We are all storytellers. Whether we’re writing a blog, an ebook, a cheesy novel or a killer screenplay, even an essay, article or report.
Without some semblance of a story at the heart of it all, what’s left is a masturbatory exercise in rhetoric. And if there’s one thing we know about masturbation, it’s that we’re alone.
Thing is, alone doesn’t get us paid. Writing for money is a team sport that demands we pass the ball to a publisher and then a reader somewhere down the road.
The differences in various forms of writing reduce to executional semantics. Which means, the essence of what makes us better writers remains eternal and therefore something we can practice and eventually master, no matter what it is we write.
It Is Written
Behind the conventional wisdom, beneath the tips and techniques, before the fundamentals and the principles, and above everything else, there are certain foundational truths about what we do and how we do it.
This is a closer look at the latter.
These universal truths apply to pretty much any profession, by the way. But for some reason there are writers, especially newer writers, who tend to think such foundational truths either don’t exist or do not apply to them.
If that’s you, hear this clearly: that is the worst writing advice, ever.
The best writing advice – ever – comes from a core, fundamental perspective. Embrace these five gifts of truth and your writing will quickly and forever escalate to the next level.
1. Design your writing like an engineer.
The most pervasive and destructive illusion floating around the writing universe is that you can write something good without order and structure.
Even if you just wing it, if you like to make it up as you go, you’ll end up rewriting and revising until an ordered structure emerges and becomes the skeleton of a finished piece.
Some writers – often the most experienced and successful, so pay attention – give significant creative mindshare to the structure of a story before they write it. They build on a structure, rather than digging one out from the chaos of a convoluted draft.
The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t even realize that it’s convoluted. But you see, a story engineer would.
And it’s not just any ol’ skeleton, either. Structure isn’t something you make up in the moment, in mid-stride as you write. Story structure in any genre and in any deliverable format is based on accepted principles and models.
You violate them, or write in ignorance of them, at your own storytelling peril.
Without a narrative structure in place, even the most elegant and powerful prose plops to the ground in a heap of moist, quivering helplessness.
Order and structure is always – whether planned or retrofitted – a function of design. And design, by definition, is a practice based on certain physics, principles and those proven laws and models.
Learn them, then build your writing upon their proven strengths, and your story will be set free to elevate itself to art.
2. Polish your writing like an obsessive poet.
Writing is very much like singing, playing an instrument or excelling at athletics. The more you do it, the more evolved and polished your sensibilities become, until finally you can instinctively add subtlety and nuance to your performance.
Which, by the way, is what separates the published from the non-published.
Such deft touches usually look easier that they really are when observed from the cheap seats. Success in all of these pursuits is the product of craft, and craft is the product of evolved instincts colliding with proven principles.
The inherent risk in polishing your work is to overwrite, to imbue your narrative voice with a certain hue of purple. Polishing is as much the rendering of complex words into simpler terms as it is de-cluttering the space between your periods, while leaving just a little stylistic juice to spice things up.
Sooner or later your writing will settle into a voice that is uniquely yours. Once there, polishing your work becomes the literary equivalent of clearing your throat.
Sometimes the best writers are simply the best throat clearers.
3. Edit your writing like an anal retentive executioner with a hip edge.
Editing is easily confused with polishing. It can mean two things – copy editing (which is, in fact, the cleaning up and correction of your prose, whereas polishing is more a style and voice issue), and story editing, which is the trimming of expositional fat and the empowerment of narrative moments.
You need both. And you need some combination of two things to do it right: time, and the eyes of a stranger.
What you don’t need is someone trying to turn your work into the vanilla sensibilities of your old high school English teacher. Deliberate, effective voice trumps English 101 any day, provided your readers agree. (Example: earlier I used the word “executional.” Look it up, there is no such word. Each time I type it I see that pesky red underlining. But it’s the right word, the intended word, I’m confident you get it, and my old English teacher can bite me.)
One of the best strategies to bring out the best in your work is to set it aside for a while before turning a fierce editor’s eye back on it. And if you can’t be that set of eyes with objective clarity, consider outsourcing the task to someone who is as hip within your target niche as you are.
In my case, my wife. If it’s purple or if it’s bullshit, I’ll hear about it.
Turning in well-edited – in this case synonymous with appropriately edited – work is the great secret of published authors.
4. Advocate for your work like someone possessed.
Know that the manuscript next to yours on an editor’s desk, or the blog competing for the attention of your reader, is likely every bit as good as your stuff.
Maybe not – making sure that doesn’t happen is the goal here – but sooner or later that will certainly be the case.
Which means, you’ll win some and you’ll lose some.
Persistence is every bit as important to a writing career as talent and craft. This isn’t a business for the thin-skinned, and it isn’t a marketplace for the uninitiated.
Agents and editors and even readers are actually looking for a reason to reject our work as much as they are hoping they’ll fall in love. Nobody said this was fair, and it isn’t.
Your job is to be as passionate about how and to whom you are pitching your stories as you are about writing them. Which means you need to master skills such as manuscript preparation, niche market research, the competition, market trending, live pitching and written querying, not to mention picking yourself up after a good cry and doing it all over again.
The world is full of perfectly worthy manuscripts that didn’t get published because their writers didn’t have the chops to sell it. Don’t be that writer.
Whatever happens to you in this business is what you make happen.
5. Love your work as if you are its mother.
Your mother loves you unconditionally. And yet, she calls you to a higher level of performance, of being. She helps you get there, even if she doesn’t model it herself. She expects you to get there, and if she believes you really want it, she’ll accept nothing less.
And if you don’t, she’ll love you anyway, and just as much.
Her expectation of your excellence, your success, and ultimately your happiness, is the expression of her unconditional love for you. And chances are she takes no shit in the process.
She picks you up when you fall. She tends to your wounds when you fail. She hugs you when you need it, she kicks your ass when you need that.
Then she sends you back into the real world to try again. All in the name of simply loving you.
Your story needs more than a genius writer, a crack idea, a ruthless editor, a maniacal advocate and a few lucky breaks. It needs someone to love it.
Someone to will it into a state of excellence, who understands and accepts that good isn’t good enough in today’s market. Good is just the ticket to someone’s submissions inbox. The ultimate winners bring more.
What they bring is the love of their story, forged and coached and loved into existence at a motherly level of commitment.
And as the author you are, after all, its mother.
This is the best writing advice you will ever hear.
Because everything else in the vast universe of writing knowledge, anything possible to learn and apply to the craft and art of it, is empowered by these truths.
Without all this, all you have is an intention. And that alone won’t get you there.
These five core truths, combined with your talent and passion, not to mention your killer idea, just might.
Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional writing resource for novelists, screenwriters and those who love them. His new novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, releases March 2010.