The Biggest Writing Myth Holding You Back
The biggest writing myth that's holding you back. What has been stopping you? Because when I said a minute ago that writers are the most powerful people on the planet, the reason for that is because story is the most powerful communication tool in the world. We think in story, we make sense of the world through narrative. Story is actually hardwired into the architecture of our brain. You have the power to change how your reader sees the world, how they see themselves, what they go out and do in the world, simply by giving them a glimpse of life, letting them experience life through your protagonist's skin as she navigates that tough story problem that you've set out for her. But as with most things there's a catch. And the catch is you have to have actually told a story. And that is my topic always. It's not writing per se, it is story itself. And you might think, "Wait a minute, you've just said we were wired for story. You just said it's part of our like standard, operating equipmen...
t. Why do we have to talk about that? I've known what a story was since I was three years old. Nobody had to teach me that. I wanna learn how to write one. Why do we need to talk about story?" And the answer is, as the great Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor once quipped during an interview, she said, "I find most people know what a story is, until they sit down to write one." And I can't tell you how true that is. I have worked with writers and manuscripts for, as I said, for my career which spans more decades than I actually want to admit to being alive. And in that time, I can't tell you how many manuscripts I've read, where if you asked me, "What's it about?" I'd say, "It's about 300 pages. I have no idea. It's just a bunch of things that happen." And the question is why. Why does that happen when so many of us, especially now, really wanna write? We've all got a story in us. Why do we make that mistake? And the answer is because everything you've been taught about writing is wrong. And I know that that is an incendiary statement. So let's break that down. Let's think about that for a minute. When you decided you wanted to be a writer, that that was something you wanted to do, and of course you wanted to be a successful writer, what was the first thing you thought that you needed to do that people told you to do? Well if I wanna be a successful writer, I need to learn to write well, right? I mean that's a natural thing to think. It's completely intuitive and I promise you I'm not here to say, "No, that's completely wrong. The real goal is to learn to write poorly, so we're gonna spend the next few hours learning how to write really really poorly." I don't mean that at all. But let's dive in to, okay when people talk about writing well, what is that taken to mean? It tends to be taken to mean that you're gonna learn to come up with a really interesting premise, you're gonna come up with an interesting character, you're gonna learn how to write a scene, you're gonna learn how to write really scintillating dialogue, you're going to learn to write lovely, luscious prose, you're gonna learn to write really beautiful, telling metaphors. Then, you're gonna sprinkle in a lot of sensory details because that's what they tell you brings a story to life. And once you've mastered all of those separate elements, then, you're gonna unleash your creativity and somehow by magic, if you have the talent, a story is going to appear. And that is not how it works. Story writing and all of that technique is the handmaiden of story, not the other way around. It is the story itself that gives the writing that power. There's only one thing that a story needs to do from the very first sentence, and that is it needs to instill a sense of urgency in your reader that makes them not want to know what happens next, but literally, biologically have to know what happens next. Everything else is gravy because, and I'm not saying-- Just to be very clear though, I am not saying that learning to write well isn't a good idea. Of course it is. But of the two, story is the most important because beautifully written storyless novels are what's known in the trade as a perfectly penned, so what. Beautifully written storyless novels are about as engaging as a perfectly rendered bowl of waxed fruit, and a totally tricked out car with no engine. They just sit there, annoying everybody. And that really (audience laughs) that is the myth that we're talking about. The myth is that beautiful writing trumps all, that learning to write well is the point and here is how you write well. The reality is that story trumps beautiful writing every time. In fact, if you had to pick between the two, go for story. Because ask yourselves, if the brain was wired to crave beautiful writing, if that's what we really came into the game looking for and searching for, would and what I used to say at this point is, I would say, "Would The Da Vinci Code really be the eighth best selling novel of all time?" I don't say that anymore because it's no longer true for one thing. Now what I say is, would the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy really have sold, wait for it, 125 million copies and counting? Yeah, that is 125 million. And that number is from June, 2015, before the movies came out. So as you can imagine, that is a much higher number at this point. And what does everybody say about those books? Really poorly written by good writing