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.

The Importance of Asking Why

Remember back in school when your English teacher would say “in literature as in life…” So true!
But here’s the thing your teacher might not have mentioned: literature doesn’t just hold up a mirror and show us what happens in life. Literature gives us insight into why it happens. 
Because sheesh, on the surface, by itself life can seem like one big messy, chaotic bunch of things that happen – things that often don’t make sense at all. Literature, on the other hand, is about how we humans make sense of that chaos.
That’s why the goal of all literature – of all stories for that matter -- is to probe what goes on beneath the surface, and give us juicy inside intel on what makes people tick.
In other words, stories aren’t about what people do, stories are about why they do it.
Yep, the question is always “Why?”
So the first question for the writer becomes: how the heck do you find out what makes your protagonist tick in the first place? How do you find the “Why?”
I found a fabulous answer to this question last Sunday when an article in the New York Times Business Section caught my eye with the headline: Talk Less, But Ask “Why” More
It was advice given by Gracious Home New York CEO Dottie Mattison, who was interviewed for the weekly “Corner Office” column. Mattison was talking about how her leadership style has evolved over the years, and what instantly struck me is that she sounded exactly like a writer discussing how to drill down to what makes your protagonist tick.
The first step is recognizing that your protagonist is separate from you – that he or she has their own subjective, experience-driven worldview.  Here’s Mattison explaining this phenomenon:

Early leadership lessons for you?

It’s a simple point, but it’s very difficult to subordinate your value system and really meet people where they are, to understand what motivates them and how that is sometimes drastically different than what motivates you.

And by the way, that’s the best part of the job now . . .

Yes! The question of what motivates your protagonist might be very different from what motivates you – their experience and their lives will have taught them very specific things. And the more that you, as a writer, can dig into the specifics of how and why your protagonist sees things the way she does, the better you’ll be at zeroing in on what she wants and what stands in her way when you thrust her onto page one – which is, of course, the very stuff of story.

So, how exactly do you figure that out? That brings us to the secret of leadership, of life, and of story. Here’s Mattison again:

How has your leadership style evolved?

I talk a lot less than I used to. I still talk too much, and I work on this every single day. A mentor of mine once told me, “You stop at the first question. Keep asking ‘why,’ and then ask again, and then ask again, because you’re not going to get remotely close to the truth unless you keep asking questions.” He would literally say, “Ask ‘why’ six times.”

Yes, yes, yes! I love how Mattison says that she talks too much. For writers that translates to writing forward without really understanding your protagonist, or why she would do, well, anything – let alone the thing she’s doing in the moment. Instead the goal is to ask why, over and over, until you can’t dig any deeper. Asking Why? is the writers most potent tool.  Learning how to wield that tool is what transforms a writer into a Story Genius.

Want to Be a Story Genius?

Asking Why? is at the heart and soul of my forthcoming book, Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere), due out from Ten Speed Press in August.

It was thrilling to finally put the finished manuscript into the deft hands of Ten Speed’s spectacular production team. After that, I only had one minute of, Geez, now what? Because the very next day I teamed up with author and book coach Jennie Nash (whose novel is developed in the pages of Story Genius) to develop a 10-week Story Genius Writing Workshop.

We just ran a beta version of the course and it was truly breathtaking the way it cracked story open for people and let them write in a way that was deeper, richer, more logical and potent than they had ever written before. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever been a part of.

We’ve made some improvements to the course to make it even better and will be offering it again on May 9. There are only 50 seats total, and we’ll be offering them first to my newsletter followers and Jennie’s followers. To get the alert about when doors will open to reserve your seat, click here. On that page, you’ll also learn details about the course – who it’s for and what exactly we’ll be doing.

Plus, I’ll be giving away new bonuses and doing some live events in the coming weeks, so stay tuned here for all of that. I’d love to have you join me.

Meanwhile, in case you’re curious, here are a few Story Genius Course Testimonials:

“This has been more helpful than my MFA program by a zillion percent & about a zillion percent less expensive (& I loved my MFA program.)” -- Laraine Herring     

“I just recommended the STORY GENIUS workshop to all 30 women at my writers' group! I'm loving the experience, wise guidance, and individualized feedback. Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash you and your editing team are doing a fabulous job!” -- Carol Van Den Hende

“I've bought a bunch of courses and tools over the past couple of years and this is one of the very, very few that I have loved. I'm such a fan. I wasn't actually planning to do anything with the already-written old book I'm working on...was just hoping to learn and to apply the method to my next novel, but now I actually have renewed hope for this one! You are amazing teachers, and this online group is fabulous.” -- Maya Rushing Walker

“So I thought you knocked my socks off last week, but THIS WEEK!! Socks knocked off and totally destroyed. Thank you, thank you, thank you. “-- Vicky Bell

“I am blown away by the depth of your comments.  They are so helpful and will give me a tremendous amount of food for thought.  I really didn't have any idea of what it takes to write a book.  I'll get out my shovel and start digging. Thank you so much.”  -- Linda Livingston

“This is the most substantive process I've ever been part of. It's tough, but I'm loving it.”  -- David Wilhelm

Talk soon. Till then, here’s to the power of story – yours.

