steering the craft

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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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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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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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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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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don’t reinvent me

story structure Jul 19, 2021

Whenever someone joins my mailing list, I send them a brief survey so I can hear what their most burning questions about writing might be.

You’ve probably taken this survey yourself. (If you haven’t, please do! Here’s the link.)

Do you wonder what most writers say? Well, I’ll tell you. Overwhelmingly, writers want help with two things:

  • Discipline. They want to write but simply don’t. They give reasons, but the self-diagnosis is always this: A lack of discipline.
  • Story structure. Creative people are full of ideas. However, as most of us have discovered the hard way, an idea for a story is not the same thing as a fully developed plot with beginning, middle, and end. 

These are the top two, without question. And they may sound like two different problems, but they’re not.

How so? Consider that it takes zero discipline to do things that you A) know how to do and B) that you know when to do (in other words,...

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when does your story begin?

 

Daybreak is a lovely thing to watch unfold, but the actual sunrise happens in the span of a single breath.

One moment the sun is beneath the horizon; the next, it’s above. If you’re the sort of early-bird person who likes to know what time the sunrise is slated to occur, you can look it up and get an answer that’s timed to the minute.

Your story, too, has a precise moment of beginning. The hijinks in your fictional world may have started eons ago; your hero may have been destined for glory since the fateful day she was born.

But there’s one particular moment in which you, the writer and decider of these things, choose to open the curtain. You choose the exact day, minute, and millisecond in which we readers get our first glimpse of your hero breaking over the horizon, so to speak. 

Often, writers struggle to know what that momentous first scene should be. There’s so much we want the reader to know! 

With the best...

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third acts that work

 

It’s the eleventh hour. The big finish. The grand finale.

In other words, it’s the third act!

We writers know that a lot is riding on the ending of our tales. It’s where all the threads we’ve woven into our story must coalesce into a coherent pattern of meaning and resolution. We want to give our reader the deep satisfaction of watching the puzzle pieces fall into place in a way that’s both surprising and inevitable. 

This is no mere solving-the-Rubik's-cube exercise. Great third acts satisfy emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. The third act is where our hero demonstrates, through word and deed, that she is not the same person she was at the beginning of the tale. This story has meant something, not only for our fictional protagonist,  but for the reader who’s taken the long and difficult journey with her.

Sounds easy, no? I kid. Third acts are long in the making and...

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writing for the reader

 

I do get a little cranky sometimes about all the ADVICE out there that’s aimed at writers. 

I say that as someone who gives a lot of advice to writers myself. I take this role seriously because I take good writing seriously, just as I take the courage and vulnerability of those who feel called to write seriously. 

No one falls into the profound work of storytelling at the level of mastery by accident. Instruction and mentorship are invaluable. The giving and taking of advice is a necessary thing.

But that said: Who are we trying to please when we write? Agents? Editors? Random advice-givers on social media, or pros sitting on panels at writing conferences?

Are we writing to please ourselves only? Or is there someone else out there whom we ought to be keeping in mind? That’s the topic of today’s discussion. 


My weekly livestream happens on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays here on the blog.

To...

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does your hero need a makeover?

 

This is one of my favorite livestreams to date. Listen in as I unpack my not-so-guilty pleasure of watching makeover videos on YouTube. If you want to apply a soothing facial mask while you watch, all the better!

But here’s what we learn from it all: Story means change. Not just on the outside, but on the inside, too. Call it a spiritual makeover!

We readers (or viewers) come for that transformation. The bigger the change is, the better we like it. 

And we we’ll always root hardest for a hero who’s in most desperate need of a shift. 


My weekly livestream is on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays here on the blog.

To watch live and ask questions, you can join the Path of the Storyteller Facebook group right here.

Or subscribe to the YouTube channel here. 

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