Category Archives: Write It forward

#Nanowrimo: The Common Traits of the Successful Writer

It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words.  So let’s get that out of the way.  You aren’t normal.  You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve.  You’re cursed.  You write because you have to.  You will have to go the therapy.  Sorry.  That’s the reality of being a writer. It’s that simple.

Nanowrimo coverIf you desire to write a novel because you want to have a bestseller and make a bundle of money, my advice for you is to play the lottery; it will take much less time and your odds will be about the same, if not better, and I can guarantee that the work involved will be much less.  The publishing business makes little sense and it’s changing faster than ever before.  However, I do believe that the more you know, the greater your chances of success.  The vast majority of writers are flailing away at the craft and the business blindly.  Armed with knowledge, you greatly increase your ability to rise above the rest.  (Three books in one: The Nanowrimo Survival Kit)

You write for you.  You write because you have a story in you that has to come out.  This is the core of the art of writing.  Pearl Buck said:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:  a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.  To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.  Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create– so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him.  He must create, must pour out his creation.  By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

I believe that passion, which fuels long-term perseverance to be the single most important factor I also believe that too much discussion on the topic of creativity can actually stifle the drive in some people.  They start thinking that they have to do and think exactly like everyone else in order to succeed and that is not true.  That is why I say that there are no absolutes, no hard and fast rules in writing.  Follow your path.

I have listened to many writers speak, read many books on writing, and while much of what they say is the same, there is often something that is very different.  Usually that different thing is part of their creative expression, the way they approach their writing.  However, on a core level, I think most creative people operate in a similar manner.

I see people who do #nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where they try to write a certain number of words each day, every day and I have two views of that:  it’s good they are getting words down.  But are they the type of writer who works that way?  I know writers who don’t write every day, but work in creative bursts.  They might not write for a week, then knock out 20,000 words in three days.  #nanowrimo doesn’t work for them.  Stephen King says he write 10 pages a day.  That’s great for him.  Does it work for you?

Additionally, that is what he says Does he actually do it?  Probably, but maybe not.  He’s the only one who knows the truth.  Most writers feel a subliminal degree of guilt over getting paid to sit at home and create stories.  So sometimes we says things to make it more apparent that we ‘work’.  Because it’s hard to explain how hard it is to simply be sitting still, doing nothing, while we develop blinding headaches trying to work our way through our plot while remaining true to our characters.  So we use things like word count and page count instead, even if they aren’t true.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterWhen I discuss how to write a novel in The Novel Writers Toolkit, I talk a lot about the craft of novel writing.  The art is woven into the craft with deeper insights and when you take craft and twist it by breaking rules.  But the first rule of rule breaking is to know the rule.  Thus we must learn craft before we look to art.

Craft is the intellectual aspect of writing.  The art is the emotional aspect.  A great writer engages both the reader’s thoughts and emotions, thus being both a good craftsmen and a good artist.

One of the paradoxes of writing, and something to keep in mind when listening to people talk about writing:  They present techniques, ideas and formats that are the “accepted” way of doing things; yet the “accepted” way makes you the same as everyone else who can read a writing book and follow instructions, and your work has to stand out from everyone else’s.  So how do you do that?  How do you do things the “right” way yet be different?

Everything is a template; do not allow anything to stifle your creativity.  Remember the paradox.  The best analogy I can come up with is that if you were a painter I am telling you about the paint and the canvas and lighting and perspective, but ultimately you are the one who has to decide what you are going to paint and how to paint it.

Another thing is to understand the techniques and methods, and then use your brilliance to figure out a way to change the technique or method to overcome problems and roadblocks.  To be original– an artist– with something that’s already been done.  Also to mix techniques and methods in innovative ways.

The Basics

  1. Write a lot.
  2. Before writing a lot, be a voracious reader.
  3. I also am a big fan of watching a lot of movies and TV specials and series.  There are writers who dismiss the television, but there are great writers putting out excellent product in that medium.  And we all can learn from any artistic medium.  Watching a different medium can also allow you to see new ways of looking at your writing.
  4. Learn the proper way to do business things in the world of publishing such as having a strategic plan for your career, which is covered under my Write It Forward program and book.

