“To Declare Your Story’s Intent”
There are things important to you. You hurt. You know stuff. I don’t. You see things that I cannot…You have everything you need, including the courage to declare your story’s intent.
— Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction
Not for nothing am I looking forward to the November 3-7 Writer Unboxed “Un-Conference” in bewitching Salem, Massachusetts. The final day, a Friday, as you might know, is given over to our good WU colleague Don Maass, who’s going to stand his 21st Century Fiction concepts on their feet and explicate them in a daylong seminar.
This material, which appears in Chapter 8, is some of the best of the entire book. For me, it’s the heart of what his subtitle describes as “High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.”
Your novel definitely is about something, and that something is sharply defined, it’s just that you’re not letting yourself see and commit to it…Take a stand. Decide what’s important, what hurts, what you know that your readers don’t, what it is that people (including your characters) urgently need to see. That’s your missing focus, the refining fire that will turn the ore into steel.
It’s a careful line Maass walks here. Partly an answer to the question of what has become of literary fiction today, 21st Century Fiction insists on, maybe demands, an author’s awareness of what he or she is doing in a book. But it never urges preaching, lecturing, haranguing, or — forgive me — “man-splaining” the work or its mission to the reader.
And this is not only difficult for even the most skilled and exacting of novelists, it turns out. It’s also fiendishly tricky for many publishing-community wonks whose pleasure it is to guess and predict and define and decry where the industry! the industry! is going in its sometimes unseemly stagger through the digital determination of its future.
This, too, is storytelling.
Debates in this community of pundits tend to break out, rash and rash-like. What seemed a productive day spirals down into a sighing scrimmage of comments on a blog post. Here come the opinion-slingers again — God forbid they sit one out — rather sadly advancing a tiny turf warfare that can keep them from seeing new techno land-grabs much like the ones they missed years ago.
But once in a great while, the debate turns on itself. The discussion is about the discussion. It can be in such moments that we learn the most.
When it happens, it’s a public edition of the private challenge Maass hands to the author who’s lost his way.
As we stumble into one of these moments in the community’s circular conversation, the digital diaspora of book publishing’s energies is clearer. It’s more worrisome, too, maybe. Clarity does that. In a world of arts gone to mobile devices and a tradition of letters gone to Reply All, obfuscation can be a comfort.
Nevertheless, yesterday, Thursday, just such a moment arrived. While many in the Writer Unboxed community dislike paying attention to the “high-impact storytelling” that goes on as their industry tries to redefine itself, I believe wearing those blinkers is a terrible mistake. I think you need to monitor and engage in the dialog of a field that now expects you to know what’s going on. If you want to be an author regarded as a business-savvy professional, you can do no less. That’s my provocation for you this time.