You all remember Larry Brooks of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. He wrote a guest post for me, Self-Editing at the Story Level, last March. That same week, he hosted me on his site, Storyfix, with the guest post, The Bootstrapping Writer—The Secret at the Core of Competency. Larry is the critically-acclaimed author of five psychological thrillers, one of them a USA Today bestseller, and a writing instructor through the Oregon Writers Colony. Writers Digest Books recently published his nonfiction Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.
Now he’s re-releasing three of his thrillers under his own imprint, throwing a high, hard one for the ebook revolution.
Welcome back, Larry! Let’s ask the obvious question first. You’re re-releasing three of your previously published novels, is that right? Can you tell us about that? What made you decide to do it now?
I actually have four previously released novels, in addition to my latest, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, (total of five), which is still active with the publisher. (The rights to the first four were given back to me when Penguin-Putnam and I parted ways. . .which is another long story.)
I wanted to re-release (is that even a word?) all four of those, but I can’t find the digitial files for #3, so until I do it remains the Omitted One. Unless I scan it in from the published paperback or retype it, it won’t happen. Bummer.
Why republish anything? Because my website is a pretty good platform for my author brand, and with the uncharted potential of this new venue, digital ebooks, I want to be in the game, in addition to watching it and writing “about” it. I’m thinking a “republish” of a successful novel is a little different than a new “self-published” book that was never published (sorry if that smacks even a little of elitism), which is a side-niche that hasn’t really taken hold yet, but I think it will. Want to be there when it happens.
The backbone of what you teach about writing is your theory of the six core competencies. Can you summarize each in one word? Characterize each as a character in canonical literature?
I actually don’t think I can summarize each core concept in one word. One reasonable sentence, perhaps, but each CC (concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice) is too layered, complex and critical to attempt to simplify down to one word.
As far as an exemplary character for each CC goes. . .well, character is just one of the core competencies, the other five being either story-specific or execution-specific. So I can’t think of a single iconic character from literature that represents them all. For example, Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) is one of the best characters ever written, but he’s not a concept or a theme, he’s not structural, he’s not a scene and he’s even not the voice (though that’s the one CC I’d assign to him), which belongs to the author. Characters are the window into which we get to see concept, theme, structure and execution at work. Nothing more, nothing less.
How about this—give us an image of a lifeboat with those six characters in it when the most important one falls out.
If they were in a boat, they—as passengers—would be of equal importance. When any one goes overboard, the whole boat sinks. You ask a great question here, even though it appears I’m dodging the answer, because it makes my point: they are all equally vital and therefore necessary. Screw one up and the story will be seriously compromised. We need to get all six right. Successful stories always—no exceptions—do.
How did you develop your theory of the six core competencies? Was it a long and painful process throughout all your career moves, or did you go out flying a kite with a key in a thunderstorm one day and get struck by lightning?
Some of the backstory of this model has to do with me seeking a simplified way of putting the necessary attributes and skills required of a great story into separate buckets (so I could more easily wrap my head around it all), yet realizing that at some point those buckets must be poured out and mixed in a way in which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. That’s how and why a story with each of six core competencies being simply “good” (versus “great”) can combine to deliver a “great” story. In fact, that’s usually what happens when “great” is the result.
So it was just my left brain trying to make sense out of a cloud of vaporous right-brained stuff that we writers have to handle. And which are challenging enough without bringing a left-brained sensibility to them. There are, of course, dozens of attributes and skills involved in writing a great story, but I’ve discovered that they almost without exception align under one of these six major categories. Have yet to hear of one that doesn’t.
From marketing I learned that to publish you need to write “for” the audience (give them what they want and expect), instead of simply sharing what you want to write for yourself. Nothing wrong with the latter, but it greatly diminishes your chances of publication. There’s only a very narrow market for books that don’t fall cleanly into a genre.
I’ve learned that he who throws hardest is not necessarily the best pitcher. It’s about control and command of several pitches, thrown on any count, with consistency, winning the mental game, being fit and ready, and being courageous as well as fine-tuned. It’s about craft over and above talent, and that’s true in writing, as well.
You know that Hemingway quote, don’t you? “When you can’t throw a high, hard one, throw your heart instead”? I love that quote.
What about stock brokering?
I learned very little about anything in life from that, other than it is an over-rated way to make a living. Then again, stockbrokers make great characters because there are so many of them out there that are kinda messed up. Working all day at a job that doesn’t mean anything to the Big Picture of life will do that to you.
I can’t get that Clint Eastwood line out of my head, when he was about to be demoted to Personnel: “Personnel? Personnel’s for assholes.”
I learned almost everything from this corner of the writing world. The “how to” oeuvre in script-writing vastly exceeds that of novel-writing, both in terms of quantity and quality. Mostly, this is where I discovered what story structure looks like. . .it’s second nature for screenwriters and too often a foreign concept for novelists. And yet it totally defines the effectiveness of a story in either format.
Being creative director of a marketing & training company?
There wasn’t a day on that job that I didn’t think about writing fiction and about the craft of fiction, rather than the next wonderful printer for which I had to write a video and a brochure or website. You can only squeeze out so much blood for clients that routinely kill creativity before it feels like a total sellout. What I do now isn’t making me rich, but it’s making me happy, and it’s connecting me to real people in a very rewarding way. Hopefully for both sides. And it has an exciting upside that is still to be determined.
Agency-model pricing, ebook technology, rock-star publishing mentality, self-publishing—what do you see as the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today? How can the average aspiring writer realize their dreams in this context?
