How to Form Your Bestseller in 10 Days

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It is my great pleasure today to do my part to bring us closer to a modicum of peace between two vexatious parties. No, not those parties. I’m talking about the Hatfields and Mc…wait, I mean the plotters and the pantsers. For I am about to offer a systematic approach to beginning a novel that has the potential to do what we all aim for—sell like dang hotcakes!

Yet I know how the word system immediately sets the various hairs on the back of an “intuitive” writer’s neck into a frenzy of fuzzy disequilibrium. Allow me to calm those hairs down. Because what I am proposing is in fact just another form of play and discovery, the very thing you love to do most.

Further, this system will open up vast new meadows for your imagination to frolic in, providing even more freedom than you currently experience. Because when you just start writing a story, you have already committed to things like character, setting, and situation. Yes, you now explore and “discover” as you write, but only within the confines you set up at the start.

This system will give you an infinite variety of story worlds to play with up front, so you can choose the one that gives the most float to your boat.

To my plotting friends, this system will push you to more wild creativity than perhaps you are used to. This will help you avoid one of the traps of militant outlining—making “same old, same old” choices.

So now let us say you have typed The End on your latest book…or have determined you really want to produce a first novel…and you wake up the next day, make the coffee, and set out on the journey. Give yourself 10 days.

Day 1. Grabber Idea

Make it your practice to spend some time each week in pure creativity exercises. Two of my favorites are What if? and the First-Line Game.

Train your mind to look at the world, the news, billboards, people walking on the street—and ask, “What if?” What if that elderly man at the bus stop is a serial killer on the run? What if that Bonobo chimp trying to communicate is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler?

Collect them all, without judgment, for later review.

Write opening lines that are irresistible, without worrying about the story to follow. Collect these, too.

So, on Day 1, take out your list and see which ideas grab you most. Pick several and give them some play time. Begin to feel for the idea that most wants you to tell it.

I did the first-line game once and wrote: “Your son is alive.” I had no idea who said it or what it meant. But it wouldn’t let me go, so I wrote the novel Your Son is Alive.

Select your idea.

And there was evening and morning, the first day.

Day 2. White-Hot Document

Begin what I call a “white-hot document.” I got this idea from the great writing teacher Dwight Swain. You just begin a free-form doc writing anything that comes to mind about your idea. You follow tangents wherever they lead—plot ideas, character ideas, scene possibilities.

Talk to yourself—what is your idea trying to tell you? What is the deep tissue of the idea?

Keep writing and do not edit.

Sleep on it.

Day 3. Edit and Annotate

Look at your white-hot document. Start highlighting the parts that seem most promising. Add more ideas and possibilities.

Sleep on it.

Day 4. Edit and Annotate Again

You know the drill.

Day 5. Main Characters

Solidify your main characters—protagonist, antagonist, primary secondary characters. You don’t need extensive biographies. What you want is the why they are in this story—motives, desires, secrets

Day 6. Sell the Sizzle

All play and no work makes Jack a dull writer. So give your left brain a rest and assess the selling potential of your idea. Focus on these questions:

  • Do you have a hero worth following? Why?
  • Is your antagonist stronger than the protagonist? In what ways?
  • Who is your audience?
  • How does your idea add something fresh to what’s been done before?

Refine and reform your concept to strengthen the above.

Day 7. Pitch

Now create a focused pitch consisting of three sentences.

  1. (Character name) is a (vocation) who (immediate goal or desire)
  2. But when (doorway of no return), (Character) is (main confrontation)
  3. Now (Character) must (main objective)

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

But when a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

Tweak your pitch. Ratchet up the stakes in each sentence. This will provide an indestructible base upon which to build your bestseller. Later, it can be the basis for your book description (“back cover copy”).

Day 8. Heart-Whamming Ending

Write out, at least in summary form, an ending that will move readers, that will have them cheering or weeping…or both. See it in the movie theater of your mind. Hear the musical score!

This doesn’t mean you’re wedded to it. But just by envisioning a killer final scene you feed your idea and juice your desire to write. It is subject to change without notice, but at least it gives you a North Star to guide your journey.

Day 9. Signpost Scenes

I plan out signpost scenes, as explained in my book Super Structure. The beauty of this is that it gives a the skeletal frame that will fully support the flesh and blood of your concept. Some of these scenes can be placeholders, to be given content later. I do, however, pay special attention to the Mirror Moment, which tells me what my novel is really about.