How do you approach writing?  Do you do a daily word count like Nanowrimo or do you write in bursts?  Do you think watching TV is good or bad for you as a writer?

The Donner Party: Social Disintegration

Donner Snow“I wish I could cry, but I cannot. If I could forget the tragedy, perhaps I would know how to cry again.” Mary Graves. Survivor, the ‘Donner Party’

When people hear the ‘Donner Party’, the first thing they think of is cannibalism. That was part of the final event, a result of a number of preventable cascades. By the time this group resorted to that extreme, they had made enough mistakes that we’re not going to spend much time on that aspect. In another book in this series, we’ll cover another event where cannibalism played a role, Flight 571, the Andes Plane Crash, but that was a very different scenario. To me, the most important aspect of the Donner Party catastrophe were the homicides and the way the group fell apart because it is an ominous portend of what happens during catastrophes that needs to be taken into account.

The Donner Party is key because it’s a study of group dynamics or rather, how group dynamics don’t work. Few of us understand how quickly the veneer of civilization can be torn away from people. Soldiers who’ve served in combat zones can attest to this phenomenon, especially among civilians who aren’t trained like the military. In zones such as Bosnia, the Middle East, and other places, the barbarity into which apparently ‘ordinary’ people can quickly descend is frightening, and that is the lesson to understanding the catastrophe that was the Donner Party, because something similar can happen rather easily in future disasters. Turn the power off for a week in a large locale with no relief in sight and the results will be terrifying.

The Facts   In Spring 1846, a group of emigrants departed west for California. Rather than take the usual route, they decided to take a ‘shorter’ new route, the Hastings Cutoff. The delays from taking that route caused them to reach the last obstacle, the Sierra Nevada Mountains so late in the season that they became trapped by heavy snowfall, and were forced to spend the winter. Starving and freezing, some of the group resorted to cannibalism. Eventually, about half the party was rescued in the Spring of 1847.

1846:

15 April: The core of the party sets out from Springfield, Ohio.

12 May: The party sets out from Independence, Missouri, the start point of western emigration.

18 June: William Russell gives up command of the party, trading in his wagon for mules to travel faster, along with Edwin Bryant and some others.

27 June: The party arrives at Fort Laramie. They are urged not to take the Hastings Cutoff.

17 July: Passing Independence Rock, the party receives a letter from Hastings saying he will meet them at Fort Bridger and guide them.

18 July: The party crosses the Continental Divide.

19 July: At the Little Sandy River the party splits and the Donner Party heads toward Fort Bridger while the rest stay on the known California Trail.

31 July: The party leaves Fort Bridger to take the Hastings Cutoff. They cross the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, with many delays.

30 August: The party sets off across the Great Salt Lake Desert, experiencing more delays

26 September: The party finally rejoins the California Trail at the Humboldt River.

7 October: An elderly man is abandoned by the convoy, left on the side of the trail to die.

13 October: One man decides to cache his wagon; the two men who stay behind to help him, come back without him saying he was killed by Indians. He was murdered by one of them.

25 October: A small relief party arrives from California with seven mules of provisions; accompanied by two Native American guides.

November: The party cannot make it over Truckee Pass and camp for the winter.

15 December: The first member of the party dies from malnutrition.

16 December: The strongest members of the party set out on snowshoes to make it through the pass to Sutters Fort (the Forlorn Hope).

ShitDoesntJustHappenFinal(1)21 December: The snowshoers have made it over the pass but are battling deep snow. One member sits down, smokes his pipe, and tells them to go on. He dies.

24 December: The snowshoers can go no further. They draw lots to decide who to kill and eat. But can’t kill the loser. Members begin to die.

26 December: They resort to cannibalism.

30 December: The snowshoers run out of human meat. It’s suggested they kill the two Native Americans who were part of the resupply party. Warned, the two run off.

1847

9 January: The snowshoers come upon the two weakened and exhausted Native Americans who’d tried to escape. Shoot the two and then eat them.

