My Writing Process 2017

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.

If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler’s work regarding the Hero’s Journey, those will look familiar.

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
  • Complication
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Resolution

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.

Another Structure: Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid

As a story structure geek, I’ve been thrilled to learn from Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.

And just as thrilled to discover the work of Shawn Coyne, by way of Steven Pressfield’s site.

An acquisitions editor for a million years, Shawn knows what it takes for a book to succeed. He knows what makes a story work, which is, as Larry keeps saying, the bare minimum, the ante, for this game. And he’s teaching it, a bit at a time, at StoryGrid.com.

The image below is the story grid for Silence of the Lambs which, though I have not indulged in either book or movie, is a classic example of story done right, according to Shawn.

… more … “Another Structure: Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid”

Narrative Strategy (Story Engineering and Physics #12 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsWe finish this series with one that can provide the twist of lime that takes your cocktail over the top to immortaility.

Narrative strategy is how we choose to tell our tale, the method of conveyance and who is involved. It embodies primarily two elements: point of view, and framing.

  1. Point of view — Who is telling the story?
  2. Framing — How is the story conveyed?

Point of View

… more … “Narrative Strategy (Story Engineering and Physics #12 of 12)”

Vicarious Experience (Story Engineering and Physics #11 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsIf your book makes me feel like I’ve participated in an experience I could never have in real life, but wish I could, it’s the single greatest indicator of whether I’ll read more of your work.

That’s both a blessing and a curse.

Blessing, because I’ll forgive all kinds of things from illogical plot developments to thinly-developed characters if, in the end, you took me on a ride I wanted to take.

Curse, because there are so many things that can yank me out of the magic place we’ve gone together, and suddenly, instead of fleeing thugs down a dark alley, I’m reading a book with a confusing or misworded sentence. Instead of having a chat with a flying unicorn, I’m reading a pointless description of how to shoe a flying unicorn.

… more … “Vicarious Experience (Story Engineering and Physics #11 of 12)”

Hero Empathy (Story Engineering and Physics #10 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsWe get hung up on the word “hero” and make inaccurate assumptions about what that means. As a result, some writers (and writing teachers) assume a hero must be heroic; a hero must be likable; a hero has to be the good guy.

If that works for your story, super. We can all root for a heroic likable good guy, can’t we?

And that’s the point: the reader has to root for them to achieve their goal, or we’re all wasting our time.

We’re rewatching the entire TV series Lie to Me. Cal Lightman (brilliantly portrayed by Tim Roth) is not heroic. He makes mistakes, needs a team to get the job done, and bases his drive on a negative experience. He’s not likable, that’s for sure. An arrogant jerk, a manipulative chronic liar, he’s impossible to get close to. Okay, he’s the good guy, in the big picture. But in any give scene, he might be the one you want to kick in the ankle. Or worse.

… more … “Hero Empathy (Story Engineering and Physics #10 of 12)”

Expositional Pacing (Story Engineering and Physics #9 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsI love a book or movie that starts slowly and builds. Though sometimes, I like a move that starts with a bang and then turns into a whirlwind on a freight train.

That’s pacing.

Books that start slow and stay slow are fine for intellectual improvement. If we’re writing to entertain, we need to be more aware of the speed of our story.

During the first 25%, the Setup, the pace is often slower, because we’re introducing our characters, setting the stage for the hero so when we get to the First Plot Point we’re invested and engaged; we care about the stakes.

During the Response and Attack, those two middle quarters, pacing rises and falls as we create tension through action, then create tension through inaction, thought, exposition, etc.

… more … “Expositional Pacing (Story Engineering and Physics #9 of 12)”

Dramatic Tension (Story Engineering and Physics #8 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsLife is conflict. The very act of birth is one of the most physically and emotionally taxing events in human existence.

And we spend the rest of our days resolving conflict.

That’s a good thing. If you don’t resolve the conflict between the current state of your stomach and the desired state of your stomach, before long, you’ll be facing a more powerful conflict. If you don’t resolve the conflict between your current emotional state, physical state, plane of existence, and the ones you desire, you’ll die or hate life.

Struggle is neither good or bad; it’s what we struggle for, with, against, toward, which determines the character of the work we do.

… more … “Dramatic Tension (Story Engineering and Physics #8 of 12)”

Writing Voice (Story Engineering and Physics #6 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsHave someone begin reading to you from the middle of a book. See if you can tell who wrote it.

When you hear a familiar voice on the phone you know who it is before they’ve said anything significant. You recognize their voice.

When you read the opening words of a book, before anything happens, before it’s even clear what genre it is, you’re hearing the author’s voice.

Think of Dr. Seuss. Raymond Chandler. James Joyce. Those are extreme examples, but it’s impossible to deny their distinctive voices.

Consider Dan Brown, Maeve Binchy, Isaac Asimov, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Again, if you read their stuff, you could probably pick out a sample of their writing just because of how it sounds.

Voice is best when it comes naturally.

Most writers ruin their voice by failing that simple test: naturalness. … more … “Writing Voice (Story Engineering and Physics #6 of 12)”

Scene Execution (Story Engineering and Physics #5 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsWhen showing a first-time guest around your home, the logical manner is to move from room to room, pointing out only the most interesting or meaningful details, sometimes just one thing in each room.

Novels are built, not from words, sentences, or paragraphs, but from scenes.

What is a Scene?

Each scene

  • happens in one physical location
  • in one time period
  • from a single point of view

New location? New scene. Time jump? New scene. Switch from Tom’s perspective at the bottom of the cliff to Alice’s at the top? New scene. (Though if we’re with Tom at the bottom and Alice simply calls out to him or interacts with him, we’re still in Tom’s perspective.)

… more … “Scene Execution (Story Engineering and Physics #5 of 12)”

Structure (Story Engineering and Physics #4 of 12)

Part of a series of posts on story engineering based on the book of that title and its companion volume Story Physics.

Story Engineering & Story PhysicsStories follow a pattern. In its simplest form, you might put it this way:

  1. Girl finds pony.
  2. Girl loses pony.
  3. Girl finds pony again and learns to keep the barn door shut.

A slightly more complex version has been studied, culled, and formulated by Joseph Campbell.

Campbell and others who study story structure are not creating a template for us, they are discovering an existing pattern — the pattern most stories take, have always taken.

Today, the most successful novels follow a version of this pattern. As always, there are exceptions, and as always, beginners had best learn the rules before breaking them.

… more … “Structure (Story Engineering and Physics #4 of 12)”