It’s Okay To Be You

Hello Writers!
One of the things I love most is when a writer says, “Whoa, I was looking for my protagonist’s defining misbelief, and I discovered my own.”
Once again, in literature as in life! Turns out we all have defining misbeliefs – that is, beliefs about human nature that turn out to be mistaken, even though early in life they sure seemed true. But from then on out, they’re often the very thing that holds us back from getting what we most want, so spotting them can be life-altering.
Life is full of such defining moments – moments when a misbelief springs into being, moments when a driving desire is born, moments when, suddenly, we see the world very differently than we did just a second before.
As writers we dig deep to create such seminal moments for our characters. In life, they are all around us – we just have to be on the lookout for them. They tend to be very simple, almost mundane – and yet they change how we see everything, including ourselves.
To illustrate this truth, here are three such moments I stumbled upon a week ago in the lives of real people:
The following is from a NY Times article titled “Because I was a Girl,” and it’s a perfect example of a gut wrenching moment that changed how one person saw the world, and what she then did from that moment on. That person is Sherry Knowlton, 65, of Newville, PA. I’ve bolded the meaning – and the transformative power – that she drew from one, single event.
In high school, I applied to be a Senate page. I can still remember my disappointment when I received the reply from Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania that girls were not permitted to serve as pages. I was a straight-A student, among the top in my class, active in the school newspaper, a bit of an overachiever. But I wouldn’t even be considered because I was a girl. I was devastated. And then I got angry. My resolve to approach life with the belief that I could achieve anything I wanted rose out of the ashes of that defeat. It took me far in my career in state government and the health insurance industry, and now as a suspense author. Along the way, I’ve encountered other gender roadblocks — many insurmountable. But few affected me as much as the one from Senator Scott. I can still remember standing in our dining room after school and tearing open the letter with the fancy gold Senate seal — only to find I’d been rejected. Not because I wasn’t qualified, but because I was born female. I’m getting angry all over again, 50 years later, as I write this.

From the same article, here’s a perfect example of how we can look back to our early seminal moments, and see them for what they really were (this one made me cry). It’s from Amanda Beam, 41, of Lanesville, Indiana.
Growing up, I lived with my grandparents in a small Indiana town. My Papa raised chickens, not to eat, but to show. Each August, he would load crate after crate of chickens into his covered pickup truck and make the trek across the river to the Kentucky State Fair. When I was 8 or 9, Papa encouraged me to raise a few on my own. My grandfather wasn’t a feminist in the traditional sense, but he taught me lessons that stayed with me. When I entered the chickens into competition, he advised me to go by my initials: “A.D. Hillard.”
“Why?” I remember asking, while fluffing a white banty hen with a hair dryer.
“Because then they won’t know you are a girl,” he replied.
Youth prohibited me from understanding this simple suggestion, but later on I realized Papa was talking about more than a chicken contest. He was teaching me about life.
And finally, paraphrased from the Huffington Post, here’s the moment when a little boy’s misbelief – one instilled by the world around him – was overturned by a man who very well may be the real Santa Claus. That is, if heart has anything to do with it.

Just before Christmas in 2015 six-year-old Landon Johnson went to the River Town Crossings Mall in Grandville, MI with his family. While there, he and his cousins took turns chatting with Santa, sharing their Christmas wishes.

After telling Santa he wanted a Wii, a toy dinosaur and a remote control car, Landon hopped off Santa’s lap to rejoin his family.

But Landon was worried. He had often been told he was “naughty.” He’d get stares for being too loud in the grocery story, at school he was always getting in trouble. Strangers everywhere didn’t hesitate to ask, “Why do you need to be so naughty?”

That’s why, a few moments later, Landon ran back up to Santa. His arms were twitching in anticipation and pure adrenaline. He was going to ask something that made him very nervous.
"Will my autism put me on the naughty list?"

Santa took the time to listen to Landon’s worries, holding the boy’s hands soothingly all the while. “You know I love you and the reindeer love you and it’s OK. You’re a good boy,” Santa said, “You’re a good boy, you know.”

Then he said the words we all want to hear: “It’s okay to be you.”

His mom, Naomi, was watching. “Seeing Landon’s face light up in that moment was just incredible. I couldn’t stop crying.” 

Me either. Because this is what we live for – those profound, unexpected, often quiet moments that, yes, change everything. That’s what we come to story for: new ways to look at old problems, beliefs, fears, ourselves.

Life taught Landon that he was naughty, and summoning the courage to ask Santa about it couldn’t have been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But look what he gained.

My advice: start looking for these moments everywhere – in novels, in newspaper articles, in the stories your family tells as the holidays pounce, and in your own life’s story.

They’ll not only help you become a better writer, but hey, they might unleash a whole, new you.


Giving Thanks for Stories

Hello Writers,

Yesterday was Thanksgiving here in the states. Some of us had warm, savory family feasts full of laughter and hugs. Some of us had to work overtime to keep the table from erupting into open warfare. Some of us were alone, wishing we weren’t, some were alone and glad of it. For some of us it was a cruel reminder of how hard it is to put food on the table, period.

We all have stories – be they happy, sad, heart wrenching, or hopeful. And holidays are when we tell them, and often when they are made.

The aching beauty of it is: each story is utterly unique (even if on the surface they seem the same), because none of us experiences that dinner in the exact same way, even when we sit at the same table, and eat the same meal. Each of us has our own hard won perspective, built by our individual past, which created our own unique way of seeing things.

In other words: each of us has our own decoder ring. And stories are how we share them. 

We share experience not simply by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, but by experiencing life through their eyes. Who knows, maybe at that gathering yesterday a story you told allowed someone else to see life through your eyes, and in so doing, shifted their worldview. 

Then again, there is something to be said for walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Especially crazy Uncle Bill’s. Because, as Groucho Marx so sagely pointed out, “Then you’re a mile away. And you have his shoes.”


That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it

Hello Writers!
Why do we write? Why are we writers? I believe the answer is, because we want to change the world. Because we have something we feel it’s important to say, a point to make about human nature, a bit of inside intel that we believe will give our readers insight, and help them navigate this beautiful, cruel, awe-filled mortal coil.
Because as writers we understand that all stories are a call to action.
That is precisely why we’re wired for story; stories are how we make sense of the world around us. Not metaphorically, but literally. It’s biological. Stories are the world’s first virtual reality -- fMRI studies have shown that when you’re lost in a story the same areas of your brain light up that would if you were doing what the protagonist is doing. You. Really. Are. There. Stories mainline meaning, and help us understand, and feel, the “why” beneath the “what.”
Stories are how we begin to understand each other. Stories are how we come together.  Stories are how we find the common humanity in all of us.
And, sometimes, stories are how we discover that what we thought was true, isn’t. Which can be the most important discovery of all. But only if writers have the courage to be vulnerable, and speak up for what they believe, knowing that there will be those who disagree.
It’s not about being right, it’s about being open. It’s about listening to each other, especially when we disagree.
And that means owning what we believe. Not couching it.  There is no “safe space” if by safe it’s meant neutral.  As Elie Wiesel said: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Going one step further, the goal isn’t to vilify the person, or group, seen as the oppressor or the tormentor, but to understand why they believe what they do. That is the heart and soul – and power -- of story.
So, with that in mind, full disclosure: I believe that the political, the personal, and the professional are one thing. I am not a business. I am a person. And I believe that our country has taken a frightening turn.  And that the only way to turn things around is for us to come together and share our visions, our beliefs, and the “why” behind what we believe, what we do, how we see the world. Without that, we will remain a nation divided, each side deeply suspicious of the other.
I know that there may be some people who will unfollow me now. You may simply flat out disagree, or you may feel that this isn’t the space for this kind of talk. And that is fine. I respect that.
But what I hope is that those of you who might want to unfollow me, will instead open a dialogue with me, so we can better understand each other.
It’s hard to say that, and it’s hard to do.  But at the end of the day, I believe it’s not only what will save us, but it’s the thing that will ultimately give us the most joy.  Here’s to camaraderie, and working together.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Empathy and understanding

Hi Writers,
I’m writing right now from the heart – one that hurts, and I know to say that makes me vulnerable, and that’s okay. It’s been a hard few days.
What I’m writing about is story, which always comes from the heart.
That’s why the first thing writers must ask themselves when they start a new story is: what’s my point? Because all stories make a point from the very first sentence. A point about human nature. The point is what you want your readers to walk away thinking about. It’s what you want them to walk away feeling. It’s what you believe, deeply, about the world. It’s the change you want to see in the world.
The second question is: why does this story matter to you? Why do you care? What makes this important to you? Because it has to be important to you, or else it will be so easy to let it go when the going gets rough. And it will, because writing is hard, and because we all have that little voice in our head that says, “Really, that’s what you’re writing about? Do you actually think anyone else will care? And plus, sheesh, you call that a sentence?” And when you tell that voice to shut the heck up, it then resorts to bribes: what about a nice nap? A snack? That new show streaming on Netflix?
Knowing why what you’re writing about matters deeply to you is what will keep you writing, against all odds (real and imagined).
Is it worth it? Only if you want to change the world. Because that’s what stories do, they change the world, one reader at a time. Studies have shown that stories can rewire our brains to have more empathy.
And right now, given the grave divisions in our country, empathy is what we need. Empathy and understanding.  As Toni Morrison so said eloquently:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.
That’s why, right now, I feel incredibly honored to be able to help writers to do just that.
Thank you for what you do.  At the end of the day, your story just may make the difference.

