The last post was about the Kernel Idea.
Let’s look at some ideas
- Character: “A housewife and female assassin must uncover the truth of the men in their lives in order to save their own.” BODYGUARD OF LIES
- Plot: “What if a Federal agent investigating a murder, finds out it’s connected to an illegal CIA operation?” CHASING THE GHOST
- Setting or scene: “An international treaty bans weapons in Antarctica: What if the US put nuclear weapons there and lost track of them?” The Green Berets: The Final Option Z
- Intent/Theme: “Connection leads to a full life.” DON’T LOOK DOWN.
- “What If”: “What if people going into the Witness Protection Program really disappear?” CUT OUT
John Saul at the Maui Writer’s Retreat ran a seminar called “What if?” where he had writers put their one sentence up on butcher paper and analyzed it. He made sure every word in the sentence meant something. For example:
What if Mary has to stop a band of terrorists?
How could this be improved? What does Mary mean? How about ‘a housewife’? How about making her a special housewife with an anomaly: What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife? However, that term hints at a comedic tone.
Stop a band of terrorists from what? How about ‘assassinating the president’? so we understand what’s at stake.
This gives us: What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife has to stop a band of terrorists from assassinating the President?
That pops, but it makes me wonder how we balance the comedic possibility of the OCD with the high stakes thriller of the assassination? Do you see how your idea raises questions? Both good and bad.
The Importance of Your Kernel Idea
- It starts your creative process.
- Remembering it keeps you focused.
- It is often the core of the pitch to sell the book.
I stress this in my teachings because this one idea is critical to the writing process. It’s the one thing I believe every writer should start with, or at the very least, find it before getting too far into the draft.
I also believe every writer should have this on a piece of paper, post-it note, or taped to their computer screen where they can see it at the beginning of every writing session.
A different point of view can be a way to tell a story that’s already been done in a fresh way. In Beowulf the monster had his story to tell and John Gardner did it in Grendel. Who was the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre? She had her story and Jean Rhys told it in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Smiley put King Lear on a present day farm and called it A Thousand Acres.
Whenever I watch a film or video I try to figure out what the original idea the first screenwriter had. For example, in the movie True Romance written by Quentin Torrentino, there is a scene at the end where there are four groups of people in a room all pointing guns at each other in a classic Mexican standoff. Rewatching the film, I can see the entire movie driving to that one climactic scene. In an interview, Torrentino said that scene was the kernel idea. He didn’t know who the people with the guns were (that’s character); where the room was (setting); why they were in the room (motivation); whether it was the beginning, end or middle of the movie (story and plot); what the result of this stand-off would be; etc. etc. He just had this vision to start with.
When I watched the movie The Matrix, the scene that stuck out to me was where all those people were plugged and being tapped for their electrical power. I almost sense that was the kernel idea—the screenwriter read or heard that the human body produced X amount of electricity and sat down and thought what he could do with that idea. I think he then came up with the concept of the Matrix itself as a follow on.
Kernel Idea and The Pitch
- Sometimes they are the same.
- Sometimes they aren’t.
- But they should be very close.
- The Kernel Idea is your tool for your writing.
- The Pitch is your tool to sell your writing to someone else.
When I teach the Novel Writer’s workshop in a small group, we spend an enormous amount of time on the Kernel Idea. The participants will talk out their ideas, push each other to focus on the excitement and when a writer nails it, it will send a shiver up everyone’s spine. This is the reason it is foundation for your writing and for your pitch. It excited you, therefore that idea will excite your readers, whether it be editors and agents or end consumer readers. (Nanowrimo Survival Kit)
Focusing Your Idea
When you write your one sentence down, check to see what the subject of the sentence is:
- Protagonist, antagonist?
- Check to see what the verb is.
- Positive or negative?
- Action or re-action verb?
- Start your sentence with “What if . . .”
Each word must mean something to the reader.
Don’t be a secret keeper.
- “What if a thief was using a movie set as a cover for heist?” DON’T LOOK DOWN.
- “What if mankind didn’t originate the way we thought?” AREA 51
Another way to try to figure out what the core of your novel is this: What is the climactic scene? This is when the protagonist and antagonist meet to resolve the primary problem that is the crux of the novel. This is what the entire book is driving towards.
Check out your one sentence idea. What is the subject of the sentence? Is the verb action or reaction?
Share your Kernel Ideas!
Write It Forward!
