Thursday, November 14, 2013

"The Story Diamond Won't Work For Me"

I have had the pleasure of working as a story consultant with celebrated historical romance writer TAMERA ALEXANDER over the past few years. She's mentioned in a couple earlier posts.

This week she's going over the galleys to her latest book, A BEAUTY SO RARE, which will come out in April, 2014 from Bethany House Publishers.  Tamera has a couple of book series she writing this decade, turns out about one a year, alternating between Bethany and Zondervan (Harper Collins), both Grand Rapids, MI publishers. ABSR is for Bethany and is book 2 of the Belmont mansion series. Zondervan gets the series about the Belle Meade plantation. Both estates are real places, with real historical people, in postbellum Nashville, which is where Tamera calls home.

In a couple of emails we exchanged over the last 24 hours, and then a telephone conversation, Tamera shared the following:
ABSR was, by far, the hardest book I’ve ever written...Thanks again for the brainstorming we did on the front end. One thing I learned this go round…do not work from the white board (story diamond) when trying to write. The left brain and right brain do not mix. Nearly drove me to drink. Which actually might have helped, come to think of it. : )... I was trying to follow the story diamond, filling it in, trying to figure out the Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 thing, and it did not work for me. Doesn’t mean the story diamond won’t ultimately work for me, but doing that while creating is a killer for me. Just can’t mix the two at all.
Now why would I post this criticism of something I promote—The Story Diamond, pictured at left in its recent permutation. Posts about which can be found HERE, and the actual working tool HERE?

Because Tamera's observation is instructive, and allows me to reinforce why we call writing aids like The Story Diamond an "aid" and not a "rule". Indeed, Chapter 4 of The Moral Premise, "Storytelling's Natural Law and Processes" attempts to explain how every successful writer, while they may end up at the same place, cannot use the same method. Just as every protagonist is different in terms of psychological makeup and action, so is every writer in how they must listen to their muse and get the work done.  I remind writers in my workshops that if they follow my "secrets" and suggested rules of successful writing literally, they will marginalize the story's natural dynamic, and output will be a dud. One of the reasons well-written stories connect with human beings so well is that they are all different—meaning both the stories and the humans. The Story Diamond is meant as an invisible guide, to give the writer an underlying structure, not a step-by-step rule.


Tamera is a pantser. She writes from the seat of her pants. It's like writing with the right brain. Left brain writers are called plotters.  Both methods, in their extreme, have problems. And since most of my material promotes plotting I have to guard against its inherent dangers, of which Tamera has reminded me. On one level, the pantser will write deeply emotionally charged prose—because they are discovering every day, for the first time, what happens to their characters. Now and then Joe reminds his wife,
 "Tammy, they're not real."
But through tears, Tamera can only reply:
"They are to me. And I love them."
I tell the story in workshops about, how a few years back, superwoman literary agent Natasha Kern called one of her clients to see how her latest book was coming, only to find the author a sobbing mess, and unable to talk coherently. All Natasha heard over the phone were cries of woe, gasps for breath, and deep sobs. About that time, the author's husband came into the office to find the wastebasket overflowing with tear-soaked tissue, and said author on the floor curled into a fetal position under her desk, juggling the phone and tissue box. Natasha figured the author's mother had just died, the house had burned down, or the Feds had taken over her home for use as an alien internment camp. No, it was none of that. It took 20 minutes but finally Natasha had figured out that her author, the epitome of pantserdom, had just figured out what happens to her protagonist at the end of the novel.

Yes, pantsers, like Tamera, write great stories. But at times the stories, guided by such deeply felt emotions, need rewriting to be understood as a whole, and it takes time for massive rewrites.


The plotter on the other hand can lose interest in the daily grind of writing if the story is so well known beforehand. The other problem, which the above panicked author's experience alerts us to, is the plotter's lack of emotional involvement in the characters lives by refusing to let the characters "act for themselves." For characters to be "real" they must have the force of "free will" behind the minutia of their motivations. They cannot be robots from Stepford. And a writer who plots too much is going to end up with robot characters without their own force of nature. I suspect this is what Tamera was fighting, and rightfully so.


My advice has been to plot just enough to know where you're going and then write for the fun of it. You'll avoid writer's block and massive rewrites, but your writing will also be full of attitude, vigor and personality — human traits that allow readers to connect with you and your characters, which are extensions of you.  Early in the conception of ABSR I spent hours on the phone with Tamera reviewing character arcs, plots, and various moral premise issues. Tamera writes:
Tamera Alexander
Our work on the plot up front (and the Story Diamond) definitely helped, but then I should have put the “plotting board” aside and just written the story, instead of trying to write toward the climax, or the moment of grace, or whatever. I need to let what I’ve learned from you and others guide my sub-conscience as I write, but I need to write from my gut. So it’s a blend. But it’s not a blend with the story diamond peering over my shoulder. And me turning around to look at the blank spaces and wondering why I don’t know what I’m knowing. When I really do, I think. I just do it intuitively. Though not consistently, I know. But that’s what rewrites are for. : ) Make sense?
Sure does.


