Some of my most enjoyable teaching experiences were with my friends Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler doing Story Masters, a four-day immersion in the craft of fiction.
For my day of instruction, I started off showing a clip from the amusing Albert Brooks film, The Muse. It’s the story of a middle-aged screenwriter facing a career crisis (which, in Hollywood, is almost redundant). Early on, Brooks is having lunch with a studio honcho who is about fifteen years his junior. Brooks has submitted an action script and wants feedback. The exchange goes like this:
Honcho: Let me put this in a form that’s not insulting, because I tend to be too direct. All my friends tell me that. The script’s no good.
Brooks: That’s the form that’s not insulting? What would the insulting form be?
Honcho: What’s wrong with the script … is you. You’ve lost your edge.
*Insert Brooks’ practically trademarked existential-angst expression*
Honcho: Oh, and the studio needs you to vacate your office so Brian De Palma can have it.
Brooks: You can’t give Brian De Palma my office!.
Honcho: It’s not really your office. We’re all just using space here. I’m where Lucille Ball used to be.
Brooks: Too bad you’re not where she is now.
In short, the lunch does not go well.
After the clip, I told the class part of the reason they were at Story Masters was to avoid ever being subjected to a conversation like that. How? By finding and keeping their edge. Which every writer has, by the way. The challenge is to dig it out and give if form on the page.
Just what is the edge? It’s you. It’s what sets you apart from every other writer. You are a unique human being, a package of singular experiences, passions, joys … not to mention DNA. The trick to this edge business is marrying your distinctiveness with craft mastery and an overall strategy for your novel.
Yeah, that’s all.
I then showed the students a quote from a former acquisitions editor at Penguin, Marian Lizzi. She was writing about the things that cause a house to say no to a manuscript. One of these is that the book is not “remarkable/surprising/unputdownable enough”:
This one is the most difficult to articulate – and yet in many ways it’s the most important hurdle to clear. Does the proposal get people excited? Will sales reps and buyers be eager to read it – and then eager to talk it up themselves? As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot – and the most essential to avoid — is the one that is “skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.”
These words are more important now than ever. We all know about the “tsunami of content” competing for attention and repeat business, even though so much of it is (how do I put this in a form that’s not insulting?) no good.
However, a lot of it is good. Over the last nearly quarter-century of teaching the craft, I’ve seen the level of competent fiction rise significantly. With all of the teaching and critique-grouping and editor/agent-paneling and craft books and blogs out there, anyone with a minimal amount of talent—and a whole lot of grit—can learn to write competent fiction.
Which means we have to be more than good to stand out from the morass. The edge is critical to getting us there.
An old preacher once told his ministerial students that a sermon is no good unless it makes the congregation sad, mad, or glad. There is much truth in that. So try this exercise:
Write down three things that make you sad, three that make you mad, and three that make you glad. (Note: just for variety, try skipping anything political this time around!)
Next, take each of these nine items and write one page about why you feel this way. Go deep. Use your life experiences, how you were raised, what you’ve observed, specific scenes from your past. You never have to show these pages to anyone, so rant and rave and cry all you want. Hot tears forge sharp edges.
You now have nine pages of emotional information, unique to you.
When you develop your main characters, give them a set of sad, mad, and glad responses. They don’t have to overlap yours, but certainly may. Now create backstory to justify each feeling, keeping at it until you feel it too.
Your edge will emerge. Follow it, put it in the sinew of your characters and the tension of your scenes. If you do that, there will be no need for an uncomfortable lunch.
You can finish your book instead.
What are some of the things you do to push your writing past the merely competent?
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on