I don’t doubt for a minute; the old adage that we all have a book, somewhere deep inside us just waiting to get out but, from what I understand of the way that the publishing game works, there are certain ingredients that you need to bake a successful cake.

The Cathedral of Wonderful Imaginings is usually ‘novel’ shaped for most writers and whilst many succeed in building a palace we are willing to visit, others create a shrine of obscurity that is devoid of any congregation and I began to wonder why that was. There seems to be something at work here between the pages of the very best (and worst) examples of these and I feel it’s something that any aspiring writer should at least be aware of. 

It seems to me that ‘popularity’ does not always equal ‘quality’. There are far too many examples of current best sellers that are abysmally written and the same was true of the past. However, there is a common thread that unites the good, the bad and the ugly when they surface as popular and often recurring successes.

If you met a friend who told you that they had been to the cinema to see the latest blockbuster I am certain that your first question would be: “What’s it about?” Likewise, if you told your friend that you had just read a new novel, they would ask you the same question. Chances are, they wouldn’t ask you: “Was it well written?” A question like that would seem churlish or petty minded in ordinary conversation but it is the first thought of editors, publishers and academics alike.

For most of us, watching a movie does not involve a conscious critique of camera angles, plot development and edit points. We are (generally) looking to be entertained and are responsive to the unfolding of a good story. In the same way, most readers can forgive quirky grammar and the occasional hole in the plot as our suspension of disbelief is open to the spinning of an intriguing tale.

Without mentioning any names, there are plenty of currently best selling books on the market which the intelligencia say should never have appeared in print but for those who are gripped by the story, the construction of academically correct prose is of little interest.

Which leads me to believe that the single most timeless ingredient in any story is the premise - the actual ‘thing’ that it is about. If you can get that right then your readers will be with you. Unfortunately, the editors, agents and other gatekeepers feel quite differently and any aspiring writer should be well aware of that. The drive to keep every page tight and exciting is very important in such a fiercely commercial arena. If you can do both, the rich shores of literary fame are well within your reach.

What’s it all about?

"Valvepunks! The long road to Quixotica" is an epistolary novel. To you and I - that’s a novel that is written as a series of documents. Typically stories like this have the narrative flowing through letters but in this case there are diary entries, newspaper cuttings and other personal documents which are threaded throughout the adventure along with extensive photographs, illustrations and diagrams. To add further intrigue, the rising action is told in the present tense in stark contrast to the past tense narrative of the bulk of the yarn.

It follows the experiences of Bradley Gardner - a budding young journalist - as he embarks on the assignment of a lifetime, investigating and researching the life of one of the twentieth century’s most alluring innovators. He meets the enigmatic, 98 year old Reginald Merryweather at his home in Hertfordshire and realises that there is much more to this faded radio star than the thin references on the internet about him would suggest.

Bradley is invited to spend the weekend with the aging broadcaster but the forty eight hours are revealed to be weird right from the very start. But, because Bradley is suspicious of Reggie’s claims to have built a time traveling radio, Reggie feels the need to demonstrate its capability. However, in the process he accidentally takes his housekeeper, Florence Jiggery along for the ride.

It is whilst listening to the past that Reggie gets a message about events in the future and the impending peril faced by his one true love - a girl he met during the war. Spurred on by this emotional cry for help, Reggie takes Bradley and Florence back to wartime Paris to try to alert his younger self of the dangers awaiting him and his lover in the future.

They arrive too late to change history (as it emerges that his younger self has already perfected time and space traveling and scarpered rather swiftly to escape not only the British authorities but also the Nazis,) so the three of them must then transport themselves into the twenty second century in hot pursuit of himself and Vera Cruz - the woman he loves more than anything else in life.

Unknown to Bradley, Florence and Reggie, Vera is being brutally tortured and questioned by the antagonists who we learn are the Ludwigian Order - a universally wide organisation of illuminati, cruelly intent on the absorption of all known intelligence. Created from dark energy, and manifest as a super intelligent human form, the ‘Order’ are all powerful and hope to learn Reggie’s specific secret of time travel.

Unfortunately, (like most things he does) Reggie’s radio is not particularly well built and before long starts to fail. They arrive, unexpectedly, on a futuristic pleasure cruise liner and are detained as stowaways. Luckily, Reggie is able to use their power source to recharge the batteries of the failing contraption but his failing health poses a larger threat. They escape just as the doomed liner is sucked into a black hole on its maiden voyage.

