Though aimed at my readers, other writers may find this post at my writing site about quality and expectations and criticism interesting.
For the 3rd Monday in a row I’m taking more than an hour to listen to a podcast. I generally have little patience for podcasts; most have a very low signal-to-noise ratio. The 21st Century Creative, hosted by Mark McGuinness of Lateral Action, is all signal, no noise.
Eschewing the rush rush syndrome everyone thinks is appropriate these days, Mark takes his time, 60 to 90 minutes. Each guest ends the show with an artistic challenge; participate and you can win nifty useful books (and, not incidentally, grow artistically and personally.)
Make time for the 21st Century Creative podcast. Your art deserves it.
A dear friend questioned Steven Pressfield‘s anthropomorphism of Resistance, the mental and emotional pushback we feel when we dare greatly, equating it with fear and wondering whether Steve’s focus might not be ill-conceived or misdirected. Here’s my answer:
I don’t accept that all things in the natural world are good, or healthy. Some things should be fought against. If I don’t remove the weeds and bug and animal pests from my garden, I don’t have as much food. If I don’t fight off some of the bugs within my body I have illness. If I don’t quash certain thoughts, I don’t have mental health.
You have a slightly different perspective from most people I’ve met because you are way way to the right on the “comfortable in your own skin” bell curve. Don’t assume that others can now, or ever, reach that level. I, for one, must constantly question my assumptions and thoughts and actions because I grew up with a load of nonsense in my head about self-worth, the value of work, the value of dreaming, the value of art, the value of money, on and on and on.
An aside: Steve P does not want to be a guru. Refuses the mantle. But he can’t stop helping people ’cause he’s a nice guy. Though try to get him to come speak at your event, fergit it. But people need a Messiah or they don’t know how to find the path. Some of us, though, can look at what Steve or Seth or whoever noticed, notice the same thing, find my own takeaway, and go on to the next thing.
Back to Resistance: We all have things we need to fight, for lack of a better word, every day. Physical health requires abstinence from some things, persistence in others. Mental health. Spiritual health. Avoid some, insist on others.
Our natural state is entropy, not growth. We tend toward being angry selfish lumps on the couch in front of reality TV. It is imperfect human nature, and it is not possible to go the other direction without work. Should we call it “work” or “effort” instead of “fight” or “war”? Okay. It’s terminology. But a spiritual writer I respect more than any person alive today, the apostle Paul, wrote about a “war in his members.” He knew what war and death were, coming from a violent persecutor’s background. He also knew peace, kindness, unselfish principled love, and spent his life until a martyr’s death teaching it and living it. So, if “war” works for him, I don’t argue it.
Am I even coming close to addressing your discomfort with “the war of art” as a term, a concept, whatever? Because I find your question fascinating and well worth discussing.
I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
On February 22nd members of the Nonfiction Author’s Association will be listening to NFAA CEO Stephanie Chandler interview me about Resistance, and 6 ways I’ve found to make that bully irrelevant.
The free NFAA membership level includes the weekly live interviews. Paid memberships would also give access to recordings. I encourage you to join (even at the free level) and listen in. (My wife, Sue, is Special Projects Director of the NFAA and we’ve known Stephanie for years, so these are people you can trust.)
We talk about dealing with Resistance including some specific steps, plus I list my 10 favorite books to help you make Resistance irrelevant, every single day.
Updating previous posts about my writing process, this is a more accurate picture of what I do and how I do it.
Finding the Hero’s 12 Waypoints
Every long-form story shares the same structure. Every television drama or comedy, every movie, every novel, every memoir has some version of these 12 waypoints:
- It begins with a hook to get you interested,
- then spends time in some setup to invest you in the protagonist
- whose world turns upside down in an important first plot point
- and so the hero spends time flailing and failing in response
- during which we see the antagonist, raw and threatening, in a first pinch point.
- At the midpoint our hero learns or gains something and stops failing and
- starts gaining ground in their attack on the challenge.