The New Normal Is Busy

Okay, here’s the thing: the new normal is crazy busy, can we just agree on that? When did the rule become shoehorn 30 hours work into every 24? These days, don’t you feel like Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey when, genuinely puzzled, she asked, “What’s a weekend?” 

Such a quaint concept that these days – a weekend – sounds kind of like an urban legend, doesn’t it?

It’s like that when you’re writing a book – there’s no time off.  And while I’m utterly delighted to report that Story Genius is finally, 100% finished, for real – it was a longer time coming that I thought. Because every time I thought I was finished, it turned out I wasn’t. It was like that recurring scene in The Sopranos, where Sil is doing his impersonation of Al Pacino in the Godfather, Part 2 saying: Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Ditto! When you’re writing a book, every time you think you’re done, your editor has one more thing for you to do, one more change that – she doesn’t realize – changes a whole lot of other things too, because they’re all connected. And then there’s your copy editor, who notices things that your editor missed, so there are those changes to make.  Changes, I might add, that your editor then – very kindly – asks you to tweak.    

And then, finally, after a year of work . . . it’s really truly done!!! And – you firmly believe – you can celebrate, kick back, relax, try to remember what a weekend is.  Ah the cruel irony.  
Because then there’s even more work – all those things you let slide while you were writing, rewriting, tweaking – that suddenly needs to get done, basically yesterday.

If you’re lucky – and I admit I am very lucky – you like what you’re doing, and so while it’s exhausting, it’s still . . . fun. 

But -- and yes, there’s always a but -- there are so many things that don’t get done regardless, so many areas of life that clamor for your attention and don’t get it. Places where you feel like a big fat failure, even as you succeed in another area.

As the brilliant writer and book coach Jennie Nash always asks: if you’re serious about your writing, what are you prepared to give up to do it? Because, the real truth is, you can’t squeeze 30 hours work into 24.

It just feels like you should able to.

For a clear eyed, inspiring and ultimately uplifting glimpse at what it means to put in the work and succeed, check out Shonda Rhimes’ – creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder -- 2014 commencement address at Dartmouth. Her most profound, and painful, takeaway is this:

LESSON NUMBER THREE is that anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.

Why is this so uplifting? Because it means that that voice we all have that says, “You’re not doing enough, and everyone else is!” is, um, often that liar. Do you have to give up a lot to write? Yes, you do. Is it worth it? Well, only if you want to change the world, because that is exactly what books do.

Change the world, how?

Here is President Obama talking about the fact that he learned how to be a good citizen from reading novels. 

Here’s how Harry Potter has changed the world. 

Here’s why reading fiction is good for you from the always insightful Jonathan Gottachall, author of The Storytelling Animal. 

And the literary giant we lost this week, Harper Lee –she changed the world in the most profound way. To Kill a Mockingbird is often cited as a major reason for the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

In fact, a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated second, behind only the Bible, in books most often cited as making a difference. Oprah Winfrey calls it “Our national novel.” Former First Lady Laura Bush said, “It changed how people think.”
How did a novel do that? By changing how they felt.

Because the only way to change how someone thinks about something, is to first change how they feel about it.

That’s why writers are the most powerful people on the planet, and why making the sacrifices we make to write our stories is worth it.

Which, in turn, is why I love my work so much, because there’s nothing more exhilarating than helping writers perfect their craft, and so wield their power.
So with that in mind, here are some of the places I’ll be speaking in the upcoming months. If you don’t happen to be in these locations, I’ve listed some online possibilities for learning more about story, as well.

California Writers Club, March 5, Woodland Hills, CA – Redifining Backstory
Ventura County Writers Club mini-Conference at the Thousand Oaks, CA Library, April 9

The Wild, Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference, Naperville, IL April 29-May 1st.


If you’re writing memoir I can’t recommend Jennie Nash’s The BookStartup for Memoir course enough. It starts March 9 and goes six weeks. Jennie is my book coach, and in my experience no one knows more about zeroing in on the heart of what your memoir is really about, and how to then get it onto the page.

