Novel Makers Week 2: See & Sensitize

Week 2 introduction.

You’re going to love this week. If you’re not quite convinced of that, read what Bernard Cornwell did when he was starting out.

Your goals

Here’s what we want to accomplish this week.

  • See the model in action in your specific type of story
  • Improve your sensitivity to how stories make you feel

Good luck!

Discovery Questions & Activities

Question 1: how does the model apply in practice? (6 hrs)

Select 3 novels you’ve enjoyed. Identify the following for each novel. I track my data in an Excel spreadsheet.

  • Words per page
  • Characters
    • The main character
    • Other main characters and the role they played (are they on the MC’s team or the antagonist’s or a third team?)
  • Main story line
    • The main story line and what its MOTHR is
    • The page on which the MOTHR is introduced
    • What the MC’s concrete goal is
    • What led you to get behind the MC
    • What prevents the MC from walking away
  • Events
    • The events of the story and the page each starts and ends on (I often use a Post-it to mark the end of each event).
    • If it’s an OTH story, indicate whether the event raised your hopes or fears for the character. If it’s an M story, did the event move you closer to solving the puzzle or farther away? If it’s an R story, did the event grow or undermine the relationship?
    • Page where the trouble and struggle phases end
    • What locks the MC into the final attempt
    • Page where the you are given a clear yes/no resolution to the main story line
  • Additional story lines (optional)
    • Additional story lines, if there are any, and what their MOTHRs are
    • When those additional story lines are introduced
    • A list of the events of these story lines
    • What the event did for hopes/fears, solving the puzzle, or the relationship

When you finish breaking down the novel, calculate the following:

  • Total number of words in the novel
  • Total number of events for the main story line
  • Average words per event
  • Number of events in the trouble, struggle, and resolution phases
  • Number of events and % of the story spent in each of the three phases
  • Number of events and % of the story spent after the yes/no resolution (aftermath)
  • Number of events and % of the story that happened before the MOTHR was introduced

I want you to then post in the comments for each novel:

  • Novel title
  • Novel word count
  • Main story THOMR
  • Number events
  • Average size of events
  • % of story spent in three phases
  • % size of aftermath
  • % size of story before MOTHR introduced
  • 1-3 key insights you gleaned from all of this

Question 2: What do the 3 grunts feel like when reading and what causes them for me? (4 hrs)

Please read Lesson 3 on learning to see.

Now, get a thick pad of some type of Post-it note, then go to the public library or a bookstore and select 10 random novels off the shelf that you’ve never read before. You will be reading the first chapter of each. Make sure you include a few different genres. If you are part of a writing group, you may volunteer to read 10 different short stories or the openings to 10 novels if that sounds more interesting. Or you may select the 10 random free ebooks from Amazon that are listed in the top 100 for a genre category. If you choose to do ebooks, use the highlighter instead of Post-its.

Open the first novel and start reading. Do NOT read with the intent of looking for problems. Read only with the hope of finding a good story.  Follow the 3-grunt process on the opening chapter and use the Post-its instead of marking up the book. Do not spend a lot of time with the Post-its or analysis at this stage. Just keep on reading. Stop at the end of the chapter or where you would normally stop in that chapter because you felt it wasn’t going to be a good story.

Now this is the key step: go back and identify what type of grunt each note was and what caused you to grunt.

Repeat with the other 9 books. If you run out of novels before you run out of time, go take 10 more off the shelf.

When you finish, write a brief summary of the types of things that caused you to make the three different grunts. Post your summary in the comments.

Week 1 Reinforcement (15 minutes)

At the end of this week, I want you to take the week 1 test again and send it to me. You cannot look anything up. You must answer from memory.