- Once again we see the villain clearly in a second pinch point
- and 3/4 of the way through our story, it appears all is lost when our hero discovers that everything they’ve believed about the challenge is wrong
- until a second plot point gives our hero the information they need to dive into the
- climax of the story, the final chase scene or problem-solving process which leads to
- the final resolution and our happily ever after—or not.
My first rudimentary story planning consisted of writing one sentence to describe each of those 12 elements. This is the expanded version, though I wrote more than one book using only those 12 sentences as a guide.
Laying the Foundation with Global Story Elements
When I discovered Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid I learned the value of clearly identifying other global story elements and points of specific movement. I’ll simply list these items; if you’d like an explanation of what each is and why it matters, I highly recommend reading the Story Grid blog or getting the book.
- External Genre
- External Value at Stake
- Internal Genre
- Internal Value at Stake
- Obligatory Scenes & Conventions for the Genre
- Point of View
- Objects of Desire
- Controlling Idea/Theme
Coyne calls the parts of the traditional three-act structure the Hook, Build, and Payoff. Each act needs these five parts:
- Inciting Incident
Once I realized the value of having all this information figured out up front, I started filling in a Story Grid spreadsheet (see below) first, then going back to write my 12 sentences to describe the 12 waypoints above.
The two processes are complementary, so I end up going back and forth, applying something I discover in one to my work on the other. Nothing gets filled in sequentially. Plan for a messy, organic process at this phase, which can be fun for pantsers. Making the mess here reduces messes during writing.
There isn’t a 1-to-1 relationship between the 12 waypoints in my interpretation of the Hero’s Journey and the 15 elements of the Story Grid 3-act layout, but there are connections. For instance Waypoint #1, The Hook, matches the Inciting Incident of the Hook in the Story Grid spreadsheet, and the Crisis of the Story Grid’s Middle Build section is Waypoint #9, the All Is Lost Moment.
Here’s the 3-act overview spreadsheet for my work in progress. Note the brevity. Clarity here saves struggle later.
Adding the 8 global story descriptors and the 15 critical story movement elements from the Story Grid is exponentially more complex than planning with the 12 waypoint sentences alone. It is also exponentially more rewarding in both my planning process and my understanding of story. If your writing process allows you to work from the 12 sentences without using the Story Grid elements, apply the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage.
Listing the Scenes
When I’ve identified my 8 global story descriptors and the 15 critical story movement elements from the Story Grid, and written the 12 sentences for the Hero’s Journey waypoints, I’m ready to write a scene list.
I’ve learned that my scenes average 1,000 words. Many writers average double that, but my brain thinks in smaller bits I guess. For my scene list, I arbitrarily decide how long I want the book to be (yes, I just make it up) and put that many lines on a new spreadsheet.
For my mysteries, I shoot for 64 scenes, 64,000 words. The time-traveling-Indiana-Jones scifi adventure I’m working on now needed to be longer, so I created a list of 100 scenes.
The story movement elements and journey waypoints fill in about 20 scenes in the new scene list spreadsheet. (The 12 sentences overlap the 15 Story Grid elements to some extent, which is why we get about 20 scenes rather than 27.)
Each of those scenes calls for other scenes to set them up or explain the fallout, which I add to the scene list spreadsheet. Some scenes naturally grow into entire sequences, small story arcs of three or more scenes tied together to deliver an important story point.
By the time I’m done jotting quick, high-level notes about all the scenes I know have to be written, I usually have about two-thirds of the scene list filled in.
Aside: Which Comes First, the Planning or the Pantsing? Answer: Either. Or Is It Both?
It is entirely possible that it works better to pants the entire story, then retrofit the structure. I did that with the first Jesse Donovan novel That She Is Made of Truth.
If you can write the whole story down quickly, it allows you to go back and find the theme, the underlying life lesson your book is secretly about. Trust me (or trust Steven Pressfield) most writers have no clue what the theme of their work is until they’ve had time to ruminate, or had it explained by an editor or reader. (As I’ve always said, it’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle.) Once you have your theme, you can write your 12 sentences based on the theme.
