Tuesday, April 27, 2010

7 Pursuits To Teach Yourself Writing Part II

This is Part II, continued from Tuesday April 20.

3) What Is Your Favorite Story

Of all the stories you have floating around inside you, which one(s) are your real favorites?

Which universe have you created that you really live in, while just visiting our shared reality occasionally?

Which character pops up leading your stories most often?

Oh, yes, you have dozens, right?

Probably not. Probably, if you are like most writers, for long stretches of your life you will actually write only one story, about one character, with one problem.

Those Literary Criticism writers I discussed above actually do produce some useful information as they compare works from a given writer over a lifetime.

One thing that turns up among many prolific writers is very similar to what movie critics find about Lead Actors -- there is a single character or "type" and a single story-theme that the writer or actor does with exceptional audience "reach" (breadth of appeal).

And as I have said that I learned from my first writing teacher, Alma Hill, Writing Is A Performing Art.

Writing and Acting are really the same profession.

The skills of one apply to the other.

Very likely, your favorite story will be the story you can craft with the broadest possible "reach."

In Hollywood marketing, "reach" is the measure of how many different demographics will pay to see a work. Does it appeal to 15 year old boys AND 30 year old women, AND 25 year old men and women, and Parents taking their kids, AND 20 year olds taking a date? Can you get them all into the theater? Then you have "reach."

Or you might be in a "niche" market, and not have a very broad reach but really, really REALLY hit that single demographic, 15 year old boys who will drag their date into the theater whether she likes it or not.

And woe betide her if she says she doesn't.

If you read enough biographies, you'll find a lot of very popular writers have been shocked and surprised by the explosion in popularity of a particular thing they've written. Some can duplicate that success, and some can't. I think mostly those who can't are those who have written something very well indeed, but it isn't a favorite inner story of their own.

Why are we talking about this? Because one pursuit you can't stray from is the pursuit of the right mentor for you at this particular time in your development.

That mentor will be someone who is currently selling your favorite character in your favorite story.

If you pursued the study of archetypes, you will be able to see why you resonate to that author's work. Your story, inside of you, is somehow also the same as this author's. But the similarity will be on the highest abstract level, and the differences will mask that similarity in every way possible.

It's the differences that you have to sell. That's your stock in trade.

But what makes your stuff sell is the "vehicle" - the archetype behind it all.

Well mastered craftsmanship lets you showcase the differences and hide the similarities. And that's what gives you penetrating power into an existing market.

If you can't find books on writing by a writer whose work tells you that you belong in his orchestra, in his classroom, among his peers, playing his song, then you must learn by studying how and why you respond to his stories.

A "pantser" learns best by studying what others have externalized. A plotter learns best by studying what's inside themselves. I do both.

4) What Is Your Natural Trope?

One of the pursuits of a writer who wants to reach a broad and deep market, to extract money out of her audience, is the formal education in "literature."

Since the printing press is much older than the moving-picture, there's a lot more written about story-craft in reference to text-based stories than about films.

A film, though, is a story. It's a story in pictures. It's images and iconography, and in many ways far more powerful than the written word. But in other ways, pictures are less powerful than the written word.

But if you have studied the Shamanistic story telling, the Bardic tale, the living oral traditions that led to the Ancient Greek theater, to Rome, to Shakespeare, etc., you surely have noted that the genres created in each medium bear a haunting similarity to each other.

The Adventure, The War Story, The Costume Drama, The Coming Of Age Tale, The Hero's Journey.

Each prototype is adaptable to each medium we've invented so far.

Now, it seems 3-D is the next big thing, but it's so expensive that only the simplest, most visual stories (AVATAR) can be distributed in that medium.

So for the next few decades, I would suggest new writers perfect ways of crating their stories to blend both text and images. In time, distribution costs may come down to where a select few "classics" written for future media will reach future generations.

So, search the inventory of stories floating around in your mind, then learn the popular tropes, the genres, the rule-bound formulaic stories, and study how old genres evolve into new genres.

Consider the "Dime Novel Western," Hard Boiled Detective novel, the Bodice Ripper, the Gothic Romance, the Kickass Heroine SF-Romance, the time-travel Romance, the adventure, the soap opera, the sourcerer's apprentice and all the ever morphing forms.

