douglas clegg

A Controlling Idea? Huh?

So What's It Really About?
At first blush, this blog appears to be for writers, but to the dedicated readers and movie viewers out there, this blog is for you, too. It will enrich your experience of books and films and help you see at the most fundamental level why some stories work and some don't.

Most of us have heard the terms theme and premise, and some will argue their meaning, but for today let's just say they're interchangeable and we'll go with premise as our focus. For our purposes, when we say premise, we're talking about the "controlling idea" (per Robert McKee in Story) or what a story is really about when you strip away all the window dressing. I'm eternally grateful to my mentor, Douglas Clegg, for reintroducing me to this concept because it makes the process of writing so much cleaner and the process of reading and movie viewing a ton 'o fun.

Egri Calls It Premise
Doug suggested the book, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, to help me deepen my understanding of the subject of premise/theme. Egri refers to the subject as premise and he begins the book this way:

A man sits in his workshop, busy with an invention of wheels and springs. You ask him what the gadget is, what it is meant to do. He looks at you confidingly and whispers: "I really don't know."

Another man rushes down the street, panting for breath. You intercept him and ask where he is going. He gasps "How should I know where I'm going? I am on my way."

...Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination.

...Reams of paper of paper bear miles of writing--all of it without any point at all. There is much feverish activity, a great deal of get-up-and-go, but not one seems to know where he is going.

So again, what is the story really about? On the deepest level of your feeling self, what is the story saying to you? Premise is not to be confused with plot. It's not what happens to whom, it is what underlies all the action and interactions of a story--a statement of the human condition that everyone can feel or identify with, even if we don't agree with it. Egri offers the following examples:

Romeo and Juliet - Premise: "Great love defies even death."

King Lear - Premise: "Blind trust leads to destruction."

Macbeth - Premise: "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction."

Othello - Premise: "Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love."

Driving Satisfaction
In exploring this subject, I have learned that in standard story telling you will find that every paragraph and every sentence drives toward the premise in a great story. Without this clear path, a story feels less satisfying even if you're not aware of why that's so. There's a sense of ungroundedness or something out of place, even if it's an interesting or entertaining story. The premise is the unifying force, the thing that holds all the elements together, and without it, a story doesn't feel solid.

Writers don't usually start out knowing what the premise of a story is, rather it emerges as they write, but the important thing is for them to notice it, and to then refine it to its simplest form. Ultimately, the story should be edited to clear away anything that doesn't support the premise and fill in the gaps to clarify and strengthen it where needed.

The Tease
As readers and movie watchers, if you're a geek like me, you can tease out this idea for yourself to see if a film or a book holds together. You'll start to notice that really powerful stories have very strong and clear premises. Sometimes they're hard to nail down at first, but if you keep paring down the themes within the story, you'll find one shiny idea that unifies the whole echilada. For a poorly written story, you may be entertained, but the theme, if you can pin it down at all, won't hold together from start to finish.

Teasing out the theme is harder than it sounds, but it's a very statisfying and instructive exercise, especially for writers and lovers of story. It really demonstrates how important this concept of a unifying idea is to every single aspect of a well wrought tale.

Reoccuring themes for writers will arise from this exercise, as well, since themes/premises ultimately come from their conscious and unconscous beliefs and passions. I suspect readers and movie viewers, if you look more closely, you'll find that you're drawn to the work of specific writers because your beliefs and passions are in alignment with the writer's (via the themes of their stories). Nothing like a little psycho-babble blogging, but I think you'll find this "premise" true.

I don't have the magic to fully convey what premise or theme is in one blog, in fact, I'm still learning myself, but I hope I sparked your curiosity on the subject AND its importance in the composition of a truly great story. Don't take my word for it, read Egri, McKee, Gotham Writers' and anyone who will enlighten you on the subject. Now, get out there and go hog freakin' wild with this idea (yeah, baby, I'm a party animal, eh?). I guarantee it will change your writing and your appreciation for a well told tale.

See you next weekend!

Wickedly Yours,
Fran Friel

Too Fast, Beach Yammering, Cleggage and Dynamic Art

Going, Going, Gone?

This has been our first full summer here at the beach and the first time I can remember not wanting summer to end (at least as an adult). I love the Autumn and I've always looked forward to the end of the heat and humidity of Summer so I could get to the good stuff, but this year, I'm actually sad to see the leaves start to change. Don't get me wrong, I'm going to love the crisp air and Fall foliage, but I can't help but think of the snow and ice that soon follows (Yuck!) and missing these gorgeous sparkling sunny days.

