I’m forever clipping—literally and figuratively—articles on writing, especially the ones on how to do it. Surprisingly, many of the titles contain the word “secret” or its plural form. I often wonder if “they” were so secret, how did this writer get his hands on them? Did the Writers’ Avenger break into the “Vault of Writing Secrets” and steal them in the dead of night (or the busyness of day for that matter if he’s terribly daring), and now, driven by some Robin Hood inclination, is compelled to blab them to the rest of us?
When someone asks you, “Can you keep a secret?” they’re usually seeking assurances of confidentiality. It’s the opposite for writers who write about secrets; they want you to help spread the word—the “secrets” of this facet or that facet of writing—as far and wide as possible.
Using the word “secret” assures whatever it is won’t be kept secret. The titillating hint of something being secret is like a magnet to iron particles—it draws people in to take a look. Just observe the covers of the tabloids in the grocery store checkout lanes. Their specialty is the exploitation of secrets. Loose lips no longer sinks ships, they launch them or at least try to keep fading Hollywood careers afloat by leaking “secrets” about them to the tabloids. In fact, the more forbidden, i.e., secret, the story or topic, the more likely it will be splattered about the ether that much faster. Employed in a title of anything from a book to a blog, the term “secret” hints that the content breaches all confidentialities. It’s like whispering a rumor to someone across the aisle in seventh grade homeroom. Only light travels faster.
In the literary sense, the label “secret” hints, too, that the verbiage that follows contains something new—a magic formula of sorts, or tricks that cut out the middle man and negate the need to expend the effort to work through all that follows “A” and directly take you to “Z.” Worse, it insinuates that the pathway to success is paved with shortcuts, and once you know where they are hidden, bingo—success, however you define it, awaits, like the Fountain of Youth . . . out there somewhere . . . just follow me.
If you are into short cuts, you should probably not be into writing fiction. Fiction writing takes effort of the worst kind—trial and error. You can find yourself speeding down a dark alley at breakneck speed, headlights off, only to discover a brick wall awaits you there. All your blood, sweat, and tears can instantly go for naught—like reaching that point whereupon you realize what you have done is not working the way you had hoped; like being just about ready to wrap up your great novel only to discover the same story sitting on the “What’s New & Hot” table at your favorite book store, or worse, in a stack of unsold flops on the remainder table. This can be the reality of writing, but that’s not the kind of self-help and do-it-yourself information that sells: “Five Realities of Why You’ll Likely Flop.” Don’t think so. Have to change it to “Five Things to Avoid to Reach Success.” Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with putting a positive spin on something otherwise negative, that’s what marketing is all about, but when you’re at the bottom of the pipe about to be flushed, a positive spin is hard to conjure. A writer must be willing at all times to quickly alter his or her course to avoid the consequences of a scatological deposit—to quickly back up and forge another route.
Before you run down to the drug store to buy some single-edge razor blades, turn your head away from the remainder table. See all the shelves filled with books over there? Somebody finished their effort (i.e., dream) and ultimately brought their baby to full term and birth. The lesson is simple: model your efforts after successful writers. You can analyze what failed to work for you and try to determine why, so you don’t follow the same route the next time, or you can analyze what has worked for others and extract from them lessons you can use.
My best friend is a painter in another part of the country and we spend long hours on the phone discussing various aspects of the creative arts and the creative mind. They share common elements—dedication and effort way beyond what most people consider reasonable or are willing to invest. Not one of the successful will likely tell you that they owe their success to a book entitled “How to Become a Best-Selling Author in 14 Days—Your Menu to Marketing Millions.” In the music business, for instance, an overnight sensation frequently requires an investment of 10 to 15 years of hard effort.
I must also warn you that emulating the efforts of the successful doesn’t mean trying to copy their pathways to success. There are too many variables, and the world does not suffer copycats lightly. Replication is not an easy task. Things change. A single nuance of difference can trip you up. Defending a fellow charged with shooting a cop, co-counsel and I kept the jury out for a long time before it finally hung, 11 to 1 in favor of a not guilty verdict. The only thing worse than losing a trial is hanging the jury. You have to retry the case, which is like eating unheated, week-old, moldy pabulum. The second jury was out less than two hours before it returned a guilty verdict. What was different? Not us; not the defendant; not the witnesses; not the facts. It was the jury. The term “picking a jury” is such a misnomer. You try to flesh out the traits and work within the limited range of flexibility afforded you, but the uncontrollable variables frequently control. After we completed the jury selection process for the second trial, I leaned over to co-counsel and said, “There’s a hell of a jury in this courtroom, but it’s not sitting in that jury box.”
Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result constitutes insanity. Trying to copycat others is similar to that. Writing has its rules, but it has its incredible unending variables and nuances.
There is no such thing as replication of success. What worked one time most likely will not work the next. What worked for one person might not work for you. Of the dozen variables that worked in your favor a first time, there might be an additional dozen that won’t be in your favor in your next attempt. You’ve no doubt read novels by authors seeking to replicate the success of their first book and came away feeling they merely rewrote the first novel with a few changes. You feel gypped. You were.
