Does using a story device guide our work or hamper our creativity?
In many books and most movies, something will happen about three-fourths of the way through. With the desired goal within reach, a roadblock pops up to thwart our protagonist’s progress. While this is sometimes an ingenious plot twist, too often the problem seems contrived, predictable, or avoidable. But maybe I’m overly critical because I expect it to happen, and I wish it wouldn’t.
The reality is that this plot development is both intentional and prescribed. It’s part of a formula, a well-honed and recommended part of a blueprint for producing a compelling story. And I don’t like it.
I know it’s going to happen. I just don’t know what it will be—at least not usually. I’m braced for it and irritated by it. This plot twist doesn’t surprise me, at least not in the big scope of things. What does surprise me is when it doesn’t happen, which is rare.
If you study fiction writing you have likely heard about the seven basic plots, the three-act structure, the story grid, the twelve stages of the hero’s journey, the eight-point arc, and so forth.
Maybe I’m not experienced enough in fiction writing to know what I’m talking about, but these models seem to restrict creativity and stifle a truly good story. I don’t want to follow a formula when I write; I just want to create an interesting story.
I don’t care which of the seven basic plots my story falls into, if I hit the prescribed marks at the ideal points, or if I can check off each item on someone’s must-have list of requirements.
When I write a story I know the beginning and write to reach the end, which I know before I start (though I’m open to it changing). What happens in between unfolds organically and isn’t constrained by a formula, grid, or blueprint.
Yes, I could follow one of these devices and end up with a good story that will please most readers, but I think I can disregard them and produce a better result that will please even more.
Write short stories to master the art of fiction writing
May is short story month. I share this news in advance so you can consider how you want to celebrate. You might want to spend the month reading short stories or perhaps focus on writing a few. But regardless, give short stories some consideration in the month of May. Doing so will inform your other writing, whether you write fiction or not.
I know many beginning writers who sit down to write a novel. They have a vision and enthusiasm, but not much else. They start writing but soon give up in frustration. And for the few who do finish, their story isn’t that good.
I’ve often heard that novelists write several bad novels before penning a good one. Those first books serve as training for them to learn what works and doesn’t, to find their voice, and to hone their craft. They need to figure out plot and structure and story arc and character development and dialogue and a slew of other things. And they write several practice books to get there.
Why not write several practice short stories instead?
I took that path. In fact, I focused on flash fiction: short stories with fewer than one thousand words. I experimented with a first-person and third person, present tense and past tense. I even wrote a second-person, present-tense short story—something I’d hate doing for an entire book.
Using short stories, I fine-tuned my dialogue. I worked on intriguing titles, strong openings, and satisfying closes. I practiced “show, don’t tell” and worked on word choice.
I did all this in preparation to one day write a novel. You see, I didn’t want to waste several novels practicing. I used my short stories for that. I got feedback from critique groups, hired tutors, and studied.
Then one day I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It started out as 900 words. But I liked the premise and added to it to produce a 2,500-word short story. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to write more. I did write more, a lot more. By the time I finished my story arc I had a 28,000-word novella. But it needed more. Next, I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre.
So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel.
But the story isn’t over.
Last year, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a 49,000-word sequel. Then I mapped out a series. I’m ready to start writing books three and four.
Writing short stories prepared me to write novels. And writing fiction helps me write better nonfiction and memoir.
Here are some options to identify speakers in dialogue.
1. Tag your dialogue with any descriptive word other than said, such as exclaimed, interjected, sputtered, yelled, and so forth. I learned this in Middle School and followed it for many years. Now the recommendation is to avoid doing this, as it singles lazy writing. I prefer to show the speaker’s emotion instead of stating it. For example:
Bruce narrowed his gaze and pursed his lips. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said.
I far prefer that to “I can’t believe you did that,” Bruce snarled.
I only use a descriptive tag if I feel it will make the passage stronger.
2. Only use said. While we need to identify the speaker, most readers skip the connecting word—or so I hear. Some people feel that using anything other than said is an annoying speed bump. Some people even recommend doing this for questions, as in: Then Gene said, “How long will you be gone?”
I generally use said when I need a dialogue tag, but I still use asked for questions.
3. My preference, however, is to use context to identify the speaker. In this way I minimize the use of dialogue tags and let the surrounding text show who the reader is, as in this exchange:
Ben stared at the book in his trembling hands. “You mean I get to keep this?”
