Why finish anything when you might not be good enough yet?
There are myriad ways to avoid completing a project, and one of them is to become the eternal student. Always learning, always improving, so that future hypothetical story keeps getting better and better... While somehow never making its way into reality.
But on the other hand, it might help to know a bit about swimming before jumping overboard. So where do you draw the line? What do you absolutely need to know before getting your feet wet with a story?
I can't speak for anyone else. But when I started Dreamkeepers, I didn't know jack about story.
I didn't know about inciting events, verisimilitude, thematic armature, pinch points, none of it.
Quite simply, I did not know what the hell I was doing. Which makes for an interesting question about my first books.
Why don't they suck?
Professional reviewers have said "the writing was absolutely golden," that they were "completely blown away in terms of both art and story," and that "The story is so well scripted... This is a much needed title that needs to be recognized."
So how did I, apparently, write adequately without knowing how?
Well, I'll tell you.
But first, bear in mind that it does pay to read up on the subject. A few books on story could kickstart your competence within a relatively short timeframe. (My favorites: http://www.vividpub.com/resources.php?pg=resources ) And you should always keep learning as you go. But that's the key- as you go.
Back when I started going, a few simple ideas are what I had.
They're obvious and straightforward- but keeping them in mind made all the difference.
Nothing Matters Unless...
#1: Love it.
Write something that incites your enthusiasm. A good story is the embodiment of your intellect, your yearnings, your fears- it's a distillation of humanity. If you're churning stuff out that bores you, that's a warning flag.
Now, I don't mean every instant of effort should put you into a romantic swoon. Hour 12 of color blocking or proof checking is going to be a grind. But when you think about what that work is for, you better genuinely care.
This guideline is so obvious, you might think it's redundant. Maybe. But it's vital.
A story can have plot holes, hammy dialogue, bad art, any number of flaws- but if there's genuine passion animating that story, sometimes it can still lumber into our hearts and endear itself.
Whereas seeing a movie, book, or comic where the creator wasn't personally invested- well, it's like seeing a human body without a heart in it. Even if all the outward ingredients are arranged to perfection, we can still see it's not alive. Just a narrative corpse.
This is part of why young creators can become jealous or resentful towards Hollywood- because sometimes those at the helm of our cultural engines of creation don't really care, they just go through the motions to assemble a product.
So. You may not need to hear it, but don't forget it. Care.
#2: Who Cares?
Now that you care deeply about your work, congratulations! Nobody gives a shit.
That's a hard truth that you must never forget- aside from your loved ones, nobody in the world cares about you. They don't care about your sincerity. They don't have time for what you're making. They're just not interested.
Unless you make it- get ready-
Every scene of Dreamkeepers I wrote, I'd ask myself. Why should this be interesting to a reader? Why should anyone care? What's the appeal here?
Always ask. And create a compelling answer.
But wait. Does this mean you should write your story for others, and just bend to whatever grabs attention? What about self expression?
Should you write to please others, or write what you truly love?
I've heard this question debated before, and it's a false dichotomy. Don't write for 'others'- that leads to ignoring Rule #1. Don't write for yourself, unless you're a solipsist. Worthwhile art is communication- if nobody is getting the message, what's the point?
Here's what you do.
Write for you, if you were a reader with no knowledge or stake in your project.
Let's say you had no idea how cool the ending will eventually be, or how all these little details will pay off later. Pretend you know nothing of your work and, browsing the internet, you find it.
Would that work capture your attention? Would it interest you, as a reader? What would draw you in, what would keep you?
That's who you write for. Yourself, as a reader.
And that's how you try to answer the question of why someone would care about a particular scene, or about opening the covers to begin with.
#3: Develop it.
“The first draft is just a concept. You have to take a sledgehammer and hit the pillars. If it stands, you leave it in. If it crumbles, you rewrite because it’s the structure that really matters.” -Gene Wilder
This one boils down to 'work.'
Brainstorm a lot, and let your ideas cool before you latch onto them. A few days can give years of perspective. Dreamkeepers evolved wildly in its early years- thank God.
But development can be a quicksand pit- many creators get to work 'developing' a concept, and spend the rest of their life polishing stillborn possibilities.
So how do you know when something is too developed, or not enough?
I don't think there's one golden path. Jump in, and find what works for you.
My rule of thumb is to make the best story I can possibly create, so long as it does in fact get created.
#4: Nothing Matters Unless...
Unless the reader cares about the characters. This is a refinement of #2, but important enough to be its own guideline.
I remember picking up comics as a kid, turning to page one, and seeing a barrage of punches, bodyslams, and super-powered shenanigans. I'd flip a few pages in, and more action. A little judicious yelling perhaps. And then I would stop caring and go do something else.
That's when I learned- no matter how cool the action is, if I don't care about the characters, then I don't care.
Without some kind of context, without understanding why it matters to someone, events are meaningless.
This is why, as an opening hook, action is risky. It works in, say, a Bond film- because the audience already knows Mr. Bond, and can't wait to see him embroiled in danger. But without a character we care about, superficial action is a ticking time-bomb of apathy.
Which leads to the obvious question- how do we make readers care about characters? If tossing them into action doesn't work, should we assault readers with a few chapters of backstory and psychoanalyzing?
The art of stirring empathy for characters merits its own article.
It won't be comprehensive, of course- books could be written on the topic.
But I did have a few key techniques in mind, way back when I started Dreamkeepers.
And boy did they work.