Category Archives: Creative Writing

How to Read the Classics to Become a Better Writer

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Top Three Things to Learn Before Writing a Novel

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How to Tell a Good Story

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On Being a Writer

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The Importance of Beta-Readers, and How to Find Them

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How to Handle Writer’s Block and Other Writing Challenges

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

Related Posts

Creative Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

Publishing & Writer’s Life

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

A Week in the Life of a Writer, and a Peek Inside my Office

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Make NaNoWriMo Last All Year

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Photo by Christopher Campbell © Unsplash

Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world do something that might break them spiritually, psychically, or psychologically — though probably not physically: they attempt to write the first draft of an entire novel in 30 days. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (175 DS manuscript pages, based on a count of approximately 300 words per page) in thirty days. That’s about 1,700 words (or six DS manuscript pages) a day. Besides training for and entering an Iron Man Competition, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s known to participants, has to be one of the most challenging and demanding tasks anyone can voluntarily give himself.

Participants are not supposed to publish the book they write during NaNoWriMo as is. The NaNoWriMo book is the first draft. Writers have to revise, edit, get feedback from readers, re-write, edit, revise more, have some coffee, then decide whether they want to Indie publish or attempt to get an agent and try for the traditional New York publishing route.

NaNoWriMo is not about getting published or about being an author.

NaNoWriMo is about being a writer.

If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you probably learned as much about yourself as you did about your novel.  Even if you didn’t manage to complete the requisite 50K, even if you only worked on an outline for your planned novel, you did something important. If you learned nothing more than how difficult it is to write full-time, then you learned the most important thing NaNoWriMo could ever teach you about being a writer. Here are some tips for helping you continue to write full-time, all year long.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla © Unsplash

Pretend It’s Your Job

As I wrote in another post, some of the best advice I ever got about writing came from a friend when I took nine months off work to write my first novel — 9 months without pay, after having borrowed $11K from the bank (at 17 & ⅞% interest, for a total loan repayment of $18K). At that time, though I’d been writing regularly and been extensively published in literary and university journals for over 10 years, I’d only written when inspiration struck me, i.e., in short, intensive bursts every few months. I’d never been paid for writing, had never published a book, and had never done it every day, all day long, for an extended period. I’d also only written poetry, which is easier to write sporadically since poems are quite a bit shorter than novels.

After almost a year trying to write my first novel while working several jobs, I’d gotten the bright idea to borrow money from the bank to write my book. To my shock, the bank approved the loan, based on my extensive publications and literary prizes. During the first month of my sabbatical, I didn’t write anything at all: instead, I spent my time thinking about my novel, all day long, every day. When I realized how much it had cost me to think for a month, I panicked. That’s when my best friend suggested that I think at my desk, with a pen in my hand, holding my pen over a tablet of paper. Further, she suggested that I pretend writing was my job, which meant getting up, getting dressed, going to my desk, and writing at the same time every day.

Pretending that writing was my job changed my life.

Celebrity authors are not the only full-time writers in the world: all of us who eventually got published had to write for a long time before our books received contracts. Full-time writers, including traditionally published authors, almost always have other jobs: they rarely can support themselves and their families solely from writing income. Full-time writers are those who’ve made a serious and long-term commitment to writing, no matter what their day-job is, how long their daily commute, how small their writing or office space, how large their family, or how extensive their outside obligations.

A full-time writer writes like it’s his job, even if he’s never gotten paid for his writing.

If you want to make NaNoWriMo last all year long, treat writing as your job.

Photo by STIL © Unsplash

Get a Calendar and
Schedule Writing Time

When you have a job as a writer, you don’t merely write the time you have already spent writing on the calendar: you write down the time you are going to spend writing. Like it’s your job. You know what time you have to be at your job, and if you have multiple jobs, as I’ve had almost all of my life, you write down where you have to be and the time you have to be there. When I wrote for that year that I took off work, I wrote down, in advance, the times I was supposed to be writing, and I continued that practice after I went back to my paying job.

