Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our Stories Live -- a review of “Story Engineering” written by Larry Brooks

Recently I've been going through the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks just to see if I agreed with what he had to say on the writing process. I received a free review copy of the book through, and at first I wasn't sure what I would think about it. However, it was a free writing "how-to" book and I am a big fan of writing how-to books. Seriously. If I see a book that's written on the process of writing or publishing that appeals to me, I usually save up to get it. I'm a HUGE fan of the Writers' Digest magazine, and just as HUGE a fan of the Writer's Digest Forums. I have a whole shelf dedicated to nothing but books about the writing process.

What I'm not a real big fan of is the thought that stories are engineered much the same as houses. (I read an article on that somewhere, and while it had a few good points, it just didn't feel quite right to me). You see, I'm one of those dedicated SOTP writers who throw in a little structure on the side just to make the story sparkle more. I follow my heart more than I follow my head (which can be both a good and bad thing). I'm artistic, which means I like to go with the flow of emotions that course through me as I'm writing, rather than write based on an outline… and what little structure I do have for my story is constantly changing.

With that in mind, the biggest problem I had was actually opening the book. I read through the introduction, and I wasn't that impressed. But, to be fair and completely honest, I think that's because I really REALLY didn't want my idea of the creative writing process to change. I HAD structure… just not the structure that I thought the book might refer to. I mean, come on! Its title includes the word "Engineering" which makes me think of building houses and working with giant machinery at CAT. I've never wanted to do that; I certainly don't want to apply something that makes me think of THAT to my story.

But you see, thinking that was my first mistake. I kept reading the book – oh yes, I kept reading – and I discovered that my idea of where the book would take me was WAY off the mark. And I first realized that at the bottom of the first page of chapter 2.

At the bottom of the first page of chapter 2 there is a header in bold print that reads "A Story Viewed as a Living, Breathing Thing", and right after that Mr. Brooks says this:

A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorate. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human beings. In fact, comparing a well-told story to a healthy human being becomes and effective analogy to better understand the interdependency of the parts and the delicate balance of chemistry and biomechanics that allow the body – and the story – to move, to thrive, and to grow.

Reading that statement, I suddenly realized that Mr. Brooks' idea of the story is much the same as mine. I totally think of my story as a living, breathing thing. I talk to my characters and, as crazy as this might sound to normal people, they talk back to me. (Yes indeed, I hear voices in my head. ;D) Sometimes I even fight with my characters… and my whole story for that matter. In fact, it can remind me of a little child or a rebellious teenager at times; it decides that it wants to do something and it throws a fit. Sometimes I can reign it in and make it listen to me, trying to convince it that my idea of where it should go is much better for it than where it wants to go. However, sometimes it runs away and then I have to chase it down. It has its own likes and dislikes, and its own ideas of what should happen next, and many times it's all I can do to hold on for dear life and ride out the craziness that follows.

Yes, Mr. Brooks: I agree with you. My story is totally alive. No, no! Don't pet it! It has sharp teeth and it likes to bite… <_<

Reading further, I was introduced to questions that really made me think over some of my writing life, like "What makes me a writer?" and "How do you know when your idea is capital?" and so forth and so on. Writers ask themselves these types of questions anyway, but this book also gives you possible answers and it helps you answer for yourself as well.

One of my favorite parts of the book was where Mr. Brooks talks about Showing and not Telling. He says this:

We must SEE and FEEL him (the character) bettering his weaker self, rather than simply reading the news of it, or having it spring from no logical, discernable source. He can't just wake one day and suddenly GET IT. (This is where some paranormal stories fall flat – the hero learns via a sixth sense or a random realization from something bigger than himself, rather than from the pain and consequence of experience.)

