Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is

Today, we're going to look at what a story is and how to tell one. It's going to be the crashiest of crash courses, but I think it's important to touch on this, at least briefly. It's my opinion that no amount of networking, no reputation, no endorsement...no amount of anything will sell a story that isn't a story. There are (unfortunately) exceptions to every rule, but they are (blessedly) rare. You may be tempted to say, but Steve, what about the piles and piles of crap published every year? Fair enough. But let's hold off criticizing other writers (especially published writers) until we've done some publishing of our own. It's been my experience that the meanest, most bitter and brutal critics are the ones whose work isn't any good. A good writer knows what it takes to tell a story. They realize even if another writer only gets a story 80% right—if the story has a skeleton it can stand on, even if the skin ain't so pretty—that's still something worthy of respect. This shit is harder than it looks.

There are tons of resources on writing fiction, and I won't even attempt to repeat all that information here. What I'm going to focus on (aside from a few recommendations of books to read and resources to keep in mind—these will come next week) are the macro, big-picture things I've learned through experience. Hopefully, they can save you some time.

First of all, let's get this out of the way. The old question "How do I become a writer?" really only has the one simple (and demonically difficult) answer: "Read a lot, and write a lot." That really is it. Most of the stuff I'm going to tell you, it's the details. It's icing. It's trim. It's freakin' parsley. If you don't read and you don't write, my blog will do nothing for you—and neither will any other resource. Unless you're a genius (trust me; you'd know if you were), you have to work. Once you're writing consistently, all the pieces of information you've picked up along the way will start to click into place, one by one, like cogs in a living machine. But until you start doing the writing part of being a writer, the cogs will just lie there on the floor, looking pretty (perhaps making you sound smart when you talk about how you would have written somebody else's book), but ultimately they'll just collect dust.

"The characterization was thin."
So what is a pro-level story? It's a joke.

I don't mean stories aren't to be taken seriously—quite the opposite. And I'm not saying the concept of a professional story is elitist or outdated (blah blah self-publishing, etc). God no. I'm saying that a pro story is a complete idea that evokes an emotional response, at any length. Have you ever met someone who likes to drag their jokes out with lots of details? What about someone who just tells it, hits the important bits, and gets to the punchline? Both methods work if the joke is a good one. It can be passed along, from person to person, but the core of it remains the same. A pro story is like that. If the concept is good enough, you should be able to get people excited just by explaining it, sometimes in just a sentence or two. A pro story's concept should be so good, people want to tell their friends about it. It should get stuck in their heads. They should say, "Man, why didn't I think of that?"

"So a voice actor lands a job playing an alien actor's roles in television shows captured by SETI satellites, all the while avoiding phone messages from his estranged daughter. When he learns the alien race who made the TV shows have all died in a supernova, he has to record the speech given by the alien actor to his dying people. This painful event gives him the courage he needs to reunite with his daughter, and he learns she has had terminal cancer the whole time.

OMG. It's so hilarious, I could chew my fingers off!"

Basically, when you begin developing a story, you should begin by saying, "What is this? What am I making? What is it supposed to do?" As a writer, you're not just putting down words or expressing yourself or "being creative." You're building an intellectual property. You're turning your thoughts into words into a product you can sell. If this concept makes you uncomfortable, it could be you aren't right for commercial or genre fiction. If, on the other hand, you get excited at the sheer power implied in what I just said—that people will pay you for building a construct of thoughts and letters—then great. We're on the same page; it's a pretty crazy page to be on.

As a beginner, it can be easy to feel like you've got story down; it's just your writing that needs work. I don't know you, but I feel confident in telling you that's probably bullshit. I believed the same thing once, and I spent years trying to teach myself to "write purdy" before I realized that wasn't the important part. The important part was what is the story about and how does it happen?

"Basically, there's this guy..."
Once you know what you want your story to be, it's time to figure out what it is. These aren't always the same; in fact, usually they aren't. Stories in our heads are incorporeal clouds of emotion. They're pristine, unblemished by logic or prying eyes from the outside. Your job as a writer is to take that cloud of emotion and imagery, examine it, throw it away, then try to build something that makes people feel the way you felt when you first had the idea.

But how do you know if your idea is actually worth developing into a story? Well, try explaining it to someone. Trying writing it out in a sentence or two. If you can't do this, I can almost guarantee your story isn't a story; it's still an emotion cloud. At this point you can either abandon it, or build a skeleton to hang it on—a concept that will carry that emotion, a plot to make it move, characters to make it relate-able, and zing to make it sing.

The zing I just mentioned is the only original thing you will ever bring to a story: you. The rest has been done and done, but this is the first time anyone has ever been you, with your unique experiences and perspectives. If I had to pick a most-important piece of advice to give a brand-new writer (other than the ol' "read a lot, write a lot") , it would be this: Put as much of yourself as possible into your writing. Not your life; you. (Autobiography is, almost without exception, dishonest and boring. Avoid it.)

Don't write from your life; write from your personality. Write from your soul. It's all you've really got to offer.

But if you don't have a good story, nobody is going to give shit-one about your soul, so we're back to that. So where do writers come up with good concepts? The dreaded question: Where do you get your ideas? I'm actually going to attempt to answer it.


1) Gather ingredients by living your life and paying attention to the amazing, funny, heart-breaking things that happen all around you, every day.

2) Mix the hell out of them in every imaginable combination.

3) Keep what pops.

I mean it. Mix the shit out of stuff.

It really is that simple. And believe me, if you have any small measure of talent (or humanity), you'll know when something really, truly pops. You'll see one concept line up with another, and suddenly you'll see all the possibilities between them, the tension, the way they play off one another. That's a great feeling.

Take the concept for my first novel (which I can't claim; it was my wife's idea):

"The story is about a guy and girl who take a love potion." Did I lose you? Are you asleep yet? That's not a story, not even close.

Now try this: "The story is about a guy and girl who despise each other. They're tricked into taking a love potion that makes them fall madly in love when they're apart, but not when they're together." Now we've got something to work with. That little twist—they don't want to be in love, they didn't mean to take the potion, and it only works when they're apart—sets the whole thing off. Now they have to be together to be themselves. (Love Potion + Proximity = Neato!) I almost peed myself when Lynna shared this concept with me. The ideas for what to do with it came almost immediately, like someone had turned on a hose. (The pee and hose comments are unrelated.) That's how you should feel when you have a good idea on your hands.

4) Repeat as often as desired, forever and ever, amen. You'll never run out of ideas until the world runs out of shit to show you.

Once you have your concept, the hard (and fun) part begins. You have to make your story into something people can read. You have to manifest it, bring it into existence, give it form. You have to provide it with a world and a chronology and characters. You have to give it tone, pace, and rhythm.You have to make it, and the only way to learn to do this well is with study, love, and loads of practice. Orson Scott Card once told me during one of his workshops, "Every writer has 10,000 pages of complete crap in them. Some writers get those all out in the beginning, and some—like me—insert them a page at a time throughout their career." The other students and I laughed, but we also learned the lesson. You won't improve if you don't write.
This post ended up being (and taking) longer than I expected, so we'll get to the rest of it next week. I'll be recommending some of my favorite books on writing and how to use them to get better. I'll even talk about attending audition-only writing workshops, how to get in, and how to get the most out of them. So be sure to check back in next week for "Chasing the First Sale (Part 3): Becoming a Student of the Job."