Is Following a Writing Model a Good Idea?

Though using a pattern to inform our books’ structure has merit, it may lead us to a troublesome end

There are multiple guides we can follow to properly structure the books we write. Perhaps the most common is the three-act structure, but there are many others as well.

There’s enough to make me dizzy, so I won’t start to list them. Besides, this post isn’t to promote these various models as much as to share my concern about them.

For example, I know that when watching a movie, I should expect a plot twist about three fourths of the way into the show. The incident may be trivial, could have been telegraphed too much earlier in the movie, or come as an unexpected shock, but one thing is certain: I know that something is about to happen, so I brace for it.

Because I expect this plot twist to pop up, it seldom delights me. I know that this annoyance is just one more hurdle for the protagonist to jump over before I can enjoy the ending—and I better enjoy the ending.

This happens in books too, but because I’ve watched more movies then read books, I’m more tuned in to it with movies.

While I think it’s important we know about these writing devices and be able to apply them when needed, I worry about slavishly following them.

Why is that?

Computers.

Computers and artificial intelligence.It won’t be long before computers will write passible stories and even books. Click To Tweet

Even now computers can write. And it won’t be long before computers will write passible stories and even books. Just enter a couple of characters, a story arc, a conflict, and a few other key parameters. Press enter, and a finished story emerges, following an established writing model.

This technology will one day make most writers obsolete. And I think it will happen much sooner than most people expect.

What computers and AI software will have trouble emulating, however, is the truly creative writers who don’t follow the writing models that the computer programs follow. These writers—and I plan to be one of them—will still be in demand, because computers will struggle to produce a truly creative book that transcends its writing-model programming.

Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter

Write short stories to master the art of fiction writing

May is short story monthMay is short story month. I share this news in advance so you can consider how you want to celebrate. You might want to spend the month reading short stories or perhaps focus on writing a few. But regardless, give short stories some consideration in the month of May. Doing so will inform your other writing, whether you write fiction or not.

I know many beginning writers who sit down to write a novel. They have a vision and enthusiasm, but not much else. They start writing but soon give up in frustration. And for the few who do finish, their story isn’t that good.

I’ve often heard that novelists write several bad novels before penning a good one. Those first books serve as training for them to learn what works and doesn’t, to find their voice, and to hone their craft. They need to figure out plot and structure and story arc and character development and dialogue and a slew of other things. And they write several practice books to get there.

Why not write several practice short stories instead?

I took that path. In fact I focused on flash fiction: short stories with fewer than one thousand words. I experimented with first person and third person, present tense and past tense. I even wrote a second-person, present-tense short story—something I’d hate doing for an entire book.

Using short stories, I fine-tuned my dialogue. I worked on intriguing titles, strong openings, and satisfying closes. I practiced “show, don’t tell” and worked on word choice.

I did all this in preparation to one day write a novel. You see, I didn’t want to waste several novels practicing. I used my short stories for that. I got feedback from critique groups, hired tutors, and studied.Writing short stories prepares us to write novels. May is short story month. Click To Tweet

Then one day I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It started out as 900 words. But I liked the premise and added to it to produce a 2,500-word short story. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to write more. I did write more, a lot more. By the time I finished my story arc I had a 28,000-word novella. But it needed more. Next I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre.

So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel.

But the story isn’t over.

Last year, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a 49,000-word sequel. Then I mapped out a series. I’m ready to start writing books three and four.

Writing short stories prepared me to write novels. And writing fiction helps me write better nonfiction and memoir.

So celebrate the short story. May is short story month. It even has its own Twitter account: @ShortStoryMonth, which often uses the hashtag #shortreads.

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Writing a Novel is Like Running a Marathon

Before writing a book we need to train

Writing a Novel is Like Running a MarathonI dislike the phrase aspiring writer. Either we aspire to write or we actually do it. Being an aspiring writer is no more than hoping for a future outcome, one that will never happen because the aspiring writer spends all his or her time dreaming and no time writing.

