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The Story Grid: A Writer’s Tool

Every book is an adventure in writing, but there is one tool I have consistently used from my very first book and with every single one of the next 60 some odd that followed: The Story Grid.

After a couple of decades together, my wife has learned my few and far between foibles. One of them is a lack of attention to detail. I’m a big picture guy. If my wife wants to hide something from me in the fridge all she has to do is put it behind something. If she needs me to get something for her, she knows to give me very detailed instructions down to exactly what drawer, where in the drawer it is, and exactly what it is. Or I’m like Cool Gus: I’ll come back with the first ball I find.

I have the same problem writing. I can “see” the big picture of the book in my brain. But once I start writing, I tend to forget what I’ve written. So I use a physical, external device, to help me: the Story Grid.

It goes to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed) for every book as I’m writing. I fill it in as I’m writing. I use a red ink pen. Then I update the Excel sheet and print it out every day.

Every row is a scene in the book.

The columns depend on the type of story (do I need a countdown? Greenwich Mean Time?) but generally go thusly:

Chapter #; start page; end page; time/date; location; a brief summary of the action.

Here is an example from a work in progress, Nightstalkers: The Time Patrol which will be published on 25 Nov this year. In this case, instead of time/date, I use a 48 hour countdown because a clock is started leading to the end of the world as we know it in 48 hours.  Most of it makes no sense to you, but since I’ve written the scenes, it reminds me immediately of what’s been done.  It’s also a good way to see the flow of the book.


Note that what has been written ends at the beginning of Chapter 8. Everything below that is notes and future scenes that I put there as they occur to me. At the bottom are some notes from previous books in the series with terms I need, but can’t remember. Some of the terms near the bottom in bold are story loops I need to close out for various characters.  I also can add in a word count each day, to keep me on task.

Being able to put everything on one page makes it much easier for me to keep track. So if you’re not a good detail person, consider something like this. If you are a good detail person, but not a good big picture person, consider something like Jennifer Crusie’s collages, where she puts together a diorama that physically represents the entire story and can have it in her office where she can see it all the time.

On entirely different matter, we’d like feedback on these covers. We’re putting together a library sampler of all my books, consisting of one downloadable book that has every cover, author note on every book, brief description and opening chapter. We think this is a way readers can ‘browse’ my books for free. We’ll announce the launch of the sampler with links for download in a week or so here at Write It Forward. If you sign up for my newsletter (only sent out a couple times a year) you’ll have access to exclusive content from works in project I’ll be posting on-line soon, looking for reader feedback. Parts of the book from the story grid above will be the first to be posted. Sign up is to the left.

Just number them 1 thru 5, left to write, for your comments.


True Lies 1: The Four Pillars of Stories

How is your reading and writing (if you do so) linked to your life?

I’m a big believer in the power of the subconscious.  Consciously, we only use a small portion of our brain’s capabilities.  But the rest of that gray matter is churning, firing, working away (hopefully for us, but sometimes against us).  I always liked the part of Defending Your Life, the Albert Brooks film with Meryl Streep, where they refer to the small percentage of brainpower we mere humans use.  Also, where the only sin you can commit is an action taken out of fear. Motivation is the core to determining sin, not the action.  This is true in the movies, in life and in novels.  WHY do I do what I do?

After 25 years, 56 books, and a lot more living than just writing, I’ve begun to really examine my process not only as a writer but how it intertwines with who I am as a person.  That is going to be the basis of this blog every Tuesday this year, which I’m calling True Lies.  Remember, as a novelist, I am a professional liar.  But there is always the essence of truth in those lies and this blog is going to examine those truths.

I’ve settled on four pillars that are the basis of my stories (aka lies) and my reading/watching and how they connect to who I am:

Missile weapons.Write what you know:  My military background, from West Point, through the Infantry, and particularly into Special Operations is a large part of my books and was a large part of my life.  In fact, pretty much every protagonist I have is military or ex-military.  On the flip side, I know that my sales have not been as great as some other thriller writers because I take a more nuanced approach to conflict and service:  I’m not in the “my country right or wrong” and the “good guy, the US, always wins” camp.  It’s not that black or white.  Of course, I’m also one of the few thriller writers with actual military experience, especially in Special Operations, so we’ll see how that has affected not only my writing but the way I view the world.  Remember, you aren’t paranoid if they are indeed out to get you!