One Story Can Change Your View

One thing I’m pretty sure of as you read this on Friday, 11/4 – in one way or another, the election next week is on your mind. Maybe you’re trying as best you can to forget it for a moment (good luck with that). Or maybe, like me, you’re metaphorically biting your nails.

But regardless who you’re voting for, I bet one thing you’ve asked yourself over and over, is WHY would anyone vote for the other candidate? How did they make that decision?

Was it a rational analysis of every policy statement each candidate has offered? Yeah, I’m joking.

Was it an assessment of the objective facts? Yep, joking again, since in this election cycle it seemed impossible to even agree on what any of the facts actually were.

Instead, what tends to change our minds, what tends to sway us, what tends to burn through all those facts, is . . . story.

One story – which has nothing to do with the election, the facts, the issues – can do the trick.

Story is the prime mover in our lives. Why? Because stories personify what those facts can do to us, personally.

Here is a story of how one man made up his mind. This is not about who he chose to vote for, it’s about how he arrived at the decision. This is a comment that I stumbled upon, made in response to Gail Collin’s November 3rd op-ed in New York Times: 

From: Steven Learn

I write this comment as an Independent. 

My first choice for President was Martin O’Malley. I don’t early vote; I wait until the election day. Too many skeletons come out at the end. 

I made my choice yesterday and it had nothing to do with Politics or Debates.

As a Father, I was saddened to hear about an 11-year-old girl with cancer who was merciless teased. 

She was called “Crooked Mouth” by schoolmates. This 11-year-old girl committed suicide on Monday, she could no longer stand the constant teasing.

I am a Father of a teen daughter. I don’t like people who make fun of other people. I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

Politics aside, this is a testament to the power of story. Story gives us insight into the world around us, and, in this case, into ourselves as well.

The heartbreaking story of what that little girl did – and why she did it – changed how this man saw the election. And, I’d wager, it taught him something about himself in the bargain.

Stories change how we see the world, that’s their job. I’m not speaking metaphorically here, I mean that literally. It’s the reason we’re wired for story – stories take big ideas, abstract facts and dry concepts and transform them into something personal, specific and concrete. Thus allow they us to experience the way those facts would affect us, in action, in our lives.

And when I say story, I mean all stories – whether we’re talking about novels, short stories, movies, TV, newspaper articles, memoirs, op-ed comments or the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how the world works.

This is a good time to remember that the stories we encounter change how we see the world, every minute of every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.

And that as a storyteller, you probably have way more power than you know.


Mystery, Solved!

Two weeks ago we were taking about novels, and series in particular, with a main character who’s a detective, police investigator, prosecutor, bounty hunger, spy or quirky elderly librarian whose always stumbling over pesky dead bodies – that is to say, novels in which the story isn’t necessarily about an internal change that person goes through, but rather, on how she solves a crime.

This week we’re going to talk about a real crime. That is: the crime perpetuated by the notion that you can write about how someone solves a crime that you know even less about than they do.

Winging it when writing a mystery of any kind is about as effective as trying to cross a bridge that hasn’t been built yet. It’s a process that, for the writer, tends to culminate in a moment akin to the one forever epitomized by Wile E. Coyote, who after running full speed off a cliff, hangs in mid-air for a split second as it dawns on him that the only way to go is down, and then plummets. Uh oh.

Yet writers are often encouraged to leap onto page one with only the most rudimentary notion of what actually happened, crime-wise, other than that, hey, I already told you, there’s a dead body. The problem is understandable, because since we read a book beginning on page one, it’s seems laughably logical to assume that we start writing a book on page one too. Right?

Wrong. As I’m embarrassingly fond of saying, all stories begin in medias res – in the middle of the thing. Meaning: page one of the novel is actually the middle of the story. And mysteries and thrillers of all kinds – think courtroom dramas, police procedurals, even speculative fiction full of wars, battles and political intrigue – offer a perfect example of why that is true.

When you stop and think about it, writing forward without first figuring out – in detail - exactly what the mystery is seems kind of crazy. I mean, how can you send your detective in to investigate a crime when you don’t know exactly what happened? How can she look for clues when you don’t know what the clues are? How can she look for witnesses when you don’t know what those witnesses actually saw? Or, for that matter, who they are?

You can’t. Sure, your detective won’t know for sure till the end. But YOU need to know from the very beginning.

Think of it this way: Although our criminal justice system is based on notion that a person is “presumed innocent until proven guilty” in reality that presumption is meaningless. Because in reality, it’s already a done deal: the person on trial either did it, or they didn’t. End of story.

Which is almost always where the novel begins -- with the detective trying to figure out what already happened. And, far more intriguing – why.

That’s why, when it comes to mysteries and thrillers of all kinds, whether one-offs in which the protagonist almost always does change, or a series where she doesn’t really change much at all -- there’s always something that you need to figure out WAY before you get to page one: the mystery itself. The crime. The hot mess of intrigue you’re about to fling your intrepid protagonist into.

In other words: while to your protagonist – and to your reader – it’s a puzzle, to you it can’t be. To you it’s simply: what actually happened.  It’s the mystery, solved!

And lest you think, okay, that’s straightforward, just a matter of figuring out the external logistics of the crime – not so fast! Because you need to plumb the psyche of the bad guy, the villain, the misguided dope, the one who everybody’s after, just the same way you do your protagonist’s.

The perp, after all, has a story-specific past that gave them a motive, an irresistible reason why they're doing the dastardly thing they’re doing.

And that, too, is something that you need to know from the get-go, because that’s what spurs everything they’ll do in the novel (not to mention everything they’ve already done, since most mysteries open after a crime has been committed).  The why is not only what your protagonist will be trying to figure it out – it’s what your reader is dying to know, too. Readers don’t just want to know what the bad guy did. They want to know WHY.

Sadly, this is something we see all too often in the real world – when an atrocity happens, what is it that we always asks? We don't want to know about what happened, because we already know that. The headlines are blazing with it. Want we to know is: Why did that guy do it? What was his motive? And we want something far deeper than “Well he was angry because he had a deeply troubled life.” What we want to know is: what, specifically, caused him to believe what he believed, setting him on the path that led him to do this horrific thing?

That's what we come to story for. The real reason something happened. Because that's what gives us savvy inside Intel, the better to navigate our own lives, and hopefully stay out of trouble (or at least not get caught).


Everybody Ticks, Even Jack Reacher

Hello Writers!

I did an interview today with the fabulous Joanna Penn for her podcast, The Creative Penn (it’ll go live in a few weeks, I’ll keep you posted), and she asked one of my favorite questions, because it lets me dig into something that writers are often curious about.

Joanna led with (and yes, this is a paraphrase): You say that the story is about how the plot forces the protagonist to change internally – they enter with a longstanding desire and a misbelief that’s kept them from fulfilling it, and then the plot forces them to go after that thing they want, but to have a chance at getting it, they have to change internally. That is, they have to finally recognize their misbelief for what it is: wrong. But what if you’re writing a series – say a detective series – and your main character, the detective, doesn’t change? At least not that much. Plus, the novel isn’t about her or him, but about the crime that is solved. What then? Do you really need to dig into their past before you start writing?”
The answer is yes! (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?)

Because whether or not the detective changes (and often they do in ways large and small) they will always have a defining belief -- one that drives them, gives them insight, and that they sometimes wrestle with. For instance, Adam Dalgliesh, PD James’ detective, is defined by his wife's death.

I know, it’s a staple of the genre, right? I grew up on those old TV shows where the lead detective is driven because his wife and child died tragically -- something that often he feels responsible for. In Dalgliesh’s case he lost his wife in childbirth, and it’s defined him ever since. He’s affected by the emotional residue of her death, and what she meant to him, from the first novel until the last in the series, The Private Patient, when he finally remarries.

Similarly, Elizabeth George's Inspector Thomas Lynley is defined throughout the series by his decision to break from his claustrophobic aristocratic past – something he struggles with, and that can’t help but affect how he sees the world. In later books his outlook and demeanor change dramatically once his beloved wife dies (note to fictional wives: think twice before you marry that dashing detective, just saying).
It was that kind of character change that drew George to writing a detective series in the first place: “I chose to do a series because as a reader I love series, I always have ever since I was a child, but only series where the characters move and change through time. That's what I wanted to do.” And that’s exactly what she did.

But what about a series in which the protagonist doesn’t change? Can’t we just forget all this messy digging into their past and leap into the first juicy crime?


Even with those detectives who won’t change an iota – think: Jack Reacher, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple -- you still need to know what the past has revealed to them about how the world works. Why? Because that’s what creates the internal lens through which they’re going to analyze the fate of all those dead bodies the world will continue tossing at them (and by the world, I mean you).