Jennie and I will be offering The Story Genius Writing Workshop online again in May. We are just finishing up the beta run of the course and it has FAR exceeded our expectations.  Here’s what current students are saying:

“This has been more helpful than my MFA program by a zillion percent ... & about a zillion percent less expensive .... (& I loved my MFA program). I can tell you specifically why: the Third Rail -- the breakdown of how the internal struggles fuel and are impacted by the external events. Followed a close second by the guidelines for how to know where to actually start the dang thing. I have read or taught pretty much every craft book in the universe in 25 years of teaching writing and never have I found this laid out so clearly and 'do-ably'. I have been just blown away.”
– Larraine Herring

“I've bought a bunch of courses and tools over the past couple of years and this is one of the very, very few that I have loved. I'm such a fan. You are amazing teachers, and this online group is fabulous. I barely participate in these things, usually.”
– Maya Rushing Water

“I just recommended the Story Genius Writing Workshop to all 30 women at my writers' group! I'm loving the experience, wise guidance, and individualized feedback. Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash, you and your editing team are doing a fabulous job!” 
– Carol Van Den Hende

“I just told my career coach that I've found the single most amazing writing class EVER online -- better than my MFA program, sorry [nationally recognized writing program]” 
Seats are limited for the course so be sure to get on the interest list to be the first to hear when the doors are open in May.
Finally, I’m in the early planning stages of putting together a live workshop with Jennie in LA in September right after Story Genius, the book, comes out. I don’t have a link set up, but if you’re interested, stay tuned here for info.
And if you would like to pre-order Story Genius, the book, you can do so here.  
Here’s to the power of story – yours!

It's a Wonderful Life

Can you believe that the holidays are now the stuff of memories (not to mention a gazillion Facebook posts, Instagram pics, and iPhone videos)?
Maybe part of that memory is yet another screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, while it’s fresh in your mind (and sheesh, if not, it’s not too late to watch it now), let’s revel in the things that were right there in front of us that, like George Bailey, we might have missed.  No, I’m not talking about life lessons, but the writing lessons, the story lessons.
Here are a few that leapt out at me this Christmas Eve (yes, watching it in the wee hours of December 24th is family tradition).

1. Did you notice that we know the Plot Question right up front? George Bailey is going to have his moment of crisis at precisely 10:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve: will he end it all because he’s discouraged? As we’ll soon see, however, that is not what the movie is about. I mean, seriously, did anyone ever think doing himself in for the insurance money was even a possibility? The more intriguing question – the one we’re really curious about -- is the internal question: why is he so discouraged that the thought would even cross his mind?
2. Did you notice when Joseph then summoned wing-less angel Clarence to the rescue, Clarence, kind soul that he is, wanted to get to work helping George right away.  After all, it was already 9:45 p.m.! But Joseph stopped him and made him sit down.  “If you’re going to help a man,” he said, “you want to know something about him, don’t you?”


Like Clarence, your plot will help your protagonist come to grips with a defining misbelief. And just like Clarence, in order to create a plot that helps open your protagonist’s eyes to what’s right there in front of him, you need to know something about your protagonist first, don’t you?
But what exactly?

3. Did you notice that when Clarence wonders why Joseph is showing him a scene from George’s childhood instead of something more current, Joseph explains that, “Something happens here you have to remember later on”? Meaning that it’s a defining moment in George’s history that Clarence needs to know, not only to make sense of who George is now, but to decide what action to take. After all, as Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

From that point on the movie doesn’t tell us anything about George that wasn’t specifically designed to help us understand why he’s considering ending it all.

4. That brings us to what the movie is really about. Another way to think about this is to ask, What is the story question?

On the surface, every single event that Joseph shows Clarence revolves around one question: Whether or not George Bailey will follow his dream, leave his hometown of Bedford Falls and build Big Things. Each scene either gives us the reason he wanted to go, or the reason he stayed instead.
But that’s NOT the real story question, because we already know the answer: George never leaves Bedford Falls.  We knew that the instant the movie started, before Clarence and Joseph got involved.
The actual story question – the real question – the one that has us hooked, isn’t an external one. The real question is internal, it’s: Why didn’t George leave?
The answer? It was his integrity, and being there for others who depended on him, that kept him in Bedford Falls. That is what gave him meaning, and it was ultimately more important than “following his dream.” In other words, it cost him a lot to stay true to what really mattered.

In the end George wanted to go back to his life not for him, but for those whose lives would have been so much the worse had he not been born. And so he overcame his misbelief that by staying in Bedford Falls he’d failed to live a meaningful life. And he took pleasure in the bliss of others.

5. Joseph Campbell is oft credited with saying, “Follow your bliss,” a catch phrase that has been adopted by everyone from yogis to career coaches. But the appropriation of the phrase did not make Campbell happy. What he meant, he’s said to have grumbled later in life, was “Follow your blisters.” As in, yes, having a dream is good, but once there, making it come true takes a whole lot of hard, purposeful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes painful work.

George Baily did achieve his dream, even if it took a dark night of the soul for him to realize it.
And that, my friends, is always where the story is.
If you are wondering what your story is really about, and you want to know how to hook a reader the way It’s a Wonderful Life has hooked millions of weeping fans, you’re going to love my upcoming Story Genius course.

What Grabs Readers: The Inside Story

As writers we all know what it’s like to go to ground, so deeply into what we’re writing that everything else seems to disappear . . . that is until you open your sock drawer, discover it’s empty and realize you haven’t done laundry since December, 2014.

