As we have asserted, a story makes its way from a writer’s heart (whatever that is, imagination, perception, the unconscious, and so forth) through a shaping process that occurs in the writer’s mind, onto a page or screen, then off to a publisher, to be displayed in some way in front of an audience of readers’ minds, which it uses as bridges to reach readers’ hearts.
That’s the ideal sequence, anyway. Even a glance at it shows various places where things can go wrong, and often do.
1. Heart to Mind
Who knows how to quantify this one? How many stories are swimming around deep in the imagination which never see the light of day? Probably an infinite number. So the very first place a story can founder is in the sea of the imagination, before it even reaches any kind of conscious shaping process. If it makes it into the writer’s mind in some kind of cohesive form, it has barely begun its hazardous journey.
Ideas, images, characters, scenes and everything else that form the substance of a story can leap fully-formed, half-formed or barely formed at all into the workshop of the writer’s mind. A great deal of what happens here is simply an effort to record. Drafts and drafts of material are scribbled down by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world as they attempt to ‘capture’ stories. But writing a story — at least, writing a good story — isn’t just a matter of recording what ‘pops up’. Unless you are very fortunate as a writer, the material has to be shaped. Michelangelo didn’t find a bock of marble that looked like the Biblical hero David — he took a block of unshaped stone and saw in it the form of David. Using all his craftsmanship, Michelangelo gently, step-by-painstaking-step, carved out of the marble a work of art.
Every good story, every tale that lasts, every piece of fiction that stands the test of time, had to be crafted into existence. Even Coleridge’s poem 'Kubla Khan', which legend has it came to the poet fully formed while he was under the influence of opium, bears the signs of craft. And so, of course, if a writer does not know his or her tools, or fails to use them effectively, a story can fail right here, before it becomes visible to others at all.
3. Mind to Page
Continuing on from the crafting of a tale, it’s possible to discern that the thing called craft has several levels. Great authors, consciously or unconsciously, use the mighty fundamentals of storytelling — the powerful machines that create momentum, mystery, morality and meaning, which are described at length in my book How Stories Really Work — in a process which is largely mental. But a lower level of craft is knowing how to construct the language so that when these things appear on the page they are both comprehensible and effective. Awkward wording, bumbling construction, faltering command of English — all these things can sink a story so that what may have been worthwhile and strong while it was in the mind seems less impressive on the page.
4. Page to Publisher
Let’s assume, though, that the valid and gripping ideas and characters and so forth which first emerged from a writer’s heart have been adequately shaped in the writer's mind and transmitted in a workable way onto the page. Here’s where things get even trickier, because we have reached the point where for the first time the work leaves the orbit of the writer and progresses through space to another human being. And so, for the first time, we encounter a maxim that many struggle with.
Not all stories are suited to all minds at all times.
The original idea may have been superb in its own way; the craftsmanship which made it into a thing of beauty and wonder may have been flawless in its particular field; the transmission of it into a physical form may have been triumphant for that genre or kind of story — but not everyone is going to like it.
Furthermore, even of those who like it, it may not find its place or its moment immediately.
Let’s say you’ve had the idea for a great love story. It grew in your mind for months, nagging you and virtually compelling you to sit down and write it. You did so, drawing on everything you knew about the craft of writing to shape it into a powerful tale, and then transferring it onto the page using all your skill. Tweaking the last details into shape, you confidently sent it off far and wide to every publisher with an open submission.
Your error there was in not finding a publication which matched what you’d written — of the editors who receive your love story, 90% may have been looking for something else entirely. So your manuscript goes straight in the bin or into the trash icons on their screens. Of the 10% who were looking for a love story, all find it not precisely right for their publication at that time.
The dense cloud of rejection descends upon you. The story stalls right there.
5. Publisher to Venue
But let’s be merciful. Let’s say that one publisher likes your story and accepts it for publication. You celebrate. Finally, recognition! What could possibly go wrong?
It depends really on how wise your publisher is. The unwise ones splatter their publications all over the internet hoping to attract buyers with ‘shotgun marketing'; the wise ones explore and find those pockets of audiences who are exactly suited to particular publications. The wisest have already gathered the most appropriate audiences together prior to releasing anything. But unless you are fortunate enough to be working with the wisest, chances are your work will get lost at this point.
6. Venue to Reader
If the venue has been chosen correctly, the likelihood of success at this point is quite high. But if your book has been placed in the wrong spot, it won’t get seen by the right people and will struggle. This is such an important principle that it underpins most of the failure of modern marketing.
7. Mind to Heart
But again, let’s assume that your work got this far: it was well-written enough to grab a publisher’s attention, and that publisher was clever enough to put it in the right places at the right times. Readers purchase the thing and read it. Success here is totally dependent upon success at the earlier points of 2 and 3 above: if a story has been crafted correctly, it will grab the reader in the right ways; if it has been communicated well in terms of language, it will succeed in gluing the reader’s attention. If these things have been done with sufficient competence, then the original ideas, images and themes will leap through the reader’s mind straight into his or her heart. But if 2 and 3 above weren’t done correctly, the reader will probably put the book aside, disappointed in the purchase, or, at the least, finish the thing but feel deflated.
At every step of the way, minefields were waiting to hinder the unwary. But maps of the minefields exist. It’s possible to negotiate a way through all these potential obstacles and have a hit success.