After all, that’s what detectives do -- they try to figure out who did what and, even more riveting, why. And their analysis is based on the same thing we all base our analysis on: what our past experience has taught us to look for, and diving deeper, what those things we uncover might reveal about the world around us.

That’s why my answer to Joanna was such an unqualified: Yes! Even if you’re writing a series you still need to dive deeply into your detective’s story specific past -- how else will you know what experience has already taught her about what makes people tick?

In fact that’s especially true if you’re writing a series – because the past you create for her in that first book will have to be just as true in the last book. The last thing you want to do is throw something in because it’s cool in the moment, and then for the rest of the series you’re stuck with your protagonist having a psychic uncle from Mars who communicates by carving runes into rutabagas at the corner bodega.

The crucial question – for any character – is always: What makes her tick? Why? That is the inside intel that we come to story for.

After all, as the newsreel producer said in Citizen Kane, “Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.”


Telling Stories, Touching Lives, Mattering

Hello Writers,
I was thinking about how we all have a story, and we want that story to matter. And how, sometimes, that story doesn’t get told. Then, as I was going through my files, I stumbled on something I wrote three years ago, when my sister Judy died. She didn’t get to tell her story, so I tried to. I thought I’d share what I wrote, and so bring her back for a minute. After all, stories are how we live on, in the imagination of others, and maybe, just maybe, in the way the lives we lived in some small way, touch theirs. This is Judy Nelson:

Memories yield the time back to me I’ve already spent.
Start out with an enormous pot full
And boil down to a small thick sauce.

My older sister Judy wrote that. She wrote a lot. Her apartment was full of things she’d written – there were bags and drawers and closets full of notebooks, lists, observations written on scraps of paper. But the thing is, each thought, each exquisite snippet was separate. How do you put them together into a story?
I wish Judy was here to tell me. I have so many questions for her now. And knowing Judy, she would have had an answer for each and every one of them. Which she would have given in no uncertain terms. She wasn’t shy about how she felt.  There was just as much chance that she’d say something that would hurt your feelings, as ask you the most insightful question ever.  
But she was working on it. One of her last plans was to be nicer. “I want to live another few years,” she said. “And I know that that means I have to be nicer to people.” She was nicer. But it was really hard.
Not because she was mean, but because, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t independent.  She couldn’t go home, close the door, be alone and write. Or play with her cat. Or cook herself dinner.  She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t even get out of bed.  She had to depend on others for everything. For someone who’s always been fiercely independent, that doesn’t come easy. It’s enough to make you mean in the first place, and yet, Judy got nicer.
She was in pain a lot. She’d ask us to move her in her hospital bed. “Me, UP,” she’d say. And we’d try to figure out what she meant, exactly. My husband Stuart got pretty good at it; he could lift her, turn her, comfort her with ease.
Even so, the thing about Judy is that she never gave up, ever. In her last year she was wafer thin, bent over -- she was 81 but she looked a hundred. Until you glanced into her eyes. They were razor sharp. Her keen intelligence never once dimed. I remember we were sitting around her bed, and I was lamenting how maddening it is that everyone has a cellphone, but it’s so hard to get anyone to either answer or call you back. Without missing a beat she said, “There ought to be an app for that.”

An app? I thought. How does she know what an app is? But Judy knew a lot, and what she knew could always surprise you.
Like her bookcase – There was the collected works of John McPhee, the letters of T.S. Eliot, the lives of Plutarch, and a book on how to speak conversational Clingon.
After she died we were in her apartment packing up her books when the door, which was ajar, opened, and a young man we’d never seen before just walked in. It was a little scary. He took a few steps, stopped and looked around in surprise. My husband finally said, “Can we help you?” The man blinked, and shook his head no. He said he was a neighbor. He’d heard Judy was dead, but he couldn’t believe it.  He was taking it in, and clearly it hurt. “She taught me to read,” he said, “when I was eight.”
Judy could be mean, but that was the surface. Beneath that, she was kind, and she always had a plan, she was going to make a difference, she was going to matter.
When she lost her job last July, her plan was to put a resume together and get another one. She was sure that if she went around to all the local businesses, someone would hire her.  Looking at her, that seemed highly unlikely, but she was so determined that it felt possible. We believed her.  And if she hadn’t gotten sick, maybe she would have.
She planned to get nicer, and she did.  And when she was in bed, first at home, and then in the nursing home, every time we visited her, she’d ask, “What’s the plan? What do I have to do get out of here? I need to know, so I can set my mind to it.” 
The last time she asked, she said, “I know it’s a fantasy, that’s okay. But tell me, what’s the plan, what should I do? I want to go home.”
It wasn’t long after that that she began to slip into that space between life and death. Her body was shutting down.  She could barely talk. I’ll never forget the last time she looked at Stuart and said, “ME, up.” It was different. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be moved. It was that she wanted to be. It was as if she knew there wouldn’t be a “me” much longer, but damn it, she was still here. Still ME, still Judy. She fought to be, up to the very end.
Now she’s gone and I’m still here. But somehow I feel as if I’ve absorbed so much of who she was – as all those snippets, memories and observations coming together in a small thick sauce simmering at the bottom of the big pot -- that she’s here too.  And together, hopefully, we still have time to carry out her plan, and do something matters.
What say you, writers? Here’s to that: doing something that matters!

A Big Question: What is Art?

Hello writers,
As writers – creators – we often hear our work referred to as art.
Okay. But what is art? Talk about a big question, right? Which means it’s a kind of boring question. Because when you try to answer it, what comes to mind?
If you’re like me, not much. In fact the question makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable – I actually think it just triggered a cortisol spike of stress – because I want to answer it, but I have no idea where to begin. No, it’s not even that, because a beginning suggests that there is something there to begin with. For me, it’s crickets all the way.
So I turned to my trusty dictionary, which defined art thusly: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”
Sheesh, what does that mean? Talk about the blind leading the blind (sorry dictionary). It’s so, so, so conceptual. Meaning: vague, abstract, and ultimately empty.
How can we make art if we don’t know what art actually is? Do we only recognize it after the fact, and so to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s oft paraphrased quip about porn, “I can’t define art, but I know it when I see it.” But if you can’t define it, how can you create it, except by lucky accident?
And then last week I stumbled on something that began to actually answer the question. I was misting up upon learning that Edward Albee had died (if you haven’t seen Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, do it now - we’ll wait), and the obit I was reading had a quote of his. I read it and felt a thrill through my tears. Because it yanked “art” out of the realm of the ethereal and put it into the realm where it actually lives and breathes and matters.
"All art should be useful," Albee said. "If it's merely decorative, it's a waste of time. You know, if you're going to spend a couple of hours of your life listening to string quartets or being at plays or going to a museum and looking at paintings, something should happen to you. You should be changed."
Exactly! The purpose of art is to change how we see things. And not in general. Largely because there is no general. There’s only the specific. Real art changes how we see specific things. In other words: it shifts something specific in our worldview, giving us new insight that then helps us better navigate our lives. This may sound like an oxymoron but real art is practical. Otherwise, what’s the point?
And so the art of story is in being able to tap into a universal, and then channel it through a very specific person’s very specific internal struggle – so that the reader experiences it too.  Stories allow us to see ourselves in the characters we read about; they not only make us feel understood, but help us better understand ourselves. It doesn’t get more practical than that. 
Here’s to using your art to change lives, one reader at a time.

Get Your Hammers Ready, Let’s Smash a Few Writing Myths!

Hello Writers!
There are a lot of writing myths out there and you probably know a lot of them -- things that writers are told never to do and things they’re encouraged to do at every turn.
Like: Never use backstory in the first 50 pages of the novel. Or never use flashbacks at all. Or be sure to liberally sprinkle in sensory details in order to bring the story to life.
But if you stop for even one second to think about these myths, you instantly realize how flawed they are. To wit: You can open just about any excellent novel and find backstory and flashbacks laced throughout, beginning on the first few pages. And sensory details can spill all over the pages of a novel that goes nowhere.
In fact, I once listened to an editor tell a writer -- whose first page rambled on with no direction, offering nary a clue as to what was happening -- that it was missing was . . . wait for it . . . the sense of taste. “What would those eggs frying on the stove taste like?” she asked. Um, how exactly would letting the reader know about the soft saltiness of breakfast save the story from being a directionless, uninvolving mess?
And yet writers I’ve worked with have been told all of these things and more, in no uncertain terms, by well meaning instructors, by members of their writing group, by fellow writers.
I was thinking about that today because a writer in our Story Genius Workshop forum asked for support. Her writer’s group was giving her advice she felt was dubious, and she wondered whether it was accurate.  It wasn’t.
What was the advice? It was something I’m betting you’ve heard before: “You’re giving too much away in the beginning. You need to hold back! That’s how you lure the reader in!”
No, it’s not. And yet, writers are often encouraged to withhold crucial info, under the theory that this will make readers curious, and motivate them to keep reading. Ironically, almost always the very info the writer withholds is what would lure the reader in. Especially if it’s the kind of internal thought that writers are also warned against, which is, in fact, what does rivet the reader, because that ongoing internal struggle is a novel’s most potent source of conflict.
The list of dangerous myths goes on and on -- which brings us to a crucial question: if these writing myths are so wrong, why do they persist?

