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 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 author and writing coach Larry Brooks
Larry Brooks is the author of “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” published in 2011 by Writers Digest Books. He is also the creator of Storyfix.com, a major site for fiction writers, through which he offers an innovative and affordable story coaching program. He is the author of five psychological thrillers, including a USA Today bestseller and a novel named by Publishers Weekly to their “Best Books of 2004” list after a starred review. His new writing book, “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling,” will be published by Writers Digest Books in June 2013, and his new novel, “Deadly Faux,” will be published by Turner Publishing in the fall of 2013, prior to which Turner will also re-release four of his previous novels. He teaches and keynotes and workshops frequently, and has less hair than the accompanying picture would have you believe.
Your blog and workshops teach storytelling using a developmental model. Can you explain what that is?
Some writers, especially newer ones, often just grab an idea and take a swing at it, using their intuitive notion and subconscious story architect (usually gleaned over years as a reader, one who ‘feels’ what makes a story work) as context for decided what goes where, and why. The trouble with that is, like anything else done at a professional level – and make no mistake, getting published, or self-publishing a story readers will be drawn to, is very much a professional-level of aspiration – this is like sitting in the stands at a game and using that audience-level experience to declare you’re ready for an NFL or a PGA tryout. Writing an effective story is much harder, and much more complex, than it looks.
My approach breaks the elements of a story down in four basic groups, and then adds the two fundamental “execution” skills required to make those groups work together. We see not only what these elements are, but also how they work together – as they must – to become a sum in excess of their parts. I leave the rhetoric behind and get very precise, assigning definitions, criteria and applications for each of the elements, and in context to each other. The fog lifts, and no longer are you alone with your idea; you now have a tool chest with which to carve greatness from the raw clay of your idea.
In separating the process into four elements and two skill sets, do you find that either of these categories easier to correct?
Never been asked that. They’re all challenging, and it depends on what you mean by “correct.” Is elevating “good” to “great” a correction, or a value-add? Much of what we do intuitively is good, really not in need of correction as much as benefitting from an elevation, so to speak. That said, if a story is missing one of the four elements – concept, character, theme and proper structure – or even just weak in any one of them, it’s pretty hard to fix that by writing some great scenes with a killer writing voice. It’s like adding a nice oil painting to a room with a crooked floor. A story with a weak element is like a car that’s “just not running quite right”: you need to put it on a diagnostic computer operated by a trained pro to really understand what’s working. Or an MRI for a person, pick your analogy. If the writer has just winged it, and if they don’t understand these six core competencies and the realms of story physics that make them effective, chances are they’re not the best person to see what could be better.
Can you give an example of a theme problem and how a writer could fix it?
Sure. Let’s say a writer has a strong concept for a mystery. A whodunit. The story becomes a sequence of clues and close calls, and maybe behind the curtain we eventually see the bad guy out-smarting the detective and is about to get away with it all. Great fun. But… it needs to be more than “great fun.” Offering a puzzle to solve is entertaining, but they’re empty calories. What this story means, how it reflects real life and the interior landscape of characters is the place where theme kicks in. It’s what makes a reader relate and offer empathy; it’s what makes a story “feel” good rather than just taste good. Romances are always about theme, but is the theme original and compelling? This is a tough core competency, but it tends to parallel character development and arc, which is nearly impossible to achieve without also infusing the story with theme. In my view, if this is given solid thought beforehand, with a thematic intention and target, it informs the writing itself through the characters. It’s like a kid being raised in a religious home, versus a kid being raised in a morally bankrupt home: this background tapestry informs everything that the character brings to the table.
What about a writing voice problem? How can a writer fix their writing voice?
Years of practice, for one thing. Not directly imitating the style of another, even though another writer may lead you to your own voice. Comfort level. Study. Feedback. Openness to that feedback. Not over-writing. Discarding purple. Understanding that less is more. Infusing the writer with power and substance over style and adjectives. Developing an ear, along with finally knowing who you are as a writer, and who you aren’t. And then, more practice.
You are author of six psychological thrillers, including your new one. Do you prefer writing or coaching?
I can’t make that call. They are connected, like playing and coaching, investing and spending, preaching and praying. One leads into the other. My teaching makes me salivate to work on a story, and my stories reinforce the power of what I teach. I can’t separate them now, and thus, I can’t choose. I am a writer who teaches, and a teacher who writes. There is no fence there for me.
How did you learn the craft of writing?
I have all the usual answers… but let me give you an unexpected one. The most powerful thing I’ve done to learn about storytelling, and about writing novels, is to study screenwriting, followed closely by being allowed to read the unpublished works-in-progress of others, where softness in core competencies and story physics is more evident. There is much more baseline information (“how-to”) out there than there for screenwriters than there is for novelists, and it’s orders of magnitude more precise. I discovered that the underlying core competencies are EXACTLY the same, just as the athleticism required for most sports is the same, only the exeuctional (my favorite made-up word, by the way) skills differ. If someone needed to learn to write a novel in, say, two months, I’d say read my book and website, and/or study anything and everything about screenwriting. If nothing else, what you learn is demonstrated in an abundance of two-hour clinics (films via DVD) that allow you to see the craft in play, versus the many hours it requires to read a novel for the same purpose. And by the way, studying stories IN CONTEXT to an exposure to the underlying principles really is like the fog lifting, you’ll see things going on that, as a reader, you had no idea were so powerful, or even there at all. But they always are.
What was it like transitioning material from in-person workshops to a blog?
Hardest part was breaking things down into small bites, rather than feeling the need to serve the whole meal, or a whole course, in one post. The posts are bites, each one with flavor and nourishment. Together they form a portion, then a dish, then a plate, then a table full, then a banquet. You really have to consider the whole in addressing the parts, both as the writer and for the reader’s benefit.
What are some of your tips for building a successful blog?
Quality content trumps everything. Giving as much of it away, as fast as you can, with a minimum of transparent agenda (what you’re selling). You need to earn loyalty through the consistent delivery of value, and do so in a non-threatening, peer-empathetic yet credible way that’s light on overt self-promotion. Not easy. Then you have a build a following. Ask for comments, and when you get them, respond. Be a commenter on lots of other blogs in your arena. Never compete; be a peer, part of a community. When you can, ask to guest post on the bigger sites. Social media… sure, though it’s not my favorite part of the job (I suck at it). If you build it, and it’s worth reading, and you do a minimum of obligatory pimping out there, they’ll come.
Do you have any upcoming projects we can look out for?
Well, as described in the intro here, 2013 promises to be fun, with the new writing book, a new novel and four of my five backlisted novels coming out with new covers in trade paperback. My new coaching program, “The Amazing $100 Story Coaching Adventure,” is exploding, as it delivers basically the same level of feedback that would apply to a whole manuscript (which costs thousands to review) via a set of strategic (and tough) questions I ask the writer to address. And then there’s the workshops – my next is in Portland on November 10th (learn more at: http://oregonwriterscolony.org/events/24/larry-brooks-story-404-workshop/).
Want to win a free copy of Larry’s critically acclaimed Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing? Leave a comment in the section below and we will randomly draw a winner at the end of the week!
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 is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal. She has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.