The Magic Pill
[Today’s “What It Takes” is from the vault, coming to you via July 24, 2015]
If there is one question that I get asked again and again and again, it’s this:
Is there a resource available that lists all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of each and every genre?
The short answer to this is “not that I’m aware of.”
I have a theory about why we all want such a Story “cheat sheet” which I’ll get into later.
But I can absolutely understand why ambitious writers at the start of their careers (and those who’ve been mining the Micro worlds of writing for their respective 10,000 hours too) would appreciate such a resource.
After all, understanding and applying the Macro principles of writing (part of which are genres conventions and obligatory scenes) is one of the things that Steve Pressfield and I keep harping on. The thing that took him from “doesn’t work” to “works.” That whole Foolscap Method thing.
Figuring out the Macro movements of Story took Steve from polished line-by-line writer with no income (except when he toiled off and on as a Mad Man to fill his coffers) to a published novelist and nonfiction writer capable of earning enough cash to pay his electric bill.
Isn’t that the goal? Being an artist with a big enough audience to create stuff as a full time job? Not a million copy audience. Just one large enough to keep the wolf from the door?
For Story Nerds, that is absolutely the goal.
It’s a destination that gives me a level of focus when darkness descends and the black dogs of doubt howl.
I still have to edit other people’s work and publish other people’s books and agent other people’s projects to keep my household afloat.
Don’t get me wrong. I love doing that too, but come on? Why do I bang out thousands of words a week at Storygrid and here?
Because it’s important work even if my writing is a red line item on my bank ledger. Especially because I have to “pay” for it.
Huh? Aren’t I an idiot for writing a bunch of stuff that actually takes currency out of my family’s cookie jar?
Well, that’s the definition of important work. When you put more into something than it “gives back,” it’s important.
As Steve points out in The War of Art and Turning Pro and Do the Work and in all of his fiction, you need to seek out those places in your life where you are giving more than you seem to be getting. They’re the places to put your surplus (if not all) of your energy.
You’re here for a reason…that reason is to put more into something than it gives back, right? It would be cool to leave the earth a better place than when you got here, wouldn’t it? Well that requires giving more than you get.
So all of you out there who email me pissed off about how you’ve been at it for ten years with double digits of material and claim that you still have bupkis to show for it, spare me. Send me another email in fifteen years bitching about the same thing and we can have a cup of coffee.
Don’t kid yourself.
Those “wasted years,” those unpublished manuscripts…they are priceless. Deep down, you know that they are as well as I do. You don’t write for 3rd Party Validation. You never have. You write because you have to. You’d be in some rehab center or in the ground if you didn’t.
So enough with the “when will Random House bring me into the circle?” and “how do I get people to read my stuff?” questions. You don’t put your ass in the chair every day to get those answers. So stop asking those questions and keep plumbing the mystery.
Think of the poor suckers who have nothing to drive them to such despair…pity them, not yourself. You’ve got the great universe of Story pushing you.
But what about my theory? Why do people want the answers to Genre’s big questions all neat and tidy in a single resource?
What a compendium of conventions and obligatory scenes speaks to is the “magic pill” desire in us all. Hell…I’d love to take a look at that tome myself. I’d buy the first copy.
But it would do me no good if I don’t know how to use it.
Three years ago I fell in love with a set of bedside tables. They were of simple design and just perfect. But the antique dealer (junk shop) wanted like $2000 for the pair. Crazy, right?
I muttered to myself and left that shop determined to make my own. But not before taking about fifty photographs of them. Front/back/side/underneath etc. Took measurements too.
I then went online and found a great woodworking site that offered to sell me everything I’d need to reproduce those puppies. I bought the dovetailer. The precision router. The micro sander. I spent far too much money on the tools, but I figured I’d make up for it with all of the great stuff I’d be able to make.
You know how this ends.
I spent a good 300 hours trying to recreate those “simple” nightstands. And I look at them every day. They’re in a pile of crap I keep meaning to finish right next to my writing desk.
Weird right? I have the answers to creating the perfect nightstands (the tools and the measurements). But what I don’t have the woodworker’s craft yet. So I can’t use the answers all that well.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting together what everyone is asking for. Just like there is nothing wrong with created a newfangled dovetailer. And if I live long enough, I’ll do my best to make as big of a dent as I can in the considerable amount of work it will take to create the resource. I’ve been working up the conventions for the Redemption/Performance genre over at storygrid the last couple of weeks.
But the answers will only really help those obsessed with the questions—those who’ve put in exponentially more work hours into learning Story’s craft than I have learning how to dovetail.
When we’re sick, we want that pill that’s going to make us better as soon as possible. We want the vile microbes in our bodies to be vanquished with one swallow or one shot.
We don’t want to lie in bed for three days sweating out a fever.
It’s uncomfortable and tedious and disorienting to break our day-to-day routines to just lie there headache-y and sniffling, waiting for our good guy antibodies to wipe out the invading microbial hoards.
No matter. We can bitch and moan all we want, but our insides have to do the hidden work before we can stand up again and face the external world with purpose and vigor.
The inner war must be fought first before we can effectively face the reality of the external world. Sure we can mask the symptoms with Sudafed and Nyquil, but none of us is worth a damn on that stuff.
There is no magic pill. Just the inner war.
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