I don’t want to tell you how many such moments I’ve had this past year while writing Story Genius, but I do want to say how glad I am that it’s finally finished, and so here I am, blinking at the sun like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day (great movie!), and delighted, in a befuddled, squinting sort of way, to be once again standing in the sunlight, wearing clean socks. Hello!

I’m happy to say that Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Crack the Code of Your Novel (Before You Spend 3 Years Writing 327 Pages that Go Nowhere) will be published by Ten Speed in August, 2016, and now I can turn my attention to what I love most: working with writers.
Because writers – you guys – are the most powerful people in the world. Why? Because story is the most powerful communication tool on the planet. And there’s nothing I love more than helping writers wrangle the story in their head onto the page.

So expect to hear more from me in the coming weeks, with writing tidbits, story tips, advice and news.

For now, my latest post on Writer Unboxed went up last week: What Grabs Readers: The Inside Story.

Talk soon, till then, here’s to the power of story – yours.


8 Random Writing Tips

  • The bigger the word, the less emotion it conveys.
  • Avoid exclamation points!  Really!! Because they’re distracting!! Almost as much as CAPITALIZING THINGS!!!
  • Make sure that each scene gives us new information, rather than rehashing things we already know. Never tell us the same fact twice. Because it’s boring and stops the flow of the story. Never tell us the same fact twice. Because it’s boring and stops the flow of the story.
  • If the reader doesn’t know there’s intrigue a foot, there is no intrigue afoot.
  • Scenery without subtext is a travelogue.
  • Everything must be earned.  In story, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – unless, of course, it’s poisoned. Think Snow White. In other words, if it’s free, it’s going to cost you big time. (I refrained from using an exclamation point in that last sentence, I admit, it’s not easy! Oops.)
  • There are two basic motivating factors for just about all human action: Fear and Desire. Almost always, these two are pitted against each other.
  • The most important element of any story is to make the reader want to know what happens next. Period. Everything else is gravy.

Story Abounds

I’m thrilled to have a new post up on Writer Unboxed: What is a Natural Storyteller? The answer is . . . your very own brain.  Check out the four ways to pick your  brain for storytelling tips. And, for more on how to harness your brain’s natural storytelling ability when it comes to writing a story, I’ve recently done a two hour video tutorial for the amazing tech website, Lynda.com. It’s called “Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.” Click here for a taste, and for a free 7 day trial at Lynda.com. But beware, once you start trolling the site, you’ll find it’s addictive – not to mention full of insanely useful info that just might change your life (how often do you get to say that and mean it!).

Meanwhile, I bet you're  curious about the photo at the top of this post -- clearly it has nothing to do with Writer Unboxed or Lynda.com. So, without further ado, let’s talk story for a minute. Or better yet, watch one – a commercial for Jetta.

An ad, you might say? But we’re writers, and not Mad Men. Ah yes, but advertisers turn out to be some of the best storytellers around, because they know the secret: the brain is wired to instantly respond to story in a way that facts, details, data and concepts can’t even touch.

The reason I’m suggesting you watch this particular commercial is not just because it’s a great story, but because it is perfect example of how to use a “reveal.”

So, before I say more, take a minute and watch it. As you do, pay particular attention to the story you’re telling yourself as it unfolds (there hardly a word in it . . .). Spoiler alert: don’t read forward until you’ve seen it.

Here’s the link.

Okay . . . lalalalalalala. I’m protecting you, ‘cause I know that our hardwired response to being told not to do something is to, um, do it. So chances are whether you wanted to or not, you glanced down at this paragraph before clicking on the link. Now for the spoiler . . .

. . . so, did you notice that when you watched the commercial you were sure that this guy was late for his own wedding? Everyone was worried. He was panicked. But there was probably a teeny tiny niggling voice in the back of your mind whispering, Why is he so far from his own wedding? Why doesn’t he just call and say he’s late? Why does everyone at the church look SO unhappy? And when he pulls up, hey, why is he going into the front of the church, wouldn’t there be a side entrance for the groom? I’m not saying you thought these things consciously, but that you felt them, like pebbles in your shoe.

To see exactly what I mean, watch the commercial again. See how really unhappy and wistful the bride looks? This time when she glances out the window, you know she’s not looking for her groom, but to be rescued.

In other words, the “tells” that all is not as it seems were there from the beginning. What hooked us the first time is that we were dying to know if the guy would get to the wedding in time. Why is he late, we wondered? What happened? In other words, we thought knew where this was going. But did you notice how delicious the surprise at the end was?  It didn’t feel tacked on, or unbelievable, in fact, it felt more believable than the story we’d been telling ourselves. Talk about a well earned “reveal” that changes everything!

The point is that the “tells” told one believable story going in, and another – slightly more believable story -- in hindsight.

