steering the craft

feedback without tears

 

Remember the famous baby shampoo ad? No more tears!

That this sudsy slogan is what today’s topic makes me think of is reveals a lot. Getting feedback on our writing can be overwhelming in a way that feels disproportionate. Depending on what that feedback is, it can make our day or keep us up all night fretting.

Consider how often you’ve heard this bundle of advice: Because writers “lack objectivity,” you must share your work for feedback, be in a critique group, have beta readers pore over your final draft, and/or pay for a professional edit, and you must rewrite, rewrite, rewrite to "fix" all the flaws found by this ragtag army of critics. 

But when does all this input start to be counterproductive? What if the feedback is contradictory, or just feels off? How do we know which notes to take and which to ignore? 

To give feedback on other’s work is a delicate task; to receive feedback...

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how to pop the (dramatic) question

 

Ah, the suspense! Some questions are big ones, with potentially life-changing outcomes. Waiting for the answer makes our hearts race a little faster than usual!

That rush of energy readers feel when a high-stakes question is finally answered is an essential part of good storytelling. In stories, we call these dramatic questions. There's something the readers are waiting to find out, and the outcome matters a lot. Discovering the outcome is why they keep reading. 

Dramatic questions can be peppered all through a narrative, in small, medium, and extra-large sizes. In a well-structured tale, there’s almost certainly a central dramatic question propelling the whole book, from first page to last. 

And yes, I do mean first page! It’s never too soon to let your reader in on what the book is about. But you have to know what that question is, first.

Do you know what the central dramatic question of your book is? Does your reader?...

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delivering the news

 

News overload is a common complaint these days. The world is changing rapidly, and the steady stream of reportage is a lot to keep up with. 

Stories run on news, and by news I mean information. Think about it: everything about your tale is news to the reader. You have to spell it out clearly, from the first line of page one. Who's this story about? What are the rules of the world?  What happened in the past that’s necessary for us to know to understand the present?

Words like backstory and exposition describe the wealth of information you have to somehow get on the page where your reader can see it. But in a forward moving story the news keeps pouring in, as your hero is besieged with unexpected developments, reveals about the true motives of others, clues to mysteries, and plot twists of all kinds. 

Writers need strategies for adding new information on every page. We call this storytelling energy the herald archetype. Herald energy can be as simple...

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how fast should you write?

motivation process Sep 03, 2021
 

I once got annoyed when a colleague casually observed that I was a “slow” writer. I mean, I've published a lot of books. How slow could I be?

Is a writer who takes eighteen months to finish a publishable manuscript really that much slower than a writer who takes three months to scribble a draft that then takes two years of revision to be salable?

We all have our preferred process, and that’s great—but these labels can really get in the way. “How long did it take you to write it?" is asked so frequently of published writers! 

I'm old enough and humble enough to grasp that the popularity of the question is not because anyone is that interested in Maryrose and her deadlines! What’s really being asked is something along the lines of:

How long should it take me to finish a book?

Am I going too slow? I am, aren't I?

WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG? I'm no good, that's the only explanation.

If I were meant...

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how I learned to write

careers goals Aug 31, 2021
 

First, many thanks to the Path of the Storyteller Facebook group member who posed this question to me. It was a valuable nudge!

How did I learn to write? If you keep up with my livestreams and blog posts, you know I talk a great deal about the process of developing as an artist, the complexity of writing good fiction, how most writers start out “writing by ear” and then hit a wall of frustration when the writing that sounds good to them fails to gain traction with agents and editors. 

And there’s that other, equally painful source of frustration: When writers struggle to understand why best writing they feel capable of falls so palpably short of the books they admire most. 

They know what good writing sounds like, looks like, feels like—so why is it so hard to actually do?

Helping writers close that gap is what my commitment to teaching  and mentoring is all about. But how did I close that gap?...

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revising like a pro

 

I’m in a cheery writing mood this week. It’s because I'm putting the finishing touches on a new manuscript. Huzzah!  

Revision is something I truly enjoy. It’s when we writers finally get the satisfaction of seeing the book work! Sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, revision is when we sharpen the storytelling, tighten the screws, and make sure every syllable is earning its place on the page. 

Productive revision gives us the pleasure of finishing a puzzle. Things fall into place. The vessel becomes watertight, ship-shape.  

Drafting is our messy mudpie process. It’s for us. Revision is when we make it work for the reader. 

Which leads me to share this hard truth about revision: Revision is when your level of mastery is revealed.

Why? Because you cannot revise by ear.  

To revise, you need technique. You need a way of knowing with certainty whether the storytelling is crystal clear and...

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shhh! mommy’s writing

 

I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my forties. Did you know that?

I was a single mom with two kids at home. We homeschooled. In the middle of it all, my own mom was struck with a terminal illness and I became her chief caregiver until she passed away. 

I was lucky in that I didn’t also have a full-time job outside the home, but honestly, I could have used one. I taught part-time and wrote part-time and mothered part-time and was a caregiver part-time. There were more parts than time, that’s for sure! 

This is what my life was like while I wrote the early books in the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. I share this with you not because I think it’s shocking or worthy of any special praise, but precisely because it’s so ordinary.

Writers are people. People have lives. Life is busy and full of challenges, and we all wear many, many hats. 

I often hear from writers (mostly women,...

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always tell story

goals story structure Aug 10, 2021
 

We do like to have fun at Path of the Storyteller! For me, part of the fun is inventing ways to remember the many story structure and writing craft precepts we writers need to juggle.

Like the Alec Baldwin Rule. This is a reference to Mr. Baldwin’s iconic scene from the film Glengarry Glen Ross, with script by David Mamet (based on Mamet’s play of the same name). 

If you’re unfamiliar, never fear: this meme-worthy scene is so often quoted that a quick trip to YouTube (search “always be closing”)  will give you many options for watching it. Be warned, it is NSFW, unless you happen to work in in a profanity-laced real estate office selling swampland in Florida. Then, it’s perfect!)

But to the point: Baldwin’s character teaches his team to Always Be Closing. As he puts it: “A Always, B Be, C closing! Always Be Closing!”

Contextually, it’s great advice. Closing deals is the...

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who’s the boss of your book?

 

One of my Path of the Storyteller students recently asked a great question: After making a commitment (which she is nailing, by the way!) to just buckle down and write her draft to the end without looking back, she’s already wondering how to face what she now fears may be an unmanageably sloppy first draft. 

Who can relate? It’s one thing to rewrite a sentence, but how can you not feel overwhelmed by the thought of fixing ALL THE THINGS when what you’re staring at is a sixty thousand word draft?

Deep breaths, my friends. You are the boss of your book. It has no choice but to do what you say.

That’s the subject of this livestream. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed at the prospect of seizing the reins of your runaway draft— or gripped by the fear that your attempts to unravel the knots will only make things worse—this talk will remind you just who’s in charge!


My weekly...

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so, what’s your book about?

 

Ah, the blank page! Writers want to fill it with words, words, and more words, but my hot take on this (and this is what I teach in the Path of the Storyteller program) is that our #1 job as writers is to tell a great story.

It's not that words don't matter. The skillful deployment of language is how we extract that story from our own imaginations and place it in the minds of our readers. The art of storytelling and the art of writing craft are the twin disciplines we all must master if we want to satisfy our readers and write books that are built to last. 

To that end: In this week’s talk we unravel the question that all writers dread:

What’s your book about?

Can you answer that question?

Can you answer it in one sentence?

In other words, do you know what story you're telling?

We can spend a long time scribbling without knowing the answer. In this talk I explain why that is too often the case, and I offer a framework for distilling a specific, useful answer to...

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