Then contrast-compare those extant forms with the classic, eternal "storytelling" tropes.

Learn the forms that make classics, then search through the stories inside you and find out what you have in those forms.

Now, it may happen that almost all the stories inside you are of one or another classic form. That could make life easy because you already have inventory to sell. Or it could make life hard because you don't know which one to work up into selling form or where to market it.

But more likely, you will find your own stories are the same as the extant forms you imbibe a lot of. Your favorite entertainment shapes your inner dialogue, but you also gravitate to the extant form that most resonates with your own personal story.

I've discussed how and why this matching happens in several posts on Astrology Just For Writers, with a list of links to them here:


And in a discussion of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! series on screenwriting, is a discussion of what you can achieve with the knowledge of how your internal stories match (or don't) with the tropes that are most popular now, and classically.


If it happens that your internal stories just don't match any of the commercial genres, then you have at least three possibilities.

a) You can found a genre with a blockbuster they'll name the genre after.

b) You can whittle, craft, rearrange, develope, unfold, and morph your internal dialogue to match one of the currently extant genres.

c) You can develope a whole new internal dialogue.

Or you can do all of the above. None of this is a betrayal of your personal artistic nature or the gift you bring to the world. It's just mastering a craft, no more complex than learning to talk at age 2.

Storycraft is a language you can acquire as a native speaker -- without knowing grammar, spelling or punctuation. Or it's a language you can learn as an adult, a second language meticulously learned through grammar, vocabulary drill,and ennuciation.

If you speak story as a native, you become a pantser whose stories sell because your internal stories are already in the language everyone else speaks.

If you learn it as an adult, you become a plotter who tells only part of their internal story - the part that can be translated.

So when you've sifted the seething mass of stories inside you down to a set of those that match the external market.

So discovering your natural trope is the 4th pursuit in teaching yourself to write. If your natural trope isn't popular right now, that's a problem to solve by taking up the 5th pursuit, the study of your natural audience.

5) Who Is In Your Natural Audience?

You might think of this pursuit as "Where did everybody go?"

Or perhaps, when everyone is stampeding in the opposite direction from where you're going, you might ask, "What do they know that I don't know?"

As I noted above, actors and writers are really doing the same thing, and so spend a lot of time people watching, especially stampeding herds of people (i.e. trends in reading tastes).

Studying your audience, finding out what amuses them, what they laugh at, what they think about, what they worry about, is very likely the biggest life-long pursuit of a writer.

The commercial fiction writing craft is all about audience "reach" -- how broad an audience can you entertain? How little do they have to have in common with one another to enjoy your product?

But you don't have to be a commercial fiction writer to slice out a demographic of your own and entertain them fully and deeply.

Today, you have self-publishing options, and ebook publishers who are developing famous imprints in very narrow niche audiences.

Today you have many more choices for what to do with your internal story dialogue than ever before.

Find your natural audience, then ask yourself if you want to do what it takes to reach beyond that natural audience.

Very often, that might mean reducing the emotional impact on your natural audience in order to stir and fascinate a broader audience.

Once you've made that decision, you can choose a medium of delivery.

Today, there is a thriving independent film market beginning to develop niche audiences.

In any delivery medium, though, reaching your audience is all about cost, investment, up-front expense.

Part of your expenses as a writer include your education (not tax deductible yet), and the time spent on your day-job.

Who you want to write for, and what mechanism you want to use to reach that audience will shape and empower the fiction you produce.

For example, there was a time you couldn't write a sex scene in a YA novel. That world has changed. But the rules for YA sex and general audience sex scenes, and "Adult" sex scenes are still different.

So you will find yourself re-evaluating what audience you want to write for, and what medium to write in, for each individual work you tackle. Thus studying your natural audience, and audiences around the fringes of your natural audience will become a lifelong pursuit, not a single career decision graven in stone.

When you write a story, you are just like the oldest of old time storytellers. You are standing up before an audience, and what you say, how you say it, when you pause, and when you shout, all depends on how well you know the people behind the faces looking up at you from across the campfire.

