Tag Archives: how to write well

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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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

Calling All NaNoWriMo Contestants!

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookDownload this free fiction timeline worksheet in Office Excel. If you’re committing to the one-month crunch of NaNoWriMo, at least you can now keep your story from falling apart as you go.

Click here to download: fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara

Follow this blog for updates on the upcoming launch of a game-changing story development tool that will do what no existing writing management system can – turn writing into storytelling so writers can finally understand how to engage readers to give themselves the best possible chance of getting read and getting published.

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The Story Analyst: Eat Of My Flesh, Drink Of My Blood

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookOkay, if The Walking Dead would stop handing out such great opportunities to discuss storytelling I could stop mentioning the show. So stop it already. (No, please don’t, I didn’t mean it, don’t be angry AMC, just keep batting em out of the park).

Check this out (not actually a video, just a sad screen grab):

AMC - The Walking Dead - Four Walls And A Roof

Maybe a quick recap first. Picture it: it’s Season 5, Episode 3 (Four Walls And A Roof). The group is holed up at Father Gabriel’s church, which by the way is called St. Sarah (Sara the Black), who is the Romani patron saint of gypsies. Sainte Sarah, who by some accounts stood on the shores of Gaul (France) to await and welcome a boatload of holy refugees of early Christian persecution. Which is why I love this show so much. Isn’t that just so perfect?

So one night Bob steps out for some fresh air and a little manly crying jag when the surviving cannibals from Terminus set upon him. He wakes up groggy in their encampment and is subjected to some loony-tunes hectoring by the icky Gareth. Seems they’ve got themselves a good old fashioned spit-turned open-pit barbeque going on. The lip-smacking, the slurping, the greasy chins, the sinewy strings of pink meat, the chewing. Oh, the chewing. The chewing and slurping and smacking. Seems Bob’s their guest of honor. Slowly, we – and poor Bob – realize how hard it is to come upon any meat other than squirrel and snake in these post-zombification days of apocalypse. Plus, Bob’s leg is missing below the knee. Yep, that ain’t no leg of lamb sizzling and crackling on the fire. FF a bit, hahaha, Bob reveals he’s been bitten and they’ve just eaten infected meat. Idiots! Commence projectile vomiting. Oh, and also the Termites throw up. Welp, that sure oughtta take care of that.

So what’s all this recapping and crazy talk getting to? The screen grab above happens when Bob is returned to the group and ultimately dies. Tyreese spares his sister from having to posthumously rearrange Bob’s grey matter with a hunting knife by doing the deed himself. He has just pulled the knife away when this moment blips by on the screen.

What is it?

Take a closer look:Walking Dead - Last Supper Close Up

That’s a wood-carved plaque of The Last Supper. The Last Supper. I mean, come on people, Tyreese isn’t even centered in the frame! That’s no art-house film technique. He’s nose-to-nose with it. You’re meant to see that plaque. Now, why is this prominently displayed at precisely this moment? Why not a simple crucifix, or a nice little annunciation scene? Why The Last Supper?

Because of what happens at the Last Supper. Christ prepares the disciples for the end by introducing the symbolism of the Eucharist and performing the first communion. Eat of my flesh, drink of my blood. He warns of a betrayer in their midst, and predicts the denial by Peter. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.

Now, I haven’t gone through the episode with a fine tooth comb, but I counted at least three times that Maggie “denied”. Once, when she picked up the bible on the pew, looked at it with disinterest, and set it down again, thus signalling the denial of her family’s previously deep faith. Then after the Termite slaughter when Father Gabriel surveys the gore and cries, “But this is the Lord’s house !”, Maggie flatly says, “No. It’s just four walls and a roof”, as an overt denial of the sacred. Then again, when Abe Ford and his crew start for Washington rather than put Eugene at risk, Maggie along with Glen both agree to leave with them, to abandon – to deny – their survivor family. No wonder, when you look at the absolute horror on their faces during the Termite extermination. Three types of denial, and it’s still night.

