It’s All about Focusing

I just finished reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, a wonderful book that throws writing myths out the window in every chapter. She discards the idea that “Beautiful Writing Trumps All,” and to “Write What You Know,” and that “Sensory Details Bring a Story to Life,” using cognitive science to prove it. Each of these myths contains part of the truth, but they skew it so that a writer can wind up way off track.

Coming off of reading Showing and Telling, I found this book to be its perfect companion. The former discusses all the options writers have for creating beautiful language, poignant scenes; this one talks about the very nuts and bolts of what matters in a story. She writes, “A story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the first sentence. Everything else—fabulous characters, great dialogue, vivid imagery, luscious language—is gravy.”

Because of how story-centered and reader-focused the book is, it helps trim away all the stuff writers put in novels just because they enjoyed it, not because it needs to be there. As Ms. Cron put it, “[L]earning to ‘write well’ is not synonymous with learning to write a story. And of the two, writing well is secondary. Because if the reader doesn’t want to know what happens next, so what if it’s well written? In the trade, such exquisitely rendered, story-less novels are often referred to as a beautifully written ‘Who cares?’”

As someone who has worked in publishing and is a story consultant and agent, Ms. Cron knows what she’s talking about, and she explains her insights in a very readable way, examining how to use theme, subplots, flashbacks, and other plot devices, and discussing why head hopping is wrong and how to fix it, and how much character bio a writer needs to know before being able to write. As I read through the book, her advice pinpointed exactly what had bothered me about some novels I’d read (leaving important details out, saving them for a big reveal until I didn’t care, etc.), and I found myself rethinking parts of my own novels that had fallen short.

The nice thing is, the entire book is written in an encouraging way. None of it is meant to scare us from writing, but to equip us to refine our story until it really is a story worth telling, not just a collection of beautiful scenes. She ends by telling the story of the screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine who wrote over a hundred drafts of his screenplay. Because of his determination to work at it until he got it right, he won the Oscar for best original screenplay six years later.

She writes that this happened “[b]ecause his allegiance wasn’t to himself, or to his first draft, or even to his ninety-ninth. It was to the story itself and to us…With that kind of care and determination, imagine how far your story can go. You don’t need to be a genius, although you may well be one. What you do need is perseverance. The one thing that makes a person a writer is writing.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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