Yes, yes, yes, and YES. So very true. This is something that I've had to work on in the past: every action has a consequence, weather that consequence is good or bad. Things don't just happen because they happen. There is a reason for everything, and there always has been. It's like a chain reaction: something happens that makes something else happen that makes something else happen and so on and so forth. But the thing is that readers don't want to just hear what happened and how it came about… they want to FEEL it, to SEE it, to SMELL it (if possible). They want to be right there LIVING it. It's not always easy to know why something happens in a story and what the consequence is for the action, but as writers we must, MUST make sure that we have reason in everything we write. It CANNOT just be there. It must have purpose.


There was one thing about this book that I ended up not liking, and that was that SOTP writing seemed to be looked down upon for the most part. (Notice I said "seemed to"… I could be wrong, but I don't think I am.) The book centers around working with what is called "The Six Core Competencies" which is explained throughout, and it is very true that each Core Competency talked about is absolutely essential when it comes to good story writing. And yes, even SOTP writers must take such essential elements and apply them to their books at some point in time. However, what made me frown (and here it comes…) was the fact that just "winging it" and "writing intuitively" was not really encouraged, mainly because, as Mr. Brooks states on page 18:

It all seems easy when she (the writer) was reading her favorite novels of her favorite authors. Authors that demonstrate no more linguistic dexterity than she does. This is a writer who is winging it, writing intuitively, and after that first two-hundred pages she faces one of two challenges – she realizes that her story is broken and that she needs to start over, or at least revamp it; or she does not realize the sad state of things and presses on with a story that is already doomed.

This statement leads into Mr. Brooks' reasoning for why the Six Core Competencies are so important and how they can improve writing – all relevant points, I might add. And after all, that's only one statement in the entire book; how can it be that bad?

But did you see that? Did you see what he did right there? Without even a second glance he downplayed SOTP writing at its heart. SOTP writers absolutely "wing it", as he said. We write intuitively because we write with our emotions. We don't build our stories like one would build a house; not quite, anyways. "Angles" and "nails" and "boards" and "dry wall" aren't really the most important elements to us. In fact, SOTP writers are more like painters than they are builders. We have "structure" but it's not the kind of structure used when one outlines every move, or like when one is drawing out blueprints for a building. We like to throw in random colors at times, add a little pazzaz, a little texture… we insert some emotion and include some heart. Sometimes we smear mud in places, or slap on some red paint to draw the reader's eyes.

Perhaps Mr. Brooks was referring to brand new writers who haven't really gotten serious yet and/or who haven't studied any parts of the writing process at all.

Yeah… maybe that's what he was talking about. (Maybe…) And if that's the case then I guess I can understand him; I mean, I used to be one of those writers at the very beginning. (I don't even like to think about it, if you really want to know).

The thing is that I'm not like that anymore and I STILL write SOTP. I still "wing it". I am still willing to jump off a cliff (so to speak) without so much as a bungee cord and dive into the writing process without really knowing what's going to happen next. And the thing is, I DO know about the essentials of writing and I DO work to apply them as I write.

And then what about some of my favorite authors who have written SOTP and have become world renown? What about Tolkien and Louis? What about Bryan Davis, who has said outright that he's an SOTP writer all the way? What about Wayne Thomas Batson? What about hundreds if not thousands of other writers out there who have claimed to write SOTP works and who have been successful at it? All of them "wing it" to some degree. All of them "write intuitively" and at least most of them have been successful

My point is that both builders and painters are artists, but their art and their process of creating that art are so different that they can't be compared to each other by any fair measure. And neither can outlining be compared to SOTP writing like that. Yes, SOTP writers do need some structure in their stories; yes, I absolutely agree that the six core competencies should be included in an SOTP work – the essential elements of writing should be studied by all writers no matter what they write, how they write, how long they've been writing, or who they write for; yes, I think that writers of all kinds should read this book – trust me, it's good for you, even though I don't agree with some of it. But in the end, the process of how someone goes about writing something is totally up to the author of that work and should not be frowned upon simply because it's different than they way some other writers work.

