As a writer, you know how it goes: You’re sitting around having coffee or you’re driving to work and BAM! A story idea hits your brain.
You write the idea down and then you start thinking about the story. You wake up almost every day thinking about it. This goes on for awhile—maybe even years.
Finally you decide it’s time to put words on paper and get this story idea out of your head. So you sit down and start writing. You get a little ways in, maybe even halfway through, and then abandon it because you just can’t make it work.
The reason is because you didn’t take the time to develop the story. You went from “idea seed” to “first draft,” but totally skipped all the parts in the middle (story development and story planning).
So then you have to go back to square one and dig around again to see if you can figure out what this story is really about. And the thing that sucks is you could’ve started here first, and not wasted any time writing a draft that you’ll have to completely rewrite.
Finding Your Story
Finding your core story is a matter of asking yourself a shitload of questions related to your story: the setting, the conflict, the characters, and more. Asking questions is how you find your core story—and it’s also how you discover any plot holes that exist.
Pretend you’re a story journalist and you have to take your idea seed and tear it to pieces, so that way you get to the core of the idea, and you’re able to then develop a concept and premise.
Who are these characters? What do they want? What’s trying to stop them from getting it?
In his book, Story Engineering, storytelling badass, Larry Brooks, talks about asking “What If” questions in order to find your story.
What if he does this? What if she does that? What if he can’t get there in time?
When you ask questions, you’re able to pull apart the details and see what you’ve got to work with.
For example, if your idea seed is a story about two people meeting and falling in love, you can use this as the jumping off point for your questioning.
So in this example, here are some questions you’d need to ask:
- Who is this guy? (Bob. He’s 45, single and dreams of traveling the world)
- Who is this girl? (April. 35. World traveler. Divorcee.)
- What does he want? (He wants to get up the courage to quit his job and go backpacking overseas.)
- What does she want? (She wants some stability in life. She’s done the travel thing.)
- How does what they want change once the First Plot Point is introduced? (They fall in love. He wants to travel. She wants to build a home base. Now what?)
And then once you have answers to these questions, you can dig even deeper:
- How will these characters change over the course of the story? (They’ll realize that they need each other, and will find a way to compromise and make things work.)
- How will they find a way to compromise? (They’ll have a “home base” where they live six months a year, and the other six months they choose six destinations from anywhere in the world and live in each place for 30 days.)
- What will tear them apart before they come back together at the end? (She gets pregnant, then miscarries when they’re traveling somewhere. She says she’s done traveling. She buys a house in the town they met in. Says if he loves her he can come with her, otherwise he should go.)
Now obviously these questions are just barely scratching the surface of this idea seed. There are still a lot more details that need to be figured out.
But I think you get the gist.
Asking questions will be your guide to digging out the pieces of your story. Then once you have all the pieces, you’ll be able to figure out where each piece needs to go in order to make the story cohesive and engaging.
Could You Use Some Help Finding Your Story?
Join me for a free Clarity Call and let’s talk about working together to find your story.
Image courtesy of Duncan Hull
You can learn more about the Idea to Draft Story Intensive by downloading a copy of the workshop guide (it’s got all the info you need to know in order to decide if this program’s right for you). To sign up (or join the wait list), visit the Idea to Draft page.
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What’s the hardest part of the first draft-writing process for you?
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is around the corner (I know, I can’t believe it either). If you want to cross the 50,000-word finish line, you need to put your best foot forward.
Sure, you could just sit down on November 1 and see what happens, but that’s a total waste of your time.
Rather than waste 30 days writing a draft you’ll toss in a drawer, never to see the light of day again, why not take NaNoWriMo seriously this year? You have plenty of time.
As you may already know, I am hugely involved in getting writers ready for NaNoWriMo, and then keeping them motivated to finish. And I’ve created a three-step process for having a badass NaNoWriMo experience.
The three steps are:
Note: this process isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for writers who are serious about coming out of NaNoWriMo with a 50,000-word draft that is a polish away from being publishable.
If you want a draft that you can actually polish up and then publish, you have to plan your NaNoWriMo story before you write it. That’s the only way you’ll come out the other side with something you can use.
