Word count targets

computerFor a new writer there is no shortage of books and articles on the art of writing. Advice from successful writers is everywhere, much of it very good, such as:  ‘show don’t tell’;  the importance of first line, the first page, the first ten ages; the importance of developing three dimensional characters; character arc; and story structure. The list goes on and on. But one piece of advice that sticks out from the rest is that ‘a writer should write’.

Here are some of famous quotes:

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” ― Louis L’Amour

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD

“It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer.”
—Gerald Brenan

“The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.”
—Ernest Gaines

It is hard to disagree  with this premise.  Many people want to write a book, but never get started. Of those that do, only a few complete, and even fewer are published. Successful writers therefore have to have remarkable perseverance to finish and publish a book.

Now consider  the time frame for writing a novel. The average novel is 80-100,000 words. The words will not be completed unless the writer writes them. If a writer writes at 5,000 words a week then a first draft could be produced in say 16-20 weeks. At  a more sedate speed of 2,500 words a week (or 500 words per day)  as some suggest, a first draft can be produced in  a more realistic 32- 40 weeks.

Thus because of the time it physically takes to write a book, many writing gurus focus on word count,  urging writes to set targets and monitor performance against targets. If you’re the kind of person that likes to set specific achievable goals this might help you. But you may also end up producing 80-100,000 words of garbage. Of course, all first drafts are crap and you may end up trashing 20% and rewriting the rest. And if that gets you to your goal, fine. But what if you trash 80% or worse realise that the story just doesn’t work? Worse still, what happens if your initial idea for the story isn’t thought out and you end up in a blind alley? You are staring at the screen and nothing is coming into your head.

What these famous authors don’t tell you is that they understand the fundamentals of their story before they start to write. They may not have a formal outline of their story or all the details figured out. But they do understand the fundamental drivers of their story to write continually at these rates of word count.

Furthermore, I believe there is a direct link between the amount of story preparation a writer  completes before writing and the word count he/she can achieve. Let me give you an example. In my previous blog I referred to the use of story boarding and a twenty page scene outlining to plan my third novel. It was an experiment to see if I could improve my workflow through more detail planning. In the first seven days of writing using the outline I achieved some 25,000 words or 3,500 words per day and I didn’t feel I was working particularly hard. Did I stick absolutely to the outline – no. I moved some scenes and introduced others. But having a story plan helped me see the impact of these changes on the story as a whole.

Of course, this worked for me. If you’re the kind of writer that hates to plan and think through the story before writing it, then you’re bound to disagree. If you’re Stephen King then you’re so talented it won’t matter. For lesser mortals, and particularly new writers that see the task of writing 80,000-100,000 of story as daunting, then you might like to spend more time preparing your story before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daydreaming again? It’s work.

Add subtitle textYou’re staring out the window, letting your imagination go, when a family member interrupts and asks you to do something. “I’m working,” you protest, and then immediately realise it was the wrong answer. So you put your thoughts aside and do as they request. Sound familiar? It happens to us all. And I would never suggest you should ignore family. But contrary to what anyone else thinks, daydreaming is real work for a writer — just as much as tapping on the keyboard.

Have a great idea for a story? What if in some future dystopian world children are forced to fight to the death for some television show? A story starts with an idea like this, but the idea alone is not enough. It needs to be nurtured. It needs a hero or heroine. In this case, it is Katnis. What makes her special? She volunteers for the games to protect her younger sister. What does she desire? Survival, of course. What are the consequences if she fails? Death — a pretty good motivator. But the consequences of success also gives her a dilemma; she can only survive if all the other competitors are killed. Let’s add a complication to make it more interesting. What if she falls in love with one of the competitors? Now that creates an interesting dilemma. How is the story going to end?

Some of you will recognise this storyline. It’s Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I’m not aware of how Suzanne Collins developed her story, but the approach above is still an excellent example of how an idea can be developed by simply asking questions to draw out the story. A story needs a concept that gives rise to a source of conflict: a television show where children fight to the death. A story also needs an interesting character: Katnis. And together they give the premise for the story. We now have a dramatic question that will drive the story: will Katnis survive the Hunger Games?