That’s how I got into the habit of getting up and writing by 5 every morning. I scheduled [Name of Book] on my calendar from 5-7 every morning. That meant I had to be at my desk writing by that time, not just getting out of bed, or lying there hitting the snooze button. I did it on the weekends, too, but scheduled my writing for at least 8 hours on weekends and holidays. Since I was used to getting up and working by 5, it was no inconvenience to continue doing that after I went back to work at my paying job.

For NaNoWriMo, you planned in advance to write the entire month, and you planned to get a certain number of words written a day. To continue the NaNoWriMo experience, get yourself a calendar and schedule your writing time in advance, just as you would your job, your vacation, holidays, or any doctors’ appointments.

Keep that scheduled commitment and be there writing.

Photo by Allef Vincius © Unsplash

Consider Writing Time
as Your Apprenticeship

You have to pay your dues in practically any job. Sometimes you have to do volunteer work in your chosen field in order to have experience. Often, people educated in a particular field have to complete an apprenticeship, internship, or residency to get sufficient practical experience to qualify for a paying position in the field of their choice. Being a writer — and eventually an author — is the same as any other field. Everyone puts in plenty of time writing without getting paid or having any guarantee of publication.

Consider any time you spend writing before publication as your own apprenticeship,  internship, or residency until you get really good at it.

If you are traditionally published after you finish your book, it is unlikely that you will get a large enough Advance to live on. You may become a bestseller, but, given how long it takes for a traditionally published book to reach bookstores after it’s sold to the Publishing House, you won’t get rich immediately. That means you’ll be writing your subsequent book with no guarantee of additional money or of another publishing contract.

Think of NaNoWriMo as the beginning of your internship.

Now extend that month of your writing internship for the entire year.

After you’ve published your first book, you will be an author, but all authors still have to write, and they write all year long, not just in November.

Photo by Andrew Neel © Unsplash

Choose to Write

You are not super-human, so you will have to make choices if you want to include writing in your life. For me, it meant delaying children because I needed all my time for college, grad school, teaching, retail jobs, and writing. If you really want to be a writer, writing should always be at the top of your list of priorities and commitments. If it’s not, stop reading this post and go do something else: you don’t want to be a writer bad enough.

Next on your list of priorities, put your paying job since you have to support yourself and your writing, which costs money even if you don’t Indie publish. Put your family or permanent relationships after that. Anything else can be considered superfluous and can be eliminated.

You need to make choices in life, especially if you want to be a writer: it is such a time-consuming career. If you want to be an author, which is a published writer, you will still have to write.

If you want NaNoWriMo to last longer than the month of November, you have to establish your priorities and make conscious choices that will guarantee you have sufficient writing time.

Photo by Arno Smit © Unsplash

Be Ready to Open the Door
When Opportunity Knocks

To unpublished writers, being traditionally published is like being in the Garden of Eden, but nobody wakes up already in Published Author Paradise. You must always be writing, revising, editing, writing more, completing your books, improving your craft, searching for agents, submitting your work to editors and agents, and writing even more. That way, when the Getting Published Opportunity knocks on your door, you’ll be qualified to answer the door with (at least one) polished, finished book in hand.

NaNoWriMo gives you a taste of what being a writer is like.

If you want to be a published author, use your NaNoWriMo experience to continue being a full-time writer, whether or not you have another paying job. You’ll be writing more than one month out of the year, and you’ll also be finishing your books so that you’ll have something to publish when your opportunity to become an author arrives.

Photo by Christine Roy © Unsplash

Don’t Expect Fame & Fortune

As any artist in any field can readily tell you, there is a very small number of celebrities in any field who are well known to everyone, get any job they want, make most of the money, get all the attention, and make most of the money.

Don’t expect fame. Don’t expect fortune. Those things cannot be controlled.

The amount of time you spend writing is the only thing that can be controlled. Expect, therefore, to write, write, write. And then to write some more.

If you’re lucky, you might get some prizes, or a big Advance from one of the traditional publishers, or an option on your book that actually leads to a big movie deal, but don’t expect or plan on any of these things because that’s just not the way the artistic world works.

Expect to be a writer.

