Storytelling Tools: Experience and Instinct

Large Forklift - Large LoadAn odd juxtaposition of topics arose during a wonderful recent discussion with a mentor. The topics? Lumberyard procedure and storytelling tools. See? I told you it was odd. But it got me thinking about utilizing tools in a new light. Allow me to explain.

Versatile Tool: My insight starts with the forklift. Some may know the tool by the names fork-truck or lift-truck. Anyone who’s visited a lumberyard has likely witnessed the importance of the forklift to the business. Building materials are often heavy—dangerously so. Unloading trucks and railcars, storing stock, picking specific lots or tallies, and jobsite delivery are all tasks that rely on this marvelous piece of equipment. In a former life, I managed a lumber facility that operated over two dozen forklifts, ranging from small indoor propane models, to very large capacity diesel models. We even had one behemoth capable of lifting and hauling other stalled forklifts to our service shop. Even though we milled, prefinished, and delivered lumber on a broad range of equipment, the forklift was the piece of equipment that was indispensable to all aspects of our operation.

A forklift is really many tools in one piece of equipment. It lifts and lowers loads, as well as tilting them, and is often capable of shifting a load from side to side. It also transports both load and driver, forward and back, and in some cases with a multi-speed transmission, capable of going upwards of 30 mph.

The Daunt of Big Tools: Over the years, I oversaw the training of scores of employees in their operation and ongoing safe use of the forklift. It was a responsibility I never took lightly. Handling a powerful machine that can lift and move loads of massive weight and scale, in close proximity to others, calls for serious and ongoing diligence. One can never allow himself to become blasé about it.

Over the years I noticed that some forklift trainees were daunted by this fairly complex and dangerous machine. Sometimes to the point of becoming overly-cautious and hesitant in their use. Rightfully so. In such cases, it was necessary to build a trainee’s confidence by giving them simple tasks and small loads, out of harm’s way. At the end of the day, you can only read so many manuals or watch so many training videos. At some point, you have to get behind the wheel. The only cure for inexperience is to gain experience.

I suspect you might be starting to glean what my forklift background has to do with my writing epiphany.

An Impetuous Baseline: Allow me to use myself—as a former forklift driver as well as a writer—to illustrate the analogy. I started driving a forklift before I was licensed to drive a car. No, it wasn’t legal. Or safe. But it was a long time ago. Jobsite safety was not the priority it has rightly become. And I was under the supervision of men who had their own jobs to do, and who expected young men to have a natural aptitude for driving and tool use. And, as a typical teenage male, I was anxious to prove them right.

“The young are always ready to give those older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience.” ~Oscar Wilde

In other words, I was a hotdog, a showoff, eager to test my own limits as well as the limits of this powerful machine. I’d had a few experimental, off-road experiences behind the wheel of a car before my first time on a forklift. And I’d watched a lot of others, both driving cars and operating forklifts, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to drive. So I had a baseline of experience from which I drew my confidence to try my hand at operating this complex piece of equipment. I didn’t know what I was doing, and my early efforts demonstrated my inexperience. Yet I somehow managed to get quite a bit done. And managed to not kill or maim myself or anyone else in the process.

“Never let inexperience get in the way of ambition.” ~Terry Josephson

The same goes for writing fiction. When I started, I was excited to “just do it.” I’d done some experimental, off-road (read: not to be shown) writing in the past. And I’d read a lot of books, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to become an author. What more did I need?

Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my initial efforts clearly demonstrated my inexperience. And yet I managed to get quite a bit done. (And the only resulting injuries suffered were by my characters—unless you include the bafflement or boredom of some early readers.)

Caution Born of Experience:

“Intuition is reason in a hurry.” ~Holbrook Jackson

As the years went by, I not only gained skill that eventually became expertise, I came to more fully appreciate both what a forklift was capable of accomplishing, and just how potentially dangerous and costly its ill-use could be. I’d gotten to a point where operating a forklift seemed to come by rote. It felt intuitive. But I was often reckless and rushed. I had near misses and spills. More than I care to admit. Thankfully, my recklessness never led to injury, but it often came with a cost, in time and money due to damage. But with maturity came the wisdom that hurrying with a forklift often led to delay and mishap.

 “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ~Albert Einstein

I was once a prolific writer. I don’t say this to show off. I produced many pages per day without pause. In the rush to “be finished” and to submit and be read, the words just poured out. It honestly felt good. I got to a point where it felt intuitive. I knew how to drive, and wanted to step on the gas, to get to the damn destination, already. The first draft of my epic fantasy trilogy was over 650,000 words. I was so naïve, I didn’t even know such a length might be considered a pitfall.

It was only through being read and critiqued, and then through trying again, and again, that I realized the cost of my hurry. Six years later, and only through many rewrites, through working with a professional editor and coach, and through many critiques, have I come to realized how much I didn’t know—to find pause to consider how much I still don’t know.

