Quick Tips, Coming Attractions, NaNoWriMo Sanity and Other Musings From the Literary Cheap Seats

On Trusting the Process

I was up late last night working on a post for you about why planning the second half of your novel seems more difficult than planning the first half, which several readers have recently reported.  Couldn’t make the second half of that post work, which is ironic, and what leads me to this morning’s content.

Story planning is often a matter of blind faith.  If you create an ending for your story, and if it’s in context to that solid first half, then start writing it.  Even if it makes you squirm a little.  Don’t start until you have an ending in sight, the best you can come up with.

Here’s what experience has shown me on that count.  When you get to the Mid-Point of the manuscript, one of two things will happen, both good.  You may discover that what you thought was soft is actually solid (always good when that happens, especially at my age).  Or, you may come up with a better ending.  The best news, though, is that it’s almost always a value-add based on what you’ve already done, versus what pantsers face, which is the need to go back and rewrite the first half, which never stood a chance.

Trust the process.  There’s magic in it.  It’s your subconscious engaging with the story at the planning stage, then coupling with your creative intellect at the implementation stage.  You’ll be shocked at how well this works.  Have faith.

On NaNoWriMo Sanity

The very best piece of advice for NaNoWriMo participants: write with an ending in mind.  If you don’t, your manuscript will simply be a pile of paper with no future.  Pure mush.  This is too hard without the possibility of a future.  We’re on Day Four, chances are you’ve discovered that by now. 

Do this right.  Better to create 10K words that are viable than 50K words of sludge.  And it will be sludge, especially in the context of the NaNoWriMo process, unless you know where the story is going.  From the get-go.  You need an ending, and you need it now.  You also need a first plot point.  You need a Mid-Point context shift. 

You need to write scenes that are in context to those destination milestones.  It’s the key to everything.

If you don’t have ’em, stop now and put your planning hat on.

On Hamburgers and Stupidity

When I was a teenager who didn’t drink, we had this really stupid game.  A quantitative challenge, like NaNoWriMo.  The idea was to see who among us could eat the most gut bombs (the small, cheap hamburgers sold by fast food restaurants).  I ate ten.  I won.  Then I threw up. 

It had no point.  NaNoWriMo is like that if you don’t write with a purpose, with context.  The higher purpose, other than to just spit out 50,000 words, is to learn this process or create the basis for something with a future.  Don’t waste your time pursuing a hollow goal.  Make this month count.  Or all you’ll be doing is regurgitating words.

On Brilliant Guest Bloggers

Hope you liked the guest post by Jennie Shortridge a few days ago.  This Friday I’m posting a great piece of New Times bestselling YA author April Henry.  I have a post in the can from National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti, and have lined up NY Times bestselling authors Phil Margolin, Lisa Jackson and Chelsea Cain to appear soon.  Working on some others of that caliber.  This is good stuff, I can’t wait to hear what they have to offer us.

Deb Caletti, by the way, just read my new ebook, Story Structure – Demystified.  Here’s what she said: “True, ‘Story Structure – Demystified’ is full of fresh, solid guidance, craft essentials and real-life advice from a seasoned pro.  But Larry Brooks is so hugely entertaining, I would have read it cover to cover if I were a car mechanic.”

Yeah, that’s me, hugely entertaining.  Nice.  You can read more about the book HERE.  You can read more reviews HERE, HERE and HERE.  Or you can just buy it HERE.  Please do, it may be the final piece in your emergence as a publishable author.  That’s the intention.  And readers say it’s true.

On a 100 Minute Story Structure Case Study    

There’s a movie out called “The Stepfather” that you should see.  Not because it’s great — it’s not, in fact it’s totally predictable.  So why should you see it?  Because it’s a clinic on story structure.  The plot points are clean and visible, the character exposition follows the book (mine).  When you know what to look for – which you will, by the way, if you read the ebook or my structure series here – you’ll see it everywhere you look.  This one is a great example.

On Me versus Robert McKee

Someone recently challenged me to defend my ebook against Robert McKee’s “Story.”  My answer was that McKee’s focus is narrowly targeting screenwriting, forcing novelists to make a big leap.  My book does the opposite, it’s optimized for novelists.  We have a looser, more literary take on structure, even though it’s the same basic model with different labels.  Neither McKee or Syd Field or me invented this stuff.  Any more than Newton invented gravity.  It just is.

You can’t get too much structure mentoring.  Just like pro athletes can’t get too much conditioning and grounding on the fundamentals of their craft.  That’s why there’s spring training and pre-season camp… every year.