Edit: Events

It’s clear I have not made it clear what I mean when I say “events”. My bad. Let’s start with some definitions. A story is made up of:

  • Narrative summary
  • Narrative detail
  • Description
  • Exposition
  • Commentary

Narrative tells what happened. It might be what’s happening in the present time in the novel or the past. At the most basic level, this includes external events like action and dialogue and internal ones like thoughts and feelings. You can summarize the action, meaning it takes you less time to tell it than what it takes to actually unfold. Or you can detail it, which means it takes as long to read it, or longer, as it does to act it out.

Think about a trip to a location an hour away. If you write it in narrative summary, you can say, we drove to Logan to see the movie. Boom, you’re done. That’s summary. If you write it in narrative detail, you will say, I walked up the first flight of stairs from my basement in two steps, turned at the landing, and ascended the rest of the stairs, almost tripping on the last higher step. I took a step to the key hook and removed the keys. Then I removed my coat from its hook and walked to the back door. Etc.

You can also write in pure summary or detail or have passages of narrative that mix the two. You can see a good example of a mix in the preview of Mette Harrison’s The Princess and the Bear.

Description is simply information about the setting or character that helps us imagine the context of the events. Notice how this starts with description. It’s mostly description, but it all relates to the event of the narrator finding the dead dog.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon


It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I went through Mrs. Shear’s gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.

The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs. Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.

Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles, but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.

I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

Exposition is when the narrator explains something. Here’s some exposition. Notice it’s simply the narrator explaining something about a courtroom.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.

The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient. To wait. Not for just any lie. But for the one you can grab onto and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.

That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.

And here’s exposition with description mixed in.

The Green Mile by Stephen King

This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there, too, of course.

The inmates made jokes about the chair, the way people always make jokes about the things that frighten them but can’t be gotten away from. The called it Old Sparkey, or the Big Juicy. They made cracks about the power bill, and how Warden Moores would cook his Thanksgiving dinner that fall, with his wife, Melinda, too sick to cook.

But for the ones who actually had to sit down in that chair, the humor went out of the situation in a hurry. I presided over the seventy-eight executions during my time at Cold Mountain (that’s one figure I’ve never been confused about; I’ll remember it on my deathbed), and I think that, for most of those men, the truths of what was happening to them finally hit all the way home when their ankles were being clamped to the shout oak of “Old Sparky’s” legs. The realization came then (you would see it rising gin their eyes, a kind of cold dismay) that their own legs had finished their careers. The blood still ran in them, the muscles were still strong, but they were finished, all the same; they were never going to walk another country mile or dance with a girl at a barn raising. Old Sparky’s clients came to a knowledge of their deaths from the ankles up. There was a black silk bag that went over their heads after they had finished their rambling and mostly disjointed last remarks. It was supposed to be for them, but I always thought it was really for us, to keep us from seeing the awful tide of dismay in their eyes as they realized they were going to die with their knees bent…

And here’s exposition which then goes into narrative.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

Chapter 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

You can also get a blend of narrative and exposition when a character explains something.

Commentary is when the narrator comments on the events as with the humorous footnotes in the Bartimaeus trilogy or Jonathon Strange. Yes, there’s probably some overlap with exposition. If you want to see commentary, read the preview of The Amulet of Samarkand by Stroud (I love, love, love the demon narrator of this book).

Narrative forms the vast majority of any novel. And, from my experience, everything else relates to it in some way. Because of this, I usually don’t break the other things out, unless they go on for a significant amount of time because I think, for the reader, it probably feels like part of the event.

Now, when I break down novels, I’m not looking for the smallest event that can be narrated–a single line of action, dialogue, or thought. I’m looking for something more along the lines of a scene. It’s often a single trip around the story cycle. For example, with Star Wars, here’s how I might break down the opening events.

  • Vader chases and boards the ship. The end of that major event is the droids escaping and Vader ordering his men to track them.
  • Droids argue about which way to go and split up
  • Storm troopers find pod and their tracks and pursue
  • C3P0 gets taken by the Jawas
  • R2 gets taken by them
  • The droids are purchased

This is how I’m thinking about it. The events I want you to break out are the main steps in the story. And because the exposition, commentary, and description are almost always part of that event, they go with it. So for example, in Pride & Prejudice, the first few paragraphs are exposition, but it’s all part of that opening event, and so I would lump it in there. It’s important to see it, but that type of detail is for analysis we’ll do later.

