Although the sum total of words I’ve written over the last 20 years would fill several books, before this year I hadn’t completed a novel since NaNoWriMo in 2002. But lightning struck in 2017, and suddenly, like a blazing forest fire, I burned through two novels. One between February and May and another between May and July. Nothing significant had changed in my life. I still had a husband, a full-time job, other hobbies, a mortgage to pay. So how on earth did this happen?
Credit for my surge in writing productivity is due to three excellent teachers. I’ve never taken a course with them or visited them during office hours, but I still consider them teachers. I’ve learned so much from them, although I still have a long way to go.
Books, podcasts, personal essays about the craft and life of a writer have always sustained me. They’ve given me clarity, inspiration, and hope, but rarely a clear sense of direction. But something clicked with these three writers and set me down a new path.
The toughest part of writing stories for me has always been narrative and plot. The idea of a character going on a journey or two characters falling in love or whatever seemed like an impossible place to start writing. I prefer atmosphere, experimentation, creative turns of phrase, bizarre settings, and inscrutable characters as the means of finding my way into a story.
But even when I’d found my way into a story, sustaining it over thousands of words and dozens of chapters was a challenge. There were too many ways to make things happen, too many choices to make, too many paths to take. I didn’t know how to decide what would happen next.
One of my breakthroughs came as a result of Jessica Abel’s podcast Out on the Wire about the principles of storytelling. The main episodes walk you through the process of telling a good narrative, focusing on radio but applicable to any medium, and half-episodes use listener submissions to apply the principles. In the second episode, the challenge was to create two things for your story: a focus sentence and an XY story formula.
A focus sentence is: “[Someone] does [something] because [reasons] but [something else that gets in their way].” The key things are: character, action, motivation, conflict. You could make it more granular to show the escalation of somethings that happen, but the idea is to home in on the central conflict.
The XY story formula is more of an elevator pitch: “I’m doing a story about X… and it’s interesting because Y….” It forces you to distill the story down into a simple phrase and discover why it’s so interesting, to you and to your readers.
The idea is not that you write these and voila, suddenly you have a plot. Instead, they’re intended to prompt deeper thinking. You might need several iterations to get to what you really want to write about. Keep drilling down into what makes the story interesting and what’s truly important.
These tools seem pretty easy to use, right? Well, it was tough for me. It was nearly opposite to the way I normally approached my writing. But it was enough of a boost that I was able to take some ideas I was tooling around with and apply them to a structure. I began to see my own work much more clearly.
I first heard about Robert McKee via Adaptation., an insightful and hilarious film about a writer struggling to adapt a book to film. I was surprised to learn from my husband that the profane and bombastic McKee was a real person and had written a book, Story. Its primary audience is screenwriters, but I think it’s an essential text for storytellers.
I read it last year over the course of a beautiful summer and early fall. When it wasn’t too hot and sunny, I would take a break from work and stand on the patio in the sun, catching a break from the air conditioning in the office. I read it on my phone and tried not to highlight every other sentence I read. Story is full of insights into what readers expect and deserve and what it takes to be a storyteller. Some examples:
“The storyteller’s selection and arrangement of events is his master metaphor for the interconnectedness of all the levels of reality — personal, political, environmental, spiritual. Stripped of its surface of characterization and location, story structure reveals his personal cosmology, his insight into the deepest patterns and motivations for how and why things happen in this world — his map of life’s hidden order.”
“You may think you’re a warm, loving human being until you find yourself writing tales of dark, cynical consequence. Or you may think you’re a street-wise guy who’s been around the block a few times until you find yourself writing warm, compassionate endings. You think you know who you are, but often you’re amazed by what’s skulking inside in need of expression. In other words, if a plot works out exactly as you first planned, you’re not working loosely enough to give room to your imagination and instincts. Your story should surprise you again and again. Beautiful story design is a combination of the subject found, the imagination at work, and the mind loosely but wisely executing the craft.”
“Self-knowledge is the key — life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.”
The most important thing I learned from McKee is the idea that in order to move your story forward, your scene need two elements. First, the values at stake in your story need to shift between positive and negative. Second, this shift needs to happen through conflict.
“Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?”
Is this a basic thing that every writer is supposed to know? Some writers are probably born with this idea already built in, right? Well, I wasn’t. I’m still working on actually putting this into practice, scene by painful scene. In the meantime, I’m keeping this book close to hand as I start revisions.
“Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth — the essential values.”
I also have McKee’s more recent book Dialogue which I have yet to crack. It sounds even more specific to filmmaking, and a bit hyper-specific, but I’m looking forward to the day I get to it.
I don’t know what it is about Annie Dillard, but she is amazing. The Writing Life might be the most important book on this list. Relatedly, I’ve also revisited Alexander Chee’s excellent essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life” several times. For the snippets of advice she gives the class as well as for Chee’s own beginnings as a writer.
I’d read The Writing Life years ago but picked it up for a re-read on New Year’s Day. One dark, formative morning in February before getting down to work, I read the following passage:
“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
It prompted me to focus on the part of the story that drew me into it, that fascinated me, that made it unique to me. What astonishment was I trying to give voice to? And that gave me a path inward to a place where the words seemed to come easily.
Who are your writing teachers? What books or podcasts or essays or people have influenced your writing life?