Today’s guest is Larry Brooks, whose blog–Storyfix.com–was recently named along with Writer Unboxed as one of the top ten blogs for writers by Write to Done. Larry isn’t only a blogger extraordinaire; he’s an author who’s released a new book on the craft of fiction a few short weeks ago called The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. The book–published by Writers Digest Books–soared to the top spot on Amazon in the Fiction Writing Reference category, and remains in the top four books in that category.
As curious about the book as we are? Here’s a little Q&A with the author.
Q: Why do we need another “how-to” writing book, and how does yours fit in with the others?
LB: I think the authors in the top spots at Amazon are successful because they’ve managed to capture a new way of thinking about storytelling rather than rehashing the old 101-level stuff. When writers find something new, their creative juices get recharged. Hope is resurrected, and that sells books.
Story Engineering fits in because it offers a totally fresh and empowering way to think about, visualize, plan and execute your stories, and in a way that’s clear and accessible. It’s steroids for writers, in a field in which polite conversation may or may not get you where you want to go.
Q: You’ve become known as an evangelist for outlining. Is this an accurate perception?
LB: That’s too simplistic, I think. Great stories are not a product of luck or hammering on something until it works. Michelangelo’s first cut at David probably didn’t look like Daffy Duck, it was conceived and executed from the very first hammer blow in context to an understanding of what the end product needs to be.
Same with a story. Certain physics – dramatic pressures and pacing – need to be in place. Succinctly defined moments need to happen in specific places. Targeted reader experiences must be elicited. Craft is all about knowing what these basic tenets and principles are, and putting them onto the page in the right place with the very first draft. Not by guessing, or listening to a muse, but by knowing.
Once you wrap your head around these basics, the writer has one goal and two choices. The goal is to search for the story’s arc and milestones, in context to a compelling landscape of concept and theme. It may be via an outline, maybe an early draft. Doesn’t matter.
Then, once discovered, the story needs to unfold in a certain way. Which means that draft needs to be rewritten from page one. It’s not about outlining, per se. It’s about writing a story in context to an understanding of how a story needs to unfold.
Too many writers “pants” (as opposed to plot) because they think they can get away with it, that they’ll stumble upon these non-negotiable criteria. It only works when the writer knows what the list of criteria is all about. Outlining is simply an efficient way to vet creative choices that meet them without doing a whole draft. But a draft can serve that purpose well.
You can’t publish and outline, and you can’t publish a draft that was a search tool. Either way, you have to writer your story in context to the big picture that you now own and render to the page.
Q: The reviews of your book are pretty enthusiastic. What are people finding here that excites them?
LB: Much of the fundamental wisdom about writing is “right-brained” stuff, all soft and mushy and grad-schoolesque. My approach brings the left-brain into the equation (hence the title), by showing people a structure into which they can pour the fluidity of their stories. By giving them criteria, a bar to reach.
Without a vessel to hold it, fluids tend to spill all over the place.
Q: You write about six core competencies of storytelling. Isn’t the list much longer than that?
LB: I like to think of the six core competencies as six buckets of information and criteria. These buckets are deep and wide, and so that list of things we need to study and master as writers, while vast and daunting, at least now has a way to be divided contextually.
Anything and everything you can think of about writing an effective story belongs in one of these six buckets. It is when you pour and mix the contents that the real magic happens.
Too often writing instruction begins and ends with this homogenized mixture. It’s hard to grasp, like holding water in your hands. My approach breaks the story recipe down into six generic and universal (as in, they always apply) component parts, shows what needs to happen and why, gives criteria for excellence within each, and then shows how they work together with and in context to the other five.
If you’re baking a cake and the eggs are rotten, the birthday party will bomb. Same with a story. All six buckets of story ingredients have to be fresh and solid. A sour taste in any one of them will trash the whole thing.
Larry Brooks is the bestselling author of five critically-acclaimed novels. His book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing is available online and in bookstores. You can learn more about him at Storyfix.com, or follow him on Twitter.