Here’s chapter 1 of Servant. These could be 2 events–Barg preparing and Sugar finding the hare and seeing the men–if I wanted to be more detailed. Or I could lump the first 4 chapters all into a bigger event and call the whole sequence “the Sleth hunt attacks Sugar’s family.”

In this exercise, I’m not looking for fine detail. So err on the side lumping larger sequences together. But all the events you identify should be contiguous. You’re not breaking out exposition and description. The purpose of the exercise is to see the event structure of a novel.

BARG, THE HARVEST MASTER and butcher of the village of Plum, stood in the crisp light of early morning with a number of men, waiting to murder his friend the smith, the smith’s wife, and their two children.

Oh, none of them called it murder, but all knew that’s where this would lead. And what choice did they have?

The villagers had been joined by others in the district and divided into groups positioned around the smith’s. One group hid behind the miller’s. Another, the one lead by Barg, kept itself behind Galson’s barn. The third waited in small grove on the outskirts of the village.

The men with Barg stood for an hour, checking the buckles of what armor they had, wrestling with the shock of the matter, and waiting for the signal in silence. At first, a handful of the outsiders had boasted of what they’d do. “Mark me,” said a Mokaddian wearing the turquoise of the Vargon clan. His Vargon accent was plain, rolling his r’s much too long. “I will land one of the first five strokes.”

Barg cut off a handful of his hair with a knife to show his mourning for what was about to occur. “You’ll be one of the first five he guts.” He grasped another handful of hair and sawed through it.

“What do you know?” the Vargon said.

“I know that today I will help kill a man who saved my life.” He cast another clump of shorn hair to the ground. “The smith is a roaring lion. You had best beware.”

The Vargon said nothing in return, but what could he say? He was only trying to cover his fears. Sparrow the smith was a formidable warrior, and if the accusations against him were true, then it was certain some of those who had gathered today would die.

The approaching dawn silvered the fields and thatched roofs about the village and set the roosters to crowing. The cattle in the paddocks began to low. A stray dog outside the ale-wife’s barked at a snake trying to get to the tall grass. And down in the south field, a few straggling deer decided it was now time to leave the fields and find cover. The men knew their signal was only minutes away.

* * *

On the side of the village closest to the forest and Galson’s, the smith’s daughter, Sugar, stood in her barn feeding the family’s two horses and heard the jingle of a trap bell in the garden. The sound was followed by the panicked cry of a hare.

Nothing ever got away from one of Sugar’s traps. And from the sound of the ringing, this creature was big. All that commotion was sure to bring Midnight and Sky, her family’s dogs. She’d trained them to leave her game alone, but these two liked to bend the rules whenever they could. So Sugar put down the hay fork, and told Fancy, their mare, she’d return later. Sot, their draft horse, had already had his fill and had moved out to the watering trough. Then she picked up her smothering sack and stepped out of the barn and into the yard with her bare feet.

The village homes looked like fat ships floating amidst a sea of grain. But it was not a quiet sea. Da had flung both doors to the smithy open and stood at the forge hammering away at his work. Farmer Galson’s cattle bellowed. They were the noisiest bunch of cattle in the whole district. Sugar saw them bunched up at the far end of their paddock waiting for one of Galson’s grandsons to open the gate so they could go to the watering pond. But that was odd . . . someone should have led them out long ago.

Beyond the paddock gate stood the thatch-roofed homes for farmer Galson, his children, and his adult grandchildren. Almost a village all by itself. The soft yellow light of hearth fires still shone in many of the windows. Outside, one of the wives made her way back from the privy in a pale nightgown. She held a wailing babe on her hip.

