AUTHORNOMICS Interview with author and writing coach Lisa Cron

With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley-Jenkins present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.

AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. She’s worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and CourtTV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program on Visual Storytelling in New York City. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, her passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at: lisa@wiredforstory.com

Along with presenting for writers’ conferences and workshops, you also offer coaching for writers facing story problems with their books. What kind of work does a story coach do? What do you like best about that part of your job? What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

Coaching, working one-on-one with writers, is my primary job – and it’s what I love best.

What I do is very different from what most coaches do. For instance, I do not edit, nor do I talk about “writing” per se, or “story structure” – which is a misnomer, it’s really “plot” structure. One of the biggest pitfalls writers stumble into is mistaking the plot for the story, thus assuming that if they come up with a plot, then write it up in beautiful prose, they’ll have a story. Couldn’t be less true. A story is not about the plot, a story is about how the plot affects the protagonist – it’s the internal struggle that has us riveted. In other words, story is about a subjective internal change, not an objective external change. In fact, creating the plot comes second, because it is constructed to force the protagonist to make a long needed internal change – a change they walk onto page one already needing to make.

I work with writers at all stages, from writers who come in with only the first glimmer of an idea, to — just as often – to writers on their umpteenth draft who know it isn’t working and can’t figure out why. What I do is leap in and point out what’s missing in terms of the underlying story logic — it’s never about editing or polishing; it’s almost always (okay, always) about going back to the beginning, and helping the writer define and create that story-specific internal problem the protagonist will enter needing to deal with, before he or she can begin to re-envision the novel (or memoir) from page one forward.

There is nothing more engaging, for me, than talking story with writers — that’s the part I like best. Talking – diving in – brainstorming. There’s an intimacy in it, a bond, a trust that goes both ways – there is nothing general, rote or dull about it. It’s not about “technique,” it’s about meaning, it’s about what matters to the writer, and how they want their story to change the world. It’s exhilarating. Watching writers suddenly crack their story wide open – watching them figure out what it’s actually about, helping them create the clay that will become that story, and then working week after week until it’s finished is what I live for.

The biggest challenge I face is that there isn’t nearly enough time in the day.

 

How did your background working as a literary agent and television producer help shape your career at a story coach?

Every job I’ve ever had has shaped my career as a story coach, because they’ve all revolved around evaluating story. From working at the Daily Cal in college at Berkeley, to a decade in publishing, to working as a story analyst at Warner Brothers and William Morris (back before it was WME).  For me, even as a kid, it’s always been about story — what grabs us, and why.

Over the course of my career I’ve read thousands of manuscripts and screenplays, and I had to not only say whether they worked or not, but why. I soon discovered that it’s way easier to know something isn’t working than to be able to pinpoint what the problem is, and harder still to zero in on how, exactly, to fix it. That took time.

What astounded me was that the reason why those failed manuscripts didn’t work had almost nothing to do with what I’d been taught matters: it wasn’t about the “writing” or the plot or even the “voice.” What made a story successful was one thing: Did what was happening affect the protagonist? Was there in an internal struggle that everything that happened in the plot stoked? Could I feel what the protagonist was feeling? Not “feel” simply in the literal she’s-hot,-she’s-cold,-she’s-heartbroken sense, but in the much deeper and far more specific sense of being inside her head as she struggled – scene by scene – with how to make sense of what’s happening, and what to do to best achieve her agenda. Which, of course, meant knowing what her agenda was and why it mattered to her. In other words, I had to be able to see the world through her specific, subjective lens.

 

Can you tell us a little about your nonfiction books, Story Genius and Wired for Story? What inspired you to write about story crafting? How did you go about researching the “brain science” component of the book?

You bet! Wired for Story decodes what is actually captivating us when we read (turns out the brain is far less picky about lyrical language than we’ve been lead to believe), and uses brain science to debunk many of the longstanding writing myths that have forever been derailing writers. It reveals what the brain is hardwired to hunt for in every story we hear, and then gives writers questions to ask of their stories to be sure they’re on track. Story Genius Story Genius takes all of that theory and makes it prescriptive, taking writers through the step-by-step process of creating a story, from the first glimmer of an idea to an evolving, multilayered cause-and-effect blueprint that transforms into a first draft with the authority, richness, and command of a fully realized sixth or seventh draft.

As for the brain science, the truth is I’ve always been interested in neuroscience – because neuroscientists and novelists have the same goal: finding out what makes people tick.  I knew I was onto something in terms of what it is that hooks us when we’re reading. I thought it was a theory I’d stumbled onto. But when I began reading about the breakthroughs in neuroscience – which have been exponential in the past decade – it was a eureka moment for me. It wasn’t just a theory any more. Neuroscience, in conjunction with evolutionary biology, revealed how – and why — we’re wired to process information via story.

