Most writers have strong opinions about how a successful story is written, and unfortunately for us ambitious writers-to-be, these opinions often differ. Should I begin by outlining or free-writing? What’s more important, plot or prose? I’ve asked these questions, and more, to an endless parade of writers, editors and creative writing teachers. And what I’ve discovered is not one solution, but an appreciation for all solutions—as each perspective can teach me something worthwhile about the writing process.
THE POWER OF RESISTANCE
Writing coach Deb Norton believes we all have creative potential, but we allow a mysterious force to interrupt our writing. Norton calls this “resistance,” which can take the shape of self-doubt, perfectionism, an imaginary panel of literary critics—whatever creates apprehension during the writing process. The solution? Embracing resistance until it becomes a creative asset, not a stumbling block. In Part Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance, Norton shows us how.
The process begins with resistance training, which relies on 6-minute writing exercises that build creative strength and flexibility. If this sounds like writing bootcamp, you’re on the right track. “You should exercise your writing for the same reason you exercise your body,” Norton writes. “You can’t build muscle without something to push against.” And while writing prompts can feel conventional and safe, Norton advises writers to approach this time with wild abandonment. Not only does she provide a guide on how to actually accomplish this (here’s a hint: it involves letting go of control, intentions and even standard grammar) she also includes writing prompts for every kind of writer. Do you rely too heavily on inspiration? Do you find yourself bored or distracted when writing? Maybe you worry too much or play it too safe. Whatever your poison, this book may provide the creative antidote.
These writing prompts also explore the original cause of creative resistance. “It’s in our nature to be creative. We see this in the way that all children play-act, paint, dance and sing without fear, as though they were born to it,” Norton writes. “But at some point the creative spirit is ‘nurtured’ right out of us.” Revitalizing your creative instincts, then, may require reflection on topics like time, truth and memory. Not only should we locate our inner critics, Norton argues, but we should know which opinions to discard and which to value. “If you unfriend all of your inner critics, how will you know whether you’re doing your best work and reaching your highest potential?” Norton asks.
A formally educated actor who spent a decade in the field, Norton colors each chapter with humorous and honest anecdotes that bring each writing prompt to life. Whether relaying how she could only embrace the role of an angry Greek god by imagining her distaste for lima beans, or revealing how resentment of her husband’s cleaning skills was just another way to avoid daily writing, Norton approaches each chapter with a mix of personal essay, brief philosophy and detailed writing prompts.
Ideal for those willing to use resistance to become more positive and productive writers, Part Wild ends with more than 400 bonus prompts “to ensure that you never have an excuse not to write.” Personally, I found myself reaching for a pen long before each chapter’s end.
THE POWER OF PLANNING
With its title and focus, I expected The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults to be abstract and dreamlike, perhaps a leisure read. But as soon as I began reading, it became clear that Cheryl B. Klein is a serious and knowledgeable editor who has produced a comprehensive guide to writing books for young readers. Klein has worked in the publishing industry for more than 15 years, most notably as the continuity editor on the last two books of the Harry Potter series. In The Magic Words, she shares her expertise on writing, revising and publishing books for younger audiences.
Klein is quick to note which elements of fiction she believes are most important: good prose, rich characters, strong plot construction, thematic depth and powerful emotion. “An artistically successful book will demonstrate strength in at least four of the qualities I’ve just named,” she writes. She shows how to develop the premise of a novel and answers many practical questions, like how to query an agent. Clear-cut chapters like “How to Write a Novel” appear alongside chapters that detail industry expectations for things like word count and formatting. This is the kind of straightforward and knowledgeable feedback that can take writers years to receive in the literary marketplace. Luckily for us, Klein chose to share her expertise so writers can apply these insights to their own projects when they begin writing.
Throughout the book, Klein deconstructs how successful novels work and presents techniques for recreating that structure within our own writing. She also examines the unique joys and challenges of writing for a younger audience. Packed with professional lessons and interwoven with personal anecdotes, observations and visual aids, Klein’s book is rich with authority and know-how.
But beneath all this insider knowledge is Klein’s unwavering belief in the power of words, which I suspect is what prompted her to begin reading and writing in the first place. “Through the invocation of the right words in the right order,” Klein writes, “books can change lives.”
THE POWER OF THE BRAIN
Author, story coach and writing instructor Lisa Cron spends her time thinking about brains. According to Cron, unsuccessful books don’t suffer from a lack of talent, plot or prose. They struggle because most writers don’t know what a successful story is made of, and the chemical reaction it produces.
In her latest book, Story Genius, Cron shows writers how to crack the story code by unveiling the cognitive storytelling strategies of brain science. Her methods, she argues, will not only make writing flourish—it’ll save writers time on pages that seem to go nowhere.
In the beginning, Story Genius sets a straightforward goal: to explain what a story is, and what it isn’t. For decades, writers and readers have believed that crafting a good story requires a particular spark, or a literary magic. Cron argues against this romantic notion by using science to explain the power of storytelling. “Because our response to story is hardwired, it’s not something we have to learn or even think about,” she writes. “The power story has over us is biological.” A good story hacks the reader’s mind, quite literally, by triggering the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is often associated with the pleasure system of the brain, meaning a good story can have as powerful of an effect as a good meal or a romantic encounter.
To craft a story that hooks an audience, creates a loyal readership and is considered a success, Cron believes we need to understand, then harness, this particular type of brain chemistry. But how do we actually apply this knowledge to our writing?
The answer is linked to the story’s main character, the protagonist, and how she makes sense of what’s happening. “Story is not about the plot, or what happens,” Cron writes. “Story is about how the things that happen in the plot affect the protagonist, and how he or she changes internally as a result.” Effective storytelling, then, requires an internal struggle that is manifested by an external one. And because dopamine is triggered by intense curiosity, when readers are compelled by a story, it means they’re instinctively interested in the protagonist’s emotional and physical journey. In fact, Cron cites a study that reveals, “when we’re reading a story, our brain activity isn’t that of an observer, but of a participant.” The reason a vast majority of manuscripts are rejected, Cron says, is because the plot is more developed than the characters.
But Story Genius provides more than just a biological breakdown of storytelling. Cron also helps us craft the inside story, where we connect and explore the life of our protagonists; afterward, we must create an external story to prompt the protagonist’s internal struggle. To create writing that’s textured, Cron shares writing tips on topics like subplots, secondary characters, character backgrounds and more. By the end, she promises we’ll have the tools to produce “evolving, multilayered cause-and-effect” blueprints for our next projects.
And then—when others ask what our secret is—perhaps we’ll be coy and just say, “Science.”