Taking Stock of the Lesson Load: So here I am, a decade into this new gig, experienced but cautious, still eager but mindful of the patience required for success. I doubt I’m as skilled a writer as I once was a forklift operator, but close enough to illustrate my point. The epiphanies I reach are manifold, but the biggest lessons seem to fall into two categories:

1)Structure and Efficiency: As a forklift operator, I learned to see a load of lumber to be built as a series of steps to be addressed. Each order becomes a unit, built with a solid foundation and a stackable shape. Units must then be carefully placed on the truck, in the proper order; delivery routes in the proper succession, to achieve any sort of efficiency. Knowing the optimal structure of a load allows you to more easily handle the addition of complexity. Once beyond a load’s basic size and shape, one must consider geography, urgency, fragility, perishability, to name a few. It’s wise to know the rules, but it also pays to learn how to best break them and when.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see story structure as an aid—a series of steps to be addressed in pursuit of efficient storytelling. From inciting incident to crisis to reaction to climax and resolution, it’s wise to know how to stack the basic blocks of the story I seek to build. If I know the basics of structure, I can then take into account the setting, timeline and peripheral obstacles. To maximize its impact efficiently, I must consider not only the goals and motivations of my characters, I need to be conscious of their worldview and the state of their psyche. After all, it’s not just about delivering my characters to “The End.” Rather, it’s about the changes accrued in making the journey, and the state they arrive in.forklift-auto-dash

2) Complexity and Intuition: As I pointed out, the forklift is a complex and versatile tool. If an operator stopped to think about each and every step, carefully considered each and every lever and pedal individually, with each successive use, it would either slow progress to impracticality, or completely debilitate the attempt. With practice, the operator gains the intuition to size up the load in question, find its center of gravity, lower the forks while steering and accelerating to scoop, tilt and lift while backing, shift gears while steering to avoid obstacles in route, gauge the proper height and alignment upon the approach to a truck bed, etcetera. Advance planning of the steps, and constant surveillance of the surroundings and assessment of the progress are needed, but these additional considerations also come more naturally with experience.

As I said, I’ve become a cautious writer. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also allowed the lessons to make me hesitant, allowed my awareness of the tools to overwhelm my progress. I have put in a lot of practice, and I’ve found my way to successes. I know how to plan and assess progress, and I’ve demonstrated I’m persistent enough to get to “The End.” I long to make progress, and yet I’ve become tentative.

Deliberate Intuitiveness: Thinking about my former skill operating a forklift reminds me to have faith in my experience. I need to get to a place of trusting my instincts again. Not in an impetuous or immature way. It’s not that I believe I have instinctual talent. But I do believe in my innate ability to adjust based on experience, to sublimate my story impulses, to unconsciously apply practiced lessons.

Hefting the Writing LoadI need to trust that I know my way around the levers and pedals of story by rote, and get this story built and delivered. After all, you can’t build an order file until prove you can deliver. And I’ve got a lot of back-stock to work through.

Fork it Over: What’s your intuitive skill? Does it provide a baseline for accumulating expertise? Do you ever find yourself worrying too much about all the levers and pedals of storytelling? Please deliver your load in the comments.

Photo credits: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_rfoxfoto’&gt; / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

17 comments on “Storytelling Tools: Experience and Instinct

  1. brindle808 says:

    Timely and excellent post, Vaughn. I like the analogy, it’s one I can relate to. I’m not sure what my intuitive skill is. Perhaps it is being able to see what needs to be done, (that sounds so presumptuous) but then I get caught up in the minutia of using every lever and pedal whether or not it’s necessary; wasting time and frustrating myself. So, I stall and wallow for a while until I regroup. Does it provide a baseline for accumulating expertise? Absolutely. While I learn this process of writing, I’m becoming comfortable using those gears and levers, believing that tweaking and fine-tuning them is part of the process. I accept there will be dings, scrapes and full-loaders worth of crap to be moved and dumped. Fortunately, there are wise foremen who let me have at it in the back of the lot and allow me the luxury and space to ask for their expertise when I need it. 🙂

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    • Wow! Excellent additions to the analogy, Brin! 🙂 You were working those levers and pedals in your early versions, all right. But I think you’re right, it does give you that solid base. Playing with terminology and worldbuilding are definitely similar to seeing how fast or high you can lift a timber on the forks, or seeing how hard you have to brake and from what speed to make a dunnage pallet fly off the forks (so you don’t have to get off your duff 😉 ).

      It’s always a big help to have foremen and fellow operators around. I particularly liked those who led and taught me by example. And at that, you’re a natural, my friend. Thanks for a great addition to the conversation! Keep building that load!

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  2. vpchandler says:

    It sounds like you’re finding your way. You are realizing that you have more innate expertise than you thought you had. 🙂

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  3. 650,000 words? Man, you are epic. I hope you don’t see that writing time as wasted. It was teaching you how to create a novel (it took me a LONG TIME to learn that lesson myself. There’s no wasted writing).

    You sound like you’re in the ideal spot now. You’ve got your tools from the past, and plenty of experience. Now, it’s time for you to get the fork out of your own way and write! You can do this, Vaughn!

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    • Hey Marcy! I’ve kept a file of deleted scenes, unused openings, shorts to explore backstory, and even entire chapters I’ve pitched. It’s almost 200K. I once thought that someday I’d find a place to use them. But I’ve gone back and looked. No, they’re not usable. But to your point, I certainly don’t consider any of it wasted!

