Rule #2

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

Has it been a whole week? Where does the time go… Behind us, I suppose.

So, here we go. Rule #2 from Pixar’s 22 storytelling rules:

You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different things.

This is one reason why I’ve abandoned my novel, The Denouncer. Frankly, I wanted to write it because I wanted to write a tale about an atheist living in medieval Spain. I’m an atheist. 1492 in Spain was a period of religious upheaval. A novel set in this time with a winged woman whom most would think is an angel (or devil) would be awesome! Right?

Not.

Maybe a talented author can swing it, but not me. I’ve never written a historical novel. Three years ago, I knew nothing of Spain (other than what I read in novels), and I definitely don’t know anything about the Catholic church and its history. But I thought it would be fun to learn all that and distill the important bits into my novel.

And it was fun. Like most writers, I can get lost in research with the best of procrastinators! And, boy, I did not have to make up any of the weird plot details. Believe me, fiction has nothing over reality.

  • Strange cults roaming the countryside causing havoc? Check.
  • Pope with a penchant for immortality? Been done already.
  • Megalomaniac monarchs bent on controlling the lives of their subjects? Just read current news, there’s always someone suppressing someone else.

But, as promising as all that was (and is), I just didn’t have the writing skills to pull it all together, nor did I have a strong story at my novel’s core that readers could relate to. All I have is a series of events that I thought were cool with a character that is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out of me.

Yikes.

I think my novel may be redeemable. But before I can do that, I have to figure out what it is that I would want to read.

Until next time, write with your audience in mind.

Pixar-22-rules-to-phenomenal-storytelling1-e1341853885426

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40 thoughts on “Rule #2

  1. Thanks for the post and fun to learn about your project, even if it is up on blocks at the moment 😦

    I’m busy working on a new project while still trying to figure out what to do with my last one. Distance can provide some perspective but it is still hard to walk away from something that I spent so much time on, or consider a complete re-working of the material.

    1. I did do a complete re-work on my first novel (Devil’s Blood). And since the end result (Denouncer) was just as bad, I decided to stop and step back.

      Deciding on what to do is hard. Good luck.

  2. A balance of giving people what they want and what you want to give them. Gah! That’s a tough thing as a writer. I refuse to throw vampires, zombies, and romance, in my work for the sake of attracting readers. Still, reality does have a fine way of bringing us life’s most entertaining stories. Humans do some pretty stupid things.

    George Carlin, my fav. comedian, hardly read any fiction, but he’s written some of the funniest works I’ve read, and heard; he was a writer that performed his own material (in his words).

  3. Write the story you want to read? Write what you, as an audience, want to read?
    Since I am known as just another philistine, this probably won’t make a lot of sense. Still, you asked.

    These are the books I’ve read in the last month:
    Andrez Bergen, 100 Years of Vissisitude – dead guy trying to remember what happened (Just started this morning)
    Ursula K. LeGuin, The Unreal and the Real, Volume 1: Where on Earth – Short stories involving neither fantasy nor sf; just people with a bit, perhaps, of magic in their lives.
    Morey Shaun, El Dorado Blues, avenger story set in Baja, Mexico.
    Hillary Jordan, When She Woke – near future dystopia with a cool riff on punishment of criminals.
    Roland Merullo, Breakfast With Buddha – zen in this day and age, think Zen and the Art of Motor Cylce Maintenance with a sense of humor.
    Debby Dahl Edwardson, My Name Is Not Easy – coming of age despite the bureaucracy in Alaska in the recent past
    Craig Johnson, Christmas in Absaroka County – short stories featuring my favorite Sheriff
    Cowboy Angels – avenger in future with multiple universes sharing both common historical threads and identical people, didn’t finish.
    Mike Resnick, Starship Series (5 books) – what’s a sailor gonna do when his navy and his government are corrupt as all get out?

    The point of all that? If I am writing to myself as an audience, which one do I choose; the one addicted to fsf; the one who reads modern fiction whenever he finds one that looks interesting, or the one who indulges his guilty pleasure with thrillers? Yeah, I know, combine them all or some such platitude – like Rule #2. You can’t write if you aren’t interested. If you’re interested and you write it well, then there is an audience – like me – waiting for it.

    The minority report says that your novel is good. If you improved it, then it’s better. If you improve it again then it will be best. Does that mean it will sell? Not necessarily because selling is dependent on too many factors having nothing to do with the writing. On one of the sf sites – I’ve seen it a half-dozen times – there is a listing of how many rejects some authors received before their work finally got a shot and was recognized by the reading public as something worth reading.

