Category Archives: Stories

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

 

What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.

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Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 

Conventional.

Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.

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“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,

Mick

Truth Can Only Be Written by Including All of It

“This man, I think, wanted to enchant the reader, to set in words certain amorphous and important sensations he had experienced….

“He wanted to transcribe his own inchoate experience. He wanted it to become art. He felt, as many of us do, that he had a right to that. Perhaps he wanted to feel his suffering had been worthwhile, was dignified, for he did write about suffering; perhaps he wanted to feel less alone, to feel his life had been redeemed, and its true worth, the value so absent from his daily experience yet so necessary to his heart, was now realized on paper, the dross burnt off and the gold revealed.

“No delight in language motivated his pen. The world’s physical details were so much debris. His few scenes puddled toward ellipses, seemed uninterested in achieving “moment”–they gestured hastily toward something never glimpsed on the page, although each chapter concluded with triumphant relief, as if to say, “So there. Now that’s established.” It made you want to flip the page over to see if there was something you were missing. Yet he meant to write fiction; fiction was what he attempted every night. This man seemed to want the transcendent transformation that novels can achieve. He didn’t know how to achieve it, though, and he wanted a shortcut. Like all of us, he was in a hurry….

“You may convey terror or longing or regret or exhilaration only by giving us the color of somebody’s hair and exactly what she ate for lunch, and red high heels, and an attache case’s handle stained darker by the oils of a human hand, and a skinny buck-toothed girl singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” on a black-and-white TV, and olives, and three o’clock, and the Scotch-taped hem of a Bergdorf Goodman dress, and venetian blinds, and a woman’s eyes fixed for many minutes on a scarred tabletop, and a tin spoon ringing against the side of a mug. There are no shortcuts….

“When the conditions are right, live things creep up. The author does not need to airlift them in. No need to insert your own opinion here, something symbolic over there. The most potent meaning arises indigenously. It looks like earth, like mud, like a log. The more your eyes discern the particulars of the physical world and its inhabitants, the more meaningful your work becomes. This is the meaning that, when it’s laid dormant in the mind long enough, strikes with devouring force.”

  • adapted from Writing Past Dark, by Bonnie Friedman

The Best Way Writers Let Go & Get to Work

“…life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
From your work, you will be able one day to gather yourself.”

– Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), trans. Robert Bly

And what is our work?

The great Spanish writer and poet Unamuno said “sowing yourself.”

“Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” he says, “don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death.” In other words, pay attention, “and do not let the past weigh down your motion.”

***

The rain finally arrived last night. It had threatened all yesterday but skirted around us until it finally fell. Like it thought about it and finally decided there was nothing for it and let go.

I’ve always liked that phrase, “nothing for it.” With some things, there’s simply no remedy.

Sometimes, you just have to accept and let go.

The storm will soon pass and be nothing like the southeast the last couple weeks. But all gratitude to God, it’ll help with the fires.

And like the rain, our work is to let go and get on with sowing ourselves into others’ lives.

Forget the past. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Rather than pointing fingers, or trying to figure out who’s deserving, or how best to rebalance others’ perspectives, we have to simply get to work. There’s no one inferior or superior. Everyone is in need.

The superior way is letting go of your perspective and taking someone else’s.

That’s what writers are: apprentices forever trying to master that skill. Get out of your own limited, inferior point of view and into another’s. That’s the essence of good storytelling. Even before Jesus told stories to teach lessons, stories’ lessons taught him. Stories are how humans make meaning of life. Imagine yourself in another situation and body and your perspective is changed.

Spiritual mastery is a heart humbled by a broadened perspective.

The inferior life is the unenlightened heart. It isn’t joyful because it isn’t at its true work of letting go and sowing into others. It believes lies about its own superiority, typically based in external circumstances.

Imagine if compulsory blood tests revealed the truth of all lineage through DNA’s undeniable story. When truth was known, there’d be no basis for the lie of supremacy.

***

As fall arrives, we begin making changes. We break out the warmer sheets and fans and air conditioners are replaced with space heaters. Nature forces us all to change. We have little choice; the weather chooses for us. No one escapes it, the inevitable. Our only choice is to prepare. The superior choice isn’t resisting but preparing well.