The woman looked up, and Sugar waved across the field at her, but the woman did not wave back; instead, she dashed for her house. Maybe she hadn’t seen Sugar. But then again, maybe she had. Some of the Galsons thought they rode a lord’s high horse. And that included the boys who had begun to court her.

Sugar walked to the garden, opened the gate, and stepped under the arch of climbing rose. The lemony scent from its pink blooms lay heavy in the air. She walked along the shadowed rows of vegetables until she came to the peas and salad greens. There she found a large hare, a black-tail that was going to make a fine breakfast.

It was easiest just to brain them with a stout stick, but she didn’t want to chance ruining the fur about the throat, so she readied the smothering sack and approached the animal. This part of the garden was still wet with yesterday’s watering and the soil stuck to the bottoms of her bare feet. When she got close, the hare began to kick in earnest.

It was a monster. Twelve pounds at least.

She threw the sack over it to protect her from its kicking and clawing and quickly held its hind and head quarters in place. It cried out in distress, but she kneeled on its side and pushed the air out of its lungs. She pushed until she knew she’d start breaking its ribs, then waited for it to suffocate.

The giant hare struggled underneath her for a minute or so and then lay very still. Sugar removed the snare noose from its leg. The hare felt dead, but she’d been tricked before. A number of years ago, before her moon cycles had come upon her, she’d picked up a hare and carried it into the house and laid it on the cutting stone. The whole time it had lain in her hands like a limp rag, but the second she began to cut, it jumped up, knocked the knife right out of her hand, flew off the table, and bolted out the open door, all to her father’s delight. She didn’t want a repeat, and so she continued to press this hare.

Across the paddocks the Galson’s dogs began to bark. They were joined by another group down by the Miller’s. The dogs would often bark this way when travelers passed through. Sugar looked up to see what was causing the commotion.

A wide line of men on the far side of Galson’s paddocks marched out from behind the barn. They marched in battle order with bows and spears, their helmets gleaming in the early morning light. Those with spears also carried shields painted with a grotesque boar’s head circled by a ring of orange. It was the mark of the Fir-Noy clan of Mokad.

It was not uncommon to see such things. All men, Mokaddian and Koramite, were required to regularly attend their clan musters. But something about this was not right.

She turned and saw another line coming up from the Miller’s.

Then she realized: these men were converging, but not on the practice field. No, they seemed on a direct course for her house.

Let me know if you have questions.


25 Responses to Novel Makers Week 2: See & Sensitize

  1. Mike Fenton says:

    I have a question about word count. I am under the impression that the average for most print novels is about 225-260 words per page. Do you want us to actually count the number of words per page (of a few sample pages) and figure out an average?

  2. Rich says:

    There’s no way I’d be able to even type the answers up to that test in less than fifteen minutes. (That’s 10 seconds an answer, not to mention writing time for each answer.)

    Also, I guarantee (test aside) that this is way more than ten hours for me. Just one distinguishing one book in the allotted time is difficult. Reading ten first chapters–depending on the chapters–could well pass 10 hours for me. I am not a fast reader. Going into it knowing the story and allowing for skimming, I *might* be able to get the 33 things listed above for one in that time, I’d be lucky to get two, three seems unlikely. . .without the ten first chapters.

    I’m going to do my damnedest, but realistically it’s probably not going to happen. (That, and this is the busy season at work–I’m a custom artist–and this week is February Vacation for my kids.)

    • John Brown says:

      Do your best, buddy. If you run out of time, you run out of time.

      I’m assuming the 3 books are books you know well and can indeed skim to identify the events. But if that’s not the case then you’re exactly right–the time will be longer.

      And while there are a lot of items listed above, the number of items is misleading. Most are simple calculations derived from the event break down. So the bulk of the work is the break down of events.

      I am pegging the 15 minutes on the test to me, but it’s quite possible it’s over-aggressive.

      Just do the best you can in the 10 hours and let me know how far you get 🙂

      Do you have Excel? If so, maybe it will help to send you a spreadsheet that does all the calcs and you just fill in the blanks. Let me know if you’d like that.