He makes Bradley set the radio’s controls to a period in the past when he was younger and fitter so that he may gain strength from his younger self as well as gain from the fresh memory that he now so sadly lacks. Their survival at this stage depends on the success of finding and enlisting a younger version of the elderly eccentric.

Arriving back in England of the 1930’s, the three intrepid (and largely bewildered) playmates discover an even more confused, younger Reginald as he is being pursued by angry Yorkshiremen during the recording of one of his very early radio programmes. They take him, kicking and screaming, to the planet Galena in a solar system not too far from Earth and into a scrape, the like of which he has never encountered.

Hiking across barren landscapes and desert terrain they eventually arrive in a mining outpost which is revealed as a place that Reggie himself helped to establish. The geologists living there were taken by a version of his younger self in search of a mysterious element that he first discovered when he was a young man. This substance is the main catalyst of his time traveling radio and has the power to enhance the human race beyond all recognition. Vera was taken there by the young Reggie to oversee the mining of Radionium 7 (or Seedstone, as it becomes known) but is being held captive with threats to her life if she does not reveal what the material is capable of.

Their enquiries and search takes them into the ‘great underground’ of the planet into a place called the ‘Cave of impossible reasoning’ where the indigenous people have lived for eons which is now occupied by a mixture of new settlers but more recently by the militia forces of the Order whilst they undertake their savage investigation of all mining operations.

One of the overwhelming features of Seedstone is that it is composed of each single element of the periodic table in a state of impossible equilibrium. However, a side effect of its presence in large quantities is that it affects the mind in unpredictable ways. Once inside the mines, Florence, Bradley and the two Reggies are overwhelmed by baffling experiences but ferociously battle on, led by the elder Reggie and his drive to save Vera.

Eventually arriving at the ‘inner sanctum’ of the great city of Quixotica under the hostile surface of the otherwise insignificant planet, the four conquistadors face the military strength of the Order face on, as they discover the true extents of the grand plan that they have begun to execute.

Will they succeed in rescuing Vera? Does she have a subplot up her sleeve? Do the Order have greater plans that they are looking to execute? Will Bradley get back in time to catch his train home? To find these answers, you’ll have to read on. It’s a puzzle, hidden in a conundrum wrapped in a mystery. The internal logic is convoluted and multiple layers of referencing explode at every turn. Contemporary and vintage media icons are mirrored in every event and there are as many genuine facts as there are red herrings but can you find them all?

For every writer, there sometimes comes a point where they take the ‘big picture’ and think “what the hell am I writing about?” Unfortunately for me, this has happened this week.

After spending a year and a half nurturing my baby with tender loving care, feeding and tending it on a daily basis, this week it looked up at me and said ‘what the hell have you made me? What is this body you have given me?” and I had to re-assess the entire story from the toes to the head. 

It’s not as though my story is weak - far from it (in my humble opinion), it’s just that the way I have been building it, now seems clumsy and cluttered. It makes me realise how an outsider might come to visit my world and I see that it is not a tidy place. I feel as though I should have at least hoovered round and done the washing up. 

My problem is not unique and I am sure that a lot of writers have experienced a similar ‘crisis of confidence’ at some point in the journey but for reasons that escape me, I am asking for your help before I hit the delete button and rid myself of the problem once and for all (didn’t we all feel like that at one time or another?). 

Ok, so the story so far - 

It’s a steampunk extravaganza. My main character was born in 1912, started out as a radio journalist and cod-scientist who dabbled with the emerging radio technology. During the war years he worked for the British Ministry of Misinformation and then after the war went on to have a speculative fiction series on radio which he wrote. However, when he (claimed) to have invented a time machine, he intervened in his own past and succeeded in erasing himself from history and eventually had a major breakdown in 1960 which resulted in his incarceration in a mental institution. Following a variety of twists and turns he re-emerged in the late 1990’s when a rock band discovered an album that was released of his vintage radio series from the 50’s and took their name from the series as their band name. 

In the current version of the story, a journalist is sent a cd by the rock band to review for the NME and he starts to research the name and becomes intrigued by the snippets he finds and arranges to meet up with the old guy (now in his 90’s) to secure an interview. Things don’t go to plan and before long, the journalist is sucked into a frantic time-traveling adventure as the old guy goes in search of his long lost love from the war years. 

Ok, so here’s my dilemma - I have almost a hundred years of journal entries for the old guy as well as a stack of short stories ‘he’ wrote. In themself, the journal entries are fascinating but don’t have a ‘plot’ that would engage an audience in anything other than a ‘faux-biography’. I also have a reasonably gripping tale of a contemporary journalist being hurled backwards and forwards in time as the old guy retraces his lifetime steps to save the girl of his dreams from his arch enemies. 