So how far should a writer daydream (I mean plan) before he or she starts to write their story? The answer is that each writer is different. It’s all about what works for you. Some writers would be happy to start writing at this point and find the story organically as they write. They simply put themselves in their character’s shoes and let their character take them on their story journey. This is sometimes referred to as pantsing – writing by the seat of the pants. Others might want to flush out just the main turning points of the story: what are the main obstacles and crisis that their hero/heroine will  have to face? And yet others might not be happy to start until they have a detailed outline breaking down all the main story beats and scenes, and some detailed character sketches. We are all different.

But whether we are writing a minor scene organically or developing an outline of just the main story beats, the creative process is much the same. It’s about asking questions and looking for the answers. At this point of the story what does our character want? What’s stopping him/her getting it? What will they do? Will they succeed and what are the consequences of their action? Where does this lead them next? The process is a natural one driven by character desire and a logical pattern of cause and effect.

Even if you are an ardent pantser that hates the idea of using an outline, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time story planning before starting. Let your imagination soar. Spend time with your characters. Consider alternative plot lines. You might just come across something special. There are many ways of planning, without necessarily using a formal outline. One of the best books on planning is Janice Hardy’s Planing Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. It’s a series of workshops that will take you through the planning process. Another useful book is Randy Ingermanson’s How to write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. It’s a ten-step process towards the development of a story. It’s a process of taking small steps to build up an outline. The first step is a one-line description of your story,  the second is a one-paragraph summary, the ninth is a four-page outline. You don’t however have to use all the steps. It’s up to you.

Another interesting approach is Harold Page’s Storyteller Tools. He uses Conflict Diagrams and something he calls QABNs (Question, Answer, But Now) beats to drive out the story flow. For example: ‘The king is killed by dwarfs’ army, but the princess escapes their clutches. Will she find the wizard and persuade him to help her defeat the dwarfs? But first she must …But…” It’s a bit like writing a summary of the story using questions and ‘buts’. It’s an interesting process that helps discover the storyline.

Whatever process you use to discover your story is up to you. There are no rules; no ideal process. It’s what works for you. But all stories start in the muse. Keep a notebook for those ideas that crop up. You might not use them now; but they may have value later on. And don’t forget to daydream. It’s work after all.

Story essence

Recently, I purchased “Story trumps structure”, by Steven James. I was attracted to the book by its provocative title and the foreward by Donald Maass, who I much admire. Although the book is mostly a manifesto for organic writing (‘pantsing’),
as opposed to plotting and outlining, it is still an excellent read for all types of writers. To me, the idea that story trumps structure is somewhat nonsensical, because structure is such an important component of any story. A story is limp without it. And the story pattern that James sets out — orientation, crisis/calling, escalation, discovery and change — is a pattern that is easily mappable into a three-act structure as others have done. Put simply, he has simply re-labelled the main elements of story structure. He also sets out eight things that are needed in the beginning of the story. These are the story beats that normally fall into the first act. To me, the idea that James is abandoning structure is a bit ridiculous; although he may have a point about not placing too much attention on formulaic plots.

There is a lot of good practical advice in Jame’s book. His emphasis on maintaining tension is spot on. He states:

“At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core a story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it (or fails in her quest to do so), the story is over. If the reader doesn’t know what the character wants, they won’t know what the story is about.”

Good advice. Later in the book he says:

”When you focus on what lies at the heart of the story— tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery, transformation — you’ll intuitively understand what needs to happen in each scene to drive your story forward.”

Although he makes this statement to advance the cause of organic writing, the advice is just as relevant to those of us who are plotters and outliners. There is a lot of good advice in Jame’s book, although it won’t cause me to abandon using my scene cards just yet.

