STEP ONE: START NOTICING IDEAS.
Everyone has ideas. All the time. But they’re like opportunities. The trick is to notice them when they’re happening to you, or they’ll just pass you by.
Get inside your own head, understand your thoughts and your emotions. Though opinions and perspective will come regardless of consideration, it is easier to highlight and strengthen those ideas while being aware of them.
Pay attention to your thoughts, your fantasizes, and your questions on life. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” “Why am I feeling that way?”and “Where do I feel it?” every chance you get. Write things down. Keep them in the back of your mind. You’ll know you’re doing it right when you can suddenly be ordered to write a story on the spot and you have at least two options in your mind. You may not be inspired by any of them at the moment, but the blank, deer-in-headlights reaction isn’t there.
Professional writers do this all the time. They have thousands of ideas stored up that they’re interested in writing about, which is why the common solicitation of, “I have a great idea! Will you write it for me?” has less than amazing results.
STEP TWO: WRITE DOWN CONCEPTS BEFORE YOU START.
There’s a saying out there that I don’t like very much: “You can’t polish a turd.” Not only is it a disgusting image, but I think it’s not very accurate.
All ideas are pure in their original form because the author was, at one point, inspired by them enough to get excited over the others. They get tainted, however, from harvesting and trying to be plucked from their vague and ever changing form to something with boundaries, something more concrete.
Now, important to remember is it’s your book and you are allowed to write it in any way you see fit, even—sometimes especially—if it evolved.
However, I find it helpful to write down its purest form in detail while it’s still fresh. You can do this with bullet points, or a description that is only meant for accurate reference. It doesn’t have to be legible or interesting, just accurate. I often find it best to write the portion of the book that inspired me first before the rest, keeping it in another document until I get to that part. Of course, changes will be made, but it is a good reference for me to understand why I liked the idea, the tone I was going for, and simply be more fun for me to write that point while inspired (thus, usually more fun to read). Mostly though, when you’re struggling later on, trying to figure out your point, or your pitch, or where it ‘went wrong’ to reflect on the memory of when it was just young love.
STEP THREE: START. (DON’T WORRY ABOUT DOING IT RIGHT)
There is no right way to write a story, and you’ll be surprised how often the best parts came from “mistakes.” Feel free to experiment, focus on finishing and having fun, and don’t shame yourself every time you’re not happy with the results. Don’t fixate on the right way—try new things.
Here’s the common places I have heard authors saying they start:
-At the Beginning.
-At the “Point of Conception” and/or Out of Order
-With an Outline
-At the End
Each has their own benefits and negatives. Starting at the beginning and writing until the finish is the easiest way to keep track of things. I usually write my novels this way, and it allows me to keep in mind the number one aspect that I get confused about—what information I’ve already delivered to the audience.
The benefits of going in order is that it’s less confusing and the author less likely to make mistakes, such as continuity issues. The story tends to have a better and more automatic flow. The problems that tend to arise is what I call “stalling,” which falls along the same ideology as the word “um.” There tends a lot more slack in the plot as the author is trying to figure out what’s going on. This doesn’t happen as much when writing out of order or with an outline because he’s written the important parts in, and all he needs is quick transitions between the two, which are less likely to be long and rambling (but also tend to have a jerky flow.)
POINT OF CONCEPTION:
I love starting at the Point of Conception, e.g. the image that inspired the story, because that is the moment that sets up the entire book. It will be more fun to write and keep you going. Not only is there a chance that you will have lost interest in writing that scene by the time you actually get to it, but you might forget all the details that made it interesting. It can get confusing, however, as to what happened before hand, how the characters have changed since the beginning (which is something that happens naturally when writing in order) and what they’ve found out about each other. Also, since you’re writing them as their original conception, there’s a good probability that once you go back to the beginning (after having written the rest) you will have a hard time matching the gradual growth to a sudden difference.
It is likely you will have to do more editing and rewriting. You are more likely to reveal the same information several times, have the arcs, pacing, and flow jerk around. However, you are also more likely to maintain inspiration and have fewer boring scenes to cut out.