Once I realized that, I devoured countless books on neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and cognitive psychology. The amazing thing about the world we live in is that I could read a book that quoted, say, a dissertation or a paper presented in some obscure scholarly journal and almost always, within minutes online, I was reading the original source material. It’s a far cry from back in the day when the only way to do research was to call the NY Public Library and ask questions. Plus, back then you were limited to three questions per phone call. And you had to wait while they pulled a book to find the answer.

 

Your Story Genius Course is a writing workshop you co-teach with fellow author and writing coach, Jennie Nash. How did the formation of this course come about? What do you hope members take away from the course?

This course is one of the things I’m most proud of – I love working with Jennie, and her book coaches at Author Accelerator. Jennie has been my book coach from the start, in fact, I think I was the first person she “officially” coached. We’ve worked together for about 8 years now. She’s a relentlessly tough, super savvy taskmaster! And so when my book Wired for Story was published, she wouldn’t let me celebrate for more than a minute. She said, “Okay, great, but how are you going to turn that into a teachable, prescriptive method for writers?” That’s how Story Genius was born.

But in developing Story Genius, I instantly ran into a snag: what good is talking about the steps to take to write a novel unless you have a step-by-step example to go with it?  That’s when Jennie volunteered to develop her next novel – literally from scratch – on the pages of Story Genius. That’s exactly what we did.  When it came time to turn the book into a hands-on workshop, that’s precisely what enabled Jennie and I to create a class that brings the lessons of the book to life in a personable, really human way.

We start with the book’s lessons, of course, but the workshop takes writers even deeper. You get detailed step-by-step “how-to” instructions, Jennie’s examples, and you get me and Jennie talking about the process, digging into how it works, and why. Jennie shares what she did, and where she got frustrated, and where and how her breakthroughs came. And so writers can really experience what the process is like, rather than just seeing the finished product after the fact.

The feedback we get from writers actually brings tears to my eyes. This workshop cracks open people’s understanding of story. It helps them figure out how to actually do it – not in general, but for their specific story — because with the workshop you get personalized, customized, feedback every week on your Story Genius lessons from Author Accelerator coaches, who were trained in Story Genius by Jennie and me. You get the habit of meeting deadlines.  The beauty of it is that writers not only zero in on the specific story they’re working on now, but they come away with the tools to create any story from here on out. That’s why I’m so proud of it!

 

You’re currently a faculty member for the School of Visual Arts MFA program in New York City. Did you get into visual narrative studies before or after writing? Are there different strategies for storytelling in this medium verses print?

Here’s the thing: I didn’t get into visual narrative studies at all. I don’t even know what that would mean. What I know is story itself, and story is story regardless the format, regardless the genre, regardless how it’s presented. Nathan Fox, the exceptional graphic artist and storyteller who chairs the program, brought me in because while students were technically brilliant in their visual presentations, they struggled with narrative – with story. What I teach at SVA is basically the same thing I teach in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and the same thing Jennie and I teach in our online Story Genius Workshops, story itself: what it is, and how, step-by-step, to create one.

 

On your website, you mention “The Power of Story.” Can you go into more detail how that vision colors your overall focus?

The game changer came for me was the realization that story has a hardwired biological purpose. The goal of story is not simply to entertain – the reason stories are entertaining is so we’ll pay attention to them, because stories are how we learn to navigate (and survive) what the world so unceremoniously throws at us. In other words, story isn’t something we “invented” in order to kill time in an entertaining way. Story is wired into the architecture of the brain. Story is how we make sense of everything. As I’m probably overly fond of saying, story was more crucial to our evolution than our much touted, and admittedly beloved, opposable thumbs.  All our opposable thumbs do is let us hold on, story tells us what to hold on to. And, as important, why.

The point is: all stories are a call to action. We are affected everyday by every story we hear, whether we know it or not – and usually we don’t. That is what makes writers the most powerful people on the planet.

And so because the response we have to story is biological rather than choice (regardless what Coleridge said), I believe that it’s crucial for writers to understand what it really is that hooks readers – especially since it’s NOT what we’ve been told hooks us, to wit beautiful writing and a rip-roaring plot. Not that those things are bad, but that they are not what has us on the edge of our seat, they are not what presses the pause button on our own reality when we read. Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one. It’s about what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the problem that the external plot poses. The internal struggle is what gives meaning and emotional weight to everything that happens in the plot – and that is what hooks us. Stories are like a Vulcan mind meld between the reader and the protagonist.

That’s why I focus first, foremost and always on story – and how to get it onto the page. Writing? That is the handmaiden of story, rather than the other way around. Nail the story, and you’ve nailed the prose.

 

Beginnings are notoriously difficult for authors, and many struggle with how best to start their book, where and why. What are some of the reasons the beginning of a book is so important to get right? What are your top tips for hooking readers “from the very first sentence,” paragraph, or page?

