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.
If 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.
When 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.
- Write a lot.
- Before writing a lot, be a voracious reader.
- 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.
- 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 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!
It’s a great life. I’m my own boss. I wear shorts and t-shirts to work, which is in my house. I sit at my desk with a great view of the TN River with a blank stare, drool running down the side of my mouth, and I’m working. Well, not really. Because no one’s paying me for my great thoughts. They’re paying for my writing.
I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century and here are some harsh truths I’ve learned about making a living as a writer.
1. No one owes you a reading. You have to earn it.
2. The minute you think you have it made, your career is over.
3. You have to be ahead of innovation, not following it. I get rather bored lately reading blog posts and tweets and comments from BEA, LBF, PubSmart, Digital Bookworld, etc. regarding all the gurus making predictions, comments, yada, yada, because I’ve had the bisque. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn. Now I focus more on the subtext. Jon Fine of Amazon using the term “tsunami of content” caught my attention because it came a few weeks after I blogged about the content bubble, which might better be called the content blob. But other than that, a lot of it is the same old, same old. But I also have to accept for many writers, it’s new. Still, I also remember what some of these same ‘gurus’ were saying 3 or 4 years ago. Uh-huh.
4. Listen to those who have skin in the game. I make my living selling stories to readers. If you want to make a living selling stories to readers focus on listening to those people. Those who make their money in ancillary ways off of the book business? Listen to them but also understand their motives are different than yours. Many of them want to make their money off you. Caveat emptor.
5. Trust no one. Okay, that’s extreme but essentially, no writer should count on anyone else professionally. Your agent, your editor, your publisher: they are not your friends. They are not your business manager. They are people who you work with as a self-employed part of the publishing machine. They might love you, but when the numbers don’t add up—later, gator.
6. Publicity doesn’t equal sales. You can be on the front page of the NY Times and unless the story is specifically about your book, it doesn’t lead to sales. I always like watching Harlan Ellison talk about ‘pay the writer’ because we really don’t value ourselves enough.
7. You can be as ‘right’ as you want to be but still fail. I only have to be right for my business. Not anyone else’s. What works for me will not work for anyone else. Stop trying to prove you’re right to others. They don’t care.
8. People lie. Writers are professional liars. I’ve listened to keynotes from writers and known they weren’t telling the truth. I’ve seen ‘deals’ posted in Publishers Marketplace and known the agent was grossly exaggerating the sale. No one blogs about “my career has gone down the crapper”. Nope. People talk about good things. So don’t let it discourage you when everyone seems to be doing better than you. Often they’re hanging on by their fingernails.
9. No matter how good your writing is, someone will not like it. In fact, the better it is, the bigger the pushback. The more successful you become, the more people will try to take you down. Don’t let them.
10. Math wins. Always. The Content Blob is going to eat up a lot of midlist self-pubbers. Remember the movie The Blob? 1958? Steve McQueen? Every book that is digitized is on the shelf forever. No one is walking the aisles with computer printouts removing those that are beginning to ooze. And every day more and more titles are added.
11. Nobody knows everything. When we go to industry events, I constantly remind my business partner that no one there knows everything. In fact, most know only a niche. People pretend to know a lot, but that’s because they’re . . .
12. Afraid. Fear rules many things in life. Fear is insidious. Repeat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s brilliant Dune:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing….only I will remain”
13. It always comes back to content. Bundles, Bookbub, sacrificing goats; they all have their place. But it always comes back to content. Write good stories. Then more good stories. And you will succeed.
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