How To Become a Writer

photo by Robert Couse-Barker via Flickr
photo by Robert Couse-Barker via Flickr

Change is hard, even good change. Learning to navigate change is why we’re wired for story in the first place. Even when we’re caught up in what we might think of as mere entertainment, under our conscious radar the story is mainlining inside info on how to deal with the changes that we can’t avoid, put off, or pretend aren’t really there. And so since the only constant is change, there will always be new stories, because stories will always have something to teach us. That’s why storytellers are the most powerful people on the planet.

But that power doesn’t come easily. I’m not talking about the power that comes from the story, the writing, or what you can do to become a better writer (you know, the thing I’m always going on and on about). Today I’m talking about something else: having the power to change your life in order to have a shot at writing anything powerful at all. Most of us try to avoid, put off, or pretend we don’t need to make any changes in order to write a book – but we do.

To become a writer, you have to give something up. Something time consuming. Something you care about, and that in all likelihood might have unsettling, ongoing ramifications once you let it go.

And of all the changes large and small, there’s one that underlies them all, and without it nothing else matters much. What change is that? The willingness to pay the ultimate price in the most precious commodity we have: time. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But as with most things, while the general concept is crystal clear, the specifics – what you need to actually do – is not. Because to become a writer, you have to give something up. Something time consuming. Something you care about, and that in all likelihood might have unsettling, ongoing ramifications once you let it go.

This is a lesson I learned from my writing coach, Jennie Nash. She told me early on that if you want to be a writer, you have to take a good hard look at your life, find something you spend a lot of time doing, and give it up in order to free the time to write.

I didn’t believe her at first. [Read more…]

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Writers, UnPlugged: Lessons from the Writer Unboxed UnConference

I’m writing this on the Saturday morning following the Writer Unboxed Unconference in Salem, still under the spell of the one of the most amazing weeks ever. It was the absolute best, hands-down, no doubt about it, most transformative writing conference I’ve ever been to – and I have been to a lot. I want to go on to say that other conferences had their fabulous moments, too, because sheesh, you don’t want to offend anyone, and it is true. But right now, it doesn’t feel true.

What made the UnCon different from other writing conferences is the same thing that can help you figure out what matters in your work, where to put your energy, and how you can care for yourselves and your writing career.

This conference played in a different ballpark and gave writers something seminal that other conferences don’t put first: real community.

This doesn’t mean everyone sat around singing Kumbyah (thank god). Rather, we came together as complex human beings. We listened, we learned, we argued, we debated, we found common ground, and through it all we didn’t pretend to be anyone other than who we were – let the chips fall where they may. Did it make us vulnerable? Sometimes scarily so. But it was liberating, expanding, clarifying, empowering.

I can hear you yawning, thinking And so? Unless you were one of the lucky pups who got to spend five days together as the winds rattled through Salem, why on earth would you care? Why would exploring the difference between the UnCon and all those other otherwise-worthy conferences matter to those of you who couldn’t come — which, let’s face it, with everyone’s crazy, busy schedule, along with a cut off at 100 writers, is most of you? The answer is that what made the UnCon different is the same thing that can help you figure out what matters in your work, where to put your energy, and how you can care for yourselves and your writing career.

What made the UnCon so different? [Read more…]

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has

Photo by Craig Sunter
Photo by Craig Sunter

As I gear up for the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference next month (woo hoo!), I thought it might be helpful to revisit some of the basic story tenets that I’ve been writing about here for the past two years (sheesh, time doesn’t fly, it vaporizes!) Often these tenets don’t come from the writing world, but rather, they’re set by what your reader’s brain expects. Writers sometimes balk at this – after all some of it flies in the face of what is taught in the writing world. Besides, it’s easy to believe that story doesn’t need to be learned. After all, no one ever had to tell you what a story is when you’re reading one. But you have to admit, when it comes to writing a story, suddenly it isn’t quite so clear. Why is that?

We’re hardwired to come to every story tacitly asking one question: what am I going to learn that will help me make it through the night?

One of the main reasons is because what actually hooks a reader is very different from what we’ve been led to believe. It’s even very different from what seems logical, clear and obvious – which is that readers are hooked by the beautiful writing, the clever plot, the fresh voice, and so on and so forth. All those things are great, no denying it, but they’re not what readers come for. Those elements simply give voice to it – they’re the surface, the conduit. Readers come for what goes on beneath the surface. We’re hardwired to come to every story tacitly asking one question: what am I going to learn that will help me make it through the night? We’re looking for useful intel on how to navigate situations we haven’t yet been in, and new ways of looking at those we have. As a result, there’s a set of specific expectations by which we unconsciously evaluate every story — expectations that have nothing to do with being able to “write well.”

