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

NEWSFLASH — click HERE for some exciting Storyfix news.  Thank you all for your support.  Let’s work together to make 2011 an even better year for all of us who write, and all of us who read.

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Click HERE to read Part 1 of this two-parter.

Picking up with Segment 3 of this six-segment process model…

Segment 3: plan the story’s architecture.

This is where those who know and those who think they know, but only see the intuitively obvious, part ways.

Story architecture is the marriage of structure and story arc.  It is knowing what to write, where to put it, and why.

It doesn’t take a genius to know you need landing gear before the plane can touch down safely.  It takes a freaking engineer, however, to build that gear into the airframe of a viable flying machine.  And for that you need a blueprint.  Even if it’s only in your head.

Are you a story engineer, or someone sitting beside the runway with a sack of burgers and a dream?  If the latter, see Segment 1.

This segment is the search for your story.  Its twists, turns, nuance, sub-text, thematic power, thrills, chills, and gloriously satisfying ending.

You can find all those things by writing a first draft (by pantsing, which is fatal if you fail the exam from Segment 1), or you can do it with a flowchart, yellow sticky notes, the back of a stack of old business cards, or an old school flipchart.

Which, if you’re a genius, can exist only in your head.  But whether in your head, in your computer or on your refrigerator door, it must exist before your story will work.  Via pre-draft plan, or a draft that realizes it’s only a story search tool that isn’t in play… yet.

But here’s the good news: if you do this architectural blueprinting well, the next draft you write (which may very well be the first draft if you’ve planned your story completely, rather than written a pantsed draft to find it) has a good shot at being good enough.  At being a polish-away from submittable.

Hold that thought up as your goal and your reward.

The result of this planning is what is known as a beat sheet: a sequential telling of the story – all the way to the end – in the right order, defining each moment of the narrative, scene by scene.

Expand that beat sheeting from bullets into sentences, and you have a bonafide outline.

If you’re a pantser who has written a draft (or drafts) to finally land on the best architecture for your story, your beat sheet may indeed be that draft itself.  As long as you can see and understand the beats layered within all those pages, this is fine.

Good luck with that.  A succinct beat sheet will always keep you safe and focused on the right things.  Those characters that talk to you during the writing process?  They might just be hijacking your story.  You can and should pre-empt the chatter with a solid story plan.

And surprisingly to many who are new to this, in the presence of a good story plan those chatter characters shut up and do as they are told.

Remember, an idea or a concept isn’t a story.  And a pantsed draft that finally settles into the right groove halfway through (or any percentage of the way through) isn’t a submittable story, either.

Only a draft written from a final story plan – be it a beat sheet, an outline or a pantsed draft that allows you to identify the very best creative choices for your story, in context to its ending – has a shot at being good enough.

Segment 4: write a draft that counts.

If the previous segments have been given their due attention and effort, then this one falls right into place.

In fact, it’ll seem so smooth that you may be tempted to shortcut one of the previous segments the moment a hint of that forthcoming smoothness dawns on you.

Which it will.

Do this all in the right order, and this segment will feel like you’re writing a final draft, not a first draft.  Even if it is a first draft.

And if you’ve come this far via pantsing, that’s precisely the case.  Everything that came before in the form of a draft was just story planning in long form.

Segment 5: get feedback.

You know whose opinion you value and trust, and who will simply be nice to you.

The nicest thing anybody can do for you and your story at this point is to be honest with their feedback.  The more they know about storytelling, the better.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show the draft to a non-writer who is an avid reader.  Just like that person sitting on the edge of the runway, they’ll know a crash-and-burn story when they read it.

Another strategy here is to put the thing away for a few weeks, do something else with your life, then come back to it.

Fresh eyes, in context to your command of Segment 1, can work miracles.

Segment 6: rewrite, revise and/or polish the draft.

Those three words – rewrite, revise and polish – are all very different things.  Which one pertains at this point depends on how well you’ve executed this sequence, in context to how well you have internalized and applied the basic principles of storytelling that comprise Segment 1.