• If backstory is laced into every story, often from the first page onward, why are writers told to avoid it?

• If flashbacks are everywhere, why would a writer be told never to use them?

• If “giving it all away” is something that lures readers in rather than sending them away, why are writers told not to do it?

• If internal thought is the most potent layer of story, why are writers discouraged from putting it on the page at all?

There are two reasons.

1. When done poorly, all those elements do derail a story. The same way doing anything poorly undermines success.

The trouble is, without them, stories are all but doomed to failure. Most successful stories have all four elements laced throughout their pages from beginning to end.
That can’t be true, you may be thinking, because writers aren’t encouraged to include these elements or taught how to do them well. That brings us to reason number two:

2. When done well, these four elements blend into the story so completely that the fact that they’re “flashbacks” or “internal thoughts” flies under the reader’s radar. Not because the reader is dumb or unobservant, but because the first job of an effective story is to anesthetize the part of the brain that knows it IS a story, and so when we're lost in a great novel, we’re lost in the world’s first virtual reality. What we see there, what we experience, feels like life, and the last thing we can do – or want to do for that matter – is figure out how the writer created that sense of reality that we’re lost in. In other words, it is by design that we don't tend to see that that the novel is full of the very things that writers are told not to do. In fact those elements are what is brining it to life.

One of the primary things the Story Genius method does is crack open these writing myths, teach you why you need backstory and flashback, internal thought and a clear sense of what is happening, and how to get it onto the page.

And if you don’t believe me – if you find yourself holding onto one of these myths – try this:

• Go to your bookshelf and pull off a handful of your favorite novels.

• Grab some Post-It notes – those little transparent flags are perfect for this.

• Read the first five pages and flag anywhere you see backstory (a character’s history or primary way of thinking about the world), flashback (an actual memory or scene from a character’s past), internal thought (a character trying to make sense of her situation or her world), or information about what is going to happen in this story (where it’s heading, what it’s about, that is, what we will be tracking as we read forward).

If you don’t have flags all over those pages, email me. Seriously do. Till then, here’s to the power of story – yours!

Will anyone want to read this, it’s so . . . mundane?

Hey Writers,
It happened again last week. Twice. Two clients asked me, in an off hand, “Oh by the way, I was just wondering” tone, whether, really, anyone would ever want to read what they’ve been working so crazy hard on for months. They tried not to sound like they were freaking out -- a dead giveaway that they were already deep in the land of the panicked.  
And here’s the really interesting thing: both of these novelists were worried about the same thing -- that no one will want to read their stories because what they’re writing about is too mundane.
They were so deeply wrong. But they were also onto something. Because they had tapped into a very, very widespread fear – that writing about everyday trials and tribulations is boring. When asked what their book is about, I often hear writers sheepishly mumble, as if slightly embarrassed, things like:

  • It’s just about a woman struggling to deal with the fallout of a crumbling marriage.
  • It’s just about a woman trying to figure out whether she should stay with her husband, or reunite with her high school boyfriend.
  • It’s just about a man who’s realizing that he’s spent his entire life muting his real self in order to live up to what he thinks his father expects of him.

You know, the ho hum everyday things that we all face in one way or another just about all the time. Common. Plebeian. Routine.
Exactly!!! And that is precisely what we come to story for: insight into how to handle those things we have to deal with everyday. Those mundane things are what’s on our minds more than anything else. They’re what we’re wired to notice, think about, evaluate and try to do better with – they are life.  In other words, while in general the mundane seems, well mundane, when you’re living your own specific version of it, it’s anything but mundane.
We all struggle with our relationship to others every minute of every day. We all want people to like us, even the harried barista at the Starbucks we’ll never even go to again. As one sage writer once said of himself, “I’m just another insecure Joe who wants people to like him.” That’s all of us. And that’s the heart and soul of story – the push/pull between people. That precarious balance between getting what we need from others, and yet maintaining our sense of self. How vulnerable do we allow ourselves to be? How much do we hide? What’s really going on beneath the surface of “how things seem.”

Let me give you an example from real life that just this minute happened. I was emailing my contact in the Writers’ Program at UCLA where I’m about to teach a class this fall. We’d been going back and forth about technical info for navigating their new instructor portal. Her emails, which in the past were friendly and long, were suddenly short, terse. Uh oh, I thought, have I done something wrong? Did I forget to turn something in?  Did I miss a deadline, or is it more subtle . . . have I offended someone? Maybe this will be the last class they’ll want me to teach . . . maybe . . .
And then I got another email from her, sending me one last bit of technical info, and she ended it by saying, “Pardon my brevity, but I’m trying to finish a million things by Friday.” I could have kissed her!  I not only breathed a sigh of relief, but I marveled at her kindness – she’d realized that her responses were different than usual, thought I might wonder about it, and so reassured me. And so I, in turn, wrote back thanking her for her kindness.  Because that’s what we all want: to have our everyday kindnesses seen. Because that everyday stuff? It’s not mundane at all. It’s an indication of how we see the world. It’s an indication of how we’ll act when push really does come to shove.
And that’s why -- as I told those writers who were worried that their stories were about such common, mundane problems that they would bore readers -- what you’re writing about is how to navigate the human condition, and there’s nothing more interesting to us humans than that!
I’ll leave you with one last thought. As Jennie Nash and I have noticed, both in our private clients, and in the amazing students who’ve come through our Story Genius Workshop – at the end of the day what most people are writing about is the internal battle between the desire for, and the cost of, genuine human connection. 

Whether they’re writing about 16th century China, the wild west, World War Whatever, life on planet Mars or the intersection between the wood witches and the humans in the mythical land of Alshara – the real story unfolds in the human search for meaning, connection and emotional survival in this cruel, beautiful world.
So if you’re worried that what you’re writing about is too mundane to be interesting, chances are you’re actually digging into something good! Big relief, isn’t it?

Remember the Jetsons?

Remember The Jetsons? That ‘60s cartoon – now so hilariously retro – that projected what the future would be like.  It was a world dedicated to getting things done so easily that you didn’t have to expend any physical exertion at all. You flew everywhere, and when you got out of your flying car (hoverboards don’t count), a conveyer belt took you to your office and deposited you in your desk chair -- that is, if you were George Jetson, let’s not talk about the sexism in the show, or we’ll be here all day. So, ahem, if you were “his wife” Jane, you pressed a button and lunch appeared up through a trap door in the table, and if the bed needed to be made, Rosie the Robot did it.
The point is, in the ‘60s, society was premised on the notion that the goal of humanity was to make everything easy. Which was taken to mean, we’d have to spend no time, thought, or energy on doing, well, anything. Sounds kind of awful, doesn’t it? And cartoons aside, we’ve barreled hell bent in that direction ever since.
But – and here’s the really interesting thing – given how we’re wired, the near-irresistible lure of “quick, easy, effortless” makes total sense.
As neuroscientist Antoinio Damasio says, “Smart brains are also extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously.” In other words, we’re hardwired to want to do what’s easy. This is not a negative. It doesn’t make us weak, slothful, or slackers. It’s just that thinking hard takes a whole lot of energy— after all, the brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s volume, yet it consumes 20 percent of its energy. Thinking actually burns calories. (Not enough calories, but still.) So the urge to find the easiest way to do something is a built-in survival mechanism, the better to conserve precious energy for handling the decidedly unexpected, the truly dangerous, the unavoidably challenging—you know, all the things that stories are about.

Ah yes, you knew we’d get to story sooner or later, which of course brings us to the point: The technology we’ve created has evolved exponentially faster than our neural wiring is capable of evolving. And so these days, instead of steering us in the right direction, searching for what’s easiest often takes us bounding in the wrong direction.

That’s especially true when it comes to writing. Because writing something that will captivate the reader’s brain from the very first sentence is hard. Period. There’s no way around it. There is no easy method, no way to cut down on the blood, sweat and tears it takes to write a novel, no way to do it in a month, or in ten minutes a day. There’s no system to follow that will allow writers to create a story fast, easily or effortlessly.  
That’s the problem with the “story structure” methods that tell writers what “should” happen, in general, every step of the way. It’s a formula, which means that it’s surface, cookie cutter, and the antithesis of story.
But might a story – once it’s written – follow a familiar pattern? Absolutely, it might, or it might not. But even if it does, the shape, by itself, has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Because the shape doesn’t create the story, the story creates the shape. So, even if you rigorously follow the external pattern of successful stories, chances are all you’ll have done is ape the shape.