Reading Jame’s book got me thinking more about what the essence of a story is  really about. The Oxford English Dictionary defines story as:

“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

It’s not very helpful. After some thought, I came up with an alternative definition for fiction writers, which I think  captures most of  the essence of a good story:

“ A story is a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

It may appear a little long-winded for a definition, but it seems to capture most of the important attributes of a story, which are:

  • It’s about a character or characters, not necessarily human, that the reader can empathise with or at least find curious.
  • It has a setting which will affect the characters’ behaviour. (For example, 16th Century aristocrats may behave quite differently from that of the crew of a 22nd Century starship. Setting will also influence the genre and the story’s appeal to readers.
  • It’s about a big problem/opportunity (the catalyst) that comes into their lives that they have to deal with, where the consequences of failing to deal with it are dire (the stakes). This provides the requisite character motivation (desire/goal).
  • It’s about an escalating struggle (conflict/tension) to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity (the outer journey), and in the process overcome their own shortcomings (the inner journey/character arc).
  • The characters desire to overcome/exploit the problem/opportunity results in a logical causal chain of events (the plot line).
  • It has a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story (the emotional pay-off). The reader might not be able to predict the ending, but the ending should be consistent with what the reader expects from the genre and story line.

Of course, much of the skill of a good writer is in how they get the reader to empathise with the main character, how they maintain and build tension, and how they deliver the emotional  pay-off that the reader wants in the ending. So no definition can fully capture the emotional experience of a good story. But it’s probably a reasonable starting point for the definition of a story.  Let me know if you agree.

Finding the story

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of writing is finding the story. Finding ideas is no problem: everyone has ideas. How many times have you been told that by someone that he or she has a great idea for a book? But an idea alone does not make a story. It’s the next stage that I find difficult: taking that idea and developing it into a story that is new and exciting.

If writers are to be believed about what they say of their craft, there are two very different types of writers: ‘pantsers’ and  ‘plotters’. Plotters plan their way forward with detailed written outlines/synopsis, character sketches, scene lists and other devices; whereas pantsers write organically by the seat of their pants not knowing where the story is going to take them. However, I suspect the real truth is that most writers probably fall somewhere  between these two extremes. Let me take a step back and explain.

Most writers that  call themselves ‘pantsers’ do so because they don’t produce a written  outline or synopsis of their story before they commence writing, and because they feel that such an outline would constrain their creativity.  But that’s not to say that they don’t think deeply about their story lines and their characters  before they start writing, that they don’t have notes, research  and jottings about their story, or that they  don’t have some idea of the direction where they want the story  to go.  I suspect that most ‘pantsers’ probably have a very good idea about what they want to cover in the next few chapters that they are writing, but have probably only a feel for what will happen beyond that point.

This is a kind of headlights planning: where the immediate chapters ahead are clear in the writers head, but beyond the writer’s plan is at best a little sketchy. Some pantsers claim that when they start writing they have no idea of how the story will end. But I suspect, if they are honest with themselves,  they will have probably at least considered some of the options available for the ending. What they mean is that they have a passionate desire to remain flexible and creative throughout the writing process. They want to enjoy the same experience as their readers as the story unfolds.

However,  many writers that call themselves plotters, myself included,   may well map out a sketch of the story to begin with, but will not stick rigidly to it. For me, outlining/planning is a process that continues throughout the writing process and as you write new ideas and questions arise that need to be answered, and the  plot evolves.  There are also different degrees of plotting depending on the amount of detail the writer wants to go into.  A plot outline might be a simple list of bullet points of the main story events,  a collection of scene cards; or it could be a 3 or  even a 50-page written synopsis of the story. Plotters come in all shapes and sizes.

Personally, I would describe myself as a plotter, but I’ve never written  a  formal synopsis before commencing a project. I prefer to map out the main events of the story using scene cards with one or two lines of description for each scene. For my current project, I currently have approximately 47 scene cards (22 cards for the first Act, 20 for the second Act  and 5 for the third Act). This may seem a little unbalanced, but it’s because I have completed writing the first Act and I am part way through the second. As the story develops, I will continue to add more scene cards to Acts 2 and 3 as the level of detail becomes clearer.

The point I am trying to make is that plotting is a flexible process. Most of Act 1 of my current book went to plan, with only a modest degree of changes. But I am now a third way through  Act 2 and I am already making major revisions to scenes:  introducing new scenes, changing the timing of scenes and deleting or re-writing scenes. It is part of the process of finding out what works and what does not.

