if nothing else in the story changes. The protagonist is still an Everyman. There could still be a suggestion of something magical about the stranger, except it can now be written in such a way that it’s never overt, and left to the reader – or protagonist – to interpret. How the boy was saved and how the wife came back can be left open-ended, subject to the personal frame of reference of each reader.
Now that’s a story with the potential to pack a real punch.
Oh, plus the pointless sitcom schtick has got to go. Got to. It doesn’t serve the one word.
So ask yourself what would be your one word; better still, ask what would be the best, most apt one word to help you know your story before you even start writing it.
Think about how different your story would be if your one word was slightly off, or wrong, or …
Right now it’s all we’ve got whether we like it or not: sitting around a room together under the watchful gaze of some Published Elder, reading snippets of each others’ work, critiquing word use, sentence structure, character peccadilloes, scene quality and, if you’re lucky (or very unlucky if you’re the reader) an entire chapter.
… followed by crushing self-doubt, anger, calling your judges, jury, and executioners idiots, then doing your own thing anyhow.
More and more, the public discourse on the proliferation of workshops (and courses based on the model) are pointing out the same thing: it’s not making us better writers, and it’s not making our output better.
In fact, it’s possible the Workshop Model (thanks, Iowa) is the most destructive component of the writer’s development.
That’s because the model is not only flawed, but flawed in the worst ways possible. It’s not just one thing, but any combination of some or all the flaws that ruins it for developing writers.
1. The Mentorship Factor
Oh, she’s up there at the front of the group. So is he. You might have once heard the name. Somewhere. At least you think so – no, you’re positive. Maybe. Well, at least they’ve reached that Pinnacle that is the brass ring for all writers: Being Published.
Because Being Published must mean you know what you’re doing, right?
It’s possible your Published Elder is even famous or better still a Somebody, all capitalized and everything. Just meeting them makes you suddenly inarticulate and gushing. Your ability to make direct eye contact lowers proportionately with the heights of their accomplishments, but by the end at least you can brag about being on a first-name basis with a Somebody.
So you crack your knuckles, ready to get all smartified by osmosis. Or something like that.
There are real dangers in letting this unquestioned dominant-submissive interplay take charge of your writing and your development as a writer:
- Bias – We are biased, and therefore they are biased. Biased opinions can snuff out your individuality and your voice – the very qualities you’ll most need to develop as a writer to differentiate your work from everyone else’s. The group mentor might hate genre, hate everything but social realism, hate lyrical prose and linear execution. Guess what? Do you think you’ll actually get as fair a shake as s/he believes will be delivered? Do you think s/he’ll give you the wide berth you’ll need to develop your own voice and style, or will you be judged against some personal template and found wanting? Chances are, you will be funneled and pushed in an approved direction. Chances are with every comment and well-meaning critique you will be driven farther and farther from the story you were meant to write, and the farther away you get the harder it will be to come around to your own center again. That’s if your center isn’t completely obliterated by then.
- Lack of perspective -There is no way your mentor can understand your project holistically from bits and pieces of sample submissions or from its raw stage of development at that particular moment. How can anyone help you reach something they don’t know about or can’t share, especially if they don’t understand narrative development to begin with?
- Blind spots – Not everyone who has been published is smart enough or deep enough or perceptive enough or intuitive enough to achieve full and clear cognizance (in fact, that number is realistically zero). If aspects of your work meet your mentor’s blind spot, there is no way they can help you in a way that won’t be compromised by that blind spot.
- Perceptual limitations – A short leash intellectually, artistically, emotionally, psychologically, experientially means they just won’t get it because they don’t have the mind to deal with where you’re going, and they don’t have enough (or the right) tools in their toolbox to overcome their own limitations sufficiently to make your work shine. What it took to get them somewhere is not what it will take to get you anywhere.
2. The Trusted Person Factor
A little secret: as a rule, first rate writers wouldn’t attend writer’s groups or workshops if their lives depended on it, graduate work being an exception that mercifully only lasts a year or two.
(Oh, but they’ll teach them all right.)
They know something you don’t know, and that’s how dangerous it is to have many valueless voices interfering with a work-in-progress. Anyone allowed to have a hand in the unfinished project of a truly powerful writer has to be a Trusted Person offering the writer uncompromising vision as well as reason, someone who won’t undermine the writer’s voice or developing narrative, but who will call them on their BS.