The sad truth is: following a formula almost always leads to stories that are surface and yes, formulaic, because rather than digging deep into how and why the protagonist would do any of the things they do, you’re primarily focusing on the external things they do, and worse, trying to make them happen from the outside in.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially since you can see the external things – they’re things that happen – so it’s logical to believe that they’re what matters most. The truth is, they’re the just the surface; the story is about what goes on beneath the surface. In other words, they’re the “what” – completely separate from what we come to story for, which is insight into the why. Story is about an internal transformation, not an external one. It’s the protagonist’s internal evolution that drives the external events.
And so, worst of all, the resulting stories don’t tend to be stories at all, but just a bunch of surface things that happen. In a nutshell: complete formula.
How do you avoid falling into the seductive trap of aping the shape – no muss, no fuss, no reader? By embracing your story: you want to write something that will transform the world (that’s what stories do). And that’s precisely why your “lazy” brain has been saving up all that energy: so you’ll be able to really dive into the story you want to write, and yes – expend the blood, sweat and tears to get it onto the page.
Here’s what does help in that process: knowing precisely what it is that you’re looking for in the story you want to tell, and then digging down to it, so that the external events of your story (the plot, aka the structure) is there to serve your protagonist’s inner transformation. And the beauty of this method is that your novel will then have genuine story structure, because structure comes from the inside out.
So, if Jane Jetson decided to write a novel about how soulless a life of total ease would be, would she expect to push a button and have it instantly appear on the page? Nope. She’d know that taking the easy way out doesn’t work, because that would be her point. My guess is that she applied herself, she’d write something along the lines of Wall-E – and hey, she could call it Rose-E.
Here’s to doing the work and writing something that will change your reader’s world. I’m not saying it’s easy, but boy is it satisfying. As Dorothy Parker so astutely said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Who’s with me?

In Literature as in Life, and Vice Versa

Hello Writers,
Yesterday I was talking with a fellow writing coach who specializes in memoir, and she mentioned being caught off guard the first time a client said, “Wow, this is like therapy!” It shook her up – as it did me when I first heard that phrase, especially since it was a novelist who said it to me. I’d been asking him probing questions about his protagonist’s past, and it hadn’t occurred to me that in answering them, he was probing his own past, too. But the minute I thought about it, it made perfect sense.
Over the years since then, I’ve heard the phrase said many, many times, because it’s true. Writing – whether a memoir or a novel -- is a lot like therapy. In a good way.
You dig deep into your characters to figure out what they really want, what holds them back, and what matters to them. Which, of course, is often very different than what it seems like on the surface. And in digging into your characters, you’re actually digging deep into yourself, and how you see the world. As Joan Didion so famously said, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

In searching for the misbelief that guides their protagonists, writers often discover their own misbeliefs. And – this is the best part – by recognizing the “why” behind their own misbelief, they often gain insight into how to overcome it. It’s thrilling!

I was thinking about that when I had dinner with my sister last night, who is a therapist. She was talking about how with most of her clients, it’s about finding that place in childhood when life forced them to embrace a belief that, even though it wasn’t true (like: every time someone is nice to me, they want something) it saved them from a very difficult situation. As she said, “In that early situation it was adaptive – it’s what allowed them to survive – but because it’s actually a very damaging belief, soon after that it became maladaptive, and began to undermine them.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” I said, way too loud. That’s exactly the same with story! That’s just what I teach – how to find your protagonist’s misbelief, and trace it back to its inception (what I call their Origin Story), and then how to trace it forward as it takes root, becoming the foundation of the inner logic that drives them.
Those misbeliefs don’t make our protagonists – or us – dopes, idiots or evil. Back in the day when they first bloomed, they made us smart. They allowed us to adapt to what the world so unceremoniously threw at us, and thus survive. And so it’s only logical that that hard-won info – our misbelief – then became a seminal part of the lens through which we evaluated everything that came after.
That’s what makes writers so powerful. Story is the reader’s lens into the “why” behind the protagonist’s actions – story takes us to the real reasons why we do what we do.
Author Julian Barnes sums it up nicely: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”
And as writers, our job is to dig up what “why.” And speaking of digging, that brings us back to the question I posed last week: What do we writers who know that it’s story first, plot second – that is, who go back in order to go forward -- call ourselves?
Your response was amazing -- I got so many really great suggestions, both via email, and on the Story Genius Facebook Page (a private group for writers who have taken the course – come join us!), that there are way too many to list here. Let’s take a look at some of them:
Chris P. suggested: “Pathblazers? Plantsers? Plantlers? Stormblowers? Storywhisperers?” All good, although I’m not sure exactly what Stormblowers refers to, but I so like the sound of it!

Caroline Ann suggested: “Story Intuitors, as we seek what is instinctively in our
readers' brains as to what they find satisfying in a story.”

And Angela suggested: “Story Quester.” Or – simple and elegant – Quester.

Chris C. came up with “Miners, because we’re always digging for the precious kernel that is THE story.” Which echoed the thoughts of Story Genius Workshop alumni Nancy, who said, “I couldn't come up with a good word, but I do have several images in my mind about Story Genius method that might be useful. A dusty, flashlight-helmeted coal miner. An archaeologist digging up a hidden civilization. A gardener planting seeds and then caring for them as they grow. Hope there's some thought-provoking seed for you here.”
They’re all such evocative images for what we do: Dig deep beneath the surface “what” in order to unearth what the reader’s wired to come for: the revelatory “why.”
In the same potent vein Kate suggested: “Generators. It has "Gen" (from Genius), the power of electricity behind it, and the ability to turn on all the lights...”
And Tania said: “Excavators? Because we're always digging....??”

Writers already familiar with Story Genius suggested one of my favorites: Pingers – because you’re always pinging back and forth from the present to the past and back again, gathering inside new info that gets down to what really drives your characters. But if you’re not familiar with Story Genius, it just sounds . . . odd. Pinging? Isn’t that the disturbing engine sound that makes you think you better get the car into the shop pronto?

Call it pinging, and everyone will ask, um, why? And that leads us to what I think may be the winner:

Rachel’s suggestion: “Whysers.” True, at first it sounded a bit like whiner or geyser. So over the course of a lively conversation on Facebook, a “t” was added and it became Why-sters.

Rebecca said: “Wow! So many good ideas. I like seekers, planters, explorers, but my favorite is Why-sters (catchy and unique).”
And then Joanne chimed in with: “I like Why-sters too. Why is at the root of it all. And it's wise. Why not?”
Indeed, why not?


What's in a name?

Hello Writers!

First, thank you all so much the support and good wishes on the launch of Story Genius this week. The writing world is such a generous, caring, and insightful community it takes my breath away. I am so proud and honored to be part of that community with you.

But I’m not the storyteller – you are. You’re going to change the world, one story at a time. My goal is to help you do it. We’ve been in this together for a while, and we’ve upended some of the most popular – and damaging – myths about writing.

Like, for instance, that there are only two schools of writing: Pantsers and Plotters.

There is a third way, based on what the brain is really hungry for in every story we hear, I’ve been an evangelist for it for years.  It’s what Story Genius is all about.

But geez, I don’t want to call it the Story Genius Writing Method (‘cause sheesh, that sounds so damn formal, kind of like a correspondence course of old). So I need your help.

Here’s the question: If we’re not Pantsers or Plotters, what are we? What should we call this third school of writing?

Here's what I'm thinking at the moment: We’re Seekers. Because we're always seeking the defining WHY behind everything in the story, digging down to the real reason the protagonist does what she does.

Hey, wait, maybe Diggers is good. Or Divers.

But does it matter that the Diggers were a group of Protestant radicals, sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism in 1643? (Thank you Wikipedia!)

And does it matter that there was a sixties folk group called The Seekers? (Hey, Georgy Girl has a catchy melody.) Or that a Seeker is a position in Quiddich? Or that Seekers, kind of like the Diggers, were an English Protestant dissenting group that emerged around the 1620s, many of whom subsequently joined the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers. (What would we do without Wikipedia?)

So, Divers, maybe?  That just brings up images of Lloyd Bridges with a scuba tank (and only for those of us of a certain age who grew up on old reruns of Sea Hunt).

And does it matter that none of them start with a “P”? Hmmm. What about Planner? Naw, too generic.
Pilgrim? I kinda like that, if only I didn’t always hear it in John Wayne’s voice, “Howdy, Pilgrim!”

Or what about, as one writer suggested this morning, Pathfinders? That’s not bad! Or Plumbers? (I really like that one, but I can’t shake the image of a guy crouching under the sink, wrench in hand, his work pants dipping dangerously.)

What do you think? Any suggestions, ideas, advice, will be greatly appreciated.  Next week, we’ll look at the top contenders, and maybe even pick one. Can’t wait!

Till then, here’s to the power of story: yours.


How Writers Change the World

It is with immense pleasure that I announce that my new book, STORY GENIUS, will be released by Ten Speed Press on August 9th. Yes this Tuesday.

It’s also really scary. Because as of Tuesday morning, it will no longer belong to me. It will be out there in the world, and it will belong to you, and to anyone who buys it, takes it out of the library, borrows it from a friend, or illegally downloads it from a sketchy website (you know who you are). Of course I hope you all love it to death (even you pirates) and agree with every single thing I said on every page.

