Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mastering Your Own Story

You know that novel that hooked you from the first page, that you settled into like a fancy-but-comfy pair of Kate Spade's, and that you keep on your shelf to read and reread? Maybe it's the novel that began your own dreams of writing. Maybe it shaped your perception of story when you were a kid.

I think we all set out to write that novel, in one way or another, don't we? No one says, "Yeah, I'd be perfectly satisfied to write a just mediocre story with just mediocre sales and a just mediocre impact on my readers."

Photo by Just2Shutter at
And yet, I have to ask you-- is mediocre exactly what you're settling for in your writing?

Frank Peretti once told me he takes two years working on a book. I heard Jocelyn Jackson speak, and she said she has characters in her mind for years before they hit the page. And Robin Jones Gunn's Christy Miller Series was rejection ten times before it went on to sell millions of copies. She just needed some help from her youth group girls first. Is it a coincidence that great writers spend a lot of time and many drafts on their work? Or are they great writers because they do?

No one wants to wait five, ten, or fifteen years for publication. I mean, let's be honest. But what if it takes five, ten, or fifteen years to write your story the way it ought to be told? Are you willing to do that, or will you settle for mediocre?

Lately, I've been thinking about what makes a "whoa!" book different from a "meh" one. And I think a lot has to do with mastering your own story.

I just started reading my friend Liz Johnson's The Red Door Inn, and I'm amazed by how well she tells this story. Another book that gave me a similar reaction was Kristy Cambron's The Butterfly and The Violin. Know why these stand out to me as a reader? I trust every element of the way the story is told.

Let me explain.

We as writers must be the masters of our own stories. We spend so much time studying plot, dialogue, characterization, pacing, and genre expectations-- and for good reason. But we can't forget that behind all the lessons on craft, even the most well-formed story is lacking if it doesn't show magic. And magic comes from the storyworld.

So how can we become masters of our own stories?

  • Time. Don't rush your manuscript. You can not have mastery of your story if you don't have deep and intimate understanding of all its elements, from the characters' struggles and lessons to the over-arching take-away. That often just takes time.
  • Many, many drafts. I always tell my students that if their essays aren't up to par yet, it's probably because they haven't yet written enough drafts. Don't get discouraged by comparing your work-in-progress to someone else's fifteenth draft. And whatever you do, don't assume "famous" authors write like that in their first drafts. Many of them just discipline themselves to continue writing/editing until the story gets up to their standards. 
  • Metaphor in story world. Nothing should happen in your story by accident-- not the place where the heroine lives, or the hero's job, or his favorite thing to eat. What is the theme of your story? Brokenness? Then maybe the heroine's car should break down frequently, inhibiting her ability to get where she "needs to go," literally and figuratively. Does your hero miss his grandfather? Then maybe he always wears his grandfather's old jacket, and when the heroine spills coffee on it, well...

Remember that the only person who can tell your story is... well, you. So don't get caught up in rushing the process. If readers can trust that you've controlled every element, they will sense a depth in your story world that will pull them in all the more. And let's face it-- those stories are so much more fun to write!

What books stand out to you as masterfully told? What can we learn from them?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Ashley, you share SUCH wisdom in these words here. Sometimes it's hard to find that balance between studying craft and implementing it . . . over and over in writing many drafts. But, when you put it in the perspective of not wanting to be mediocre, or have a story that's mediocre (which probably won't be sold in this market anyway), yeah that is a good impetus to strive to be the master of my own story.

You've given me much to think about. Thank you for that.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Love this! Sometimes it's important to remember that it's not a race. For me, I love Francine Rivers. The way she crafts a story is irrevocably gripping. Writer magic!

Anonymous said...

Loved this post--and needed to hear it with a lot of rejections that have happened after taking over two years to write it--and now feeling a God-inspired nudge to overhaul my WIP someday soon! A lot to think about--but it is all good, and will be worth it someday.