Writers need to realize the one thing that hasn’t changed: the need for a compelling, well-executed story. Access to the marketplace through ebook venues like Kindle and Nook doesn’t change the fact that great stories will surface over mediocrity, even when mediocrity is being pimped by authors who are killer online strategists via social media (which is currently the only way to really promote your own work).
Thus we are faced with the real problem. Traditional publishing did two things well: they screwed up frequently by passing on some very good books and quality writers, and they vetted what was published in a way that ensured at least a certain level of quality out there.
That’s all gone. We’re on our own, and somehow there will be a way for great writing to surface among all the great marketing. It remains to be seen how this will look, but in the meantime it’s still about craft, not how good you are at Twitter and Facebook. I suck at the latter (I’m trying, though), and that may hurt me in the short run. But I’m confident in my work and press onward in the hope that this vetting will come soon. And I’ll be back on the shelves under a Big Six imprint soon.
I know you’re teaching a two-day workshop on Story Engineering at the Oregon Writers Colony in Portland on October 29 and 30. How did you get involved with the Oregon Writers Colony, and what’s special about it?
I was born and raised there, and they were my first writing community. I began teaching for them by virtue of having optioned some screenplays, and it went from there. It was through those teaching opportunities that I began to formulate the storytelling models that I espouse today and that I applied toward my own published novels.
The OWC is a great organization, and I hope many will take this opportunity to attend. It’s going to be intense.
Can you give us some insight into your own struggles with the craft of writing? What sucks worst for you? Why do you keep writing in spite of that?
Wow. A truly loaded question.
Because of my take on story architecture, my struggle isn’t as much with the writing as it is with finding the time for it. My website and my freelance work (I ghostwrite books for folks, as well as the occasional soul-selling corporate job) keeps me away from my current WIPs. (I have several in the hopper.)
Also, I struggle with people who accuse me of arrogance instead of the intended passion with which I preach the gospel of story architecture (the melding of all six core competencies, with story design and structure at the core). They confuse what I’m saying about story infrastructure as a commentary on process, which (while I don’t deny advocacy for story planning) is both necessary and available for pantsers (organic writers) and story planners alike. I want everybody to get this stuff. . .because every writer needs to get it. Why? Because every successful story—no matter how it got there—demonstrates it. This really isn’t a theory as much as it is a way to describe the writer’s requisite writers toolbox, which in this case comes with an instruction manual for each tool and requires them all to be involved.
With all this self-publishing talk, what gets lost in the conversation is the experience of actually being published traditionally. Like, with a Big Six publisher or a major niche label (such as Writers Digest Books publishing my new writing book). Fact is. . .it’s a gas. Totally living the dream. Even if there’s not big money involved, which there rarely is, there’s no substitute for going into whatever bookstore you are near and seeing your work there. When it appears (for a while) front and center in the window or on the top shelf, that’s nothing short of a lifelong memory. Yeah, I took pictures.
That said, there were frustrations and compromises, too. After you’ve written your manuscript, it’s completely somebody else’s baby, and usually you aren’t given a vote by your publisher on what happens to it.
Then when I came across a bookstore that wasn’t carrying one of my books, I was angry and disappointed. As if the dream was ending (mostly, though, it was distribution mix-ups). And then when the book begins to fade from the top shelf (which happens quickly with paperbacks, unless you are an established A-list author name, which I certainly wasn’t, even after four books in five years), that hurts, too. Then there is the struggle to reposition the book every time you go into the bookstore, replacing it on that top shelf where it belongs before the shift manager asks to see your ID. (That happened to me. . .twice.)
The dream is almost always temporary. And that was the hardest part.
Concurrent with my first book, I recall going to a publisher-thrown party at a major writing conference (Bouchercon), where there were nineteen of their authors in attendance. Two or three were huge names like Jan Burke, two or three were less known but familiar, and the rest of us were fairly new. I kept track of them. Within six years only two of those authors were still publishing with that Big Six imprint. Two or three others had gone to smaller presses, and one had a self-published book out. The rest, including me and including a Barry Award winner. . .we were huddled under the bus where we had been cast.
The question is: why? There are many possible answers. Mine was—and this is the most common—the sales trend. I received a pretty decent advance for my third and fourth books, and they weren’t “selling through” (making the advance back). This is a paradox, of course, because the slower the sales, the less promotion budget they throw at it, which begets fewer sales as time marches on. Interestingly, as my four novels trotted out over those five years, each received a better level of critical praise than the one before.
My last novel in that era, Bait and Switch, was a Publishers Weekly “Best Books of 2004” selection and sold about one-eighth the number of copies of my first book, which was a USA Today bestseller. . .go figure. Fact is, my publisher dumped me after the third book, before my fourth book, Bait and Switch, came out to those glowing reviews, and therefore didn’t throw ten cents at promoting it and didn’t even notice the critical praise. Not to mention, the people I knew there left for other firms, and the new crew considered me old inventory.
One has to adjust, at that point. I pouted for two years. Then wrote what I think is my best novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, sold it to a small but visionary publisher (this, after my agent jumped ship, too), and launched Storyfix.com as, partially, a strategy to re-brand and get back into the mainstream. From that came Story Engineering, and suddenly I’m back repositioning my book on a different shelf.
What I’ve learned from all this is that it’s really about the storytelling and the community rather than the selling. It really is. There isn’t that much money in it, even when you’re “on the top shelf,” so the journey proves itself to be the thing. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim high, just that we should keep aiming and firing off the best work we can in any case, in the knowledge that the target is illusive, shape-shifting and slippery as a stealth fighter.
We have control over only one thing: the manuscripts we submit.
Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com and the bestselling author of five critically-praised novels with his newest book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, published this year by Writers Digest Books. He can be found on Twitter.
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