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story wrote that if you are not sure whether to write a scene or not you should write it. It’s the only way you will find out if the scene really works. He’s right. Whether you’re an ardent pantser or a plotter, finding the story is a creative process, and both plotters and pantsers need to experiment to find it.

Story structure and story beats

In some of my previous blogs I’ve talked about the importance of story structure. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me since I first started writing fiction. Some great writers ridicule the idea of an underlying story structure as being too formulaic. They say it’s based too much on the ‘hero’s mythical journey’ or it’s not appropriate for their genre. Yet when we look at their work we see the familiar patterns of story structure are there. For them story structure is instinctive and organic. Obviously, for lesser mortals, following a pre-set story structure will not guarantee the success of a story. But a story without any of the normal structure elements will almost always certainly fail.

At school we learnt to write essays and other narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. However, when writing a 70,000-90,000 word novel, it doesn’t really help to know that we should have a beginning, middle and an end. We need a more detailed breakdown of the underlying story pattern. And to get to this breakdown we need to understand the elements that are common to all stories. In their simplest form, stories are about people and how they react and adapt to a life changing event(s) in their life. The plot is the series of events, actions and revelations that occur in the story; but the real emotional content of the story is how those events, actions and revelations affect the main characters and those about them.

Much of the detailed analysis of stories has been directed at screen writing and the movie industry, but is equally important to all forms of storytelling, including novels. Syd Field, for example, took the classical three-act structure to emphasise the importance of the main turning points that naturally occur at the end of Act 1 and Act 2; and he discovered that something important always seems to occur at the mid point of Act 2. But as Blake Synder later commented in ‘Save the cat goes to the movies’, knowing the need for these turning points  still left a ‘lot of empty space in between’ when writing his scripts. Snyder therefore came up with a more detailed fifteen-point ‘beat sheet’, which he then illustrated by applying it to a number of popular films in each of ten of the most common movie genres.

Blake Snyder is not the only movie guru to look at story structure this way. Each guru seems to have a slightly different way to look at structure, although their differences seem less important than their similarities. For example, John Truby in the ‘Anatomy of Story’ talks about twenty-two step story structure, although not all the steps are considered necessary. Truby emphasises that the steps will not tell you what to write in the way formulas or genres do, but they show the most dramatic way to tell your story. Truby tends to focus on the main character’s development during the course of the story; including the psychological needs and desires of the main character at the start of the story, and how these change with revelations that occur at the turning points of the story.

In the structure below, I have taken the Snyder beat sheet, added some of the flavour of John Truby’s steps, and fused it into my own simplified analysis of the three-act structure. It’s not significantly different from Snyder’s, except I have reduced the number of captions to 11 by combining some. The reason that I do this is more for practical reasons than anything else. I am experimenting with some screenwriting plot software at the moment that will organise my scene cards under these 11 basic plot captions. For reference, I’ve numbered the original 15 Snyder beats so you can still see which ones I’ve combined. The text in italics is there for further explanation.

ACT 1

Opening scene (1)

* Should hook the reader's interest from the outset.

Setup (3)

* Introduce main character in his/her normal story world.
* Reveal main character's weakness/ghost and personal desires.
* Foreshadow.
* Hint at theme of the story (2).

Catalyst (4)/ Inciting event

* Opportunity/problem arises that changes everything for the main character.
* Sets in motion the chain of action and reaction that becomes the story.
* Provides the main character with his principal goal and motivation.

Initial response

* Debate (5). 
* Main character tries to avoid dealing with problem.
* May seek help from ally/fake ally.

Plot Point 1 (6)

* First revelation and decision to act. No going back.
* Thrust into a new world.
* First clash with the primary obstacle in the story.

ACT 2

Act 2 part A

* Sequences of obstacles and challenges for main character. 
* Some 'fun and games' as main characters encounters some success (8).
* Introduce B story (often the love story) (7).

Midpoint  (9)

* May or may not have overcome the primary obstacle.
* But an even larger problem looms, and/or stakes rise.
* Main character's desire/commitment increases.