Writers are just like actors, singers or dancers. It's the same craft performed in different media.

Writing is a performing art. To master it, you must perform.

And that doesn't mean just write a 1,000 words a day.

The story is not told until someone hears it.

The story is not written until someone reads it.

How well you can get your story to "go over" with your natural audience depends on practice - incessant practice.

But how well you can reach beyond your natural audience also depends on practice. A lot of that practice is practice at getting rejection slips and figuring out what to do about any comments on them.

Learning to reach beyond your natural audience, to reach enough people to justify book publication expenses, to justify a stage production or film production, takes persistent practice.

The more expensive the medium of production, the farther beyond your natural audience you must "reach." And so the more practice it takes.

Finding your natural audience is the first step in a long, involved pursuit. Once you identify your natural audience, you must figure out what they have in common with other audience-fragments you might reach with only tiny adjustments in your internal story's tropes.

And you have to do this over and over again for each story you want to tell. So again and again, it becomes a lifelong pursuit in teaching yourself to write.

However, just as telling your story can't happen until there is someone to tell it TO -- likewise, teaching yourself can't be done in total isolation.

6) Who Is Your Natural Mentor?

When you have done all you can do by yourself, when you have produced several works you have polished until you can't see a difference between your work and the other similar works in your genre, then you need a mentor.

Again, a mentor is not a teacher. A mentor is more like a drill instructor, a martial arts sensei, or a dance teacher or orchestra leader.

Before a mentor can help you at all, you must have the basics down pat, but not to the point where you believe you know it all, or where you've practiced your errors to be habits you can't change.

A mentor does something. You copy it. The mentor tells you what you did wrong, kicks your feet into allignment for the posture, drills you in the forms, tells you your note is flat, sets the tempo. You do it again and again and again until you conform your output to standard.

Who will you accept that kind of discipline from? How do you find that person? How will that person recognize you?

In teaching yourself to write, you will adopt many lifelong pursuits. Searching for your mentor -- and your next mentor and the next -- becomes a lifelong pursuit.

A mentor can't teach you. You can use a mentor to teach yourself, but only if you have defined what you must master and what you're willing to suffer through to master it.

The other 5 pursuits listed here help you define what you must master.

Only you can set limits on what you will suffer to achieve mastery.

Generally speaking, searching for a mentor will most likely not prove successful.

Mentors find you.

A potential mentor is someone who has just recently mastered what you now need to master.

People who are ready and willing to "pay it forward" - to pass on what they have internalized to a non-verbal understanding, will not generally go around looking for someone to mentor.

But they will be working in the field, demonstrating their mastery, cutting a swath through all the competition.

In the course of that, they may stumble upon your output, and recognize that the one thing it lacks is this newly mastered technique.

And they will offer a clue, a comment, a crumb, to help you recognize what's missing.

If you respond by accepting that casual input and putting it to use, incorporating it easily and quickly, and producing something ELSE to show them (not saying, "I made these changes. Is it right now?" but creating something new that does demonstrate an attempt at the technique) -- then perhaps you will capture this mentor's attention.

Once captured, you may not be able to shake that attention off so be careful who you respond to.

The flip side of the coin is that once you accept input from a mentor, you then must "pay it forward." You can't fail to offer that crumb to someone else who is lacking it.

Accepting a mentor doesn't cost money. It's much more expensive than that.

"By your students you'll be taught."

When you offer to mentor someone, you have to be vulnerable to what comes back at you because of it.

From that experience, though, will come your next great work.

Ultimately, that's where all our ideas come from -- other people.

Today, you can accept mentoring after a fashion via printed or ebooks on the craft.

But as with living, hands-on mentors, no one single source will inculcate everything you must master.

As I mentioned above, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of books on screenwriting and on novel writing.

They all pretty much say the same thing, over and over, in different ways, just as living mentors impart their craft in different ways.

Which book is good for you will depend on who you are and where you are in the learning curve at the moment you pick it up.

You can read the same advice 6 times and think you have it -- then read a 7th book and WHAM finally get it.

It all boils down to little sayings all professional writers know -- such as "show don't tell" "conflict, resolution" "characters must arc" -- but exactly how you personally implement these sigils of the craft depends on who you are.