Seriously, kidding.  I’m sure there will be places where you might think, Wait a minute, really? (Notice how I kind of hedged there? “Might think?) Anyway, the point is, there are always people who will disagree, and that’s as it should be.

My goal is to provide you with a new understanding of story, its unparalleled power, and then give you a step-by-step method for creating a novel capable of changing the way people see themselves, the world, and what they go out and do in the world.

I certainly don’t agree with everything I read, either. But with surprising frequency I find gems when reading people I’m pretty sure I’ll disagree with. Like the New York Times right-leaning columnist David Brooks, who said something in last Tuesday’s column that went like an arrow straight to my heart (in a good way). His column was titled: How Artists Change the World. He was writing, specifically, about the photographs of Frederick Douglass, but he was talking about how all artists, including writers, change people’s perception of the world. Not just their perception of what things look like, but – far more potently – what things really mean. Here is Brooks:

“We carry around unconscious mental maps, built by nature and experience, that organize how we scan the world and how we instantly interpret and order what we see.
With these portraits, Douglass was redrawing people’s unconscious mental maps.
These images don’t change your mind; they smash through some of the warped lenses through which we’ve been taught to see.”

Yes!! That is exactly what novels do, that is what you will do. By catapulting your reader into your protagonist’s brain, you help your reader “smash through the warped lens through which [she was] taught to see,” and your reader’s unconscious mental map gets redrawn right along with the protagonist’s.

The purpose of art – as Brooks so eloquently says – is exactly that: to teach people how to see in a new way.

There’s nothing I’d rather do than help you in that quest.


Watch a Novel Grow From the First Spark of an Idea

We all live for the “me too” moments – when you realize you’re talking to a kindred spirit.  That happened to me earlier this week. I’m on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA Visual Narrative program, and my fellow professors and I were giving feedback to the brilliant class of 2017 on the stories they plan to develop over the coming school year.  
One professor, a man who’s had a long and successful career as a TV writer and playwright, lamented that screenwriting is taught as if it’s all about the plot. 
“YES!” I chimed in, “and all those story structure books lead writers so far astray that I’d burn them all if I could!”
“Me too, me too,” he said. “We could have a bonfire.”

“I’ll bring the marshmallows!” I yelled (I was a tad hungry).
“I’ll bring the matches!” he answered.
It was a genuine bonding moment.  But what, you may be wondering, is really wrong with all those story structure books (not to mention story structure classes)? And what does this have to do with Story Genius? Never thought you’d ask.
First, let’s tackle the myth of “story structure”:
Story structure is a misnomer – it’s really “plot” structure. And it’s premised on the notion that if you come up with an external plot, the story (meaning the internal transformation we’re tracking as we read) will appear. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Story must come first – what your protagonist will change from and what she will change to. The plot is then constructed to force that character to make that specific change.  Without that internal truth, even the most perfectly “structured” plot is just a bunch of things that happen – which is why so many writers unwittingly produce utterly boring novels, regardless how beautifully written.
So how, then, do “story” structure models fool writers into believing that they work?
“Story” structure books and methods use already existing very successful novels, movies and myths as examples.
Why is that a problem? Because those novels, movies and myths are already built around a compelling story – and that is what makes them successful. And so when you – the reader – watch the writer deconstruct the “plot” you are supplying the internal story, because you’re already familiar with it. Whether it’s Titanic, The Wizard of Oz, or Romeo and Juliet, you already know why what’s happening in the plot matters to the protagonist, so you understand – in other words, you feel – what those events mean. Without that knowledge, it would just be a bunch of surface things that happen -- which, heartbreakingly, is what happens when writers try to use “story” structure models to write a novel or screenplay. They end up with plot points that have no internal resonance, no meaning other than the utterly obvious: if you slug the protagonist, it will hurt.
Story comes first; and if you want to write a novel that captures your reader’s attention, it’s what must give birth to the plot. After all, if a novel is about how the protagonist changes internally then how can you create a plot to spur that change if you don’t know what the change is? Or why the protagonist needs to change? Or why anything matters to the protagonist?
The answer to all of the above is simple: You can’t.
But that lands us in a pickle. Because while we could talk about this forever in a conceptual way, how, then, can we see it in action? Where are the examples? After all, it’s very, very easy to deconstruct something that has already been written, but how can you imply, unearth or even infer the specific steps the writer went through that resulted in said finished novel?
Again, you can’t.  Which brings me to the first, major, near-derailment of my new book, Story Genius. How on earth could I write a prescriptive book without examples of what writers need to actually do in order to write a novel? And where on earth could I get those examples?
Enter the brilliant, savvy, courageous Jennie Nash, who volunteered to begin her next novel – utterly from scratch – within the pages of Story Genius so that my readers could watch the process in action. It’s not a pretty process (which is a reassuring part of the point), but watching it unfold is priceless because we can see how a writer starts with the story and builds everything else from there.
I should explain, because it is a fascinating truth, that Jennie was also shepherding me though the writing of Story Genius as my book coach. So we had an Escher-like reality where she was coaching me on my book while I was coaching her on hers, and all of it ended up in the pages of Story Genius. It’s a rich mix and we are both proud of the result and ready to share it with the world.
To get a sense of what it was like for Jennie to build her novel according to the Story Genius method, I thought I would bring her on to answer a few questions:
Lisa: Why did you volunteer in the first place?
Jennie: Ha – well, first off, I thought it wouldn’t be that hard. I thought it wouldn’t be that different from the way I have written my four existing novels. I turned out to be very wrong about that – as you will see in my answers to questions below.
Second, I knew that there had to be a better way of approaching a novel than the way I had done it in the past – which was to write a ton of pages, throw out a ton of pages, and use that process to aimlessly search for the structure and the point. That way of writing had sort of worked for me – in that I did pretty well with it. I mean, I’m a midlist writer, which is to say that my books are on the middle of the list. They are not shiny new debuts and they are not bestsellers. They are in the middle of the list. And while I am grateful to have been by such fine houses, middle is not any writer’s goal. We want to wow our reader. We want to move them. I wanted to learn how to do that better than I had been doing it.
And, third, being your book coach, I wanted to help you write the best book you could, and I thought the idea of letting your readers following along with the process would be powerful.
Lisa: What is the biggest difference between the Story Genius method and how you wrote your previous novels?
Jennie: The Story Genius method asks you to go back before you go forward – and to REALLY go back. I felt a little bit like a racehorse being held back at the starting gate. I had my story idea and my structure and timeline and I wanted to GO, but your method says, “Oh no: no running. Not until you know exactly what this story is about and exactly where it’s going. In fact, racehorse, how ‘bout going back to the barn to visualize the race for awhile and think about how you want to run.” And by exactly where it’s going, I mean EXACTLY. Not a vague notion, not a fuzzy picture. That is very different than what I was used to, and it was insanely more helpful than I thought it would be.
I should say here that I am in no way a total “pantser” who just sort of wings it. Nor am I a plotter who works with a massive grid or an external story structure to try to control the whole writing process. I am somewhere in between.
Lisa: What was the hardest part about the Story Genius method?
Jennie: A few things. Not writing forward when I wanted to, for sure. That was the only way I knew how to find the story and it was hard to be asked not to do that.
Also the concept of the misbelief – which is your term for the thing the protagonist believes about the world that at the end, she will learn is not true. It seems so darn simple, but like most important things in life, it’s really not simple in the least. It’s a deep psychological exercise in understanding how people go through the world – the ways in which we tell ourselves a story about the world that is so often not true. But we tell that narrative to survive. The Story Genius method forces you to look at that act of narrative-making, and to see how very often the thing we do in order to survive is the thing that keeps us from getting what we most want.
So, like all writing, it’s emotionally challenging work.  But your method forces you to do it in one fell swoop right at the start, rather than easing into it.
Lisa: That’s because you can’t “ease” into it.  Just like us out here in real life, the protagonist – any character – steps onto page one already fully formed as a human being, who sees the present based on one thing and one thing only: what their past experience has taught them things mean. If you don’t know what that is, how do you know what they want, what’s holding them back – and even more important: why -- how can you have a clue as to what they’d do? You can’t. So unless you are prepared to throw away everything you’ve written before you have nailed that down, writing blind is not a good idea. Instead you have to dig into that first, which takes real focus and real work.
Jennie: So true. It’s not for the faint of heart. And that is not in any way a bad thing! It’s for writers who are serious about their work and serious about wanting to hold a reader’s attention.
In my experience (which is quite extensive, since in addition to being an author, I am a book coach to fiction and non-fiction writers, and a writing instructor), there are a lot of writers who want to TALK about being a writer, or want to skip ahead to the talk show part (you know, telling Oprah your life story….) but there aren't as many who are serious about doing the hard work that is required of writing something resonant that strangers want to read.
If that is not what someone wants – if , say, writing 55,000 words in a month is their idea of success – Story Genius is probably not for them.
Lisa: What did the Story Genius method allow you to do that your previous method didn’t?
Jennie: Articulate the deep truth of the story right from the start so that there wasn’t as much fishing around for it. And by fishing, I mean sometimes more than 20, 30 50, pages at a time that would have to be thrown out, and months and months and months of wasted time.
Lisa: Plus, for anyone who’s tried actual fishing, it’s not like you always catch something. In other words “fishing around” for your story often produces nothing, no matter how many pages you write.  
Jennie: Sad but true.
Lisa: So, how did the Story Genius method change how you see story?
Jennie: You’ll love this answer: I think the biggest change for me was understanding the question, “why?”
Why? is at the heart of pretty much every part of the Story Genius method, and I have been asking my students and clients why? for years. I have no doubt asked YOU why? about a million times, and when Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why came out a few years ago, I was like, “Preach, Simon!” He was talking to businesses, but he may well as been talking to writers, too…. I intuitively understood that the why? is very often the critical thing missing in a piece of work – both in a single line (why did that character do that?) as well as on a much larger scale (why are you even telling us this story?) – and I use that question more than any other.
Story Genius taught me what that why? is really about, when it comes to story. It helped me see why asking why? is so powerful and how to better utilize the question in my writing work and my coaching work. I feel so smart now!
Lisa: How did the Story Genius method change how you see writing?
Jennie: Well, to be 100% truthful, it at first threw me into a bit of doubt about my ability to write anything at all – which is par for the course for pretty much any writer. Doubt is the water we swim in.
But once I got deeper into it, the Story Genius method gave me comfort. It’s like a system of checks-and-balances you can use as you write forward. You use the term “yardstick” in the book – and that is apt. It gives you a yardstick you can use to measure the story as you are writing it, to test it, and to see if it holds up.
Carpenters say, “measure twice, cut once.” That is what Story Genius is to the writing process – a way to measure before you commit, before you waste resources.
Lisa: Oh come on Jennie, it was easy, just admit it!
Jennie: I know you wish I would say, “Story Genius made writing a novel super simple and easy and fast.”
Lisa: No, actually that’s not what I want. What I meant was: the Story Genius method helps writers zero in on the story they are telling, and that gives them a clear yardstick, showing them exactly what, where, when, and why to dig for more information, so it makes writing a compelling story much easier. I didn’t mean simple and I never meant fast. Writing itself is hard, digging deep is hard. That’s the first thing I tell writers, and I know you do too.
Jennie: Yep! The problem is that super simple, easy and fast is what so many writers PROCLAIM they want, and because super simple, easy and fast is an easy sell – like offering cold lemonade on a hot day. Who wouldn’t want that?
But I have been in the world of books for a long time, on many different sides of the equation and I know this to be true (speaking of Oprah): no one really wants simple, fast and easy. What makes writing a book deeply satisfying – more satisfying than anything else in the entire universe that I know of, save for long-standing love and raising children – is that it’s hard. It forces you to wrestle with your soul, with your place in the world, with the philosophies you hold dear and the ones you vehemently oppose. And that is true, whether you are writing a middle grade novel about fairies or an epic saga about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
Hard is actually the whole point – the deep why? of writing. It’s what attracts us—the same way that love attracts us and the task of raising children. It’s the work that has no easy answers that we most want to enter into. It’s where we can prove ourselves to ourselves.
So no, in my estimation, Story Genius doesn’t make it easy – because nothing could. It is not easy to write a novel, period. What Story Genius does is makes it more logical. And more understandable. More genuinely doable. It’s like a field guide for a very intense journey.
And that is a deep service you have done for writers who are serious about taking that journey.
Lisa: Oh, thank you! It was such a . . . well, hard journey, wasn’t it? Not easy, not fast, not simple. But being here on the other side of it is humbling, thrilling and a bit scary. Especially since on August 9th Story Genius will be catapulted into the world.  Are you ready Jennie?
Jennie: As I’ll ever be!
Lisa: Me too!
Plus, these days my motto is: You’re a fool whether or not you dance, so you might as well dance.  Here’s to dancing!

