How To Write A Home Run Story in 2011

Part 1… of Two

We say the same thing every year right about now: this will be our year.  This, of course, meaning the fresh new year about to commence.

Because, perhaps on many fronts, the departing year definitely wasn’t it.

Right about now is where one of the most tried and true truths of the universe applies, to the point of cliché.  It’s that old definition of insanity: doing the same old thing while expecting different results.

Too many writers get stuck in this loop, many because they aren’t aware there is a better way.  But there is.

Perhaps, in 2011, you should do something different. 

Where your story is concerned, the following sequential regimen and process just might qualify as something marvelously, brilliantly different.  The thing that could break you out of whatever loop, or rut, in which you consider yourself stuck.

And while I can’t guarantee your success – nobody can do that in the writing game – I can do the next best thing.  Because your novel and/or screenplay – or whatever other kind of story you’re writing – can’t help but be better for it.

This process breaks down into six sequential parts.

Which means, you get to do the math any way you’d like, as long as you do this in the right order. 

I also highly recommend that you tackle these as equal segments of time, if nothing else than for the sake of discipline and focus. 

Could be that a lack of discipline and focus was your undoing in 2010.  Follow this story development process, and that particular issue will go away in 2011.

Which means, you can write your story in six 2-month segments, six 1-month segments, or six 3, 2 or one-week segments.  The further into that sentence you fall, the more projects you can write, and write successfully, in the next year.

Feel free to start in the middle if you’re already somewhere down this path.  You may begin the year knowing precisely what story you hope to write, which means you can skip to Segment 3.  But, with an asterisk.

The asterisk is: you should never skip Segment 1 if, in the most objective dark corner of your writerly soul, you aren’t completely sure that you’re in command of the requisite tools of the trade.

If you aren’t sure what those tools are beyond “a way with words,” then you more than most are in need of Segment 1.

To skip Segment 1 is like trying to fly an airplane without ground school.  Or take out a spleen without medical school.  Or survive a troubled marriage without counseling.

You may think you know… but do you?  Really?

The lie you tell yourself in this regard is precisely what stands in your way of writing a story that will sell.  In this or any other year.

I also caution against jumping around in this sequence… that, too, could be part of the reason you remained unpublished in 2010.   The Great Fatal Mistake writers make is to skip one of these segments, or even just phone it in, in favor of the joy of actually writing the narrative.

Yeah, it’s fun to fly an airplane, too… but just wait until you try to land.  You’d better know what you’re doing.

The countryside is full of crashed writing dreams because the writer/pilot lied to themselves about Segment 1, and then, out of that ignorance, disregarded one of the other steps.

Don’t let that be you.

Segment 1: prepare the storyteller.

You’ve just read my cautionary pleadings.  Now it’s up to you.  This is the reason most writers can’t sell their work.  It’s not their story… it’s them.

Are you fluent in dramatic theory?  Do you know the difference between sub-plot and sub-text?  Between concept and theme?  Because premise and concept?  Between inciting incident and the first plot point?  Do you even know what a first plot point is, and where it goes, and why, and how it detonates your story if you misplace it, as well as the other major story milestones?  Do you know what those milestones are?

More importantly, are you operating out of the belief that those questions are invalid for you, that there is some great and mysterious creative muse out there that will guide you through and around these story-killing obstacles?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg.  You actually can write a home run story without knowing these things by summoning your intuitive, inner storytelling genius.

But let’s get real.  There are only a few of them out there, and they are rich and famous.  The rest of the names you see on the bookshelves or on the opening credits of a film… they’ve immersed themselves in Segment 1.

It’s your call.

Read Syd Field, whether you’re a novelist or a screenwriter.  Ready my story structure ebook.  Immerse yourself in the realm of the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling, available at this link in my new book, or here on the site in the archives.  Read The Writer’s Journey, which is not available here.  Read about Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake methodology.  Read James Frye’s How To Write A Damn Good Novel and his several genre-specific follow-ups.  Go to a Robert McKee workshop.

Then, read some bestsellers and not so bestsellers and watch it all unfold before your eyes.  Perhaps for the very first time.  Reading books in context to something valid, craft-wise, is the most beneficial thing you can do to prepare yourself for writing your own.

Reading or writing without that context… it’s a crap shoot.  With very low odds.

Make sure you get it.  If you don’t, you’re on your own with that inner storyteller that thinks he/she does get it.

And, remains unpublished as 2010 leaves the building.

Segment 2: prepare your vision for the story.

What follows assumes you do get it.  That you’ve taken the time, put in the effort, and it all makes perfect, illuminating sense to you.

Now it’s time to get to work on your story.

You need to have an idea for a story, and it has to have legs.  You need to live with that idea for a while, kick it around and bat it back and forth with your creative peers and mentors, to see if it really is a good idea after all.

