Things I wish I knew about story development when I started writing

Text: Things I wish I knew about story development when I started writingSo here we are for another round of writerly advice from the friendly writers of Google Plus. This time I’ve asked people for their best advice on story development.

My own personal favourite: “Figure out the worst thing that could happen next, and do that.” It works particularly well with humour where one white lie quickly becomes a disaster zone, but it works almost anywhere else too.

You’ve got to watch it as the worst thing that can happen isn’t necessarily the best thing for the story, but if you use it sensibly to generate story twists and turns, it’s magic.

Enough from me.  On with the fantastic advice from some other writers!

“Don’t worry if it fits right now; it can always be fixed later.”  Glendon Perkins

“Know what your characters want, why they want it, who or what is getting in their way and why, how far they will go to achieve their goals, and the consequences if they fail.” Kyra Halland

“Most of the time it’s the characters who seem to make the story, since, chances are, readers will already have seen your plot somewhere else, and will keep on for interesting or amusing characters and worlds.” Quinn Miczo

“If you plan your novels (plotter), concentrate on the story milestone scenes. Except for these, inevitably everything will change so don’t go into too much detail with the supporting scenes or don’t even bother planning them at all.” Mark Mercieca

“For me, the best stories are character driven and you can’t have a successful main character without a strong cast of supporting characters.” Roland Boykin

“Sometimes it’s better not to think.” Quinn Miczo

“You always need more backstory/world building than you think you will.” Ann Smyth

“Build a story bible.” Charles Barouch

“Writing is the easy part. Revision–now that’s the tough part. Suddenly you question every scene, every paragraph, every word! Everything you love could wind up on the chopping block. And it takes way longer than writing it ever did.” Traci Loudin

“The tendency to avoid conflict in life is very strong. You need to be vigilant for signs of that in your writing. Don’t necessarily shower your reader with one disaster after another (that too can be off putting) but give the characters and therefore yourself, as the author, story obstacles so challenging that you have no way out of in your head, then wait for a way to appear.” Luke Mercieca

So there you have it, fantastic advice on story development from some wonderful writers on Google Plus. What’s your best advice?

If you liked this, check out last week’s post: Things I wish I knew about writing when I started out.

The secret of writing successful stories

Question-markIf I could tell you the secret of writing a successful book, would you like to know what it is?

There is actually a secret, and it’s pretty neat.

What’s more, it works on all genres and subgenres, and will even help you break the genre barrier and reach beyond, which is where you want to be if you hope to sell in big numbers.

A recent discussion that cropped up on Google Plus, and one that often appears among writers, was about a certain book that people love to hate.

I won’t mention it by name in order to protect the innocent filmmakers involved, but it rhymes with highlight and features sparkly vampires.

I read it a while back along with a bunch of other successful books including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, all of which racked up ridiculous sales numbers.

The reason I read them, other than to appease the people telling me I should (hint hint), was to try and understand why they were so popular.

The comment that sparked the discussion on Google Plus claimed that the sparkly vampire book was badly written – a subjective remark at best, and way off the mark at worst.

To some extent I can see where the comment was coming from. The novel didn’t work for me either, but I was hardly its target audience, and that’s not a reason to say it was badly written.

Having broken it (and others) down, I found it more or less structurally perfect and technically fine. What it lacked, if anything, was originality. Other big sellers contained quite a few original elements, so the secret wasn’t there.

And I suspect that’s where this particular comment originated.

The book rhyming with highlight followed a standard formula in an emerging subgenre, while doing little more than tweaking the known tropes.

In the end it gave its readers exactly what they wanted and expected.

In short, it didn’t do anything special from a story standpoint, so the secret wasn’t there either.

So what was the secret?

Here’s a question. What would you do if you could apply that secret to your own writing, without:

  • compromising your integrity as a writer
  • giving up on originality
  • dumbing down or nullifying your brilliant ideas?

What would you do if I said the secret was simple and could be applied to almost any story?

Take a look at any book that’s sold millions of copies, read it, and then take a look at that book’s audience. What do you see?

You see people who:

  • recommend the book to their friends
  • discuss the book online and off
  • look for other books by that same author.

In short, you see fans. Lots of fans. Why do books find fans?

Because fans care about your characters and what happens to them.

It’s as simple as that.

Make your audience care and they’ll tell their friends, discuss it online, and even look for more of your stories. They’ll become fans, and you’ll become successful.

You don’t even have to alienate your niche market to do it.

It’s obviously not as easy as it sounds or everyone would be selling millions of books, but the more people you can make care about your characters and what happens to them, the more successful you’ll become as a writer – assuming you judge success by sales numbers.

If not, forget you read this post and keep on doing what you’re doing.

If you want to sell books though… well, now you know what it takes.

Read more articles about The Craft of Writing.

How to write short stories editors find irresistible

I remember the first big epic fantasy saga I ever read. It was the Riftwar Saga: Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E Feist. I read it over and over (and not just because I was broke at the time and couldn’t afford to buy new books).

After that, I sought out as many epic fantasies as I could, often staying up half the night while trying to get in just one more chapter.

