Formulaic is a four-letter word.

At least I’ve never heard it spoken with positivity. Even before I’d heard the word, when I wrote magical adventure stories for my friends in seventh grade, I shirked patterns and motifs; I pushed boundaries and wrote a lot of crap, but it was all pretty original—as original as we can be after everything that’s been written before us.

 

This fear of formula and drive to be different kept me from taking too much writerly advice as a young artist. In college, avoiding the formulaic kept any craft book geared toward genre writers out of my hands. In grad school, the only writing books I read were dense tomes on rhetoric and what story meant, as opposed to how to tell a story. Even after I broke free of my strictly-literary chains, I slid books back on the shelf at the first mention of word-count limits, genre expectations, plot point placement, tropes… I viewed these guidelines as rules. What art had rules?

 

But stories are designed. They’re intended to take us someplace for whatever reason, from simple escape to learning something important about what it is to be human. All great art does this. I read a few terrific craft books like Self-Editing for Writers and Wired for Story, but still steered clear of books that gave advice on how to bring a story together. I could write stories. I’d put out some very good ones. I’d published over a dozen, some in respected journals. Of course I knew how to bring it all together. Yes, books are looooong. It’s easy to get sidetracked. I knew I was sometimes tangential, but I knew what my book was about. I didn’t need a formula. I did not need a map.

 

This summer, my manuscript was a finalist in the Sandy Writing Contest. I attended the Crested Butte conference with a niggling feeling. I’d done well in a contest or two before, had had numerous manuscript requests from agents and editors, and had other writers love my opening pages, synopsis, and premise. The end rocked. Still does. But the middle. I knew I had middle issues. Second act-itis, literally. Act two was swollen. When I received my next request from an agent, I decided to give the manuscript a good critical read. Nothing, I assured myself, was wrong with it that a week-long revision couldn’t fix.

 

As I read, however, that niggling feeling grew into a certainty: I’d been shopping a book that wasn’t ready. Every chapter from the one-quarter point to the three-quarter point read wrong to me, with problems ranging from inactive villains to murky character goals. Considering how to begin again, I felt overwhelmed.

 

One writer I met at the Crested Butte conference was Stuart Horwitz. His book, Blueprint Your Bestseller, sounded interesting, detailing a revision process that required printing your manuscript and actually cutting it to pieces, separating each of your scenes. His mantra was, “Ninety-nine good scenes in the right order.” Or one hundred and ten, whatever. He kept stressing that this process was a method, not a formula. After I took the time to think about this distinction, something clicked.

 

Many of the methods and processes I’d shunned over the years had nothing to do with conforming and everything to do with getting your story straight, something I needed urgently, and Horwitz’s book fell into my hands at exactly the right time. I decided to use the method in Blueprint Your Bestseller, which has you track your manuscript’s theme and major story components to keep you on point, while stressing fluidity rather than rigidity. This helped me keep my follow-the-directions gag reflex under control. I did cheat—I did not physically chop my manuscript up, but I did cut a lot and re-ordered most of what was left. I’m working on the revision, feeling fantastic about this book for the first time in, well, maybe ever. My theme, discovered via Horwitz’s method, is deeper, more meaningful, and yet simpler than I’d ever imagined.

 

So my point—and you probably already know this, but if you’re bull-headed about it like I am—not all processes for writing novels are formulaic, molding your story into a pattern, however loose. Many are methodical, giving you the tools to tell a great, meaningful story without any dots to follow or lines to stay inside. I still resist the formula. I have embraced the method.

 

We’ll see what ensues.

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Happy Thirtieth, Colorado Gold!

colorado gold

My favorite conference turned thirty this month, the Colorado Gold, hosted by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in Denver. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve attended. But I think my first was in 2002. I remember being a little lost. I envied the people who knew everyone and wished I lived closer to Denver so I could be more involved. (I was over an hour away!) But I met my goals that year: to get a “send-it” from an agent and find a critique group.

Each year I attended, I felt a little more at home, less nervous, less isolated, making an effort to find other writers I could connect with. I learned to smile at EVERYONE. I kept getting send-its but no agent. I could write well and pitch well, but my story had holes. I had put in my 10,000 hours as a writer, but I needed 10,000 more hours as a storyteller. I’m still clocking those hours.

A couple of years ago, I decided these conferences were too expensive to simply get one send-it from an agent and/or editor who might not fall in love with my story. If I was going to keep attending, I needed to get more out of these conferences. I began to focus more on the other writers I met, on getting to know them and their work, reading their books and reviewing them, learning from everything they said and everything I read. So many dynamic, wonderful people attend Colorado Gold, writers who write a lot and still have time and energy to help a comrade with craft, give business advice, share a story and a laugh. I liked those people. I wanted to be one of them.