Finding that Trusted Person is about as likely as finding a gram of astatine in your back yard, and in fact many of the finest writers have no one to whom they can vet their work at all except the editor who will see them through the publishing process at the end.
That we would ever find more than one Trusted Person to play that role in our writerly lives is tempting the bounty of the gods. To expect that the Published Elder will volunteer to be your Trusted Person when s/he can’t, by virtue of a vested interest in their own work and development, care about you or your work enough to also invest themselves in you in any way that matters, is unrealistic at best.
But a room full of rank amateurs with fragile overblown egos, all Trusted Persons? That’s not just tempting the gods but strutting across the divine stage and delivering atomic wedgies.
Bounty will not be had.
3. The Sampling Factor
Really? Five or ten static pages here and there, and we really think we’re going to understand the dynamism necessary to tell a story anyone cares about? Five or ten pages to represent the entire project vision, and if that sample happens to be the worst – or the best – of what we can do, how can anyone see the full truth we’re trying to reveal, much less help us reveal it?
The Workshop Model lives and breathes on samples that can’t possibly impart the breadth or depth or vitality of what a story will or can or should be, nor can samples adequately represent the whole picture or the movement of narrative.
So what exactly will our workshop critics be helping us with? How will they ever be able to sink their teeth into anything that matters long enough to help us sink our teeth into what matters in the story?
Of course, this point is far worse for long projects like novels and novellas, not so bad with short fiction. But still …
4. The Ignorance Factor
Ay. What do these people know? Really, what do they bring to the table that matters, that isn’t wrapped up in their own egos, their own ideas, their agendas, their resentment toward you for being a slightly less terrible writer than they are or for having their time and energy wasted by so many writers so much worse than they are?
Does anyone in that room actually know how to help you? And if they did, what do you think might get in the way of even their most noble motives for enlightening you? (Hint: return to beginning of post and re-read).
The Workshop Model might be therapeutic and a mutual support venue that allows writers to feel better about their dreams and the very real struggles of trying to be a writer, but putting together a group of people who don’t know enough about the creation and development of a work of narrative is not the way to make better writers.
Or better writing.
The Workshop Model should be like group therapy where you talk about your frustration and fear and hopes and dreams and trials and errors.
It should not be allowed to touch anyone’s literary junk.
5. The Limitation Factor
What we really need to understand about narrative – where story begins, how it develops, and how we can attract and sustain reader interest from beginning to end – can’t be provided by the Workshop Model.
How do you reach the reader? Do we ask the workshop’s Publishing Elder, who once sold maybe a whopping 1, 287 copies to friends, relatives, colleagues, and a few curious strangers, or do we read about it from Stephen King who admits to being so stoned throughout most of his career that he can barely remember actually writing many of his works?
(Although his output does make being a junkie seem pretty darned attractive …)
Stephen King and writers like him have a lot of important things to say about writing, and we should all pay attention.
As a generality. Like that stuff about adjectives and adverbs and purple prose, all good. All industry boilerplate. It just feels better coming from someone who has accomplished a heck of a lot more than we have.
What you will hear from your Published Elder and even a Somebody is – well, nothing you can’t get for free on the internet. From anyone. Anyone at all. Your Published Elder will point out your purple prose and weak character development (whatever that means, since they have no way of knowing where you’re going with it), your lack of focus, your misdirected blathering, your pathos, the same advice you’d get from anyone anywhere online. Likely, there is even software out there that will take care of some of these pesky problems with the same efficiency offered in a workshop.
To specifically understand your own work through someone else’s filters, it’s just not going to happen (for more information, return to top of post and re-read).
Most people teaching writing workshops are not exactly (how can I put this delicately?) Stephen King or Tolstoy material. How can any writer who can’t reach readers teach other writers how to reach readers?
It’s by studying fiction that has succeeded in reaching readers, all kinds of it from literary to straight genre, rather than the writer’s opinion of their own work that writers learn what they need to know about themselves and their projects.
Your work is not special to anyone but you – until it hits the marketplace and you find out the hard way whether or not you’ve made it special to anyone beyond yourself.
Unless you understand first how to make the story born in your imagination come to life in the reader’s imagination.
The only chance you’ll have at figuring that out is if you learn how narrative develops from its very DNA on until you have a perfectly articulated, functioning, vital story instead of some patchwork monstrosity you’ve stitched together and set lumbering into the world.