Many people advise to start with an outline. And many people don’t. If you are not past the stage of learning to tell other people to shut up, my suggestion is to learn how to tell people to shut up. Diplomatically. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you keep open minded about it. Again, I think outlining is required experimentation all writers have to go through, along with homosexuality and bob haircuts (bearded lumberjacks if you’re a boy).
I have started with outlines in the past. Usually what happens is that the story tends to be tighter, better organized, and has quality expedited for it. Instead of spending your second draft trying to tie up loose ends, cutting stalling, and trying to squish it into a proper structure, you can use it for more important tasks, like finding out where a character disappeared to (I’m looking at you Shakespeare!)
Personally, I don’t begin with an outline. I’m bad at what I call “cold genesis” where you sit down and come up with ideas on the spot. I have to experience the scene and the world a little, learn more about it before I get a good understanding of plot. Many, but not all, of my novels ended up with an outline somewhere around the 30 to 50,000 word mark. After about that point, I start to have a good idea of what will happen and need to organize it.
Working by inspiration allows for more organic and natural sounding stories. It also allows for rambling. Outlining helps make a story crisper and more to the point before you make the mistake. It also forces you to answer important plot questions, the avoiding of which often leads to writer’s block. If you do not like editing, pre-planning is an excellent way to work.
I haven’t ever done this, so I don’t have much experience with the subject. There are many writers, however, who claim they live by this.
The reason why it doesn’t appeal to me is that the end is the most important part of the story. It ties in all the different links, makes the final statement, and leaves the reader with the last impression, which basically tells them once and for all if they actually liked it or not. Because I tend to find things as I go along, I often don’t decide what the story, what needs to be tied together, and what concluding impact I want until the very last conflict.
The people who do write the ending first like that it sets up a guideline for the rest of the story that gives them a clear indication on what is relevant and what isn’t, where the plot needs to end up, and what foreshadowing should happen.
Coming up with new and, albeit, wazoo ways to write will lead you to better ways to be inspired and to overcome obstacles. Trying something you don’t agree with (like outlining) when your original way isn’t working can reveal all new things to you. We all have our tendencies and what works best for us, but if you’re a prolific writer, it doesn’t hurt to try something new and see how you feel about it.
STEP FOUR: The First Line.
The first line is the first, and maybe only, opportunity an agent or reader gets at judging the actual work. It needs to be quick and snappy and clever. How? Well, this is a much longer article to be written by someone more successful than me, but here’s a few tips for immediate consideration:
-It summarizes the conflict, the theme, or the story itself.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
-It introduces a conflict (not necessary the main conflict.)
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
-It introduces the protagonist.
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
-It gives a passionate and biased opinion.
“It is a truth universally acknowledge that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
-It delivers enough information to raise a question that the reader has a possible answer for, but enough ambiguity to make them doubt it.
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
-It starts with a great emotion.
“I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.”
Do you start with writing the most epic line ever? I wouldn’t, personally. I’d focus on finishing the book and rework the first line over while I did so, but if you enjoy making the first line perfect, enjoying your writing is half the battle.
STEP FOUR: THE INTRODUCTION.
Typically, this is where the character is leading his “normal life” before everything changes. How long this is or what it entails can vary, although filmmakers like to say that it is 15 pages. When considering the average film script is 120 (although it varies), we can proceed to think that someone somewhere expects it to be 1/8 the book. But, really, I wouldn’t spend my time worrying about it and fixate on what “feels” right. You can always change it in the second draft.
A couple of tips for the introduction:
-Indicate normal, daily events for the character, but are atypical for the rest of the world. (Aladdin running from guards in the market place) to demonstrate who the character is.
-Write a normal for the world, yet atypical for a daily conflict (Getting a ticket, a divorce, fired) to show an average character in a normal world, but with some emotional relevance.
-Reveal the characters’ flaws and qualities that will affect the ending. (Flaws that he overcame, qualities that helped him succeed.)
-Foreshadow the ending.
-The introduction showcases the five elements of the story: the voice, the theme, the setting, the characters, and, at the very end of it, the inciting incident will introduce the plot. This will let people know what they’re in for early on.