Ideas are like cheap lovers.  Sometimes they don’t look so hot in the morning.

Ideas are also like not-so-cheap lovers.  When you let them go, if they don’t come back to you they were never really there.

But, as you hone your idea into great majesty, remember this: beginning a draft with only that idea on the table, without the following segments of the process having been addressed, is a commitment to using drafting as your vehicle for story discovery.  A long and arduous road.

If you do this, you are officially a pantser… someone who writes stories by the seat of their pants.  It can work, but it’s the long hard road to get there.

Why?  Because there are three other essential elements, or essences, that you need to put into place before your story will work, and there are a list of criteria under each of them you should apply to your plan.

The only pantsers who stand a chance are the ones who know this.  Same with story planners, but by definition, what story planners plan is, in essence, those criteria-driven elements.

Once again… do the math.

Ready to commit to a long term relationship with that idea?  You’re not done with this phase.  And you’re not ready to write the story, either.

Has it been done before, and how, and by whom?  What is your genre, and does it fit?  What is the market appeal of this idea, assuming you can write it well enough, and does your idea fit, stretch or otherwise offend its given niche?  Why will anyone else care about this idea and the story that will spring from it? 

What gift does this idea bestow upon the reader?

What about this idea will grab a crusty old seen-it-all agent or editor and make them lose sleep until they can sign you?

To Be Continued…

Go to, or return to, Part 2 of “How To Write A Home Run Story in 2011.”

 

13 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

13 Responses to How To Write A Home Run Story in 2011

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    I guess I really am indoctrinated in the whole thing. Already read your stuff, already read Field (my copy’s actually sitting near my bed this second), got McKee on my to read list…

    And I just discovered the Frey who wrote “How to write a damn good novel” is NOT the same guy as the one who wrote Million Little Pieces and is currently trying to scam would be authors. Guess How to write a damn good novel goes back on the list of “to read” books.

    The more I dig into books on writing, the more it amazes me how many there are. From general ones to super specific ones (scenes, story structure, dialogue, editing…) there really is so much to learn when trying to figure out what’s possible yet makes sense while still building a damned good story, and more importantly what works for you within all those discoveries others have made over the centuries.

    A daunting task, but one worth doing. About to start playing with the structure for my next novel doing a mix of SS:Demystified and a book I recently picked up that does the basics on combining the Hero’s Journey with the 3 act format. Stickies here I come!

  2. Mike Lawrence

    You see yourself in the third person, probably wearing sunglasses and a smile as you fly an airplane. Isn’t it cool?

    Then you’re inbound on the 281 radial to Bellaire and setting up to run on BREMN3. You’re not wearing sunglasses because you’re in a stratus layer that runs all they way down to 300 ft’ and it’s snowing. Your world is the ADI, HSI and the strangely reassuring drone of Morse code identifying Bellaire. There’s the wind, of course, winding down from 100 knots at altitude to 25 or so as center hands you off to approach at around 12,000 ft. You and the 48 people behind you would prefer less. And the 10-15 gusts out of 350 aren’t all the reassuring, either, especially since you have to land on 28L. Naturally, the AI kicks in, so you can’t reduce N1 below about 55, which makes slowing down trickier than you would like but you’d rather leave the speedbrakes armed for landing rather than using them now, because that adds one more variable to an already complex equation that is changing by the second.

    After you’re cleared for the localizer, you turn onto the beam and endure what seems like an eternity because you can’t see the runway as you try to slow to 160 before the glide slope comes alive. You’re at 170 when it does, but you know the gear will slow you down, which you bring down now. The reassuring whirr-thump gives you just a moment of relief: it’s almost over. But you still can’t see the runway.
    give her 9 flaps now. Well, go on to 18 actually, we’re still hot and the intercept is coming up. You could let Otto shoot the approach, but in this weather you’d rather do it yourself, just to be sure. It’s a judgement call – one of those things only experience can really teach you. The glide slope centers, time to nose her over. flaps 22. N1 around 65 now. You do the math in your head: 136 for this configuration, 15 gusts, so that’s an extra 7.5 – right around 144 over the fence. That’s still less than V2+20, so you’re good. Final approach fix is coming up – the outer marker beeps at you; it all has to come together now. Sink rate 800, don’t go more than 1000. Slowing to 144. flaps 45. It’s bumpy now, and you crank her back when the wings kick left. Than a little dip down – throttle her up for a second to flatten out the descent just a smidge. 950. Watch out for 1000. Needles are still good. You wish you could slip, but this isn’t a Cessna. You have to crab, which means you’ll have to judge just when to kick her straight right before touchdown. But you can’t see the runway yet. “1000” the computer tells you. OK, almost there. HIRL lights seem to be fading in. Yep, there’s the threshold. Still no runway, but you know where the ground is now. The computer urges you on:”500″ The edge lights are starting to peer out of the mist. The computer reminds you this is as far as you can go without seeing the runway: “minimums”. You can see the runway now, not the whole thing, but enough for RVR requirements. Over the fence, working the yoke and rudders to keep it all lined up….