If you go to

Sign up, and then look for JLichtenberg, you will find about 19 in depth analyses that I have done of screenplays others have written (some of the screenplays are still available there for free reading - some subsequently rewritten).

Quickly look through the screenplays and what I singled out as the main problem, and you will find that the same thing happens with screenplays as with novels -- over and over, the real and only problem with beginning writers (and seasoned pros, too) is CONFLICT.

Identifying, developing, and resolving a single main conflict, a thread that runs right through the work as the backbone of the work, is the one thing necessary to sell a work, and the last thing writers master.

Really. All these books on writing try to convey ways, means and methods of getting your mind to grapple with a conflict in such a way that a reader/viewer can grasp that conflict and experience its resolution as the personal payoff to sitting through the storytelling.

Every trope and genre has a specific conflict, and a pattern of events that leads to a resolution of that conflict.

All our lives have a main conflict (the story of your life) -- read my posts on Astrology and Tarot for more specifics.

We resonate to fiction that discusses our main life conflict "off the nose" - subconsciously, or by distancing the issue.

It's CONFLICT that connects your internal stories to your audience's internal stories.

Showing rather than telling CONFLICT is the main technique all books on writing try to mentor new writers into realizing in their drama.

Here are some books that do a fine job of it - books recommended by Rowena Cherry. In my opinion, you would do just fine picking a book off the library shelves or out of the discard bin at a used book store.

7)Books others use or recommend.

Three suggestions from Rowena Cherry - the writer who started this co-blog:
Laughing at myself. Some would say that I did not do a very good job of teaching myself to write... so my list might not be a good recommendation.
Ronald B Tobias's "20 Master Plots" is always close at hand when I draft a new book, but I tend to take two of his master plots at a time, and mix them, one for the hero, the other for the heroine.

"I rely heavily on "The Joy Of Writing Sex" by Elizabeth Benedict (I think), because I don't naturally enjoy writing about sex."

"Al Zuckerman's "Writing The Blockbuster Novel" has some excellent recommendations of blockbusters to read (Thorn birds, The Godfather, Gone With The Wind..." However, I have yet to write a blockbuster, so either the advice left too much to extrapolation, or I am a lousy student.

Probably the latter!"

"Orson Scott Card's "Characterization" book is excellent, but if you read "How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" you find the same great advice, pretty much."

I would agree with all three of those.

Pray hard, close your eyes, pick a book, start reading in the middle of the book. You'll find the mentoring advice you need to get started on this pursuit.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Jacqueline,

    I remember an amazing week of teaching blogs that Linnea Sinclair, Gena Showalter, Patti O'Shea, and Susan Grant did as a team. If anyone can find it, it was truly remarkable.

    Just as this post is.

    I wish I'd saved their recommendations, or else that they'd answered your call for recommendations for this post.

    When I'm not answering off the top of my head, and relying on memory, I recommend these (and I think the sfr books are widely recommended by other sfr authors, too):

    5. Favorite books (especially for writers)
    "Find It Fast" ISBN 0-06-273747-3 Robert J Berkman (How to Uncover Expert Information on Any Subject Online or in Print)

    "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy." Orson Scott Card. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, 1990

    "The Physics of Star Trek" - L. Krauss

    "Conceiving the Heavens"- M. Scott
    "The Science of Star Wars"- J. Cavelos

    "World Building" - Stephen L. Gillett

    "Aliens and Alien Societies" - Stanley Schmidt

    Writers Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe--George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier

    Emily Hendrickson’s "Regency Reference Book" Contact her at http://www.emilyhendrickson.com/referencebook.html.

    "The Joy Of Writing Sex" Elizabeth Benedict

  2. Rowena: Thank you so much for the listings of good references. I agree with all of them.

    Robert Heinlein said "Pay it forward" and everyone I know is doing that.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Thanks for this helpful post. The mentoring part rang true for me - I've been fortunate enough recently to find a great mentor. Without their advice, I wouldn't have changed my style of writing, or found a voice that clicks.

    Good advice is invaluable. And it's often found on this blog!