In the previous episode, the gang partakes of the church’s sacramental wine. Drink of my blood. In this episode, the sacramental bread is partaken of by the Termites. Eat of my flesh. (Oh, the chewing and slurping and smacking.)

This apocalyptic world is an inversion of that biblical metaphor. It’s a perversion. On some levels it even harkens to social theory about civilization and its fall to barbarism in the presence of irremediable human hubris. But that’s a post for another time.

It is not an accident that all this is also linked to the slaughter of the Termites at the altar of Father Gabriel’s church. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, which required the offering of a lamb in thanks for delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt. Remember that the Hebrews at the time were told to mark their doors with the blood of the sacrificed lamb so that their households would be spared from the Angel of Death, sent by God to punish the Pharaoh and his people for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves go. The letter A had been written, presumably by the Termites, in blood by the door of the church.

And so it happens that the group is indeed spared, because Rick and his squad return unexpectedly and proceed to ex-terminate the Termites. But like the Hebrews, once delivered, we are left to wonder if they too will be cast adrift in the wilderness after proving time and again that they don’t yet deserve the Promised Land. We see this through Maggie’s and Glen’s horrified reactions to – and lack of participation in – the savagery.

With the addition of one innocuous item of art, the writers are telling viewers a whole lot more about what’s happening to survivors of this apocalypse. It’s both warning and hint at the conditions that took the sacred and the divine out of the equation, and thus brought about an onslaught straight from hell. Whether it’s nuclear power, where mankind has finally discovered a way to do to itself what only God could do before – wipe out every living thing – or whether it’s fictionally tampering with the human genome and unwittingly unleashing a zombie virus, our distance from God, the sacred, the divine, has never been greater. We drink of our own metaphorical blood, and eat of our own flesh, and therefore no longer participate in the divine (communion).When humans supplant God, we become monstrous, and the Promised Land remains farther and farther beyond our reach.

The show’s subtle allusions to Nazism and communism are not without reason either. These have been our greatest historical examples of what happens when humanity supplants God in trying to create a Promised Land.

In storytelling, these are the little details that seed a plot with richness and depth. Even if an audience doesn’t consciously pick up on that plaque hanging there on the wall, it certainly will be taken in, somewhere deep in the subconscious brain. And that subconscious brain has a few cells set aside for all the information our vast circuitry has ever absorbed about The Last Supper, which are then set aflutter by the un/conscious perception of that plaque.

Your brain starts telling you to anticipate. All those synaptic zips and zaps are connecting flesh, blood, bread, wine, sacrifice, betrayal, denial, wilderness, Promised Land –

Just from that plaque. The writers are signalling and signifying with well-placed visual cues like this.

Add to that the expression in Daryl’s eyes (that too could be a whole post on its own) at the end of the episode and all your spidey senses should be left tingling: is he the betrayer? Or has he brought the betrayer into their midst?

Now that I think of it, Carol has been behaving strangely. And what was she doing back at the prison anyhow after the Governor ambushed the group, when she knew she would not be welcome? What would we have found out about her activities during her absence if the battle with the Governor had not forced the group from the prison? What was her purpose in being there? Had she been sent by someone? She’d already crossed a line by pre-emptively killing two sick but very much living members of the group, so there’s no telling how this bent in her personality was further warped by isolation and segregation from the only semblance of family she had left. And once they’d all settled into Father Gabriel’s church, you know when Carol found that car on the side of the road that she was going to leave on her own (or meet up with someone else?), and was about to just when Daryl grabbed her to chase down the car that took Beth.

Did she have something to do with Beth’s disappearance? Or that awful, freighted look in Daryl’s eyes when Michonne realized it was him coming through the woods and he glanced back toward the darkness in the trees and told someone to come on out? Is that expression evidence that Daryl – and thus everyone – has been betrayed by Carol?

