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Story Genius


How to Start Over

I get up on a soapbox about many writing realities, among them the following:

1.)  Make sure that stepping back to assess is part of your writing process – that you’re not just writing forward blindly. If you can use a professional to help you with this step (a coach, an editor, a writing class, a writing group with a solid critique process in place) all the better.

2.)  Don’t be afraid to throw out work that isn’t working. Holding onto pages just because you wrote them doesn’t serve your story or your reader. It just makes it harder later to let go.

3.)  Make sure that you are inviting the reader into the work by showing, not telling, and by letting the story unfold on the page. We want to BE there, not just hear about what it was like. (**For my take on how this applies to non-fiction, see below.)

I thought I would take a moment to show you what it looks like to put those Big Ideas into practice.

Over the last two weeks, I have been assessing the pages of the novel that I began working on in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book. I used the feedback I got from my agent about what was working and what wasn’t working (which was not specific to the start of the story – it was about the way the protagonist was coming across to the reader in general), and I made the decision that I was not starting in the right place.

I was coming into the story a little too late. In my zeal to start at the very moment the wolf was at the door for my protagonist, I left a lot of the story off the page – including the chance to have my protagonist’s beloved actually make an appearance in the story (rather than be dead through the whole thing.) Too much of the opening was told in backstory – and I saw that if I backed up a little bit and actually told it in real time, I could go a long way towards showing more of my character’s relationship to the man she is about to lose.

Not too long ago, I used those opening pages to teach a lesson in the Story Genius workshop on weaving in flashbacks. I think it was a good lesson and I think I did a very lesson. If you studied those pages for that purpose, fear not! Everything still holds. In fact, everything about those original opening pages is still good. It just wasn’t good enough. It was a draft that has now been supplanted…

So here’s what I did to move forward:

·      I opened a blank document. I wanted to give myself the experience of starting at zero and not worrying about “saving” anything I had already done.

·      I closed my eyes and pictured a scene – an actual moment in a singular time and place when something was happening that was directly related to my protagonists’ struggle so the reader could FEEL her struggle.

·      I assessed my idea and decided it was viable according to some key criteria: it would still be a moment with a lot at stake, a lot of forward momentum, and a lot to show the reader. It would still be tied directly to the spine of my story.

·      I brought the characters onstage – onto the page – introduced the conflict (both large and small) and wrote until that conflict (the small one, the scene-specific one) was resolved, which is the end of the scene.

·      I wrote the opening lines of the next scene that would happen as a result of what had happened in the first. If there’s not a cause-and-effect trajectory driving from the start to the end, your story will fall flat. My goal here was to make sure that what I was writing would drive towards the scenes I had already written. I had taken these scenes out of play but they were still THERE in my mind, lurking, waiting, hoping…. And I believe PARTS of them will still work. Not all of them – not by a long shot. But a chunk of them. I will have to do some massive rewriting (taking out the flashbacks that now happen in story present, for one thing) but that’s okay.

·      I used “TKs” (to come) to stand in for information I didn’t yet know.

·      I assessed what I had written again, and decided I liked it better than where I had started before.

·      I went back in and made sure the character’s reactions and motivations were on the page.


Some of you may recall seeing the original opening pages I shared here before. If you have not seen those and would like to look at them for comparison, you can check out the back-to-back posts HERE.

And HERE are the new opening pages – rough as can be – but alive in the world. For the moment anyway, they have risen above the original opening and are now the presumptive opening of my novel.

** Everything I say here applies to non-fiction just as strongly. I was working with a client recently on a book that is a prescriptive how-to for business executives. He showed me pages from a chapter where he had written a long recitation about his own life – from back in the day all the way through to the present. It was meant to show the reader that he understood their reality but it was flat and somewhat indulgent. We discussed a better way to begin, and he came up with a fabulous story that takes into account the cultural zeitgeist of this moment, and his readers’ reality, and his own place in it all. It was dazzling – 1000x better than the other opening. And he only got there because he was willing to do what I just did with my own work, which is to put it on the chopping block.

So what about you? Where do you need to start over? Maybe it's not the beginning of your book. Maybe it’s just the beginning of a chapter. No matter where it is, follow these steps and just do it.