Yet some people are truly aspiring writers. Then one day these aspiring writers say “enough is enough” and they sit down to crank out a novel.

This is like waking up one morning and deciding to run a marathon—that afternoon. While hardheaded determination may eventually propel the novice runner to the finish line, it’s not going to be pretty. More likely this out-of-shape entrant will realize the folly of running such a great distance without the needed training and drop out after a couple of miles.

This beginning runner vows to never run again. Or better is a decision to train before attempting another marathon.

So it is with an aspiring author. A few chapters, pages, or even sentences into the novel and the words crumble into frustration. The vision vanishes. The muse refuses to cooperate. Or the needed skills simply aren’t present.

The aspiring writer gives up and vows to never write again. Or maybe, just maybe, this novice stops aspiring and starts training. Of course some aspiring authors never do anything except train. That’s no good either.

Just as a good prelude to running a marathon could start with jogging, wise preparation for writing a novel starts with the short story. Wise preparation for writing a novel starts with the short story. Click To Tweet

As a nonfiction writer, I cranked out hundreds of articles before I attempted my first book. Though I completed it, the results were sad. Then I wrote a second and a third. At some point they became worthy of publication. (Thankfully the first one will never go past a couple of beta readers and a developmental editor.)

When I considered writing fiction, instead of diving into a novel length work, I begin with flash fiction: short stories under 1,000 words. This allowed me to experiment with different ideas and various techniques. If something didn’t work, I wasn’t out much. After I had several dozen finished, I stumbled onto one that captivated me. I couldn’t let go of the characters. I expanded it from flash fiction into a longer short story. Then it grew into a novella, and with later the addition of some secondary character arcs, it became a novel. Now I’m editing the sequel, with a series arc for twenty books.

And it all started by writing a short story.

By the way, May is short story month. Think about it.

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Should You Avoid Formulaic Writing?

Does using a story device guide our work or hamper our creativity?

Avoid Formulaic WritingIn many books and most movies something will happen about three-fourths of the way through. With the desired goal within reach, a roadblock pops up to thwart our protagonist’s progress. While this is sometimes an ingenious plot twist, too often the problem seems contrived, predictable, or avoidable. But maybe I’m overly critical because I expect it to happen, and I wish it wouldn’t.

The reality is that this plot development is both intentional and prescribed. It’s part of a formula, a well-honed and recommended part of a blueprint for producing a compelling story. And I don’t like it.

I know it’s going to happen. I just don’t know what it will be—at least not usually. I’m braced for it and irritated by it. This plot twist doesn’t surprise me, at least not in the big scope of things. What does surprise me is when it doesn’t happen, which is rare.

If you study fiction writing you have likely heard about the seven basic plots, the three-act structure, the story grid, the twelve stages of the hero’s journey, the eight-point arc, and so forth. I don’t want to follow a formula when I write; I just want to write an interesting story. Click To Tweet

Maybe I’m not experienced enough in fiction writing to know what I’m talking about, but these models seem to restrict creativity and stifle a truly good story. I don’t want to follow a formula when I write; I just want to create an interesting story.

I don’t care which of the seven basic plots my story falls into, if I hit the prescribed marks at the ideal points, or if I can check off each item on someone’s must-have list of requirements.

When I write a story I know the beginning and write to reach the end, which I know before I start (though I’m open to it changing). What happens in between unfolds organically and isn’t constrained by a formula, grid, or blueprint.

Yes, I could follow one of these devices and end up with a good story that will please most readers, but I think I can disregard them and produce a better result that will please even more.

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Should Writers Focus On One Niche?

The easiest way to build your author brand is to consistently publish the same type of content

Should Writers Focus On One Niche? by Peter DeHaanI remember when I started taking writing seriously. I moved from simply writing to being a writer. The shift was huge.

