Writing a novel in 3 months – pt3

“And once when she saw him pick up a bird that had stunned itself against a wire, she had realised another world, silent, where each creature is alone in its own aura of silence, the mystery of power.” —  D H Lawrence

Writing is an act of war between your brain’s hemispheres. The first couple of posts were a very quick look at the logic and logistics behind the novel. But beyond all of these there are the higher abstract levels of working out what it is you are actually writing.

I’m sure it must be wonderful to sit and pen a muse inspired novel start to finish, but I wouldn’t know about that. For me it’s a struggle of evolving what’s happening, identifying what does and doesn’t work, and finding ways to improve it. As with a great many things in life, being a good writer is about learning to ask good questions. If you can’t ask good questions, you’ll only ever luck on good answers.

If you know your premise, you have a good starting point for a story. Now there are a lot of people with very strong opinions on what exactly a premise is. It’s one of those topics that seems to inspire rules. As always, rules are guidelines and intended to help. The harsher the rules, the more they’re attempting to be a constructive constraint.

Take the time to review what others have said on the subject. LMGTFY.

It might hurt your brain a little to go through the differences between an idea, a concept and a premise. But they’re actually pretty important. Communicating well is about clarity of thought and being able to distil something into its most basic form is a skill. Waffle masks insecurity. Confidence is displayed in simplicity and clarity. Take a look at Larry Brooks (him again) explaining the differences between these terms.

You’ll have to practise the evolution of an idea into a premise to really get it. It’s so fundamental to everything, because it’s the whole framework on which a novel will be built. Built it on rocks forged of frustrated hours

Writing a novel in 3 months – pt2

“The only thing that is ultimately real about your journey is the step that you are taking at this moment. That’s all there ever is.”  — Eckhart Tolle

Following on from the last post about writing a novel in 3 months, I thought I’d take a look at something a little bit more specific. Taking a word count of 40,000 as an initial target, we’re looking at 4x 10,000 sections. In 3 act terms this means that act 1 = section 1, act 2 = sections 2+3, act 3 = section 4. I don’t like the 3 act structure, it’s 4 acts plain and simple, with each act corresponding to one of our sections.

I think that over on Storyfix, Larry Brooks has these sections set out quite nicely. Incidentally, after reading his story structure, I made the mistake of trying to break down the works of Conn Iggulden and David Gemmell who have very similar styles and whose structure doesn’t really work for this. Always remember that these are guidelines, not rules. Anyway, back to Larry Brooks. He outlines the 4 sections of story to be: The Setup, The Response, The Attack, The Resolution. These are approximately equal in size, between each section there’s a transition point. All in all, you’re looking at a structure something like this:

TP1, TP2 and MP are the turning points and the mid-point. These are significant events that represent a real change of pace and direction for the story. PP1 and PP2 are pinch points – reminders of the antagonistic force in the story. Just with these elements alone you can (and maybe should) write a very basic 10k kid’s book. Something like Beast Quest or Rainbow Magic.

As a very quick example of how these elements would tie together:

  • The Set-up: Bob is a blacksmith’s apprentice. He lives with his step-mum in a village. She’s getting old now, but he still loves her tales about goblins.
  • TP1: An old wanderer comes to the village. Bob recognises from her marking’s that she’s a witch. She says a blight is coming, something that adults cannot see, but that will destroy the crops and make everyone starve. It’s up to Bob to save the day.
  • The Response: The blight is a spell cast by the great goblin, Gary. Gary’s sending out his goblin minions to plant crystals in sacred groves of power. This helps his blight spell spread. A large group of goblins come towards the village, so Bob has to run from them. Whilst running, he meets a ranger called Rachel (with a pet cat, Cuddle-buns). Rachel knows where the great goblin lives, but she can’t help Bob, not whilst Cuddle-buns is sick.
  • PP1: Whilst fleeing from the goblins, Bob would see some sign of how much damage the blight is doing: a great forest sick, for example
  • MP: Bob travels with Rachel to his old grandfather’s village. His grandfather was a master healer in his time and, legend has it, healed the wise old dragon Dragonika, back in the day. The village is burning and his grandfather is dying. But when he realises Bob is on a quest he summons the last of his strength to tell Bob how to heal Cuddle-buns.
  • The Attack: Bob and Rachel seek out the fabled Bonemendy weed that’s needed to heal Cuddle-Buns. They scuffle with goblins who Rachel fights off – she really wants her cat cured! The Bonemendy weed is guarded by a gryphon. Bob and Rachel scare it off with fire and they find a goblin slaying sword and shield. They heal Cuddle-buns and Rachel leads them deep into goblin territory.
  • PP2: The sky glows orange at night, because the blight is burning the land.
  • TP2: Bob and Rachel find that the great goblin has tamed dragons to fight by his side. They fight through crowds of goblins and reach a steep mountain pass. The great goblin is at the top and sends his dragons down to attack them. It looks like all is lost, there are too many, but then Bob sees a great queen dragon and challenges it. It flies in close, then stops, recognising his smell. The queen dragon is Dragonika and she refuses to fight Bob and Rachel, remembering what his grandfather did
  • The Resolution: With no more obstacles, Bob and Rachel defeat the great goblin. The blight spell is stopped and the land had to heal. Bob has learned that being good in the past can come back to benefit you in the present. He also realises that even when you’ve fixed a problem there’s lots to do: the land needs healing.

A story that works on this level can then be expanded to any size. The complexity increases, but the basics are there.

Writing a novel in 3 months – pt1

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” — Mark Twain

I was recently listening to one of the exponential wisdom podcasts (always great, in a world of depression and despair, Peter Diamandis and Dan Sullivan are focused on the positive) and Dan mentioned something about writing a book every quarter. So I thought it’d be a good though exercise to go through. How would I write a novel in 3 months?

