Posts

Sometimes You’ve Just Gotta Start Like This

I work with a lot of fiction writers on their stories, and one of the common things I see is what I call Story Ambition. They’ve got major ideas for the stories they want to tell–for a complex theme, a Concept that kills, and a character every reader can root for.

Problem is, they’ve never written a cohesive, engaging story before, not even a simple one.

And that makes it really difficult. Because you can’t just go from zero to 100 in one day. It takes time to learn how to implement craft and to understand it enough to be able to use it in your own stories.

You wouldn’t attempt to jump 100 feet in the air if you’ve never even jumped 50, right? No, you’d first practice with something simple, like jumping 10 feet in the air, and then 25 feet, and then 35 feet. You’d master the principles of being able to jump high. Once you mastered jumping 50 feet, then you’d go for 75 and eventually 100.

And that’s when you’ll actually hit it. When you’ve practiced enough and attempted enough simple heights, that’s when you’ll be able to do the bigger stuff.

But most writers’ Story Ambition causes them to go big right out of the gate.

Now I’m not gonna say that’s a totally wrong thing to do, because it’s not. But it will make your learning curve a lot steeper, and your story planning process will be that much more frustrating.

And let me just add that a steep learning curve and frustration are a part of the story planning and development process. But doing this process will save you from frustration, headaches and heartache later when you write the first draft. (Whereas not planning pretty much guarantees you frustration, headaches and heartache when you discover your draft is a total mess.)

So if you’ve been working on a story for a long time now, and it just doesn’t seem to be working, or you just can’t seem to make it work no matter how many attempts you make, it may be time to consider that your Story Ambition is bigger than your storytelling capabilities.

There is nothing wrong with admitting that you may have bitten more than you can chew. It’s fine, we all do it.

What I’d recommend is setting this story aside, and focusing on planning, developing and then writing one that’s simpler. A story with a straight-forward storyline. One that doesn’t require multiple Antagonists or fifteen characters or a series of books.

Because that’s another thing I see a lot. Writers who have never written a cohesive story are trying to write an entire series of stories, sometimes all at once.

Again, not saying you can’t do it, but the level of skill required to pull off a successful series is more than most new or even emerging writers can handle.

Yeah, you know me, I’m positive and believe in unlimited possibility and being able to achieve anything you set your mind to, and yet I’ll still tell you exactly how it really is. And the reality is most new and emerging writers never actually finish or hit publish.

It’s not because they don’t have what it takes or because they’re just not good storytellers. It’s because their Story Ambition doesn’t match their storytelling capabilities.

Which is why I always recommend starting simple and growing from there. Don’t make your first attempt at writing a novel be a six-book series.

This isn’t because you can’t do it. In theory, you can do it. But if you’ve never created a successful story Premise before, how do you expect to create six of them? You’re jumping in the deep end when you haven’t learned to swim yet.

And that’s why your story isn’t working. That’s why you’re feeling way more frustration than you need to be. That’s why you constantly skip your writing sessions and procrastinate on working on your story.

Because your Story Ambition doesn’t match your storytelling capabilities.

Take a step back and focus on developing a really good simple story. When you can do that, try another one. Once you’ve got two or three under your belt, then try something bigger and more complicated.

But when you start with the complicated, you’re starting at a disadvantage. And that will only cause you to lose your confidence and feel like you can’t do this.

When the truth is, you can do it. You’ve just gotta start small.

If you want to knock it out of the park this month and finish 2016 strong, you have to stop getting in your own way.

There are already enough obstacles in a writer’s way without having to invent your own. So, stop.

Share With Us

Have you ever taken on too much with a story? What did you do? 

———–

Are you ready to write and publish your book? Myself and my team of self-publishing pros can help you make it happen. Apply to work with us here.

Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

I read People magazine on the regular (it’s my guilty pleasure), and one thing I love about it is there’s always a “Best New Books” section, mostly filled with novels. I love reading this section to keep tabs on the new books that are coming out.

Plus, I always learn something about Concept and Premise.

Take the write up I saw for the book, Maybe In Another Life, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The write-up for this book details the plot as:

Tired of meaningless jobs and fresh from a breakup, 29-year-old Hannah goes home to L.A. seeking a new start. What she encounters first is her old boyfriend, Ethan, in a bar. Is it fate? Should she stay with him or leave with her friend? In parallel story lines, Reid plays out the consequences of each decision.

What’s Conceptual about this story is the parallel story lines–we’re seeing two stories happening to the same character simultaneously, and we don’t know which one is reality and which isn’t. This in and of itself is interesting, and an Antagonist hasn’t even been introduced.

And then the Premise happens when we see that she has moved all the way back home–only to run into her high school boyfriend (the story’s Antagonist, I’m assuming, since I haven’t read the book).

Where Story Ideas Comes From

I don’t know about you, but I love the Concept that Reid is playing with in this story. It has so much inherent conflict, and so many possibilities built right in. It’d be cool to know where the idea for this story came from, and how it transformed into the book Reid published.

‘Cause story ideas are just that–ideas. They aren’t actual stories. Not yet.

