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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.

[pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

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.

First, the great advice

1. Concrete, Clear, Specific, Doable: Famous Author suggests approaching life as he does, always asking “What if?” And while he didn’t say this explicitly, his examples of “What if” always implied that something is going to go wrong for someone, and dash their expectations – which means that there will be conflict and consequences. This is where many of the ideas for his books have come from. For instance, he said, a friend, fearful that her teenage daughter had fallen in with a bad crowd, had once mentioned putting spyware on her computer, and Famous Author got to thinking, what if she then read an email to her daughter that challenged who she thought her daughter was, who they were as a family, and their very safety? What then? This is how great books often begin.

Why is this good advice: By asking “what if” of everything that happens, you begin to see stories everywhere. Remember, a story is what happens when something out of the ordinary forces us to see things differently, and so to act differently. That’s why asking “What if” helps you zero in on the external layer of every effective story — what happens when our expectations aren’t met? In other words, what happens when there’s a problem? It also begins to define what both the inner story and the external plot revolve around: a single problem that complicates.

[pullquote]Who among us hasn’t had a glorious writing day and you go to bed thinking how fabulous what you wrote was — but when you reread it in the morning, your first thought is, Monkeys got into my typewriter last night and changed everything! Again! [/pullquote]

2. Concrete, Clear, Specific, Doable: Famous Author suggests writing every day — whether you feel like it or not. This, he said, is what separates pros from amateurs. Amateurs wait for inspiration, the muse, or the mood to transport them into “the zone.” Pros know you have to write everyday whether you feel like it or not. He treats writing like a job. And as with just about any job, chances are there will be days when you absolutely don’t feel like clocking in. But here’s the really interesting part. Yes, he said, there were days when writing felt like pulling teeth with a rusty pliers, but when the novel was finished, he couldn’t tell the difference between what he wrote when he was in the mood, and what he wrote when he most decidedly wasn’t.

Why This is Great Advice: Because even though we all kind of know this, it’s so easy to let a bad day throw you off, and once you’ve decided not to write for one day, well, it’s just that much easier to let yourself off the hook tomorrow. And, Famous Author deftly put to rest that thing we often tell ourselves on said bad day: What I’m writing will suck, anyway, so why bother? It’s not necessarily so, nor is the opposite. Who among us hasn’t had a glorious writing day and you go to bed thinking how fabulous what you wrote was — but when you reread it in the morning, your first thought is, Monkeys got into my typewriter last night and changed everything! Again! But, how do you find time to write every single day? Some more very good (i.e. concrete, clear, specific and doable) advice comes from my friend and book coach Jennie Nash [1], who teaches that in order to adopt the write-every-day habit, you must choose something else in your life to give up – like a clean house, that nightly TV binge, or,  dare I suggest it, facebook (I know, I know, you have to build your platform, but still).

3. Concrete, Clear, Specific, Doable: Famous Author rewrites as he writes forward. Every day he starts by going over what he wrote the day before, to get a running leap into the novel, and about every 75 pages or so, goes back to the beginning and reads (rewriting along the way) up to where he left off, so that by the end of the “first draft” he’s rewritten the first chapter about 10 times.

Why This is Great Advice: Because it means you’re keeping track of the story you’re telling. You’re always anchoring yourself in what’s possible, story and plot-wise, so you have a good idea of where you’re going, and what matters, as you write forward. It also means that when you decide on a new, as yet un-supported twist or turn, you can go back and set it up. Thus your first draft is more like a third or fourth draft.

4. Concrete, Clear, Specific, Doable: Part of this constant rewriting means stumbling over a whole lot of darlings in need of dispatch. And so whenever Famous Author has to cut something that he thinks is damn fine writing – rather than hitting that delete key and obliterating it – he puts it into a file he’s labeled “Spare.” You know, so it’ll be there just in case he needs it later. He said that since his novels tend to be 400+ pages, the “spare” file for each one is between 50 and 150 pages. But here’s the thing: he has never, once, gone back into his spare file and resurrected anything – ever.

Why This is Great Advice: Because killing your darlings is insanely hard, which is why what tanks so many novels are long, irrelevant passages that the writer simply couldn’t bare to part with. But deleting them as if they’d never been? Ouch! So instead, by tucking them into a nearby file, we know they’re there should we discover that they were, in fact, relevant. Is this a way of faking yourself out? You bet! And the scary thing is – it works.

Now, the Not-So-Great Advice:

The following seemingly sage advice from Famous Author’s keynote speech falls into the not-so-great category because, more often than not, it revolves around his personal process rather than something that is relevant to anyone else.

[pullquote]Some people are born with a natural sense of story the way others have perfect pitch. They innately know what it is that hooks readers, but they’ve never had to deconstruct it.[/pullquote]

1. Personal Writing Process: It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you write. And for Famous Author, writing only means one thing — working on the novel itself, out of the starting gate. His advice was this: don’t do research, and don’t spend time plumbing your character’s past to discover who they are, or how they see the world, and what they’ll be struggling with throughout the novel. None of that counts as writing. That, he said, is procrastinating. Besides, you don’t need to know much about your novel before you write it. He even quoted the famous E.L. Doctorow line, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Famous Authors have offered this advice for generations, because it describes their experience, but guess what? E.L. was himself a Famous Author, and his advice does not apply to most of the rest of us. If it did, we would have long ago arrived at our destination, rather than driving in circles in the fog.