You experienced that during NaNoWriMo, so you already know what it’s like to write.

Now, go write.

Photo by Christopher Campbell © Unsplash

Take Care of Yourself
Spiritually, Emotionally, & Physically

Writing is a taxing business. It’s much harder than any job you leave behind at the workplace when you clock out at the end of the day. For that reason, you need to exercise, eat healthily, and should probably do some form of meditation daily.

You also need to keep negative people away from you: there’s enough rejection in this business. You don’t need negative people “rejecting” you as a writer in your personal life as well. Eliminate the negative people in your life even if they are family members, friends, or spouses. Surround yourself instead with loving and supportive people who encourage you to be a writer. Additionally, find writing-support groups, reliable beta-readers, and good editors.

Rest when necessary.

Don’t forget to play.

After all, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to write.

Photo by Raw Pixel © Unsplash

If you truly wish to be a writer, you can’t just write when you feel like it, or when inspiration hits you, or when your muses are singing to you, or when it happens to be convenient. You have to make a commitment to writing. You have to make conscious choices to have the time to write. Despite NaNoWriMo, which I think is a wonderful idea, you cannot spend only one month a year committed to writing as a priority in your life.

Writing has to be your life.

And you have to take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually, and physically so that you can continue to write. That way, NaNoWriMo can last more than a month: it can last all year, every year, for the rest of your life.

Related Posts

Creative Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

Publishing & Writer’s Life

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

A Week in the Life of a Writer, and a Peek Inside my Office

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How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

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 When I first decided to write a novel, I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I’d written and published poems, articles, and essays, but never any fiction. To get ready for my first novel, I read lots of how-to books on writing novels, but they said some of the silliest things, including that I needed to have characters, plot, and dialogue. Anyone who’s ever read a novel knows those things, so I didn’t feel those books helped me when I was trying to figure out how to transition from poetry and non-fiction to fiction. My first novel was historical, so after I completed all the research, and after I knew who my protagonists (both narrators) were, I wrote a detailed outline. Then I began writing the novel.

Within a month, my characters started doing things that weren’t in my outline. I was shocked. Since I’d never written fiction, I hadn’t realized that characters could do such things. At that time, I also didn’t know any other fiction writers: all my writer-friends wrote poetry or non-fiction, as I did. None of them seemed to know how fiction worked when it was actually being written, so they told me that I must have “forgotten” to include those scenes in the outline.

I redid the outline, feeling pretty confident that no character would surprise me again. Less than two scenes later, another character did something unexpected. I redid my outline again. And, once more, my characters surprised me with something I’d “forgotten.”

As you can imagine, I was beginning to get annoyed with my own characters.

Instead of trying to force them to follow my outline, however, I ditched it.

Oh, I glanced at my original outline a few times after that, but instead of attempting to stick to it, I just waited for my characters to tell me what was supposed to happen next. To my surprise, that approach worked. In fact, my characters showed me scenes that I would never have consciously thought of, so I quickly learned to trust them to guide me in writing a novel.

I’ve never outlined a novel since that initial try. Though I realize that many writers feel more comfortable writing outlines for their novels, especially if they’re writing a series of novels, I think every writer can benefit from writing a novel without any outline. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also very artistically rewarding.

The Importance of Conflict

If you’re not familiar with the concept of Urgency, which keeps readers turning pages, then you should read my post on Urgency for additional explanation of the term since I am only going to be discussing plot Urgency in this post.

Most readers initially read a book for its plot: they turn pages to see how the story unfolds. There are many published authors who are master storytellers — i.e., their plots are so compelling that the reading audience cannot put the books down — without necessarily being brilliant writers: their characters may not be fully developed or their writing style may not be exceptional. Good storytellers who write successful books have mastered plot Urgency, however, and that is all that matters to their readers.

Urgency is somewhat easier to develop when it is part of the plot because you must have conflict in plot, and conflict readily lends itself to Urgency. All fiction must have conflict: without it, there is no reason for the audience to continue reading. You could almost say that stories exist so that the audience can see how the characters work through the conflicts they encounter.