  3. Anthony says:

    I’ve spent about 4½ hours on my first novel, but it is a 90,000 word work. Hopefully the next two go much smoother.

    • John Brown says:

      I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve come up with. Remember, you can stop at 10 hours if you must. If you have time and desire, try to do three books. And keep track of your time 🙂

    • Anthony says:

      I’ve completed 2 analyses, and any more will take too long for this week’s work. I plan to do more later though since this was an enlightening exercise.

      The Alloy of Law
      Threat/Mystery (Miles Hundredlives will kill Wax, Figuring out how the vanishers steal the contents of the train cars.)
      44 events
      2155 words per event on average
      35% Trouble
      42% Struggle
      24% Resolution
      4% aftermath
      32% before MOTHR introduced (portions of it are introduced much earlier, but at this point it becomes clear that this is the main story problem)

      Threat (RM virus is killing all babies as they are born)
      68 events
      1877 words per event on average
      20% Trouble
      73% Struggle
      13% Resolution
      0.7% aftermath
      MOTHR introduced at the very beginning

      There is a very small percentage of the words that don’t affect the story in some manner, but in each of the works I’ve looked at there are some words expended on things that aren’t clearly part of a particular event.

      I have a hard time picking out the transition from Trouble to Struggle, and I’ll need to make that clearer for myself.

      I spent 9 hours on this part of the exercises this week.

      • John Brown says:

        Great work, Anthony.

        When you say there are words that aren’t part of any event, it shows I haven’t explained myself well. I’ll do it above.

        As for transition from trouble to struggle, the marker I use is when the hero knows the MOTHR and commits to it. Once that’s happened, I’m into the struggle. Now, it might be that the commitment is there right from the beginning. It might come later. All I need to know as a reader is the main MOTHR of the story AND the commitment.

    • Anthony says:

      Question 2.

      The only thing that caused confusion for me were a few places when names were used, and they were so unusual that it kicked me out of the story, and I didn’t understand what was going on. There were not many places that I found boring. The well written works that I read to the end of the chapter had no boring marks for me. The things that caused boredom for me came from things that felt like high school or teenage drama. The vast majority of the marks I made were for things that did not ring true. They were things that did not meet my experiences with the items described, or people doing things that were far outside of the norm for their sex or gender without any justification.

  4. Rich says:

    Just to be clear, because the assignment isn’t, are you referring to *any* books we like or books of the genre we intend to write in?

  5. Greg Baum says:

    Question 1:
    The Big Bounce / Elmore Leonard
    Estimated word count: 62,000
    MOTHR: Opportunity (Ryan’s chance at a big heist)
    Number of events: 20
    Average words per event: 1000
    First phase: 29% (including events before MOTHR is introduced)
    Second phase: 53%
    Third phase: 18%
    Aftermath: effectively 0%
    Before MOTHR: 21%

    The Long Goodbye / Raymond Chandler
    Estimated word count: 133,000
    MOTHR: Mystery (finding out what happened to Terry Lennox)
    Number of events: 27
    Average words per event: 600
    First phase: 29% (including events before MOTHR)
    Second phase: 54%
    Third phase: 2%
    Aftermath: 17%
    Before MOTHR: 19%

    1) Applying the model to these stories made me lose confidence in what I learned last week. The process of matching the model to these books felt very artificial and I never really was convinced by my own analysis, especially when I was trying to assign them a MOTHR, divide them into phases, and identify a ‘point of no return,’ ‘being locked into resolution,’ etc. I’m not sure that either book I used works in a way that this model can describe very well. I came away more convinced by the model’s ability to talk about function than structure.
    2) On the other hand, what was incredibly helpful about this activity was seeing how very different these books are structurally and getting a sense for how those different structures produced suspense. Chandler’s book is composed of short chapters, and each chapter (really with the exception of one) has a single, clear action (either connected to the main investigation or as part of a secondary story line). Leonard’s, on the other hand, is almost wandering—full of backstory, but backstory that’s gripping and full of its own tension and suspense. In Leonard’s book, things happen, but not with the serial precision of Chandler’s—they unfold slowly, sometimes with backstory interrupting moments of key decision or action. Both of them, however, are great books and very well-crafted, and I think this activity gave me a much better ability to hold these different structures in my mind.