17 January: The snowshoers are taken in by a Native American village. For the rest of the party on the other side of the mountains, it’s uncertain when they resorted to cannibalism of those who died from malnutrition and/or the cold.

19 February: The First Relief makes it over the mountains.

29 April: The last surviving member of the Donner Party arrives at Sutter’s Fort.

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#Nanowrimo: Kernel Idea Examples

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.

Nanowrimo coverWhen 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:

  1. Character?
  • Protagonist, antagonist?
  • Plot?
  1. Check to see what the verb is.
  • Positive or negative?
  • Action or re-action verb?

What If?

  • 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!

#Nanowrimo The Kernel Idea: The Alpha and Omega of Your Book

You have to start somewhere.

Have you ever listened to a writer who just recently started a new project? They are practically jumping out of their pants with excitement. Their eyes light up and oddly enough, they break out of that introverted shell and start babbling away about their latest novel.

Nanowrimo coverThis is at the core of the Kernel Idea. The spark of inspiration. That one thing that made you believe you could sit alone in a room and write 100,000 words. However, when the writer hits the 50k mark they often forget what excited them in the first place.  As you go through Nanowrimo, are you starting to sputter out?  The flame flickering low?

The kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of your book.  By that I mean it starts your creative process and it completes it.  It’s what you begin with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.

The kernel idea is the foundation of your novel.  When I say idea, I don’t necessarily mean the theme, although it can be.  Or the most important incident, although it can be.  But it can also be a setting.  It can be a scene.  It can be a character.

It is simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel.  All else can change, but the idea can’t.  It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever.  But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write.  If you don’t, your story and style will suffer terribly.  You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence.  And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing.  Knowing it will keep you on track.  (Nanowrimo Survival Kit)

Every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do.  I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it.

A Test

Can you clearly state what your book is about in 25 words or less? This is a key, essential ingredient of writing a good book. This idea keeps you focused and on track. It is important to:

  1. Write The Kernel Idea down.
  2. Ask yourself what emotional reaction does it bring about.

Good writing and strong characters are the key to great writing and knowing what excited you to write the book in the first place will bleed onto the page. However, if you don’t write it down, you might forget and get lost along the way.

What Is Your Kernel Idea?

  • Good news is you had one.
  • Bad news is you probably forgot it.
  • It is usually the first thought you had (the spark of inspiration)
  • It is the foundation of your book, the seed.

KERNAL IDEA EXERCISE

Write down the idea behind your current project.

If you can’t do it, then you need to backtrack through your thought process to find it, because you had it at one point. Everything starts from something. While idea is not story (something I will talk about later) idea is the only thing in your manuscript that won’t change. Your story can, but your idea won’t.

In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action:  What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline?  That’s it for Dragon Sim-13.  Not very elaborate, you say.  True.  Not exactly a great moral theme.  Right.  But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do.  I had to change the target country after the first draft.  But that was all right because I still had the idea.  I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn’t change my idea.  I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.

You will have plenty of latitude for story after you come up with your kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.

For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline.   Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.

I’ve sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say:  “The author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book.”  I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story.  Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.

A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done.   No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.

After you have that kernel idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover your feelings and thoughts about it.  I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story.  Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?

This is an example of being aware of what you are doing. Not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing.  It might not be your original idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.

The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters.  If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more.  Even if the reader doesn’t consciously see it either.

Writers balk at the Kernel or one-sentence idea. How can you be expected to write the entire essence of your epic novel in one sentence? You are told that every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene must have purpose, so how can any writer sum up their work in twenty-five words or less?

It’s simple. Your story started with an idea. The idea wasn’t much. If you write it down when you think of it, then summarizing your story in one-sentence is just that much easier.

One way to work on understanding the Kernel Idea is to take your favorite movie or book and try to figure out the Kernel Idea. This will help you narrow the focus and see how it is the foundation of everything in the story.

Do you know what your kernel idea is?

(In the next post, I’ll give examples of Kernel Ideas)

WRITE IT FORWARD

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