This past week I've been on one of those kicks. And in searching for different versions of my beloved tunes, I found an interview series with Ben. In the part I've embedded below, he talks about songwriting, and lot of what he says can be applied to storytelling.
Let's break this down.
1. You just know. That's something you can't teach. You either have [this intuition] or you don't.
I do believe there is such a thing as storytelling intuition. Some writers may call this the "talent" part of what's inside them. The god-given gift that they were born with. The part they didn't have to learn, it was just there.
The hard truth is--not every person who attempts to write stories for publication has this storytelling intuition available to draw on, to guide them in the writing process.
In order to be successful as a storyteller, you need to have both talent and hard work. Hard work, always. ALWAYS. But the storytelling intuition is important, too, and I think a lot of people underestimate its importance because we are always telling each other to just keep going, to never give up. And I say that in sincerity when I say it to other writers. You shouldn't give up.
Unless your storytelling intuition, or lack of, tells you that you should.
This intuition, I believe, shines through most prominently in the editing phase. A writer can edit and edit and edit and still never get to a point where they feel the work is done because they just don't know. I don't mean perfection, because we all struggle with that "I could edit this thing forever" monkey on our backs. What I mean is that, the people who go on to get their work published have this intuition for knowing when the story has become "good enough" to push it onto the next step, or knowing if a story will never be "good enough" and now it's time to set it aside in favor of something else.
Whenever I sent out a new novel to query, I had gotten to the point where I said, "This is as done as I can make it without the help of a professional editor." There are other stories I wrote that never even made it to that phase because I realized I couldn't get them to that phase. So it was time to work on something else. In each situation, my storytelling intuition told me whether to either query the project or set it aside.
If you don't have this storytelling intuition, I wish I could give it to you, I really do. But as Ben said, it isn't something you can teach. You either have it or you don't. That's unfortunate, but it's also necessary. Not everyone can be a professional novelist, just as not everyone can be a professional musician. We have to play to our own strengths, not someone else's.
It's also frustrating because (and I don't know if this happens to any other authors, I can only speak for myself) when other writers ask me "how do you know when it's done?"--I don't have a real answer for them. I often say, "I just know." That's the only answer that feels right. There is no way to explain it.
2. It just so happens that my taste is reflective of our fans' taste. We like the same stuff. That's not something that I tried to do.
No one likes to admit they are trying to please people, whether those people be a specific agent or editor, or a current trend, or the general reading public. But we do it, at some level, we all do it or have done it in the past. And we do it because it's natural to want acceptance from other people and to want to produce art that people understand and enjoy.
We often do this without conscious realization. So at some point you have to recognize you're doing this so you can STOP. Let it go.
There are certain areas where it's okay to be selfish. This is one of them. You write what you want to read. You write it because you love what you're writing. If someone else had written it, you would be their number one fan. And maybe someday you will find an audience for it.
When people are successful producing art that they thoroughly love--music, novels, whatever--it is not because they analyzed what people like and what is popular and decided to focus on that for those reasons alone. It is because they put their heart and soul into perfecting their art through their individual tastes and found people who have the same tastes.
Not long ago, highly successful and prolific author Jennifer Echols made a comment similar to Ben's. She said,
If you enjoy my books, I think we just have similar tastes, you know? Because I'm trying to write the book I want to read.
— Jennifer Echols (@JenniferEchols) July 22, 2013
That's the bottom line, my dear writer friends. Stop worrying about who likes your work and who doesn't and why you want certain people to like it. It's not about them. It's about you. Be selfish and write the books you want to read.
It wasn't until after I did so that I noticed a huge difference in the quality of my own work. Trying to please other people, even if you don't fully realize you're doing this, is a muse crusher. Let go of that burden so you can discover what you alone can offer. Discover what you were meant to write.
3. There's nothing that hasn't been done. That's a given.
I could just leave it at that and move on to the next point. But I'll take it a bit further.
Art is art is art. People are people are people. People need art now just like they did ten years ago or a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. Art evolves over time, and so do people, but our base needs are still the same as they were at the beginning of humanity.
Understanding this means recognizing that there are no new stories to tell, only new authors to tell them and new audiences to read them. And rather than being a limitation of our creative freedoms, this actually expands our possibilities.
Think of a familiar plot (or theme or character type or whatever) like an apple. How many different things can you do with that apple? You can eat it by itself. You can peel it first. You can slice it. You can bake it, fry it, blend it. You can add it to a zillion different recipes. Or maybe you won't eat it at all, but you'll use it to make a garnish, or add it to potpourri.
You can't even count all the different things you can do with an apple. But what you do with it doesn't change the fact that it's an apple. And if you give an apple to one person and another apple to another person, and tell them to make something out of it, you will likely get two entirely different results.
So stop worrying about your story not being different enough because it feels like it's been done a million times before. I guarantee you it HAS been done a million times before--but it's never been done by YOU before. That's the difference.
4. I struggled and struggled.
Everyone struggles, even when doing something you love. It's still something you have to learn and work at and improve your skills.
Also noteworthy is that when Ben is talking about how he practiced and practiced, he said, "It's hard to sing-- well, now it's easy, but. It was really hard."
This is so important to remember. With time and practice, IT GETS EASIER. It may not always feel like anything is getting easier because it's a slow change. But when you look back at where you were *years* ago, not days or weeks ago, you should be able to pinpoint certain things that are easier for you now that weren't before. Maybe it's handling rejection. Maybe it's structure. Maybe it's voice. But something will get easier for you if you devote yourself to getting past that hurdle.
As a personal aside, the way that Ben describes learning how to play riffs and sing at the same time--by slowing it down and practicing it over and over and SLOW IT DOWN--this is exactly how I learned how to play ridiculously difficult violin pieces. Like Mozart. Beautiful music, but it killed me. I had an extreme love/hate relationship with violin practice. It was almost like a sick obsession. I hated practicing, but the high I got from NAILING IT after hours and hours and hours of practice was so worth it.
And that's how it is with writing too. You struggle and struggle and struggle, because you know the end result will be worth it. Sometimes you need to slow it down too. Stop trying to finish up the story so quickly, take a step back, let it simmer, let it rest. Sometimes that is the only way to figure out how to fix the issues.
5. See what other people are doing and how you can implement that in what you're doing.
Ben learned how to be a better musician by practicing what other people had done and then making it his own. The second part of that sentence is just as important as the first.
1. He practiced the technique.
2. He applied it to his own work.
I highly encourage authors to do the same thing. Read read read as much as you can. Find the techniques other authors use that you enjoy. Understand why you enjoy those techniques and how they work. Apply them to your own stories. MAKE IT YOUR OWN.
When you do that, it isn't stealing. It's learning. It's being a smart artist.
How about we end this on a beautiful note, with one of my most favorite BB songs...