At this point, I have several options: firstly, I could tell the tale of the journo, in a standard novel format, experiencing the twists and turns of a stranger and split the entire thing into a ‘Trilogy’ so that the journals become the second installment and the  journo’s account (and essentially part of his ‘review’) as he ends up writing the ‘memoirs’ of the old guy with his stories as the third part of the overall trilogy. 

OR - I could include the journal entries (and thereby thread the entire lifetime of the old guy) into the main story, as if the journo was reading the books as he went along. Much in the same way that The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide revealed bits of information as and when they were required. 

The lifetime entries of the old guy are so strong (and bizarre) that they tell a tale of a man destroyed by his own intelligence and the stories that he (supposedly wrote) stand alone as credible enough to be worthy on their own merit. But the ‘plot’ brings the whole thing to life. Do I separate the immense backstory as a diary and keep the stories he wrote for the radio series as a separate, and final ‘part’ of a three part chronicle?

Today, I had an epiphany. The ‘inner voices’ told me that I should incorporate (what is essentially a ‘back story’) - the journals -  into the main frame of the plot and abandon the short stories altogether as they are nothing more than a ‘vanity’ move on my part to include a bunch of stuff that I am attached to. I like the short stories very much and the content is very integral in cross-referencing various episodes in the old guys life (as he usually wrote from personal experience) but in the final analysis, their inclusion was more of a distraction than an enhancement of the overall piece. 

As a result of this realisation, I have ruthlessly hacked at least ten thousand words off the total word count which is always good but I am concerned that the finished story will be impoverished without the depth of understanding that the stories he wrote (which made him famous) would bring.

What should I do? - Make the story a ‘trilogy’? Make the story a blend of past and present? and include the short stories as an appendix? or just spin the whole thing around the fact that a journalist in the present day meets a time traveler who gives him his journals and let us discvover ‘edited highlights’ as we go along?

A good writer should have their radar on at all times. Life has a way of hurling incidents that, when viewed with ‘novel-goggles’ has a perspective which makes them larger than life and absolute gold dust when it comes to the tricky business of inspiration. 

There was an incident which happened to me today which I have to admit was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. So, as an example I guess it’s not typical. However, I wanted to tell you about it as it is still very vivid in my mind and I think it might inspire a bit of creative exploration in your own imagination. 

I was waiting in line at a gas station. It was a clear, sunny day with a slight breeze. Ahead of me was one compact vehicle with a female driver. To my left were two other pumps with two and three vehicles respectively and to my right were another two pumps with about the same amount waiting there. It was a busy morning stop-off for us all by the look of it. 

The woman in front worked for a real estate company, judging by the signs and livery on her small car but it was clear that she was unfamiliar with the workings of the gas cap. She struggled with it for at least five minutes before eventually (it seemed) breaking it off completely and it rolled under the white van to my left. She heavily stuck the pump nozzle into the hole and walked around the van to get the cap. 

She must have been filling the tank to capacity as it seemed to take at least another ten minutes during which time I looked around at the other occupants waiting their turn. By now I had switched off my engine. Behind the van at my left was an old couple and behind me were two female students. To my right was an old man and his wife and behind him: a business man in a suit. Between the pumps I could see a mother with two small pre-school children in the back, but any more than that I was unable to see. 

As I sat there just observing what was going on, I became increasingly aware of a terrible sense of dread overwhelming me. I began to have doubts about all kinds of things but wasn’t sure what they were. I had a cascade of fragmented dream sequences slicing their way into my thoughts but they appeared to me as shards of important things forgotten. I began to feel a prickling sensation across my neck and forehead as I grasped at these shattered bytes of what began to feel like an alternative reality in the same way that a hangover delivers you a handful of blurred polaroids and says: “remember this from the night before?” and try as you might, you have no recollection of the scenes before you. 

Eventually, the woman appeared to have finished and I was more concerned about being late for work to notice how long she had taken paying for her fuel, but when she returned she seemed concerned that the car wouldn’t start. She fumbled endlessly with the keys and eventually got out and gestured to me to help her push it out of the way. As I stepped out of my car, I realised that I was standing in an inch of petrol which had spread from under her car and outwards to the kerb of the pumps and had flowed under my car and beyond, behind me under their car. 

