Category Archives: Keys to Success

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

What Writers Need to Know about Talent and Self-Discipline

The most important thing you can do is a lot of work….

– Ira Glass

 

 

 

They need to slow down.

Sitting with the other parents in the little orange plastic chairs at Charlotte’s cello lesson, I have to force myself to be quiet. The teacher is trying hard to get the other kids (the boys) to go slow and it’s obviously the hardest part of class, the push-back against his instruction, the reasons, explanations and excuses, the playing while he’s talking and continual interruptions.

Can’t they be quiet?

In fact, I don’t think so. At least not for a while. To slow the kids down and get them to pay attention and listen takes at least 10 minutes encouragement before they can relax and take in what he’s saying. But it’s work, and it’s easy to see it’s challenging for him.

It reminds me of how often I’m working hard to get writers to do the exact same thing: to take the time it takes to think their thoughts all the way through and not cut off the process.

Our tech age pushes us faster and faster, teaches us to expect fast. This is bad news for us.

Because we all naturally want to go fast. We want to see quick and easy results. But learning is always first about unlearning that impulse. And to unlearn the other bad habits we’ve accumulated, we’ve first got to slow down to notice many specific deficiencies. How slow can you go is an essential question for anyone learning music (or any art), but it’s a question very few of us truly want to consider because we want to believe we are faster, i.e. smarter than others.

We convince ourselves we already get it because we’re such “quick learners.” Who is telling everyone this same lie?

No one learns quickly. No one can appreciate everything they need to consider about a complex craft, let alone achieve artistic mastery, without a significant investment of time. And every single accomplished person has taken a lot of time to become so. Destroy your shortcuts. 

Because what we’re really talking about here is process over product and enjoying the journey. And that requires self-control, a deeply misunderstood fruit of the Spirit. Yet it’s the topic of this month’s Christianity Today cover article on “ego depletion,” The Science of Sinning Less:

“Because Christianity requires self-control, it logically follows that it also builds it, and thus we can expect active Christians to have relatively high levels of self-control.”

The article goes on to give four general strategies based in the latest science for Christians to develop greater self-control and willpower.  (I highly recommend the article, by sociologist Bradley Wright.)

An uncontrolled person is an impatient person. And patience is only available to those who’ve learned to wait. In other words, those who’ve slowed down.

My wife Sheri teaches piano lessons to kids. Guess what every single one of them needs to learn over and over each week?

Fast doesn’t matter. Fast kills growth. No plant grows fast. Nothing worth living for and having as your own comes fast. You must slow down and think about how much you really want this, how much you’re wiling to commit to it. Slowness is the painful work required to develop patience. And patience is required for a peaceful life.

I work with grownups to form and write their books. Guess what each one wants to do every week? Yes, move on, move forward, make “progress.”

And here’s what all of us need to realize about progress and speeding up: we’re being conned. Life is not about how fast you can live it. And no one cares how fast you can go if you can’t first do it well.

The great violin instructor Dorothy Delay, famously claimed talent is a mood. The truth of that is only acknowledged the more you practice and refine.

A young artist just wants to get all the notes right. A mature artist wants to use the art to express the right ideas and emotions, the mood, and to do it with that essential level of controlled intensity (the key quality of writing well). 

I believe to get every artist to realize what’s needed and then to pursue it, God has to be the great patient teacher, using our frustration and impatience to draw out our passion, and to help us learn to express what the art demands in the way we were specifically designed to do it.

As artists, we sense that to achieve what we want, what the world demands, we need discipline and self-control. And if willpower is more like a muscle than a battery, our goal must be to develop strength and stamina by increasing our capacity and tolerance. It’s easier to let the muscle atrophy by letting it do what it (thinks it) wants: to rest. But to grow, it has to be stretched and strengthened.

Writing is a long-game goal. Every real author I’ve ever known has thought they were the exception to the rule and could go fast and take a few shortcuts–because they were smart and had already gone through so much schooling or written more than most people, or whatever.

But the process is the process. And every song you learn to play well takes the time it takes to learn the fingering, and when to put in the pauses, and how to change the expression and dynamics just right. And every single time, you have to unlearn something you thought you already knew, slow down, and get it right for THIS song.

And every book you write is just like learning to play a new song. Every creative work you ever decide is worth your investment will be just like that. If you want people to take time with your work, then you have to be willing to be the first who took the time with it to understand it well.

Every successful book requires at least four drafts to refine. Everyone’s process is a little different, but slower equals clearer, and from first draft to last, slowing down with each pass is essential, I promise you.

As the kids play together, the song becomes the way they are pulled along to enter the moment. And for a brief half-minute, they’ve slowed-down to find the timing of the harmony, to stay together. It is work, but you can hear how they’ve managed to internalize that slow rhythm, and the effect is beautiful. The learning that’s happening is obvious.