This is not a success story. Yet. I still don’t have an agent, but I haven’t given up, weary as I sometimes get. When lassitude sets in, I turn to my writer friends. Most of them have suffered from inertia at one time or another. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

This year, I was able to attend four writers conferences, all in my home state of Colorado. Colorado Gold is my favorite and has been for years. Most of my writer friends are there, and I encourage writer friends who aren’t regulars to attend.

If you’re a writer who’s never attended, consider this your personal invitation. And feel free to contact me with questions.

Next year, I might have to chop one conference from the itinerary. It pains me, but I think I need an actual vacation next year. You know when it’s time, and it is time. But if I have to miss one conference in 2015, the Colorado Gold will not be that one.

If you will be there next September, find me and say hello.

Unpacking It—How My Favorite Books Stack Up

bookshelf

Many of you have probably seen some variation of the writing advice Chuck Palahniuk posted on Tumblr with the introduction:
“In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.”

The assignment is to cut all “thought” verbs, including: thinks, knows, understands, forgets, remembers, realizes, believes, wants, imagines, desires, loves, and hates. He also includes “has”, as well as “be” verbs such as is, was, and were.

The advice is to un-pack sentences that use these lazy verbs into something more evocative, applying specific sensory details that allow the reader to experience what your character thinks, feels, and wants without simply being told about it.

So I searched my own work for a thought verb and a be-verb to unpack. It didn’t take long to find them. I’m going to try unpacking them here:

Lazy writing: “Residents expressed concern that the house would fall into disrepair or even be bulldozed. It concerned me, too.”

Oh, what a sluggish second sentence. How about changing it to:
“Only a monster would destroy a work of art that invited the public not only to view it, but to wander inside and spend an afternoon surrounded by its mystery.”

Well, better.

And this: “Employees were allowed to explore most areas of the mansion, but we weren’t supposed to climb on the stones.”

Hmm…how about exorcising the “were” and “weren’t” with: “Berand encouraged employees to explore most areas of the mansion, but climbing on the stones would get you a month of sweeping the massive front porch with a push broom each morning.”

Not genius, but also better. Evocative details added. Be-verbs killed and their bodies disposed of. You might put a dent in your forehead training yourself to do this, but it will improve your writing. My training continues.

Palahniuk suggests that we search our favorite novels for thought verbs and the like, passages that could use some unpacking. So I am taking William Peter Blatty, Susanna Clarke, and John Gardner to task. I’m even going to give them grades.

On the first page of The Exorcist, I find Merrin wondering, knowing, and having a thought. But two of the sentences are so well written, already nicely unpacked in spite of the thought verbs. The third is simply, “And yet, now he knew better,” which I think could be improved.

The other two are: “The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that had once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God.” And: “What was beginning? He dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but he could not tag it.”

The line about his knowing better is surrounded by such fine writing, it’s like a little sip of water to go with an excellent wine. I’d give the page an A.

Now. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. We begin with a be-verb statement, perhaps interesting enough to be forgiven: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” However, it could be combined with the sentence that follows it: “They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.” Combined, it would read: “Some years ago, in the city of York, a society of magicians met upon the third Wednesday of every month…” You could argue that this drains some of the life from the prose.

Later on the page: “They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic, nor ever done any one the slightest good.” You could eliminate this “were” in many ways, the simplest probably being: “As gentlemen-magicians, they had never…” This may damage the historian-like voice.

And then: “Northern magicians, he reminded his audience, had always been better respected than southern ones.” Specific examples here, instead of the statement, would unpack this “been” nicely. Something like: “Northern magicians, he reminded his audience, had attended royal weddings, while poets wrote discourteous limericks about southern magicians.”
I’ll give this page a B.

And finally, Grendel. We have a ram deciding: “He cocks his head like an elderly, slow-witted king, considers the angles, decides to ignore me.” The final phrase in the sentence could be unpacked. The ram could turn on the rocks and show Grendel his backside. I don’t even think the line would damage the poetic prose.

Farther below, the be-verb “am”: “…I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy.” He could tremble or hide. Any number of physical reactions could show us his uneasiness.
Also a B.

I’m still combing my bookshelves. Without opening every book I own, I’ve searched for nearly an hour, and my large test batch included two Palahniuk books. I still haven’t found one that would garner an A+. That would mean absolutely no thought, be, or have verbs on the first page. A couple of my Dr. Seuss books accomplish it, but I’m still searching for non-children’s market book that do.

Join me? Can you find one?