Writers who use symbolism, metaphor, and recurring motifs can trigger profound subconscious emotional or psychological responses in readers that can keep them turning the page or watching episode after episode for reasons they might not even perceive. But in order to work, they have to be universally understood, or at the very least understanding must be attainable through the story’s context (in other words, never assume they’re going to pause, research it, then return to the story).

For example, a dove suggests something very different from the vulture, or the peacock. In exactly zero ways can you successfully write a horror story involving a dove as the symbol of malevolence unless you intend to be funny or satirical or ironic. Doves in horror will be the first thing to die.

Oh, and hey – guess how many survivors there are left from the battle at the prison?

Twelve.

This is conscious, deliberate storytelling with strokes of genius.

Think about it this way: you can throw a slab of meat on the barbie (sorry, I have to go there, I really do), and yes, it will be tasty all on its own with all that fat dripping down, juices flowing.

But a great master barbequer knows that a particular kind of wood and a hint of very specific herbs and spices depending on the meat – but not so much to overwhelm all that sizzling and crackling barbeque deliciousness – makes the meal oh-so-much more satisfying.

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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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Writing Quote: John Irving

SC Blog - Irving - Know the StoryKnow 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?
-John Irving

[Read some comments below}

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Writing Quote: Anton Chekhov

SC Blog - Chekhov - moon quote“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

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“Word Crimes” – Great Fun For All You Wordmeisters Out There

As only Weird Al could do it, and the only version of this song worth listening to:

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Do You Want To Be Published or Do You Want To Be Read?

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThe average employee will put around 2,000 (+/-) hours per year into a job. That’s eight hours a day, five days a week, week in, week out, excluding holidays, paid overtime, and the odd Monday morning I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-have-to-go-in-there time.

If there’s any truth to the the 10,000-hour rule for mastering a skill set, it would take approximately five years to accomplish anything meaningful on the job. Of course, give or take, considering differentials like intelligence, talent, ambition etc.

Let’s just say the average “writer” has one of these jobs that causes bills to be paid and food to be eaten and dumpster-diving to be forestalled. Let’s just say. Now, the 2,000 hours does not include off-site time spent finishing reports, ulcerating quietly on the bathroom floor, crying, or doing research.

image courtesy of windows8core.com

Important research.

Now, there are maybe another good 50 hours left in the week .  That’s pretty awesome, translating to potentially 3,000 more hours during the year to excel at something more important to you, like writing.

Oh, but oops – forgot about preparing meals, eating, and cleaning up after meals. Shopping. Housework. Yard work. Grooming. Childcare. Trying to figure out why the printer won’t print.

Friends. Social time. Sick time. Down time.

photo courtesy of simple.wikipedia.org

Does this count as socializing AND rest?

Even if writers were left with half that time free (a generous estimate) to concentrate on writing, it would take a minimum of nearly seven years of dedicated effort to produce writing that resembled anything like mastery. Notice I said writing and not a manuscript. That’s because telling good stories is a whole nuther level of mastery and requires far more than a skillful way of stringing words together. Of course, that seven years includes everything from pre-writing to final editing, whether you’ve told a good story or not. Bear in mind that even after the Beatles began their insane rocket-ship ride to celebrity it took years to produce their truly great material.

photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Ugh.

Then there’s the publishing process. It can take years of rejection and tinkering and full-out rewrites before a junior editor sifting through a slush pile notices you – if it’s a particularly good query. But even the query process has its own learning curve. If a query is noticed it might be 3-9 months before they let you know, and if a full manuscript is requested it can take up to a year or more before it’s read. If they like what they see, rewrites may be suggested. Make that “suggested”, ie: do it or get lost. Depending on the involvement, tack on another year, then another waiting for an analysis of the rewrites. Then there’s the hurdle of the editorial board approvals at every stage.

If it’s accepted, throw on another 1-3 years before a book reaches a shelf.

If it’s rejected, back  to square one.