Truth is unchanging. All we can do is respond to it well, allow it, even welcome it. For writers, allowing life, receiving and not getting bent out of shape by life is part of the work of sowing. Forced to change, respond, prepare, if we’ll accept and focus on preparing well, we’ll see we’re also given more life to capture. And our chance to write will come if we can choose to be patient, let go, and let it rain.

One day, you will be able to gather yourself.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

The 8th Question Expanded–Believability

The exceptionally observant reader may have noticed that last week, in my big post, 8 Reader Questions – 8 Parts of Speech, the question of “Really?” is set apart and above the others.

That’s because if there’s one cardinal rule for storytellers, it probably has something to do with this–make sure it’s believable.

And while there are several key elements to focus on for that, all of them taken as a whole are what make the story work, and convince the reader this could have–or really did–happen.

A lot of beginning writers don’t seem to want to go to all that trouble. Ensuring every element–character, plot, and description–are working to answer the readers’ question, “Really?” It’s hard work! And yet, isn’t this one of the most important, if not the most important, part of telling any story? Who can deny? This deserves some care and time.

Bestselling novelist of over 100 books, Dean Koontz, says even the wildest plots can be made believable through good character motivation. Love, jealousy, self-preservation, revenge, etc. Most of us sense this is true. I can’t think of one thing we nutty humans wouldn’t do for the right reason, and many times for even the wrong one.

But characterization is the key to believable motivation, and that’s why believability really comes down to your first reader question: who? Character. If I believe the reasons this character feels as he does, I’ll go to hecktown and back to see him get what he wants.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than believing he has reasons to feel as he does. But this is arguably the most important place to start. Listen to your reader asking “Really?” and try to answer that doubt with as much proof of this hero’s reasons for feeling that way. And as you already know, you’ll want to show it, not just tell it.

The thing I see most frequently with new writers, and the thing I’ve even done myself as an inexperienced novelist, is trying to get readers to believe our characters really, really want something just because we told readers he does. That’s not good enough. That’s not believable proof. Like I did, I think most writers sense something isn’t working, but they aren’t sure what it is. Typically, it’s this. We know characters have to want something badly. But we forget to show the reasons for that wanting.

And this is the reason for the prolog or the flashback after getting to know the character and see them being heroic or compassionate in the opening scene. After convincing readers they’re likable, it’s important to see and experience why their motivation is believable. Readers need to feel it and experience it themselves, so we’ll flashback to the car accident that stole his wife, or we’ll find out that’s what the crazy prolog was about–someone had stolen her whatever, so she’d given up until now.

Some will say do not do prologs. Others will say never do flashbacks. I say, if you can figure out how to show readers your characters’ motivation not using those, then go for it. Most beginning writers are going to need to use one or the other. Just keep them short, dramatic, and to the point.

Major believability issues can arise from characters who aren’t flawed in some way or who don’t show reasonable fear or doubt. We’ve got to believe they’re like us, but they push through it. So show us. Too convenient plot points, and inaccurate details are other obvious biggies. Don’t protect your characters with too many convenient necessities, and don’t neglect your research. I’ll never forget my roommate in college watching Dances with Wolves and being incensed: “There are no mountains in Oklahoma!”

Sometimes you’re going to take creative license and knowingly strain that famous “suspension of disbelief.” But plenty of authors, including Koontz, have made all sorts of crazy seem believable. And if you believe millions of sales of their stories, people have found their characters believable.

I know you want to share this–please feel free. Also, the ebook “The Best Monday Motivations for Writers” is coming soon. If you have questions or comments, I’m always happy to hear–email me through the form below. And meanwhile, remember your motivation, and write… 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

8 Reader Questions–8 Parts of Speech

“The new writer found she wrote best thinking of her readers’ questions–and how!”

 

This sentence contains all you need to know about writing a story. You may want to commit it to memory.

I recently discovered something I think may help new writers remember everything they need to write amazing stories quickly.

Usually, beginning writers simply write what speaks to them and never consider what readers may want from them. Instead, I teach writers they’ve got to love their readers, so we must consider what our readers, not we ourselves, need to know. 

Now, sure, the goal of editing is considering what readers need, but to writer better and faster, you’ve got to learn to consider those questions while you write, as part of your process.

That’s the goal. So what I’ve needed is a method for explaining that.

Because if you’ve ever written or edited anything, you know it’s incredibly difficult–there are so many things to think about. You’ve got to break it down into steps so you can avoid breaking down yourself.

Anyway, that’s what I want to do in this post.