A forecourt attendant ran out from the cash desk and helped push her car forwards to let others through but seemed to not notice the several gallons of freshly seeping petrol that her car was oozing. I went to the back of mine and told the students to back up, or in effect I think in my mental state I actually told them to get the hell out of there, which they did pretty quickly. I too, started my engine up (which I instantly regretted) and backed up enough to get around the furthest pump to my left and past the tanker which had arrived with a delivery of fresh petrol. I drove away from the station, convinced that I hadn’t paid for something or had just robbed them. Such was the state of mental confusion I was experiencing. I have no idea what the outcome of the incident was, but as I never heard an explosion or heard anything on the news, I have to assume that they got the spill cleared up. 

My mind was in a state of mosaic, almost hallucinatory paranoia for about two hours after that and it was only after lunch that I was able to check out on the internet, what might have been wrong with me. I realised that I was experiencing a ‘real time’ dream which was being fed to me from my memory. From what I could discover, I am pretty sure that I must have been suffering from a mild case of ‘Toxic Psychosis’ which is a side effect from inhaling petrol fumes, Wikipedia told me. Further, it said that in mild cases, a subject might experience a ‘detachment with reality’ and in severe cases ‘paranoid hallucinations’ and even death. I then recalled that the air inlet pipe for my car is just by the nearside tyre, about six or eight inches from the floor. Then, my ‘novel-goggles’ came on. 

Take the above scenario; the characters and add to it a punk robbing the cashier at the same time. He has a stolen car which he can only start by hot wiring and add to that: the tanker fully loaded who clipped the kerb as he parked up, sheering a strut at one end (which now hangs precariously against the concrete and will spark if he moves forward or backward.) With me so far? Ok, this is where it gets exciting. The businessman has just lit a cigarette and the old woman with the old guy (remember him?) is now having am asthma attack, which he is unaware of as he pays. Top it all off with everyone tripping out on the fumes as they sit on this ticking bomb and you have one hell of a great story - who’s going to rescue them? Will they rescue them? How are they going to do it? Will they all fry?

I don’t have an answer, but I’d love to see what you could make of it. I may well do something with this set up at some point, but for now I just wanted to share with you the endless possibilities of real life as a ‘story starter’. Keep your eyes open at all times, just in case that ‘big idea’ comes right up and says hi.

P.S. if you do want to have a go at writing this story, I’d love it if you’d let me know, so we can all read how it ends up, and I’d be kinda grateful if you kept my name on it somehow as the person it happened to or at least inspired your version. Have fun. 

I find it completely fascinating the way that the mind is able to process ideas and thoughts in ways that we least expect . This is most obvious when we analyse our dreams and find that there have been certain aspects of our lives that have been lurking there in the shadows whilst we go about the daily business of whatever it is we have to do. For example, the other night I was awoken from a fairly disturbing dream in which I was on a small boat cruising down a canal but the boat had a semi translucent bottom to it and I was very aware of the fact that I kept seeing the outline of two alligators as they sussed out the possibility of climbing aboard. 

Now, I have to point out that I don’t have a boat nor have I ever sailed in alligator-infested waters but if you take the dreamscape analogy as a starting point, there are a multitude of possible interpretations to my nocturnal cinema show, (none of which I am particularly interested in right at the moment) but it illustrates a point: deep down, we are constantly thinking about all our thoughts and experiences and re-defining them with analogies, images, similes and bullet point versions of the core premise of any particular issue. 

This is a particularly useful skill when it comes to writing and I have found that in the development stage of any story, one of the most powerful tricks is to recount my own tale in my own words from memory. I have found that the planning of any creative writing can not only be a hothouse of ideas it can also be the mausoleum of the essential elements of a story. Too often I have found that by drafting out ‘who-did-what’ to such a microscopic degree causes me to become entrapped in the web of detail, when what I needed to be focussing on was: ‘actually’ what the story was about. 

This is a method, or even a pre-requisite of great and timeless folk tales: no one ever said that you were supposed to recount the ‘actual’ descriptions of Red Riding Hood, nor the specific details of exactly which route through the forest she took but I bet you could verbally tell the tale and that’s the crux of the matter. By telling a story from memory, you are cutting to the core of the most important details.

I would say, from my personal experience, that the best way to edit a piece of work is to write as much as you possibly can, about every aspect of the entire saga: from descriptions of the interiors to the smell of the antagonists jacket, then put the whole thing aside for a while. Let it cook by itself in your mind, and read it through from time to time then - forget about it for a day or two. Finally, sit down and re-tell the whole thing as best as you can remember it, and you can be sure as hell that the sections you can recall are all ‘the best bits’ which is a good indicator of all the parts that either need editing out, or (if you’re really honest) don’t need to be there at all. 