-Have a conflict independent of the main conflict, usually to introduce the above aspects of plot. That conflict will foreshadow the “point” of the story (how the character changes, why he can’t immediately solve the plot.) You might solve this prior to the inciting incident or come back to it in the aftermath.
STEP FIVE: THE INCITING INCIDENT.
The plot of the story is the main conflict and how that conflict is resolved. The inciting event introduces that conflict in the most interesting way possible.
The good news is that this is generally the easiest thing to come up with by instinct. Unlike many of the other elements in plot structure, this one tends to be the most constant and “rule abiding.” Your subconscious will automatically try to put an inciting incident in, just not maybe of the magnitude it should be.
Sometimes, however, it might not put it in the right place, simply because we tend to ramble. Or, at least, I do.
You want the inciting incident to happen pretty quickly and pretty obviously, but it needs to be made clear why it’s important. Having it right at the beginning without introduction of the norms won’t have the same emotional impact as if you make it clear the emotional state of the characters prior to this event. But, as it starts to introduce possible outcomes that they can root for or root against, people will often not be as invested until after this occurs.
The inciting incident is basically a thesis statement in the essay, indicating, “This is what you are about to read. Keep going and you might get to see this happen. Or maybe not.” It should be relatively obvious in its announcement because if people don’t logically realize there’s “a question,” they can’t seek answers. Hidden inciting incidents, ones that happen off-screen, unannounced by the narrator until later, might as well not be there at all. (From the readers, anyway. It is popular right now for the protagonist to not find out his place in a plot until ten minutes from the end.)
A common trick to coming up with a good inciting incident is to think of what would best persuade your character. What is his super objective (his main goal in life) and how does this conflict stop him from getting it? Or what makes him decide now is the time to chase it? Essentially, you tell him that in the loudest way possible.
STEP SIX: FIGURE OUT YOUR PERSONAL OBSTACLES. (FINISH NO MATTER WHAT)
Each individual has different reasons for not finishing. Though they can be common problems, the magnitude and response is often unique to the writer.
Understand yourself, and don’t let yourself talk you down. The number one cause for quitting is looking at the work you’ve done and seeing crap. Ignore this. Tell yourself that you will do better on the rest of the book and that you can always go back and edit it anyway. Worst comes to worst, the practice still did you some good.
-Don’t procrastinate: Putting it off to the last minute only works when you have a last minute.
-Don’t worry about the quality: Your opinions will evolve, so will your talent, and you can always fix it later. You might be emotional and find later it’s not as big of a deal as you thought.
-Don’t constantly start over: There’s nothing wrong with once or twice, but you’ll learn more from finishing and fixing than from a restart.
-Don’t worry about if you will succeed, just assume you will: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
-Don’t borrow trouble: If thinking about whether or not your book will sell discourages you, focus on the problems right in front of you and cross that bridge when you come to it.
-Don’t accept your flaws as facts: It’s not, “I’m just not inspired,” or, “I’m just not a good writer.” Overcome what’s holding you back.
-Try new things and experiment: Try writing in a notepad, outlining, working at Starbucks, breaking rules, doing something you’re scared of.
STEP SEVEN: WHAT HAPPENS IN THE MIDDLE OF A NOVEL
Most people get up to the inciting incident, no problem. Especially when they’re writing in order. Then, all of the sudden, as the plot they’ve been waiting for finally gets introduced…
They don’t know what to say.
How do you get that point?
The traditional expectation is for three disasters to take place, the second two usually being the fault of the protagonist as he tries to fix the problem. Often times, orienting around setting up these disasters will pretty much carry the story.
Secondly, every scene should be fleshing out one of the five major elements: tone/voice, character, setting, plot, and theme.
This limitation actually helps. Setting and characters I save for “filler,” meaning when I need to have them having a seemingly pointless conversation for the sake of pacing, ramifications, or to lead-in to the important stuff (like an argument), I can add information about the world’s history or their background information, so that the scene has some merit before the wall of the bar explodes into a thousand pieces. Character, setting, and tone also tend to be revealed through descriptions of other events, just by existing in the time and place of events.
There are three kinds of scenes in the middle: events, transitions, and contrasts.
Events are important actions that affect the story. It should be noted that after each event something should have changed, whether it be relationships, moods, plans, or the world itself. Events are basically anything that would be included in a summary.
