Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The "Box" is just a Punk

Writers learn the same way our characters learn.
Consider for a moment some of the great characters of fiction: Jay Gatsby, Yuri Zhivago, Atticus Finch, Scarlett O’Hara, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Harry Potter . . . and Winnie-the-Pooh.
These heroes spend most of their fictional lives failing at everything they try.  And while they eventually find a path that leads them to success, most of those failures come as they try to solve their problem by doing something that’s comfortable,
Something “in their wheelhouse.”
Something similar to what they have already done.
But leaps of faith, “crazy” risks, and bold moves are the ways that heroes solve their problems.  Marlowe and Bond made incredible leaps of physical and intuitive prowess. Zhivago is unyielding. And both Potter and Pooh never stop, never quit until they get what they want.
These risks and acts of faith are not unlike the ones you took when you got up the courage to announce to the world that you were going to be a writer.
The world probably thought this was risky “out of the box thinking” and they were right.
But, sometime in your life, a bold move was called for and you made it.
Now you may be once again at a crossroad.  In your desire to find an audience, you look at how others have found success and are deconstructing stories and reverse engineering the work, trying to find the secret that made these tales popular.
As a teacher and professional, I can tell you that this is a valuable exercise.
But as a writer, I’m telling you that there is a danger here. 
It is vital that you learn about plot and structure – the tools that make your stories powerful on so many levels – and such exercises can teach you that.  Understanding story engineering will always serve your stories regardless of genre, format or interest. But that has to be matched with STORY ART – the creative aspect and personal perspective that make your stories unique.  The thing that only you can bring to the story. Concentrating on structure makes your story sound, but it cannot make it truly and uniquely yours.
For example, let’s consider the vampire story craze. 
Several years ago, both Hollywood and the publishing world decided to ride this tsunami hard. At present, brick-and-mortar bookstores have dedicated entire alcoves to pouty YA vampire tales.  But if you spend any time with these books at all, you’ll see that many of them are interchangeable in terms of story, characters and dialogue – imperfect clones of the source materials. Written that way because publishers, authors, or news outlet said that this was the way to success.
So now, you decide to sit down to write your vampire story . . .
And suddenly, you’re back “in the box” with all these other writers.
Warm.  Comfortable.  Safe.
Spending up to a year writing a vampire novel for a market that’s already saturated.
So, here’s my thought – something I want you to try:
Once you’re committed to learning and using excellent story engineering . . .
FORGET the BOX.  Just forget it. You’re better than that.
That warm cozy feeling inside the box is just the mean temperature found at the center of the herd.
You don’t want to be in the box. 
 Frankly, you don’t want to be anywhere near the box. 
The box is bad. 
The box lies to you.
The box talks smack about you when your back is turned. It sleeps with your spouse, drinks from the carton.
Face it, the box is just a punk.
Twilight.  Hunger Games.  Harry Potter
Take any of the literary phenomenons of recent years, stories that have spawned countless spin-offs, rip-offs, homages and pretenders.
What they all have in common is that they, while all the time using excellent story engineering principles and structures – all had a very unique spin on the concept.
You can tell a Meyers, Collins or Rowlings story a mile away.
So, remember – the rule is: If you can’t do it better, do something else.
Or better yet, just plain do something original.
Instead, take the skills you've developed – your knowledge, unique perspective and your distinctive storytelling sensibilities -and really use them – in a way that is uniquely and breathtakingly yours. By all means, continue to write your series if it’s successful and meaningful, but take a portion of the precious time you have in order to write something really different. 
Try that new approach.  Build a new literary concoction.
Tackle a new format.
Decide to write your “secret story” - you know, the story you think about just as you nod off at night.  The one that suddenly wakes you up.  The one that frightens you.  The one you’ve put away more than once for fear of what your spouse, girl/boyfriend or parents might say.
The one that is secretly, uniquely and undeniably yours.
Along the way, too, be naturally suspicious of how you judge success.  When you have nothing to lose, you write like you have nothing to lose.  But once you’re successful for the first time, the great “I need that second sale” fear can overtake you.  Once you have a publication and (hopefully) the money from the sale, you can sometimes become desperate for that next sale.  Hungry for it.  Needful of it in a way you may have never known and it will change the way you look at your writing.  You can go from being consumed with “what is good” to “what will sell” in a New York minute.  Changes will be considered, concessions will be made, and you can suddenly find yourself in the unenviable position of being published, but unfulfilled.
Then, once again, you’re in the box.
You always have to do both.  The safe and the insane.
Of course, you have to chase that next sale, just as I do.  But, like your hero, you have to do something new, adapting all the time to your ever-changing circumstances.  The synthesis of what you’re doing now and what you’re not doing now creates your future.
Regardless of their successes, the writers named above all came to view their work in a different way because they sought the truths that can only live in fiction.
The same is there for you.
You must entertain and enlighten.  You must enthrall and amuse.  And as your heroes continue to stumble on their way toward glory, you must keep the box at bay every day.
I think it was the Dalai Lama who said:
“Every day out of the box is a good day.”

Well, maybe not the Dalai Lama, but you get the idea.

(This post was originally published on www.storyfix.com in 2013)

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