Sue’s eyes danced. “Yes, it’s a gift.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“How about thank you?”
“I so appreciate this.” Ben blinked three times, fighting to hold back tears. “Thank you. This is wonderful.”
In this passage, there are no dialogue tags at all, but the context shows us Ben is the first speaker and Sue, the second. Since this is a rapid exchange, readers understand that Ben then replies to Sue, and she responds in the fourth line. Then to make sure readers don’t get confused, the fifth line confirms Ben is talking.
This takes more work to write, but it seems this is the current trend and strikes me as powerful writing.
To write a novel, first, start with short stories. Many of the elements required for short stories carry over to longer works. In addition, it’s better to experiment on a 1,000-word short story than an 80,000-word novel. Once you’re comfortable with short stories then you can move on to longer works.
Short Story Tips
Writing short stories lets us experiment. We can have fast successes and failures. I’d rather try something on a short story than commit it to a whole novel only to find out it wasn’t working once I finished writing the entire thing.
As you hone your skills and find your voice with short stories, voraciously read novels. Read classics and contemporary works. Read in your genre and outside your genre. Read for enjoyment but mostly to learn. This will give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t, as well as to identify what you like and don’t like. This will pay off huge when you go to write your novel.
Start Your Novel
Now you’re ready to plan your novel. Whether you are a planner (plotter) or a discovery writer (a pantser—you write by the seat of your pants), you should have some ideas before you begin to write a novel.
I like to start with a list of characters, their bio, a story arc, the key elements, and a chapter outline. After all, if I’m writing that many words, I don’t want to waste effort.
For others, this prep work would stifle creativity, but it motivates me. Pick the method that works for you and start writing.
By the way, many novelists admit to writing several novels before one is good enough to publish, so don’t expect your first effort to write a novel will be a success. If it is, that’s great, but be prepared to crank out a couple before you find much interest.
Though using a pattern to inform our books’ structure has merit, it may lead us to a troublesome end
There are multiple guides we can follow to properly structure the books we write. Perhaps the most common is the three-act structure, but there are many others as well.
There’s enough to make me dizzy, so I won’t start to list them. Besides, this post isn’t to promote these various models as much as to share my concern about them.
For example, I know that when watching a movie, I should expect a plot twist about three-fourths of the way into the show. The incident may be trivial, could have been telegraphed too much earlier in the movie, or come as an unexpected shock, but one thing is certain: I know that something is about to happen, so I brace for it.
Because I expect this plot twist to pop up, it seldom delights me. I know that this annoyance is just one more hurdle for the protagonist to jump over before I can enjoy the ending—and I better enjoy the ending.
This happens in books too, but because I’ve watched more movies than reading books, I’m more tuned in to it with movies.
While I think it’s important we know about these writing devices and be able to apply them when needed, I worry about slavishly following them.
Why is that?
Computers and artificial intelligence.
Even now computers can write. And it won’t be long before computers will write passible stories and even books. Just enter a couple of characters, a story arc, a conflict, and a few other key parameters. Press enter, and a finished story emerges, following an established writing model.
This technology will one day make most writers obsolete. And I think it will happen much sooner than most people expect.
What computers and AI software will have trouble emulating, however, is the truly creative writers who don’t follow the writing models that the computer programs follow. These writers—and I plan to be one of them—will still be in demand, because computers will struggle to produce a truly creative book that transcends its writing-model programming.
I dislike the phrase aspiring writer. Either we aspire to write or we actually do it. Being an aspiring writer is no more than hoping for a future outcome, one that will never happen because the aspiring writer spends all his or her time dreaming and no time writing.
Yet some people are truly aspiring writers. Then one day these aspiring writers say “enough is enough” and they sit down to crank out a novel.
This is like waking up one morning and deciding to run a marathon—that afternoon. While hardheaded determination may eventually propel the novice runner to the finish line, it’s not going to be pretty. More likely this out-of-shape entrant will realize the folly of running such a great distance without the needed training and drop out after a couple of miles.
This beginning runner vows to never run again. Or better is a decision to train before attempting another marathon.
So it is with an aspiring author. A few chapters, pages, or even sentences into the novel and the words crumble into frustration. The vision vanishes. The muse refuses to cooperate. Or the needed skills simply aren’t present.