Write what you want to know:  My fascination with myths and legends permeates a lot of my writing and research, especially two of my bestselling series.  Atlantis is one of the oldest recorded myths and Area 51 is a modern myth.  In the Area 51 series I rewrote the entire history of mankind and surprisingly or not, depending on which way you look at it, 95% of what’s in the books are facts. Which led Jen Talty to label my books: Factual Fiction. But this pillar intersects with the next one:

IMG_0520Write what interests you:  I love history.  Not just for the information, but more the people.  Also, because I am a big believer in the maxim those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.  Experience is the best teacher and history is experience.  From a novel that is purely historical, Duty, Honor, Country, to the 50% of the last five Atlantis books where I use a past timeline to support the current story, a large portion of my writing has to do with history.  My last release, The Kennedy Endeavor, examines the Cuban Missile Crisis.  What I find fascinating is what we think we know is often wrong; and we know a lot less than we think we know.  The last few cold nights, huddled in bed with my wife and Cool Gus & Sassy Becca, we’ve been watching a history of the British Monarchy on Netflix and it’s been absolutely fascinating.

Origin ConsciousnessWrite what is your passion:  Last, and most importantly, I go back to the mind.  When I went into West Point I was sure I was going to major in engineering.  In fact, I achieved a perfect final score on the Systems Engineering test.  But they say an education at the Military Academy is like trying to take sip from a fire hydrant (I’ve been told my workshops are similar), so I had to take a lot of subjects I probably wouldn’t have if the choice had been left to me.  Once I started in psychology, I realized this was where I wanted to concentrate.  I find the human mind utterly fascinating.  I had to laugh when reading Esquire and they ask a celebrity what book they have on their nightstand (no one ever says Conan the Barbarian) and Sean Penn replied:  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Okay, maybe I believe him.  I remember pulling the hardcover of that book out of a Jeep I totaled about ten years ago.  It’s still sitting on our bookshelf here at Write on the River.  And that’s a story for a post of True Lies down the road.

Next week:  a purple banana seat bike (remember those?); Pink Floyd; and libraries: all shaped me as a reader and writer early on.

This leaves us with two questions:

  1. What book is on your ‘nightstand’ right now, or pops up when you open your Kindle App or Nook or stone tablet?
  2. How is your writing and reading linked to your life in terms of passion, interest, background or knowledge?

#Nanowrimo You need Patience And Self-Discipline To Succeed as a Writer

It takes a long time to write a novel. No matter how fast you are, it takes a while.  In fact, while some things like NANOWRIMO on Twitter which has people writing at furious pace for a month is good to get the writing down, it is also negative in that quantity is not necessarily quality.

The amount of time I spend writing a novel has actually increased the more I learn about the craft.  Rather than making it easier, more knowledge makes it more difficult to write, as I try to make the book the best possible product I can.

Writers are often asked what their daily schedule is.  I think it is important to have the discipline to have a daily schedule and/or goal.  It is too easy to let the writing go and take care of everything else if you don’t force yourself to face that daily goal.

It’s different for many writers but here are some from writers I know:

5 pages a day; 2,000 words a day; 10 pages a day; six hours a day.

I think an external goal that can be measured is the best to go for.  It’s a tangible goal and you know when you’ve accomplished it.  While this might seem to contradict the statement made above about something like NANOWRIMO, the key is that the writing is often going back and layering onto writing already done.

Beyond that tangible writing goal, I work seven days a week, anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day.  It’s hard for me to say how many hours a day I work because I am almost always ‘working’.  If I’m not sitting in front of my computer, I’m in the library researching or watching the news for interesting facts or simply thinking about my story, playing it out in my mind, watching my characters come alive.  I have many of my best plot ideas when driving or riding my bike.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my iPhone with recorder next to my bed ready for instant use.

My cable bill is very high, with every channel, on-demand, and DVR.  There are writers who say ‘kill your television’ but I disagree with that.  There’s some very good writing in that medium.  I watch movies and shows the same way I read books:  analytically to see what the writers did and also what were the possibilities that weren’t explored.  The #1 thing a writer must do other than write is read and watch movies and shows.  It is work.  It will take away some of your enjoyment of things as you can get good at predicting what will happen next under Chekhov’s rule of ‘don’t have a gun in act one unless you use it by act 3.  But note that I say ‘use it’ not ‘fire it’.  That’s the key to great writing.  To take what is expected and do the unexpected.

Writing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.  If you write only when excited or motivated you’ll never finish.  You have to write even when it’s the last thing you want to do.  Just put something down.  You can always edit it later or throw it out (you’ll do a lot of throwing out and it hurts but it’s the sign of a mature writer; also, it’s one reason you don’t edit yourself to death on the first draft).  I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft.  My last manuscript was 126,000 words long and then I cut it back to 90,000 words.  To sweat over that many pages and then “lose” them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected.  The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become a fan of rewriting and editing.  I’m a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript, including extensive character development.  This is a trend among several authors I’ve talked.  Both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George got back lengthy editorial letters on the first book they sold.  They determined then and there to make sure that future manuscripts would not require such rewriting.  And they didn’t.  They learned to know what they were doing before they did it.