Transitions are getting from one event to the next. In the Lion King, we see Scar tell Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard. It’s the only time we see Scar and his nephew’s relationship prior to the betrayal, but it’s main purpose is to plant the seed of the next event in the story. A transition can be an important part, but it’s job is to explain how we got from point a to point b.
Lastly, we have contrasts. These are simply there to break up tension and moods to emphasis said tension and moods. Think of it like the calm before the storm or the calm after the storm. Comedic relief, peace in battle, a moment of joy in a long haul of negativity enhances the readers’ experiencing.
When it comes to the middle, it’s all about what you want to happen, what needs to happen, and how you get there. A simple, big-picture vision can tell you exactly what should come next.
STEP EIGHT: DEALING WITH WRITER’S BLOCK.
Unfortunately, writer’s block is something that everyone’s going to have to deal with at some point or another. Some people maintain it doesn’t exist, but they don’t claim they’ve had the feeling, rather that it’s not that big of a deal. Often times a good way to deal with it is to ignore it and force your way through it.
But, there are also better solutions than that, depending on the context. Here’s some reasons why you might be experiencing trouble: I call it the past, the present, and the future complexes.
If your issue is in “the past” it has to do with something that you’ve already written. Usually it means that you don’t like it. But it could also be that you wrote yourself into a corner, have a glaring problem with something like continuity, or changed your mind drastically about the direction you want to take it, and now you have to go fix things that contradict that. In any of these cases, I count it all as writer’s block because it is what discourages us the most from moving on.
In this case, your best options are to either go back and edit it until it’s to your satisfaction, or you can continue on until you finish and then go back and fix things. The best decision is about your personality; perfectionists should trudge on because they won’t finish, for instance.
In my opinion, if the problem is with quality (you hate what you’ve made), trudge on. If the problem is with continuity, fix it now. I say this because getting it right is going to take a lot of effort and it is more likely you’ll quit before you’re done. However, in my own personal experience, I’ve had trouble with knowing what “cannon” I’m committed to if I don’t make a change the minute I do it.
The present is a little harder to contend with. It basically means that you don’t feel like writing now. You can tell if this is the case if you try to write something else and you still don’t care. This could have anything to do with stress, depression, or simple discomfort (i.e. the way you’re sitting.) At times it can be attributed to good moods, such as being excited for something, like a party or date, or being frustrated by an annoying coworker who humiliated you.
Sometimes the solution can be as simple as going to a new computer, going to longhand, or changing the program you’re writing in. (I will write on Powerpoint for funsies.) If it is because there is physical distress, I would suggest change your socks and underwear, dress in something comfortable that makes you feel good about yourself, do something relaxing, then go to a Starbucks. (Getting out of my room where all the bad vibes are helps me.) Lastly, force yourself to do it anyway. A lot of times my mood comes from not writing. Suddenly, miraculously, after I’ve done what I’m supposed to, I feel better.
“Future” problems, are the easiest to solve. It is the truest form of writer’s block in which the author honestly just does not know something very important.
You might not know what’s going to happen next. You may know exactly what’s going to happen, but you don’t know how it will get there. You may know everything about the action that will take place, but you need to start giving hints to that big “secret” you’ve been hiding, but, hey, you don’t actually know yet what happened to grandma.
The “trudge through it” solution is pretty viable here. It is also readily solved by sitting down and figuring out what you don’t know. Recognizing that you are trapped because you don’t have the answer on how they’re going to break out of prison makes you one step closer to answering it.
It is often best to try and predict these “futuristic unknowns,” like eventually you’re going to have to find out who killed the grandmother, and start thinking about it long in advance. People come up with their best ideas when they’re not trying to. Knowing, however, that there’s an idea that you need to come up with is more likely to be revealed while you’re taking a shower, instead of that concept about a fan fiction of Justin Bieber and the One Direction boys.
But the best advice I can give you is don’t let this excuse stop you. You take that excuse, beat it up, and throw it in the dumpster.
STEP NINE: THE ENDING
The ending simultaneously the hardest and easiest part for me, because, like I said, it’s the most important, but I also have a pretty good grasp on what the book needs to be, plus have been planning it for a while.