Now, part of the sinister counter argument to this discussion is that the added knowledge Tamera has developed about plotting has allowed her stories to become more sophisticated, with more subplots, more characters, and a thicker real-world fabric. There's a debate about whether or not the kind of novel she's been writing lately will still attract her audience who publishers believe want shorter books. Time will tell, but after reading a Tamera Alexander novel my wife and I DON'T WANT IT TO END, and I've read similar comments from other readers.

This reminds me that movies that win BEST PICTURE Oscars are not the 90-110 page scripts that Hollywood agents are always requesting. The best movies average somewhere in the 135-165 page length, although there is the occasional 110 page winner. Why is this? Because deeper, well-developed, connectable characters require time and pages to develop. Audiences and readers love to identify with characters and participate in their lives. It takes time and higher than normal page counts to do that.  Tamera's publishers are hoping for novels that are 120,000 to 130,000 words max. But To Whisper Her Name came in at 170K and ABSR is estimated to be about 174K. These are too long to fit the normal business model for Bethany and Zondervan, Tamera says.  I reminded her, however, that Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is about 350K, Susan Howatch's Absolute Truths is 212K, and Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger is about 234K. Tamera is pithy.  QED!

ABSR was so hard to write, I believe, because Tamera had the added confidence of plotting so that she could indulge her love of reality and thus involve more historical figures, and more cultures into her normal postbellum North vs South mix. In ABSR, in addition to the true story lines of the rich white mansion owners, and the poor black former slaves of Nashville, Tamera has tightly interwoven political and romantic intrigue from the European House of Hapsburg, the historic breakthrough discoverys of botanist Luther Burbank of Boston, the activism of nursing pioneer Dorothea Dix, and Gregor Johann Mendel, a European scientist and Augustinian friar who is credited with founding the science of genetics.

And while her books may at first appear to be too long for the publishers, there's an evident upside given voice to by the decisions of her editors: The multiple storylines of the characters are so interwoven and engaging that you can't take even one out (to make the books shorter) without destroying the novel's magic. And so, bless their corporate souls, the books Tamera writes are not chopped up by the editors and ruined, but are left as is, and sent to press.

Exactly. Love it. Can't wait.

P.S. I  have a confession. I have conspired to coach Tamera the way I do for the sake of a few more evenings of reading enjoyment... and my wife is happier, too. We enjoy reading Tamera's books, and this way the reading lasts longer. 

A full explanation of the Story Diamond is presented in my On-Line Storycraft Training series.


Anonymous said...

Hi Stan,


I'm in the middle. And it's when I listen to my gut feeling and mark a few points down the line that I produce the best work.

I had to leave one project. I brainstormed over 20,000 words, indluding character sketches, settings, motivations, pretty much everything. My writing stalled. That's the story I believe God put on my heart, but I overdone it and have to give some time before I can get back to it.
A lot of writers know structure by instict. Sometimes forcing it and filling out long sketches for characters can ruin it. I believe these long stetches are meant for writers who are plot driven. To writers who are writing out of their characters and write by their gut should let it flow.
But it does help to have a few points in mind when building a story. But it might mean just usisng a simple formula: GMC (goal, motivatio, and conflict), and growth at the end. I do believe the strong sturcture do need a foundation presented by your Moral Premise. When I was in second grade, I used it by instinct. I had a character who wanted something badly but the complication was his parents. He learned he was selfish and changed his ways. Here you go. A structure written by a second grader in an elementary school. Nobody taught me anything. A lot of storytellers have it.


Anna Labno

Stanley D. Williams said...

Thanks for your comment, Anna. What I attempt to teach and explain is actually (I think) a Natural Law of storytelling that is imbued in all of us from creation. I might be so bold to claim the secrets of story structure in The Moral Premise and explained more extensively in my workshops and blog posts are nothing more than attempts to formalize what has always existed, much the same way the Isaac Newton defined the Natural Law of Gravitational Force (F=mMG/r^2) in 1868. Gravity was always there. Finally, someone came around and explained it. But no one needed Newton to use Gravity. Like you suggest, it's instinctive if you're looking for it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stan,

I'm sorry for my typos and stuff. That's what happens when you want to rush a response and get everything done within an hour and have a five year old yelling for a piece of watermelon at the same time. :)

A lot of new writers want to write a story basing it on themselves. This is when their structure a lot of times fails. They can't see themeselves objectively like a painter who is troubled painting his own image.

I like to see where I'm heading when I'm writing. (I landed a sweet spot in the middle.)

After reading your book and thinking much about it, I cemented what I knew.

It gets more complex when you weave subplots. I didn't know each main character needs to have the same vice and virtue to create a masterpiece. :) It's not easy to get it done. Your book is a lot of help when writers want to lift that bar higher when they create.


Anna Labno

Stanley D. Williams said...


In the last few years I've developed a very simple way to interweave subplots that I've been describing in workshops over the past few years. For me, it's a plotter's silver bullet. But I have not written much about it. There's some discussion here, about half-way down: but I recommend the The TD Jakes Film Festival Workshop PDF slide sets from Day 2 Parts A&B here:
...which I think will be someone understandable. Ought to be a book on this, but need to get more feedback on it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Stan.

A lot of writers might discover some magic when applying your techniques, scenes flashing come to my mind. :) It worked for me. But to get there you really need to read the whole book and not speed things up. And you have to to write those scenes down. If you don't, you'll forget.

I'll be waiting for your new book to come out.