    1. Wise words, HE. I hear you. I’m just not ready to tackle the problems in my novel again. I guess that’s the really hard part of writing. When are you done? When do you release it out into the wild?

      I agree with the editor who said it wasn’t ready. It is not – for a lot of reasons. I’m not sure if I have the audience thing right. And I do that the rule (or guideline) is referring to what you (the writer) would want to read as an audience versus you (the writer) would want to write. I think often those are the same thing, but not always. I think it just something to be aware of.

  4. The cynic in me thinks that this rule is a smokescreen for what they are really trying to say: You have to choose between selling to a small, loyal audience that appreciates your art and die poor or you could go down the same route that so many others have gone down, write the same old stuff and die rich but make no real contribution to your art.

    I guess as writers we have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to compromise what we love in order to make our work a sellable asset.

    1. I think that’s exactly what it is saying. I may have to re-visit this one next week. You and HE have brought up some points that I didn’t think about.

      I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Sometimes they can be, but I think most of the time they are not. It is just a matter of having the skill to pull it all off. I guess.

      1. In the end, writing advice is to be considered then adapted or rejected as it suits you. Sometimes you aren’t ready for the advice, sometimes it really just does not work the way you write…

      2. Yeah, I don’t know about this “rule.” It sounds good and you can’t argue with PIxar’s success but I don’t really know what to do with it as a writer.

        Writing takes a vast amount of time and is at times thankless and mortifying (“Ugh, I really wrote that?”). To put in what it will take to complete a polished novel, I think you have to be working on something that really speaks to you and just hope it is something that will speak to readers.

      3. Yes, and then comes the really hard part:

        Be okay with the possibility that it might not speak to readers – and go through with it regardless.

        Confidence, baby, confidence.

      4. But you have that problem even if you were chasing readers. Might as well enjoy the ride, the destination is quite unpredictable 🙂

        I think writing is one of those things that if you don’t enjoy the actual process of writing, it might not be the right outlet for your time, because there’s a decent chance that that’s all you’ll get from it 🙂

  5. Interesting, with a very open and honest self assessment of not only your writing ability, but also facing the realities that many ‘dreaming’ authors refuse to face, who dream on, never achieving anything. Also it was good to read the valuable input of others in the comments and nice to see that you handled their input with an open friendly tone, particularly to HE who expressed very well a different view. (I support HE’s view to which I would like to add my own.)

    As a reader, not a published author, I have only learned in recent years to appreciate really good writing, Jon McGregor and Christorpher Isherwood just two I had not appreciated before. That doesn’t mean that everything I read now has that kind of beauty in the use of words, but it does mean that I now have a lower tolerance for poorly written work that would previously have been absorbed without any awareness on my part. That has led to me writing myself now, just a few poems and the first autobiographical work that I would not have been confident to do before, with a background that only trained me for business and legal letter writing.

    On balance I am generally in favour of each individual following their own path, not necessarily off the beaten track entirely, but not in the middle of the highway of mainstream either. If anyone wants to write to share their thoughts with the world it is so much easier than ever, at least in most parts of the world. However, if an author wants to receive an income from those shared thoughts and ideas then they have to find the best path for them to achieve that. Again the choices today are better than in the past, but they will all probably require some adjustment of style or content to be as widely acceptable as their willingness to compromise will allow.

    In the end, I tend not to respect those who have no concept of good, valuable writing or thoughts and ideas, or as Carl commented those who compromise and stuff their books with vampires, zombies or whatever is chic today! I doubt history will value their work either. I can respect an author who makes a small compromise, perhaps to make that first publishing deal, but who then uses their breakthrough to develop their work. Maybe they can influence public perception of what is good writing, as I believe Jon McGregor did with If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. Just my view.

    1. Well, there’s no mystery as to how or why I am able to respond to my readers so congenially – most folks who hang out here, and comment, are dear writer-friends. They (and you) can say anything you want (within reason, of course), and definitely disagree with me if called for. HE and I have written stuff together, and regularly read/crit each other’s work.

      Now, as to the rule…

      I do plan on re-visiting this one, because I didn’t address the whole marketability of one’s work.

      I guess why I struggle with audience is precisely because, in the end, I do want an audience. Whether I make money or not is inconsequential, but I definitely do want to be read.