Overall, I’ve developed an inner “writing clock” that works in terms of weeks and months that lets me know how much I have to produce and how quickly.  It varies its pace depending on the project at hand and it took years of experience to develop this inner clock.  I force myself to put the time and effort in, even when I don’t feel like it.  However, as I discuss in Write It Forward, almost every writer tends to underestimate the time it takes to complete a manuscript.

Experiment and find something that works for you in day-to-day writing.  Maybe it will only be for one hour every morning before everyone else gets up– keep doing it.  You’ll be amazed how much you can get done if you stick with it.

Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent on the train to and from work in Chicago.  So don’t let circumstances stand in your way.

All the thinking, talking, going to writer’s conferences, classes, etc. are not going to do you any good if you don’t do one basic thing:  WRITE.

Ultimately, though, as Bryce Courtney says, you need a large dose of ‘bum glue’.  Gluing yourself to that seat and writing.

Do you have a large supply of bum glue?

Nanowrimo coverIn honor of Nanowrimo month, Cool Gus has put together a Nanowrimo Survival kit at a discount:  three books in one at a big discount (over 50% off buying them individually).  We’re only going to run this special for November, then we’ll be taking it down.

The Novel Writers Toolkit which is how to write the book.

Write It Forward which is how to be a professional author and build a career using my Who Dares Wins concept.

And How We Made Our First Million on Kindle which is about negotiating the world of digital publishing.

#NaNoWriMo is coming to end…what to do next?

At the end of November many writers will have 50k words, or close too it. Some will have completed a novel. Others will be close to completion. Most will need a long nap. Writing 2k every day can be exhausting, especially when the words are forced or not flowing. Producing that kind output is a full time job when many of those participating in NaNo have other jobs and families, its even more exhausting.

So now that it’s almost over, what do you do next? Most of the advice I see out there is to take a break. While I think that is an excellent idea, I think there is one thing you should do before you set aside your NaNo project. I suggest you make an outline of what you think you just wrote. Your mind has been in constant thought, producing word after word. Its time to see if those words make sense.

When I wrote Rekindled during NaNoWriMo, as soon as I was done, I took out a notebook and started labeling pages. One was for Hero. Another for the Heroine. I had a page for the best friend and ex-girlfriend’s romance. I had a page for the dead father. A page for the hero’s boss and the hero’s mother and their relationship. I had a page for the heroine’s best friend. A page for dead father’s best friend who is holding a lot of the secrets tying all the above people together. I had a page for the bad guys who were tying to kill the Heroine. Finally, I had a page for the plot line. I jotted down what I thought I knew about what I wrote WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE MANUSCRIPT. I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about what I had just written.

Then, I took a break. I didn’t work on that manuscript at all, though I thought about it and I keep a notebook with me, jotting things down.

Next, I printed it out and sat in a big comfy chair with my feet up and just read it. This was the hardest part. I didn’t allow myself a red pen. I forced myself to stay away from the computer. I did however give myself permission to take notes. They were mostly questions, like “why did I write that scene in that point-of-view?” or “who really is Kaylee’s father?” That question really hit me hard because I hadn’t planned for Kaylee to have a different biological dad than the one who raised her and who had been murdered, but it was my subconscious at work, so I had to figure it out. This process was very difficult, but very important in understanding what my brain had done while I was busy tossing words onto the page to meet my word count.

After I had gone through the manuscript, I had to make some difficult decisions. Many of my scenes were written in the wrong point of view. So they had to be changed. I had to delete two point of view characters. Also, the reason Kaylee had come home in the beginning of the book wasn’t the reason I had been working of off halfway through the book.

I honestly was so confused by middle of December I felt like I almost had to start all over again. So, I took a deep breath and went back to basics. I asked myself what the Kernel Idea was for this book. I wrote that down and one sentence gave me a lot of direction, but I still had a lot of rewriting to do, but it went much smoother after that.

Nanowrimo coverIn honor of Nanowrimo month, Cool Gus has put together a Nanowrimo Survival kit at a discount:  three books in one at a big discount (over 50% off buying them individually).  We’re only going to run this special for November, then we’ll be taking it down.

The Novel Writers Toolkit which is how to write the book.

Write It Forward which is how to be a professional author and build a career using my Who Dares Wins concept.

And How We Made Our First Million on Kindle which is about negotiating the world of digital publishing.


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