I’m not saying writers shouldn’t participate in workshops ever or that you can’t gain anything of value if you do participate in them, but if you do please go with an understanding that it’s not a venue built to help you develop the voice or the individuality you’ll need to create a meaningful, unique, original narrative from the inside out from beginning to end, which is something writers need to do more and more in order to stand head and shoulders above what’s become an ocean of published books that will never be read.
The workshop is there to criticize your literary hair and clothes, sometimes in the nicest way possible like your friend’s good-hearted mom who shows you how to use a scarf to deal with that turkey-wattle neck of yours, or sometimes like your own mom (“You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?”); other times it won’t be so nice or benign, like a group of guys Snapchatting (did I get that right?) your most vulnerable moments because berating you makes them feel better about their own failures.
Well, at least you might have a shot at telling your kids you once knew a Somebody. That’s pretty cool.
After over 20 years spent deconstructing and analyzing the best fiction ever written, Sandra is now developing a course specifically to help writers understand where story begins within themselves, how to develop narrative infrastructure organically so the story establishes and sustains its natural strength, dynamism, and power, and finally how to maximize the potential for reader engagement.
It seems that once certain stories appear on the literary radar the whole landscape changes and nearly everything that follows pales by comparison. What do these works offer readers that can help writers at all levels and styles better understand their own projects – and what’s missing?
Notice I didn’t say “personality”? The writer is consistently able to create separate, distinct, incorporeal humans on the page whether they’re primary or background characters, and whether they’re highly developed or not. Even the most cardboard hard-boiled gumshoe in great detective fiction is just the visible mask of something truer humming below the surface. There’s just no need to elaborate because of the nature of the genre. These are not just caricatures or sketches of humans with quirky traits that allow the reader to distinguish between them. People don’t just have traits. Life creates those traits. Each character has its own independent agency and motivations.
The mouth-wiping tic Stephen King gave Jack Torrance in The Shining would be little more than an annoying motif if it weren’t a symptom of the character’s slow and traceable crack-up. Rather than serving to define Jack’s nature, King comes at it from the opposite direction: the tic exists because of Jack’s nature, and that’s why it works. At the same time, Wendy’s paralyzing depression is a realistic and important response to living with an addict, but more importantly it frames up what must eventually happen far more dramatically than if she were written as someone coping just fine, or as a mountain of feminist strength. This is human. Together, the family forms a credible, traumatized portrait of mental fragility.
On the more literary end, every single member of the Bundren clan in As I Lay Dying is unique and palpably so, drawn in strokes as simple as Vardaman’s “my mother is a fish”; and who could ever forget the cringe-worthy scene of a boy unwittingly boring holes through his mother’s face trying to provide air for her in the coffin? The whole novel is a master class in individuality and family dynamics and culture – together a grotesquerie of human experience.
2. Understanding human nature
Not just the ability to draw a believable human being on the page, but to understand how humans think and act – almost as if the writers were born with a set of templates in their brains, which allows them to get what sets a particular type of personality off in any given direction. They’re not starting with a circumstance and throwing a character in there to deal with it. Rather, great authors understand how certain types wind up in those circumstances to begin with in order to get themselves slapped around by the disaster that’s about to come. Back story isn’t just a filler, it offers up the root source of the story’s purpose and the character’s role in it.
Take The Quiet American, for example. Greene completely gets the brokenness and essential disconnection that creates the funnel into working in foreign correspondence and intelligence. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, in Alden Pyle you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with intellectuals to see how dehumanizing too much knowledge with too little understanding can be. How easy it is to core out the need for one kind of morality for ideals deemed far superior – and to apply to it the intellectual’s fervor that replaces the less savory fervor of religiosity. For Raskolnikov, for Greene’s Alden Pyle, ideals trump reality every time. It’s a blindness that hasn’t changed one iota for centuries in certain people and never will, and the greatest writers know this. It’s part of the human template.
Great authors are students of human behaviour. They’re masters at translating it for us ordinary folk who suffer from perceptual dystrophy. In all the best stories, the deeper you look the more there is to see. The farther you pull back, the more it all connects. As your life evolves and you go back to these narratives, your own maturation and life experience opens up new perceptions about what the story is about. And there’s always something you never saw before. That’s why there are some books people read over and over, each time seeming to evolve into something surprising.