What a Stonemason Can Teach Us About the Creative Process

Now that the New Year is upon us, I have made a commitment to my own work – to finishing the novel that I started under Lisa Cron’s Story Genius tutelage. I made a weak commitment at the end of 2015 and did not see it through so now I have to get serious. Towards that end, I did two things to make my vows stick:

1.)  I promised my agent I would get her 100 consecutive pages of the new book by February.

2.)  I promised my mastermind partner that I would post every day in our shared chat how many minutes a day I worked on the project.

In other words -- accountability squared. Nowhere to hide.

Why minutes per day and not pages?

Because creativity is not always about production, progress, or moving forward. Many times you have to go backwards to go forwards. Many times you have to throw out the last three weeks of work.  I wanted a process that honored this.

Also, sometimes I have only worked 6 or 8 or 14 minutes a day, and you can’t normally write a good page in that period of time. But you CAN organize files. You CAN scan a paragraph to see what it needs. You CAN think about a character, do a bit of research, evaluate how a scene is working, move a chunk from here to there.

It’s only day 15, but here’s the thing: minutes add up. Progress is absolutely being made. Pages are being generated, the story is being told. And the most important thing that has been generated is momentum. I’m doing it.  Yesterday, in fact, I came back three times to the project, for a total of about 90 minutes. I couldn’t stay away. I wanted more minutes.

I notice that a lot of writers who are new to the creative process feel a certain panic around how messy it is. A book that comes out seamless, chronological, neat and whole is a hot mess while it is being made – and oftentimes, the whole time is being made.

When I approach my project for my minutes per day, I feel the unsettledness of it in my stomach. I approach with a certain amount of worry – and even dread. Something has to be untangled and solved, and ugh, the only person who can do it is me.

But here’s another thing: the untangling is fun.  Putting your mind to the task is very satisfying.

I know that this is also true about all creative endeavors. It’s a large part of the reason people are drawn to make things.

I recently heard a riveting interview on NPR about Jamie Masefield, a renowned jazz mandolin player, who became certified as a drywall stonemason – a process that includes a 7-hour long test.

The finished walls are gorgeous – smooth, fluid, rhythmic, perfect in their organic-ness. (Take a peek at Jamie’s walls here.)

But the process? It literally starts with a pile of stones. Total chaos.

And while you are building, you have to both think fast and think about the long- term goal of making something as timeless as anything humans can make. “It takes creativity and discipline,” writes NPR correspondent Angela Evancie. And, I would add, a tolerance for chaos.

Masefield compares the work to playing jazz. Evancie writes:

“It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes.

`When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long.’”

Jazz. Improvisation. Building a stone wall. Writing a novel or a memoir or a non-fiction book. It’s all fundamentally the same thing.

I have a pile of words. I have an infinite variety of ways I can put them together. I want to make something that has an impact, and that lasts. I can let that reality paralyze me, or I can move forward, one word at a time.

I thought I would share one stone that I put in place yesterday – the fruits of the luxurious 90 minutes I spent.

I started with this exchange between a woman whose lover lies dying and the nurse in the hospital ICU. The nurse asks if the woman is the patient’s wife.

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

The exchange did what I wanted it to do, which was establish that my character’s decision to not marry this man (and to protect herself from the pain of love) was now going to cost her – big time. But the more I read it, the more I felt that it was flat. It didn’t have any rhythm or beauty. It didn’t elevate the moment in any way. So I went back to it and added a phrase:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word.  
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

But that addition only made me see that what I had here was an opportunity to let the reader into my character’s mind – to let the reader see what friend meant, what love meant, what this particular man meant. So I added to it:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

This was better. This was beginning to please me – but I saw opportunity for going deeper. How was this man the center of her life? How was love different than friendship? If I didn’t put it on the page, no one would know. I would be leaving the opportunity unused. So again I went in and added more:

 “I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine. Henry was the first person I wanted to tell good news and bad, the first person whose advice I sought out, the only person I could be with when I was furious or sick or elated. He was the only person I could travel with, the only one I could sit next to in silence while reading, the only one I ever wanted to go home with after a party, no matter how many beautiful, witty and clever people I’d spoken to that night. I hadn’t gone to the movies without Henry for 15 years, because he would laugh out loud while it was running, spend just the right amount of time analyzing it afterwards, and at night just before we fell asleep, he’d say something profound and moving about what the movie had taught him about life or love or guilt or regret.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”


There are parts of that sentence that are clunky and can be made better, but I love where I got in the 90 minutes I spent on it. It feels effective. It feels solid.