Seat-of-your-pants writing will get you nothing but a full draft rewrite. And that’s a waste of your precious time.
When you plan your story ahead of time, when you know what your structure looks like and who your characters are, you will be far ahead of the game.
Best of all, planning isn’t against the NaNoWriMo rules. All it states is you can’t write any of the words beforehand, but planning is totally allowed.
Because I’m such a huge proponent of being efficient with your writing time and planning ahead, I’m running my third-annual NaNoWriMo Road Map virtual workshop.
The week before NaNoWriMo, you’ll want to shift into step two of the process, which is prepping.
Prepping is not related to the story you’ll be writing, but to the actual preparation to do the writing. Prep includes:
- Clearing your schedule–NaNoWriMo is a crazy, but fun time of year. If you’re in for the ride, you gotta be in for the ride. That means leaving your schedule open to write your 1.667 words each day during November.
- Building a NaNoWriMo Survival Kit–there are certain things you’ll need in order to survive doing that much writing in 30 days.
- Finishing up your plans–take the final week of the month of October to finish up your story plans. You don’t want to waste any time during November planning.
- Getting support–if you’re going to survive NaNo, you need someone to keep you accountable (and sane) during the process. A friend, a writer’s group or even an online NaNo group can be of service in this way.
After you’re prepped, the last step is to find a way to motivate yourself to stick with this challenge. Staying motivated for the whole 30 days is not an easy task. There are so many distractions and fears to try pulling you away from the writing process.
That’s why I’ve launched my fourth-annual 30 Days of NaNo Tips emails. Every day during the month of November you’ll receive an inspiring and motivational tip to help you write your word count for the day.
With this three-step process, there’s no way you won’t have a badass NaNoWriMo experience.
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How do you prep for NaNoWriMo?
On April 1st, writers all over the world are starting day one of Script Frenzy.
What is Script Frenzy, you ask?
“Script Frenzy is an international writing event in which participants take on the challenge of writing 100 pages of scripted material in the month of April,” according to the Script Frenzy Web site.
Here are the rules:
- 100 Scripted Pages–You have 30 days, from April 1 at 12 a.m. until 11:59 p.m. on April 30, to write 100 pages of an original script.
- You Must Verify Your Total–Before midnight on May 1, you have to login to the Script Frenzy Web site and submit your text. (It’s exactly the same as NaNoWriMo, for those of you familiar with it.)
- You have to Wait to Start–You have to wait until midnight on April 1 to start. No starting early. Everyone has the same amount of time. That’s part of the challenge.
- Write Anything Scripted–You are allowed to write screenplays, stage plays, TV shows, short films, comic book or graphic novel scripts, adaptations of novels or any other type of script you can think of.
- Grab a Friend–You can choose to write your script alone, or with a partner. (If you choose to write with a partner you will write toward the 100-page goal together.)
If you want more details, check out the Frequently Asked Questions page.
Challenges like this are great for people who procrastinate because it forces you to really focus and get writing done. (And for an extra kick, try using the Write or Die productivity tool in Kamikaze mode!)
NaNoWriMo has been over for about a week and you’ve finally caught up on your sleep. So…how did you do? Did you get your 50,000 words finished and uploaded to the NaNoWriMo site by November 30? Or did you let your procrastination get the best of you?
My procrastination got the best of me, unfortunately, and I didn’t make 50,000 words. In fact, I didn’t even come close. I only wrote 3,700 words before procrastination took over.
For those of you who didn’t make it (like me), better luck next year! But for those of you who did make it, you’re probably wondering now what?
And that question has been answered. The NaNoWriMo Web site has a page dedicated to what you can do now that you’re finished with your 50,000-word novel. Some of their ideas include:
- Gloat a little bit–You wrote a 50,000-word novel, congratulations! It’s time to celebrate. Get a bottle of champagne and toast with your family and friends. Buy yourself something from your Amazon Wishlist. You deserve it!As a NaNoWriMo-winner gift, CreateSpace, a Web site where you can create and sell books, music and video, is giving you a free paperback-bound proof copy of your novel. Just go to the site and sign up for an account using your NaNoWriMo winner’s promo code and you’re on your way.