The aspiring writer gives up and vows to never write again. Or maybe, just maybe, this novice stops aspiring and starts training. Of course some aspiring authors never do anything except train. That’s no good either.
Just as a good prelude to running a marathon could start with jogging, wise preparation for writing a novel starts with the short story.
As a nonfiction writer, I cranked out hundreds of articles before I attempted my first book. Though I completed it, the results were sad. Then I wrote a second and a third. At some point they became worthy of publication. (Thankfully the first one will never go past a couple of beta readers and a developmental editor.)
When I considered writing fiction, instead of diving into a novel length work, I begin with flash fiction: short stories under 1,000 words. This allowed me to experiment with different ideas and various techniques. If something didn’t work, I wasn’t out much.
After I had several dozen finished, I stumbled onto one that captivated me. I couldn’t let go of the characters. I expanded it from flash fiction into a longer short story. Then it grew into a novella, and with later the addition of some secondary character arcs, it became a novel.
Now I’m editing the sequel, with a series arc for twenty books.
The easiest way to build your author brand is to consistently publish the same type of content
I remember when I started taking writing seriously. I moved from simply writing to being a writer. The shift was huge.
I had so much to learn about the industry (and I still do). Of the many surprises, I encountered as I learned about writing was the importance of focusing on one niche. I didn’t like that. Don’t tie me down to writing one thing; I need variety. Yet the advice I received said to pick nonfiction or fiction or memoir. Just one. Then narrow the focus even more. If fiction, which genre? If nonfiction, what slice?
The thought that I had to pick one, and only one area, parallelized me. First, it sounded boring. Second, what if I picked wrong? Yikes! Though once I established myself in that one area, I might have an opportunity to branch out. But the idea still sounded too restrictive for too long.
Another person suggested I try all three options and whichever one sold first, that would be my niche. Though that made sense, it seemed I’d waste a lot of time and effort.
I went back to agonizing between nonfiction, fiction, and memoir. (Yes, memoir is technically nonfiction, but it contains elements of fiction writing, so it’s really a both-and pursuit.)
A third person opined that memoirs were selling, so I pursued that. I later learned this person was in error, or I had heard wrong. Writers can only sell their memoirs if they are famous, infamous, or suffered through the mother of all tragedies. As a regular guy with a normal life, I had none of these. Though I’ve written a few memoirs, none have sold.
I next moved to nonfiction and wrote a couple more books in this category. I also pitched several other nonfiction book ideas, but nada.
Between waiting for publishers to decide on my nonfiction books and book ideas, I dabbled in fiction, the remaining area not yet explored. First I wrote short stories and then wrote a couple of novels, too. Interestingly, I receive better feedback on my short stories and novels than on my nonfiction and memoirs.
In this way, I ended up writing in all three areas, and I’m waiting to see which one pops first. When it does, the wise career move will be focusing on that as my niche. But my interests are too eclectic to do that. I’ll probably end up pursuing multiple paths simultaneously. I’ll have to, or I will surely get bored.
By the way, besides memoir, nonfiction, and fiction books, I also write for publications and am a commercial freelance writer, in addition to blogging. I like the variety; I need the variety. It keeps me from getting bored.
Yes, the best advice is to specialize in one area and build our author brand around that. But that’s not me. Don’t force me into a corner.
What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher
On December 26, 2016, my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people, I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:
Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
Mental health advocate
All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.
Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:
Lethal Weapon 3
Last Action Hero
The River Wild
The Wedding Singer
My Girl 2
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Made in America
I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).
Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:
Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)
Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.
We need a realistic view of our history to plan a reasonable vision for our future
My wife sometimes says I view things as though my glass is only half-full, that I’m pessimistic. I counter that I’m simply being a realist, but the truth is I’m not sure who’s right. Perhaps a bit of reality resides in both perspectives. So it is in viewing my past year as a writer.
As such, I share two perspectives:
Best Year Ever:
After years of talk, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. What a great experience.
I wrote two novels, the second one in about three weeks. (I’m still editing them both.)
My work as a commercial freelance writer really took off this year, with more clients, more work, and more income—all new records.
I grew my Twitter followers from 2,400 to 11,500, surpassing my year-end goal of 10,000. I’m enjoying good connections and engagement there.
I took LinkedIn seriously and made 100 posts to a growing audience of 2,300, which more than doubled in 2016.
I didn’t publish a book this year.
I didn’t win any writing contests.