I had so much to learn about the industry (and I still do). Of the many surprises I encountered as I learned about writing was the importance of focusing on one niche. I didn’t like that. Don’t tie me down to writing one thing; I need variety. Yet the advice I received said to pick nonfiction or fiction or memoir. Just one. Then narrow the focus even more. If fiction, which genre? If nonfiction, what slice?

The thought that I had to pick one, and only one area, parallelized me. First, it sounded boring. Second, what if I picked wrong? Yikes! Though once I established myself in that one area, I might have an opportunity to branch out. But the idea still sounded too restrictive for too long.

Another person suggested I try all three options and whichever one sold first, that would be my niche. Though that made sense, it seemed I’d waste a lot of time and effort.

I went back to agonizing between nonfiction, fiction, and memoir. (Yes, memoir is technically nonfiction, but it contains elements of fiction writing, so it’s really a both-and pursuit.)

A third person opined that memoirs were selling, so I pursued that. I later learned this person was in error, or I had heard wrong. Writers can only sell their memoirs if they are famous, infamous, or suffered through the mother of all tragedies. As a regular guy with a normal life, I had none of these. Though I’ve written a few memoirs, none have sold.

I next moved to nonfiction and wrote a couple more books in this category. I also pitched several other nonfiction book ideas, but nada.

Between waiting for publishers to decide on my nonfiction books and book ideas, I dabbled in fiction, the remaining area not yet explored. First I wrote short stories and then wrote a couple novels, too. Interestingly, I receive better feedback on my short stories and novels than on my nonfiction and memoirs.

In this way, I ended up writing in all three areas, and I’m waiting to see which one pops first. When it does, the wise career move will be focusing on that as my niche. But my interests are too eclectic to do that. I’ll probably end up pursuing multiple paths simultaneously. I’ll have to, or I will surely get bored. The best advice is to specialize in one area and build an author brand around it. Click To Tweet

By the way, besides memoir, nonfiction, and fiction books, I also write for publications and am a commercial freelance writer, in addition to blogging. I like the variety; I need the variety. It keeps me from getting bored.

Yes, the best advice is to specialize in one area and build our author brand around that. But that’s not me. Don’t force me into a corner.

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A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for Writers

What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for WritersOn December 26, 2016 my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:

  • Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
  • Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
  • Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
  • Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
  • Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
  • Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
  • Mental health advocate
  • Script doctor

All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.

Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:

  • Hook
  • Sister Act
  • Lethal Weapon 3
  • Last Action Hero
  • The River Wild
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Coyote Ugly
  • My Girl 2
  • Outbreak
  • Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
  • Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
  • Milk Money
  • Love Affair
  • Made in America

I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).Carrie Fisher was an actress, author, script doctor, and advocate. Click To Tweet

Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:

  1. Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
  2. Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
  3. Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
  4. Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?

We need a realistic view of our history to plan a reasonable vision for our future

Was 2016 Your Best Year Ever or an Epic Fail?My wife sometimes says I view things as though my glass is only half-full, that I’m pessimistic. I counter that I’m simply being a realist, but the truth is I’m not sure who’s right. Perhaps a bit of reality resides in both perspectives. So it is in viewing my past year as a writer.

As such, I share two perspectives:

Best Year Ever:

  • After years of talk, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. What a great experience.
  • I wrote two novels, the second one in about three weeks. (I’m still editing them both.)
  • My work as a commercial freelance writer really took off this year, with more clients, more work, and more income—all new records.
  • I grew my Twitter followers from 2,400 to 11,500, surpassing my year-end goal of 10,000. I’m enjoying good connections and engagement there.
  • I took LinkedIn seriously and made 100 posts to a growing audience of 2,300, which more than doubled in 2016.

Epic Fail:

  • I didn’t publish a book this year.
  • I didn’t win any writing contests.
  • I wasn’t published in any anthologies.
  • I didn’t accomplish my number one goal for 2016. (Which is now my number one goal for 2017.)
  • Work/life balance continues to elude me. (It’s even harder to achieve when you work at home.)

