Searching for a New Approach to Writing a Novel:
Ideas and Lessons Learned from Story Genius
Madness is often defined as doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results. Why should I approach writing the same way again? Is it a lack of persistent effort that has prevented me from finding success as a writer or is there a problem with my methodology? When I tell stories to friends of my travels, when I write summaries of the latest adventure for my Dungeons and Dragon’s group, I am often completed on my writing and story telling abilities. When I put together a presentation for my peers or explain a concept, whether to friends, colleagues or the primary school children to whom I typically teach, I am often praised for the engaging manner in which I break down a large, difficult concept, into accessible and digestible language and ideas. So why is it that when I write my prose is laborious and florid? Why are my characters flat, two-dimensional and unbelievable? Why are my stories, especially my longer works, ultimately dull and painful to read?
At some point in time I realised that this was because there was something about writing that I didn’t understand. I read books on writing, seeking advice and betters ways to do things. I joined LitReactor and even took an online course. (I didn’t want to get further into debt taking an MFA) I edited and re-edited my work, accepting that all first drafts were shit and that if I kept on at it, polishing away, I’d eventually have a diamond. My labours weren’t for nothing but they didn’t result in having a truly compelling story. They resulted in having slightly more succinct stories that were increasingly constructed of elaborate, beautiful and poetic prose. Arguably, the prose was better. It was certainly more ornate but the story was the same. Dull. A series of events happening to characters who you didn’t care about. Worse still the language had become so heavy that you needed to wield a battle axe to cut through it. Ultimately I gave up and was left with the overwhelming certainty that, although I could write, I might not have what it takes to tell a story that matters.
Why was this the case? This conclusion frustrated the hell out of me, after all, Dan Brown, E. L. James and Stephanie Myer have all written tremendously success novels without being the most talented, literary writers. In some cases, their writing is even objectively bad, and yet their novels were able to engage with hundreds of millions of readers. Did they hoodwink millions of people into reading shitty stories or is there something else going on? My prose is better than theirs, at least in places, so why can’t I write a damn book that’s worth reading? Maybe this is why I’m here again, writing away, quacking in the dark perhaps, and planning to somehow do better.
To Somehow Do Better
This is what I’ve set out to achieve. I know my ideas are good but that my characters suck. There’s elements of brilliance in there but that’s it. Just brilliant notions that don’t add together to make a character. At best, my characters are elements of myself, extracted from memory and constructed from words on the page. They are not living organic characters and I though I try, I seemingly unable to sever them from myself. How to rectify this?
I began work on The Boy, The Shadows and The Numb (again) a few weeks ago, rereading many of my original notes and liking some of what I’d written. A few days ago I began working on characters, knowing that I needed to figure out what they wanted. I had no problem doing this with two of my villains, but when I reached my protagonists, I immediately became stuck. After spending yesterday staring at the page I found myself beginning to search the internet for new information, for some new angle from which to approach the problem.
I got angry with myself. Only three days into writing and I was already wasting time, wanting to read about writing instead actually doing it. A writer writes, an idea I got from Stephen King, and that sometimes all you had to do was sit in the chair and put in the work. The answers weren’t in a book, they were in experience. I’m sure there’s some truth to that but I already felt like I was going mad. How did I know that I wasn’t about to spend the next year labouring away in the same way, with the same result, as last time? I didn’t and worse, I think the probably outcome would’ve been the same.
I was torn between Pantsing and Plotting. I’d tried both an neither had worked, but that was all there was, wasn’t there? Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius, suggests otherwise.
First Up – A New Rule : Learning About Writing IS Writing
I have always been so focused on producing writing that I have never credited time spent learning about the craft as time spent writing. Whenever I have set out goals for my writing I have always subscribed to the idea of a fixed word limit, typically 1000 words a day, as the ideal way to measure the day’s success.
This strategy meant that I produced a lot of writing but most of it was garbage and I rarely felt satisfied or accomplished. It was a terrible way to measure my success and it only created an environment where I heaped so much pressure on myself to produce something worth reading that I ultimately collapsed and gave up. I ran away from my writing setup and went travelling. When I returned, I couldn’t bring myself to get back into it, and so I went back home to Australia where I knew I would quickly be drawn into teaching and consumed. 8 days after beginning teaching I had been offered a full time position. Writing ceased and three years later, here I am.
The new rule is this: studying writing, by reading non-fiction or fiction with a critical eye, by writing analyses of what you are learning, IS writing and should be viewed with the same sense of accomplishment as a thousand words of prose.
This new rule makes me happy because it means that I’ve spent my afternoon well. I’ve read the first part of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and it has given me some new ideas. Plus, I’ve written this.
Story Genius – Part I: What a Story Is, And What It Isn’t
Cron writes that two of the biggest problems writers face is that they typically don’t understand what a story is and they have most likely been poorly educated by misleading advice from writers who aren’t good teachers. Just as we all have an innate understanding of how to walk, many highly accomplished writers out there have an innate understanding of how to craft a good story. Just because they understand it doesn’t mean they can explain it.
Misconceptions on what makes a good story have resulted in two problematic schools of thought, Pantsing (writing with no plan and allowing the story to come to you) and Plotting (planning the structure of the story scene by scene, often following predefined structure guides).
I’ve tried doing both. When Pantsing, I managed to write a terrible novel and an equally terrible novella. When plotting, I managed to write pages and pages of notes detailing an immensely complicated world, with countless ‘plot points’, that were an utter mess. I couldn’t bring myself to write the damn thing because although I knew what I was supposed to be writing I also knew that my characters sucked.
Cron writes ‘A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.’ She goes on to explain that it’s context that bestows meaning and defines what matters, and that this past is the first half of the story. The half that occurs before page one and that is incorporated into the story as needed by the character revealing aspects of their past, through their memories, through their actions, fears and accomplishments.
Pantsing provides zero context for the things that occur and as such, novels written by pantsing will require extensive rewriting from page one in order to attempt to retrofit context. This seems extraordinarily laborious and may explain why Stephen King’s novels are typically so long.
Plotters typically approach structure from the point of view of determining external events. The scene that challenges the character, the scene where they encounter their mentor, etc. But how can you write scenes that challenge the protagonist in a meaningful way if you don’t know who they are? ‘Outlining the plot first,’ Cron says, ‘is like saying, “I’m going to write about the most difficult, life altering series of events in the life of someone whom I know absolutely nothing about.”’
Cron returns to discuss the importance of spending time unearthing ‘the first half’ of your novel, the half that occurs before page 1, and at this point, I’m excited to have a new approach to try. Often when I read writing books I’m disappointed to find that I’m reading the same ideas but presented in a newer way. I usually put these books down and, feeling quite despondent, end up questioning my ability to write. So far, it’s refreshing to read about an approach that is genuinely different and that deliberately rejects both Pantsing and Plotting.
More on Story Genius as I read it.