Why Writers Are the Most Powerful People on the Planet

There’s an old curse: May you live in interesting times. We do. Interesting, and often terrifying, heartbreaking, confusing, and scary times.  And then there’s the upcoming election. The world has never moved so fast, and in so many unexpected directions at once. There aren’t any maps any more. We’re deep in uncharted territory.
Which is why “interesting times” is a crucial time to be a writer. Because story is what opens minds, changes hearts, and helps us chart that scary, unfamiliar territory.
In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain neuroscientist David Eagleman writes that to make a good narrative, “the brain works around the clock to stitch together a pattern of logic to our daily lives: what just happened and what was my role in it? Fabrication of stories is one of the key businesses in which our brains engage. Brains do this with the single-minded goal of getting the multifaceted actions of [the world around us] to make sense.”
Story is the language of the brain. And in that capacity, story’s main job is to impart useful inside intel on how to navigate the scary, beautiful, unpredictable world we find ourselves in.
As writers, that gives us an unparalleled amount of power, and every day, people are harnessing that power to change lives. Here’s a short list:

  • American movies smuggled into Romania helped cause the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Says Teodor Zamfir, the man who behind the operation that brought the movies into the country, had them dubbed in Romanian, and distributed them: “During a dictatorship which had controlled everything, they lost control of something that seemed insignificant, the videotape. The videotapes set the whole communist system off balance. . . During the 1989 revolution everybody was in the streets because they all knew there was a better life out there. How? From films.”


  • Movies can double as couples therapy. As Tara Parker-Pope writes in the New York Times, “A University of Rochester study found that couples who watched and talked about issues raised in movies like “Steel Magnolias” and “Love Story” were less likely to divorce or separate than couples in a control group. Surprisingly, the “Love Story” intervention was as effective at keeping couples together as two intensive therapist-led methods.” Plus it costs so much less, and there’s popcorn. 


  • Novels enlarge our brain’s capacity for empathy, and change how we see the world, ourselves, and how we then act in it. As Annie Murphy Paul writes: “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”


  • Novels help make doctors better understand their patients and themselves. Says Daniel Marchalik, M.D. in the New York Times: “Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind.”


  • And, on a purely personal level, reading novels can make you happier. Not to mention calmer, healthier, more creative and better able to sleep through the night. Says Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker: “Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.” 

How is it that reading stories – losing oneself in a narrative – has so much power? What’s the secret?
As Virginia Woolf wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind. In other words, Virginia Woolf defined the prototype for a Vulcan Mind Meld decades before Star Trek dreamed it up.
Story doesn’t just help us walk in the shoes of others, far more potently it puts us into the minds of others as they navigate the uncharted rapids life has so unceremoniously tossed them into. That’s precisely how writers change hearts, minds and lives, and what makes writers so influential.
But there’s one caveat: you have to have actually written a story. One that meets the reader’s hardwired expectations, seducing her away from her real life and into the world of the story. The trouble is that these expectations are tacit – so most of us don’t know that they’re what’s grabbed us. And when we’re readers, that’s absolutely fine.
But as writers we kind of have to know what these expectations are, otherwise how can we be sure our stories meet them? That’s why I’ll be diving into one of these hardwired expectations every Friday here for the next 14 weeks – which will take us up to and through the publication of my book, Story Genius. I want to share some of the book’s inside info with you – the writers who follow me in this space – so that you can get an exclusive peek at what readers crave, and how to get it onto the page.
Because when it comes to how to create a story that grabs the reader at hello, well that’s what Story Genius is all about . . .

Story Genius Has a Cover!

 Hello Fellow Writers,
Story Genius is covered! It feels great to have it totally finished, after two years of really hard work – and I’m not just talking about me. So many talented people helped -- they read drafts, gave me insightful, spot-on feedback, kept me on track, and didn’t let me give up (and boy, there were times when that’s exactly what I wanted to do). Writing is hard, but it’s so worth it. And I present to you, the official cover: 

What I want to do now is salute all of you, writers who keep at it, even when you want nothing more than to give up, forget about it, get a snack, binge-watch every episode of Father Knows Best (or maybe that one is just me) – DO ANYTHING – except write. Instead, you write (okay, maybe after a little snack and just one episode). You stick at it. Even though who knows how it will turn out. Who knows if you’ll ever have an audience. Who knows if you might be making a big fool of yourself in front of . . . well, at the moment, just the cat. But still.
Here’s my theory: We’re fools whether or not we dance, so we might as well dance.

With words. On the page. Let the music begin!

The Only Constant is Change...

Did you ever hear that saying, “The only constant is change”? It’s one of my faves because it explains why there is no “perfect.” How could there be, when in five minutes things will change, and then what’s “perfect” now will be so five minutes ago.

Stories give us a leg up on the future by allowing us to imagine how we’d handle those changes before we get there. Or make that, before they catch up with us, often from behind, when we least expect them. We need that inside, advance info, because change is hard.

But here’s what sometimes comes as a surprise: it’s not just bad change that’s hard, all change is hard. Even good change. Because change means we’re not only venturing into the unknown, but leaving a familiar part of ourselves behind. After all, it’s just as hard to leave home to get married as it is to leave home to get divorced. Actually, getting married can be harder, because you don’t expect it to be hard, so when things do go even a little bit wrong, it comes as a shock. And getting divorced? It’s often the best thing that ever happened (read: it sure was for me).