3. Interpretation and translation of human speech
They’re the greatest mimics on the planet. They can capture the nuances of human communication so perfectly that the reader knows instantly, without any unnecessary tricks, who a character is – education, upbringing, intelligence, beliefs, even gender. Accents sound natural, even when the writer is not from that particular culture. Rather than risk creating cartoonishly absurd diction, they opt to tone down so transliteration captures the essence of speech rather than merely the sounds of it. Under-doing has no down-side; over-doing it is all down-side.
4. Character development = story development = character development
Character development works in tandem with story development. They’re inextricable. If you mess up story development, you mess up character. If you don’t get the right character in the right circumstances, you mess up story development.
5. Setting as character
Setting serves the story or, if that’s not possible or desirable, it’s symbolized completely, letting character speak for and lend meaning to place (which Death Of A Salesman does superbly). Place becomes a living, breathing actor upon the characters’ circumstances. Think of the oppressive, sweat-inducing humidity and heat that go hand-in-hand with the oppressive political conditions in Koch’s The Year Of Living Dangerously and Kingsolvers’s The Poisonwood Bible or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
6. Place is never just a location
If setting is just window dressing because you happened to vacation there with your mom and dad in ’04, don’t bother. Although great writers do their best work writing about the places that created them, they write with equal authority about other places because they do not seek to expose the outward trappings of place like some literary tour-book; rather, they are able to uncover the beating heart of place without even having to hint at publicly definable tourist-trap features. When they travel, they go with their perceptual eye peeled wide open, watching behaviour, observing atmosphere, taking notes. They have a knack for understanding and crystallizing what they’re seeing, often better than the people who live there.
7. Human and place
Place is creative. It’s generative. Deep observers of humanity see those connections in everything. How a person grows up, how their character is formed, is as much a product of place as family and culture and genetics.
Could you write a story like Dickey’s Deliverance without tapping into the outsider’s fear and misunderstanding of mountain people and inbreeding? Would there even be a story if Dickey had set it in Long Island or Nunavut?
No. Because place is generative. Place creates. The best writers know this.
8. Time and character
The breakdown of Anna Karenina occurs in tandem with the breakdown of Russian society that presages the Bolshevik Revolution. The novel is a reflection on and a statement about a particular time. In Beloved, Sethe and her family’s struggle to free themselves of a supernatural force mirrors the struggle of ex-slaves to free themselves from the past in the years immediately after the Civil War.
Characters are both subject and product of a time. In order for Sethe’s story to encompass the greater story, it must be materially and rawly connected to the relevant past. It must be Sethe’s own experience, with very real cause and effect (to be so desperate for freedom that she is willing to kill her own child to prevent her enslavement).
A particular time creates the window of opportunity for a character’s particular experience, out of which only one story seems possible or worth telling.
It’s a potential for character that would lose its reach and potency told at any other time in history. Time seems to cleave open for great storytellers who recognize in the moment a kind of synergistic opportunity, in the same way great sculptors seem to look at a piece of stone and know instantly what lies within waiting to be revealed – that only one particular story must be formed out of it to reveal something much larger.
9. Time and place
Some places only exist in a particular way for a brief time. Before, they were too small or too undeveloped or too stable to fund a story of any significance; any later and place loses its storytelling characteristics. It’s too big, too changed, or altogether gone. Alaska during the Gold Rush. Dustbowl Oklahoma during the Depression. The Old South.
But great writers somehow always manage to show us that no place, even the most unknowable blips on the historical horizon, is ever truly unfamiliar, or ever truly known.
10. Time and Time
In the same way that time and place can form a storytelling nexus, time can also create its own meaning that becomes synonymous with an era. If someone mentions the Sixties, that simple identifier funds an entire cultural memory for different parts of the world. The Soviet Sixties evokes its greyscale oppressiveness in contrast to the wild, colorful, rule-breaking Sixties of the West.
Great writers don’t play into cliche, but rather they take the unavoidable realities of a cultural time and create something unique without stepping outside truth. They do this in delicate strokes and in nuance, so readers know the when of a story that isn’t defined by it.
Creating the cultural-era equivalent of a guide-book is not an option unless you’re writing satire or farce. That’s because real people just don’t live the guide-book. Most people rarely have first-hand contact with the cliches; only Forrest Gump could get away with it. For the most, those cliches just sort of brush by us or appear in the distance.
