“There’s a problem with your story.”

Posted on 07/12/2009


I started feeling sick to my stomach halfway through the first day.

I just attended Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer’s workshop.  Bob is one generous man. He has, throughout his years in the industry, broken down almost a formula of what writer’s need to do to create a story that “works” and sells. He’s also a natural teacher.

This was my second run in with Bob. I went to one of his first sessions at a conference, not really sure what he had to teach, and after that session, I made sure to go to every other session he gave–he was that good. He’s not a flamboyant man, fairly reserved, but always pleasant. When he talks, he doesn’t do it down to the audience, he just tells it like it is. I find him opinionated on writing (which he should be) but not openly opinionated on other things (which is correct too, when teaching). I initially thought he had a pretty jaundiced view of the writing industry (which he might), but I believe I was wrong in my assessment.  His view is spot on. He can tell you things about the overall writing industry that are simply true, and you won’t get that priceless information from any other source. So, if you’re an unpublished writer, and Bob talks, you damn well better listen.

It was a two-day workshop, the first day about the writing, the second day about the writer. He also went over the business of publishing and what most new authors don’t know.

Around midway through the first day, I started feeling that sinking feeling when Bob dug into our stories.  He was giving us a framework that can be applied to any story, and mine fit so-so.  How does it feel when you think you have a story just about ready to put out there, and a best-selling author tells you there are major issues with it?  Seriously? I thought I was going to go in and Bob was going to say, “Tweak this, tweak that, and you’ll be okay.”  But such was not my fate.

When Bob Mayer asks you, “How much of this have you written?” You start to sweat. The world tilts at a funny angle.  Your breathing becomes short.

Why? Because he’s identified a serious issue with your story and wants you to fix it, but I think he knows that most people don’t want to do a complete tear down of their story and rebuild it.  That question is what started the sick feeling in my guts.  I would need to cut out a lot of my story and completely rewrite it. Bob asked me if I wanted to make it a science fiction story, and I said I didn’t care. I was hoping he had some brilliant plan to throw my story a life preserver.  But he made me understand something: you have to pick a genre you’re comfortable in and you have to stick to it.  I write in all genres, so for me, that was a harsh truth.  I’ve been thinking about my story ever since and how to work it using what he taught. I have a few ideas, but they need solidifying.  What he said made sense, and that’s what made my head reel. 

Now, understand, he’s right. I am the one who is wrong.  I tried to explain why I did some things in the story, hoping it could be saved the way it was, but I think we both knew Iwas grasping at straws.  Bob was just too nice to lower the hammer. But he did open my eyes.  I spent most of the second day, turning the story over in my head, over and over.  I still don’t have a concrete answer, but that’s okay.  The fact that I am thinking about it is good.

All writers need to keep an open mind with their stories and they don’t need to grab hold of it like a child and protect it.  That’s our first reflex, as we go through the stages of denial.  “There’s nothing wrong with my story!” I flew through the stages quickly–damn fast–because I WANT to make my story better. But I still felt sick in my stomach. That part didn’t go away.

Bob’s a good teacher. He doesn’t kick your ass, he tries to make you see the issues with your story. And if you’re willing, you can see them too.  To be honest, I am fairly easy going, and when he started to poke holes, I saw them too, but didn’t like it.  It sucks when you think you have a good story and a best-selling author tells you, “Not so much.”

So, I’ve got to sort this out. 

Thank God for Bob. Without him, I wouldn’t have seen it and may have sent the story out, weak. 

I have to decide which genre I want to put the story in. There are pros and cons to each side. I still haven’t decided yet.

What did I get out of the weekend regarding how to write a novel? A lot of things that I still need to process, but I think the two most important things I got were a) have your one-sentence idea (which, if you read below, I say is worthless, which I have not changed my stance on it…in context)  and b) have a conflict lock in your story.

Conflict lock is when there is a conflict between what the hero wants and what the villain wants.  If the hero and the villain’s conflict and goals are in opposition, then you’ve got a conflict lock. The goals of the hero and the villain (also know as protagonist, and antagonist) must be real tangible things. They can’t be something as nebulous as “Hero want’s to live.”  or “Villain wants power.”  There has to be something solid that you can wrap the goals around.  The goals also can’t be negative, “Hero doesn’t want world to end.” Think about it: what does having power give your villain? What does being able to live do for your hero?  Those are you primary goals.

Having your one-sentence idea is great. Seriously. And like Bob said, it’s not your story, it’s your IDEA. Big difference.  The idea is the lightbulb that popped off in your head, making you write the story.  You need to write that sucker down and paste it to your monitor to make sure you focus on that sucker whilst writing.

By having a solid conflict lock, and a one sentence idea of the story, you can then begin to outline your characters (make sure at least one of them only has one arm–ha!) and  identify your over-arching story. Crafting characters and a believable plot are topics I am going to cover later–more stuff that Bob taught. Also, the Who Dares Wins ideology on not only how to write a book, but good information for anyone who is wanting to escape the rut and grow to be a better person.

You can build just about everything in your entire story from the two frame of references: conflict lock and one-story idea.

I have work to do, and even though it hurts to think that my story is flailing about like a fish out of water, I am willing to change it and rewrite it to make it work.

Posted in: Writing