      But, by whom? Who would be interested in what I write and would I provide them prose that is easy and a joy to read?

      As you said, as a reader, you have grown. You are starting to look at other writing with a writer’s eye and what you previously read may no longer be up to par.

      So, does one write for a general audience? Or specifically for the fantasy/science fiction audience (whose expectations are quite different from a general audience)? And don’t we all really just want to write for the sake of writing itself, regardless of audience?

      I like your approach. There has to be a balance between writing what moves you as a writer, and writing a story that appeals to an informed audience.

      I’ll check out those authors. I’ve never heard of them.

      Thanks for the comment and the recommendations. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the clear and considerate response, helps to know a bit more about the links between you and HE. The internet is a topsy-turvy place and some places, wordpress blogs and a writers site I contribute to (Jottify) are generally very warm and friendly places. I am still getting used to that tolerance and open discussion as much of the internet I have known since 1996 is a little harsher to say the least!

    Thanks for checking in on my blog too. I am sure I will enjoy reading your take on the rules as they develop as in general I think they cover the sort of things that contribute to a well crafted and popular story. Sales depend on many other things, the amount of promotion, popular trends and vested interests.

    Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code was unreadable drivel in my view, (and the film even worse). It is poor quality novelisation of the ideas in the much earlier ‘factual’ book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. As to why it became so popular, made into a film and the subject of a law suit by the authors of the earlier book, despite both books being published by the same publisher I leave you to decide. But it seems to suggest that if you have friends in the right places and write about the right subject, that certain people want to be widely discussed right now, then you too can have a global success!

    1. Hi Growl, interesting thoughts. While I won’t defend the Da Vinci Code as either especially well written or good history (as someone who loves history, the pseudo-history really chaps me), it doesn’t hurt to remember that it appealed to a lot of readers. You could say the same about many popular books (and I’ll confess I have been known to do so as well), but in the end, it’s hard to argue with success. Something about such books appealed to a lot of readers. There may have been a touch of luck to it all but there’s almost always a lot more to it than that.

      As for the Da Vinci Code, of all the silliness in the book, the one thing that really sticks out for me is the fact that after 2000 years and 80ish generations, Jesus is supposed to have a single bloodline. You can do the math (2^80 is a huge number, the odds of no interbreeding, i.e., a pure line, is zilch): somone who was alive 2000 years ago is either related to no one, because their line died out within a few generations or they are related to everyone. Anything else would take divine intervention 🙂

      As a case in point, someone on my mother’s side researched my family: we’re related to Eleanor of Aquitaine (a very fascinating lady). My mother-in-law has found the same for my wife’s family. After over 800 years, though, I’m pretty sure anyone with western European roots is related to Eleanor.

      But I can enjoy Star Trek despite its frequently inane techno-babble and I’ve learned to accept other oddities as well 🙂

      Cheers,
      Marc

      1. That reminds me of the whole hard SF debate. Most hard SF fans can’t abide “bad” or unbelievable (in their eyes) science in their science fiction. They turn their noses up at books like The Hitcher’s Guide to the Galaxy because there are bits in there that just don’t make sense. But for most fans of that book (and they are legion and varied), they couldn’t care less if it made sense. It was just funny and a grand adventure.

        My writing coach told me something last year that really resonated with me. Here it is: You don’t have to explain everything. Some things just are.

        Like my co-protagonist, a winged woman. Though I was writing a fantasy in a historic setting, my other main character is a naturalist who’s job is to describe creatures. But how to explain a winged woman? You can’t without sounding…well, weird. So, like the “pure” line of Jesus, *it just is*. It becomes a story fact and your readers will either go with it or not.

        I found the same thing happened in a fellow author’s recent success with his post-apocalyptic novellas. They are wildly popular right now (the Wool series, look it up, the film rights were picked up by Ridley Scott!), but a lot of science fiction readers said they didn’t like it because the premise of the whole story didn’t make logical sense to them. But, the stories really hit home with a more general audience that didn’t require the logic in the story to be so strict. So he was able to tap into a vastly far bigger audience for which the stories are addictive (me included!).

      2. Thanks mqallen for a reasoned and interesting response to my slightly contentious thoughts on the Da Vinci Code. Whilst I accept much of what you say about the book being popular, I met many people in the last few years who bought but never read the book. Those that did read and enjoy it, did not see any of the clearly illogical nonsense that is sprinkled throughout it. Sometimes they are willing to argue in favour of impossible things rather than accept that they have swallowed a lie. (Your point about blood line and ancestors was particularly well put.)

