On ‘Story Genius’ or . . . How to Avoid Wasting a Decade of Your Life

Ever feel as if your writing is a waste of time? That the entire universe is laughing at your paltry literary efforts? That’s one of my biggest fears, and it’s founded on reality.

I wrote three unsuccessful children’s book series for David C. Cook in the 1990s. And by “unsuccessful” I mean the amount of royalties I received for all three series was $2.87. I still have the uncashed check.

Secret of the Missing Teacup by Marianne Hering

So when I saw a writing book that included these words in the title—How to Write a Riveting Novel Before You Waste Three Years—the words Before You Waste made me think of those unprofitable books.

Those series represent the entirety of my freelance work in my 30s, the time when you’re supposed to be at your creative peak. I lost a decade, not just three years. I was raising kids then too, and anytime I had a spare second, I was writing. I have little show for my efforts. I should have taught my kids how to become professional yodelers instead.

All that to say the phrase Before You Waste in the book’s title caught my eye because I’m writing again full time and don’t want to squander this decade too.

Why Story Genius works

The entire title of the book I saw is long. It has a sub title and a sub-sub title: Story Genius. How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). I checked out the audio version of the book from the library. The brain science part is nothing to write home about, at least it wasn’t for me. Here’s the summary: People are influenced by good stories. (She has a Ted Talk on it; you can listen to it here.)

However, other parts of the book were transforming. As I mentioned in my review of Save the Cat Writes a Novel, I can remember stories, and in Story Genius, author Lisa Cron uses a story to teach how to write a good novel. She actually writes a novella within the writing manual. (I’ll use the Save the Cat method for pacing.)

Why I wasn’t a Story Genius

Smoke Screen Secret

In the 1990s I was a decent writer. I could throw together a chapter without a single grammatical error. My action scenes were well paced. Description? Practically poetic. Dialogue? Snappier than Rice Krispies. But I lacked great characters with compelling problems. As a result, no one really cared about my protagonists. And the end result of that result was $2.87.

My current book series, The Imagination Station, contains time travel stories. The main characters are essentially on quests that take them through exciting periods in Christian history. Not much character development happens while they are running from hot lava or a legion of Roman soldiers. But the simple characterization works in that genre.

Islands and Enemies

In my current status as a wanna-be-a-better-children’s-middle-grade-novelist, I know I need to up my character-development game. And Lisa Cron’s book has given me hope I can sell another children’s book series with a great character storyline.

The Story Genius and misbelief

The huge takeaway I have from Story Genius is the concept of misbelief. Lisa Cron develops this in “Part II, Creating the Inside Story” (chapters 3–8). She explains that in every story, the protagonist has a misbelief that is rectified in the “aha moment.”

In the book series I’m trying to sell to a Christian publisher, my main character, Ari, lives in Babylon after the Jews have been taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar. He has the misbelief that God doesn’t care about the Jews. This misbelief is the focus of the entire book.

I’ve outlined the book describing how Ari got that misbelief. The “Aha moment” will be when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are saved from the fiery furnace, and Ari will be faced with evidence that his belief was false. Any backstory about Ari will show how he attained his misbelief. Any conflict in the book will come with Ari expresses his misbelief and is rebuffed by other characters. Any actions Ari take will be driven by this misbelief—and the actions he take will get him in trouble with both the Jews and the Babylonians. I’m really excited about this story and the message it will present to kids about God’s love. (Plus they’ll learn a lot about ancient Babylon, like how they documented everything—even how much food the prisoners ate.)

Is the Story Genius method good enough to get me a contract?

Writing the outline for this novel was the easiest one I’ve ever done. I had a clear focus of what Ari needed to do and why he would do it. The scenes for the sample chapters practically wrote themselves. I won’t be tempted to follow rabbit trails that don’t explain or rectify Ari’s misbelief. And most important, readers will care about Ari as I explain his emotions and motivations, because who among us hasn’t had doubts about God’s love? They will want to follow along as Ari discovers more about God and himself.

I turned the proposal in on February 18, and I’m still waiting to hear back . . . I’ll let you know how it turns out in my next blog, or the next one, or the next one. The wait can be excruciating.

Let’s stay connected.

Want to chat with me for 30 minutes to discuss your project for free? (Or we can talk about Ravensburger puzzles. I am addicted to the 500 large-piece size puzzles.) Email me at HeLovesMeBooks@gmail.com to set up a time.

About Marianne Hering

Marianne Hering was a founding editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Since then she’s been writing for children and editing Christian books for adults. Find out more about the Imagination Station book series that has sold more than 1 million copies at MarianneHering.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.


5 thoughts on “On ‘Story Genius’ or . . . How to Avoid Wasting a Decade of Your Life

  1. Though I haven’t gotten a chance to read Ms. Cron’s book, I did take the time to watch the video. She is so on point with how stories reach our emotions and can change our way of thinking through emotional connections. Thank you for introducing her to me.

  2. WOW! You hit my nail on the head. 15 years and I often feel it was wasted. Until I look at things other than my publication record. Writing is repeatedly a faith-over-failure victory for me.

  3. Marianne, thanks for this wonderful post. Like Jean Hall mentioned, life isn’t wasted if it’s spent on other people and things besides our writing projects. 🙂 However, the focus of this book is about writing, so point taken.
    I like the point you made about constantly assessing our content based on the main character’s disbelief.

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