Long bows, and slow resonant notes. They’re getting it.

And I think the parents in the audience are getting it too.

For the higher purpose, 

Mick

Why Writing Well Is All About Intensity

“…I began to find life unsatisfactory as an explanation of itself and was forced to adopt the method of the artist of not explaining but putting the blocks together in some other way that seems more significant to him. Which is a fancy way of saying I started writing.”

 

I taught fiction at Mt. Hermon last week. The most important point I shared about making a story work was that a reader needs to feel the character’s plight throughout.

I love that word, plight. It’s such a perfect descriptor of what makes people read. You might think people want to feel good, be entertained, or are attracted to what’s beautiful or exciting. And that’s true. But nothing holds attention like a character we identify with whose plight is understandable and relatable.

It’s not a difficult concept to get. Most of us sense it’s true intuitively. And the plight can change, shift, or even reverse! Very exciting. But you’ve got to make your reader understand what the struggle is about and how intense it is, no matter what kind of story.

And most important about the plight, it’s got to be intense.

Now this idea of intensity is deceptive because you often can’t increase the plight by describing it directly, just like you can’t tell us what’s happening in the story and have to show us instead. To convey strong intensity, you need a few tricks, some tools and, of course, some all-important practice to develop some skill with them. There are several important ones, but the biggest of all is a little trick I call “following the tears.”

Follow the tears. I’ve said this for years, but it never gets any easier. This is what your readers care about most because it’s what you care about most. The things that make you the most emotional are the richest material for your work. And even if your craft is still fairly crap, your content can capture people if it’s intense and conveys a character’s plight we can feel powerfully.

Like the quote above indicates, writing is a way to fashion life into something more interesting than the usual bland, expected pattern. To make it more interesting and dramatic. What’s more dramatic than someone’s plight? I may not want what your character wants, but if she wants it badly enough, I’ll bet your story can make me want to know if she gets it.

If this isn’t rule number one of your writing, it should be.

Now, no one wants manufactured intensity, so you’ve got to develop some sophistication and maturity with this tool because the skill is in not making the plight melodramatic or over-the-top. It’s got to be deeper than surface desire, expressed as a yearning that may even make your character confused or misunderstood. They might have to come to terms with the true source of their deeper desire over the course of the book, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast who starts out wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” and ends up realizing her deeper desire was to know the sacrificial love she’d read about wasn’t just a fairy tale. There’s a learning process in every character you want to capture by showing the growth of their own understanding of their deeper desire.

The quote above is from a short story by Tennessee Williams, written in 1951 called “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” In it, he shares the idea that childhood is full of “the intensities that one cannot live with, that he has to outgrow if he wants to survive.” It’s a plight unrecognized by the main character except in hindsight. And it’s very effective. “But who can help grieving for them?” he asks. “If the blood vessels could hold them, how much better to keep those early loves with us? But if we did, the veins would break and the passion explode into darkness long before the necessary time for it.”

I think learning to write a book is a lot like growing up. When you start, you know nothing and have to figure it all out. And that’s the hardest it will ever be. Eventually you learn some things through practice and it gets a little easier. But it’s still very hard, and you want to quit because you feel confused and you have no help with figuring out how to manage all you’re learning and whether you’re paying attention to what you should. And who can help you know if you’re also losing some things in your innocence you’ll never recover, even as you progress? More than likely, you are. But there’s nothing you can do.

Yet if you continue, you’ll learn more, a little at a time, and you’ll know how to develop ideas and hold multiple concepts and bring them across in dialogue and through symbols. And eventually you figure out tricks for making it all easier and simpler to begin with. It only takes time and practice with the tools. But you first have to find all the tools yourself. And this is like being a child when you’re without any skills, vulnerable to all kinds of things beyond your control. You don’t even have awareness of the skills you’ll need. But through hard experience, you learn, and it gets better, easier.

The successful writers have learned to control their words and attention, and get the most out of their time. And you too can move forward in achievable increments toward where you want to be. If you’re a “live-in-the-moment” kind of person, your method will be learning discipline. If you’re a Type-A, your big need will be relaxing into your better self. Both require balance and it looks a bit different for everyone.

But it’s worth the effort. For it’s in becoming your best self, your true, honest, vulnerable, brave, and imperfect-yet-incredible self, that what you write will finally become more significant.

The intensity of your own plight is waiting there to be felt in following what makes you cry. And if you dig for that until you understand it better, that’s where relatable stories come from.

You can trust that. It’s as simple (and as hard) as that.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

How Jesus Unblocked My Writer’s Block and Freed Me to Write–for Good

“We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.” – Thomas Merton

All art, writing included, is built on ideas. The size of those ideas can’t be measured, but we know some are very, very big.

I believe there’s one idea I’ve long held that outranks them all in crippling my motivation to do the work required.

