You probably know that I spent my formative years working in the theatre. What a valuable experience! Among the storytelling lessons I learned was this:
Every action has a motive.
It’s the classic actor’s question: What’s my motivation? Story doesn't happen without it. But just in case you missed that day in drama class, let me define some terms:
Action is what a character does.
There's a reason they call it acting. Characters act. They do stuff. They walk. They talk. They pour another glass of booze (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), hide behind the curtains and eavesdrop (Hamlet), and run their enemies through with a sword (also Hamlet).
Our characters explore spooky attics and travel through dangerous...
Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
My writing is worth money.
Deep breaths, storytellers! I would love to know your answer. You can leave a comment below and tell me. I read every one.
But here’s what I’ve observed during my years mentoring writers. When posed with this question, some—we’ll call them Group A—will immediately protest:
“I just love to write! I don’t care if I make money at it. I do it for me."
“Money would be nice, but really I just want to get something out there and published. That would satisfy me.”
You might find these responses attractively modest, or nobly artistic, or both. If so, you’re probably in Group A.
Then there’s Group B:
“Sure, I’d love to get paid to write! I get story ideas all the time. But I know I can never make a living at it, so I don’t even try anymore.”
Ouch. That’s a hard place to land....
There’s a key question that can make or break your storytelling, and it’s this:
How does your main character react to pressure?
These four strategies are psychological patterns that describe how humans react to stress, pressure, or trauma.
You may have heard them described as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
And how is this relevant to writing fiction, you ask?
It’s story structure, my friends! A story depicts a central character with important, high stakes goal who encounters obstacles along the way. The struggle to achieve the goal despite opposition creates a journey of meaningful transformation.
Or, to put it simply:
How your main character reacts to pressure is literally the plot of your book.
For that reason alone, this subject is worth...
True fact: I rarely leave a restaurant without a box of leftovers tucked under my arm.
I’m not sorry about it, either. I never like to let food go to waste. Even if there’s only a little bit left, it’s enough to pop in an omelette, or throw on top of a pasta, right?
And isn’t that how many of us treat our writing, too?
We hate to cut stuff. We worked so hard on those bits! Surely there’s a place to use them. Into the refrigerator they go.
And if we’ve been working on something for a while—maybe it’s our first whack at a novel—we hate, hate, hate to admit that it might not be workable at all.
One more rewrite? Ten? We know we can save it!
“Waiter, bring me a box to put this messy draft of a novel in! I don’t want any of it to go to waste.”
Now listen, dear storyteller. I have news for you.
Most of our work is not our best work.
In fact, most of our actual writing labor will never see the light of day at...
You probably know that I started my storytelling career in the theatre. When I was about to graduate high school and was auditioning for college acting programs, my brother Tom gave me a fantastic gift: a copy of a book by Michael Shurtleff called Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part.
I still have that book, forty-odd years later. Thanks, Tom!
And I still think about one of the central ideas I learned from it, which is this:
Every scene is a love scene.
Shurtleff breaks this idea down for actors. But what does it mean for writers?
Here’s how I’ve come to think of it: Every scene is driven by desire. Something is wanted. Something is pursued. Even when it's not a romance scene, there is desire on the page.
And something, or someone, or even some fearful or ambivalent part of our hero’s inner landscape—stands in the way. If it weren’t so, the hero would already...
Has this happened to you? You wrote a little something, or a lot of something, and you shared it with others.
You know it's not perfect. You’re expecting a few notes. But the reaction you get surprises you:
“I couldn't follow it.”
“I didn’t get it.”
“I just wasn't sure what was happening.”
This kind of feedback can be bewildering. What we wrote is so clear to us! So why did our readers find it confusing?
My dear storytellers, the art of writing really good fiction—fiction that works for the reader—is made of many different skills. One of the key ones is this:
You must cultivate the ability to see your text as the reader sees it.
Consider how well you know your book by the time you've got pages to show people. You’ve been working on it for months. You can recite chunks from memory. You know your characters like the back of your hand.
But the reader is new in town. They only know what...
So there I was, sitting in my local coffee spot, sipping my Americano and mulling the question at hand:
What should my livestreamed talk be about this week?
—when my focus was upended by a conversation at a nearby table.
Reader, I eavesdropped. An intent young man was sharing his hopes and dreams with a patient young lady, who nodded in time to his drumbeat of earnestness.
He listed one ambition, then another, and then two more (you can find out what they were here).
Flushed with feeling and caffeine, he concluded, “That’s it! I’m just going to focus on these four things. Oh, and my music, too!”
That’s five things, but never mind. I knew at once that my topic would be focus. It’s every writer’s complaint.
How hard it can be to maneuver ourselves into work mode to start with.
How easily we get distracted.
How frustrating it is to finally buckle ourselves into the writing chair, only to tinker aimlessly with our work-in-progress...
The always inspiring Brené Brown defines shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Is there anyone who hasn’t felt this at one time or another?
Shame is a tough feeling. It can stop us in our tracks. Even talking about it feels shameful!
My work teaching and mentoring writers over the years has shown me this truth again and again: All the story structure and writing craft expertise in the world won’t matter much if the writer’s mindset gets in the way of actually doing the work in the first place.
All those stubborn, hard-to-admit beliefs that we’re not talented enough, or that what we have to say is not interesting enough, or that our dreams of writing are too foolish and impractical to even admit to others?
That’s shame talking.
Shame holds writers back in so many ways. It...
Twenty-five years ago, I lived in a little run-down house in Brooklyn my then-husband and I bought for a song.
Seriously, people pay more for cars these days then we paid for that house.
Life happened, things changed, and the house was sold. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time.
My daughter likes to keep track of it, though. Last year she sent me the real estate listing:
SOLD! For..... two and half million dollars.
Even typing that makes me sigh.
Woulda! Coulda! Shoulda! Everybody’s got a story of something they wish they could go back in time and do differently. This is the clarity that hindsight gives us.
In life, we don’t get do-overs.
But in writing, we do. The chance to go back and revise our work is not simply a happy option writers enjoy, but a central part of our process.
In today’s livestream, I want to talk about revision. Why is it so important—and so misunderstood?
ENROLLING NOW! The Path of the Storyteller program starts in January, and seats are still available. Click here to learn more.
It’s the game that’s sweeping America, and the world: Pickleball!
I too, have happily fallen in semi-obsession with the new national pastime. It's good for writers to get fresh air and exercise!
But I also find it’s really good to be learning something new.
It’s stimulating to be a beginner. It puts the focus not on “how good” we are, but on how open we are to learning.
This is a real life skill. The process of learning is the same no matter what the subject matter is. If we cultivate becoming good at learning, we can learn anything.
Including how to write really good fiction.
See, you knew I’d get to writing eventually!
In my many years of teaching and mentoring writers, I’ve found that writers sometimes have unrealistic expectations about what...
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