I don’t remember the first time I tried to tell a story. My mother always maintained it was about forty seconds after I said “mama’. I’m inclined to doubt her on this one point, since it takes more than a word or two to make a story. Still, by the time I was six or so, it was my duty and delight to tell Mom a bed time story each night. And, like bed time stories everywhere, my tales did the trick: Mom never stayed awake to the end. That might be satisfying – or just a relief – when you’re a parent. It feels a whole lot less satisfying when it’s my stories that put my audience to sleep. Obviously, I had to improve.
I spent my youth and early adulthood working through the ten thousand ways that stories don’t work. I experimented with POVs; came up with intriguing, intellectually stimulating plots that disregarded mundane things like logic or character or development. Then I tried ignoring plot altogether – character was the thing! Always, I could feel the story I was trying to get out. I could feel the wrenching emotions of my characters. I just couldn’t get the damned stuff to come across on the page. My readers – Mom, my Grandmother, and any unlucky cousin too slow out the door – tended to wander off within a page or two. Or worse, fell asleep.
It’s a testament to just how deep the need to tell my stories ran that I kept on trying. Non-fiction was no problem: in college, I wrote an early environmental fairy tale that was picked up by the State of NJ for its grammar school curriculum. I scripted TV programs for the school. And I kept writing stories. Only now my audience consisted of college professors. The universal advice: stick to non-fiction, kid.
So I did. I went on to earn a Master’s in Communication (Journalism, what else?) from Stanford. I freelanced feature articles for newspapers up and down the East Coast, did a cover story for Science Digest, and features for magazines ranging from ‘Peninsula’ to ‘Mankind’. I built up a portfolio, but my bank account stayed close to empty.
I finally got tired of living on the border of bankruptcy. I moved to L.A., developed a career in insurance for the Hollywood crowd. I had one huge advantage over other agents: everybody else believed that selling life insurance is the hardest sell on the planet. I knew better. Compared to trying to sell my stories, getting somebody to put money down on his own death was child’s play. I built a career, earned a good reputation. By the time I left to start my own agency I was representing Hollywood lawyers under pension audit to the IRS. (A job, I might add, that is guaranteed to make one sympathize with the tax man.)
It wasn’t until my whole family died that I realized I had to either figure out how to make my stories work or go not-so-quietly crazy. So I threw myself into really studying what makes a story work. I took classes: UCLA extension, post-grad Professional Writing classes at USC, where I had the great good fortune to study under Hollywood’s structural guru, Syd Field. I found a professional caliber writer’s group that was willing to let me in. I wrote stories and turned them in to be shredded. Only now, finally, I had critics who told me why my stories didn’t work:
- No conflict
- No clear protagonist
- No clear antagonist
- No desire line for the protagonist
- No character development
- No plot development
- Faulty structure and/ or pacing
- All of the above
I asked questions. I rewrote. Listened to my best effort get shredded. Again. Re-rewrote. Swore, pounded desks, swore some more. Tried whiskey; didn’t help. Drunk may have worked for Joyce, but it only rendered my stuff incomprehensible. But over time, slowly, I learned what makes a story tick. I learned it’s not any one element of character or plot or structure but all of them together, weaving in and out and around each other within the DNA strand of the story world. I learned why generalities don’t work for characters and their motivations. I learned to hate and cherish the question ‘why?’.
And if I learned nothing else it was that writing in and of itself is not the way to improve your story-telling skills. Simply writing and rewriting without honest, critical feedback only hardens errors into bad habits. Nobody can teach you the NEED to tell stories; that’s a divine gift. But effective, emotionally powerful story telling is a craft. To make your stories affect readers the way you intend, you need the guidance of writers and editors who can analyze your work and explain the elements you’re missing. Why? Because, pure and simple, no writer can see those mistakes on his or her own. We’re just too close to the material.
The good news is that today it’s easier than ever to find honest, critical feedback:
- Join a FB writers group (where better to start than our own Sci Fi Roundtable?)
- Put your stories up for critique. Note that’s a critique, not an Amazon review. Your first (and second and …) draft is just a starting point, not the finished product. As Hemingway supposedly said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
- LISTEN to the critiques! A good critique will NEVER take aim at you personally, but having your best work-to-date reduced to rubble still hurts. Accept it – and get better.
- Remember that your story MUST stand on its own two feet. Readers can never feel what you did putting the words down unless those words make them feel it.
- Resubmit to your critique circles. When your story is as good as you can make it, then hire a professional editor to critique it.
- Then LISTEN to your editor! It will hurt (trust me on this one!) but listen anyway.
And finally, the day will come when a beta reader picks up your story and feels what you felt. There are precious few thrills on Earth to match the feeling.
And then it’s time to take everything you’ve learned up another level with your next story.