    Question 2:
    1) The most frequent cause of ‘grunts’ for me is when something doesn’t ring true. This is particularly the case for dialogue, but also true for characters. Stilted, unnatural dialogue—or simply unbelievable dialogue—turns me off very quickly. The next most frequent cause was poor prose. The worse the prose, the less I trusted the author to tell me a good story, mostly because I think a lot of weak prose comes from the author failing to trust the reader. Boredom/don’t care was the third most frequent thing that made me want to stop reading—I read one book whose first chapter was a group of British soldiers searching for IEDs in Iraq. The chapter was superbly boring, although the stakes were very high—lengthy technical details, descriptions, characters that didn’t do anything and weren’t engaging, etc. I also read several books with characters I either didn’t care about or actively detested (remarkable for the fact that these were: a) supposedly good people and b) only in the first chapter). The least frequent for me was confusion. I didn’t have any trouble following the action of the books I looked at (although that might not be true if I had read the books completely).
    2) I really, really liked this activity and thought it was extremely helpful. It also reminded me how subjective story-telling is. Of the ten books I looked at, I would only continue to read three of them (to be honest, probably only two, but one was a ‘maybe’). Yet all ten were at the top of the 100 Free on Amazon, and they all have extremely high ratings. The things that are problematic for me clearly aren’t problematic for a majority of readers.

    • John Brown says:


      It looks like you’ve done a lot of good work.

      At the same time, I’m looking at your word counts and your event sizes, and I think we’ve got a disconnect 🙂 For example, The Big Bounce has 62,000 words, but you’ve got 20 events at an average of 1,000 words per event, which means you have 20,000 words. If that were true, then the rest of it would be description or exposition. But that’s not accurate.

      I don’t have the book, but I went out and looked at the Amazon preview. From page one to the first break is an event–them watching and discussing the film. Then we have a 1 page event. Then it appears another starts, but I’m missing pp 7-8 so I don’t know where it ends.

      There shouldn’t be a page that isn’t included in some event. It might be an event in the past, but that’s still an event. It might be description or exposition, but it’s related to an event.

      This isn’t your issue. It’s clear I should have spent some time explaining what I meant by “event” and giving more examples. I’ll do it at the top.

  6. Bret Booher says:

    My learning buddy and I are not able to clarify something. I’m looking at it as Christopher Vogler did in The Writer’s Journey which states that there is a difference between the point of no return and the inciting incident. To use Star Wars as a reference point. I would say that Luke’s inciting incident is the video of his sister. He ignores that call and eventually reaches the point of no return when he finds his aunt and uncle have been tanning too long. My idea is that the inciting incident is the disturbance in the character’s normal world. My learning buddy is describing it more as the point of no return. I can work with either, I’d just like to have the issue clarified for use here.

    • John Brown says:

      Good question. The inciting incident is the thing that leads to the character getting entangled with the MOTHR. So for Luke, I agree with you–it’s when he sees the recording.

      Why he can’t or won’t walk away from dealing with it might or might not be an event. In Star Wars he did the refusal, then the thing that locks him in is that Aunt and Uncle have been killed. He now has a moral obligation to take out these suckers.

      But it doesn’t always have to be like that. That’s where some folks go wrong with the Hero’s Journey. That’s just one pattern. There are many that work splendidly. There doesn’t have to be a refusal. Jack Reacher rarely refuses any fight. Katniss couldn’t refuse. In her situation, it was a physical situation that forced her. Sister was selected and that was that. So you can show the inciting incident and the reason why they won’t or can’t turn away together or apart. But the reader simply has to see a valid reason why they won’t turn away.