      At the UnCon, an attendee who was a published author got into a back-and-forth with Lisa Cron during one of her sessions about Lisa’s advice on backstory exploration. He seemed very hung up on the fact that this work would be “wasted words” and kept referring to them as “pre-writing.” She finally stopped him and said (paraphrasing), “Why is it ‘pre-writing’? It’s just *writing*! After all, only a small percentage of any of our words are going to make it into publication. It’s the way everyone finds their way to those words–by writing. Lots!” I don’t think I’ll ever forget that one.

      You cracked me up on “get the fork out of my own way…” Thanks for all you do for writers, and for being such a great supporter. You rock!

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  4. liz says:

    I’m fascinated by this post, Vaughn — your experience is so far beyond anything I’ve ever done in terms of driving vehicles. (Although I did used to be able to haul a horse trailer relatively handily.) Nice job with the analogy — it definitely made me think.

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    • Thanks, Liz! I always love your riding analogies, and this big steel multi-levered beast is as close as I can come. I thought about the intuition required, and although a machine is a lot more predictable, there are definitely parallels. Glad it got you thinking! Bundle up and keep warm!

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  5. To use a forklift properly you need precise training, proper balance and aim, and most importantly preparation. Especially when you’re lifting a pallet of heavy stuff off a high rack. At my day-job working a forklift often requires blocking off the next aisle as well as the one the forklift is in, as a precaution against the possibility of another pallet load becoming unbalanced and falling over. To someone watching a good forklift driver, the maneuvers appear almost effortless, because a large amount of the work–the prep work is done behind the scenes.

    You are so right on, V. I never thought of it that way before, but it is a lot like writing. Great post.

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    • I can only imagine how much trickier it would all get with the general public having access to the work zone! But as writers, we need our space, don’t we? So your closed aisles are a great addition to the analogy. It’s funny, for several of the early years as an operations manager, the forklift designated for my use was an older, medium-duty gas-powered Hyster. All of the others were diesel or propane and could be refueled on-site, but I had to drive mine across the street to a gas station to fill up. It was far from a powerful lift, but, boy, did I acquire a touch with it. It had slim forks and was quick and highly maneuverable for its size. We became an adept pairing. My guys would call me on the radio to come an perform a tight angle lift their monsters couldn’t manage. Just goes to show–you use what you have, and keep practicing, and special things happen.

      One last funny thing. It was known as #9. So you can guess how often that little psychedelic ditty from the White Album ran through my head. 🙂 Thanks for the great additions to the analogy, B! Stay safe, and write on!

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  6. katmagendiea says:

    Once long ago I took a job that a woman had never been hired for, and I did well; kept up the guys – I was about 19 – well, one day I decided I was going to drive the forklift – got in it, powered it up, and next thing I knew, I’d backed that sucker right down a ditch and into a fence — the guys laughed their asses off — all I could do was laugh at myself after my initial horror and embarrassment. But, I had to concede that even though I thought of myself as a “tough girl” there were some things I was not trained to do, and really didn’t want to do – all I wanted was to prove a point and all I did was prove that the point was that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! Laugh!

    there’s an analogy/metaphor/etc in there that applies to writing . . . . 🙂

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    • It’s funny, but even into the late 90’s, it seemed in our little corner of the world that the forklift was a man’s domain. The females in our company willingly (and well-encouraged) dove into just about every form of hands-on work when we were in our crazy busy stage of growth. But none of them wanted to train on the lifts. And I call it funny because, in spite of the old predisposition, I’ve found women to generally be excellent drivers of cars. I hope that’s changing out there, and I would guess it is.

      Heck, I’ve gone off half-cocked plenty of times, trying to prove something–both as a writer and in just about every other facet of life. I think we often learn more from our mistakes than our success, even if it’s only to stay humble. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Kat (and you’re right in the next comment – perfect!)

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  7. katmagendie says:

    Welp, my comment was eaten by the wordpress gods, or else it’ll show up later – dang, I was so succinct and my comment so insightful and energetic and perfect – it was the best comment I’ve ever written – it would go up in the annals of Greatest Comments Ever Written and be used for quotes all over the internet and maybe even in print!

    (above statement is null and void if other comment happens to show up – teehee).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I get overwhelmed with all the craft stuff all the time, even for writing WU posts. This is where a deadline helps. At some point, the panic of not having a column written exceeds the panic of doing it perfectly.

    I don’t have a fiction deadline–which I might need to change, but that’s another story–so I struggle more with my novels/novellas.

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    • For me lately, it’s a matter of getting out of my own way. I’ve been recognizing that, for a better or worse outcome, progress must be made. Sometimes I feel like my sanity depends on it.

      Maybe a deadline *would* help. But there’s a tiny issue: I’ve set them, and marched right over them (including right now, here in January, when my revision was to have been done). Maybe I need a penalty. I know, you can be my boss on the novels, Boss! You always shepherded me to completion back in the day. 😉

      Thanks for weighing in, Jan! Wishing you much well-deserved success in ’15!

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