Yammerings from the Beach
Anyway, I'll soon be birthing a new blog--a beach blog, to share snippets of the colorful people and the inspiration that time at the beach seems to generate with such ease. I've been taking pics and talking to some interesting beach characters, kind of getting ready to share the journey via the blog. Maybe no one be me will give a hoot about inspirations born of the beach, but they've been clamoring in my brain for expression. I'll keep you posted on the beach blog launch in case you want to see my alter-ego at work (that's the bike riding barefoot crazy lady with the camera who stalks the Bacci Ball court taking pictures of the old Italian guys with the chestnut sun burns who play the game like a religion).

Clegg Zone
Just a quick update of the mentoring progress for anyone who may enjoy a little sadistic glance into a good whoopin'. Doug's first major assignment was to work during the week Internet-free, except for email. It's been both fabulous and horrendous. Working without the distraction of the Internet gave me back an enormous amount of time and also showed me just how often I use the web as a distraction when the going gets tough with my work. It's been a revelation how often I turn to the Internet when I'm bored or tired, rather than do something I really want or need to do like ride my bike or take a nap. The unconscious auto-pilot aspect of it became very clear when it wasn't there as an easy escape.

Although the exercise was meant for only one week, it was such a success I've decided to make it my default way of working. I might add one evening a week, but not if I can help it. I got more done this week both workwise and lifewise, than I have in the last month. If you haven't tried a little net time out, I highly recommend it. It's very revealing and good for the soul.

I Love Weird Stuff
One last thing--I've been meaning to share this with you for a while now, but I really love kind of weird mind-binding sort of stuff. Following is a link to a Dynamic Art site that contains a demo of a moving piece of art. It's got a cool meditative vibe to it and a sense of spacially living images--neat music, too. Have a little look--CLICK HERE.

When that finishes, hit replay than come back here and let the music accompany the following piece, as well (the YouTube vid has no music, so it's more fun with the groovy vibe):

Have a great week. See you next weekend!

Wickedly Yours,
Fran Friel

Surprise! No Net and Scooby Snacks

Okay, you know that cool announcement I shared with you in my last blog, the one about Douglas Clegg's extraordinary plan to give back to the writing community? Well, I'll admit, I was a little bit envious that some lucky duck was going to get the benefit of Doug's amazing guidance as his first writing mentoree in the program--a once in a lifetime opportunity for sure--but my benevolent side prevailed and I started to feel really excited about Doug's plan. Big ideas tend to create brilliant ripples that inspire others, and this sort of thing makes me strangely happy. Yes, I'm a little odd that way.

Anyway, it had been a pretty tough month at the old Friel homestead, but the dust was starting to clear and I was going along minding my own business when I get a call from Doug. Well, needless to say, I was clueless when he asked if I wanted to be his first mentoree. I was stunned...and I'm still stunned. Talk about the planets aligning, lucky stars, good karma and huge blessings all rolled into one. I'm thrilled. I'm amazed. And I'm enormously grateful, to say the least.

We've begun working together and already I've gained some very important insights into my work and into my thinking process. This week, at my mentor's request, begins a BIG change for me that will make an enormous difference in my working life--No Internet during the work week! Yup, it's a little scary and there will be withdrawal, but I know it's a very important step toward my success in the writing world (and life). I'll still be around on the weekends, but with the exception of email, starting Monday, I'm cut off! It's going to be fun...eventually.

Steve Berry and Maui Dreamin'
As some of you might have noticed in my bios, I often talk about my Maui dreaming. Well, best selling author, Steve Berry, has been living the dream at least during the Maui Writers Conference. I'm determined to find my way to this conference one of these days, but in the meantime, I'm happy to chomp on the little Scooby Snacks that are tossed my way by those who have attended. I'm a good sharer, so following is a little Scooby love for your chomping enjoyment.

In the latest Writer's Digest Newsletter (subscribe to the newsletter here--they always have excellent "snacks" for writers), Steve shares his 8 Rules of Writing:

At the 2008 Maui Writers Conference, bestselling thriller writer Steve Berry says there are eight key rules that all writers must know and follow:

1. There are no rules. You can do anything you want as long as it works.

2. Don't bore the reader. You can bore the reader in a sentence, in a paragraph, by misusing words, poorly choosing words, using the wrong length, etc.

3. Don't confuse the reader. Don't misuse point of view. Don't do too much at once.

4. Don't get caught writing. Don't let you, the author, enter the story. (E.g., "And he never would see Memphis again." How would anyone other than the author know that the character would never see Memphis again?)

5. Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.

6. Don't lie to the reader. It's OK to mislead, but don't lie. If you say the character's motivation is A and it turns out to be B (and you haven't foreshadowed it at all), the reader will feel cheated.

7. Don't annoy the reader. Don't use names that are hard to pronounce or write choppy sentences throughout the entire book. It keeps people from getting close to your characters.

8. You must tell a good story. Bad writing can be forgiven with a good story. A bad story with the most beautiful writing cannot.