But articulating what, exactly, we’re responding to when we read a story isn’t easy, because it’s not something we had to learn, the same way we didn’t have to learn how to enjoy chocolate or how to feel pain when we skin our knee. Being enthralled by a story just happens. It’s not something we think about, because it’s part of our standard operating package – we roll out of the factory with this wiring already in place.

The good news is that we can decode what we’re wired to respond to in every story we hear. We can learn what triggers the surge of dopamine that biologically pushes the pause button on real life, letting us get lost in the world of the story. And once we do that, we can create a story that lures a reader in as surely as a trail of crumbs in the woods.

Here, then, is a reader’s manifesto – twelve hardwired expectations that every reader has for every story they hear, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Meet these expectations, and readers won’t be able to put your novel down. [Read more…]

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

How a Book Coach Can Jumpstart Your Writing Career

photo by Graham Binns
photo by Graham Binns

It happened again last month. A writer emailed to say that she had finally finished her manuscript and it was now ready for my professional feedback. “I’ve wanted to get it to you for months,” she wrote, “but I had to make sure it was finished first.” Uh oh, I thought. I wasn’t being mean — that was hard won experience talking. I knew this person was a good writer. That’s almost never the problem. The problem I feared was that she was about 300 pages too late, and I’d be reading a well-written, story-less, plot-filled novel that went nowhere. Which meant I’d have say to her what I almost always have to say to writers – even well published writers — who come to me with finished manuscripts: “Let’s go back to the very beginning and nail the story before you begin

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is waiting too long to seek help.

to spin a plot.”   I take no pleasure in the fact that I was right.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is waiting too long to seek help. I’m not talking about writers’ groups to cheer them on, or writing workshops to learn about craft. I’m talking about serious, professional, story-focused help so they can get their story right, right from the start. Because learning to “write well” is not the same thing as learning to write a story. And without a compelling story, the result is — at best — what’s known in the trade as a beautifully written, “So what?” And at worst, merely a bunch of things that happen.

In this regard, I practice what I preach. I worked with a coach on my first book and on the proposals for my next two books (on which my publisher instantly made offers). I work with her when I develop speeches, talks and articles. I can’t imagine working without her. I’d feel like an orchestra without a conductor, an athlete without a coach. This outside assistance helped catapult my career to a whole new level – and it can do the same for you.

But what is a book coach, exactly? [Read more…]

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

How to Listen to a Famous Author Talk About Writing

photo by Robert ScobleOver the past year I’ve spoken at a number of writer’s conferences, where I’ve met a great many fabulous, dedicated and talented writers and listened to a lot of keynote speeches by best selling novelists. And while just about all of them were incredibly entertaining, riotously funny, and full of I must remember that one, my writer friends will love it! anecdotes, ultimately they all made my heart sink.

Why? Because I believe that instead of being helpful, those hilarious, inspiring speeches were likely to actually derail the emerging writers in the audience. They are, in fact, surprisingly treacherous – in part.

Trying to take someone else’s personal process as the gospel truth can be a waste of time at best, and a career-squasher at worst.

I was thinking about the danger a couple of weeks ago as I listened to one Famous Author, a man who’d written upwards of thirty novels, many of them New York Times bestsellers. He was a brilliant speaker. Funny enough to do standup, and kill. And some of his advice was, indeed, dead on because (as you’ll see below) it was Concrete, Clear, Specific and Doable. The problem was, it came wrapped, as it always does, in something decidedly more vague: anecdotes about the famous writer’s own personal process. As I watched writers all around me nod and laugh and eagerly scribble notes about his process, I wished I could have warned them to be a little more discerning – okay, a LOT more discerning. Trying to take someone else’s personal process as the gospel truth can be a waste of time at best, and a career-squasher at worst.

Does this mean that we can’t learn anything from best selling authors? Of course not! It just means that we need a guide as to what info is helpful, and what isn’t. In other words: how do you separate the pearls of wisdom that you can use, from the ones that will hobble your novel out of the starting gate?

Using the aforementioned Famous Author’s keynote speech as a case in point, here is a breakdown that separates the useful advice from the kind of advice you’d do better to scrunch down in your seat, put your fingers in your ears and hum through. [Read more…]

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.