To conclude, Larry Brooks presents good ideas and some rather good comparisons in this writing how-to book. He knows what he's talking about, that's for sure, and he applies it well. His lessons are solid and definitely worth using. Even after my little rant, I just have to give this book a 5 out of 5 stars. No matter how we go about the writing process, our stories end up living – to us, if not to others. What we want to do is have them "live" in the eyes of other people as well, and this book can help us get there. It breaks it all down in small, chewable bites and feeds us the info one small bit at a time. In fact, (and I don't say this lightly) I would pair this book with Jeff Gerke's The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction. Both are essential for a writer's library. I'm absolutely certain that I will continue to study the content of this book long into the future.

However, for those of you out there who write more like I do, take his advice with a small grain of salt. The preference to the actual process of writing is ultimately
up to the author (as I'm sure you all know). No one, no matter who they are, can say that one style is better than another; such statements are only opinion, not fact. It is absolutely possible to apply these elements of writing to the SOTP process; if you are going to change your mind, change it for your own reasons and not just because someone else says you should or doesn't agree with your writing process.


(I received a copy of this book for free from I was not required to give a positive review.)



Galadriel said...

I respectfully disagree. Here is my review:
Anyone who's been writing for a while will have glimpsed the two extremes on the planning spectrum--meticulous outliners and seat-of-the-pants-writers (pantsers). Brooks comes down firmly on the side of outliners. When he does acknowledge pantsers, it comes across as throwing a teething ring at a toddler to shut him up while the 'adults' get serious. He also doesn't allow for multiple protagonists, unhappy endings, or non-protagonist main characters. Furthermore, I found his use of Top Gun and Da Vinci Code examples extremely exasperating.
I give this book no stars because I disagree with it (and therefore am reluctant to finish it), but it was well-written and easy to follow.

Star-Dreamer said...

Actually, I very much agree with you on the fact that Brooks is absolutely and outliner through and through. Your description of how he approaches my respected process of writing is something I find very vexing.

And to be quite truthful, I didn't finish the book. I started reading, and then flipped through. But the reason I gave it 5 stars in the end is because of some of the other writing advice I found in it. I wasn't happy with how he approached pansters, but he did have some sound advice... or so I believe. I will definitely be going back through the book and sniffing out the other gems -- I guess I'm just like that. <_< Idk.

But he does vex me, I'll hand you that. And I also didn't like his reference to Da Vinci Code. :P

Imogen said...

I'm a pantser through and through and it always annoys me that people tell you that you MUST outline. I simply can't outline at all, it kills my story dead because I already know how it all works, there's no surprise. In fact, I get rather bored.

I'm a big fan of 'how-to write' books too. While I don't own any, I've read just about every single one our library has.

Keep posting! I Always enjoy reading what you have to say, even if I do lurk in the shadows most of the time.

Jake said...

I like to call us SOPs. ;)

But I'm a SOP writer too. *waves a hand* I've tried outlining. In my first novel (what, was that four years ago?), I scribbled a little something on a paper and wrote down possibilities.

I ended up scrapping it and just writing.

Fast forward a couple years, with no outlining. I try to outline the first few chapters of TBOS for NaNoWriMo. Partway through the month, adrenalin (and panic) kicks in, and I scrap THAT outline because I couldn't outline fast enough. Ideas on the go are like breakfast in a cup, and they're often quite good! ;)

Course, they have side effects...

And then, the defining moment for me (as a SOP writer). I tried OYAN. (One Year Adventure Novel.)

It is, THROUGH and THROUGH, an outlining curriculum. You outline, or you don't do it. So I outlined. I came up with answers to questions. I outlined some more. I placed certain events here, other things here.

But what I discovered is that I just don't outline. I brainstorm.

I ended up scrapping most of my OYAN outline and writing the novel anyway. It ended up much better for it, actually. I had so many ideas while writing it that the original outline would've killed.

*ahem* Anyway. ;) SOP rant.

Great post. :) Even-handed.

Like Jeff Gerke said in TAACOWCF (or something along these lines), "Follow what other people say, and then STOP following what other people say."

Wow...this was a rambling comment. O_o Sorry, LOL.