When you’re writing that’s the goal. Let us know something is amiss, so we can start to try to fill in the blanks. Don’t keep the “reveal” so hidden that when it comes, because there was no foreshadowing, there’s nothing for us to look back at and go, “of course!” After all, the pleasure of reading is trying to figure out what’s actually going on, the better to anticipate what will happen next. And when that commercial ended, didn’t you wonder exactly that? Is she going to marry Dustin Hoffman, uh, I mean the guy who burst into the church?

What does this have to do with selling Jettas? Good question. My guess is twofold: First, that wonderfully satisfying jolt at the end is something that will stick with us, it was visceral. Second, since we always root for the underdog – the guy who saves the day – we’ll associate the car with something we can trust to get us where we need to be in the nick of time.

But will we remember all that consciously the next time we’re in the market for a car? Probably not. Which isn’t to say that when we gaze at the Jetta a sensation of confidence, safety and daring might not well up inside. But that’s another story.

Write to Done: 7 Ways to Use Brain Science to Hook and Hold Readers

One thing, and one thing only, hooks readers: curiosity. The brain is hardwired to be far more interested in what happens next, than in the gorgeous language you use to convey it. Today I have the great honor of explaining why, and then offering 7 ways you can use brain science to hook readers and reel them in on the insanely informative, curiosity inducing site, Write to Done.  Should this pique your curiosity, click here to read more.

I’m Thrilled to Become a Contributor at Writer Unboxed, YES!

Writing can be a lonely profession, because mostly we do it alone at our desks, lost in a world that no one else can see yet. Of course, that has its perks. We get to work in our PJs and if we have a bad hair day, who’d know? But truth is, there’s nothing more exhilarating than being in a room full of writers, talking about story -- either for real or digitally (my hair looks great! no, really). That’s why today I am so excited I can hardly sit still, because I get to join one of the smartest, most creative, savvy roomful of writers on the Internet – Writer Unboxed. For me, it’s a dream come true.

I’m there today, writing about why we’re wired for story. Hey, did you know that the brain craves, hunts for, and responds to the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller? Want to find out what it is? Click here and find out. The door’s wide open, and we’d love to know what you think!

My Grammar Girl Guest Post: The Rules of Story

When it comes to story, your brain has a set of hard and fast rules that it’s pickier about than your third grade teacher was about turning in your homework on time. What’s more, your brain operates on the same principle that our legal system does: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. With that in mind, want a handy reference guide to some of the brain’s hardwired expectations for every story it reads, hears or watches?  Then check out my guest post, The Rules of Story, on the most brilliant, savvy, must-read site for writers on the web: Grammar Girl. She actually makes grammar fun, unlike said ruler-wielding third grade teacher. Or maybe that was just mine. Mrs. Gardner, are you still out there? My knuckles have just about healed.

Men With Pens . . . Or Are They?

Today I have the privilege of guest blogging about the seductive power of story on one of the most innovative, savvy and engaging writing sites on the web – Men With Pens. And you know what? There’s something very intriguing about the site that you wouldn’t know at first blush. Something that the brilliant person who runs it, James Chartrand, wanted to a keep secret. Which brings us to one of my favorite topics: neuroscience.

One of the most thrilling (and sometimes unnerving) things about recent breakthroughs in neuroscience is that they’re proving that many of the things we suspected about how we see the world are actually true.

For example, the notion that “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Turns out it’s not a metaphor, it’s a fact.

We don’t see what’s “objectively” right there in front of us, rather we see what we expect to see.  Everything is subjective. That’s where story comes in – our own personal narrative explains what things actually mean to us, and what we should do about it.

Of course, sometimes what we expect to see is pretty close to what’s actually there. Sometimes it’s the exact opposite.

For instance, there was a fascinating article in the New York Times a few months back about Patricia O’Brien, a writer who published several books, none of which had done particularly well. When her next novel failed to sell, her agent was certain it was because the editors she’d submitted it to, knowing that O’Brien’s last book hadn’t sold well, were thus unable to see the story that was actually there on the page.

So she suggested O’Brien do a two word rewrite: her name. When her manuscript then went out under the pseudonym Kate Alcott it sold in three days.

Both groups of editors read the exact same manuscript, yet each group read a very different story. The second group read only the story on the page and were completely engaged, the first read it as a novel by a failed writer whose work just didn’t connect with readers, and weren’t engaged. Want to know how well the novel in question, The Dressmaker, connects with readers? Just click here.

Which brings us back to Men With Pens and James Chartrand, whose website was born after she – yes she – discovered that simply by taking a man’s name doors in the work world that remained steadfastly shut to her as a woman, suddenly opened. Like Patricia O’Brien, she didn’t do a single thing differently. Not one. As you can read here, the reality stayed the same, the only thing that changed was her name. And that alone, in and of itself, changed the world’s perception of everything she did.