- Start editing–Now that your novel is finished, it’s time to start editing! Or, you could wait until March 1, which starts National Novel Editing Month and edit your NaNo-book with thousands of other writers.
- Start on your next project–The next writing months coming up are February Album Writing Month (goal: 14 original songs in 28 days) and Script Frenzy (goal: a 100-page script in 30 days). Although these writing challenges can be, well, pretty challenging, it’s good to keep trying different ways to get writing done.
As a procrastinator, you need to push yourself a little harder than other people do, and signing up for a writing challenge is a shove in the right direction.
For more challenge ideas, check out the NaNoWriMo’s Now What? page.
- Challenge yourself even more–If you’ve finished writing your 50,000-word novel and feel like you’re up for an even bigger challenge, then check out Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest. From Feb. 2, 2009 until Feb. 8, 2009 upload your unpublished fiction manuscript for a chance to win a $25,000 publishing contract with Penguin Group (USA) and the distribution of your novel on Amazon.com.
For more ideas of what to do now that you’ve finished your NaNoWriMo novel, check out the NaNoWriMo Now What? page.
And if you didn’t make it to 50,000 words this year, don’t beat yourself up. The NaNoWriMo challenge is very difficult, even for an advanced writer. Remember, the start of each month is another chance for you to write 50,000 words in 30/31 days. Or if you want to write with other writers, July and August are novel writing months as well.
Chin up…you’ll get there!
In the book, No Plot, No Problem, author Chris Baty talks about the “pathway to genius.” This pathway to genius helps get you from idea to completed first draft. And it’s all pretty simple.
The pathway to genius is choosing a quick deadline or a daily word count that’s high enough. Soon the quick turn around or daily word count will help you finish your first draft. It does this because it forces you to:
- Lower Your Expectations–If you go into writing your novel with the mindset that it has to be perfect, chances are, you’re not going to ever get it finished. This is because you’re setting your expectations way too high.It’s good to have high expectations, but have them for the final product, not the first draft.”No one ever writes a brilliant first draft,” Baty says in his book. “This is the case no matter how talented you are, or how long you take to coax the thing into existence. Novels are simply too long and complex to nail on the first go-round.”Remember, before you can have a brilliant final product, you need to have a first draft.
- Write for Quantity Over Quality–This means worry about getting your story down on paper regardless of how “bad” it might be at first.This would force you to lower your quality bar from “‘best-seller’ to ‘would not make someone vomit,'” Baty says.Unfortunately, many writers don’t do this.”At the first awkward line of prose or botched brushstroke, we hurriedly pack away the art supplies and scamper back to our comfortable domains of proficiency,” Baty says. “Better a quitter than a failure, our subconscious reasoning goes.”
- Stop Being So Hard on Yourself–Stop being so hard on yourself. It’s as simple as that. This means no negativity and no being self-critical about your writing. Baty says you need to give yourself time “to experiment, to break your time-honored rules of writing just to see what happens.””In a first draft, nothing is permanent, and everything is fixable,” he says. “So stay loose and flexible, and keep your expectations very, very low.”
In Part One I talked about four lessons I learned while writing my first novel. Here are another three for you:
- When You Want To Procrastinate, Nothing Will Get You Moving–Picture this: You’re one chapter away from being finished with your first novel. You’ve been waiting for this moment for years. You were starting to think this day would never come.A week later, you’re still one chapter away from being finished with your first novel. You’ve been waiting for this moment for years. You were starting to think this day would never come.A week later, you’re still one chapter away…Ok, are you sensing a pattern here?
Procrastination is a killer, especially to the novel. Remember, people often fear success because of what might change, so it’s not all that uncommon for someone to be a chapter shy, a few scenes shy, whatever, from finishing their project and then they set it aside and never complete it.
I thought that was going to be me because I was one chapter away and I had the most delicious bottle of champagne chilling in my fridge, waiting to be cracked the moment I wrote my last word, and it still took me almost three weeks to finish my final chapter.
