Learning How to Write Fiction: The Storytelling Project
On this blog, I usually have a “learning project” going on where I apply the more abstract success concepts that I write and teach.
For my latest experiment, I’m trying to become a published fiction writer in less than 1 year, with no connections and no experience.
I’m a decent non-fiction writer (else I wouldn’t be able to blog full-time), but fiction is a completely different monster.
Even if you aren’t interested in writing fiction, I encourage you to look through the post. The main concepts can be applied to learn any discipline.
For starters, here’s a rough like at what I do when learning a new skill:
- Build a mental model. I want to understand (generally) how the discipline works as a whole. What are the moving parts? How to they work together?
- Build a bullshit filter. In any discipline, there are many ways to be successful, but the failures all tend to make the same few mistakes. I want to train myself to detect these mistakes.
- Do a 80/20 analysis. Not all parts in a machine are of equal importance. What are the most important parts that make it run?
- Set an end goal. Tie theory to practice by setting a tangle “end goal.” How can I take a discipline like “writing fiction” or “learning to sing” and associate it with tangible outcomes (publish a novel, achieve a score of X in karaoke, etc.)?
- Design a process. Reverse engineer from the end goal to get mid- and short-term goals. Then, build a daily practice.
- Execute and reflect. Reflect periodically on your process and/or goals. Make tweaks if necessary.
I’ve used this basic framework in language learning, programming, martial arts, and all sorts of other areas.
I’m currently ~2 weeks into the Storytelling Project. What follows is look at how I applied the above principles to the discipline of storytelling.
Build a Mental Model: Understand Storytelling
The first thing I want to do when I learn something is to understand how it works.
I’ve always been a terrible storyteller. I’d try to tell my friends something that happened to be, but I’d see their bored faces and then give up halfway.
Yet now, two weeks into the project, I understand how stories work. I’m currently reviewing two drafts, and I have a few pages of story ideas. The idea of storytelling isn’t intimidating anymore.
Here’s what I did.
I went through 10-20 books highly recommended books on the subject of storytelling and writing fiction. As I read and took notes, I realized that, although all these writers had their own views on the craft of writing, there were a few key concepts that were universal.
Now, I can “see” these concepts show up in the stories I read.
The books that helped me the most:
- Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. The clearest book I’ve found on the moving parts of storytelling and the effects they can produce.
- From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. A look into the mind of “seat of pants” writer. It’s full of exercises to help turn off your analytical mind switch into a mode more suited to writing fiction.
- Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson. A play by play of how a real short story was actually written.
- The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch. This is full of quotes from famous writers (always a plus). But more importantly, it cured me of all the bad writing advice you find on the internet.
Note: At this stage, it’s important to find sources you trust. For choosing books, I use the “skin-in-the-game” filter. I want to make sure the books I read are (1) written by real writers (not professors) and (2) that it comes highly recommended by good writers.
Build a Bullshit Filter: The Not-To-Do List
Ask 100 different writers to tell a story, and they’ll tell it in 100 different ways. But hand them a “bad” story—something that will never get published—and they’ll all point out the same reasons.
A lot of people start by looking at what to do when learning a skill, but I think it’s even more important to look at what not to do.
This lets me draw the “boundary lines” that I must not cross when learning. Everything else is fair game. This helps me feel like I’m not being restricted by a set of rigid rules.
What I’m using here:
- How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. A book by veteran editors directed at writers. Bad writing gets rejected for a reason. This book is great; it’s essentially a list of 200 not-to-dos that gives thorough examples for each mistake.
- The Rules of Writing. A solid reference list where the most popular “rules” get voted to the top.
Do a 80/20 Analysis
Again, there are probably an infinite number of ways you could approach becoming a writer, but not all of them are equal.
If I’d taken the “standard” path to full-time blogging, It would’ve taken me years, not months.
A lot of writers (with nothing published) on the internet will say: “Just read and write. Then, read and write some more.” This is terrible advice—only the luckiest of writers of that crowd will ever make it.
Since I’m only two weeks into this project, I’m still working on the 80/20, but here are two things I’ve picked up:
- Focus on the essentials. Some things (plot, characters, setting) are essential to a good story. Other things (a particular structure, cliffhangers, etc.) are not. Focus on baking the cake, not on the icing.
- Simple language works. Hemingway. I can spend a lot of time learning rarely-used vocabulary but, at the present moment, it seems like a lot of effort for little return.
Set an End Goal
“Learn storytelling” is an abstract concept.
To make sure I don’t cheat myself, I wanted to connect this abstract concept to something tangible—a black and white goal where I know 100% if I’ve failed or succeeded.
After some thinking, this is what I came up with:
- End goal: Publish a professional short story in a magazine in 2017.
Note: To keep myself honest, I’ve defined “professional” as an article sold for at least $0.10 per word. This is the equivalent of $500 for a short story of 5000 words or $100 for one of 1000 words.
I chose 2017 because, looking at some case studies from other writers, it took new writers anything from 10-40 stories written before they started getting published. With ~40 weeks left in the year at the time I started this project, it felt just about right.
As for why I chose short stories and not a novel, it’s simple: a novel takes longer to write.
Design a Process
Okay, so I’ve set my end goal.
What are things that I must do in order to achieve my goal?
- Write a short story each week and submit it.
- Learn how to write fiction well, so someone will actually publish my work.
Again, writing can be divided into skills that can be taught (aka “craft”) and the skills that cannot be taught. When learning, it’s important that I hit on both of these.
Here are the three activities I’m currently using to do this:
- Study the craft. Use active reading of instructional texts to learn the part of writing that can be taught.
- Critique bad writing. Read writing from amateurs and take notes on why it is bad. This includes (1) noticing poor technical skills and (2) noticing how the writing does or does not affect my emotions.
- Absorb good writing. Read stories that respected writers generally consider good.
My hope is that, by keeping a healthy diet of both good and bad writing, I’ll develop a natural sense of what makes a story good or bad.
My Daily Writing Schedule
With all of the above in mind, here’s what my daily writing schedule looks like.
- Write for 60 minutes.
- Critique at least one short story.
- Read at least one good short story.
- If I have time, study the craft of writing.
You’ll notice that the time requirements here are a lot less intense than some of my other projects, as I’m also writing full-time for the blog.
I hope that gives an idea of what the learning process looks like! I’ll be checking in periodically to post progress and updates to the method.