I could reasonably adopt either of these two perspectives as my primary view of 2016. While it’s easy to dwell on disappointments, missed goals, and wasted opportunities, a better outlook is to focus on what went great this year. Though I might need to reread this post to remind myself, I can truly say that 2016 was my best year ever, and I look forward to 2017 being even better. Celebrate the mountains and don’t allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Click To Tweet

As you review 2016, I encourage you to celebrate the mountains and not allow yourself to wallow in the valleys. Though everyone is at a different place as a writer, no one had a flawless year and everyone has something to celebrate. Focus on these things as you move into 2017.

May it be your best year ever.

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What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

The journey of writing a novel in one month has much to teach about being a writer

Can You Write a Book in a Month?Many times in this blog, I’ve talked about NaNoWriMo—the effort to write the first 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. I also announced in October that this was the year I would actually participate. Though I did pursue NaNoWriMo, I almost bailed before I even started, and I would have had I not told you about it.

Here’s what I learned.

Prepare to Write: Though you can’t write prior to November 1, you can plan for your novel. I had an idea bouncing around in my head for several years. I know the characters, the inciting incident, the ending, the story arc, and all the scenes. But in mid-October I realized my tone and vision were wrong, and that I wouldn’t be ready to write come November 1.

On to plan B: write a sequel to my novella, which was on its way to becoming a novel. I already knew the characters and had determined the opening, ending, story arc, and most of the scenes for the second book. The only problem was that I didn’t want to start the sequel until I finished writing the first book. But I couldn’t finish the first book until I received feedback from my developmental editor, which didn’t come soon enough.

Despite many efforts to the contrary, I wasn’t prepared for NaNoWriMo. Strike one.

Schedule Time to Write: I write in the morning. On November 1, I wrote nothing because I had nothing to write. Strike two. On November 2 through 11, I worked on finishing my first book, which was a great feeling of accomplishment, but it didn’t count for NaNoWriMo. I took the twelfth off from fiction writing and started writing my NaNoWriMo book on the thirteenth.

Monday through Saturday I would start writing about 5:30 a.m., with a goal of not stopping until I hit 2,500 words. A few days I worked again in the evening, which I also did on Sundays.

Remove Distractions: I should have scaled back on other activities. I should have stopped reading, cut back on TV, and put my blogs on hold or have written posts a month in advance. I didn’t. Another strike. (If you’re keeping track, I’m allowing myself more than three strikes.)

Be Flexible: I began November flirting with a cold, which took me out of writing mode for a couple of days (another strike), and I had two websites get infected with malware, which took several hours, spread over a week and a half, to fix. (My anti-malware noticed the incursion, but didn’t prevent it. Bummer.) More setbacks and another strike.

Focus on the Goal: If my goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel, which I didn’t start until November 13, than I would have just given up. Instead I set new goals, which was to relish the participation and see how far I could get.

Celebrate the Journey: I enjoyed my writing to finish the first book, which spanned November 2 through 11. And I really enjoyed writing the second book, which started November 13. I liked sitting down to write, the progress invigorated me, and seeing me move closer to the end spurred me on. I had fun!

Rest as Your Reward: When NaNoWriMo is over (and anytime you finish writing a book), you need to rest. For me one or two days are usually enough. But when December 1 rolled around, I couldn’t rest because my book wasn’t quite done. I suspect that will happen around December 5—and I can’t wait.NaNoWriMo was exhausting and exhilarating. I can’t wait to do it again next year Click To Tweet

For the record, I logged 78,600 words in November, which I’m both amazed and shocked at. Of those, 15,700 were to complete my first novel, 12,100 words were for work (yes, I have a day job), 8,300 words were for my blog, and . . . drum roll please . . . I completed 42,500 words on my new novel, which isn’t bad at all for just eighteen days of work. (I’ve continued writing, and it currently stands at 46,400 words with one more scene to write, which should add another 1,000 or so words.)

