a story of what not to do and what finally set me on the path of production
Looking for Stories in the Wrong Place
At the end of my first year at the university I was still trying to decide what I wanted to do. I was sitting in a class and the professor read what Emily Dickinson said about how she knew she was reading good stuff:
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
Those words sounded a gong in my mind. Yes! I thought. Yes! That’s what I want to study. I want to learn how to take the tops of people’s heads off! And I promptly enrolled to get my BA in English.
The problem is: the goal of all the current university English departments I know is not to teach you how to take the tops of people’s heads off. They’re focused instead on literary criticism, literary theory, grammar, the history of English, etc. Perfectly acceptable topics of study, but not what I was after.
Now it’s true English departments do have creative writing staff and programs. And they are certainly trying to take people’s heads off. But they’re focused on taking the heads off of an incredibly small number of people. With stories that are, well, most often not to my taste. In fact, my experience with undergraduate and MFA creative writing programs is that they avoid the types of stories that appeal to the vast majority of the reading public.
There’s nothing wrong with those narrow literary fiction genres. But you will find it difficult to write what, in many instances, they eschew and sometimes go so far as to make “off limits” in their classes. Professors, like the rest of us, are not immue to making the mistake of confusing a story of poor quality with one that’s just not to the reader’s taste. And so their reactions to your writing might not only be useless, but damaging. Thomas McCormack (former CEO and editorial director of St. Martin’s Press) is right: “The only valid measure of an editor’s sensibility [reaction to your story] is the degree to which his responses replicate those of the appropriate readership.” Unfortunately, many college professors are NOT part of the appropriate readership for the types of stories many of us crave. It’s true you will find professors who ARE focused on stories with a broader appeal, but you cannot assume they’re in your program. (A good test is to ask them their opinion of “the genres.” Ask them if they study them in their classes. You’ll find those who whole-heartedly embrace such works are scarce indeed.)
So not knowing any of this, I pressed on. And by the end of my degree I was weary of “English.” Yes, I learned many interesting things. Read more widely than I would have otherwise (a definite benefit). And worked with a number of marvelous professors. But I hadn’t learned to write the types of stories that made me feel like the top of my head was coming off.
A Brief Vision
About this time Dave Wolverton and Shayne Bell offered a workshop on writing stories. I’d read and loved Wolverton’s book, On My Way to Paradise, so I signed up. In the very first session the clouds parted. I heard the light and distant singing of angels.
Wolverton and Bell had definitions of what a story was, where to start your story, where to end it, how to get ideas. They were talking about suspense.
Never once did anybody in the English department talk about suspense. They didn’t talk about a lot of things I now realize are fundamental to writing killer stories. They were focused on the language and odd structures. I remember asking one professor how you could know where to end stories. He had no answer. Now this isn’t because English professors are doofuses. Quite the contrary. It’s because the genre of fiction prized by academia does not offer the kinds of things most people go to story for. I’ve found this at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
But here was something that resonated with my soul: Wolverton and Bell were talking about writing stories that entertain, stories that I had actually read and enjoyed, stories that made me feel as if the top of my head were coming off. They were talking about submitting them. Getting paid. Attempting to do what the authors I loved did.
More angels singing.
I promptly wrote a story and sent it off to the Writers of the Future contest. This is a fabulous, international contest for those writing science fiction and fantasy. It came back rejected. No problem. I wrote another.
This one won a quarterly first prize. In my case, that meant $1,000, plus another $1,000 for publication, plus a fully-paid, week-long workshop with professional (i.e. making a living at it) authors and editors at Cocoa Beach, Florida.
Oh baby, I was on my way.
But not really.
Lacking a Map
I went to the workshop. Saw a launch of the space shuttle. Learned alot, but wrote a lifeless story that followed the Algis Budrys formula (see his book Writing to the Point), which we had been taught in the workshop, to a T. But no biggie, right? Everyone goofs up. After the workshop I went home and kept writing, but I couldn’t finish anything.