Why? Because the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works are what create the reality we see. It’s eye opening, isn’t it? Not to mention a little scary.

It’s also why writers are the most powerful people on earth. The stories we write have the ability to change how others view the world, themselves, and what they do about it. The power of story is yours, use it wisely.

Fifty Shades of Story vs. “Well Written”

There are two things that everyone is saying about Fifty Shades of Gray: It is not well written.

You can’t put it down.

To recap for anyone who’s just waking up from a refreshing six month nap: Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James, along with its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, has topped bestseller lists around the world for months. The trilogy has sold well over 20 million copies, and is the fastest selling paperback series of all time, leaping ahead of Harry Potter. There are well over 8,000 reviews on Amazon.

The one thing you hear over and over – often in an embarrassed whispered by your most highbrow friends -- is that you can’t put it down.

The question is: why?

The answer is: Fifty Shades of Gray does exactly what a good story needs to do in order to captivate the reader’s brain. It catapults us into the protagonist’s skin and allows us to feel the emotional costs – and, um, benefits – of navigating the escalating problem she’s bound to struggle with. (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Ever notice that when talking about sex everything becomes a double entendre?)

By thrusting us into a risky situation that, let’s be honest, we’ve always been a wee bit curious about -- you know, solely in the academic sense -- James’ protagonist Anastasia Steele lets us experience what it would be like to take those risks – pretty much risk free. Except, of course, for the risk of being seen actually buying the book. Which might account for the sign seen recently in the window of a Malibu bookstore that simply says, “Shhh, we won’t tell” -- and proves it by selling the book discretely wrapped in brown paper.

Which brings us to the real secret of the novel’s success – of any story’s success. There’s something that prose gives us that nothing else does – not real life, not movies, not plays. Prose provides direct access to the most alluring and otherwise inaccessible realm imaginable: someone else’s mind.

Prose let us experience what something really feels like, as opposed to what we’re willing to admit to on the surface. Story is about all those things that we brood on, fantasize over, and wonder about, but would never actually talk about for fear of making a fool of ourselves. Or worse, for fear of finding out that we are, indeed, the only one who feels it. Story shows us we’re not alone. That’s what the reader comes for.

And good writing? That’s gravy. Yes, the writing in Fifty Shades of Gray is clunky (I mean, “holy crap” 44 times? once was too much), but James more deft storyteller than it might seem at first blush.

For instance, writers often forget to let the reader know what the protagonist’s expectations are, so when those expectations aren’t met (and they almost never are – that’s kind of the point), the reader is clueless. James lets us know exactly what Anastasia expects, beginning with her first fateful meeting with the enigmatic Christian Gray. And so clunky writing be damned, a whole lot of us want to know what happens next.

Would Fifty Shades of Gray be “better” if it was well written? Absolutely. Does it matter that it’s not?

Well, it hasn’t stopped over twenty million people from reading it. That means one of two things. Either all those people are idiots, or “good writing” doesn’t mean nearly as much as we’ve been lead to believe when it comes to hooking readers.

Which would you put your money on?

Wired for Story: Thank YOU!

I am overwhelmed at the reception that Wired for Story has gotten, it's exceeded my wildest dreams. Yesterday it made it all the way to #77 on Amazon, and for a couple of hours it was number one on their Movers and Shakers list. I actually took a screenshot of it, just to be sure I wasn’t asleep. I half expected the alarm clock to go off and I’d wake up thinking, So that’s what lucid dreaming is all about, hey, where's Leonardo DiCaprio?

I haven’t the words for how it feels to discover that an idea you’ve worked on for years is actually out there in the world, on its own, perhaps changing the way people see things.  It’s incredibly humbling. And, yes, really exhilarating.

Today I’m delighted to be making guest appearances on two blogs that have been changing the way people see things for a quite while.  Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds and Janice Hardy’s The Other Side of Story.

Here's to story!

Writers: the Most Motivated People on the Planet

I know a lot of teachers, instructors, professors. When they talk about motivating their students, it always catches me off guard. My first thought is, Why would you need to motivate them? Followed by, You mean sometimes they aren’t completely dedicated to mastering the subject and so make their mark on the world? And then I realize they’re not working with writers. Who are the most motivated, determined, dedicated group on the planet. My last thought is, Boy am I lucky!

It’s such a privilege to be part of the conversation about what it means to be a good writer. Which is why today I’m beyond thrilled to be making appearances on two of my favorite writing blogs – The Sharp Angle and Novelists, Inc -- talking about the thing that unites us all, whether we’re writers or just plain human beings (neatly covering all the bases) – Story.

Today WIRED FOR STORY is Published!

I’m so thrilled that I can hardly stand it. I know Anne Lamott says the feeling of being published isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be.  I beg to differ. It’s worth the wait. It’s worth the work. It’s worth the (okay, yes, sometimes incessant) doubts that dog the steps of any writer worth their salt.