  7. John McClain says:

    Question 1:
    Title: On Basilisk Station
    Word Count: 127975
    Main story MOTHR: Threat
    Number of Events: 29
    Average Size of Events: 3727
    % of Story in each Phase
    Trouble: 16
    Struggle: 42
    Resolution: 24
    % Size of Aftermath: 5
    % of Story before MOTHR: 16

    Title: Going Postal
    Word Count: 118298
    Main story MOTHR: Threat
    Number of Events: 29
    Average Size of Events: 3554
    % of Story in each Phase
    Trouble: 5
    Struggle: 42
    Resolution: 25
    % Size of Aftermath: 3
    % of Story before MOTHR: 5

    Question 2:
    Here are some of the things in these chapters that pulled me out of the story:
    1. Verbose descriptions of nothing. I’m not sure if the author was writing to a specific word count or trying to mark territory. I didn’t finish this chapter.
    2. Nothing happened except that the POV character died or something at the end of the chapter. I got the impression that the author likes to ski. Maybe they should have started with Chapter 2.
    3. Unbelievable description of why the MCs lives are arranged the way they are and of some of the problems they faced.
    4. Awkward or improper word selection. For example, in my opinion, the words “torrential” and “sleet” do not go together. Enough of this will cause me to throw the book across the room.

    Question 1:
    I probably spent 12 hours on this and only got through 2 books. As a starting point, I went through both books and marked chapter and scene breaks. At this point, I asked myself “What is an event?” I found myself coming back to this question a number of times. My approach was to define and event as a single problem cycle within the main storyline. This made things a more manageable. Both of my titles were over 120k words. I would suggest shorter books if it is your first time attempting this sort of analysis. Some books will be easier to analyze in this manner than others.

    Question 2:
    I completed this exercise within the time estimate. I picked novels that were in the top 100 in the genre. I also pick the novels with the most reviews. And I still only thought 1 in 10 was readable. It’s got me wondering if I’m too picky or just easily annoyed.

    • John Brown says:

      I’m an impatient reader as well. When I saw myself the % of books that many people loved that I just couldn’t get into, it made me realize that I have my tastes but that others have theirs, and, in the words of Thomas McCormack, my suggestions would be akin to moving the liver around or hacking off arms and legs and kill the story.

      Good work on the analysis.

  8. Bret Booher says:

    I want you to then post in the comments for each novel:
    Novel title: The Gunslinger by Stephen King
    Novel word count 55,000
    Main story THOMR Threat
    Number events23
    Average size of events 2391 words
    % of story spent in three phases Present: 1 line. Struggle 90% Resolve 9%
    % size of aftermath 1%
    % size of story before MOTHR introduced 0%
    1-3 key insights you gleaned from all of this: 1. Getting quickly into the struggle is fun. 2. A good first line can be enough of a presentation.

    Novel title: Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson (from a story by Neil Peart)
    Novel word count 85,000
    Main story THOMR mystery
    Number events 22
    Average size of events 3864 words
    % of story spent in three phases Present: 14% Struggle 80% Resolve 3%
    % size of aftermath 3%
    % size of story before MOTHR introduced 6%
    1-3 key insights you gleaned from all of this: 1. The resolve part needs to be meaty. 2. Word counts can be misleading when song lyrics are added at the end of the book.

    I tried to do Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire but it was on my Kindle. I kept getting lost and it was so much harder than using a book. Unfortunately, the genre books I wanted to use are either in storage or at the library which was closed today. After spending so much time on the kindle trying to get everything organized and failing, I was a bit overwhelmed and way over schedule. My insight on this is: books are better.