I’m thinking about this now because I’m in the midst of making a small change – I’m going to add a new giveaway to my website in a week or so. It’s an in-depth look at story from a reader’s point of view called: “A Reader’s Manifesto: 14 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has for Every Story.”

I knew I needed to add something new to my website, but I kept thinking I’d do it tomorrow, or when I’m really rested, or when Mercury comes out of retrograde. You know, basically a week from never.

So, like in every story ever told, something had to force my hand. It did. I’m writing up the Reader’s Manifesto now because it’s part of a talk I’m giving next week at the Wild, Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference in Chicago, and so I kind of have to nail it down -- otherwise I’ll get up in front of 100 people and spend an hour desperately making shadow puppets and doing balloon tricks (or would if I knew how).

Anyway, I was just about finished with the first draft when something happened that made me realize a critical entry was missing from my Reader’s Manifesto.

Here’s what happened: Jennie Nash and I were in the midst of the last live Q&A for our beta class of The Story Genius Writing Workshop. The Q&As are my favorite part of the class -- there’s nothing I love more than talking with writers about their work, because I always learn something new. That’s what happened when one writer began talking about a fear that had held her back during the class as she worked to dig deep into her story. It was the fear, as she put it, of “ugly writing.” She didn’t mean writing about harsh, painful things. She meant not writing beautifully. That is: not honing, polishing, and presenting everything right out of the starting gate in luscious prose.

A bunch of other writers chimed in, saying that they had the same experience, and it had almost stopped them cold, because it made them feel as if they were bad writers.

It was one of those great, unifying, deeply freeing, “Me, too, I thought I was the only one!” moments.

This one has a happy ending, because here’s the very reassuring truth: while there’s nothing wrong with beautiful writing, in the beginning of the process you can’t focus on it.  After all, how can you write beautifully when you don’t know what, exactly, you’re writing about? That would be like hunting for diamonds by keeping an eagle eye out for exquisitely cut, honed, and highly polished sparkly gems.  Sheesh, talk about missing the point! After all, diamonds in the rough look like big clunky hunks of rock. In other words, they’re ugly when compared with the kind of diamond you see gleaming in a jewelry store window.

But here’s the thing: there’s actually a strange, hypnotic beauty in the raw material, it just takes a trained eye to see it. Same with the “ugly writing” these writers were worried about.

My Reader’s Manifesto is about what readers are hardwired to crave or expect in every story they read. And guess what? Beautiful writing is not on the list.

And that, my friends, is what I had to add to the list. Or rather, ask writers to subtract. Because it’s not something we’re wired to crave. Turns out, the brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than we’ve been lead to believe.

So, why do we believe that it is?

Because while our love for story is innate -- no one had to teach you how to enjoy a story, the same way no one had to teach you how to love chocolate -- writing, on the other hand, is taught. And from kindergarten on, that teaching tends to focuses primarily on words.

Love of language is an expression we often hear. But what does that mean, really? After all, language, in and of itself, is empty -- it’s just a bunch of sounds. Rather, language is a vessel, a conduit – for meaning, for story. Story first, beautiful writing, later. Otherwise, it’s like mistaking the wrapping paper for the present.

This isn’t to say readers don’t like beautiful writing – they do. But it is not what has us enthralled when we’re reading.  It’s the story those words are giving voice to that gives those words their power. 

So, my advice? It’s time to stop trying to get a gold star from your seventh grade English teacher (or maybe that was just me) for writing the world’s most beautiful, “perfect” sentence. Writing pretty comes last. Writing a story comes first. Otherwise, it’s like trying to frost a cake you haven’t baked yet.

Embrace your ugly writing – as long as it is in the service of your story.  Which brings us right back to the subject at hand: change.

It’s hard to change the way you approach writing. It’s hard to shake misbeliefs that have been instilled since kindergarten -- especially since that shaming little voice that whispers, “You think that sentence is good? Seriously?” can be relentless.  Silencing it, even for a moment, can take several rolls of mental duct tape. But it’s worth it!


Let's Talk About Magic

I want to talk for a minute about magic. Not the Harry Potter kind, but what is often taken as the New Agey kind.
Before we get too far, I have to say that I am the least New-Agey person out there. The Secret? Ugh. I knew that theory was bunk when I was a kid because I spent all my time wishing and hoping and envisioning what I wanted – my deepest, most heartfelt passionate desire. And I’m here to tell you that a pony never appeared. And “Follow your bliss?” People take it to mean that once you discover what you love, bingo!, you’re there – as if following it is the easy part. But what Joseph Campbell actually meant was that when you figure out what you want to do – like, say, to write a novel that changes how people see the world – you have to put everything you have into actually doing it. In fact, Campbell himself is reported to have later grumbled, “I should have said follow your blisters.”
To be crystal clear, doing something doesn’t mean sitting in front of your laptop waiting for the muse to begin moving your fingers over the keyboard like it was some kind of literary Ouija board. I know you’re with me on this.
But then why do many writers talk about a certain kind of magic in the writing process? And isn’t it true that the story -- or parts of it -- sometimes do magically appear? And not even when you’re at the keyboard. Instead, maybe when you’re in the shower. Or taking a walk. Or reading the newspaper.
Yes! That does happen. Sometimes, the answer to a question you’ve been pondering suddenly materializes when you wake up in the morning, or as you savor the sensation of water cascading over you in the shower.  But it’s not New Agey magic, nor is it a gift from the powers that be. It’s a gift from your cognitive unconscious -- that part of your brain that is always mulling things over at warp speed, completely beneath the level of awareness.
While you’re trying to figure out whether you turn the knobs to the right or the left to turn the water off (I don’t want admit how long it took me to memorize “Lefty loosie, righty tighty”), your cognitive unconscious is free to dig into the deeper problem at hand. I can’t tell you how many writing conundrums appeared to solve themselves while I was busy rinsing the shampoo out of my hair.
But this doesn’t happen to a writer who has done no work. In fact, it often happens to writers who have been working very hard to understand their story. As the saying goes, “Luck seems to favor the prepared.”
And if a writer is well prepared, sometimes the magic solution actually comes from outside yourself – from a newspaper article, a magazine, or a stranger on the bus. This is something Jennie Nash talks about a lot – it’s how she solved one of the biggest problems in her current novel, the one she developed in the pages of Story Genius. She was stuck, and while sitting in an airplane on the tarmac, she flipped through the in-flight magazine and there, in the glossy pages, was the precise answer she needed to unlock one of her main character’s origin story – which is a key tenant in the Story Genius system. “It was as if the universe handed it to me on a silver platter,” Jennie says, “It really did feel like being struck by lightning.”
The same thing happened to me last week.
I’m excited to have joined the faculty of the School of Visual Art’s MFA program, Story: Visualized in New York City. I’ll be teaching a my first class there in June, and I’ve been working on my syllabus, and looking for examples in movies, graphic novels and comic books that I can use to teach story in a new way. The important thing to note here is that I was working. Hard. I was a little anxious, because I needed to find these things quickly, and I was about to set aside time to search for them, when suddenly….
I was getting dressed to go out (this was a rare occasion, we writers spend a lot of time in our PJs with bad hair, pounding away on the laptop) and I put on the radio (if it’s on your phone does it count as the radio?) Anyway, although I was in L.A. I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered on WNYC. I had three minutes to listen. That’s all the time I had to get dressed.  Those three minutes, as it turned out, began in the middle of an interview with McArthur Grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, not about his bestselling book, Between the World and Me – which won the National Book Award. But about a comic book he’s writing - Marvel's Black Panther.

But I didn’t know any of that then. I looked it all up later. Here is the first thing I heard:
“ . . . All these were instances when he leaves; at one point he's a schoolteacher in Harlem, working in Hell's Kitchen at another point. Just for fun. Just for kicks. Let me see what the world is about. This is a very bizarre way for somebody who presumably likes ruling a nation to behave, and certainly not the typical behavior for a king.
So what's going on there? Does this guy actually enjoy what he's been charged with or is his heart really somewhere else? And these are the questions I really wanted to ask in the comics. That is the undergirding conflict, I think.”
I had no idea what story they were talking about, but naturally it completely grabbed my attention. Because this is my world – the world of story. A world in which the internal questions being asked here are the key questions. The undergirding of conflict – in other words, the undergirding of the story itself.
Click HERE to hear the rest of the interview, it’s an eye opener.
I knew the instant I heard it that I’d found something I wanted to share up front with my students at SVA.  In fact, I was so jazzed that I instantly tweeted it, tagging SVA. It was very exciting, even if it did make me a tad late to where I was going.
But this kind of magic only happens when you’re totally involved in the story you’re telling, when you’re digging deep. Like Jennie was, like I was, and like you often are. When it happens, it makes you feel like you’re tapped into another layer of life, connected by the universal electricity that binds us all: curiosity.

And that curiosity is what makes us good storytellers. Curiosity not about what a character would do, but curiosity, as Coates suggests, is about why they'd do it.