Hacking Your Way to Better Writing

I just finished reading Larry Brooks book, Story Engineering, and although it certainly isn’t anywhere close to weird enough to feature in its own Bizzaro Book Review, I gotta say, you people really need to pick this thing up, if only for the section on structure.

But while I was reading this book, I came across a theme which seemed to be repeated with alarming regularity. Namely, that some writers simply refuse to accept the idea that there might be a basic format with nearly all good stories follow and that learning and applying that format can vastly improve your chances of getting published.

It boggles the mind to think that someone could write a book saying, “This is the structure on which 99% of all financially successful stories are based. Disregard it at your peril,” and struggling writers would choose to completely ignore it.

It would make sense if you didn’t know about fundamentals of structure, but to know and refuse to apply them seems completely nonsensical. Yet according to Brooks writers do this all the time. And I think I know why.

Writers want to feel special.

Sure, maybe all those other hacks need to pay attention to things like story structure, but not you. You’ve got something unique. And while I don’t want to tear down anyone’s self-image, I do have a bit of cold hard truth for you to swallow:

You’re not special.

I know you’re hackles just went up. After all, you’ve been told that you were special by wonderful well-intentioned people for your whole life. And here’s the thing: pretty much everyone else was told the same thing.

Now, are you unique? In some ways, sure. Do you have something valuable to offer the world through your writing? Probably, yes.

But trust me when I say there are thousands, possibly millions of writers out there who think they’re the ones who’ve really got what it takes if only the big mean publishers would get out of the way and print their stuff.

This is not to say you are not a good writer. You may be a great writer. You may be a great storyteller. (These two things are not synonymous by the way, a topic which deserves a post of its own one of these days).

But the odds are good that as long as you keep thinking of yourself as the next greatest thing in the literary world, you’re not going to be able to learn as much as you need to learn to get better.

Instead, try taking a page from fellow blogger The Hack Novelist. When I first saw Hack’s internet moniker I thought, “Well, that’s odd. I wonder why someone would choose to be so self-deprecating.” But the more I think on it, the more I believe he’s got the right idea.

See, if you start to think of yourself as a hack, it’s very liberating in a way. For one thing you’re freed from the obligation to write the perfect story. After all, you’re just a hack right? You do the best you can and move on to the next project.

You also create a better psychological environment for learning. Because if you’re nothing more than a hack pounding out pulp fiction for the masses, you’re going to be open to any advice you can get.

As always, the single biggest thing getting in the way of your success is you. And the same advice goes double for me. The more I can get out of my own way, the better my chances of success become.

Bottom line: we need to check our egos at the door. It’s a good practice for writers and for life in general. Only through humility can we achieve greatness.

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11 responses to “Hacking Your Way to Better Writing

  1. Well, here you go again making us all humble….. thank you!!! I love your book suggestions, along with the suggestions of getting out of “your” own way… so true.

    Have you ever read, “Writing with Style”, by John R. Trimble? Check it out… I think every college student/professor should have this at their side. It’s helped me to feel a bit freer in my writing; kind of allows you to break away from “what writing should be”, allowing you to be creative in your own personal voice.

  2. Good point! Another thing is that it’s perceived as bad to intentionally work with other people’s ideas…even though ALL our ideas come from other stories, works, ect., even if we don’t realize it. Once we realize that and start to celebrate it, we can start doing things with more purpose and intention instead of cradling our special snowflake ideas. AND use that all-important, successful structure.

  3. I want to be humble. Thanks for the excellent reminder.

  4. Great post! I know I need all the advice I can get! I’ve heard Story Engineer being recommended before. Got to read it soon. 🙂

  5. Engineering… 🙂

  6. “It boggles the mind to think that someone could write a book saying, “This is the structure on which 99% of all financially successful stories are based. Disregard it at your peril,” and struggling writers would choose to completely ignore it.”

    It boggles my mind that someone would say there’s one basic structure, much less that everyone has to adhere to it. It has nothing to do with ego or the desire to feel special. It has to do with creativity and the (sorry to burst the bubble, here) the very real existence of multiple novel forms. This is just another version of the “there’s one right way to do everything, and if you refuse to do it, you’re screwed.” But that’s exactly what I’d expect from a book titled Story *Engineering*.

  7. Couldn’t agree with you more. I think a lot of writers also have the issue of being too self deprecating, though. Maybe the important thing is to strike a balance?

  8. Wise words indeed. If only they were so easy to follow. But does it work in reverse? What if you’re like me, and think that as a writer you’re crap? For me self-deprecation comes naturally. I see it as a fact. It’s lovely though when people disagree – especially when those people actually have a copy of one of my books upon their shelf. But even then…

    • I actually wrote a post about that last week. As always, the theme around these here parts is balance. If you’re feeling too big for your britches, then maybe it’s time to take a step back, and remember that you’re just another writer doing the best he can with what he’s got. If on the other hand you’ve got a case of the downers…well really there’s two things you need to remember. The first thing, is basically what I wrote in the post: that little negative voice can be good for you, because it gives you something to fight against. The second, is this: sometimes when that little voice tells you you’re not good enough, its because you’re really not.
      I know that’s not something any writer wants to hear. BUT. It is something every writer goes through. Every singe one of us goes through a time when we’re simple not as good as we want to be, as we need to be. And even though we hear encouragement from our friends, somewhere deep in our hearts we’re still not satisfied with ourselves as writers.
      The good news is, it gets better. It get’s better, because you get better. And when you get better you’ll know it.
      So keep writing. Keep fighting. Don’t fixate on the failures of the past, when there are plenty of fresh and wonderful failures waiting for you in the future. And with each failure, you get a little better. Because, the man who falls flat on his face is at least traveling in the right direction: forward.

  9. I loved Story Engineering! It really changed my mind about plotting. I’d always considered myself a diehard pantser. That works pretty well when it comes to short stories and flash fiction but it can really make novel writing a nightmare unless you have a spectacular grasp of story structure. I discovered that outlining didn’t hamper my creativity at all. I’m able to play around with my scenes without having to rewrite the whole manuscript because I have them all in an outline now. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to just winging it anymore.

  10. Egos would get slowly smoothed down with age. As for writing, I think it’s okay to write the way you wanted it to be. If we look at these things while we’re still writing (editing is another matter) we will be blocking creativity.

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