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.

How Long Does It Take to Write 1,000 Words?

stopwatchThat search shows up here more frequently than any other except searches for my name.

Here are a few answers:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. How long does it take to write 1,000 good words? Still the wrong question.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?

Create the Villain Your Hero Needs: Superb Infographic from David “Villain” Villalva

3 Ways to Create a Villain Who Audiences Want & Heroes Need [Infographic]David Villalva is a story nerd like me. Smart, friendly, smart, generous, and smart.

He created this superb infographic to explain how to create your story’s villain, and why doing it like this matters. Click to make it big.

Let’s Build a House! (Why Planning will Make Your Writing Life Better)

Fair warning: if you are committed to the spontaneous pantsing version of writing, please don’t read this. You won’t benefit, I won’t benefit. If you’re open to having assumptions challenged, read on. To the end. Don’t read the first 80% and quit or you won’t get the point.

What is a House?

Though wildly different around the world, all houses share certain characteristics. Let’s explore the ins and outs.

  1. Roof — Without a covering, it’s a yard, not a house.
  2. Floor — It may be dirt, but it’s not water or air. If your residents are standing in a pool up to their waist, or swinging in hammocks 30′ aboveground, you’ve built something other than a house.
  3. Privacy — Roof but no walls = carport or equivalent.
  4. Toilet — Yes, in some parts of the world this is not inside the house. If you live in one of those places, you may dispute this requirement.
  5. Services — Electricity. Running water. Drains. See above note for quibbles.
  6. Egress — Without a door suitable for us humans to enter through, it’s not a house, it’s something else.
  7. Lighting — Even if it’s windows and skylights, there’s a way for light to come in.

You may dispute any of these if you choose to live in the house yourself.

If you plan to sell the house, or even sell time using the house (called “renting”) I defy you to leave any of these out and still succeed.

build-a-house
… more … “Let’s Build a House! (Why Planning will Make Your Writing Life Better)”

Structure: A Visual Approach

David Villalva's Story BlueprintI love it when someone signs up for my newsletter, I send them the official handwritten welcome note, and then I discover that they’re someone I can learn from as much as they can learn from me.

… more … “Structure: A Visual Approach”

Gathering Structural Support

I’m gathering resources to create some kind of structure checklist for my writing and wanted to share 3 useful lists and concepts I’ve encountered the past week.

structural support

… more … “Gathering Structural Support”

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”

How Could Learning More Lead to Knowing Less?

I really miss the show Lie to Me. Chap named Cal Lightman (played brilliantly by Tim Ross) is a lie expert. He reads what are called microexpressions in the human face, and can determine whether or not a person is telling the truth. (Based on real science, pioneered by Paul Ekman, the reality is not quite as TV crime show, but is never the less fascinating.)

In the first episode he hires a TSA inspector named Ria Torres. An abusive childhood has taught her to read facial expressions. She is what Lightman calls a natural.

Although the occasional scene where Ria catches something Lightman misses is injected for humorous effect, the dynamic of their relationship is very much mentor and apprentice. Even as a natural, it is assumed that she will expand her knowledge, understanding, abilities through training and experience.

Music Theory Destroys Creativity?

… more … “How Could Learning More Lead to Knowing Less?”

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)”

Bringing Some Reality to Your Writing

Science tries to deal with what’s real, to identify and label and if possible rule out the imaginary, illogical, impossible.

Sometimes science bothers people with little facts like gravity being the weakest force in the known universe. The only thing that keeps us from flying off into space as the earth turns (moving 1,000mph at the equator but slower near the poles) is that the earth is so huge that the tiny pull of gravity is amplified enough to keep us pinned.

Earth spinning: at the equator, a spot moves 24,000 miles in 24 hours. Simple math: 1,000mpg.

About 8 feet from the geographic pole, you could draw a circle 24 feet around. Stand (float) in one spot, and make the 24-foot trip in the same 24 hours.

That spot is moving 1 foot per hour. The bit at the equator is going 5,280,000 times as fast (1,000mph = 5,280,000 feet per hour.)

structure
… more … “Bringing Some Reality to Your Writing”