On Metaphors and Meaning

Not sure which is my favorite metaphor to illustrate the benefits of story planning over blind pantsing.  Besides spring training, there’s the pilot metaphor that talks about cruising around without a flight plan — you still need to know how the airplane operates or you’ll crash and burn.  Then there’s the builder who arrives on the lot without a blueprint — the final product looks like a treehouse, cobbled together with no symmetry or flow, not something you’d want to live in.  Or the surgeon who eagerly cuts the patient open in search of something to extract, not sure what it is.  That’s why there’s medical school, you can’t just rip into the flesh of a patient – a story – and expect it to survive unless you know what you’re doing, or more specifically, what needs to be done.  Exploratory surgery in novels is for your creative writing class.  If you want to publish, you need a plan.

My position on pantsing, though, has softened somewhat. 

There are pantsers who write great books.  They come in one of two flavors: those who have the story structure paradigm firmly in their head, allowing what they write organically to fall onto the page in accordance with that symmetry, or those who come by it naturally.  Not many there.  I guess there’s a third, too — those who write draft after draft after draft in search of their story.  Which, if you’re honest, is just another form of story planning.

Sometimes, doing it that belabored way, they actually find one.

At the end of the day we all plan our stories, one way or another.  At least if they are to work. 

Have a great writing day.


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13 Responses to Quick Tips, Coming Attractions, NaNoWriMo Sanity and Other Musings From the Literary Cheap Seats

  1. Nice post, Larry! Your new eBook made me re-think the whole NaNoWriMo thing (for myself), and you know how much I’ve been pushing it to my readers!

    I think for writers who procrastinate, NaNoWriMo is awesome in the way that it gets them writing SOMETHING–whether that something is usable, publishable or not. At least they’re writing.

    But for writers who want to take NaNoWriMo really seriously, then without planning (and without reading your eBook or series on story structure), they’re just wasting their time.

    I was all geared up to attempt NaNoWriMo this year…but after reading your eBook, I’m no longer attempting. Instead, I’m taking time to really understand the structure of my story and I’m taking time to plan out all (or most of) the scenes so I can have a really, really, really good first draft.

    Thanks for all the great advice!

  2. I’ve ended up making the same decision, Jennifer. I really don’t want to just end up with 50,000 words that are basically useless, or, that are going to take a massive reconstruction.

    I do like that NaNo is helping me with setting time aside to write and I do intend to get as many words done as possible, but I don’t have enough of my story in mind to write with abandon confidently.

    Writing fanfiction novels was one thing, I want this to eventually be something I can submit to a publisher so it has to be beyond best.

    I wish I had a better handle on story structure sooner so that I had it in place before I signed up for NaNo. I don’t want to withdraw (I don’t need to be quitting things) but I think it would make more sense to go into it better prepared.

    Thanks, Larry, for being so willing to help writers out. 🙂


  3. Dale

    Larry, I bought your eBook on Story Structure yesterday.
    I can’t thank you enough for putting this together. I just finished a great five session class on planning a novel by another author, and followed that with an all-day workshop on “narrative structure” by an English author, and your outstanding book completes the Trifecta 🙂

    This will really help me work out the novel I began to outline in the class earlier this fall. I had decided not to do Nano this year because I didn’t have that novel outlined. I wanted to get that novel’s structure set.

    The four part structure you outlined will be a huge help.

    Ironically, I ended up jumping in to Nano this last weekend with a different project-a shorter work I’d been backgrounding for a few months, intended to be a novella. I wrote 15k in the first three days and then, bam, the wheel spinning began. So, I sat down this morning after reading your ebook and began outlining the story using your four-part structure, rescaling it for a work of 200-ish pages (50K words). Good practice if nothing else. And it reaffirmed my intention to work out the longer novel’s structure pretty fully before drafting it.

  4. I have yet to read your series on story structure, but I definitely plan to cause I love to learn as much as I can about this writing thing.

    Now, I’m a pantser. But I think I’m one of the exceptions you mentioned. When I first did NaNo08 (which I owe everything since it finally got me to FINISH a novel), though the writing itself was crap, the story felt good or at least had great potential. Scenes and ideas flowed together and made sense. Twists and just came out of nowhere and pieces fell in place (and not in sequence either). In the end, I had to sort of push the ending, but the ending fit nonetheless.

    For this NaNo, I tried to structure it first. I sat down and wrote down my characters and then tried to write what happened first. But then I sort of went off on my own and for a few minutes basically had everything that was going to happen in the story and it felt right without following any guidelines or anything. Hero introduced. Goal made clear. Goal put in danger. Several twists (climatic moments). Clear ending.

    But now I’m wondering. Am I delusional? Do I just instinctively know the structure, or am I blind and this isn’t the structure and its all really crap and I should learn the structure outside of myself?

    It’s something I’ve been wondering about for years now…

  5. No, Amber you’re not delusional. Some of us structure as we go, because we’ve internalized how it works, and then stop thinking about that long enough to create. I plan in advance, just not very detailed too far in advance. The story unfolds. Some of us are like that. We’re called pantsers because we don’t sit down and structure the whole thing first (a sure way to kill any chance of me writing a story), but we aren’t traditional pantsers because we do think a bit ahead and fact is, we don’t have to throw it all out. It comes AS we write.