Traditonal Categories of Conflict

The traditional divisions of conflict in fiction have typically been divided into these categories:

man vs. man
man vs. himself
man vs. nature
man vs. supernatural

Of course, many stories, novellas, and novels have many of these conflicts all at the same time. It doesn’t matter how an author classifies his conflict, only that he include conflict in his fiction.

You should increase the plot conflicts in importance and intensity throughout the novel to maintain your readers’ interest. Some writers call this the “dramatic arc,” while some critics call this the “rising action,” which simply means that it is a series of conflicts increasing in intensity until you arrive at the peak, which they call the “climax,” meaning it’s supposed to be the “ultimate conflict” of the work.

Dénouement 

Historically, the  “falling action” or “the dénouement” (translation, “untying or unraveling the knot”) occurred after the ultimate conflict. In the dénouement,  all conflicts among characters were resolved, and all resolutions to the fictional world presented. The dénouement was meant to be a sort of catharsis for the reader, releasing any remaining anxiety and tension, while eliminating difficulties for any of the characters. In short, these were the days when readers had to be reassured that they were reading a story, and, in effect, the author had to inform them how everything turned out.

Although some authors still include a dénouement in the form of an epilogue, which ties up any loose ends in the characters’ stories and answers any remaining questions readers might have, much of contemporary fiction, especially books written in series, no longer include a dénouementInstead, authors who write book series typically end each book with plot Urgency in order to make the reader want to get the next book. In literary fiction, authors often end on Urgency because they want the endings to be ambiguous, morally questionable, or open to interpretation. As fiction itself has become more sophisticated, so has its readers — or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any event, readers no longer need an author’s reassuring dénouement at the end of a piece of fiction.

Conflict in a Series

If you are writing books in a series, remember that each book has to have its own increasing conflicts, and the series itself has to have its own separate, ever-increasing conflicts. Many authors make the mistake of writing an incredible first book in a series, with a tremendous plot, full of great conflict and Urgency, then write subsequent books in the same series where the plot slows down tremendously (the books also often get shorter) and the Urgency virtually disappears. Even if you’re using an outline, you need to keep plot Urgency in the forefront when writing your novels. Without an outline, plot Urgency is imperative.

Knock Your Protagonist’s World Off Its Axis

To begin your novel, especially if you’re trying to do it without an outline, you should write the one scene that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis. That means you’re introducing both your protagonist and your antagonist (or, at least one of the antagonists) in your novel immediately, and that’s a good thing. Make sure that this earth-rocking event is described in detail. You want your readers to connect immediately with your protagonist: they should want to know how he will handle this event. Write it in sufficient detail to keep the readers wanting to continue your story.

Backstory

Previously, some literature or creative writing instructors used to insist that the protagonist’s “backstory” had to be presented before any major conflict was shown. If these instructors drew this premise on the board, they showed it as a flat line before the “rising action” of the plot was presented. Visually, that flat line of the backstory was very symbolic: nothing important happened. The backstory was, literally, the history of the characters before any conflict began.

As fiction became more sophisticated, readers no longer wanted to plow through endless “backstory” in which nothing happened: they wanted to jump right into the action. Writers have learned to eliminate this flat plain of backstory and weave anything of importance in the characters’ history into the main story itself. Most successful fiction now starts with Urgency; thus it begins with conflict.

Starting with characters’ backstory, even if it’s the backstory of your protagonist, is a sure way to eliminate Urgency from your novel. Start with the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and you’re more likely to engage your readers’ interest from the first page.

Additionally, no matter how much of your characters’ backstory you write for yourself — including lists of character education, skills, or physical description — you want to avoid large blocks of backstory anywhere in your novel, as these blocks of information, which do not move the plot forward, will slow your story down. Instead, put any pertinent information from your character’s backstory in as hints or, even better, simply let the backstory, which is the protagonist’s personal history, determine your protagonist’s behavior. You don’t ever need to write several chapters (or scenes) of backstory to explain why your protagonist is behaving as he does: readers can infer that it has something to do with his own backstory, or they can, alternately, interpret his behavior for themselves.