In order to count as a story, it needs a whole list of things, like a Protagonist, an Antagonist, a Concept, a vicarious experience, and something happening.

Story ideas are merely seeds or sparks of inspiration that can be turned into a story by asking questions, playing with different scenarios, and finding the most optimal choices.

But a good story can be sparked by almost anything:

  • something you hear or see in real life
  • a story in the newspaper
  • a song lyric
  • another story
  • an experience you’ve had
  • an experience someone else has had
  • an experience you’d like to have
  • a character
  • a setting
  • a year in history

This list of story sparks could go on forever…

But none of these sparks is an actual story. Not yet.

First, a Concept and Premise needs to be introduced.

An Inside Look

There’s so much that goes into what you see in the final published story. And there’s so much that came before it–the story development process, writing the draft, revising the story, editing, polishing, etc.

Problem is, you rarely ever get to see this stuff. All you ever see is the final product.

So I wanted to give you an inside look at my story planning and development process, the one I use for my stories and all of my client’s stories. I’m live-planning my new story starting next Monday. 

The idea seed for my new story comes from something that actually happened. Back in 2008, I came across an inspiring story online that totally captured my heart–a Starbucks barista donated a kidney to one of her customers.

It struck a chord with me, and made me ask a lot of questions:

  • Why would someone donate a kidney to an almost-stranger?
  • What would it be like to go through this experience?
  • How would it change you?

These questions were enough to hold my interest and spark a story idea that I’ve been marinating on for years.

Next week, I’m diving deeper into how I’m turning this idea seed into an actual story, with a Concept and a Premise.

Be sure to join my email list so you don’t miss a thing (and you’ll also get a special freebie I only give to newsletter subscribers). 

 

Image courtesy of Magenta Rose

How To Find Your Story By Asking A Shitload Of Questions

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.

An Example

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

Building A Scene-By-Scene “Road Map” For Your Novel

By now you’re starting to know your way around story structure (and if not, be sure to check out my story structure series). But there’s a problem.

You know what your main stops need to be on Story Rd., but you have no-freaking-clue what goes in between. When it comes to the scenes you need to create the actual path your novel will follow, you’re at a loss.

Before you freak out, know this: building the scenes in your novel starts with your structure.

Your Story’s Structure

Your story’s structure: that’s where I always recommend starting. Because when you know your structure, the rest pretty much just falls into place naturally.

Once you have the structure for your story, then you have a starting point for building the rest of your scenes.

Write down the scenes in your core story structure (all of your plot points and pinch points), then use the four parts of story as a guide for what goes in between.

Part One: The Set Up

The first 14 scenes (give or take) in your story are Set Up scenes. They set up the real story.

This is when you introduce your Protagonist, show the reader where the Protagonist is at in his life, introduce stakes, and start to give hints of the story that’s to come (at the First Plot Point).

Consider:

  • What needs to be set up in order to reach my FPP?
  • What information needs to be shared with the reader at this point in the story?
  • Which characters are entering the story right now?

Then the First Plot point hits. And that’s when the real story begins.

Part Two: Reaction

The next 14 scenes (give or take) in your story are Reaction scenes. They are scenes that have the Protagonist reacting… to what’s happened at the First Plot Point.

This is when your Protagonist is running, hiding, planning, making failed attempts, trying to figure things out, etc.

Consider:

  • How would my protagonist react to what’s just happened?
  • What needs to happen to set things up for the Midpoint that’s to come?
  • What information needs to be introduced in this part of the story?

When the Midpoint hits, then your story is shifted into a whole new context.

Part Three: Attack

The next 14 scenes (give or take) in your story are Attack scenes. This means your protagonist is taking action and starting to have the confidence needed to go up against the antagonist.

This is when the protagonist is questioning, chasing, discovering, having small wins, starting to make things happen, etc.

Consider: 

  • How would my protagonist begin to attack the antagonist now that the Midpoint has been introduced?
  • What information needs to be introduced in this part of the story?
  • In what ways can I show that my protagonist is starting to overcome his inner and outer demons?

Then comes your Second Plot Point, the final bit of new information to enter the story.

Part Four: Resolution

The final 14 scenes (give or take) in your story are Resolution scenes. This means your protagonist has shifted into “Martyr Mode” and is willing to do whatever it takes to resolve the story.

This is when your protagonist is finalizing, killing, hunting down, fighting, overcoming, bringing things to a conclusion, being heroic, etc.

Consider: 

  • What needs to happen to resolve this story?
  • What loose ends need to be tied up?
  • How can my protagonist be even more heroic?

Building Your Story “Road Map”

Now that you know exactly what scenes you need in your novel, you can start putting them together. Grab some notecards/Post Its (or a story software, like Scrivener, which I personally use and love). Write out one notecard for each scene (this makes it easier to move things around later),

For each scene include the following information:

  • Mission of the scene
  • Where it takes place
  • When it takes place (as in time of day)

And there you have it. A blueprint for going from scene one to scene done with your story.

Share With Us

How do you figure out what scenes you need in your story?