The longest journey starts with a single step...
How to develop your story idea, plan it out, and stay motivated and disciplined as you get down to the job of writing.
In this article we’ll look at:
Planning a storyline
Unfolding the plot
Getting down to it
Establishing a routine
Budgeting your hours
Leaving something for next day
How much should you aim for?
Planning a storyline
Going on a long journey is much easier when you have a map. Some writers can make up a story as they go along (both Interview With a Vampire and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were written off the cuff) but most find it essential to come up with a rough story outline beforehand. It’s always easier to write if you’re heading towards an ending you’ve already worked out. Writers who start out without a plan are sometimes referred to as ‘pantsers’ i.e. authors who write by ‘the seat of their pants’.
One famous pantser is Lee Child, creator of the Reacher series. Often Child’s leap-before-you-look writing style delivers stunning results; other times, not so much. In the Reacher novel Die Trying the prologue spends a significant amount of time describing the construction of an escape proof-room. The obvious inference is that Reacher will eventually end up in that room and somehow escape. If so, Child could never think of how Reacher might do it, because we never hear of that room again.
Some novelists talk about the dramatic concept of a story (similar to the idea of ‘high concept’ described in Writing a Screenplay). If you have a strong dramatic concept you should be able to condense the basic plot into one short sentence. The following are the dramatic concepts behind three well-known novels. Do you recognise them?
A timid hero sets out to overcome a dragon in the company of a wizard and a band of dwarfish adventurers.
Fearing the destruction of their warren a group of rabbits face terrible dangers on their journey to find a new home.
A group of shipwrecked schoolboys struggle to survive without adults on a deserted island.
All of the above sound as if they’d be interesting and exciting stories — and they are (The Hobbit, Watership Down and The Lord of the Flies. If you can condense your plot into one short sentence you might have the makings of a good story; if not, perhaps you ought to think again.
The 20-second rule
Could you get your story across to another person in twenty seconds? Traditionally this was the window of opportunity a publisher’s sales rep had to convince a bookstore buyer that a new novel was worth the shelf space. Today we might call this the ‘elevator pitch’.
Developing your plot
Once you’ve decided on your basic story prepare a scene-by-scene plan showing how the plot unfolds. What happens in each scene to move the story along? What action has to take place? What information has to be revealed? This sounds a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’ve already worked out some of the basics of your plot you’ll find that many scenes appear automatically.
For example, if your story is about a teenage scientist who invents a miracle hair-restorer, then sooner or later you will have to have a scene (or scenes) set in a laboratory. If so:
Which characters appear in the laboratory scenes and what are their roles?
Where is the laboratory? (A school lab, factory, garage?)
What key moments (successes, failures, explosions etc.) happen in the laboratory?
In the same way we can presume that the inventor will try to sell their hair-restorer at some point. Where does this happen? In a company boardroom? If so:
Is the company successful or about to go bust?
Who’s making the deal? Is someone acting on the young inventor’s behalf?
Is the sales pitch a triumph or a damp squib?
(You’ll have noted that the exercise above is all about asking yourself questions. This self-interrogation technique is covered in more detail in Coming up with ideas.)
As you progress you’ll find that your story plan soon develops into a series of essential must-have scenes with linking scenes joining them together. These must-have scenes are usually ‘active’ scenes while the linking scenes are ‘passive’, but see Writing Scenes for an explanation of these terms.
Take it easy to start with. When unfolding your story don’t begin by injecting too much detail. First rough-out the whole plot very simply from beginning to end, then go through it over and over again, adding more refinements each time and looking for ways to make improvements.
One way of laying out a story is to write down key events on index cards. You pin these cards to a wall in chronological order and move them about, tear them up, and write new ones as the story develops.
This process is often known as ‘outlining’ and many software packages aimed at the creative writer have an outlining function, some even mimic the old-fashioned index card method using the computer screen as a virtual corkboard. If you have a Macintosh or PC the simplest way of outlining digitally is to create cards using the Stickies application that came with your system software. There are also mind-mapping software packages that can be used for outlining, these include MindNode for the Macintosh, XMind and FreeMind for Macintosh or PC and Popplet and iBrainstorm for the iPad, all of which are available in free versions. See also Tools of the Trade.
Developing your idea
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of writers: oil painters and watercolourists (bear with me).
An oil painter slaps paint on the canvass and, if they don’t like what they’ve done, they scrape it off and start again. The watercolourist can’t do this, every brushstroke has to be applied with care. If they make a mistake they start from scratch.
In the same way some writers do all their thinking before they commit to paper (watercolourists) while others (the oil painters) bash out the words as fast as possible and refine them later.