We all know it’s wrong and yet still we embark on that long climb up a mountain to shave a yak. It’s something that most of us do at some point or another (oh yes we do) but how can we recognise the warning signs?

In terms of writing, the tell tale warning flags are there right from the start and sometimes go something like this: We get the ‘big idea’ and decide that to make a good job of it we must buy a notebook, so a trip to a stationery store is planned. Whilst there, we are captivated by shiny objects and think that maybe a new pen might help us along the way as well. Back at home, we mull over the twists and turns that our new characters will take and we make a few tentative scribbles in our new book with our new pen, but feel that ‘something’ is missing. 

Returning to the computer to really ‘get to grips’ with the masterplan, we think that maybe some proper software will help as well, so we start downloading lots of applications that promise us ‘major success with minimal effort’ only to find that they actually provide ‘minor achievement with maximum effort,’ so another trip to the store is planned. 

By now, our head is full of a thousand details and we feel the need to start following advice from a hundred writers, both published and just starting out and decide that a pinboard and index cards is the way, so we return, armed with the necessary items and still - not a single sentence has been crafted but oh! ‘those ideas’ … they’re coming thick and fast. 

"I know" you think, "what I need is a proper desk area. Every good writer has a proper space to call their own," but you review your home and realise that most of your time is spent improvising with the location you have available. Looking at the corner of the room you think that what’s needed are some shelves, nicely flanked by that new corkboard, so you start re-arranging the furniture and planning a re-fit. 

Enthusiastic friends on Facebook and Twitter message us with eager enquiries: “How’s the book coming along?”
"Oh, just fine," you lie, as you watch Youtube videos of cats on skateboards in the name of ‘research.’ Then you come to the conclusion that putting up shelves is not as easy as you thought it was and you simply ‘must’ get some new tools to complete the job, so once again you trek off, up that mountain, to tool up. Standing in the hardware store at the checkout with a hammer, (some weedkiller and a houseplant) the assistant asks: "Home improvements?"
"No," you hesitate… "writing a novel." At that point you should look closely at the expression on the checkout guy’s face. 

The truth is that equipment won’t help. Too many enthusiastic efforts are held back by obsession on the ‘means’ rather than the ends. Be true to yourself: work with what you’ve got. We all have different methods and we’re all looking for the ideal but the bottom line is that writing is primarily about just that: writing. Get everything down, no matter how poor it might look at first. A story is like a jigsaw - you need all the pieces to see the big picture, so the quicker you can sketch that out, the sooner you will have a better idea what it’s all about. Then, you might realise, you don’t actually need a new hammer to write a book. 

RE-BLOGGED from - 

How to write a novel by Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D.
With acknowledgements and thanks. 


Before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story — holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document. And you need to produce it using a process that doesn’t kill your desire to actually write the story. Here is my ten-step process for writing a design document. I use this process for writing my novels, and I hope it will help you.

Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture.

When you later write your book proposal, this sentence should appear very early in the proposal. It’s the hook that will sell your book to your editor, to your committee, to the sales force, to bookstore owners, and ultimately to readers. So make the best one you can!

Some hints on what makes a good sentence:

  • Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words.
  • No character names, please! Better to say “a handicapped trapeze artist” than “Jane Doe”.
  • Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win.
  • Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form.

Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. This is the analog of the second stage of the snowflake. I like to structure a story as “three disasters plus an ending”. Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. I don’t know if this is the ideal structure, it’s just my personal taste.

If you believe in the Three-Act structure, then the first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up. It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist’s attempts to “fix things”. Things just get worse and worse.

You can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup. Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. If this sounds suspiciously like back-cover copy, it’s because … that’s what it is and that’s where it’s going to appear someday.

Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:

  • The character’s name
  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
  • The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
  • The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
  • The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
  • The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline

An important point: You may find that you need to go back and revise your one-sentence summary and/or your one-paragraph summary. Go ahead! This is good—it means your characters are teaching you things about your story. It’s always okay at any stage of the design process to go back and revise earlier stages. In fact, it’s not just okay—it’s inevitable. And it’s good. Any revisions you make now are revisions you won’t need to make later on to a clunky 400 page manuscript.

Another important point: It doesn’t have to be perfect. The purpose of each step in the design process is to advance you to the next step. Keep your forward momentum! You can always come back later and fix it when you understand the story better. You will do this too, unless you’re a lot smarter than I am.

