steering the craft

in praise of teaching

mentors Dec 01, 2021

My dear storytellers, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

I’ll be back with a new livestream next week. Today, I’d like to share some thoughts about one of the great teachers on my own path as writer: Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen died on Friday morning at his home in Connecticut. He was 91 years old and writing until the end.

On the Wednesday before he died, he saw two plays in New York, a matinee and an evening performance. On Thursday he shared Thanksgiving with friends, and Friday morning he left us.

He last appeared the Colbert show in mid-September, talking about what he was working on next, among other inspiring remarks. 

I was profoundly influenced and inspired by his work and supported by his personal encouragement, as so many writers were. (I tell the tale of how I came to meet and work with my idol when I was eighteen years old in this livestream.) 

As artists we must always...

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a writer gives thanks

 

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the US, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge something that too often gets lost in the (cranberry) sauce.

Writers have a lot to be grateful for.

Don’t get me wrong. I know how writers like to complain! I hear your complaints. I complain too sometimes. None of this is easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

Writing is hard. Revisions are hard. Putting our work out into the world is hard. There is a lot of self-doubt, frustration, and long periods of developing our craft, with no guarantees of success. 

There are drafts we labor over that need to be labored over again. There are books we write thinking, "this is the one!" only to realize that “the one” might still be a book or two away. We’re getting closer, but we’re not quite there yet. It all takes longer than we expected. 

Even for the published, there are industry politics and marketplace realities to face. There is...

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who’s the opponent?

 

I was doing a little research into Stoic philosophy—like ya do!—and came across a quote from Seneca: 

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
—Seneca (4 B.C.E. — 65 C.E.)

To be thankful for one’s misfortunes is Stoic to the max. Leave it to a Roman to pull no punches!

But look at that second sentence: Without an opponent, “no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

For our hero to pass through a story without an opponent would make for a pretty dull tale. And yet, experience suggests that the single aspect of good storytelling that developing writers most want to punch in the face is the necessity of filling their pages with obstacles. 

I get it. No one wants obstacles in real life. We want smooth sailing, even if Seneca says...

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fix the flatness

writing craft Nov 16, 2021
 

In last week’s livestream, I mentioned the concept of writing with dimension. Here’s what I mean by that:

Some writing feels flat on the page. It’s two-dimensional. There are words aplenty and characters who talk about this and that. Events are alleged to happen and feelings are alleged to result.

It’s not that the words don’t make sense. From a grammatical standpoint, it’s all perfectly correct. But the writing is bland, voiceless, and the reader’s engagement is hard-won, if it’s won at all.

Really skillful writing has the opposite effect. It seems to have a life of its own. Even as you read the first sentence, it feels like some living consciousness is sweeping you into a fully dimensional world. 

You feel more a participant than an observer. And the characters? Realer than the people you know in real life. You find...

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what holds writers back: my top ten

 

It’s NaNoWriMo time, again!

I started this blog (and soon afterward, my weekly YouTube livestream) last year right around this time, as it seemed like there was an extra need for writing mentorship out there.

So many blog posts and livestreams later, I am amazed at how this ongoing exploration of writing good fiction continues to deepen. It’s a lifetime practice for sure.

And how has your writing grown this year?

While you you formulate your answer, I want to give a shout-out to all the Path of the Storyteller alums who finished a draft in 2021.

TRUMPETS OF VICTORY SOUND! Some have never finished a book before. Revisions are now in progress, and I am so very proud of each and every one of these awesome and dedicated writers! 

Accomplishment feels good. Setting goals and moving steadily toward them feels fantastic.

But being stuck, thwarted, or in despair because all your efforts seem to be going in circles does not feel so good, am...

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keep writing, be happy

 

Does writing make you happy?

Does writing make you frustrated?

Does writing make you dream big?

Does writing make you envious?

Does writing make you feel full of purpose?

Does writing make you wonder, why bother?

This list could go on and on. Feel free to add your favorites! My point is this:

All writers have feelings about writing, and those feelings are all over the map. 

This is not a bad sign. As I often tell my Path of the Storyteller students when they hit one snag or another: That is a professional problem! 

Creative work triggers all kinds of reactions. If your thoughts, feelings, and opinions about writing sometimes take a ride on the wanna/don’t wanna seesaw, welcome to the club.

From the many complexities of getting the work done (and done well), to navigating how to launch a career out of all that creative labor, to surfing the waves of a career-in-progress, the writer’s path poses fresh invitations for...

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the “likeability” trap

 

My dear storyteller, I hope no one has said this to you, but if you’ve heard it, please console yourself with the knowledge that you’re not alone. Buckle up and let’s get it over with:

“I just didn’t care about your main character. You need to make her more likeable. More relatable!”

Bah, humbug! I had to say it. Yet how many earnest writers have heard this all-too-common bit of feedback, licked their wounds for a minute, and then bravely proceeded to revise their draft to remove every character defect, cross word, and unpleasant facial expression from the manuscript?

Then, after all traces of humanity have been stripped out, the poor writer who’s fallen into the “likeability trap” throws in a saving-kittens-from-the-floodwaters scene for good measure, and perhaps adds a charming dollop of self-doubt and dorkiness to amp up...

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this plot is bananas!

 

I took myself on an artist date this weekend and saw a production Il Trovatore at the LA Opera. Now, operas are prone to melodrama, but Il Trovatore? That plot is bananas!

I had a terrific time at the opera, but it did get me thinking about plots with so many moving parts that even a program full of footnotes can’t begin to explain what’s going on. In opera, one can arguably get away with this. In fiction, not so much!

Some writers struggle to come up with plots in the first place (a little story structure expertise will fix that), but others have a tendency to over-engineer their plots until they resemble tottering Rube Goldberg machines, in which elaborate sequences of cause and effect are inserted to make one domino tip over the next. 

How do things get so complicated? Why is it hard to trust simplicity? That's our topic this week. 


My weekly livestream about story structure, writing craft, and the mindset of the working writer happens...

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the two kinds of stuck

process working Oct 10, 2021
 

Stuck is one of those short, sharp, Anglo-Saxon-derived English words that give such a nice, rhythmic punch to our prose.

Compare it with something of a more romantic flavor, like, say, “immobilized.” A fine word, but you do get more bang for your buck with stuck!

The power of choosing one-syllable words (look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph for an example) is a great topic, but it’s not our topic this week.

This week I want to talk about being stuck. Immobilized. Not making progress. 

There are two kinds of stuck: Not writing stuck and writing stuck.

The not writing kind? We just stop working. We abandon a scene, a chapter, a project. We may have a lot of mental chatter about it, from the blithe “I'm just too busy at the moment” to the mean-spirited “I am undisciplined and unworthy of the name WRITER!” Either way, you're not writing! That’s stuck.

The other, and perhaps trickier...

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your hero’s finest hour

 

Today we’re going to look at some writing advice from—wait for it—Winston Churchill. 

He didn’t intend it as writing advice, by the way. Churchill was a terrific writer, but the quote I want to discuss teaches us more about storytelling than prose style:

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

—Winston Churchill

Churchill is talking about real life, but what is storytelling but a way to understand life better? That “special thing” he mentions is what I call the hero’s mission. It’s the stated purpose for all the hero’s efforts in the second act. 

As Churchill notes, these missions are not distributed...

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