Stay tuned for Part 2: 10 more Non-Negotiable Qualities of a Timeless Story
Ever wonder why great novels always seem to get a better start than just about all the rest? If not the perfect first line perfectly delivered, then the perfect opening scene that seems to embody the story’s every narrative potential, like some quantum flux about to give birth to a narrative universe.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The authors didn’t choose a strong beginning or a good beginning or a powerful beginning. They chose the right beginning.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for a reason. The clocks strike thirteen on a cold day for a reason.
In this post I’ll be exploring two conditions that create the right opening lines or scenes in master storytelling.
First, the opening lines – like the titles – are fully keyed-in to a driving contextual core that lies at the heart of master stories that have been given the right start. Second, the master writer’s understanding of in medias res (in the middle of things), differs from the way we average schmos understand it.
And by the way, chances are if a story has the right opening it’s going to be one of those powerhouse novels that just keeps a hold of reader consciousness no matter when it was published. It’s because the writer who understands the difference between a good opening and the right opening already understands his or her story to the bone. It’s this deep consciousness of the story’s context that won’t let the story go off the rails.
So – contextual core? You’re probably thinking: What on earth is a contextual core?
Glad you asked.
Context is defined by a set of conditions that create meaning or signification. Woman murders husband. Battered wife kills abusive husband. Mother kills abusive husband as he holds a gun on their children. Same people, same story, but context is what lets us understand what’s happening more clearly.
In fiction the set of contextual conditions in a story create agency.
Pay very close attention to that idea.
Context can make all the difference between a Tolstoi and a Jackie Collins. Without clear context, everything from tone to authority and credibility are compromised. Place Anna Karenina in modern-day Hollywood and you take away all the contextual influences that hold enough agency to push Anna toward her end. All the same plot points transposed into Hollywood conditions would turn Anna’s suicide from social tragedy to mere melodrama. Huge difference. If you’re writing melodrama, that’s one thing. If you’re aiming for social tragedy and do a belly-flop into melodrama, chances are your context is wrong for the story.
Without a particular contextual foundation, each unfolding outcome would lose more and more credibility and authority – and, eventually, the reader.
In fiction there’s context and there’s the right context. Great stories embody an exact mix of contextual elements that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
The Quiet American. A Tale of Two Cities. The Year of Living Dangerously. Middlesex. The Shining. Gone With The Wind. Heart of Darkness. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Rebecca. The Power and the Glory.
These are contextually almost pitch-perfect, and it shows in their openings (lines or scenes). When you come across stories like these it’s like coming upon Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. You can’t explain why, but you know you’re looking at a piece of art that’s like nothing else. The hands, the expression (dead-on and from below), the stance – none of it could ever be any different. It’s as if that sculpture was always in that block of stone from the beginning of time, awaiting only the right artist to come by and recognize what had to be chipped away to reveal such a wonder.
It’s the same thing with master storytelling. It’s as if the entire story has always existed fully formed,buried there under a pile of words and letters until some genius comes along, dusts away the excess and reveals this marvel of narrative construction.
So what does context have to do with getting it right in story creation?
Remember the old chestnut write what you know? Well, the master storyteller writes what s/he understands. That’s a world of difference. You can know life under the torture of a drug abuser without ever understanding it. What great writers understand about themselves and life seeds their storytelling context, which in turn becomes the reader’s deepest, most subconscious connection to the story and, inevitably, to the writer and humanity.
Graham Greene, for example, understood the psychological double-bind of his devout Catholicism and his personal moral failings. He explored it to great effect in his best works, thereby creating vital connections between himself and the reader through narrative.
Greene’s The Quiet American opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for Alden Pyle to show up for their dinner plans. Even the names are perfectly chosen to suit the context, especially the apt mangling of Fowlair on the French colonials’ tongues. Opening at this exact moment is brilliant because (spoiler alert!) Fowler isn’t really waiting for Pyle to show up for dinner, he’s awaiting a defining moment of moral conscience – to see if he has succeeded in getting Pyle killed or not.
There’s so much wrapped up in starting precisely at this moment – Fowler’s manipulation of the situation, of Phuong and Pyle, the authorities, his ability to psychologically hive off and justify his own moral failure but not Pyle’s, his opportunism and narcissism. All these are characteristics Greene knew well in himself, through his many affairs and betrayals, and his own personal character and politics.