Act 2 part B

* Sub plots (related to theme of story).
* Bad guys close in (10). Opponents plan finally revealed.
* All is lost (11). Possible betrayal.
* Darkest hour (12)

Plot point 2 (13)

* Epiphany moment. Finally the main character knows what to do.
* Main character now has obsessive desire to see it through.

ACT 3

Climax

* The  finale (14) or final battle

Resolution

* Main character has changed. 
* The world is back to normal

End scene (15)

I’ve said structure is important. It is. But it’s also a very basic required writing skill, like grammar. It won’t write your story for you. Many good writers may have a natural instinct for organic structure without consciously thinking about it. But if you’re like me, and still learning the craft, thinking about structure, both at the planning phase and completion phase of a project, provides an opportunity to step back and look at your story from a high level viewpoint. If a story doesn’t make sense at this level, then it probably doesn’t make any sense at all.

So what is your view of story structure? Do you think it is something intuitive and natural that you feel you don’t need to think consciously about? Or do you think the idea of a beat structure is helpful?

Outline and outliners

How do you measure the progress you’re making on writing a book? Do you think in terms of the word-count you’ve written or the number of scenes you’ve completed? The answer possibly lies in the type of writer you are. If you’re an organic writer (or ‘pantser’) that believes that any form of outlining is too restrictive and waste of time, you’ll probably focus entirely on word count. If you’re a writer that uses some kind of scene outline then you may prefer the latter. But what is an outline?

In my school/college/university days outlining an essay was simple. You made a list of points you needed to cover in the essay, and then you started writing the essay, crossing off the points as you went along. You could write a novel the same way, although I suspect it would take a lot more time to come up with the list of points. In practice, most writers use notebooks or files to collate their notes and research and it may take a considerable period of time before the author is ready to commence. But some writers will go further and organise their research and information into some form of story structure or scene outline that will form the skeleton for their novel. But even here, practices vary enormously.

One of my favourite books on writing is James V. Smith Jr’s ‘The writers little helper’. Smith covers a whole range of topics on writing, but when it comes to outlining he advocates you don’t bother. He argues that outlines can become a mission in themselves without adding to the creative aspects of writing. Instead he suggest a Ten-Scene Tool to sketch in the ten most important scenes (or master scenes) in your novel. These include, the opening scene, the point of no return complication, other pivotal complications, the climax and the ending. His rationale is that the Ten-Scene Tool forces you to simplify your central story line. This is not to say that the other scenes you will have to write are not important; but that they are less pivotal and are there to set up the master scenes and provide texture. In my mind, this is still an outline albeit at a helicopter level of detail.

Contrast this approach with that of Karen S Weisner’s in ‘First draft if 30 days’, where she sets out a six stage structured approach to produce a scene by scene outline of 50 pages or so. Far from believing an outline restricts creative development, Weisner believes that the brainstorming process continues throughout the writing process and that it is easier to modify an outline of fifty pages than it is to modify a manuscript of 200–400 pages. Considering she is an award winning novelist of more than twenty books, the system clearly works for her. Whether you agree with producing this level of detail or not (which for me came as a bit of a shock) you will find her approach fascinating. She uses some twenty different worksheets, which are set out in the Appendix C to her book. Even if you are the most ardent pantser writer in the world there is probably something you can take away from this book. She has also written ‘From first draft to Finished Novel’, which picks up from where her earlier book finished. Both books in my view contain a great deal of good practical advice for a newbie novelist.

For the current novel I am working on I have an outline currently consisting of 46 planned scenes, which are summarised on scene cards in my Scrivener file. The amount of detail on each card is relatively high level: a heading and couple of sentences of explanation. As I continue to write, I expect the number of scenes will increase, because I have a tendency to split scenes into smaller units, and new scenes will be necessary as transitional scenes are incorporated and more detail is fleshed out. On the spectrum of outlining, I probably currently fit somewhere between the two extremes of Smith and Weisner.

Which approach is right for you? Only you can tell, but for me it is worth experimenting with to find out.