Monday, November 30, 2009

Larry Brooks Fighting the Publishing Odds for Fiction Writers

By Larry Brooks


In some polite company it’s not kosher to speak the truth about publishing your fiction. It’s like walking into a cancer ward and announcing to all those folks hooked up to tubes that only one out of ten of you is going to survive.

Not good. Haven’t tried that one, but I have spoken at writing conferences where the mere allusion to the truth, as it applies to writers, nearly got me lynched.

Even though the odds aren’t even one out of ten. They are much more daunting than that.

But I continue to speak this truth, not to discourage, but to motivate. Because the bar is very high, the competition very focused and talented, and the folks who say yes or no to your work really – truly – don’t know any more about it than you do.

You want rah-rah, go see Tony Robbins. You want the truth, keep reading.

So here’s the truth.

What you are about to read is a clarifying tool, a light at the end of your tunnel, a destination, an agenda, a truth. I like to think of it as a gift, one that, when it was presented to me, changed my writing life.

Understand these things, and chances are – nothing is definite when it comes to publishing – you will sell your novel or screenplay.

There are six separate things you need to understand and master to write a publishable story. I say separate, but then, when you finally master them, you need to combine them in a way that elevates the combined parts to something in excess of their sum.

Which is the very essence of art.

Here they are.

You need a killer concept. A fresh and compelling idea. Something that will make Spielberg invite you to lunch to kick it around.

You need to craft deep and resonant characters. Heroes that align us with their quest. Villains that titillate and terrify. Bit-players that represent the plethora of choices people make in their lives.

You need thematic power. Something that makes folks feel as if they are experiencing life itself in your story. Something that hits them where they live and endures long after they’ve forgotten your name. Which they will.

You need to understand how to craft effective and efficient narrative scenes. You can wax eloquent about the first three essentials on this list all day, but if you can’t put it on paper in a way that makes sense you’re not in the game yet. Nor will you be until you can.

You need a writing voice, a narrative style, that delivers your story without distraction, and perhaps with an artful nuance. You don’t need to write like Updike – in fact, that will get you rejected quicker than trying to sing like Whitney Houston will get you booted from American Idol.

I’ve saved the best for last.

Because this is the one core competency where the vast majority of unpublished manuscripts slide under the bus.

You need your story to unfold within the parameters of accepted dramatic structure. There are certain things that need to appear in your story at certain places.

You can’t just make it up as you go along.

Even if you do make up the content of your story as you go – not recommended, but if you must, you must – at the end of the writing day you can’t mess with the form and function of accepted story structure.

Don’t believe this? Ask a published writer.

They may describe it differently – there are many ways to skin this literary cat, and some still cling to the illusion of free-form storytelling – but in essence they’ll all tell you the same thing.

Story structure is the magic bullet of story telling. Ask yourself this question: do you even know what it is?

If you didn’t respond with a quick affirmative, or if you did and secretly aren’t so sure, then this might be the moment where your writing career spins in a new direction.

Because that information is out there.

And you get to choose – will you seek it out? Will you master it? Or will you, perhaps in the name of art, continue to believe that you can write whatever you want, in whatever order and form you want, and continue to harbor the hope that someone will buy it?

That’s like someone insisting they can make the PGA tour by hitting the ball with kitchen utensils instead of the accepted elements of the game. Creative, yes. Perhaps even artfully so. But realistic? Not remotely.

It’s your call. Everyone who has ever published a novel or sold a screenplay made that choice. Whatever their process, they’ve landed in the same place – a story that lines up with the accepted parameters of structure.

Bottom line:

You need all six of these core competencies – concept, character, theme, structure, scene construction and voice – to succeed as a writer of fiction. Weakness in any one of them will get you rejected.

But within those six agendas, one stands out as the bedrock, the foundation, for all the others – story structure.

Because if it isn’t there, it’ll sink like a ship without a hull. You can’t build a palace on a platform of woven thread. You need a solid, architecturally sound vessel for your story before it can set sail.
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Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional writing resource for novelists and screenwriters. He’s also a bestselling novelist and the author of Story Structure – Demystified, available through his site.

Note: I love this book. I've read Joseph Campbell and probably dozens of other books on structure, myth, theme and more. Story Structure demystifies but it also inspires by knocking a writer on the noggin with the truth.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and two how to books for writers, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. Her FRUGAL book for retailers is A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. She is also the author of the Amazon Short, "The Great First Impression Book Proposal". Some of her other blogs are TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor blog.

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