Hoo Boy. I’ve been sitting on this review for a while. This book was reccomended to me my Kay Kenyon, a wonderful person and talented author. I came in to this book predisposed to like it and to learn from it. Did I? Well, let me just say that it’s unusual for a book of writing advice to fill me with disgust and profanity. To that you may attach blame to my moral failings at to the tone and authorial voice of Larry Brooks.
I’ve never been to one of Larry Brook’s workshops. I don’t know the man. This feels like one of his workshops taken verbatium. It’s possible that in person he’s funny and charming. That doesn’t come across on the page.
What I got was a huge pile of arrogance, sneering condescension towards writers more skilled and successful that he is (the way he berates Stephen King made me roll my eyes), and an even taller pile of declarative sentences. You’d think such an experienced critiquer of manuscripts as Mr. Books would know the importance of narrative voice and of not alienating his target audience. Mixed in with this pile are a few nuggets of gold, sift for them if you have a high tolerance for bovine byproducts.
That’s a very emotional reaction and I’ll try to explain and be more objective as I go on. No promises, but I’ll try. There is one thing I’ve learned in writing and working with three + critique groups: every writer is different. Every writer needs to find the process that works for them. There is no ‘one way’ that works for everyone. For a lot of writers, including successful writers, the process of outlining and structuring your story according to the iron-clad rules Mr. Brooks lays out kills the enthusiasm and the creativity that makes them productive. Mr. Brook’s continuing and withering contempt for these ‘discovery writers’ got on my nerves early and stayed there. He views writers who do more than one draft as fools. According to him, you must outline your story, you must hit the structure points on the page numbers he lists or you are doom. Doomed!
Basically, Larry Brooks is repackaging screenplay story structure. He even owns up to that in the book. However, unlike Mckee’s Story and Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook, this book didn’t inspire me and lift me up. It didn't make me grab any random bit of scrap paper I could find so I could furiously write down story and plot ideas. It made me angry, defiant and irritated. And I’m pro-outlining! What I object to is being berated and preached at as if I’d wandered into an EST seminar.
Worse, the book is filled with fluff, filler, call it what you will. It feels more like an infomercial than a writer’s guild. If he cut out the cheerleading for how awesome he is and how awesome his 6 core competencies are this would be a useful 140 guide. As it is, I fully expect Larry Brooks to start selling Shamwow’s. I really hated having to wade through this nonsense to get to the part that is useful. I wanted to (and may have) shout, “Stop spending chapters on telling me how awesome you and this technique is and tell me what you’re here to tell me.”
There is useful information here. The 6 core competencies listed are: Concept, Character, Theme, Story Structure, Scene Execution, Writing Voice. I have no quibble with any of them, except perhaps Story Structure. I do note with irony that one of this 6 competencies is Writing Voice and he chose a writing voice that talks down to writers, berates and displays swaggering arrogance unearned by any literary success of his own.
Here’s my concern about Story engineering: it invites stiff, artificial writing. It invites the writer to create events in a novel that happen because the PLOT demands that they occur. You have to have your first Milestone at 25 % of the novel’s length. You must have your turning point at the 50% point. You must have your second milestone/story point/twist at the 75% point. Your Story must spend the first quarter of the book establishing character and creating your inciting incident, you must have the second quarter of the book with the main character running away/looking for answers, you must have the third quarter of the book with the protagonist attacking the antagonist, and then the climax should take up the last quarter of the book. Can you see the kind of formulaic writing that can come out of such a structure? I can and have.
Eh. I’m not doing a very good job of keeping my irritation at this book out of this review, so I’ll let it go.
There is good stuff here but wear your hip waders, don’t drink the kool-aid and keep asking yourself what you can apply to your own writing from Story Engineering.