16 Lessons (3 of 4)

9)    Structure is your friend.

The sooner you impose structure on your creative process, the faster you’ll see a return on investment.  Writing a book is difficult work no matter what, so embrace any trick or technique that allows you to write smarter and more efficiently.  This is where a rigid routine comes into play.  If you have a certain time and place to write, you’ll quickly train your “muse” by Pavlovian response.  If you’re at your writing desk from 7-9 PM every evening, for example, you’ll find the words will be there to greet you more often than not.  Once you really get cooking on a project, let the momentum carry you through to the end.  Don’t stop.  If you pause midway through a manuscript, even for a day or two, you risk losing forward thrust.  Remember, it’s nigh impossible to recapture that initial rush of excitement for a project once it’s gone.

Structure is especially important when tackling a long-term project like a novel.  A rough draft takes several months, so the key to success is breaking it up into manageable, daily tasks.  Writing a book sometimes feels like wandering around in a whiteout fog.  Structure acts as a guide wire to keep you from veering off course.  And if you write the same amount each day (whether two pages or four or eight), you’ll notice those pages stack up quickly.  The beginning and end of a book may feel “faster” — especially when you’re slogging through the middle section of a novel — but structure reminds you that’s all an illusion.  Four pages a day is the same amount, no matter where in the book they fall.  (It’s funny how much of the creative process is predicated on fooling yourself in various ways.)

10)  Understand the difference between a premise and a plot.

This is something that tripped me up when I started, and I’ve noticed a lot of tyro writers fall into the same trap.  A quick lesson then:  A premise is the germ of an idea that impels you to write a story; it’s the backdrop against which you tell your tale.  (Hollywood calls this a hook.)  The plot is the series of events by which that premise plays out.  For example:

One day the earth stops spinning.  It slowly decelerates until halting altogether.  Half the world soon becomes a scorched wasteland, while the other half freezes in eternal darkness.  A habitable strip exists, however, a place of perpetual dawn called the “Twilight Zone” that has been overrun by the largest refugee migration in human history.

An interesting premise, but not a story in itself (apologies to Rod Serling).  So let’s add a plot:

After a new ice age settles across North America, geologist Bob Protagonist decides to move his family across the frozen Atlantic Ocean to Nouveaux Shangri-La, capital of the Twilight Zone.  His wife and daughter undertake the dangerous trek alone after Bob is approached by a cadre of explorers who need his help.  They recruit Bob to help find the lost Aztec city of Whogivesashit, where legend speaks of a fabled Golden Maguffin, a device so powerful it has potential to set the world in motion.

A workable plot (albeit skeletal) for our purposes, and not broken down into individual chapters.  Yet you see the difference?  A premise is a promise; the plot is the delivery on that promise.  Plenty of aspiring writers cut their teeth on vignettes, which tend to be all premise and no plot.  Their stories are full of thinking and feeling — but very little action. Many established “literary” writers are guilty of selfsame, long after they should know better.

Many elements go into storytelling, none more important than plot.  If you have a million-dollar premise, you need to pair it with a million-dollar plot; otherwise, the whole story feels off-kilter and frustratingly unfulfilled.  A lot of movies fail in this regard, especially high-concept sci-fi flicks.

EXASPERATED SCREENWRITER:  I have a high-concept hook!

STUDIO EXECUTIVE:  Great, let’s execute it with a paint-by-numbers, Joseph Campbell rip-off then call it a day!

11)  Readers carry their own baggage, and you have no control over how they react.

In a perfect world, readers who pick up your books would come to them tabula rasa, like flawless mirrors onto which your stories are reflected.  Sadly, this isn’t the case.  For some, those mirrors are smudged with dust and fingerprints.  Others may be cracked or fragmented into a thousand jagged pieces.  And a few are warped funhouse mirrors that distort anything viewed through them, including your work.

Readers come with certain expectations.  Those expectations are colored by their personal histories and experiences, their likes and dislikes.  Your baggage as an author is heavier than most, though it’s that very burden which makes your work distinctive.

Some people will love the stories you tell.  Others . . . won’t.  All opinions weigh the same, about as much as a fairy’s fart.  The only opinion about your work that matters is your own.  You can’t please 100 percent of people 100 percent of the time; however, you can aim to please yourself 100 percent of the time.  That said, pursuing perfection is as futile as chasing the horizon.  With a lot of diligence and elbow grease, you can get a manuscript within perfection’s margin of error, say, ninety-five percent of your original vision.

12)  No isn’t a four-letter word.

This is true of life in general, not necessarily just writing.  The more you hear no, the less it stings.  So ask out that cute girl at the gym.  Or submit that short story to The New Yorker.  The worst that can happen is they pass on it.  They’re not going to hunt you down afterward or kill your puppy.  Probably.

And understand there are different shades of no.  Artists spend their whole careers “failing up.”  There’s a vast difference between no and no-but.  No implies someone isn’t interested in hearing from you at all, while no-but means they’re rejecting your ideas for whatever reason but they like you as a person and want to work with you in the future.  Keep in mind you’re selling yourself as much as you’re selling your wares.  That’s true for any pitch meeting.

Check back throughout the week as I post more lessons.

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