Everyone has to work through many wrong ideas. For me, somehow I learned to focus a bit too much on the product of my faith, to value not my work, but my work in the world.

On the surface, it seems a small thing. And there’s clear biblical support for the idea: We don’t look at good intentions, we look at the fruit. We don’t care about what’s on the surface, the heart is what matters.

Biblically, that’s true. But you can see how prioritizing the product over the process–the goal over the journey–is a twisting of this teaching. And intentional or not, as is so often the case, the idea has created a big misunderstanding. The result for me, and I’m convinced many others, has been confusion, frustration, and even death of much art. Art became a utilitarian function, a tool in service to the end result (mainly saving souls, but any such “purpose” of art could have done equal damage).

I could have created this idea from my own pride and desire for acclaim, but I’m here to tell you that any result of our art is not the purpose. Hear me and hope again: this is not a Christ-following artist’s proper focus.

I know this is controversial, but that’s not my goal here. Maybe you’ve struggled with a form of this idea too. The Bible says we are all in a process of being transformed (2 Corin 3:18, among others). Life, like art, is a process. And we can only take part in that as we are able to accept it and abide with Christ in it. 

Leaving the complicated theology aside, focusing on the product gets us confused and looking for Jesus out there, somewhere far off in the distance, in the future, in another place, in other people not here, not now, not in us.

Any artist deeply senses this is true. But many of us resist giving it its rightful place in our minds. We focus on getting somewhere, and so many other things too. We want progress, we want a product. Our fear and our misunderstanding blinds us. Jesus offers his help, his rest, his spirit of knowledge and understanding. And yet we don’t even hear him. We will not stop long enough to listen. We rush ahead and deny that we’re hearing anything.

And when it’s pointed out to us, we may even deny that we’re artists at all.

Of course we’d be able to listen to God and hear him if we were real artists! We’re only dabblers, and pretty bad ones at that, after all.

But consider: maybe our assumptions about what it means to be Christian artists are off base. Maybe they’re informed by our culture, by its insistence on measuring product and productivity, and by our own refusal to accept that there is no measurement for the movement of the Inspiring Spirit. It blows wherever it pleases (Jn 3:8).

Can our rational, enlightened minds even wrap themselves around this ancient truth and feel its power again?

If we could only realize, if we could only believe what Jesus says is true about the kingdom of heaven living within all men (Lk 17:21), it would be obvious that believing is all we have to do. Making art is a byproduct of praise, and the product is

Making art is a byproduct of praise, and what we produce is a byproduct of that, and all of that can take care of itself.

Jesus said that accepting the mystery that he is the embodiment of God’s Love within us is our comfort and our assurance (John 14). And this profound mystery is not just beyond us or above us or out there far off somewhere, but actually living within us right now, infusing and enlightening us like beacons, calling and waiting for the world to wake up to it.

The evidence of him is all around us, but more importantly, it’s filling us with life and is alive inside us. Right now, right here. When you believe it, that becomes your new reality. You are ignited, “born anew,” and every day becomes a new chance to see that life is this precious, this sacramental, this holy. Every day, the sacredness is in the very dirt and rocks that hold up our feet and spark our senses to recognize it.

Oh, but we miss it. We’re still deaf, and dumb and blind to it. We only know what little we feel, what tiny parts we sense, and what enormous things we lack. We long for more but we’re all too aware of what stands in the way. And we are never enough aware of God.

Yes, this is the deplorable, depressing human condition. And yet right here is the wide open mission field of the called artist. Do you not see it? Look! These are the fields ripe for harvesting, the sacred purple fruit literally bursting for recognition, longing to be made into fine wine for the world, to be made into its inspired intended purpose, into its perfect product: the glory of the God of all things!

We could be transformed if we’d just stop trying to figure it all out. Stop trying to improve on this today. Give up the work and be still. Pay attention. And be loved.

You are not alone! We all waver and doubt. We all wait and grow sick with the rot of the dream within us, the dream planted by His Spirit when he energized us and gave us sight. We all grow weary waiting for the day our product will go out and do its work. And we all are tempted constantly to give up. And right here we could be transformed if we’d just stop focusing on what we think is the point. We don’t have it all figured out. And we never will.

Stop trying to improve. Give up the goal of the work and be still. The work will come from that. And if the world is to be changed, it will only be by that.

Pay attention to what really matters. Step down into the stream of the Spirit. The water flowing around your feet is a metaphor of the water flowing within and out of you every day. It will feed the fruit of your work if you will just stop and feel it and then express what you feel. Give yourself to it today. IT IS FOR YOUR LIFE!

Do you hear the song within it? And will you give yourself to that song? If you will, you will have produced something worthy of framing. And you can let praise be your product.

For the higher purpose, today and always,

Mick