Your own temperament and talent will dictate which method you prefer, but there are advantages to being an oil painter. Few finished stories turn out exactly as the writer imagined and as you work through your plot you’ll find you change your mind about key aspects of the story. You might decide to pick different locations, add or drop characters and scenes, or change the order of events. Since it’s likely that many elements of your story will change as it evolves there’s little point in spending hours, days or weeks agonising over the fine details in your first draft if there’s a strong chance you’ll be going back later to rewrite most of it.
If you’re working as a watercolourist and finding it hard going — join the dark side. Try to knock out a set number of words each day. Don’t be too creative with the dialogue and description, just get down what you have to in order to move the story along. When you’ve finished your story, then it’s time to go back and start the fine-tuning. Most people find it easier to edit their own words than to write them down in the first place.
Having problems getting started? Don’t worry, it’s the same for most writers. Victor Hugo (author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables) had a terrible time getting down to work. Sometimes it got so bad he’d strip naked and have a servant lock him in a room with pen and paper. Unable to do anything else Victor would be forced to write until the servant came to let him out a few hours later. Sadly few writers can afford to hire someone to imprison them and hide their clothes.
Establishing a routine
Easier said than done, some of us have busy, complicated lives, but the best way to make yourself write is to establish a regular routine. Make it something that has to be done, like cleaning your teeth. Put aside 15 or 20 minutes each day for writing. Such a tiny writing window sounds useless, but it’s not, you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish in that time, and it has the advantage of being unavoidable — there’s no reasonable excuse you can make to get out of a measly 15 minutes and once the routine becomes set it will become easier to add on time later. Little but often is the key to progress. You’ll be surprised how it adds up.
Don't break the chain
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to keep a yearly wall-chart calendar pinned up in his office. Each day that he wrote something he would put a big cross through that day on the chart. He found it satisfying to cross off days like this and was encouraged to keep going and not leave a single day unmarked — not to break the chain of crosses marching across the weeks and months.
Budgeting your hours
There’s no such thing as ‘spare time’, no-one spends any part of their day doing absolutely nothing, so finding the time to write will mean dropping other things. Look at how you spend your day and decide which activities you’ll put aside in favour of writing. Perhaps there are television shows you’ve got into the habit of watching every evening after work. Are they really that good? If you drop an hour of television every day you’ll have seven by the end of the week — virtually a whole working day devoted to writing.
If you need inspiration look at the website of the historical novelist Paul Doherty. Doherty had a full-time job as the head-teacher of a large school and still found the time to write over 100 novels.
Leave something for next time
End a writing session by leaving yourself a job for the next day. It can be something straightforward like the spell-checking of a chapter you’ve just completed, or a quick exercise such as writing down five likes and dislikes of one of your supporting characters. Setting yourself simple, achievable goals is one way of luring yourself to your desk and easing into the next writing session (see ‘Threshold for action’ below). The alternative is to sit staring at the horror of a blank screen or sheet of paper and wondering what the heck you’re going to do. Giving yourself an easy, undemanding task to start with is like warming up before going on a run. A good example is Ernest Hemingway who used to end a writing session in the middle of a sentence, his first task of the next writing day would be to finish it.
Threshold for action
Threshold for action is an interesting concept that helps us understand the difficulty most of us have in getting down to do stuff. Let’s say you’re sitting in a messy room that really needs cleaning. If you look at a dirty glass on a table and decide it needs moving to the kitchen, then the threshold for that action is fairly low. It’s an easy task that requires little energy to accomplish. Moving some ornaments so you can dust down the shelves is a more complex task that requires more energy. Shifting the furniture and rolling up the rug so you can wax the floor is, comparatively, a far more complex task that needs much more energy. Here the threshold for action (the prompt that gives you the impetus to get off your backside and get busy) is very high.
To prompt an action we need meet its threshold. You can do this by either lowering the threshold, or keeping the threshold where it is and raising your energy to meet it. Lowering a threshold is achieved by breaking down complex/high energy tasks into a series of simple/low energy tasks. On the other hand, raising your energy requires you to establish rewards and/or punishments for achieving or failing to achieve complex tasks. Deep cleaning a room suddenly becomes a lot more urgent if you have potential house buyers coming round, alternatively promise yourself with a reward if you complete a job by a self-imposed deadline.
How much should you aim for?
Some writers set themselves a daily word quota, others a page count, or they commit to completing a specific task such as proofreading the previous day’s work. Choose a target that suits your circumstances, but whatever goal you set yourself make sure it’s something you can stick to.
What constitutes a good day’s work will vary from person to person. It’s said that James Joyce was delighted to turn out three good sentences in a day, Ernest Hemingway had a daily goal of 500 words, while Stephen King has an invariable target of ten pages a day, rain or shine. Roald Dahl used to write for four or five hours every day, but confessed that during that time his pencil barely ever touched the paper of his writing pad — most of these sessions were simply taken up by thinking.
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