So look back at the opening sentence. It’s got the 8 parts of speech–noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. No big whoop about that, right?

Well, prepare to have your mind blown, my friend, because it’s my contention that there are also 8 correlating “big reader questions”: Who, what, how, where, when, why, really, and who cares.

I believe you can answer all your readers’ questions and learn to quickly craft satisfying stories by remembering these simple 8 things. These are the only things that matter to your readers (and if you’re an aspiring writer, you can hereby skip all the beginner tools and tips).

If you can simply remember the parts of speech, you can remember what you need to do to write a great story:

Nouns – Subject (“Who”)

Verbs – Action (“What”)

Adjectives/Adverbs – Descriptions (“How”)

Pronouns – Point of View (This is “the question asker”–more on this below)

Prepositions/Conjunctions – Context (“Where” & “When”)

Interjections – Drama (“Why” & all-important “Who cares?”)

The first words here are easy. Subject-verb. You remember those from English class. Technically they’re all you need to write a sentence–and all you need for a story is a character doing something. The subject and their action answer your reader’s first questions: What and Who. 

“What’s this story about?” “What’s going on?” “Who is he?” 

Obviously, your hero and the central action are the most important tools to draw readers in, so if you’ve got someone interesting and you’ve got interesting things happening, great! You’re on your way. But to keep readers reading, you’ll need a little more than that.

The real secret is in making readers care. And that’s done by considering a deeper question: “How?”

“How” is more specific: How does my character feel? How is her deep fear best revealed? How have I matched her deep desire with a strong opposition to give her a compelling plight?

Think of those how questions as the adjectives and adverbs in a sentence. They answer readers’ questions with specific details. In your story, you need particular, unique details to add color to your scenes, and not by using adjectives and adverbs, but by involving the senses. Grounding readers in a specific time and place requires being able to smell the coffee or the grass, or feel the humidity of the South from your characters’ childhood days. You’ve got to make details sensory by showing, instead of telling.

Any writer worth her calling knows to kill your adverbs and adjectives wherever possible. But what they do in a sentence can remind you to answer the question of how: How does it feel in this scene?, i.e. How is she affected by his rejection?, or How does the office culture contribute to his discontent?, etc.

Now it’s better to use a stronger verb than an adverb, and it’s better to show what your character does instead of describing how he feels. Just remember that adverbs and adjectives remind us we need select, specific sensory details to express the emotions and feeling of scenes.

Pronouns (he, she, it, they) represent point of view, who is experiencing the story. This is important to consider and beginning writers struggle with this, but your point of view character is the readers’ filter and question-asker, so have her ask good questions. And if it’s your first book, use third person limited, not omniscient. You can branch out next time. And remember to always finish the scene before switching characters.

Prepositions (of, about, with, in, etc.) and conjunctions represent all the connections and relationships between your character and his world. Think of them as representative of the context of the story, specifically where and when. Like the frame around the artwork, they remind us to consider everything relative to the character and his situation. “Where are we?” “When did this happen?” and, “Where have I shown the internal and external stories connecting?” This fabulous question will greatly enhance the significance of your story. The connections you draw out are what make your story mean something, which leads to the last question:

Interjections answer the question why does this matter?, i.e. Who cares? Interjections (“–and how!”) represent the emotional drama you always want to increase. It can be big and loud, or quiet and intense, but it’s got to get readers engaged! High emotional stakes make the story matter more, so interjections remind you to ramp up the impact.

And there you have it. How to answer readers’ eight big questions by remembering the eight parts of speech.

Of course, to give readers the best emotional experience, you’ve got to learn to answer only the questions readers need answered. Which is to say you’ve got to balance this and get out of the way of readers discovering what they must answer–which is why you should never say “it felt like…” or “it was [this or that].” No! Bad writer! No cookie!

The last question, “Really?” is, What makes this story believable? Your specific sensory details make the story life-like and unique. But realize it’s also in the work you do to suggest and hint at many answers you let the reader figure out themselves.

A follow-up post on that will probably be needed. But with patient practice I believe you’ll start feeling the balance that works best and be churning out killer stories quicker and that connect better.

Just keep showing up to play….

(If you found this helpful, let me know. I’m currently compiling my first ebook of the “Best of Monday Motivations for Writers” If you have any thoughts or follow-up questions, email me through the form below. And in the meantime, get writing.) 

For the higher purpose,

Mick