Eventually I came to a point where they were all beginning to seem a little too similar, and I found myself getting bored with them.

From that point it was a rare epic fantasy that could draw me in, although a few still did, but the majority became ‘just another fantasy’.

I guess I developed ‘movie critic’ syndrome.

I knew the field so well that I became more interested in the stories at the edge of the field – the alternatives, the differences, the fresh ideas.

When I found something new that really worked for me, I’d pass the book to my friends who also read fantasy, but was often surprised when they didn’t like it.

It took me years to work out why. The reason is the key to writing a short story an editor will love: short story editors are (usually) very widely read.

They love the form and read everything they can. They really know their stuff.

By the time they’ve graduated to editing short stories, they’ve probably been reading them for years and are likely to be accomplished short story writers themselves.

Sending them something tired will dramatically increase your chances of rejection.

So how do you make them want your short story?

Give them something fresh. Something new. Something vibrant.

Use your brilliant idea to grab an editor by the collar and shake them awake. Twist a tired concept into something completely fresh and pique their curiosity right from the start.

There’s little room for ‘Hollywood’ in short stories – doing the same thing over and over won’t cut it.

Short stories are about exploring ideas through your characters and treading new ground. You need to entice the jaded editor who’s seen it all by giving them something they haven’t seen.

Do that and you’ll find your strike-rate increase dramatically.

Make your story both intellectually and emotionally stimulating!

There are two sides of a story, but they’ll usually fall toward one side or another, some more strongly than others. On one side are stories with a stronger intellectual pull, and on the other, stories with a stronger an emotional pull.

Different genres generally lean toward one of these categories, but the best stories, no matter their genre, do both.

Take Hard Science Fiction for example. Hard SF is likely to feature complex science and ‘big ideas’, and would therefore be more likely to draw readers looking for a high concept, original story.

Murder Mystery readers would fall into the same category, but for different reasons; there’s a mystery to be solved and that’s what works for them. Its the intellectual pull that draws them in.

On the other side of the fence are the readers looking for emotional content. The obvious example is the Romance novel.

Romance readers already know how the story’s going to end, yet romances sell better than anything else.

Why? Its the emotional rollercoaster.  Fantasy readers would also sit here – it’s a hero they want, and it’s a hero they get. Usually.

For readers looking for emotional content, how it happens is more important than what happens. You can almost be certain the ‘dark lord’ is going to lose in the end or the romance will work out.

So how do you make this work for you?

Do both. Throw in a high concept and blend it with emotional content.

Don’t believe me? Here’s some examples:

Harry Potter – Orphan Boy must defeat Dark Lord – standard fantasy tropes. Throw in a mystery or three, exceptionally clever plotting, and then make the boy the object of almost everyone’s ire – whalah! Bestselling series.

How about Dune? Hard SF revolving around the ecology of the planet Dune and the byproduct of giant sand worms which more or less grant supernatural powers. Throw in a couple of romances and a hero that must rise up and defeat an empire – whalah! One of the biggest-selling SF novels of all time.

Titanic (the James Cameron movie). A ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Its inevitable – history. A documentary would just show the facts – a tragedy. However, throw in a romance between two starcrossed lovers, book-end it with a search for treasure and show it from a survivor’s POV, and Shakespere couldn’t do much better.

How about The Hunger Games? Twenty-four kids from a distopian society get thrown into an arena to fight to the death – as high-concept as it gets. However, give them something to fight for – something even bigger than their lives – and suddenly you’ve got a story everyone wants to read. It’s about them, but it’s bigger. Its a love story. Its a story about defying the unjust authorities.

The Girl Who Played With Fire. It could easily be seen as a standard mystery, but it’s not. There’s something of a romance between the two protagonists, but that’s just part of it. They also have their own stories – one is unfairly put in goal while the other gets physically and emotionally abused -and suddenly you’ve got a story thats bigger than all the parts put together.

So how do you use this to your advantage?

Simple. Borrow from both sides of the equation. Make your story both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

Read more on the craft of writing.

How I wrote a novel in 60 days!

One of the most common questions/problems I come across, and one that I find is a problem for myself too, is how to find enough time for writing.

Back in my student days I had all the time I needed to write, but rarely took advantage of it.

Fast forward a few (cough cough) years and there’s far too many demands on my life to allow me the luxury of writing when I want to – job, family, social life, house/yard work etc.

So how did I manage to write the complete draft of a novel in under two months (November/December) – about 90,000 words, with so much else going on in my life?

Well, here’s how it happened.

  1. I did Nanowrimo (and decided to do it to write a new novel, just just to finish).
  2. I kept the pace up afterward and finished what I started.
  3. I told my wife I was doing Nanowrimo, and asked for a little slack.
  4. I got up half an hour early and wrote before work.
  5. I wrote after work whenever I could.
  6. I wrote on weekends when the opportunity presented itself.
  7. I aimed for an average of 1667 words a day, but wrote more if I could in order to make up for the times I couldn’t.
  8. I still did everything else I normally would.

Essentially, I stopped wasting time and used whatever spare time I had for writing.