Step 4) By this stage, you should have a good idea of the large-scale structure of your novel, and you have only spent a day or two. Well, truthfully, you may have spent as much as a week, but it doesn’t matter. If the story is broken, you know it now, rather than after investing 500 hours in a rambling first draft. So now just keep growing the story. Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends.

This is a lot of fun, and at the end of the exercise, you have a pretty decent one-page skeleton of your novel. It’s okay if you can’t get it all onto one single-spaced page. What matters is that you are growing the ideas that will go into your story. You are expanding the conflict. You should now have a synopsis suitable for a proposal, although there is a better alternative for proposals …

Step 5) Take a day or two and write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters. These “character synopses” should tell the story from the point of view of each character. As always, feel free to cycle back to the earlier steps and make revisions as you learn cool stuff about your characters. I usually enjoy this step the most and lately, I have been putting the resulting “character synopses” into my proposals instead of a plot-based synopsis. Editors love character synopses, because editors love character-based fiction.

Step 6) By now, you have a solid story and several story-threads, one for each character. Now take a week and expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. Basically, you will again be expanding each paragraph from step (4) into a full page. This is a lot of fun, because you are figuring out the high-level logic of the story and making strategic decisions. Here, you will definitely want to cycle back and fix things in the earlier steps as you gain insight into the story and new ideas whack you in the face.

Step 7) Take another week and expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. The standard stuff such as birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, etc. Most importantly, how will this character change by the end of the novel? This is an expansion of your work in step (3), and it will teach you a lot about your characters. You will probably go back and revise steps (1-6) as your characters become “real” to you and begin making petulant demands on the story. This is good — great fiction is character-driven. Take as much time as you need to do this, because you’re just saving time downstream. When you have finished this process, (and it may take a full month of solid effort to get here), you have most of what you need to write a proposal. If you are a published novelist, then you can write a proposal now and sell your novel before you write it. If you’re not yet published, then you’ll need to write your entire novel first before you can sell it. No, that’s not fair, but life isn’t fair and the world of fiction writing is especially unfair.

Step 8) You may or may not take a hiatus here, waiting for the book to sell. At some point, you’ve got to actually write the novel. Before you do that, there are a couple of things you can do to make that traumatic first draft easier. The first thing to do is to take that four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel. And the easiest way to make that list is … with a spreadsheet.

For some reason, this is scary to a lot of writers. Oh the horror. Deal with it. You learned to use a word-processor. Spreadsheets are easier. You need to make a list of scenes, and spreadsheets were invented for making lists. If you need some tutoring, buy a book. There are a thousand out there, and one of them will work for you. It should take you less than a day to learn the itty bit you need. It’ll be the most valuable day you ever spent. Do it.

Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline. Make just one line for each scene. In one column, list the POV character. In another (wide) column, tell what happens. If you want to get fancy, add more columns that tell you how many pages you expect to write for the scene. A spreadsheet is ideal, because you can see the whole storyline at a glance, and it’s easy to move scenes around to reorder things.

My spreadsheets usually wind up being over 100 lines long, one line for each scene of the novel. As I develop the story, I make new versions of my story spreadsheet. This is incredibly valuable for analyzing a story. It can take a week to make a good spreadsheet. When you are done, you can add a new column for chapter numbers and assign a chapter to each scene.

Step 9) (Optional. I don’t do this step anymore.) Switch back to your word processor and begin writing a narrative description of the story. Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Put in any cool lines of dialogue you think of, and sketch out the essential conflict of that scene. If there’s no conflict, you’ll know it here and you should either add conflict or scrub the scene.

I used to write either one or two pages per chapter, and I started each chapter on a new page. Then I just printed it all out and put it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily swap chapters around later or revise chapters without messing up the others. This process usually took me a week and the end result was a massive 50-page printed document that I would revise in red ink as I wrote the first draft. All my good ideas when I woke up in the morning got hand-written in the margins of this document. This, by the way, is a rather painless way of writing that dreaded detailed synopsis that all writers seem to hate. But it’s actually fun to develop, if you have done steps (1) through (8) first. When I did this step, I never showed this synopsis to anyone, least of all to an editor — it was for me alone. I liked to think of it as the prototype first draft. Imagine writing a first draft in a week! Yes, you can do it and it’s well worth the time. But I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like I need this step anymore, so I don’t do it now.

Step 10) At this point, just sit down and start pounding out the real first draft of the novel. You will be astounded at how fast the story flies out of your fingers at this stage. I have seen writers triple their fiction writing speed overnight, while producing better quality first drafts than they usually produce on a third draft.

