Anyone who knows me well knows they might one day be asked to help me build a story. I test drive the plots of my novels in the same way I help my Success Story students test drive ideas.
That’s because no good writer ever goes it alone.
Of course there’s that tragic, time-honored image of the tortured author in her garret, all by her lonesome. There’s the vision of the mad genius with a big copyright sign hovering over every magical, individualistic idea that emerges from her head.
(Those types of writers tend to believe there are tons of new ideas under the sun and that they are honor bound to hoard them.)
But every writer with a room of her own must emerge at some point and say, “Hey, does this make sense, any sense at all?”
And that’s when another kind of magic happens. If you are a writer willing to listen to feedback, ideas begin to spark in all kinds of ways.
Those application readers’ eyes get tired, just like agents’ and editors’ eyes get tired. Their eyes glaze over. To hook the reader, to keep them reading, we need help.
So it’s crucial to talk through various ways you can possibly engage a reader–twists and turns of transitions (plot–upping the stakes), or what’s a compelling detail (characterization). These elements apply to application essays as much as novels.
Talking out your writing with other people–discussing the right structure, cause-and-effect, images, elaboration, characterizations, theme–all of it requires hard thinking. The rocket science of creativity, let’s call it. The old adage of I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say?
It’s why I talk through story ideas with my Success Story clients, providing a personalized writing workshop just like my writer’s group–Stephanie, Becky, Michael, and Russell–who read keenly and test out my prose.
I love seeing a student’s eyes alight when they realize that unique and quirky hobby of theirs, that funny moment they lived through, that tough challenge where they’re struggling for words still, it matters. It’s worth writing about. When a writer hears you value that spark of an idea, then that writer, whether student or professional novelist, gets inspired to fan it into a flame.
With application essays, the discussion process is particularly helpful because for many students, it’s the first time they’ve ever written a narrative-persuasive essay, one that tells a story (or stories) while also trying to show a school why they’re a good fit.
Never mind there’s the added hurdle that college admission experts might add, which is, “Don’t write about sports challenges! Don’t write about mission trips! We’ve heard these stories a million times!” and all kinds of other Don’ts that leave a student’s head spinning.
(I happen to disagree, but that’s another story: “You Can’t Write About That.” Actually, You Can.)
What students need to hear during brainstorming is which spark of the idea has potential and talk through the various ways it can be unique, uncommon, and different from what others are sharing. Together we can walk through how a mission trip or sports story might actually work if you found a unique angle on it, like this…or that…
Or, we can go back to the beginning and try some exercises I like to call What’s Made Me, Themes of My Life, and Random Facts About Me. These are my riffs off the amazing materials found at College Essay Guy, some of which I’ve adapted, and some of which remind me of activities I used to do in my English classroom. As students hear themselves brainstorm they begin to see their minds are full of infinite possibilities.
This need to “talk it out” is also why I have a Talk to the Doc activity for students who need to just spin a yarn and then see if something emerges. I give them some guard rails, a playground set of rules to talk into, and then they head to Tools –> Voice Typing, tap the mic icon, and talk away.
When you consider that our first storytelling as humans was done around a fire, then this process makes a lot of sense.
When it comes to my fiction writing, Russell or Amy may be called upon for legal advice for my lawsuit novel. Cindy might be asked a coach’s question for my basketball novel. My parents, whether a parent character seems believable. Tracy, whether she kept reading, since she’s committed to page-turning just like I am. John, whether the NCAA really does operate this way. Neil, why hog farms are so toxic. Greg, whether a song is the perfect one for this scene, or this country saying is on point.
It takes a village to help me write.
We also need to search to find the soul of a story. The Muse doesn’t just wallop you over the head. But you can hear the Muse a lot more clearly if you engage regularly with the questions you have about your writing, and must answer them for someone else, an invested yet neutral listener, over a period of time.
What I offer with Success Story is an efficient schedule for each student, with clear weekly deadlines and a weekly Live Coaching Session. This structure gives them time and space in between brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revising. The process gives them a goal and an audience.
What I also offer is a series of questions, whether in line edits in documents or discussions in Live Coaching sessions, to get students to find the answer themselves.
Because if the lonely writer in her garret is right about one thing, it’s that in the end, we must write the darn thing on our own.
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