I wasn’t published in any anthologies.
I didn’t accomplish my number one goal for 2016. (Which is now my number one goal for 2017.)
Work/life balance continues to elude me. (It’s even harder to achieve when you work at home.)
I could reasonably adopt either of these two perspectives as my primary view of 2016. While it’s easy to dwell on disappointments, missed goals, and wasted opportunities, a better outlook is to focus on what went great this year. Though I might need to reread this post to remind myself, I can truly say that 2016 was my best year ever, and I look forward to 2017 being even better.
As you review 2016, I encourage you to celebrate the mountains and not allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Though everyone is at a different place as a writer, no one had a flawless year and everyone has something to celebrate. Focus on these things as you move into 2017.
The journey of writing a novel in one month has much to teach about being a writer
Many times in this blog, I’ve talked about NaNoWriMo—the effort to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. I also announced in October that this was the year I would actually participate. Though I did pursue NaNoWriMo, I almost bailed before I even started, and I would have had I not told you about it.
Here’s what I learned.
Prepare to Write: Though you can’t write prior to November 1, you can plan for your novel. I had an idea bouncing around in my head for several years. I know the characters, the inciting incident, the ending, the story arc, and all the scenes. But in mid-October I realized my tone and vision were wrong, and that I wouldn’t be ready to write come November 1.
On to plan B: write a sequel to my novella, which was on its way to becoming a novel. I already knew the characters and had determined the opening, ending story arc, and most of the scenes for the second book. The only problem was that I didn’t want to start the sequel until I finished writing the first book. But I couldn’t finish the first book until I received feedback from my developmental editor, which didn’t come soon enough.
Despite many efforts to the contrary, I wasn’t prepared for NaNoWriMo. Strike one.
Schedule Time to Write: I write in the morning. On November 1, I wrote nothing because I had nothing to write. Strike two. On November 2 through 11, I worked on finishing my first book, which was a great feeling of accomplishment, but it didn’t count for NaNoWriMo. I took the twelfth off from fiction writing and started writing my NaNoWriMo book on the thirteenth.
Monday through Saturday I would start writing about 5:30 a.m., with a goal of not stopping until I hit 2,500 words. A few days I worked again in the evening, which I also did on Sundays.
Remove Distractions: I should have scaled back on other activities. I should have stopped reading, cut back on TV, and put my blogs on hold or have written posts a month in advance. I didn’t. Another strike. (If you’re keeping track, I’m allowing myself more than three strikes.)
Be Flexible: I began November flirting with a cold, which took me out of writing mode for a couple of days (another strike), and I had two websites get infected with malware, which took several hours, spread over a week and a half, to fix. (My anti-malware noticed the incursion but didn’t prevent it. Bummer.) More setbacks and another strike.
Focus on the Goal: If my goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel, which I didn’t start until November 13, then I would have just given up. Instead, I set new goals, which was to relish the participation and see how far I could get.
Celebrate the Journey: I enjoyed my writing to finish the first book, which spanned November 2 through 11. And I really enjoyed writing the second book, which started November 13. I liked sitting down to write, the progress invigorated me and seeing me move closer to the end spurred me on. I had fun!
Rest as Your Reward: When NaNoWriMo is over (and anytime you finish writing a book), you need to rest. For me, one or two days are usually enough. But when December 1 rolled around, I couldn’t rest because my book wasn’t quite done. I suspect that will happen around December 5—and I can’t wait.
For the record, I logged 78,600 words in November, which I’m both amazed and shocked at. Of those, 15,700 were to complete my first novel, 12,100 words were for work (yes, I have a day job), 8,300 words were for my blog, and . . . drum roll please . . . I completed 42,500 words on my new novel, which isn’t bad at all for just eighteen days of work. (I’ve continued writing, and it currently stands at 46,400 words with one more scene to write, which should add another 1,000 or so words.)
My low word count day for NaNoWriMo was zero, and I had a couple of them. My high word count day for NaNoWriMo was 3,800 (plus another 1,700 for work, bumping that day’s total word count to 5,500). My writing goal, once I actually started, was 2,500 words a day. Most days I hit it fine and wanted to keep going, but I had to stop for work. A few days were real struggles. I typically wrote at a pace of 500 to 600 words an hour, sometimes a little less and occasionally up to about 1,000.
Overall, the month was exhausting and exhilarating. I can’t wait to do it again next year.