There are many otherwise credible sources out there that will tell you this: a first draft is always crap, that is must be rewritten.   What they are really saying, even though they didn’t use these words and might bristle at them, is this: your first draft is nothing more than a search for your story.

To that I respectfully say… bullshit.

It’s only true for pantsers.  And it’s only true for them if they’ve pantsed a draft in context to a command of the principles, because without that command a panster – or a story planner – will never write a draft that works.

But if you plan your story’s architecture down to the scene, and if you understand the underlying principles – including how to execute a great scene, which is one of the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling – then… well, like I said… this you-must-rewrite-your-first-draft is nonsense.

Or at least, it can be nonsense for you.

Because the first draft you write in context to this knowledge and awareness may very well be a polish away from a submission-worthy draft.

Welcome to 2011.  This just might be your year.

Click here to learn about Larry’s ebook on story structure.  Or here for his development model for writing great characters.  Or here to get your bad self published in 2011.

We’ll be back after a short Christmas break.  From Storyfix to you… we wish you the warmest of holiday seasons.

15 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

15 Responses to Part 2: How To Write A Home Run Story in 2011

  1. Pingback: How To Write A Home Run Story in 2011

  2. Remember, folks, writing is an iterative process, not a single pass.

    As a guess, every hour you spend on the pre-planning will save you 10-15 hours in the long run.

    The Craft lets you understand and establish What to do. The artistic creation is the How. They are not exclusive, but interdependant. There is always some of each in whatever you are doing — and Creativity is almost always present in higher quantity the “pure” Craft.

    To me, the only time Craft is “superior” is that hour or so when you’re setting up a new story project. New directory, a beat sheet template, character list template, etc.

    I spent hundreds (literally) of hours on 4 pantsed novels. The last two managed to get quite a bit of “design” in that I knew where I was going at least.

    I’m now in the process of a re-write of all four. They’ll get a complete overhaul. Just to start, the characters were too perfect and the conflicts too obscure.

    The pre-design _before_ you start the actual writing saves a ton of time. Then when you start the writing, you have your Creativity completely focused so it can run free without worrying where things are going.

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    I heard an interesting line from an author, I think it was Jim Butcher, that said “if your characters are trying to change the story, it simply means you haven’t given them enough motivation or the right motivation to do what they need to do.” (paraphrased not word for word)

    I’ve taken that advice to heart. Sometimes the new idea might be better, but now I always look at it with suspicion. Is the new way really better, or did I not plan enough to ensure the characters needed to go down the road I’ve planned for them. Which still isn’t FORCING the characters down the path for BS reasons, it’s simply ensuring they actually NEED to go down that road, believably.

  4. “There are many otherwise credible sources out there that will tell you this: a first draft is always crap, that is must be rewritten. What they are really saying, even though they didn’t use these words and might bristle at them, is this: your first draft is nothing more than a search for your story.

    To that I respectfully say… bullshit.”

    Hear, hear.

    The last one I wrote was done in it’s entirety following the story structure and character development ideas I’ve picked up here. The planning took 2 months. The writing (90,000 words) took one month. The polishing will take February and I’m confident it will get at least a look in. Possibly more.

    I’m become so married to this process now, in the space of less than a year, that I’ve build a Scrivener template that encompasses the structure and to a lesser extent the character development needed to craft a good story.

    Absolute joy to write when you know the structure ahead of time.

  5. Larry, congratulations on the award! It is much deserved. I know I would have given up fiction writing long ago had I not stumbled upon Storyfix and really learned how a story works.

    Now a question: I’ve spent a few months planning and organizing my story, going around in what seems like circles trying to hone in on the story’s emotional core and character arc. At the same time, I have scenes in my mind that want to burst out onto the page. Do I keep them at bay? Do I write a crappy first draft of them, even if I end up not using them in the end, just so they’ll let me get back to planning?

    Thanks, and Happy Holidays!