First and foremost, the story ends in the protagonist either winning or losing the conflict in a concretely permanent way. It’s kind of like how if you’re found not guilty at a trial, you can’t be tried again. Because it’s not fair if we remain worried for the rest of our lives that that whole mess will just come back around again. (Although, try telling that to horror films.) But you want to convince the audience that the conclusion is solid.
Most times the protagonist will win. Because we like that.
If the protagonist wins, it is most satisfying with several things included:
1) He has to lose terribly first.
2) His victory has to have a point and be an accumulation of the film.
3) You either give people what they wanted or explain to them why they don’t get it.
The first is the most important. Generally speaking, the reason why an ending is so anticlimactic is because he goes there and wins and that’s the end. The climatic battle has to be hard. We demonstrate it’s hard because the protagonist nearly loses. So, basically, the best endings are the ones set up so that for a brief moment, it’s possible he might fail.
Number two is a simple demand from our society that having the villain lose in a way that means that the rest of the two hours wasn’t a waste of time. Basically it should be more meaningful if you actually saw the whole film (read the whole book) than if you just came in for the last fifteen minutes.
The most common way is that the protagonist overcame a flaw that was making him fail before, or he utilized a quality we consistently demonstrated he had.
Or, you can employ the concept of “theme,” i.e. point of the story. Which is to say that your story is about how we shouldn’t judge people for the way they look, the villain fails because he thinks a little girl is harmless.
Number three is pretty obvious. If they have been waiting for the antagonist to be beaten to a pulp, beat him to a pulp. Will they or won’t they characters fall in love. The murderer is revealed. If you do not make good on your promises, you have to tell them exactly why you didn’t do so, why it’s better, in-world, that you didn’t. (Main character has a speech why he doesn’t want to be like the villain and so showed mercy.)
If your plot, however, has the main character losing, then simply switch the villain with protagonist in the above and do the opposite.
Then wait for the hate mail to come.
STEP TEN: EDITING
1. People say to put it in a drawer and leave it alone. I say read it first and then put it aside. Why? Because you (and by that I mean me) will forget your entire vision and have to take the effort to figure it out again. So, my advice is do draft two as fast as possible, do draft three in a couple of months.
2. I am not a big fan of don’ts, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t give out a first draft for someone else to give you feedback on; they’re going to give you feedback that you could have easily done for yourself. Secondly, you need to understand your work a little better in order to have a good conversation on it (and to know when to tell someone to shut the hell up.)
3. The circle edit: Print out a copy and then read it, only making simple changes and notes to stop it from ruining the flow. Circle lines and scenes you don’t like and want to fix, then go back into the computer to actually make changes. It’s easier and you’re more willing to put in an effort.
(There are, of course, negatives to this one, but I won’t go into it.)
4. The loose edit.
When I first figured this one out, I made my life a thousand times easier.
Instead of attempting to do drastic changes to terrible scenes, I would read it several times, each draft making few small changes as I went. What this allowed for was time to think about it. Instead of having to come up with something better immediately, you have occasion to consider it, which yields better choices in the end over just hacking away.
5. A full read.
Sit down and read it in one or two sittings, making notes about big changes. This gives you a better feel for the flow and read.
6. Talking it out with a friend.
Force someone to sit down with you and let you tell them the whole story start to finish as much as you remember it. It works best after actually having read it, but if you have someone willing, you latch onto them before they can get away.
Speaking out loud allows you to truly understand the scope of the story, receive reactions to events, and notice any glaring continuity problems.
Lastly, remember your vision and what you want it to be. Make decisive choices and do not allow yourself to be swayed by the siren song of the coulds. “Someone could like this,” “It could be funny,” “It could be scary,” etc. It either is what it’s supposed to be or if it isn’t, and if you’re questioning it, it probably isn’t.
A big part of writing is just doing it. Being able to make mistakes without being demoralized is what will help you keep going to the finish line. A bad draft doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything up until you’ve decided it’s “finished,” which is your choice when that is. Remember, there are no right ways to do this. But for those of you who are lost, this might help you not utilize the excuse.