    And somewhere in the airport, you know Steven King is sitting in the pilot’s lounge, sipping a drink. Yeah, he just kind of winged it, because he’s just that good.

    But me, and the 48 in the cabin, would prefer that I do a thorough pre-flight, make sure I have all my charts, use all the check lists, and dial in my expected approach reference speed before even taking off.

    Because cool doesn’t get it on the ground in one piece. Unless you’re Steven King.

  3. @Mike, I liked the way you did that. I had no idea what you were writing, most of the time, and that’s the point. You wouldn’t expect to fly an airplane by the seat of the pants and get out of it alive. And the agent, publisher and all of your readers (counted on one hand if you do it wrong) don’t want you to write your novel by the seat of your pants.

    As for calling Stephen King a pantser, I think that ignores the millions and millions of words he’s written (just this year). He may pants to a large degree (I don’t know – I’ve never met the guy) but you know he knows that there needs to be a hook, inciting incident, a first plot point at the ~25% mark and there are so many pinch point scenes in his books two of them just have to land at the requisite 3/8 and 5/8 points. Sure, he may pants, but he lives the structure.

  4. @Mike and Tony — damn, this is fun. This is SO f-ing good and powerful. Thanks to you both.

    Mike — flying is my life’s Lost Dream. So I loved your comment on more than one level. As an analogy, you’ve taken my pitch and launched it into the next time zone. I’d like to post this thing front and center (okay?). Because the complexity, risk, the need for nuance and touch… it’s all there, and right in the reader’s face. Brilliant.

    Tony (who also got it) — about King… thanks for, again, helping me make this point. Guys like him, with a million words a year under their belt, and for decades… they can successfully fly by the seat of their pants and get down safely. Not always pretty — King’s works are burdensomely (yeah, made that one up) long and tedious. So he’s the ultimate pantser, which is dangerous. Especially when he espouses doing it just like he does (which he does), and fan-writers actually hear it , assign it the crediblity of his legit Big Name, and then launch themselves down that path. And then… crash and burn. Love King, but his ego and blinders on this issue got it wrong.

    So thanks guys. I knew I got up before dawn this morning for a reason… you were here waiting for me .

  5. Larry–your analogies are great or else you’ve read too many romance novels:)

    “Ideas are like cheap lovers. Sometimes they don’t look so hot in the morning.
    Ideas are also like not-so-cheap lovers. When you let them go, if they don’t come back to you they were never really there.”

    You could probably add a bunch more to this line of thought, but then you might have to change your site to an R rating.

    Also, about the “flying” analogy. I remember reading many of Richard Bach’s stories, especially Illusions, and thinking “flying” is a great analogy for writing, life and er…everything.

  6. Curtis

    LOL… You’re just going to keep it up aren’t you? You’re not going to tell us we can have a spasm on the page, click our heals Dorothy like and walk the red carpet.

    I read somewhere that ” the truth will make you free.” But, first it is liable to tick a person off. 🙂

  7. Larry, that’s exactly the type of road map writers need for 2010. First thought that jumped into my mind after reading this was, “Sh!t! I need to SEE this in circus-tent-diagram form. ”
    Excellent breakdown indeed.

  8. Mike Lawrence

    @Larry:Okay! Now if we can just get Neil Diamond to work up a “blog score” for us…

    Thanks for letting me participate. Means quite a bit.

  9. Matt

    Larry – Minor point of confusion here: You say we need to know the difference between the inciting incident and the first plot point. But in your structure, I thought they were the same thing (p. 25, Story Structure Demystified). Are you referring to other models, where maybe the inciting incident is the first event that shakes up the protagonist’s world, used to hook the reader, and the first plot point is the end of the set-up phase, as in your model?

    I think I’m clear on those other distinctions, thanks to your book and blog, McKee and other resources. But one I’m still hazy on is concept vs. premise. Can you clarify that, or do we have to wait until the new year for your next guidebook?

    Thanks!

  10. Patrick Sullivan

    @Matt: After he wrote the eBook Larry revisited the topic later, no longer so sure if it HAD to be the same moment, and in the end decided they can be seperate

    http://storyfix.com/redefining-the-%E2%80%9Cinciting-incident%E2%80%9D

  11. Matt

    Ah, thanks, Patrick.

  12. Pingback: Part 2: How To Write A Home Run Story in 2011

  13. Darren Cox

    Congrats Larry on having the number 1 writing blog!

    You deserve it!

    It’s fantastic and we all appreciate the hard work you put into putting it all together. Merry Christmas to you and your family, and a Merry Christmas to all the readers of Storyfix!