My low word count day for NaNoWriMo was zero, and I had a couple of them. My high word count day for NaNoWriMo was 3,800 (plus another 1,700 for work, bumping that day’s total word count to 5,500). My writing goal, once I actually started, was 2,500 words a day. Most days I hit it fine and wanted to keep going, but I had to stop for work. A few days were real struggles. I typically wrote at a pace of 500 to 600 words an hour, sometimes a little less and occasionally up to about 1,000.

Over all, the month was exhausting and exhilarating. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Use Photos to Fuel Your Fiction Writing

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why not use photos to inspire what you write?

Use Photos to Fuel Your Fiction WritingI’ve heard of fiction authors who tape a photo of their main character next to their computer as they write. The picture inspires their words and focuses their character description. This seems like an intriguing idea, one I never got around to doing – until this week.

Though the physical features of the characters in my novella, Ice Creamed, (soon to be a full-blown YA novel) reside in my mind, they morphed as I wrote. I realized I needed an image to anchor my vision of who they are. I needed pictures. I went online.

Though pictures of people abound on the internet, I found it difficult to locate the exact photo that fully captured what I envision my characters to look like. You see, these people have been living in my mind for a few months; they’ve become my friends as I’ve written about them, and I’ve even fallen in love with them – well, most of them. Trying to find a picture to match what is in my head and the words I have already written is hard. It might be impossible.

However, I’m going to add a secondary story arc to expand a minor character. I had no mental image of her; she was a clean slate. As I scrolled through pictures looking for one suitable for my main character, Brianna, another image popped out. That’s Rachel! I knew it immediately. It was perfect. Find pictures for all your characters before you start writing them. Click To Tweet

I knew Rachel would play volleyball and was a setter. The Rachel in my photo exudes confidence, her eyes are sharp, and she’s intense – just what you want in a setter. A nickname jumped out: “Rambo.” A fiery volleyball player named Rambo. She’s going to be so much fun to write. I can’t wait to get started.

Going forward I’m going to find pictures for all my characters before I start writing them. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words – and so much more.

Writers Must Balance Education with Experience

Wordsmiths need both knowledge and a growing word count to achieve writing success

Writers Must Balance Education with ExperienceI’ve run into writers who work in a vacuum. Committed to writing all they do is write, but they don’t study the craft. They don’t read books or magazines about writing; they don’t take classes, attend workshops, or go to conferences; they don’t participate in writing groups, have a critique partner, or use beta readers. They don’t follow blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars. I suspect these folks are more prevalent than I realize – because they write in secret, and I run into them by accident. (By the way, they aren’t reading this post, either – unless you email it to them.)

The opposite extreme are those who read extensively about writing and often quote their favorite gurus; they attend every writing related event they can afford to squeeze in, often traveling far to do so; they join online writing groups, are active in writing discussion boards, and confidently give their opinion on every piece of writing they encounter. There’s one problem: they don’t write. They’ve put writing on hold until they learn more. They have been talking about writing a book for years, but they’re not quite ready to start. They feel they need to figure out one more thing first.Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time. Click To Tweet

The balance between these two extremes is to pair writing with learning. Yes, we need to put in the time and write, but we need to do so in an informed way. Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time.

To pursue this balance I start by writing every day. Then to inform my writing I read writing magazines, follow a few blogs, listen to (too many) podcasts, participate in critique groups, attend two writing conferences each year, and read books (though I have bought more writing books than I have read).

As a long time nonfiction writer, in the past few years I’ve delved into fiction. I started with short stories, recently completed a novella, and will start a novel in November. I’ve also done a lot of studying to prepare me to write good fiction, yet I fear that recently my education has outpaced my experience. I currently have enough writing theory stuffed into my brain to paralyze me. Instead of thinking about writing a compelling story, my preoccupation with systems and formats and conventions and expectations has bogged me down.

My solution is to sit down and write more fiction. This will restore the balance. I can’t wait.