My two new writing books: Wired for Story and The War of Art. Last week I explained how I justify the purchase of instructional books about writing by saying that I usually get one good idea from each. Well, I got more than one from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. It’s chock full of great advice on how to improve your manuscript, how readers are curious about what happens next (a survival skill from eons past), and the way the human brain uses story-telling that is deeply ingrained in our heads. The wonk in me loved the neurology and cave man stuff in this book; the writer in me loved her examples, the way knowing this information can make you a better writer.
Each chapter begins with a cognitive secret and a story secret. For instance, on the chapter titled “Digging Up Your Protagonist’s Inner Issue,” the cognitive secret is: “We see the world not as it is, but as we believe it to be.” Then, the story secret continues: “You must know precisely when, and why, your protagonist’s worldview was knocked out of alignment.” General, and specific. In “The Road from Setup to Payoff” one secret is “the brain hates randomness.” The other is “readers are always on the lookout for patterns.” This book reminds us what readers look for and tells us why so we can deliver.
The thing that really stuck with me on the first read (I will be rereading this book many times, I’m sure) is the difference between, and vital importance of, internal and external goals. Or you can call it a journey through the story. The external journey is the plot, what happens in the action of the story. The internal goal, what the protagonist is searching for, is more important than the plot.
Cron goes so far to say that the story is really the internal journey of the main character who must overcome her own emotional issues, problems, whatever, to reach an understanding, or at least equilibrium, at the end of the book. As she puts it: What does your protagonist have to confront in order to solve the problem you’ve so cleverly set up for her? That is the plot. The confrontations, the conflict. But it’s not the real story, that’s the internal stuff she works out along the way. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She had to travel the Yellow Brick Road but in the end she finds out she had all she needed inside of her — her strengths, friendships, courage, brains. All the plot did was point out to her how capable she really was.
The other book I recently read is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. He’s the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and other novels. This book, called “a kick in the ass” by Esquire, is more inspirational in nature. It tells you to get on with writing that book and stop being afraid of what others think. The subtitle is Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. I don’t think I have writer’s block, and I’m pretty tough in the hide department but I still found plenty to inspire me here. Every so often you need a book like this to remind you that what you do is important. Don’t poo-poo your little novel. It is a piece of your heart. Invest in it, work on it, make it sparkle. Then let it go into the world. So what if it doesn’t set the world on fire? It is awesome nonetheless. Nobody read Moby Dick!