There’s also a pivotal geopolitical context in this specific opening: Fowler (colonialism) thwarting an early (1955) attempt at American interventionist policy (CIA/Pyle) in Vietnam (Phuong). It’s not just genius, it’s downright prescient. The perfect context sets up the story conceptually, symbolically, thematically, relationally, and morally.
When Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities on those famous lines, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, he’s setting up a context of dissonant binaries that define and fuel the entire story – geopolitics, morality, social structures, family, love.
Context – the right context – informs not just story development, but character development as well. It’s what lets it all work together, separately, to move a story in the right direction instead of just toward some kind of plotted conclusion.
Unsound context creates dissonance with readers. Scarlett O’Hara is a very different character than Pansy O’Hara would have been had Margaret Mitchell not renamed her heroine at the last minute, even if not one other detail about the story had changed. The name alone would have been a confusing red herring, intimating weakness and frailty and, perhaps, somehow the inconsequential. It would have stripped GWTW of an important driving subtextual allusion: Scarlett and the scarlet woman, the whore of Babylon; Babylon with Atlanta, Atlanta with Belle Watling, the whore of Atlanta; Belle with Scarlett the Southern Belle; Scarlett connected with ruin through Atlanta and Rhett (the beast upon which the whore rides). The average reader might not pick up the chain of allusion, but it’s there in the background pulling a vital part of the storytelling load.
A story with no context at all is unfocused, weak, lacking in life force and drive. That’s when writers just throw in some random opening because it’s “hot” or puts the character in a high-action moment to get readers interested, only for the story to crumble to pieces with every page and chapter.
The right context won’t let that happen. The right context gets a story off and running in the only way that’s possible, and keeps it going toward the only ending possible, not in a way that suggests predictability or stock storytelling, but in the way that David could only have been sculpted as it was.
In Medias Res
Whenever you hear or read people discussing this idea it’s always somehow associated with the middle of the story’s action – something linear, a moment in chronological time.
Actually, if you look at the greats (and why look at anything less?), in medias res has less to do with the story action or chronology, but rather a contextual crossroads (yes, that again!). It’s a 3-D collision point, after which we witness the unfolding carnage and aftermath.
In The Year of Living Dangerously, a brilliant and forgotten masterpiece by Christopher Koch (the movie is a pale but beautiful ghost of the novel), the story opens at a crossroad of the characters’ lives both individually and together as a group, and in terms of geopolitics, driving symbolism, and Wayang allegory. Although Guy Hamilton is technically the protagonist, the novel introduces Billy Kwan first. It has to. Billy is the spark that sets everything off toward conclusion. That’s agency. Without Billy, Guy’s story would have slogged through with a resounding meh.
The Power and the Glory does the same thing, opening on what seems like an odd note: not the morally compromised Whiskey Priest, the story’s protagonist, but a sickish, abstracted ex-pat dentist heading through a dusty, broiling Mexican town toward a wharf to pick up canisters of ether. This scene sets up, first, the contextual breadth of the story’s experience with the Whiskey Priest. Second, it establishes the oppressive atmosphere and menace that bring the Whiskey Priest to us in the middle of it all and, eventually, delivers him into legend. The heat, the poverty, the corruption, the hopelessness – all work together like cogs. The story’s eye can’t be focused directly on the priest, but rather obliquely; an internal exile on the run, he enters and exits, enters and exits each scene and each perspective, so that we the readers feel the dogs of pursuit (his own, personally, and ideologically) that continually drive him on toward martyrdom. It’s a fraught, contextually rich opening scene.
To create good stories, and to engage in storytelling as the only delivery system possible between writer and reader, you need a solid contextual bedrock.
How powerful is it to get context right?
Context helps you put the right characters into the story, with the individual and collective agency to enact your storyline. It keeps you on track, focused, because you’ll understand what your story is about instead of just following a series of plot points that, alone, can’t generate the vitality or dynamic momentum that otherwise originate in the writer, from inside the story, out toward the reader.
Even a strong theme and premise can’t do that.
Starting with the right contextual core and understanding its power means that the right opening will be easier to find – the in medias res, that crossroads, that quantum flux where your story’s universe will come to glorious life.