You might think that all the creativity is chewed out of the story by this time. Well, no, not unless you overdid your analysis when you wrote your Snowflake. This is supposed to be the fun part, because there are many small-scale logic problems to work out here. How does Hero get out of that tree surrounded by alligators and rescue Heroine who’s in the burning rowboat? This is the time to figure it out! But it’s fun because you already know that the large-scale structure of the novel works. So you only have to solve a limited set of problems, and so you can write relatively fast.

This stage is incredibly fun and exciting. I have heard many fiction writers complain about how hard the first draft is. Invariably, that’s because they have no clue what’s coming next. Good grief! Life is too short to write like that! There is no reason to spend 500 hours writing a wandering first draft of your novel when you can write a solid one in 150. Counting the 100 hours it takes to do the design documents, you come out way ahead in time.

About midway through a first draft, I usually take a breather and fix all the broken parts of my design documents. Yes, the design documents are not perfect. That’s okay. The design documents are not fixed in concrete, they are a living set of documents that grows as you develop your novel. If you are doing your job right, at the end of the first draft you will laugh at what an amateurish piece of junk your original design documents were. And you’ll be thrilled at how deep your story has become.


If you liked that, you might also enjoy this from Holly Lisle: “plotting tips”

Getting the most out of a scene.

This is the third of several blogs about #storycraft based on various research and study resources. Whilst the definitions may not be conclusive (or indeed correct!) they nevertheless provide a starting point for discussion and further citation and are outlined here for my own further understanding and reference. Please feel free to comment or contribute.

The first rule for dynamic pace is to jump into a scene, dialogue first, as late into the incident as possible (no need for lengthy descriptions of curtains and wistful glances here, unless you’re writing a victorian epic).

Next, you need to work with your reader’s knowledge (or lack of it!) to create the first tension - let’s say that they learn something that one of the characters doesn’t know. Then it’s time for ‘the bomb’ - that cruise missile or hidden landmine just waiting to go off and when it does, all the readers want to know is how the recipient will react (if you want your readers to ‘feel’ a certain way, it is most effective to construct the scene around that, to manipulate their emotions). Remember, a ‘scene’ is just a jigsaw piece in the big picture, so make sure it’s a piece that fits and not one from another box!

Then, when the dust is settling, get out of the scene and into the next development (again, no time for waffle: “Jack looked out of the window, stunned” - sure he did! we don’t need telling. Move along, there’s nothing to see here).

Plotting by numbers

This is the second of several blogs about #storycraft based on various research and study resources. Whilst the definitions may not be conclusive (or indeed correct!) they nevertheless provide a starting point for discussion and further citation and are outlined here for my own further understanding and reference. Please feel free to comment or contribute.

History has shown that great films and novels tend to follow a recognisable and familiar path. Whether this is contrived by the writer as a ‘formula’ or instinctively drawn out it remains as the ingredient for success every time. As a reader or audience to these works we are satisfied when these particular boxes are ticked (even if they arrive in an unusual order), but to miss one out just feels ‘wrong’. Likewise, cunning writers ‘play’ with these signposts and create energising and innovative new works but throughout, the principles seem to work the same.

The ‘classic’ three act story.
Since human beings first communicated with each other we have been drawn to the idea of a beginning, middle and an end to a story. It feels fundamentally satisfying and so it is best to stick to this basic (and almost mystical) system of three. However, this doesn’t mean they have to be revealed in the correct order!

Traditionally, most films (often the best ones) are structured around eight sequences and these can be thought of as self contained short episodes that lead the larger story to conclusion.

A sequence can contain any number of scenes and as the name suggests, it refers to a location in which the action takes place. However the golden rule would seem to be - start as late on into the scene as possible and get out of it early for maximum effect.

Plot points
A plot point is a significant act which creates a ‘junction’ between the elements, a new direction. Conventionally, there are five such main points and they occur at key moments in the story as we will see in the following recipe.


Sequence one.
Establishing the status quo and introducing the inciting incident.
This first sequence introduces the main character, their life, the status quo and the ‘world’ of the story and ends with the ‘point of attack’ (or inciting incident) - however this moment can come at any time in the opening.

    Plot point one (- the ‘what’).
The inciting incident is the thing or event that makes our character go ‘on a quest’.

Sequence two.
Reveals the initial predicament and ‘lock-in' - establishing the main tension.
The second sequence sets up a predicament that is central to the main story with a suggestion of any possible obstructions to its realisation. This sequence ends the first act and shows the central character committed to the predicament and propelled through the first door into a new direction to obtain their goal.