Day 10. Write a First Chapter That Grabs Them by the Throat

Give us an opening that has an immediate disturbance for the main character. Begin with action. Act first, explain later. Don’t bother with extensive exposition or backstory. You can dribble that in later. Do not, under any circumstances, write the parts that readers skip (h/t Elmore Leonard).

Nice going! You’re ready to write your book. An added tip: start a novel journal, a diary if you will, where you talk to yourself about your novel each day before you write. How do you feel about your story so far? You only need to take a few minutes to do this. Pay special attention to any notes sent upstairs by the Boys in the Basement.

Keep writing. Do only light editing on the previous day’s work, then plow forward. Schedules and life circumstances vary, of course. Is time a problem for you? Just remember: a page a day (250 words) is a book a year. A book a year is a prolific writer.

Once you finish your novel you move into the editing phase. But while you are there take 10 days to get your next novel ready.

Do this over and over again until you are dead. You’re a writer, after all. This is what you do.

Carpe Typem.

Discuss!

What’s the Best Way to Discover Your Story?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not many people know that the decades-long feud between the Hatfields and McCoys started at a writers conference. The head of the Hatfield clan was an outliner. McCoy was a pantser. They were on a panel together and things got heated. Then the shooting started.

In those days, several McCoys were heard to say that they had to write the book in order to “discover” what the book was really about. If they got tied down to an outline, that’d take all the originality and “fun” out of the writing. They’d chew tobacco when they said such things, and every now and then they’d spit and say something about how an outline removes spontaneity (although they didn’t know words like spontaneity). A McCoy once remarked, “Them ’liners don’t never have no surprises. They don’t discover nuthin’. Got no use for ’em.”

Well, the guns are put away now, but the outliner (plotter) v. pantser divide is still grist for the panel mill. What I want to home in on today is this notion that the best method for “discovering” your story is by not knowing what you’re going to write until you write it. That way the whole thing is organic and surprising. And if the author is surprised (so goes the reasoning) the reader surely will be surprised as well.

Implied in this is the idea that plotters are stuck with their outline and are thus discovery challenged.

I’m going to blow that notion up.

First, let’s follow a typical pantser. She begins writing about a character…that’s the “fun” part. The character has some sort of issue or problem, but we don’t know what it is yet, or how it will manifest itself. At the 15k word mark, our pantser wakes up one morning with a mind-blowing idea—the abusive antagonist actually turns out to be the brooding boy from the MC’s past. Wowsers! That’s not what she expected! But that’s what she loves about pantsing!

Full of delight, our pantser writes another 20k words along this new trajectory, until the plot begins to stall because there’s not enough conflict, or the love part isn’t working, or things have moved too quickly and the book is close to being over … or any of an infinite number of plot problems that pantsers have to figure out how to solve—now, or in the messy future when they take a tangled, unkempt first draft and try to make it something readable.

But the big discovery—that the antagonist is really the boy from the past—remains. To change it now would mean starting at ground zero again, and that’s not a happy thought.

So what’s happened? The pantser got to a major plot path, one that sprang up one day and said Take me! and she took it. One path. And maybe it works out.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Still, the pantser contends that this discovery method is “purer” storytelling than some stodgy old outline.

To which the plotter says, “Hold on there, Lightning. You need to understand something. We enjoy even more discovery than you, and faster, too! It happens before we outline. We look at many paths and follow them as long as we like. Each one is a surprise; we’re not limited to one or two. We can then pick the most exciting one and start to outline. If something better occurs to us along the way, easy…we tweak the outline. Discovery after discovery!

Which is a little more freeing that finding one discovery after thousands of words of writing.

Let me give you look at my own process. I always start with a “white-hot document.”

I got this idea from one of my first, and most beloved, craft books, Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. He advocated writing a stream-of-consciousness document, where you just let your imagination run wild. No editing. Jot whatever plot, character, scene, big picture ideas hit you. Follow tangents wherever they lead. The next day you come back to this document and annotate. Highlight the best parts, then start writing again, following your imagination wherever it goes. Annotate the next day. Repeat this process several days.

David Morrell has a similar practice as explained in his book The Successful Novelist. He advocates asking yourself question after question, getting yourself deeper into the reasons you like this idea.