Ask “What Happens Next?”

Once you understand the importance of Urgency, especially plot Urgency, and once you have written the scene which details the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, then you only have one other “step” to keep in mind while writing a novel without an outline: ask What happens next?

When you know what happens next in the plot, which is the main story in your novel, make sure that you write that scene fully, including any other characters that are involved, as well as dialogue. Make sure that you write the second story-plot scene completely, and make sure that it has conflict.

Bear in mind that though this may be the second scene in the main story of the novel, i.e., the second scene in the plot-conflict, it may not end up being the second scene in the novel. You may decide, in subsequent drafts, that another scene may work better after the initial scene. You may have a flashback scene or a (brief) backstory scene; you might introduce the antagonist more fully.

The second scene in the plot-conflict of the story advances the story itself with Urgency, as should each scene which moves the story forward. If you were to put them one after the other, you would have the main plot of the novel. There may be other scenes in the novel, such as those which reveal backstory, other conflicts, relationships between the characters, sub-plots which have their own stories, etc., but the major plot-conflict story — the one which starts the novel itself — should always be clear to the readers so that they can follow what happens.

Now you should have at least two scenes, both involved in the major plot-conflict of the story, both with Urgency, fully written, both of which move the plot forward toward the eventual final conflict of the story.

Now ask again, What happens next?

Each time you ask this question, remember that you are thinking of the major plot story with its increasing conflicts, which lead to the ultimate (and final) conflict (in the stand-alone book or in the entire series) in order to “answer” this question.

Each time you get an answer to this question, write the scene completely, in as much detail as possible.

Repeat as necessary.

Other Scenes

Although many other scenes and plot events may appear to you, you should write these parts of the book separately since they may not appear in the final version of the novel: they may be backstory, for example, and though you may need to know these stories in great detail to write the novel, your readers may not need as much detail about the backstory.

Also, recall that this is your first draft — which should never be published as it is — and you will have plenty of time during revision and editing to change Point of View, re-arrange scenes, insert or delete sections, add or subtract characters, etc. Concentrate on conflict and plot Urgency when writing the first draft of a novel without an outline: that will keep your work focussed.

The Great Unknown

You do not have to know the entire story yourself when writing a novel without an outline in order to successfully enjoy the process itself. Some writers know the beginning and the end when they initially get the idea for the novel. They don’t know how to get from the beginning to the end, but they’ve learned that they don’t have to. Other writers do not get a vision of the story’s end along with their vision of the novel’s beginning, but they proceed with anyway, trusting that their artistic intuition will guide them.

That’s basically how you write an entire novel without an outline: concentrate on plot-Urgency, start with the single event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and discover each subsequent scene in the story by asking What happens next?

Does that seem too easy?

That’s because you’ve never done it yourself.

Does it seem to hard to write an entire novel like that?

Depends on whether you like the excitement and the challenge of discovering your own talent as you discover the story of your characters.

Obviously, writing without an outline isn’t the only way to write a novel, but it’s certainly a thrilling way for writers to attempt at least once in their careers.

Related Posts

Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

Publishing

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

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Filed under Creative Writing, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Stories, Storytelling, Urgency, Writing, Writing & Revising

How to Pitch Your Book

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Agent: Pitch me your book.
Author: What?
Agent: Tell me what it’s about in one sentence. Make me want to read it.
Author: You have to read the book to know what it’s about.
Agent: No, you have to Pitch it. You have 4 minutes left.
Author: It’s about loss.
Agent: What kind of loss?
Author: All kinds.
Agent: Loss of life? Loss of money? Loss of love? Help me out here.
Author: It’s about all kinds of loss. And love.
Agent: What kind of love? Family love? Married love? Platonic love?
Author: All kinds.
Agent: Time’s up.

That is a verbatim interaction, and it happened at a Writing Conference. The unpublished writer kept insisting that the agent had to read the entire manuscript to know what it was about. Obviously, the author didn’t understand the all-important Pitch. Writers have to metaphorically “sell” their manuscripts to agents, editors, and readers. Writers do that with a Pitch. Even if you’ve been traditionally published before, you’ll probably have to Pitch each new book to your agent or editor — unless you’re a bestseller — so learning how to Pitch a book is one of the most important things writers ever do. It takes some practice, but you can learn how to Pitch your work effectively by following a few guidelines.