First, there is a ton of work you have to do before you get to page one. To begin writing a book by starting on “page one” is like saying: I’m going to write a 327 page novel about the most important turning point is someone’s life who I know absolutely nothing about. That’s akin to shoving your protagonist (and you) onto the page with amnesia.

I’ll say it straight out: neither pantsing nor plotting work; both lead writers astray, and I believe are responsible for the downfall of myriad writers who could otherwise knock it out of the park. Why? Because both begin the process in the exact wrong place: looking forward from page one. Here’s the skinny: All stories begin in medias res – Latin for “in the middle of the thing.” The first page of the novel is actually the second half of the story.

So before you can get to that first sentence, writers need to do a whole lot of work. That is: they need to create their protagonist, and the long-term, fully formed problem he or she will walk onto page one with. That means: knowing what your protagonist enters having long wanted, and what it is that they must overcome in order to have a shot at it. What’s more, writers have to know their protagonist’s overarching story-long agenda – the goal that will drive them from page one to “the end.” And here’s the kicker: it’s an agenda the protagonist had before they got to page one, back when they didn’t have a clue about the dark and stormy night the writer is about to toss them into.

What’s more, a story is about ONE single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to confront the internal problem that has long been keeping them from getting what they want. That means that writers need to be sure that they have an overarching story-long external problem that will build throughout their novel and that said external problem has the power to force the protagonist to face the thing that’s holding them back (what I call their defining misbelief).

The answer to all these questions is always found in the most substantial, seminal and important layer of any story: the protagonist’s past – yes, backstory.  Figuring all this out is not pre-writing, it’s not “research” – it IS writing. And it will be laced into every page of the story, beginning on page one.

So, once you get to page one what tips are there? First, as John Irving so glibly said, “whenever possible tell the entire story of the novel in the first sentence.” In other words: give it all away! Give us a glimpse of what this overarching story problem is going to be. Don’t hold back. Don’t try to lure us in by being mysterious, veiled or opaque, thinking we’ll be intrigued and read forward. We won’t. Chances are instead we’ll be annoyed. Ironically, when writers do this they tend to hold back the very information that would lure the reader in.  We want to know where this is going, we want a notion of the big question it’s asking. Tell us.

Remember: the first chapter is where you’re planting the seeds of everything that will come to fruition – page by page – in your novel.

In a nutshell the five things that pull us in on the first page are:

  • A glimpse of the big picture
  • Something is happening . . .
  • To someone (hopefully the protagonist)
  • Something specific, and crucial, to the protagonist’s story-long agenda is at risk
  • Key us into what the protagonist expects will happen and why it matters to her

Here’s a quick way to get a feel for how much of this is “hidden” in the first few pages of every novel: go back to the most recent novel you loved and reread the first chapter. Here’s what you’re looking for: how much of what happens in the novel did the writer set up in that first chapter? Can you find where all the seeds were planted?

 

Do you have some examples of your favorite first lines of novels or memoirs?

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: “Lydia is dead. They don’t know it yet.”

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt: “Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.”

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: “I was sitting in the taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

The Girls by Emma Cline: I” looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”

What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George: “Joel Campbell, age eleven at the time, began his descent toward murder with a bus ride.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving:” I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

And you didn’t ask, but in my opinion the most overrated first line is, “Call me Ishmael.” Here’s why: all of the other opening sentences are intriguing of the face of it. You do not need to know what book they came from, or anything about the story. They yank you in. They give you something to be curious about. They imply conflict. But “Call me Ishmael”? It’s on the list for one reason – because it’s the opening line of Moby Dick. And so it must be good, right? Um. No.  People will sometimes say it’s great because it’s memorable. But is it memorable in and of itself? Not really. Unless you know it’s from Moby Dick. Otherwise, what reason would anyone have to remember it? Point being, as a writer you want to open with a sentence that will yank in a reader who knows absolutely nothing about the story at all.

 

What’s next on the horizon for you? Any upcoming writing projects or new courses?

We are putting the finishing touches on a “self study” version of the workshop that  allows people all the lessons and videos without the cost of the feedback. Signs ups for that, and info on the new Story Genius workshop, are here  http://www.authoraccelerator.com/story-genius.

Later in 2017, we are launching a Premium version of the workshop that I am thrilled about because it is going to let me do a LOT of my favorite thing – which is talk to writers all day about story!

I am working on a new podcast/video series for my website – people can stay tuned to wiredforstory.com to learn about that.

And after all that, I’m going finally get to do what I’ve been longing to do for a while: have a nice snack, and then take a little nap. Probably.

Thanks for interviewing with us, Lisa!

Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.

Cherise Hensley-Jenkins has an M.A. in English from the University of Idaho, where she taught composition courses. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is a teacher, an editor, and a writer, who loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.

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