It doesn’t take many criminal jury trials to learn the shear potential for impacts driven by unlimited and seemingly ever-changing variables. Trying to pare them down into simple rules can be a fool’s game. Many times I’ve seen a roomful of lawyers taking notes on a talk by an attorney who won “the big one” thinking they would learn a set of generic tricks for how to win their big one. Even generic rules need to be specifically adapted to a new set of facts or circumstances. Chief Dan George (check out the Dustin Hoffman movie “Little Big Man”) long ago offered perhaps the most important rule of life especially applicable to the writing life: “Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Reading “5 Secrets of Successful Authors” won’t turn you into a successful author, but a really great story told very well just might do the trick. You know the kind, the story where the characters jump off the page or the words pull you in. The books and movies that win awards, or just sell well, share a common trait—a very good story told very well, and usually simply. A great story, to a great extent, will tell itself. You just grab onto the reins and keep it heading in the right direction and stay out of the ditches.
You can grab a few variables and turn them into a story about what to do or not to do, but first understand Commandment One of Writing: like the importance of a med student to be able to distinguish a vein from an artery, you need to know and understand the difference between plot and story. Plot is the outline; story adds the details.
If you prefer longer definitions:
Plot: “[T]he arrangement and interrelation of events in a narrative work, chosen and designed to engage the reader’s attention and interest (or even to arouse suspense or anxiety) while also providing a framework for the exposition of the author’ message, or theme, and for other elements such as characterization, symbol, and conflict.”
Story: “. . . refers to a narrative of events ordered chronologically, not selectively, and with an emphasis on establishing causality . . . the raw material from which plot is constructed.”
Does anybody get the feeling we’re going in contemplation circles? To simplify: Plot tells you what is going to happen; story adds the characters and details needed by make it happen. Plot is the skeleton, story the muscle and skin.
The germ of a story originates deep within your brain’s contemplation zone. When it germinates into an idea is when a story starts to take form and the writer’s work truly begins. What starts as a wild hair of an idea in your morning shower is usually either event driven or character driven. In the character-driven story, the focus is on the character’s perspective. Perhaps you’ve read some Dashiell Hammett and have come up with your own idea of a modern Sam Spade. Now you need a story with a plot that would fit your invented character’s personality traits and lets you explore his weaknesses, strengths and talents.
In a plot-driven story, an event initially drives the creation of character(s) who turn a plot into a story and bring it to life. The idea of such an event flashes across your cranium while you’re standing in line at the bank, say, to make a deposit: Yeah, that’s it, a bank robbery. You start to look around at the setting, the people standing in line, the guard at the front door, the faces of the tellers . . . The man in front of you becomes the robber. But something goes wrong—of course—and he ends up taking the cute teller hostage . . . he escapes, they fall in love . . .
The event comes to mind first and soon forces you to create characters who can bring it to life. Who is this rather normal, if not meek looking guy, so desperate for money that he sees robbing a bank as his only option, and a teller he takes hostage and who, for some inexplicable reason, is drawn to him. The credibility of the story relies on the believability of your characters, and the focus of the story is the interaction between characters who arise from the events that drive their personality traits.
Of course, as the writer, you had better be able to explain the seemingly inexplicable parts of your story idea, but you can work on those later! All of it, however, has to be credible and believable to enable the reader to identify with the robber, the teller, or maybe the police detective ultimately assigned to the case. Oh the backstory potentials here, driven by your initially contrived setting.
You’re likely not going to find the answers to all the questions and challenges you’ll confront as the writer telling story in any rulebooks, but you’ll likely discover that the true secret to success isn’t so secret, just sort of unromantic—hard work. You come up with an idea and shift back and forth and among logical and alternative pathways the idea generates and ultimately settle on one, then create believable characters to climb upon the page and act it all out.
If you want to get bogged down in the niceties of author secrets, go for it, but it’s a whole lot more fun to focus on a plot and the characters that populate and turn it into a story. Instead of reading about how to write, you might try reading the stuff already written and discern from it the lessons it presents. Great lessons can be learned from great novels. One of the best manuals for how to write dialogue that blends with narrative detail is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Ooops! A secret revealed! No, I’ve been preaching that for years.
Okay, another “secret” besides diligence and hard work—is a writer’s helmet. You haven’t heard of this secret! Shocked I tell you! The writer’s helmet protects your brain when you walk into the inevitable brick walls that will jump up in your path, usually about the time you need a transition (which we’ll address in a separate piece). It’s inevitable—a cool idea finds itself stuck in a corner or refuses to dovetail easily into another aspect of your story idea or has fallen down a crack. That’s when you realize your protective headgear is really like a miner’s helmet, which you’ll need as you go spelunking down literary tunnels and into the caves in search of your Becky and Tom.