Sometimes pantsing hits a wall. The process I’m sharing is the best way I know to bust through, either by switching to planning mode completely, or until the dam bursts and you dive back into the maelstrom of mad writing.
Even if you plan first, the brevity of the 12 sentence process allows you infinite freedom to pants from waypoint to waypoint as freely as any other process.
The Rest of the Story
Subplots, logical deduction, and discoveries along the way fill in the rest of my scene list.
I always try to include at least one subplot, two if I can. One parallels the main plot in a minor fashion, tying into the main plot’s resolution near the end. The other is a mirror, the opposite of the main plot, failing where the main plot succeeds or otherwise playing out differently from the main plot.
Once I get that far, I have very few holes in my scene list. Those fill themselves in as single scenes expand into two or three, or as other necessary scenes are discovered when I start pantsing my way through the first draft.
The scene list rescued me from the crisis I described in Part 1, wondering how a shift from a technical environment to an ancient jungle could make sense in my story.
Now the Hard Part Isn’t as Hard
Once I have the list, I do what most writers consider the hard part: I sit down, every weekday, and write.
I usually start with a single scene per day, but before long I’m writing two or three, and as I near the end, I’ll write 4,000-5,000 words a day in a race with my hero to the end of the book.
Because I did the hard work of finding the story’s structure and creating a plan, getting words out every day isn’t the struggle it used to be. There are still days I have to fight resistance to sit down and do it, and days I’m not sure where I’m going or what I’m doing. Those are the days I have to trust that I knew what I was doing when I created the plan.
It’s not magic. It doesn’t take the work out of writing. It allows me to do the hard work at the right times, and to use the correct side of my brain for each part of the writing process.
When I’m confused or stuck, I know what to do. It’s right there in the plan.
After years of music school and uncountable hours of practice Morgan makes a decent living playing jazz guitar in clubs and coffee shops and as a session musician at a local recording studio.
Following a similar path, Shannon studied under a chef who was a family friend and has worked for the past six years in various upscale restaurants.
Morgan, the musician, has always loved to cook. Guests at Morgan’s special dinners have always said “You should open a restaurant!” Morgan just smiles.
Shannon, the chef, took piano lessons as a child and a few years ago, started practicing in earnest. Guests at Shannon’s living room concerts say “You should play down at the coffee shop!” Shannon never took it seriously—before now.
One of Morgan’s friends was hosting a special dinner party for out of town business guests and begged Morgan to cater it. “Nothing fancy, do what you always do, but please, feed my guests!” Though Morgan initially refused payment, the friend insisted.
Without even asking, a friend of Shannon’s booked a gig at a local coffee shop. Based on some recordings the friend had made at a living room concert, they were glad to pay a small fee for the performance.
Since Morgan and Shannon share a network of friends, each is aware of the other’s vocation—and their avocation.
When Shannon was invited to a dinner party hosted by Morgan the musician, Shannon expressed genuine appreciation for the food, for the flavors and presentation. It never entered Shannon’s head to expect a professional presentation at the level Shannon was capable of. Morgan was, after all, a hobbyist, and amateur simply having fun with friends.
After one of Shannon’s living room concerts, Morgan asked about some of Shannon’s original songs, and expressed genuine appreciation for the arrangement of a cover tune Shannon had performed. Morgan wouldn’t dream of critiquing Shannon’s fingering on the fretboard or choice of material. Shannon is, after all, just having fun, an amateur. Music is Shannon’s hobby, that’s all.
Now, though, things are different. Morgan, a musician, is being paid to cook. Shannon, a chef, is making money with music.
Would you expect them to have different expectations of each other’s hobbies now?
Folks who hire Morgan to cater a dinner are delighted with not only the food, but the price. They couldn’t afford Shannon’s highly professional service anyway, so they’re just glad they can get something they like at a price they can afford.
