Please welcome author Larry Brooks to Writer Unboxed today! Larry is the author of six novels and three bestselling books on fiction craft, including Story Fix and Story Engineering. A little more about him:
Larry is a career writer from the corporate sector who, like most of you, had nourished the fiction writing dream the entire time. When he isn’t writing, he’s involved with workshops and conferences at the behest of writing groups and clubs, and operates a story coaching service through his website, Storyfix.com. He also offers fiction craft videos through Vimeo.
We’re so pleased to have Larry with us today to drill down into what he says is the big lie holding writers back from actualizing their work in a timely, efficient, and full-bodied way. It’s a long read, but we think you’ll find it well worth your time. Enjoy!
The Big Lie About Writing Compelling Fiction
There’s a quiet rumor circulating among newer writers that professional authors know something they don’t. And that those famous A-listers (B-listers, too) aren’t giving it up.
This may very well be the case. Not so much as a conspiracy, but from a lack of an ability to convey—or a willingness to admit—that what they do can actually be explained, or that it can be taught and learned.
Too often they say this instead:
“I just sit down and write, each and every day, following my gut, listening to my characters, and eventually the magic happens.”
And so, hungry writers who hear this may lean into the belief that the craft of writing a good novel is inexplicable. That it’s something we are born with, or not. It is purely an issue of instinct. Maybe even that your characters actually talk to you.
The nights can get pretty long if you’re waiting to hear voices.
The real dream killer takes wing when writers conclude that there really isn’t anything to know at all. Rather, that you get to make it all up as you go.
And thus the Big Lie is born.
There actually is an enormous wealth of principle-based learning to be discovered and assimilated about how to write a novel that works. And there are folks out there teaching it, albeit with different models and terminology… all of which tends to coalesce into a singular set of interdependent truths.
Maybe it’s not a lie when someone repeats what they believe to be true. But belief, especially about the underpinnings of writing fiction, doesn’t make something true.
It may indeed be true for them. But not necessarily true for you.
Clarity requires understanding the differences.
There is no default best way to write a story, nor is there a prescribed path. Anyone who tells you that organic story development is superior to structured, principle-driven story development, including outlining, is wrong, regardless of their belief in that position.
And vice versa. Both are issues of process, and only that. They are choices, rather than an elevated version of conventional wisdom.
But with finished stories, any division between process and product vanishes. At that point, when you deem a draft to be final, what is true for one writer is suddenly true for all.
Clarity awaits in understanding the difference not only between process and product, but between rules and principles, as well. Rules apply to neither, while principles empower both.
Whether by intention, as a product of instinct or pure blind-ass luck, the efficacy of fiction is always driven by a set of core principles. They are not something you get to make up as you go. Rather, they are discovered as you progress along the learning curve.
Not all authors recognize the inherent opportunity in that moment of discovery. Sometimes they need to see the principles at work within someone else’s story… which is the most validating teachable moment of all.
The Author Who Can’t Tell Us Anything
In a recent author profile appearing in Writer’s Digest Magazine, an 11-million-copy bestselling author confessed she has no idea how she does it. Clearly, after two movie adaptations on top of her book sales, the numbers prove her wrong.
But not knowing how she got there isn’t saying she doesn’t know what it needs to look like when she does. The numbers prove that, as well.
So what is she hiding? Is she lying, is she confused, or is she truly without a clue?
Probably none of the above. Rather, her contention is simply proof that, as it is in many forms of art and athletics and academics, doing and teaching exist as different core competencies, only rarely shared within one practitioner.
One might also cynically suggest that this actually proves one doesn’t require any core knowledge to knock a story out of the park. You just need to put in the time, and eventually your instincts will kick in.
Maybe. It happens. But usually it is more complicated than that.
Whether they know it or not, teachers who never circle around to the core principles of fiction as a part of the creative process are peddling the Big Lie.
They will defend their seat-of-the-pants blind process vigorously from behind a keynote podium, yet they have no explanation beyond the principles—which they aren’t talking about—that led to their own writing success.
It’s like your kid designing a paper airplane. It flies, even though Junior knows nothing about aerodynamics. And while you might think this proves the other side’s point, it doesn’t. Because the complexities of a novel that works are more like a Boeing airliner than a paper airplane from kindergarten.
As writers, we don’t know what we don’t know.
When I started writing about writing, I ran into a guy on an online forum who proclaimed this: “I never outline. It robs the process of creativity and the possibility of discovery. It takes the fun out of it.”
So says… that guy. Who is in it for fun.
This may be true… for him. This absolutely is not—it never has been—a universal truth you should apply to your own experience… at least until you should.
The things we don’t know become the learning we need to seek out and discover and understand before we can begin to truly wrap our heads around fiction as a profession. Writing itself is certainly a viable part of that journey, but it is not what unlocks the secret of that journey, in and of itself.
That forum guy was talking about his process, irresponsibly framing it as conventional wisdom. But there are no universal truths when it comes to process, other than it needs to take you somewhere, and that yours might indeed be what is holding you back.
Story doesn’t trump structure. Just as structure doesn’t trump story. Because they are the same things. Both are extreme ends of a process continuum that, if and when it works, takes you to the exact same outcome. Anyone telling you differently is actually talking about their own preferred process, and if they don’t clarify that context then they are propagating the Big Lie.
And thus a paradox has been hatched.
So if not everyone agrees, how then do we pursue the core craft we need to write a novel that works, whatever our process? Even if the folks we admire and look to for answers claim they don’t?
Take the common advice to just write.
Depending on the degree to which the writer commands the core principles, it may be like telling a medical student to just cut. “Just write” is half of the answer, for half of the problem, applying to half of the writers who hear it, sometimes long before they should even consider it. Any more than a first year medical student should consider removing a spleen from anything other than a cadaver.
Because just write is advice about process, not product. Yet when Stephen King advises us to do it, who dares question him… even when they should?
Such advice, framed as truth, becomes yet another part of the Big Lie.
Welcome to the writing conversation.
This seems to be how the entire writing conversation—blogs, books, how-to articles, workshops, conferences, keynote addresses, famous writer profiles, writing groups, critique groups, and (God-help us) writing forums—is framed. And yet, collectively, combined with practice and a seat-of-the-pants ability to assimilate skill and truth as it collides with what we would rather deem to be mystical and elusive, there are things that actually do define the journey of learning to write a professional-caliber novel.
Look in the right places and you will indeed encounter specific principles, propositions, processes, expectations, categories, models, trends and risks that the more experienced writer understands and weighs—perhaps only at an instinctual level, but they exist nonetheless—and that over time the effective writer builds their work upon. Most of them being issues with which the newer writer struggles.
Knowing where you stand relative to these core truths can save you years of exploration and untold buckets of blood seeping from your forehead. Some writers toil for decades without ever truly hearing these truths, or assimilating it if they do.
This is because The Lie is loud, downing what it is you truly need to hear and understand. Because even within The Lie, those truths are at work behind a curtain of hubris or ignorance, sometimes both.
Here is a framework for your learning curve, in a nutshell.
These six things rationalize the consideration of craft itself. [Read more…]