    Plot point two (- the ‘why’).
This depicts the reason ‘why’ our hero is compelled to action.

Sequence three.
Outlines the first obstacle and raises the stakes.
The central character now faces the first obstacle and we witness the beginning of the elimination of any alternatives to the chosen path. Since our hero is locked-in to the situation there is a lot to lose.
Sometimes this is also THE HOOK and often a time where expositions left over from act one are brought in.
NOTE: The first act can (and often is) delivered in flashback during act two, which was delivered first!

Sequence four.
This is the midpoint of the story and the first culmination.
Following the principle of rising action, this sequence presents a higher obstacle building to the first culmination. However, this midpoint often (usually) mirrors the final resolution of the story.
I.E. - if the hero dies, this should be a low point. If the hero wins, this should be a ‘minor victory’.

   Plot point three (- the ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘when’).
This is the depiction of of the first culmination which hints at the hero’s ability to reach the higher goal.

Sequence five.
Introduction of the subplot and fuelling the rising action.
By now, the audience has witnessed a ‘result’ and there is a common pitfall waiting for the writer known as ‘the second act sag’. This can happen (following the previous ‘minor resolution’) if there isn’t a strong subplot which adds to the rising action: there are too many loose ends for the main culmination at this point.

Sequence six.
This is the primary culmination and the closure of act two.
This sequence has to build up to the climax of the story and returns to it with increased intensity. It represents the highest obstacle, the last alternative and the (ultimate) end of the main tension.
However, there is the first signs of a new tension that will take us through to the end.
NOTE: As the midpoint (sequence four) and the end (sequence eight) reflect each other, the final plot point at the end of act two is usually the polar opposite of the final outcome. It is a significant low point for the hero.
I.E. - If the hero is exposed at the end, he is safely guarded. If the hero wins the day, they are scuppered in their tracks.

    Plot point four (-  the key to ‘minor success’).
The highest obstacle. Foreshadowing the twist (final doorway).
Act three

Sequence seven.
With the home straight in sight we now encounter the twist and a new tension.
This sequence is like greased lightning and presents a complete and simplified establishment of this new (and final) obstacle / doorway through new exposition. It is generally more rapid in delivery and has short scenes with no need for elaborate set-ups. The twist can end this sequence (or come at the start of the final)

    Plot point five (- the key to ‘major success’). The twist revealed.

Sequence eight.
Everything falls into place in the ultimate resolution (or not, as the case may be!).
At this point, clarity is essential to make the characters, dialogue and narrative lead irrevocably towards the final closure. There might be a large amount of emotions and ideas about ‘what it all means’ but by now, the ‘gaff is up’ and the ‘hero saves the day’ (self contained) or raises new questions (trailblazing a sequel).

With extensive acknowledgement and credit to The Script Lab for clarifying and identifying these principles and thoughts. I hope I have done justice to their resources in this précis/ amalgamation.

Mystical phrases retold in English

This is the first of several blogs about #storycraft based on extensive research and study. Whilst the definitions may not be conclusive (or indeed correct!) they nevertheless provide a starting point for discussion and further citation. Please feel free to comment or contribute.

The novel ‘query’ (to agents, publishers etc)
The goal is not about ‘selling’ the novel in question, it’s about getting a ‘follow up’. people like to work with people and you want them to work with you (as you talk confidently ‘about’ your novel). Remember, you’re suggesting a long term relationship, so you’d better have more ideas in the hat for later down the line (or: if they don’t like your novel idea, but like your ‘style’).

This is a one sentence ‘hit’ that sums up the entire story in (not usually more than) twenty five simple, enticing and direct words. (Sometimes known as an ‘elevator pitch’)

The STORY synopsis
Often confused with the plot synopsis, this form details the chronological sequence of events which lead to a final culmination or resolution. Because of the (often lengthy) build up and background detail, this form is best left as ‘research material’ as it is not necessarily the ‘big story’ - the tale ‘actually’ being told.

The PLOT synopsis
As the name suggests, this is purely a concise description of the key sequences revealing the motives, obstructions and conclusion. The plot is the sequence in which the story is told.

The THEME synopsis
This is a snapshot ‘overview’ of the characters and their contribution to the main plot revealing the cause of resolution. This might follow the ‘actual’ plot and may well be a ‘who-did-what’ explanation.

The BLURB synopsis
This is the ‘marketing tool’ version that encompasses elements of the ‘plot’ and ‘theme’, revealing the main hook but witholding the resolution and (perhaps) hinting at the twist.