It wasn’t because my failure at the workshop psyched me out. It was something else entirely: I didn’t understand a few critical things about the process of writing stories. In fact, I believed a number of incorrect things, which made it extremely difficult to finish anything.
And so I wandered around in the bushes for another five years. FIVE MORE YEARS!
I wondered: was I just a story moron? I mean, I’ve got a brain with some horsepower. But I just couldn’t figure it out. There were authors all around me who seemed to be able to do it. I looked at folks like Card, Wolverton, Rowling, Richard Paul Evans (whom one of my in-laws read about and kept asking me why I couldn’t do that–it was, after all, just a slim little book he wrote) and saw their relatively quick success and began to think that maybe I just didn’t have writer’s DNA. I mean, how long did Tom Clancy and John Grisham spend learning? Not some freaking 10 years. Perhaps, being an ENFJ, I was of the wrong personality type. Heck, maybe God was trying to send me a message.
At this time, Orson Card announced he was going to conduct his second literary boot camp. I decided to apply for it. I got in. But the day before the conference began I decided to pull out–what was he going to be able to teach me? I was using up all our tax refund that year on his workshop and it was going to turn out to be yet another stupid goose chase. I tried to get my airfare refunded, but the blessed airline wouldn’t do it, so I went and thought I’d have to make the best of it.
I told myself that if I didn’t figure it out in this boot camp, I was going to put away my taking-the-top-off-people’s-heads ambition forever. I would give all my writing books to my writing friends who seemed to have a future. I would trash all my drafts and half drafts and folders full of ideas. This was my last shot.
The workshop started on Monday. By Thursday the writing was on the wall–I had no story. It was just the same old thing that had happened the last five years. I was done. I had given it my best effort, but my best wasn’t good enough. I had to face the facts that I was I was a midget trying to play in the literary NFL.
I sat at the Golden Corral with a plate of chicken and mashed potatoes, making my last few desperate attempts at writing this story.
And then I did something. And it was as if somebody flipped a power switch in my body. I saw the story roll out in front of me. The lights went on. The music started. There was a crackling along my bones.
Great oogily boogily, the story was bucking and kicking in my hands.
I ran out of the Golden Corral and back to the hotel and wrote like a madman. And the story, well, it was a STORY. It crackled with energy. And it went on to sell multiple times. But more important than having written a living story (I’d done that once before, remember?), by the end of that flood-of-insights boot camp I knew what had been holding me back for 10 years. I knew it*.
The Story Machine
I set a goal to write 3 novels in the next five years and get one of them sold. I went home and began to write AND finish. I finished a novelette, a short story, a novel, another short story, a novelette, another novel, another short. I wrote. I finished. I wrote. I finished. And all of these stories were crackling with electricity. Maybe not for anybody else, but they were for me. I could feel them in my bones.
A few of the shorts were published along the way. And then, at the end of the fifth year, having written 1000x more than I had in the previous 10 years, I received a very nice, 3-book deal from Tor, a major US publisher.
I learned the 3 things you must know to write killer stories. I applied them. And after some years of effort, they paid off. Some people pick them up intuitively. I was not one of those lofty ones.
Perhaps you’re like me.
If so, I offer them now to you. Learning the 3 things will not transform you. You’re going to have to work. And I would plan on at least 3 to 5 years of steady work, maybe more. But at least you’ll have something I didn’t have. You’ll have a map. You’ll know which way to go. Hopefully, it will keep you out of the bushes.
BTW, now that you’ve read my breaking in story, you might want to read how Brandon Sanderson broke in. His story offers some other important insights. Then you might want to mosey on over to my stats page and follow the links there to see numbers on breaking in.
*People keep asking me what specifically was keeping me back, and so I’ll share those things with you here.
- I wasn’t making consistent time
- I didn’t know how to react when the writer’s trance left me
- I didn’t know how to tell if a story was working
- Didn’t quite understand problem and plot yet and the power of using plot patterns
I explain more about each of those in an interview I had with Maya Lassiter. Of course, those were my issues. Everyone is different. The good thing is that there truly are just three things you need to learn. Yes, there’s a lot in each of those three things. But it can be learned.