This is why so many turn to self-publishing as an express route to authorship.

So, what is all this getting to? Writing is not like making popsicle-stick birdhouses. Treat it like a hobby, and you will be lucky if you can get your Gammy to take a copy.

photo courtesy of https://i0.wp.com/forbestadvice.com/FanClubs/NancyPelosi/Nancy_Pelosi_Botox_Smile.jpg

Oh, uh – hey, yeah that’s – and you did this yourself? Well, don’t you worry, Gammy knows EXACTLY where this belongs.

Maybe you feel the years slipping between your fingers, and as becoming a published author dims on the far horizon somehow it becomes more urgent than ever. Before I’m 30, you say. Then: before I’m 40, 50, once I’ve retired.

Before I die.

But no, you say. No way am I waiting years, decades to get this done. That brass ring is right there, if you could only reach –

Yes, do it. Do. It. Go ahead, self-publish, get your work out there and you’ll be the next Wool, and then it’ll be you making them bloody well wait for that contract.

Stop. Please. Stop and think for a moment about what it means to be an author versus a writer.

Be a writer first. Being a writer is all about you. Write because you love it and you have a story to tell, because it helps you work through your issues, because it relieves the stresses of life and lets you express yourself. But being a writer doesn’t mean being  readable  or publishable.

Becoming an author is no longer about you, because there’s another mind involved and that’s the reader. Becoming an author means you have a story that needs to be communicated to readers, because no matter what your issues are or how many stessors there are in life, you are first and foremost dedicated to perfecting your craft and raising your work to the realm of art no matter what the consequences are.

Because being publishable starts with being readable – and that includes everything from children’s fiction to complex works that require an annotated concordance just to read.

Readability is good storytelling. Good storytelling attracts readers. Publishers are looking for great storytelling because they want to attract readers. Because, ultimately, readers mean sales. Not always, but mostly they know a good story when they come across it. And remember that what gets published is not always that good because the bulk of what comes in for review is just so gut-wrenchingly, pukingly awful. Sometimes what gets published is just the best of what came in, and that can be very little above mediocre. Rejection is not a way of hurting writers, but a way of saying you’re not there yet. Rejection is Writing 101 at the university of work harder, write better.

photo courtesy of http://justinmcroberts.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/vomit.jpg

Not. There. Yet …

So why are you going to self-publish? To attract readers? Oh my dear, self-publish because you have readers, because you have the stats to prove you can get more readers besides your besties and your family (hey, Gammy!). Readers don’t come because you’ve put your work out there. They don’t even come because you’ve set off a monster marketing and PR campaign. They come because the story is worth reading. To them, not to you. That’s why Wool happened.

Is it panic, then, because you want your name in print before you die? And what will that get you in the end? Humiliating failure with no up-side except maybe some vicious trolling and online snark to rip a hole in your soul (as opposed to, if you’re lucky, some very generous commentary from an editor in the process of rejecting you).

Because what’s the point in being published if nobody reads your work? Notice, though, that I’m not talking about sales. I’m talking about readers. Readers are not necessarily sales, but readers are definitely necessary – and absolutely pave the way – for sales.

Is wanting to be a published author such a blind ambition that you’ve lost sight of what it takes to have readers?

The time is necessary, fellow writers. Time is your investment, and not just the hours per day you dedicate at the keyboard, but the years of doubt and questioning and self-reflection required to move a story from its sacred position in your mind to a sacred position in the reader’s mind. Invest in this time no matter how much is required of you, and do it gladly because it is the birth canal that will bring story from within you  into the world. It’s messy and it’s ugly and many can’t go through with it. But like a baby’s gestation from zygote to beautiful autonomous infant ready to take on the world, the writer requires a gestation in order to become an author. Writing requires a gestation to become storytelling.

Ten thousand hours. Five years. Seven years. Ten.

So how about it: do you want to be published?

Or do you want to be read?

If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new structuring tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.

