The #1 Writing Problem I See–and How to Fix It

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Of course, there are too many writing problems to count…

IMG_6750It’d be foolishness to think we could narrow it down to one. Or would it? For the benefit of everyone–including your future readers–I’m going to try.

As I sat down at my writing chair last night to consider what I haven’t shared yet over the years of writing these little thoughts, first as an acquisitions editor and now as a coach-for-hire, I had a thought: What’s the best advice I could offer? I’ve edited hundreds of writers and all kinds of books, and I think I’ve run into every possible writing problem there is.

A lot of people don’t really know how to tell a story. And that’s sad. Any child can tell a story–my girls were barely talking before they started telling great stories. Well, they probably were not great. But they were good. All they needed was a character, preferably a nice, cute animal, who wanted something a whole lot and finally got the something in the end. A lollipop. A swim party. A woodland friend. Somehow they knew you couldn’t just suddenly start talking about something else unrelated to the story. You couldn’t have the main character die or start a soliloquy during a tense moment. You needed mystery and it had to be believable and maybe a little funny too.

IMG_6721Most kids are natural storytellers because telling stories is how their brains make sense of the world. But if all it took to write excellent stories was storytelling talent, most pastors or speakers would be great writers. And anyone can tell you they are not. If you want to know how much of a speaker’s effectiveness comes from their voice, style, inflection, body language, status, position and being up front, read their transcript. There’s a huge difference between the power of presence on the stage, and the power of language on a page.

In a book, there’s no automatic esteem to fall back on. You can’t “pound the pulpit” to make a weak point stronger. There’s no imploring or entreating with emotional appeals. And yet I can’t tell you how many pastors and professional speakers I’ve had to retrain to tell a simple story. Writing and speaking do not correlate.

And the number one problem I see with most writers is simply that they haven’t considered what a written story requires. And until someone tells them, they remain blind to it–no one knows what they don’t know.

So how to fix it? More than likely, the story sucks because they haven’t found the heart of the story.

Finding the Heart of the Story

I want to give you the answer right up front: the heart of the story is in the inception. IMG_6751And depending on the inception–i.e. where you initially came up with your story–that’s where you’ll find the heart.

You might want to refer to last week’s post for the “2 of 3 things rule” everyone writing a story must know (i.e. the “second golden rule”: 1. advance plot, 2. reveal character, 3. describe setting). Some people tend to start with the plot (men, though some women, too). You have an outline in mind or at least an idea of what’s going to happen, even before you’ve thought much about the character or setting. The idea is the thing motivating them. That’s most writers. Other writers start with a character and the plot gets built on what happens to that character (or characters). Some people are inner focused, and some are outer focused. And sometimes the inception is different depending on the story.

Sometimes, rarely, a story is conceived from a setting—a big house, a geographical area, an interesting era of history, a context. Then the writer populates it with the people and events. But whichever of those 3 essential story elements you start with, what’s important is that eventually, all 3–character, plot, and setting–must work together to define and shape the story you’re telling.

And often, they need to be working simultaneously to be as interesting, believable and effective as possible. (Again, see “The Second Golden Rule” if you missed that. No worries. It’s quick.)

The big point is: The heart of the story is where it starts.

And bringing out the heart of the story is your job.

IMG_6740My girls seemed to intuitively know that when telling a story, the appeal comes from whatever the inception was (now whether they learn to do this on the page, we’ll see). And the same is true for us. For the writing not to suck, you’ve got to know where it started for you. Were you excited about the external story (“what happens?”) or the internal one (“what it’s about?”). The internal and external storylines are parallel–they happen at the same time, and they influence each other. Your goal needs to become thinking about conveying both in clear and specific ways. It may be obvious, but many authors don’t think about the fact that in written stories, there’s an inner and an outer drama, and both depend on feeling what the reader needs to understand the experience of both.

Interestingly, my male authors tend to forget about conveying the character’s feelings, and female authors often struggle with grounding the story in a specific time and place. Men like events, women like feelings. But much like Jesus taught, if we can unlearn what we’ve picked up through life’s struggles and cultural trappings, our stories can appeal in that natural childlike way again.

Can a story work without specifically knowing your inception point? Of course! The internal and external storylines can come out intuitively. That’s the goal. But if your story sucks a little bit, consider the inception and whether you may need to balance that storyline with its complement, its cohort. The relationship between exterior and interior is where the plot, the idea and the character derives the excitement.

And you can do it if you’re willing to consider the heart of the story.

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

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8 thoughts on “The #1 Writing Problem I See–and How to Fix It”

  1. Brill, mick! you should be happy to know that i had no struggle understanding your REALLY helpful discussion about the heart of the story. usually, you lose me just a little bit as your well-trained editing brain goes so deep. not your problem understand. but this post even got me started to think about my next book, that’s how excited i became. i’ve lately been thinking that when i’m done with my children’s book (by christmas) that i will never attempt the one serious fiction book i’ve thought of writing for over 20 years. i’m re-inspired. thank you.
    love
    suzee B

    1. So glad, Suzee! Simplicity is a worthy goal for me to aim for. Appreciate that feedback, as always.

      Where you start can inform where you focus for balance. Keep your eyes open and check out next week’s post for more on setting and creating that great sensory experience readers want! -M

    1. Perfect question, Jenelle! Absolutely–if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everything changes. The internal/external focus can shift back and forth as you write and it can be hard to remember where you began. What you know about yourself, your personality and tendency, and also how you may have recently changed or what you’ve gone through to change your focus can have excellent, observable impact on your work and how that character/plot balance plays out. I’ve worked with some excellent intuitive writers and others who plan everything out–both can work and both have a readership if done well and balanced. It might be more important to get an objective point of view you can trust to look at your pages and point out what’s lacking, but if your focus has changed, I’d say absolutely go with that and know that’s evidence that your eventual mastery of the universe is well underway…. All the best, my very astute friend. -M

  2. Okay. I don’t want to reveal my ignorance, here, but I’m dying to know…
    I’m in the middle of a story about a guy who lives and dies. All the things that happen to him on his way through life–that is the external, right? His struggles and joys and failures, right?
    But the fact that his life is a perfect example of how oppressed a man can be if his women decide to take over his life, and the only way to overcome this, as a thinking human male, together with the fact that this is probably my soapbox—those are the interior stories?
    If not, please elaborate! :)

    1. Katharine, great question! I think of external as everything that happens outside of the character in the story. It influences him or her but is separate from the internal responses and initiative he or she takes. The purpose of thinking ext./int. Is in evaluating whether you have a good balance in a given scene of plot vs. character revealing. Readers identify with the character best when they see where they are (ext.) and how it affects them (int.). So doing both is the smart writer’s goal. Hope that helps! Sounds like you’re on the right track! -M

  3. Mick, I’ve been blogging about faith and books and such for about five years but just recently decided to get my life’s story down on paper. Writing memoir is so very difficult, at least for me, as I recall how I FELT about the things that happened more than the details. This post is very helpful (and I’ll come back to read the other ones you mentioned.) Thank you….

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Sounds like you know the fun that is memoir. Appreciate your hard work to draw readers in–it will be worth it. Joy in the journey, M

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