The coffee shops where Shannon makes a few bucks, the living room concerts that pay in generous tips, are glad to have lively music played by someone who loves what they do, who does it well enough for their guests at a price that allows them to have live music instead of prerecorded.
If these clients are happy to pay Morgan and Shannon for what were once only hobbies, should the other be miffed that “Shannon’s guitar playing isn’t studio-ready” or “Morgan’s cooking would never make it in a fine restaurant”?
At what point does it become a professional artist’s right to set expectations for another artist?
When a hobby morphs into a side business does an artist owe patrons the same quality as leaders in their field?
Is an artist obligated to be excellent, world-class, top of their game, before they’re allowed to exchange their art for money?
Or is that between the artist and those who are exchanging their money for that art?
Here are a few answers:
- At a typing speed of 25WPM, about average for a nonprofessional,
1,000 ÷ 25 = 40 minutes
At a more professional speed of 50WPM, it’s 20 minutes. If you’re my wife and type 80WPM it’s less than 13 minutes. This is the least meaningful answer I have.
- My scenes tend to run about 1,000 words. Most writers manage 2,000 per scene, but I’ve tried adjusting my stance and leaning toward the plate, and I’m still not hitting it, so I do what I do. One scene, about 1,000 words, takes me about an hour, because although I type 50WPM I also pause sometimes to ruminate on the next bit. Sometimes I can blaze away for 90 minutes nonstop, but that’s the exception. The rule is, about an hour for a 1,000-word scene.
- The writer who pauses to fix every typo, polish every sentence, adjust the punctuation, and carefully balance sentence lengths, paragraph lengths, and whatever else they balance, all the while keeping one eye on the word count meter, will take a week. Or a day. Or a month. Or forever. I don’t know. At this point, it’s the wrong question.
- How long does it take to write 1,000 good words? Still the wrong question.
- How long does it take to write a 1,000-word story? Good question. I write what I call 1-Page Classics. I shoot for 1,000 words. They take me about 3 hours, start to finish, idea to polished prose.
- Now we’re talking about storytelling, real writing, and not word count. How long does it take to write 1,000 words of good story, in addition to all the words you already have? It depends on whether you’re in the flow, brain dumping a scene you envisioned en tableau, and spend half an hour, or grinding your way through a vital slice that weighs heavily on your emotions, dredging up doubt and anguish from past pains and future fears. That might take all day, all week, even.
- What if you haven’t even started yet? Your first 1,000 words might flow like mad, at nearly typing speed (20 to 40 minutes.) If you spent some time planning, or if an idea gripped you and won’t let go till you spill, that’s feasible. Otherwise, if something doesn’t feel right, either because you didn’t stop to celebrate finishing a novel yesterday, don’t have an idea what this one is about, or need to get paid so it doesn’t matter, you just need to get the blasted thing written, we’re back to hours, maybe days.
- One last answer: sit down at your computer, start a timer, and write until the word count meter says 1,000. Check the timer. There’s your answer. Not the dumbest answer, but perhaps the least satisfying.
How long does it take you to write 1,000 words?
I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve read this sentence:
It comes mostly from pantsers who don’t want to learn story structure, who think it’s a straightjacket for producing formulaic pablum and they want no part of it.
When my middle daughter graduated from high school she wanted to write songs. We got her a small keyboard and I offered to give her lessons.
“No, that’s okay. I know what I’m doing.”
She was echoing what I’ve heard dozens of songwriters say: “Learning music theory will destroy my spontaneous creativity.”
Really? So you’re saying that me and Mozart and Dylan and Donald Fagen are drudges? I’m not the genius those three are, but I write better songs because I learned music theory, not in spite of it. Listen to Donald Fagen talk about composing the Steely Dan song Peg:
Right now I can’t commit to a full-scale convention with speakers and workshops. What I can commit to is something much, much smaller: a simple meet and greet.
Coffee? Tea? Marketing?
We’re going to choose a venue (or two: one daytime coffee shop, one evening brew pub) and a date in March, and Sue and I will spend the day and evening waiting for y’all to show up.