• The best Pitch has Urgency, because without Urgency, it won’t get anyone’s attention.
(If you don’t know what Urgency is, read my posts on Urgency Pt 1 and Pt 2.)
• A Pitch should ideally be one sentence.
(It doesn’t have to be short, but don’t make it too very long.)
• It should fit only one individual book.
• It should not reveal the ending.
(Though it may seem obvious that a Pitch should not give away the ending, you’d be surprised how many writers ruin their Pitch this way.)

Now, let’s analyze some weak and strong Pitches. The following Pitches are not very successful (these are real Pitches to agents and editors) because each Pitch should be concise, unique, and attention-grabbing.

It’s a rags-to-riches tale.
It’s a Cinderella tale.
It’s a coming-of-age story.
It’s about love.
It’s about loss.
It’s about my uncle the dentist.
It’s about my life.

All those are too vague.
And the one alluding to Cinderella gives away the HEA ending as well.

In Hollywood, it’s common for people Pitching a new show or film to compare the project to previously financially successful shows and films. The Hollywood people listening to the Pitches don’t have to have seen the films mentioned: all the producers have to know is whether or not the films made money. Book Pitches that mimic Hollywood film Pitches compare themselves to other successful books or authors. This type of Pitch can be either too vague or too narrowly specific. Either way, it will fail.

Love Kay Scarpetta? Missing Mitch Rapp? Do Clancy and Grisham make your day? Check out [Author]: she won’t disappoint.

This Pitch doesn’t compare authors to authors, or books to books, or even characters to characters. Instead, it mixes fictional characters with authors, but not with the authors who created the aforementioned fictional characters. Further, if a reader don’t know any of those names, he won’t read the book. This Pitch is trying to capitalize on characters from bestselling books, as well as on bestselling genre authors, but it’s too generalized, vague, and mixed-genre to work.

This could this be the next 50 Shades except it’s darker, rougher, more graphic, and more intense than 50 Shades of Grey.

This Pitch is very specific, and it might work for readers of the bestseller, but not if they don’t like “darker, rougher, more graphic” sexual scenes. For anyone who hasn’t read the original book it’s modeling itself after, the Pitch makes no sense.

He’s Dexter, if Dexter was a professionally trained covert espionage agent with a wicked sense of humor.

This Pitch mixes the character of a television show, with whom readers may not be familiar, with the unnamed “He” of the Pitch, and says “he’s Dexter, if Dexter was…” all the things that Dexter apparently is not. I’ve never seen Dexter though I’ve heard of it. All I know is that he’s a cop or detective or some other law enforcement person who’s really a serial killer. So I know absolutely nothing about this book. Worse, I don’t want to.

For fans of Nalini Singh
• If you enjoy Michael Crichton, Philip K. Dick, or Robert Ludlum, you need to read this book
• Twilight meets Outlander

These all fail for the same reasons: if the reader doesn’t recognize the authors, the books, or the genres, the Pitch doesn’t succeed at selling.

Even worse than these weak Pitches, however, is the trend among self-published authors to attempt to use subtitles as Pitches. These authors end up with subtitles that are neither Pitches nor subtitles, but merely a list of genres or buzzwords.

An Electrifying Whodunit
• A Supernatural Boarding School
• A Paranormal Time-Travel Espionage Romance
• A Compelling Action-Packed Military Adventure Crime-Thriller Suspense Mystery
• A Well-Written Cheeky Frontier Cowboy Historical Western Erotic Inspirational Christmas Romance
• Gritty Action and Heartfelt Drama Meets Alien Adventurers And Conspiracy Theorists
• Twists, Turns, Greed, Gunfights, Romance, and Espionage. What More Could You Want?
• A Gripping, Thrilling, Bang-up Financial Mystery That Stops You In Your Tracks!
• A Dark Brutal Psychological Thriller Suspense With A Twist You Won’t See Coming That Will Keep You Guessing Till The End!!!