To all you writers out there, hang in there. Don’t give up, ever. (But do take naps.)  Learn to tell stories. We’ll listen.

And speaking of feelings, here’s a surreal (and, I can’t deny) wonderful sensation: going to blogs you read every day and finding that you’re mentioned on them (Gawker and Smoking Gun notwithstanding).

This week I’ll be making guest appearances on blogs that for the years I’ve turned to for advice, camaraderie, and inspiration. I can’t tell you how honored to be there.  Speaking of which . . .

Today there’s an excerpt from the book on Jane Friedman’s ever fabulous site, Being Human at Electric Speed: Exploring What it Means to be a Writer in the Digital Age

At the savvy Sharp Angle, here’s Lydia Sharp’s review of Wired for Story

More to come . . .

Writing Forward: The Myth of All-You-Can-Eat Sensory Details

I remember reading the first page of a manuscript that waxed eloquent about how the warmth of the sun felt on the back of the protagonist’s hands as she drove down a quiet early morning lane, the way the taste of the sumptuous strawberry she’d eaten for breakfast lingered on her tongue, how the coolness of the steering wheel beneath her palms made her shiver with delight . . . and that’s about all I remember because by then all I could think about was how refreshing a nice little catnap would be.  Sure, sensory details are important, but there’s a method to choosing which ones that will draw in the reader, as opposed to drawing their interest to a quick close. Want to know what it is? I’ve the pleasure of laying it out on the fabulous website, Writing Forward.  Check it out!

Writer Unboxed: Unmasking the Muse

When writers mourn that their muse seems to have moved out during the night leaving no forwarding address, it always breaks my heart. Not because the muse ditched them. But because they believe that their talent, hard work and dedication alone can't cut it. That is, not without the magical help of some unpredictable, fickle and unknowable "outside" force. I say it's high time we unmask the myth of the muse, and give credit where credit is due. And I have the honor of saying so on one of the best writing websites in the world: Writer Unboxed. Check it out!


It’s election season, which got me to thinking about the unparalleled power of story. Here’s the scary thing: story is much stronger than the power of facts when it comes to motivating us. But because story can seem like “mere” entertainment, we often miss the effect it has. So, here’s something it helps to keep in mind whether you’re writing a story or, just as important, reading, watching or listening to one: Whether we’re aware of it or not, once a story engages us emotionally, our analytical brain shuts off, and our cognitive unconscious viscerally absorbs it, the better to experience it as if it were happening to us.

Truth is, most of the time, we have no clue of its real effect on us.  In Tell to Win, author Peter Guber likens a story to a Trojan horse, saying that “stories emotionally transport an audience so they don’t even realize they’re receiving a hidden message.”

Why are we so easily captivated? Because biologically, when our love of story evolved, it served a necessary purpose, and there was no major downside. It’s just like how we evolved to crave sugar, fat and salt. They were rare, we needed them to survive. Now, with a Micky Ds on every corner, they’re abundant. Yet we have no way to turn off our biological craving for them – a craving that whispers, “Eat up now, tomorrow there might be a big fat famine.”

So what is the survival benefit to being able to get lost in a story? Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain is wired to devote so much precious time and space to letting us to get lost in a story is that without stories, we’d be toast. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. We get to sit back and vicariously experience someone else suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the better to learn how to dodge those darts should they ever be aimed at us.

This was a matter of life and death back in the Stone Age, when if you waited for experience to teach you that the rustling in the bushes was actually a lion looking for lunch, you’d end up the main course. It’s even more crucial now, because once we mastered the physical world, our brain evolved to tackle something far trickier: the social realm. Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others (what’s he really thinking?), as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future. As a result, story helps us survive not only in the life-and-death physical sense but also in a life-well-lived social sense.

In fact, the pleasure we derive from a tale well told isn’t ephemeral, it’s a dollop of dopamine – think of it as nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.

The good news is that most of the time stories do a whole lot of good. They can broaden our horizon, take us deeper into the human condition, and make us more empathetic, more alive. But, especially now, it’s important to be aware of the fact that story is just as potent in the hands of advertisers, politicians and televangelists. In fact, it’s often more so – because they have a very clear agenda, and their stories are well crafted with a very specific call to action in mind. Sometimes following their call to action really does help us. Then again, sometimes it sends us to Micky Ds with the heartfelt belief that chowing down on a Big Mac at midnight is not only good for us, but something we deserve, damn it!

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “buyer beware” doesn’t it?

The Making of a Modern Love Essay

Publishing a Modern Love essay in the New York Times has launched many a literary career. The competition is fierce, even long established writers continually try and fail.  And so it was thrilling when my friend Michelle Fiordaliso called to say that her essay had been chosen -- and to run on Mother’s Day, no less. It was doubly thrilling for me, because I’d had the honor of working with her as she crafted the piece.  As with any story that reads so beautifully you have the sense that writing it was effortless, it took a lot of work. So I thought it might be interesting to show the process Michelle went through to take her piece from a good idea to a riveting read.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Michelle is a fabulous writer. Her voice is assured, compelling and nuanced; her insights are piercing in the best possible way – at first unsettling and then, reassuring.