  • I got up when the alarm when off instead of lazing in bed.
  • If I wanted to watch a show on TV, I recorded it and watched it when I’d got ahead (as a small reward) or when I was too wiped out to write.
  • If I had to do housework or yardwork, I tried to get through it faster.
  • If I had to run the kids to sports training, I took the laptop or a notepad.
  • I did simple things like turning the computer on when I got home so that when I had a spare ten minutes I could write a couple of hundred words.

And the funny thing is, the more I did it, the easier it got.

I started thinking about the story all the time – planning ahead in spare moments so that when I sat back down again I was ready (and keen) to write the next scene or chapter.

I didn’t go back to ‘fix’ things. Just soldiered on, making notes of things I wanted to change later.

As often as not I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write next – but when the time came, I wrote anyway. Apparently, Muses are overrated.

It was a little tough at the beginning – there was a certain amount of discipline I had to develop. Inspriation only took me so far.

After that I relied on discipline, and from there it all changed.

Find out more about novel structure.

The silly thing about Theme

The silly thing about theme is that most people don’t understand it, giving you a kickarse opportunity to put your story on a better footing than most.

Ever seen a movie where there’s lots of special effects but little else? How about the book where the story seems to go nowhere and takes forever to let you know? What of the otherwise entertaining story you enjoyed, but never seemed to get around to recommending?

They’re the sorts of stories people tend to forget as soon as they put the book down (or walk out of the cinema).

Why?

Because the story isn’t saying anything worthwhile.

And that’s what theme is – it’s a statement about something.

It’s not a word like Love or Sacrifice or Hope or Despair. They’re feelings! Its not a concept either, or even a metaphor. They may be strong elements of your theme, but they’re not all of it.

Your theme is one side of a debate – its what your story is saying about a given topic.

Here’s how to figure out your theme.

Make a statement about the topic your story is exploring (or could be exploring). For example. “The brain is the sexiest part of the body.” Perhaps its a story about a genius.

Your theme argues for or against that statement. Its that simple. If it doesn’t fit, keep working on it – or change your story to fit. Either way, your theme is in there, you just have to find it.

A theme provides a story with additional meaning that gives value to the plot. It also has to be subtle – try to force it on your readers and they’ll throw your book across the room. They’re not reading to hear you preach. Well, not normally.

On the subject of preaching: “God is great!” There’s a strong statement. Use it if it fits, but your story must demonstrate exactly why the statement is true or false. Illustrate your point with such finess that your readers don’t even realise you’re telling them something important.

“All men are bastards.” Sure, if that’s what’s important to you, but prove it – or prove there’s at least one good man out there.

“Life is cheap.” Again, that’s fine. Just show me just how cheap it is – or show me the true cost of treating it cheaply.

Save the Cat – Blake Snyder

Save the cat Book Cover Probably the best book I’ve ever come across on the subject of structure, Save the Cat is the book you need if you want to write fiction of any variety.

Although  designed as a tool for scriptwriters, most of the information works just as well for novels, and a lot of it could, and probably should, be applied to short stories.

It’s not about the nitty gritty stuff like punctuation, grammar or formatting – it’s about what goes where in your story and why. Think The Hero’s Journey made clear and concise. It’s very easy to read and simple to refer back to.

No matter how much you might like to avoid the subject of structure, your story needs more than just  a beginning, middle and end.

Believe it or not, those broad categories actually have to do something – readers expect certain things from a story – and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll walk away feeling as if something wasn’t  quite working.

Save the Cat teaches you what each part requires and how to make it all work together.

The most useful thing Save the Cat taught me was how to answer to the simplest, most basic question you need to ask before you start writing – What’s the story about?

There’s a pretty simple reason Snyder promotes discovering the answer to this question.

Have you ever taken a thought, concept, image or idea and just ran with it?

Unless you get really lucky, it’s hard to edit ‘freewritten’ stories after the fact. Even with the story on the page, you probably still haven’t defined what it’s actually about.

Save the Cat will explain how to distill your story into a single sentence, and that’s just the start of what it will do for you.

Highly recommended.

Don’t take the piss out of success

Recently I was talking with a bunch of writers about editing and structure, and I used Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight as an example to illustrate a point I was making.

The moment I mentioned the book the room erupted into derision. I can understand that: Twilight’s certainly not for everyone.

However, it did break out of its genre and go global in a big way, selling millions of copies and spawning some very successful movies. The Twilight books provided everything a growing author needs – enough money to quit their day job. The rest, of course, is cream.

If you want that kind of success, why dump on it?

The point I was trying to make was that if you don’t hit all the plot points that your readers are subconsciously expecting, they’re going to walk away with the feeling that ‘something just didn’t work’.

They probably couldn’t tell you why, but they’ll know it regardless. What’s more, they’re not going to recommend a book that ‘didn’t work’ for them. Your book, in this case.

Stephanie Meyer did everything right in Twilight – she hit all the right plot points and made her readers care – very deeply – about her protaganist, and finished it off with a very satisfying ending.

That doesn’t mean your story needs sparkly vampires, but when an author sells millions of copies and smashes through genre boundaries, it’s a good bet they’re doing something right.

Take note, even if its not a story for you. Study what works and emulate it.

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