Yeppers, those subtitles, complete with all the exclamation points at the end, are desperately trying to be Pitches because they’re attempting to “sell” the books to the readers. I think the authors are also trying to review their own books in the subtitles, but I’m not sure. I’m guessing you already know why these wannabe Pitches don’t work.

Now you’ve seen the most obvious things that doom a book’s Pitch: vagueness, lack of Urgency, unfamiliar allusions, genre lists, faux review buzzwords.

What makes a successful Pitch? It is unique: it fits only that one book, not even another book by the same author. It has Urgency, which is what makes the reader want to find out more. It’s one sentence long. It does not reveal the ending.

Here are some successful Pitches, most written by traditionally published authors or their editors, but some written by Indie authors. (These Pitches were at the beginning of the book’s back cover editorial review; I’ve edited the punctuation in a couple places.)

• When a woman’s body is discovered submerged in a crab pot in the chilly waters of Puget Sound, Detective Tracy Crosswhite finds herself with a tough case to untangle. (The Trapped Girl, Robert Dugoni)

• In 1939 Nazi Germany, Death has never been busier… and Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing something she can’t resist: books. (The Book Thief, Markus Zusak)

• On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary: presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. (Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn)

• Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead: it’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry — until Ben vanishes. (What She Knew, Gilly MacMillan)

Here are a few more successful Pitches. I read most of these when I was teaching University students or writers at conferences to Pitch their work. I received some as an editor. (Most of these Pitches belonged to books that were then traditionally published.)

• If you knowed the truth about me, and about what I done, you wouldn’t be the first to spit in my face, and then order me to explain myself right quick.

• On a regular day that should be as uneventful as the rest, Lorena sees her business partner murdered: now who will keep her safe?

• “My name is Holden,” and you probably know me already from the famous book about me, Catcher in the Rye, by my pal JD, but I doubt if you know my most secret story.

• Conrad has spent his life looking for answers to the questions that haunt all of us: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Who first thought of putting a corn-breaded hotdog on a stick to deep-fry it, and why?

• Lies, manipulation, and murder are everyday occurrences in the world of espionage, but when Agent Jennifer Raye is forced to work with her former lover to stop the delivery of a weapon to a terrorist nation, she fears one of them will not survive.

• I loved him more than I loved myself, and that was why I had to kill him.

• When four rape victims come to Ben Pace — a Lakhota healer — Ben is given the task to help these women seek justice while, at the same time, aid them in their healing process. (How the Strong Survive, Newton Love)

• At Frank’s Roadhouse in Half Moon Bay in December 1930, the good life of the Roaring Twenties is still in full swing until a blackmailer begins targeting Frank’s wealthy and well-known clientele. (Roadhouse Affairs, Newton Love)

You’ve seen some Pitches that fail, and you know why they don’t work. You’ve seen some Pitches that succeed — for agents, editors, and for general readers. You’re ready to start writing your own. These tips can help you write the strongest, most marketable Pitch possible:

• include Urgency
• say it in one sentence
• tailor it for only one book
• don’t give away the ending

With practice, you should be able to write reasonably successful Pitches for your books. Be sure to try the Pitches out on family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and co-workers who have not read the entire book. Once you have a successful Pitch — one that makes people say, “Wow, I want to read that. Where can I get a copy?” — then you should memorize it in order to be able to effortlessly deliver it whenever someone asks you what your book is about. You need the Pitch before and after a book is published. If you’re querying an agent or editor, put your Pitch at the start of the query letter. If you’re self-publishing, the Pitch should be at the start of your “editorial description / editorial review.”

Want me to look at your Pitch? I’d be happy to. But please don’t put it in comments, on the twitter, or on the book of face, because all my accounts are public. Send your Pitch to me via the Contact form, and I’ll let you know if I’d want to read more of the book when it got published.

Related Posts

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

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Filed under Books, Creative Writing, How to Write, Indie Authors, Writing & Revising