Thankfully, I was able to step around my fear (of success, of failure, of my first draft sucking, etc) and finish my novel. And drink that delicious bottle of champagne.
When this happens to you, lean on your RB. Tell them exactly how you’re feeling and let them reassure you that everything will turn out great. They’re right.
- “Shitty First Drafts” Are an Urban Legend–Ok, maybe not an urban legend, but they’re definitely a myth. When I finished my novel and sat down to reread the whole thing, I realized that I actually had a pretty damn good first draft on my hands.Sure, it needs editing–what first draft doesn’t? But I feel like I have a complete story that has no major plot holes, no major “bad” writing issues and best of all, it’s actually pretty compelling.So stop being so hard on yourself about writing your first draft. When I think I’m writing my worst, it usually turns out to be some of my best. And you’ll find the same thing with your first draft as well.
And if you do find some parts that make you want to hurl (ok, so maybe it was a bad idea to use that cliched love scene as the turning point in your book), it’s ok. Take a deep breath and relax. That’s why they call it a first draft!
- It Goes By So Fast–When I look back on the whole novel-writing process, I realize that, after years and years of talking about writing a novel and sitting around thinking about it, but taking no action, when I finally sat down and wrote my novel, it actually went by so fast I don’t remember most of it.
So don’t let the fear of how many hours or weeks or months you’ll have to spend dedicated to writing this novel stop you from writing. When it comes down to it, if you set yourself tight deadlines (I gave my writing coach two chapters a week, for example) and meet them, you’ll get your book written so quickly you won’t even know how you could’ve procrastinated for so long.
I hope the lessons I learned while writing my first novel help you to finally get your novel written. Remember, negativity is always going to make your writing “bad.” So keep a positive, upbeat attitude and remind yourself that your story is worth writing, so sit down and write it!
- Plot Outlines Work–I used Holly Lisle’s Create a Plot Outline to figure out the basic plot of my novel and it changed everything for me. Not only did I have a pretty good idea about where the story was going, I also was able to stay on track and make sure the story kept moving along.If you’re one of those writers who has a hard time just sitting down with a blank Word document and writing, I highly recommend using an outline. It makes things much simplier. I even wrote mini-outlines for each chapter…which brings me to the next thing I learned…
- Have “Goals” For Each Chapter–I didn’t write all the details of each chapter down in an outline before I wrote the actual chapter. But I did start with the first chapter and say to myself, “Where does the story need to go from here?” and then I made bullet points for where it needed to go in a notebook.Then I started writing. I tried to follow the list, but I also strayed a little when my characters had a better idea than I did.When I thought the chapter was over, I ended it and moved the events I thought were going to fall in the current chapter to the next chapter.Having goals made it so much easier for me to stay on track with the story and make sure I didn’t have any holes in my plot.
- Find a “Reliability Buddy”–Find someone you trust, a friend, sibling, parent, significant other, etc., and ask them to be your “reliability buddy” for your novel. Sit down with them and set some writing “deadlines” for yourself. Pick something that’s not too quick, but not to far off either.Choosing a tighter deadline will help you have less time to scrutinize yourself/your book and more time to just get the writing done.Then ask your RB to keep on you to hit your deadlines. Also, it helps if you have a meeting once a week. And this doesn’t need to be a long meeting, even five or ten minutes on the phone to check in and see how you’re doing or to get a quick pep talk if you need one works.Having a person to answer to and set weekly goals with is another good way to stay on track.
- Embrace Your Support System–When the going gets rough–or you get blocked/feel uninspired/want to throw your computer out the window–it helps to have a person (or group of people) you can turn to for support.I hired a writing coach to be my RB and help me stay on track, but she also ended up being a great support system for me. Whenever I was feeling stuck with the story or wanted to quit writing it altogether, I turned to her for support and she would always talk me away from the delete button. She is most definitely one of the main reasons my book is finished right now.Even though I wrote the book, my coach was a vital part of my success. She not only kept me organized and on track, but she allowed me to see things from other perspectives and make my story the best it could possibly be.
Stay tuned for Part Two of what I learned, coming this weekend.