What’s happening is I’m letting the imagination and subconscious play, bringing me surprise after surprise. But I’m not yet wedded to any!

Next, I get a bunch of 3 x 5 cards and go to a coffee house and grab a large brew. I find a chair and start writing down scene ideas. Randomly. Without thought as to where they go. It’s enough just to jot this much:

Sister J has to fight a knife-wielding dental hygienist.

Later, I shuffle the cards and take out two at a time to see what plot ideas they suggest. In effect, I’m taking dozens of paths, checking out the scenery, and choosing the best one to follow.

I’m also fleshing out the members of my cast, remembering the principle of “orchestration.” That is, each character ought to be different from the others so there’s a possibility of conflict with everybody else.

Finally, I start laying out my Super Structure signposts, setting up the major movements of the plot. I have plenty of scene ideas to go in between. (I use Scrivener for this.)

Then I write.

Now, I fully realize dedicated pantsers are to outlines as mosquitoes are to Off. And that’s fine. You’ve got to go with what works for you, what brings you the most creative joy. The point of my post today is to emphasize that there’s joy and creativity and spontaneity in plotting, too…and in buckets!

So put down your muskets and tell us: how do you do most of your discovering? 

READER FRIDAY: Share How You’ve Used Family & Friends for a Book Plot

After Sue Coletta’s post “When Real Life Collides with Fiction,” I wondered how many other TKZ members have stories about the many ways an author can abuse family and friends for the sake of a book. I’ve heard of wild stories at writer conferences where authors talk about staging a crime scene using friends as attackers & victims or cornering a relative to brainstorm a murder over Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

In what ways have you used the people in your life for research or to develop a book plot?

Plotting Tips

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

This will be my last post for 2015. Since 2008, TKZ has traditionally taken a 2-week Winter Hiatus, so I’ll return on January 6 after celebrating the Holidays with my family and friends. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish my blog mates and blog friends the very best for this holiday season and the coming year. Now on to Plotting Tips.

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s the formula from which great stories are made. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger jet. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but they must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, the story would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

When the Story Writes Itself

Nancy J. Cohen

Have you noticed how you plod through some books you’re writing and others seem to write themselves? Why is that, do you think? Peril by Ponytail, my upcoming mystery release, was a breeze compared to some of my other stories. I had a wealth of research material from my trip to Arizona. Not only did I stay on a dude ranch similar to the one where Marla and Dalton honeymoon in the story, but I explored a copper mine, hunted spirits at a haunted hotel, toured a cave, visited ghost towns, and more. With such an abundance of historical and sensory details, I had too much material for one book. The story sprang from the setting and the characters I’d placed there. Photos brought me back to the locale along with my detailed notes. I didn’t lack for words to fill in the pages.

PerilbyPonytail

My next story, Facials Can Be Fatal, is a different story…figuratively as well as literally. Based back in my hairdresser sleuth’s hometown, it involves a client who dies in the middle of getting a facial. The method of death tripped me up, and it took me weeks to decide Howdunit. Then I created my ring of suspects, but it wasn’t enough. The spark was missing. When I hit upon a historical angle and the idea of a deserted theme park, those two elements hit the ball into the field. Now I was off and running. I’d needed that ember to ignite the flame of creative passion.

Now I’m writing the sequel, since #14 in my series directly follows book #13. Normally, I write a detailed synopsis before the writing process begins. In this case, I wrote four pages of plotting notes that essentially go from Point A to Point B without much in between. A mystery doesn’t work without twists and turns. My normal synopsis runs 12-15 pages. But just by winging it, I’m already up to page 40 in the story. I’m not sure where I am going. I have hazy images of the suspects and their motives in my head. And I haven’t yet hit upon the angle that’ll make my pulse race.

Do I need it? Maybe not.

I sit down every morning with the blank page in front of me and my five pages a day goal, and those words somehow get filled in. I expect at any time to get stuck due to insufficient plotting, but it hasn’t happened yet. This is a different kind of mystery for me. It’s not a “dead body up front” kind of story. There’s been an accident, and we aren’t sure yet if it was intentional or not. Meanwhile, I’m going with the flow to see where it takes me.

Does this happen to you? Are some stories easier to write than others? What do you think makes the difference?