Category Archives: Novel Writer’s Toolkit
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.
The key is to always be willing to learn, grow and develop these skills. A writer, in order to master their craft, must be willing to change.
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.
That number strikes a chord. 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.
Can you say what your book is about in 25 words or less? The Write It Forward Workshop: Conflict and Idea, we’ll discuss ways to find and state your original idea so that you can stay on course while writing and revising your book. Conflict drives your story and must escalate throughout your entire novel. One of the techniques we will use in this workshop is the Conflict Box. The Conflict Box is a way of diagraming conflict and allows you to focus on the protagonist, antagonist, their goals and finding out if you have the necessary conflict. The course will begin on 1 February and is done on-line in a Yahoo Loop email delivery system so you can read and work on lessons when its convenient for you. The course runs for one month and costs $50.00. For more details and to sign up go to the Cool Gus Website.
“I am always doing that which I cannot do in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso.
So why do you write?
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?” SHADOW WARRIORS: THE CITADEL
- 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.
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!
I wrote my first draft of The Novel Writer’s Toolkit in 1994 after four books published. It was all of 11 pages long. That was the extent of what I consciously knew about writing a novel. In 2009, I wrote my first draft of Warrior Writer, a book designed to teach writers how to succeed as authors after my frustration over the lack of education for writers and all my experiences. I still have not had a single response from an editor or agent showing me what their formal training program is for an author they sign or contract with. In today’s fast moving marketplace, writers can’t afford to learn like I did—the hard way.
Over the years, I rewrote the Toolkit every six months, adding all I was learning about writing. The Toolkit ended up being 80,000 words long and was published by Writer’s Digest in 2001. It earned out in less than six months and had a great run.
This year I updated both books extensively, partly because I’ve grown as a writer and now an independent author. But also because today’s publishing environment has changed and with that change has come the ability to update books to meet the changing needs of today’s successful writers. The Novel Writers Toolkit now focuses 100% on the craft of writing. I removed the business section because that belongs in the other book, formerly Warrior Writer, which I renamed Write It Forward: From Writer To Successful Author.
One key thing I added in the Toolkit was a section on Conflict, especially the Conflict Box. I put in all I’ve learned in the past several years. I have to say I believe I’ve learned more about writing in the past two years than in my first twenty.
In the Toolkit, I teach how to answer key questions about your book including:
Can you state what your book is about in one sentence?
Do you clearly have conflict lock between protagonist and antagonist?
Do you know where your ‘camera’ is when you write each scene? i.e. Point of View? Do you know when you’ve done a cut?
Do you know all your characters’ primary motivations, their motivation leveles, and their blind spot?
Write It Forward is the sum of what I’ve learned in 20 years of traditional publishing and two years as an indie author and publisher. I made many mistakes over the years and I wrote this book to keep others from making the same mistakes. I’ve included where I believe publishing is now and where it’s going. I also focus on helping writers sort out their own path to Oz, given that each of us are starting from a different place and our vision of Oz is unique to each of us.
For example, can you answer these questions, which Write It Forward poses as exercises and then teaches you how to answer:
What is my strategic goal as a writer? Where do you want to be in five years?
I’ll do anything to succeed as a writer, except don’t ask me to do . . . . ?
My greatest fear as a writer is?
How high is your ‘imposter syndrome’ as a writer?
Are you in command of your writing career or are you counting on an agent or editor?
Do you know where you stand on the three P’s: Platform, product and promotion?
Both books focus on building the complete writer: one who masters the craft of writing into being an artist, and one who develops their work into being a career writer.
“A book to inspire, instruct and challenge the writer in everyone.”
#1 NY Times Best-Selling Author Susan Wiggs
“An invaluable resource for beginning and seasoned writers alike. Don’t miss out.”
#1 NY Times Best-Selling Author Terry Brooks
“Something for every writer, from neophyte to old hand. My hat is off to Bob.” Best-Selling Myster Writer Elizabeth George
Reference Write It Forward
“I have always loved how your programs delved deeply into the psychological models you need to develop characters. Now you are using that to develop people.” Co-Creator of the Chicken Soup Books Jack Canfield