Why This Derails Writers: It suggests that learning to write, and writing, is simply a matter of, well, writing. And for writers like the Famous Author, who I’d guess was born with a natural sense of story, it works. Some people are born with a natural sense of story the way others have perfect pitch. They innately know what it is that hooks readers, but they’ve never had to deconstruct it. The point is, Famous Author can write blind, and a story does “magically” appear out of the fog. It doesn’t work like that for the rest of us. For us, zeroing in on the story we’re writing, and the specific internal change the plot will be designed to put our protagonist through, couldn’t be more important. If we fail to do this work upfront, it’s kind of like writing a book about a significant event in the life of someone who you know nothing about. Writing blind is dangerous because it tends to strand writers. You know that feeling: you’ve been writing forward, and suddenly you’re lost. It’s like you’re standing in the middle of a big empty field, with no idea what comes next, or what matters, or where the story is going, and you think: This is my fault, I’m a bad writer. Good writers, like the Famous Author, they automatically know what happens next. But when I peer into the fog, all I see is more fog. Rest assured it’s not that you’re a bad writer. It’s that unless you are a natural born story genius (and very, very few of us are), there’s a whole lot of work to do before you begin writing, so that your novel will be about something, rather than nothing more than a bunch of things that happen.

[pullquote] Writing blind is dangerous because it tends to strand writers. You know that feeling: you’ve been writing forward, and suddenly you’re lost. It’s like you’re standing in the middle of a big empty field, with no idea what comes next, or what matters, or where the story is going.[/pullquote]

2. Personal Writing Process: Famous Author said that before he starts writing, he figures out just two things: where the novel starts, and where it ends. He defined “end” as the last external plot twist, rather than the end of the story – as in, the character’s inner realization, the “aha” moment, which is what the story is really about. In other words, as far as he was concerned, both beginning and end had to do with what happens in the plot, rather than how it affects the protagonist. Once he’s figured out these two plot points, he’s 100% good to go.

Why This Derails Writers: It intimates that the story is about the plot and that what you’re looking for as you drive through that fog are external plot points. It ignores the reality that you (dear not-yet famous writer) must create plot points driven by the protagonist’s inner struggle if you want your story to go anywhere. The irony is that in said Famous Author’s novels, the protagonist does struggle internally. How does the Famous Author pull this off when he doesn’t seem to pay any attention to the internal struggle? This stems from that natural sense of story we were talking about. He likely does it without even knowing he’s doing it. So, yes, he can sit down and start to write and get to where he needs to go. But chances are high you can’t.

[pullquote]When Famous Author said fifty pages in a single sitting, you could feel the audience gasp. And see their self-confidence begin to wane, as if the thought bubble over their collective head was, “Fifty pages a day? Holy S&**!”[/pullquote]

3. Personal Writing Process: When asked about how much he writes, at first Famous Author talked about writing every day – great advice! For about 6 hours. Also good advice if, you know, you don’t have a day job. But then he said that although he goes in knowing the last plot twist, he doesn’t know how the story will end until he gets there. Once he figures it out (once again, simply by writing to it), he writes in a frenzy. In fact, he said, once he can see exactly how the novel will end, he writes it in one sitting, often turning out – ready for this? – fifty pages in a day.

Why this Derails Writers: When Famous Author said fifty pages in a single sitting, you could feel the audience gasp. And see their self-confidence begin to wane, as if the thought bubble over their collective head was, “Fifty pages a day? Holy S&**!” I get carpel tunnel syndrome just thinking about it. The point is that everyone has their own writing speed. For most of us, no matter how good we are, fifty pages a day isn’t it. Even ten pages a day isn’t it. What’s important to remember is that fifty pages is Famous Author’s personal writing process. It doesn’t have to be yours. In fact, my feeling is that it doesn’t matter how many pages you write a day. What matters is that you spend time writing every day, and realize that on some days you will write more pages than on others.

4. Personal Writing Process: Although Famous Author cautioned writers that agents and editors would give them notes and ask them to rewrite, when asked about this part of his own process, he said that his own manuscripts were near perfect when he hands them in, and he admitted that he gets very, very few notes — things like: your character went to bed on Tuesday and got up on Thursday. Which is to say copyediting. Frosting. Nothing story-wise. No developmental notes. Just a tweak here or there.

[pullquote]Let’s be honest, what every writer wants to hear is: “Your manuscript is perfect, except maybe for this one “i” you forgot to dot, and a couple of uncrossed “t”s.”[/pullquote]

Why This Derails Writers: Let’s be honest, what every writer wants to hear is: “Your manuscript is perfect, except maybe for this one “i” you forgot to dot, and a couple of uncrossed “t”s.” So when we hear Famous Author talk about this as his reality, we think that might just be our reality, too. We think that we might be the exception. But the truth is that most of us, including many, many well published authors, will be asked by our agents and editors to do a lot of rewriting. If you are expecting nothing but praise, you will be sorely disappointed. Should Famous Author have lied about his personal process? Of course not. It’s his reality. And it’s precisely why it’s so important that we writers are able to separate the part of his experience that is actually useful to us from what is likely to hold us back.

The bottom line is that when you listen to a Famous Author talk, steer clear of their “process.”  That’s their subjective world. That’s what works for them, and even if it didn’t start out as muscle memory, it probably is by now. Your job is to find what works for you. But when it comes to the lessons they’ve learned that result in specific, clear, doable advice, well, that’s where the real gold lies.

About Lisa Cron [2]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [3] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [4] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [5]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [6] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [7]

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