You need a catastrophe plan for three reasons:
- To avoid the catastrophe. Since at least one of the six cascade events is human error, if we plan and prepare adequately, we can delete the human error cascade event from the situation, thus avoiding the final event.
- To have a plan, equipment, training etc. in place in case the catastrophe strikes. If we project out possible final events, we can prepare for their eventuality. I am adamant that preparation is critical, even more so than actual actions during the final event. It is too late when we reach a final event to prepare for it. Even the best-trained individual will be overwhelmed by a final event if they have not prepared for it. In the last catastrophe we cover in this book, you’ll see how the fact someone planned for possible catastrophes helped avert a terrible final event.
- To give you peace of mind in day-to-day living so you don’t constantly have to worry about potential catastrophes because you are prepared for them. This allows you to experience a higher quality of life. You’ve done your best to avoid the catastrophe, making the likelihood that much less. And you’ve done your best to prepare for the catastrophe, so you can focus on other things. Too many people worry about potential catastrophes without preparing; this is a fundamental failure and fuels fear. Fear feeds on itself and is debilitating. Often, extreme fear can bring about an event that would have never occurred otherwise. Confident people are prepared people.
Excerpted from IT Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure
Most writing is not a special gift or talent. Writing is a skill that can be taught. It can be likened to bricklaying; you can learn it one brick at a time, and you get better the more bricks you lay.
If you talk to those who work in hospices, they’ll tell you what lessons their dying patients bestow upon them. One word keeps coming up again and again: regret.
When faced with death, people look back over their lives. All the missed opportunities, the misplaced priorities, the things that weren’t done. Only a handful of people focus on what they did do and are content. These people have negotiated the five emotional steps of change, which are Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of Death & Dying. The last stage is acceptance. Kubler-Ross found that only 5% of those who were told they had a terminal illness were able to negotiate those five stages. (Nanowrimo Survival Kit)
That number strikes a cord. Because in my Write It Forward book and program, I refer to the 5% rule for internally motivated change. I’ve taught writing for decades and have always been shocked at how few writers actually changed anything in their writing. I am no longer shocked. I have acceptance that I cannot change anyone but me. I can assist others if they desire it. This is based on my experiences and, more importantly, what I’ve learned from other writers, books, shows, and life.
78% of Americans believe they can write a book. I’d be willing to bet 77% of them will die regretting they never did. It’s not about getting published. It’s about creating and acting instead of reacting, often, too late.
You have only one thing stopping you from writing the best book you are capable of. You.
I call my book on the craft of writing a Toolkit because no tool is wrong. If I need to fasten two pieces of wood together and instead of picking up a hammer and nail, but rather pick up a saw, it is not the tool’s fault. It is mine.
In subsequent blogs, I am going to lay out numerous writing tools that will help you develop your craft as a writer. However, becoming an artist is up to you.
Point of view is the most critical style element in writing. It is also important in following the way I teach writing. I’ve been making a living writing for well over two decades and with each year and every new manuscript come new lessons learned. Over that time period I’ve taught writing novels and getting published at various workshops and for numerous organizations. I’ve attended many workshops and listened to other authors present. I’ve read many books and watched many movies and shows, constantly analyzing the writing, to learn new ways of creating. I’ve seen numerous ideas, stories and manuscripts in the course of teaching, helping other writers, and judging contests. I’ve been published by six different American publishers, many foreign publishers, worked with over a two-dozen editors, and have had four primary agents. I’ve been traditionally published by the Big Six in New York, and non-traditionally published through my own imprint. I’ve had hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, print on demand, and eBooks across the range of possible platforms published.
Too many people lament the state of publishing and the “crap” that fills the shelves in the local bookstore. My goal is not to complain but to explain; to tell you about the craft and art of writing so you can accomplish your goals.
The world of writing is a very diverse one and there is a place in it for just about everything and everyone. Things are changing rapidly, faster than ever, and I think it’s an exciting time to be an author, with more opportunities than ever before.
The bottom line is I write because I enjoy it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The one commonality I have seen in every successful writer I’ve met is that they work very, very hard. There is a large degree of craftsmanship required to write a novel. It’s not magic; it’s hard work combined with the ability to constantly accept being critiqued and to critique one’s self.
Lately, I’ve focused on what it takes to be a successful author, not just in terms of the writing, but in terms of not only surviving, but thriving in the world of publishing.
The bottom line is the book. I love books. I love reading them and I love writing them.
“I am always doing that which I cannot do in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso.
So why do you write?