I hope you enjoyed the Scooby Snack. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "8 rules." Agree? Disagree? Your own rules?

I'll look forward to seeing you all in Maui someday soon!

Wickedly Yours,
Fran Friel

Best Selling Author, Douglas Clegg Gives Back!

There are a lot of talented and successful writers, but one of my absolute favorites is Douglas Clegg. I met him in an online author chat a number of years ago and even in that brief meeting he impressed me. He was generous with invaluable advice and he was kind in his manner, with no airs one might expect from a Best Selling author.

Since then he has impressed me many times over with his fabulous writing, his amazing support and his elevation of the genre with class, style and excellence. But yesterday he outdid himself by posting his intentions to support other writers. This is what he posted in his newsletter:

Dear Reader

After realizing how fortunate I've been as a novelist over the past 20 years, I've decided it's time to give back -- but in a way that I hope will serve the writing and reading community, as well as others.

Generally, I feel writers do give back -- often -- by writing the best fiction they can write.

But at this point, my life has been enriched by being able to write for a living and be part of the world of books and readers.

As a result, I've decided that:

1. All profits I receive from all small press editions of my books will, herewith, go directly to specific non-profits that I believe are out to shepherd the world a bit.

Additionally, I'll use some of these funds specifically for the support of aspiring writers who seek to improve their craft through classes, conferences, etc. in the form of scholarships and gifts.

Bear in mind, this won't make me give free rights or licenses to small press publishers. Those advances and royalties will become even more important toward funding what I believe are useful endeavors and charities.

2. I will be launching some small press editions of various novellas and older novels of mine, specifically to bring contributions toward these endeavors.

When a reader buys any of the small press editions designated for this funding, they'll know from a note inside the book that any income I make from these books will go directly to specific non-profits or toward supporting writers who want to improve their craft.

3. First on this agenda is a yearly scholarship for one writer's tuition for those who are attending Borderlands Boot Camp.

More will be announced soon about this, but basically, I'll pay for one student a year to attend the Boot Camp. This won't include transportation or food, but will cover the exact fee for Boot Camp. Again, details are coming soon, since I'll award this for the upcoming January session.

More information on Borderlands Boot Camp for writers here:

I'll be teaching here in January in the Short Story division.

4. A reasonable portion of my yearly income from writing for the NY publishers will go toward organizations that promote reading and the arts.

5. I'll pick one writer to mentor during each calendar year. What the mentoring will mean is that I'll be available in email, within specific parameters that will be set.

I'll pick the writer from among any applicants that I believe show promise. At any time that the mentoring is not working out, I'll release the mentoree and myself from this -- no point in making the year go bad for anyone.

This will be a form of light mentoring, but I hope I can bring some knowledge and insight into a new writer's life.

I mentored -- very lightly -- Derek Nikitas with the Killer Year group via the International Thriller Writers in 2007. It was enjoyable and personally rewarding to be part of such a talented writer's early success, even if in a small way. Derek's novel, Pyres, is excellent, by the way.

When I pick a mentoree for 2009, it'll be someone who has clearly demonstrated a professional pursuit of writing fiction, and has a clear talent for it.

My mentoring will not including reading the drafts of a book or teaching writing. It will be about discipline, focus, story development, developing business acumen for this, and, I hope, guiding the mentoree in some way to augment her or his own career direction.

Details on this to come -- if I can't find the right mentoree, it'll be delayed until I find the right one.

Someone once wrote me demanding that I mentor her. Then, she grew irrational and furious when I told her I didn't have the time to do it.

So, I have to assume that sometimes, people are just plain crazy when it comes to wanting this kind of thing. Those folks'll be ignored by me. If you're even slightly crazy, don't ask. And I won't tell.

6. I am going to launch a writing class weekend for writers next summer, with a focus on story, drama and premise. Very informal, and as small as it needs to be.

Students will be responsible for their transportation, hotel, etc., as well as a fee that will cover the guest speakers' fees and any incidentals. I will pull in a few other novelists who I think can provide guidance and insight as well.

Truly, I don't care if we only get three people coming -- I think it's important to keep storytelling and writing alive, and it's up to experienced writers to teach this art and craft. Details to come.

All this arose from my sense that after 20 years, there's something I can offer from all I've earned -- and learned -- in this life's work. I hope it all helps, in some small way, as a contribution to the future.

And that is my note for you, right now. Again, I'll have more details about the upcoming small press books as we move into fall.

Hope your end-of-summer is a good one -


Douglas Clegg

So as you can see, Doug has done something extraordinary. May we all be inspired by his generosity!

Be sure to visit Doug at for his FREE Story of the Month. And for updates about his work and his Writer's Support mission, Click Here to Subscribe to his Newsletter.

Wickedly Yours,
Fran Friel