    It’s not delusional. It’s middle ground. It’s usually ignored.

  6. Deanna

    Thanks for launching Story Structure early for us Wrimos.

    Love my Nano Wrimo, have “won” it twice now.

    As a new writer, it gave me a lot more than sludge, though sludge was part of the deal.

    It gave me the support to try writing a novel. It gave me the delight of seeing that I could produce a lot of words that hung together into a semi-coherent story. It showed me a lot about where the stumbling blocks are for a new writer, showed me a lot about what I needed to learn, gave me courage and confidence to go do a lot of that learning. All of that is worth a great deal.

    But this year, as a still new but not totally green novelist in training, I wanted to achieve a more coherent story during Nano.

    I’ve tried writing from detailed outlines before, and got tangled up in them. I’ve tried pure organic, and I got lost and disappointed pretty soon. I’ve tried compromises, tried adapting various systems (Story, Save the Cat, etc.). Structure, and therefore process, eluded me not matter what I did.

    I read Story Structure a couple of days ago and it delighted me. It answered so many questions, cleared up several key points of confusion, and gave me hope. I mapped out my plot points, with the last half feeling a little mushy (validated by your post today).

    Now I’m answering all the questions on your one page cheat sheet. I’m halfway through. When I’ve finished them all, then I’ll start my Nano.

    I’m raring to go, but waiting to have this sheet filled out. I can churn out the words. I proved that already–and that’s worth more than maybe you give it credit for a newbie. But I have new confidence that I’ll have something workable, maybe even shapely, at the end of this November.

    I’ll let you know how it goes. But for now, all I can report is this is all making sense, for the first time actually, and my story idea is more exciting to me the more questions I answer from your sheet. Hopefully after tomorrow, Nano here I come.

  7. Two points:

    1) Trust the process. I love everything you’ve said about structure and having an outline. I’m a pantser longing to be a planner. My process is draft after draft after draft. I equate myself to the Tom Cruise character in Days of Thunder where he admits he knows nothing about driving, I started doing it and somebody said I was pretty good. That is/was me and writing. I’ve wanted to know how to outline, how to build stucture and I think your tutelage will do that. I like today’s extra lesson–trust the process. I’ve had trust issues all along.

    2) “My book does the opposite, it’s optimized for novelists. We have a looser, more literary take on structure, even though it’s the same basic model with different labels. Neither McKee or Syd Field or me invented this stuff. Any more than Newton invented gravity. It just is.”

    Golden. Well said.

  8. Trish

    Just wondering if the new book will be available for the Kindle? (I think 101 Tips is – or am I crazy?)

    Keep ’em coming, Larry. Your’s is the best writing advice I’ve ever read – (and I’ve read a lot).

  9. @Trish — thanks for the kind words, makes all the work worthwhile.

    You’re right the 101 Tips book is on Kindle. I’ll be delivering the Story Structure book to them within a few days. Will post that on the little ad in the middle column when it’s good to go.

  10. Emily M.

    Ah, I’m sorry it came across as a challenge of you vs. Robert Mckee. I meant it more as a compare/contrast kind of thing. I appreciate that your book is geared towards novelists (and it’s been very helpful), and I’m trying at the same time to bring in some of the things I remember from McKee. Scene structure, for instance, was really interesting to me, the whole value change thing, and so was his “negative of the negative” value system. But both of those are useless without the global picture, and I’m trying to internalize what both of you have said enough that it’s natural to me.

    Not a challenge so much as an exploration :-).

  11. @Emily — actually — and this is funny — it wasn’t you. Another reader went straight at it, asking me to contrast my approach to McKee’s. I’ve since heard from him, he bought the ebook, he’s happy guy. He just didn’t want to buy something from me that he’d read from McKee in his book, “Story.”

    By all means, explore. We can never learn enough, never expose ourselves to too many opinions and views. In the end we must all find our way, our comfort zone, and our mentors.

    I hope I continue to provide value to you, and that you’ll stick around. I appreciate your input, and by all means, challenge me when you feel the itch. 🙂

  12. Emily M.

    Oh that is funny! I’m glad my original email wasn’t misunderstood. I am planning to stick around.:-)

  13. Hi Larry,

    This is my first year @nanowrimo though I’ve known about it for years. For some of us nanowrimo helps get over the procrastination factor. I finally took the plunge and for me, the thrill of the chase will have to be enough and hopefully give me enough motivation to continue forward with other books and ideas. I plan on getting your ebook on structure but it will have to be AFTER this month…’cause I just don’t have time to read!

    I have taken note of the fact that I need and ending! Thanks I think your post was amazingly useful, unlike many I’ve read.

    I’ll be blogging about my progress. Feel free to stop by: http://www.motivatedprocrastinator.wordpress.com
    Motivation + Procrastination – Time = ?