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5 More Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookYou didn’t think there were only five, did you? Naw …

If the pen is the extension of the body, writing is the extension of the self. Writing is creative mimesis; it’s semblance and resemblance. Between the writer and the reader lies an experience of mutual recognition or awareness or awakening originating from two discrete minds. Somewhere out there are readers with minds already honed and ready for that moment. It’s up to the writer to find those pathways between. So let’s cut to the chase:

1. What is it about home that creates place?

Notice I didn’t say what is it about place that creates home? Think about that for a bit. In composition rhetoric theory (the study of writing non-fiction with power and authority), the place that formed you bears a tremendous amount of weight when it comes to writing authentically. It is a well from which the writer draws insight, meaning, and both shared social familiarity and recognition.

For fiction writers this does not necessarily (but can) mean that you must write about your home town, subdivision, block, or building environment. What it means, and what this question suggests, is that if you can pare out the pulsing heart of the culture that made you you, it will provide  the truest raw materials of group dynamics you will ever have available, and these are the same raw materials and group dynamics familiar to your readers about their culture.  The rest is just pretty ribbons and bows that represent different units of humanity. The numbers on this are pretty solid if you’re aiming at making a big or lasting impact. Just look at the works we still read from every genre to the most complex literary masterpieces.

In Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, the author takes readers through a physical landscape of India’s oppressive sights and smells and tastes that always seem balanced by equivalent beauty. This is Mistry’s home, the culture that made him, and through it he gives readers an orienting place, almost like the needle of a compass: this is where something horrifying and alien can resonate with such truth that it ultimately becomes a transcendent reflection of all our places – physical, geographic, cultural, familial, and deeply personal.

Let’s call it homing. How do the details of the place you know best create orientation, so that readers can find their own direction?These home factors make place believable. It tells the reader that you understand how landscape and history and social development can make not only an identifiable peoples, but people – the enmeshed group and the individuals comprising it.

If you understand your home, you can give readers their home. If you understand what gives home a sense of place then no matter where your stories are set, they will bristle with enough foreign/familiar energy to draw readers who 1) enter attracted to a context they know only to find out they don’t, and 2) enter attracted to a context they don’t know only to find out it’s more familiar than they imagined. Horror, SFF, thrillers, romance, literary – all the best possible because the writer started with the most fundamental features of a home that birthed identity, then formed character, then opened a pathway to a place for readers to say yes, this is It. This is home.

2. What are your philosophies?

Even Harlequin romance writers have a philosophy: love conquers all, love is the essence of life, something along those lines. The deeper and more individual your philosophy, the more intense the connection with the reader can become.

So what do you believe about life? Write it down. Make a list. If your storytelling makes no philosophical sense, the discord and pretense will bulge through like a hernia. If you don’t know your own philosophies, you might find it hard to locate your story’s center or through-line. In fact, you might not even be able to cogently define your theme.

Make no mistake, though: you do not have to write about philosophy here. That’s not what this is about. It’s about permeating your writing with something that will feel true to the reader because it’s true to you, whether it’s a straight-up detective story or the next Finnegan’s Wake. If you’re trying to write about a cynical detective in a noir-ish novel, and it’s not working, maybe it’s because you are at heart a glass-half-full kind of person.

See how that is?

Your emotional core is a built-in component of your psycho-emotional make-up, and something that’s extremely hard to change. Philosophies, however, are completely of the mind and can be changed with new information.

Writing is an extension of youThis is how profoundly your philosophies can influence your writing. Writing begins, to as much an extent as it is possible, with the Delphic know thyself. Once you have half a clue, then you can understand how you see the world, and how much a filter your ideas about life provide for your experiences. And your writing.

3. What has life taught you?

Ah, so close, yet so far from a philosophical position or an emotional core. This can be the catalyst for all those things, the reinforcement, the proof. Has life taught you that people can’t be trusted? That’s not a philosophy, it’s not an emotion – but it is an experiential truth.