Interestingly, she didn’t set out to write a Modern Love piece, she set out to write about death for a monthly personal essay series (think The Moth). But like most of us, the hardest part was finding the story itself, the interconnected cause-and-effect chain of events capable of bringing her vision to life.

That’s where I came in. I worked with Michelle, helping her do just that. She was already miles ahead of the game, because she went into the process having defined the one thing that writers often forget to do: she had zeroed in on the point she wanted to make. To wit, that nothing can prepare you for how vulnerable loving others, especially your children, makes you feel.

Michelle: I knew the emotional truth of my story. I spent years working with terminal AIDS patients, helping people face death – I thought I’d made peace with it. But being a single mother turned all of that experience upside down. My dread of something happening to myself, or my son, made me fearful of death in a way that I didn’t understand. This caused me to shut down emotionally and as a result I was missing out on life, particularly my son’s life. That’s what I was writing about.

Lisa: Then came finding the story – the series of events – that would bring her point to life, so we could experience it ourselves.  Michelle was writing a personal essay, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that she had a storehouse of actual events to choose from, the curse that that storehouse spans her entire life.  Talk about an embarrassment of riches.  So her first job was to zero in on the right event, or series of events. She started with a story about baseball.

M:  I knew that I needed to choose an event from my life that personified that point I wanted to make. I thought about using the story of the day when my son was nine and got hit in the face with a baseball during a little league game. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life and certainly put me in touch with the fragility of my son’s life. But that didn’t feel quite right. It didn’t have anything to do with my own fear of death, or the numbness I’d allowed it to cast over my life. So although yes, it did touch on my fear of death and my son, it didn’t have anything to do with the point I wanted to make. I knew I needed to go in a new direction.

L: We began brainstorming. When Michelle mentioned – in passing – something that had happened between her and her son Joe a week earlier, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This time it wasn’t Joe’s vulnerability that leapt out of the story, it was Michelle’s. Which is exactly what she was writing about. Here’s how it happened:

M:  I’d mentioned to Lisa that I’d had an emergency MRI the week before, and that  on the morning of the procedure I’d lost my temper while driving my son to school. I was already stressed, and as he dawdled getting out of the car I snapped, “I can’t start our day this way, this kind of stress is going to make me sick.” Telling the story  out loud made me realize that I didn’t explode because I was worried about myself; I exploded because I was terrified of what might happen if I died and left my son. That was the connection between real events in my life and the emotional story beneath those events. It wasn’t about how I felt when he was injured; it was about how he’d feel if something happened to me. The thought of leaving him alone in the world terrified me more than the thought of dying. That fear is what caused me to shut down emotionally, trumping everything I’d done prior to “get over” my fear of death, and so, ironically, I was leaving him in little ways every day.

L: Once we centered on that particular day, the goal was to then cherry pick the necessary backstory to bring it to life, and give it meaning and weight. This is always very tricky process, because there are often so many things that happen concurrently that are fascinating in and of themselves, but really have nothing to do with the story being told.

M: That’s so true. There were lots of things I could’ve included in the piece. For example, why I chose to keep my pregnancy despite having known my son’s father for such a short time, why his father left, why I was drawn to working with AIDS patients and tons of other things. While all of those things are interesting details, they weren’t relevant to the particular story that I was telling. What’s more, I was looking for details that didn’t just tell about my fear of my own mortality. The story is about why I was fearful, how that caused me to become emotionally numb, and how I came to realize it and begin to feel again.

L: That done, the next task was to bring what remained into sharp focus, identifying which specific facet of each remaining memory was relevant to Michelle’s point, then making sure it was vivid enough to allow the reader to not only picture it, but experience it as if it were happening to her.

M: For example, I knew it was important to tell readers about my history working with AIDS patients and becoming a bit of a daredevil, but why? It wasn’t until I made the connection that I thought that exposing myself to some of life’s most challenging experiences would make me fearless and that fearlessness would somehow protect me from the potential loss of people I love. As I reflect on all this I realize that good writing also involves fearlessness—there must be a bold (and often painful) willingness to look under the surface of things. It’s not enough to recount what happens, we must reveal why those things happened and how our characters are defined by the choices they make. We, in turn, as writers, are defined by the details we choose to show and tell. And perhaps, we’re even more clearly defined by something the reader will never know, the things we left out—finally realizing their presence in our story would dilute it rather than enrich it.

L: How true is that? It reminds me of something Tony Bennett said recently on NPR. When asked what he can put into a song in his eighties that he couldn’t when he was younger, he answered without missing a beat, “The business of knowing what to leave out.” Why wait until you’re eighty to master that one?