At the end of his interview, Masefield beautifully explains the goal of such work:

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.”





The Beauty That Follows the Fail

I wrote a couple weeks back about holding a webinar where no one came. Last week, I held another webinar and had 210 registrants. I was so excited to speak to so many writers – and then another problem occurred. My software didn’t work correctly and no one could get in the classroom. Everyone was shut out, and they flooded my inbox with emails asking what was going on. I was frantic and mortified and trying desperately to make it work.  I assumed, of course, that I had done something wrong. I had messed up. It’s what we always assume…

So for the second time in a few months, I went ahead and did the webinar with no one watching. It was for very different reasons, but still, it felt the same: like I couldn’t get this right.

I recorded the webinar then got on the phone to the tech people and learned that what went wrong wasn’t my fault. It was a software glitch. Something that rarely happens, but it happened nonetheless.

When I went through the emails from participants who had been shut out, I realized a very curious thing: Almost every single person who wrote to me assumed that it was their fault. They were at Starbucks and the wifi didn’t seem to be working. They had never done a webinar and must have signed on incorrectly. They must have had the time wrong.

We so often assume it is out fault.

I realized that I see this all the time when writers pitch to agents, especially when submitting full manuscripts at the agent’s request. The writers assume that they don’t hear back right away because their work is not worthy of feedback. But many times, it’s that the agent’s kid was sick. Or their mother died. Or someone hit their car in the grocery store parking lot. Or they never got the email….

We are so hard on ourselves.

We should give ourselves a break.

And we should try to look at these things that go wrong in a totally different way. Because two things happened with my upsetting webinar tech failure, which turned out to be quite wonderful:

1.)  When I explained to everyone what had happened and apologized and sent them the recording of the webinar, people were so terribly nice about it, and forgiving, and comforting. About twenty strangers took the time to tell me not to worry, not to beat myself up, and to thank me for trying. It was very moving and it lifted my spirits. To those of you who did that, thank you for your kindness.

2.)  That same day, I had an assignment from Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and the forthcoming Story Genius. I agreed to develop a novel in the pages of Lisa’s new book so we could show people how the process really works.

Lisa was pushing me on what she calls the “aha moment” scene – the scene when a character in a novel realizes whatever it is they have to realize about themselves and the world, the moment when they GET whatever it is they haven’t been getting. Lisa wanted more specifics than I had on the page. She wanted me to go deeper – “How does your character feel at that moment? What exactly changes her?” she kept asking, and I kept resisting.

 I didn’t know how my character felt except for sad. So I put something simple down – “Ruby feels sad.” Lisa very nicely said, “I need more than that.”

So I put something else down – “And she also feels regret.” Lisa very nicely said, “That’s not deep enough.”

And meanwhile the clock was ticking because Lisa’s editor at Ten Speed/Random House was waiting.

I thought about giving up – I mean, why not? Does anyone really care about this character who doesn’t exist except in my head? The answer is no. They do not.

And then I had my own “aha moment.” I realized I could give my character the experience I had just had in feeling the love of strangers.

Ruby is the writer of a hit TV show. She has 72 hours to rewrite a script and she has to do it without Henry, her writing partner who is also the love of her life and who happens to be on his deathbed. She has been unable to complete this task, and the Internet is on fire with speculation about her mental health and fans offering alternative endings to her show. Writing the script forces Ruby to confront everything about love and loss she has been unwilling to confront.

Here is what I finally wrote about what she feels:

How will Ruby feel when she finishes her rewrite? Ripped to pieces. But once it airs there will be an outpouring of love and concern and care for her from all the fans and strangers she had come to disdain, and this love will transform her; it will make her realize that she does in fact have the capacity to withstand the pain of losing Henry because of what she had with Henry all along.


Lisa said, “Yes!” which means that I finally went deep enough. The only reason I got there in my work is because I am a person who is alive, who is experiencing success and failure every day, and who had the presence of mind to recognize the parallel between my character and myself.

 It was a powerful moment of turning life into art.

And the tech failure? I’m already over it.


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January 7, 2016