People think that all you need to do to be a writer is put pen to paper. Fifteen years ago, I didn’t question that idea, though I should have. As a former software developer, I knew you needed more than just a keyboard to write code. Looking back at 15 years of writing, I see how far I’ve come in my understanding of what makes a writer.
In the beginning, I was a bright-eyed apprentice taking any and all advice and learning what worked for me in the process. I started with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The AP Stylebook, titles recommended by the faculty at the University of Washington Extension’s Certificate in Nonfiction Writing, which I completed in 2006. I thought, if I can get my English to sparkle, then I’m a writer.
During my MFA studies in creative writing (2007 – 2009), I consumed lots of novels but also memoirs of writers sharing their process, such as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I studied tomes on craft: story structure, scene development, character arcs, worldbuilding, rhetoric—too many to list here. My MFA thesis was a mess, of course.
When I started another novel, I tried pantsing it—and that was a disaster that took years to fix and led me to embrace outlining, culminating in the method described in Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. I joined writing groups and took dozens of writing classes at Hugo House in Seattle. When I wrote a thriller, I read three different craft books just about thrillers. Some of these twists and turns are documented on this eight-year-old website.
Last year, I thought I got it, I had finally developed my own writing process that worked for me, even though it didn’t quite match anything I’d studied before. Then I found Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere), described on the back of the book in these words:
“The prevailing wisdom in the writing community is that there are just two ways around this problem: pantsing (winging it) and plotting (focusing on the external plot). Story coach Lisa Cron has spent decades discovering why these methods rarely work and coming up with a powerful alternative, based on the science of what our brains are wired to crave in every story we read (and it’s not what you think).”
I read Story Genius and it resonated with me, more than anything else before. So, for my work-in-progress, an adult science fiction I started two months ago, I adopted Lisa Cron’s method of blueprinting a novel. And for a moment all was well with the world. I thought I had finally covered all the bases. But I was wrong.
A few days ago, I started reading Erik Bork’s The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction, recommended by my wonderful friend, author Karen Hugg.
“I would say that 60 percent or more of what makes a project potentially successful (or not) is the core idea that could be communicated in a short synopsis of a few sentences up to a single page. And this is all that industry professionals will generally be willing to look at to consider whether they want to read further.
“Think of it: 60 percent of what’s most important to our chances is what is contained in that mini-pitch of our basic idea. It’s mostly not about all those months of outlining, writing, rewriting, and getting feedback—that’s not the most important part. The most important part is what comes before all that.” (p. 14)
Which doesn’t come as a surprise. I’ve been in the querying and submission trenches for years now and I know that most agents and editors never look at my pages if the pitch doesn’t speak to them. But I thought designing the pitch came only after creating a flawless manuscript.
“If there’s nothing else you take from this book, please take this ’60 percent’ figure and reconfigure your efforts toward ‘basic idea’ development accordingly. Spend more time and energy on ideas. Make it your number one goal as a writer to learn what makes a great one and to get better at generating them.
“Once you have an idea that really works, and you feel reasonably sure (because you’ve vetted it thoroughly with others), then, and only then, does it make sense to turn to the other 40 percent of the process.” (p. 15)
That 40 percent? That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. That 40 percent is what Lisa Cron covers in Story Genius. Her method starts with a few questions we aren’t meant to get right from the start: When did the first glimmer of inspiration for this book appear? Why do you care to write it? What is your point in writing it? What’s your what-if?
The last question on the list would be “The Idea,” but we don’t spend time refining it. We just put it on our radar, then start building our protagonist’s backstory. Two months ago, I thought a vague idea was all I needed to begin working on my novel. I’ve been following Lisa Cron’s blueprinting process ever since with no desire to start writing scenes any time soon. I now have a 32,000-word document that’s just scribbles about the story: character bios, backstory, the obstacles my protagonist will face, his wants and needs, scene sketches—and all my worldbuilding research. That’s a long way from just putting pen to paper and letting it all flow, à la Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
Reading The Idea, I realized that even my newest approach was premature—though fortunately not throwaway work. Before continuing to build my story, I needed to focus on the logline (which distills the premise of the novel down to the basic problem being faced, in a sentence or two) and the pitch (a couple of paragraphs that form the body of a query letter), and see if my idea was any good. Was it “high-concept”? Did it cover the PROBLEM acronym for a good story (Punishing, Relatable, Original, Believable, Life-altering, Entertaining, and Meaningful)? What will my writing group think about it? That’s putting the horse before the carriage—finally.
Hemant Nayak, a writer friend of mine, told me that he always starts with the pitch. “I need to know that I can sell it to myself first.” I wish this kind of wisdom came my way earlier and saved me years of hard, fruitless work. To think that I once believed that all you needed to write was pen and paper… But that doesn’t matter now. I’ve learned from my failures. Sometimes, I see myself on a Story Circle, defeated again and again but not giving up and staying in the game. The odd thing is, with each setback, I want to get better and better at writing. My next stop is The Futurescapes Workshop in March, where we will critique each other’s queries and synopses. In other words, we’ll focus on “The Idea.”
Erik Bork’s advice rings true to me today. So, did I finally cover all my bases? There’s no answer to that, obviously. As long as we write, we keep learning. Looking back at 15 years of trial and error, years where so many times I thought I finally got it, it’s realistic to say that the next 15 might be more of the same. Looking forward to them.