I wrote my first novel back in 2008. I was SO proud of myself the day I wrote “the end” on my first draft. And I fought hard to get that draft finished–I actually wrote the final chapter in the dark, by candle light, during Hurricaine Ike, on a laptop with a dying battery.
I was that committed to finishing.
After I finished I popped the bottle of champagne I bought for that very occasion. I was beyond excited. I finally did something I’d been wanting to do for most of my life… write a novel.
But little did I know, that was just the very early beginning stages of my fiction writing career. Because while I did have a first draft, what I didn’t have was a novel.
Instead I had an episodic narrative of a character’s day-to-day life. And that is not a novel. It’s barely even a story.
Because a novel–and a story–are very specific things. They have criteria and principles. If you don’t follow them, you’re not technically writing a novel (or a story).
In 2009, after months of trying to revise the first draft of my novel and getting nowhere, I finally accepted that I didn’t know what I was doing. Despite having read thousands of novels over the years and taking dozens of fiction writing classes and reading dozens of books on writing.
Because having read a ton of novels isn’t enough. Taking a few classes or reading a bunch of writing how-to books isn’t enough. Writing a compelling, cohesive, engaging story takes more than that.
Thankfully, not long after I accepted that I didn’t know what I was doing, I came across a blog post that totally changed my life. It was a blog post about story structure, written by best selling novelist and author, Larry Brooks.
I remember sitting on my couch, reading the article and feeling like the entire world had just opened up to me. I felt like I’d found the holy grail of storytelling.
As I sat there reading the article over and over and over again, taking it all in, I finally got why nothing I’d written prior to that moment ever worked. I finally understood the core of craft.
All stories must have structure. All stories must have plot points that fit specific criteria and fall at specific places in the story.
That day in 2009 was the first time I’d ever heard of story structure, and I’d taken evey class and read every book I could get my hands on. No one talked about structure, or at least, they didn’t talk about it in a way that actually made sense to me.
Larry’s article on structure filled in all the gaps that were left by the books and the classes I’d taken all those years. And I knew my writing life would never, ever be the same again.
I spent the next five years studying craft–and especially structure–like my life depended on it. I watched 2-3 movies every single day, breaking down the story and paying attention to the execution of the plot points. I devoured every blog post and eBook Larry Brooks had available at that point (and every post and book since as well).
I made it my mission to not only master the craft of storytelling for myself, but also to teach it to other writers, so I could save them the years of stuggle and stress I went through trying to write a story that worked.
Eight years after I found that article by Larry on story structure, I have mastered the craft of storytelling (although I’d argue no one ever really masters it because there’s always a new layer or level of understanding you can get to). And now, as I gear up to write my first screenplay, I’m feeling insanely confident in my ability to do a good job.
BUT even with all the studying and practice I’ve had these last eight years, I’m still re-reading Screenplay by Syd Field and I’m still watching 2-3 movies a night and studying the structure and scene execution, and I’m still looking up screenplays online and reading them.
Because even though I know craft and I know structure and I can pretty much do that shit in my sleep now, I also know that I can always learn more and do better.
I’ve committed to being a lifelong student of story. And I’m not dumb enough to think that just because I’ve watched thousands of movies in my life means I can just sit down and write a screenplay (nope!!).
All of this practice and studying and implementing on my own stories has made me feel amazing about my ability to tell a kick-ass story. I may not be the world’s greatest prose writer, but I’m a damn good storyteller.
I believe in my stories and I have confidence that I can turn any idea in my head into a compelling, engaging story that my ideal readers (or viewers) will love.
And that confidence and belief in myself came from being willing to do what others aren’t.
Most people won’t spend years of their lives studying story. Most won’t watch 2-3 movies a night and break down the structure. Most won’t put off the writing for months on end until they’ve got a solid story plan.
But I will.
So now as I move into a whole new arena (screenwriting), I still feel damn good about my ability to tell a great story. I know there’s still a lot for me to learn and I’m open to learning all of it.
And I fully believe in my stories and in myself as a storyteller. That came as a byproduct of my willingness to dive in and master craft.
Want to amp up your confidence and belief in yourself as a storyteller? Stop telling yourself that just because you’ve read a bunch of novels means you can write one.
Master craft. Study story like your life depends on it. And commit to being a life-long student of story.
It’s the only way.
Dream life or bust,