Again, think about what you’re trying to write. The heart of your story must ring true because it must be true to you on some level. When you know it, you can control it in your writing.

Now, life might have taught you some things, but it’s inside the narrative where you put it to the test. Set it on fire. Cajole it. Pound it flat. Then see how true it is for your fictional creation. Narrative is not where you punch your reader in the brain with certainties. It’s where you find out how real they are.

4. Do you have the courage to question yourself?

Okay, so now you understand what makes you tick and maybe what’s making your writing not tick. You have figured out the emotional, philosophical, and experiential prism through which you interpret the world.

Now let’s talk about refraction, where the story enters the prism and breaks apart.

Instead of thinking about your own philosophies, emotions, and experiences as a way to decide between right and wrong, pick apart what happens when your ideas about human experience and life become shattered by some unexpected reality. Be wrong! Kick your perspective in the teeth, then go straight for the ‘nads. Then when your belief system is curled in pain, just haul back your writerly steel-toed boot and send its internal organs flying out through its gaping maw.

Gross? Sure. But your readers will thank you.

Proof? Let’s go with some of the most popular dramas on tv recently. The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, True Detective. Why do we keep coming back? Is it because we see ourselves reflected in the characters or situations? Is it because we see our ideas about life reflected – then torn to pieces – through the characters and situations?

Oh yeah, baby, you aren’t feeding at that trough because the writers are confirming everything you believe to be true. Oh no. You go there because every minute of every episode is a public autopsy of the human psyche. Your human psyche.

Write the kind of story that leaves readers to think about their own feelings, thoughts and positions. But that only comes when you know what you think about the world yourself. Only then can you pull it apart. Expose the most authentic fictional world you can, and let the reader explore its brilliance and darkness and refracted pieces on their own.

So if you want an audience that stands around a cooler talking about your story or your book or your script, then you’d better snap those surgical gloves on and grease up the rib-spreader, because you’re going elbow deep into your own guts. If you can’t get past the black/white binaries then perhaps writing is not for you, because it isn’t the narrative assertions of life’s black and white that make characters and storytelling interesting, it’s when those certainties break apart into all their refracted components. A character whose creator isn’t bullying and tormenting and knocking them face down into the muck of life makes a story nobody will care about.

5. Who is doing the talking?

In a previous post I wrote about storybombing, which is like photobombing except instead of some goofball poking his/her face into your wedding photo, it’s the author poking him/herself into a story. This is related, except it’s about differentiating voices and narrators and characters so that they don’t all sound like you.

If you don’t understand your own emotional and philosophical and experiential cores, you will have difficulty creating characters that spring from the page with a force and vitality that makes an audience’s blood start chugging through their veins.

Always ask yourself whether it’s your character’s or narrator’s words and ideas or your own. Can you even tell the difference? If not, ask yourself why.

If you write from one voice – yours – you run the risk of never getting more than one semi-autobiographical narration out of your career, or narratives that sound the same no matter what or who the story is about.

Whose idea is surfacing during thoughtful moments? Whose feelings, politics, morals, theology?

Whose voice is speaking?

Have you created a unique enough set of characters so that none could be mistaken for you (the authoring part of yourself, not the elements of your personality that you might give to your characters)? Or for each other?

No matter what it takes, if it’s a complex chart or a binder four inches thick, define each and every character. Define yourself. Then provide unique and recognizable quirks, intelligences, moral/value positions that can be aspects of you without being only and always just you. And best of all, make all those features act as subtextual reflections of their character. Jean Valjean is not given an almost preternatural strength for no good reason. It’s what makes him capable of change. It’s his salvation (and that of many others) on so many levels. His physicality is symbolic, and provides more life to his character by supporting his spiritual, emotional, and intellectual strengths.

Great writing is about offering better questions than answers, and giving audiences a place to come home to.

Write that and Sign. Me. Up.

Read the first post in this series: 5 Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write

If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new structuring tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.

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