standards, couldn't put it-- Even if half the people put it down, that's still 62 million people. That is a lot of people. And it is poorly written. I actually read it right after it first came out, Donald Maass and I, you may know who he is. He's an agent in New York, he has written several books on writing, one I think his biggest book is called Writing Your Breakout Novel. And we got together and we thought wouldn't it be fun to do a blog post for a blog that we were writing on, a really good writing blog, by the way, called The Writer Unboxed. And so we decided to do a post that would be 50 things writers could learn from Fifty Shades of Grey. And we actually, I think we ended up with 72 things, and by that time it was a three part post and we thought, "Okay, we just gotta stop and get on with our lives." But it really is poorly written. I did one of those, on Amazon, it's cool. You can go and you can type in a word or a phrase and it'll let you know how many times it's used in the book. The intrepid heroine, Anastasia Steel, says, "Holy crap," 40 times in the first book alone. 40 times. Holy crap is an expression you should only say once in your whole entire life. If you've already said it, I don't care if you were in the second grade, you have used your quota. You're done. She says "inner goddess" so many times, if you used it for a drinking game, you'd be in rehab before you were halfway through the book. It really is poorly written. But 125 million copies. Now there's two ways to look at that. One would be, okay that is 125 million really stupid people. And I'm not writing for them. I'm not quite sure who that leaves, however. The other way to look at it is, well wait a minute, maybe there's something else. Maybe there is something else going on here and it's not about the beautiful writing. But the question is, "Okay, well then why do we think it is?" Why do we believe it's about the beautiful writing? And the answer is, one of the answers anyway, is because the first job of an effective story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it is a story. When you are lost in a story, think of story as literally the world's first virtual reality. You literally are there. When you're lost in a story, the last thing you can do or want to do for that matter, is to figure out how the writer has created that sense of reality. In fact, they've done functional MRI studies that show when you're lost in a story, the same areas of your brain light up that would light up if you were doing what that main character's doing, which might explain Fifty Shades of Grey. But the point is, you really are there. Stories literally put us biologically on a timeout. We leave our actual reality and now we're in the world of the story. And I know that you've probably had that experience. I know I have. You know, it's like been a really long day, you have a big day tomorrow, you're exhausted but you think, "I'll just read one chapter. I'll read one chapter, and then I'm gonna go to sleep." And then you read the chapter and then it's got that cliffhanger thing they've got at the end of the chapter. You go, "Okay, wait. One more page." And then you keep reading, and then you keep reading. And by that time, the notion, the concept of tired has become, it's something that you understand the definition but you can't feel it anymore. And then you think, "Who parked a mack truck outside my window and have got the bright lights shining in? I'm calling 3-1-1 and I'm gonna have them towed away." And then you realize it's not a mack truck at all, it's the sun. Because you've stayed up all night reading because you were so involved in the world of the story. And you're gonna be exhausted the next day but it was kind of worth it, wasn't it? That's what stories do. So we cannot see how that is done. But the killer thing is, in that state there still are two things that we can see. And the first things is the writing. We can always see the writing. And I know that you guys have probably had this experience. I know I have. You're reading a book, you really love it and you think, "Oh my gosh. I love this writer. She's so funny, she's so wry, she's so insightful. I would read anything that she writes." And then you read a review of the book and the reviewer loved it too, so they've pulled out one of those lovely, luscious sentences. And you read the sentence, and you swoon and you go, "Yes, I wanna be a writer. And in order to be a writer I need to learn to write sentences like that." As opposed to, "I need to learn to write the kind of story that would give sentences like that their power." The other thing that you can see when you're reading is the plot. Because actually, sight is our most developed sense. I know they say that scent, you know, smell is the most evocative sense. It will take you right there. But sight is actually our most developed sense. In fact, and you've also probably when you hear about somebody who's lost their sight and now their hearing gets more, and more, and more acute. It's not like without the sight that's now done something to their hearing. We always had that power, but we rely on sight. So the two things we've got are the language and the plot, which we are seeing in our mind's eye, which leaves us with the notion that, "Okay, if I wanna become a successful writer, what I need to do is get really really good at writing, come up with a rip-roaring plot, and now I'll have a story." And again, that is not how it works. So how does it work?