        Whilst I have no problem with popular entertainment, I tend to be cautious what I swallow with the entertainment, making a distinction between fact, fiction and things yet to be confirmed. I too love sci-fi, grew up watching Star Trek and Doctor Who and still enjoy them, despite the illogical plots and pseudo science. However, I am not about to try and write a work of fiction based on either of those sci-fi worlds, as it simply does not appeal to me personally to write that sort of thing. I would rather write about the world events, even if that did not result in an income, though would be happy to be able to live on the income.

        The point I was highlighting was building on HE’s point about what sells, not necessarily being good writing, that a writer has spent years crafting. I could just as easily picked on John Grisham, whose books I used to read, before I found agendas and suggestions for the way society in the USA works, not being grounded in reality. Maybe I am just becoming a little more grouchy with each passing year, but I don’t want to fill my mind with false reassurances that everything will be OK, when it probably won’t, unless we all start dealing with reality, rather than illusions.

        The start point for this debate was Rule #2. My take on it is that a writer needs to understand the market, write what he/she wants to write, but pitch it right, so that there is enough potential interest in the market place for the finished product to be saleable, with a bit of luck. I just felt the initial assertion was too far leaning toward ‘write whatever the market wants’. I believe a good story, told well, with believable characters, overcoming the odds or setting things right, are the basics contained in many lastingly successful books, that don’t need vampires, sadomasochism, illogical bloodlines or other crock to sell the book! 🙂

    2. I guess we’ve gone too deep into the comment tree- responding to your last comment-

      Thanks for the follow-up. I’m just mascarading as a flexible reader- I couldn’t really enjoy Da Vinci Code because it took too many liberties with historical fact, and, on top of that, was taken as true by so many, which just annoyed me to no end.

      As for rule #2, I’m not really sure what they are getting at is making your story marketable in the coarse sense. But I’m not really sure what to do with that rule. I like most of the others and maybe some day I’ll have an epiphany on it but right now it doesn’t mean much to me 🙂

      In the larger sense, we writers are free to write on anything we want. And I do believe strongly it needs to be something that matters to us, else we probably won’t finish or do a very good job of it. I wouldn’t chase markets (and the general advice is not to- who is to say by the time you finish that the market won’t be saturated or shifted?) but I also want to be read and will keep an eye out for reader sensibilities as long as I can reasonably accomodate them.

      For me, that means things like a nod to stories that can have sequels (publishers and readers seem to prefer that). Although I still feel strongly that any given novel needs to stand on its own, I think it is useful for me to make sure there is the potential for something that could follow. But I have my limits- the fantasy genre is tending towards gritty, anti-heroes and I won’t write that (or read much of it either). If something that has more good guys and isn’t too gory or dark won’t sell, then so be it. I read a lot of history; plenty of ‘dark’, ambivalent, unsymapthetic characters there 🙂

  7. I read and enjoyed the Da Vinci Code but I am not a history buff so any errors he made therein went right over my head. What I enjoyed most was tweaking dogma. That was fun.
    That was also the first book I’v read that was written in sound bytes. Those very short chapters made it an easy and quick read favorably attacking our attention spans which I suspect had as much to do with its popularity as anything else. You could get in a chapter while waiting for a bus, visiting the loo, or ten minutes before sleep.
    After that, I started seeing more and more written that way and when books began reaching a couple hundred chapters, the style turned me off.

  8. Hope you don’t mind, but I thought I ought to add a practical lesson in applying this rule to myself recently. I write mostly for my own nostalgia blog and I wanted to recount some important events of my early life and pack it with memories of things now long gone and began to write with a rough plan to cover two events from one year in two articles, around 2,000-2,500 words in total.

    By the time I had finished I was fairly pleased and had managed to include all sorts of little memories of the place and time. I had a small collection of pictures to add too, 10-12. There was one small problem it was now 4 parts and over 5,000 words!!! My ‘market’ simply wouldn’t read it – I conceded that when my sister confronted me on it. (She knows a bit about writing too!)

    Anyway, I reconsidered and posted several small articles on things from those places and times to set the scene and focused the main story on what mattered. Two parts, with four family pictures, total around 2,700 words. Lesson learned!

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