Working with targets and guidelines helps, because when you think of how big and complex a novel is, it’s overwhelming. But the more you break it down, the easier it gets. For example, middle grade fiction is often 40,000-60,000 words. If we have a final target word count and a timescale, we can work out how much we’d have to write per day and per week:

Word Count Words per day Words per week
40,000 440 3,077
45,000 495 3,462
50,000 549 3,846
55,000 604 4,231
60,000 659 4,615

Bear in mind that these word counts are final draft quality. It’s not always going to be possible to write final draft quality, especially from the start. Polishing delivery should only really come once the content has been finalised. But on a per day basis, those word counts aren’t too intimidated! Even if you extrapolate upwards for a 100,000 word adult novel, you’re looking at 1,100 words per day.

Getting ahead with a project like this would require some preparation. This is precisely what Michael Moorcock outlined in his how to write a book in three days article. To do an article in 3 days he:

  • Has an overall story structure in mind (stories vary far less than you might think and, when they do, they often fail, because the structure doesn’t make sense to our minds and we lose interest)
  • Understands how to pace the book
    • An event every 4 pages
    • Taking a 60k word count novel, splitting this into 4 sections of 15k words – these sections have goals and time constraints
    • Splitting the 15k sections into 6 chapters, each of which must move the goal forward
  • Lists of images, themes, stock characters etc – he would also draw inspiration from what he had around him in his room

There’s more, of course, but what it boils down to is understanding that your story is comprised of elements. The characters, the plot and subplot, the structure and so on. And much as you’d like to think that everything you spin out is pure gold, the majority is very derivative. Characters take on characteristics for the roles they play in the story, and these roles can change. Sometimes you’ll see the most superficial similarities: Gandalf and Dumbledore, for example. But on a deeper level, Dumbledore is an extremely flawed human, whilst Gandalf is some semi-deity. They both serve similar roles in their story and it’d be easy to take either of them as a basis for a mentor, making a couple of adjustments and coming out with someone new. For example, what if Gandalf was small and green, “and speak in a strange manner, he did?” Exchange Glamdring for a lightsabre and you’ve got Yoda.

Understanding patterns and structures, using stock characters as starting points, all of these serve the purpose of giving you less decisions to make. If you’re not stuck on the basics, you can really excel on what actually defines your story and makes it different. And it all feeds in to writing a novel in 3 days, or 3 months.

 

Soman Chainani

“She had always found villains more exciting than heroes. They had ambition, passion. They made the stories happen. Villains didn’t fear death. No, they wrapped themselves in death like suits of armor! As she inhaled the school’s graveyard smell, Agatha felt her blood rush. For like all villains, death didn’t scare her. It made her feel alive.” — Soman Chainani, The School for Good and Evil 

Tim Ferriss recently interviewed Soman Chainani on his podcast – click here.

Tim’s interviews focus on identifying skills, breaking down rituals and processes, seeing what can be learned about how a person works. Although Tim is a writer, he writes primarily non-fiction, so the actual craft of writing wasn’t discussed in great detail. But he goes into the kind of mentality and discipline that Soman brings to his writing. A lot of the cliches regarding writing will be to “write what you know” and so on, which doesn’t help anyone, ever. Soman has taken a liberal dose of what he loves – the fantasy of middle grade fiction – and tailored his work for a specific audience. He has thought through and started to put into place a fully multimedia experience that understands what his primary audience are like and how he can give those most dedicated fans a lot of exposure to the world and insights they wouldn’t ordinarily get.

If they ever do a round two, it’d be great to have some insights into how Soman actually crafts his material. To what degree does he plot? How does he develop characters, scenes and the world? Does he use beta readers? What software does he use? Does he write chronologically? Who are his writing influences? There’s soooo much more to be asked 🙂

Story structure

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  —  Robert Frost

Structure and pattern underlie most things, and story is no exception. I found early on that writing without an idea of story structure was an exercise in futility. I’d sit down, pound out 10-20k words and then read back the resulting mess. It reminded me of the Ira Glass creative process video – although I wouldn’t come across that for many years. The basics were there, the words were in the right order, I was making every kind of mistake possible, but there was some seed of hope under all that mess. Structure wasn’t the only thing, but it was a huge thing, a really undervalued thing.

People talk about the various types of story and if you google you’ll find the 7 basic plots, or any number of variations on that theme. They’re all fundamental variations of the massively unhelpful “stuff happens, or it doesn’t.” So you might look into it more, you learn about the 3 act structure. You’ll not be satisfied, you’ll find it doesn’t really help. Three acts in the size ratio 1:2:1, with transition points between each act and another transition in the middle? That’s 4 acts of equal size! That’ll take you on to something like Larry Brooks’ storyfix site, and you’ll start to really look at deconstructing books and movies. Or you’ll move to Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! and again, you’re digging a little deeper. You’ll read about the snowflake method, you’ll come across sites explaining chiastic structure, you’ll venture into the hero’s journey, etc.

And all of these things are different views, different takes on structure. On the patterns of story telling. No single method explains it all because there is no single way of telling a story. But story, at some level, has structure. It has patterns. It has those things you can stop and spot. You can come to understand it by putting in significant amounts of writing and rewriting until the structures start to come naturally to you. You can take a framework and plot your milestones, knowing you’re saving a large amount of rewriting within. You can set up an entirely chiastic structure that you can use and re-use, knowing that each time you do, you are writing something that fundamentally works.

Obsess about it, but don’t become obsessed with it 🙂