  6. Well deserved award, Larry. It’s quite possible you’ve allowed me to cut a couple of years off of my five year plan.

  7. @Kelly — thanks for the kind words, it’s a big day here. You ask a great — and tough — question. Finding that heart and soul and spine of a story is absolutely the hardest and most important part of the process. Structure is a way to organize toward it, around it and when you get it, but it doesn’t always give it to you. I think most of us have key scenes we don’t want to lose… so don’t.

    First, ask yourself if you believe these scenes are “milestone” scenes by definition. Is it a FPP? A Mid-point? 2ndPP? A pinch point? An opening hook? If you have a sense of that, then create a graphic layout of sixty scenes, with the major milestones labeled generically (blank spaces), and then place your favorite previously conceived scenes into the sequence. The trick is to keep pounding on the entire sequence as a whole, until the Big Picture of the story shakes out. Once that happens, you may need to tweak (or even discard) those previously-placed scenes if they aren’t a good fit with that Big Idea. Either way, it’s a win, since those scenes will either help you land on the Big Idea or end up part of it.

    Hope this helps. L.

  8. Shirls

    Mega congrats Larry – Storyfix IS the best writing blog ever! And this final double post before Christmas is a cool trailer to your new book which I have on order and am looking forward to. Luckily our local Kalahari carries it so I don’t have to go through Amazon and all the import hassles. Here’s wishing you and your family a lovely Christmas and relaxing break.

  9. I have followed your guidelines long before I heard about your blog. From day one creating a detailed outline just seemed the right thing to do. I spent over a decade researching and writing magazine and newspaper articles. I never just wrote off the top of my head. I had to know my purpose and have plenty of research to back it up before I ever sat down to type. So when I write my novels, first I write an extensive summary of the entire story from beginning to end, usually at least ten pages. Next I create an outline of the plot points. Finally, I write a chapter-by-chapter outline with a paragraph summarizing each chapter.

    This works well because I am not forced to write the chapters in sequence. I often look at the outline, pick a chapter I feel particularly drawn to that day, and write that. Sometimes I even write the last chapter first. I never have writer’s block. I never run out of ideas. And I never have been unable to finish a manuscript. Using this method I’ve completed no less than ten complete manuscripts in six years. My first published book will (finally) be released next year.

    So, I applaud your writing sequence. It works.

  10. @Laurisa Congratulations on your forthcoming novel.

    I heartily concur with this: “I never have writer’s block. I never run out of ideas. And I never have been unable to finish a manuscript.”

  11. I’m just now learning the importance of planning. I resisted outlining and planning so vehemently and now that I’ve learned how easy it is I wonder why I wasted all that effort fighting against it. My writing goes so much faster now that I’m a planner that it shocks me. I think us creative types try to fight anything that resembles discipline. Really the best work comes from people who can successfully marry creativity and discipline.

    Here’s to 2011 being the best year yet!

  12. @Caethes — well stated, thanks for contributing this emphasis. Hope to hear more from you here! L.

  13. Patrick Sullivan

    Just realized I hadn’t congratulated you yet Larry, awesome on getting #1 on the writers blog list this year :).

    Goes to show what difference a year makes, since they were silly enough to not even put you in the top 10 last year. Guess they realized the error of their ways ;).

    Looking forward to a 2011 full of writing advice and discussion.

  14. I’ve noticed a lot, lately, that the ‘all is lost moment’ in most thrillers (at least the movie implementation of thrillers) is accompanied by the hero either bloody, soaked in water, or both.

    Is there some kind of rule associated with this, or were the past half a dozen movies I’ve watched all written by writers fromt he same school?

  15. Yes, yes, and yes. I am relieved to hear and am already embracing the architecture of plan-then-write. The idea of flying by the seat of my pants when writing sometimes works for a short story, given its brevity, but for planning a novel and planting all the nuances, this plan-then-write is absolutely important. I used to wonder why I hated going back and editing my work. Part of it was this: unplanned prose is hard to edit. Planned prose, on the otherhand, needs much less editing, to begin with. *sigh of relief*