    Question 2:
    Confusion grunts
    Language that’s too convoluted and could be easily simplified.
    Confusing names or names that are too similar. If I can’t identify people and places, I’m lost. I’m willing to have a bunch of names thrown at me so long as they aren’t all starting with the same basic letters.
    Disbelief grunts
    Overreacting characters. Seriously, Romeo and Juliet couldn’t fall in love as hard as some of these characters act.
    Dialogue, oh the dialogue.
    Boredom grunts
    Too much backstory
    Too obvious of a writer’s hand. Maybe I’m jaded, but when I can see behind the curtain and can’t seem to care for the giant green head, then there is a problem.
    The wrong genre stories can also be a quick turnoff. I had picked random books and tried not to look at covers until I had read the chapter. I got a bodice-ripper aka snoozefest. I also managed to find a Christian fiction book, again Napsville. Maybe if someone said “You have to read this” and I trusted that person I could get by my prejudice, but not on a random book.
    A perceived ax to grind or agenda. I read the chapter of one book and I wondered if it would be adapted to the Lifetime Movie Channel.

  9. Rich says:

    I only got one book, and it took my every minute of those ten hours to figure it out. I’m going to do the grunt-work too, but I can only do what I can. (Guess I’m the special needs kid of the bunch.) If I have time (which is hard this time of year–and I’m going away this weekend with the wife–because I’m really busy) I’m going to break down another one.

    Title: Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson

    Word Count: 111,000 (He told me 111k)

    MOTHR: Mystery

    Number of Events: 30

    Average size of Events: 2491

    Present Trouble: 11%
    Struggle: 73%
    Resolution: 16%

    Percentage before MOTHR is introduced: 10%
    Percentage of Aftermath: 8%

    Key insights gleaned: 1. There was a lot of repetition. He’d do something and then explain it to someone else, which got boring, or think about something and then learn it. It bolstered the word count, but not the story. There were parts that were not scenes or events, that I couldn’t figure where to classify them, and probably should just have been cut.

    I didn’t get to the library, but found a few grunts in this book. For instance, the end fight with the villain: the protagonist used magic to snap his neck. In three out of four encounters, the antagonist broke the protagonist’s bones and beat him up with magic, but only at the end (once there was a child at risk) did he think to retaliate with violence? (Come on.)

    Less than halfway through the book, I knew that the “conspiracy” between the antagonists was over an illegal shipment of wine, yet it took until the aftermath for him to actually get his friend to tell him? (Come on)

    There were a few “who cares” moments, most of them filler that didn’t fit into scenes, and gave me information irrelevant to the story.

    • John Brown says:


      Good job sticking with it. Please do continue to work to break down two more as we move forward. And remember, you don’t have to read new books, these are books you’ve already read and enjoyed 🙂

      Also, look at my explanation of events above. Your event size x the number of events, doesn’t add up to the total word count. At this stage, you’re lumping description, exposition, and commentary into the event they’re most closely related to. The events should be contiguous, no breaks between them.

  10. Rich says:

    I used your excel sheet, and it did not add up to what D. B. Jackson (David Coe) told me was the word count. I used his word count but the numbers your spreadsheet gave me.

    I had a hard time with the scene/events, because there were non-entities. Things that didn’t fit into any events, and really weren’t events. I couldn’t figure out where to put them if he cut away from one scene to have the character recap over a bowl of soup and then cut to another scene. I’m hoping the next one will be a little clearer.

    Honestly, I really might have a problem deconstructing the scenes. Another problem I’m having is choosing what to use. I only recently discovered that Dark Fantasy was such a vast category–I was thinking the novel I’m wanting to write fell into Historical Horror or Muskets and Sorcery–and the span of books that are inside of the parameters of Dark Fantasy is so vast, I’m still reeling from it. In fact, when I look at the sort of story I want to tell, I can only really relate two books (well the D. B. Jackson books are in a series) I’ve read to it, and one of them is a compilation of Robert E. Howard shorts (Solomon Kane). Neither work completely. I read in so many genres and subgenres, that the books I love are all over the spectrum. You mentioned Bernard Cornwell? He’s probably my favorite writer. I’ve read the mousetrap passage, and it’s predecessor–where he describes breaking down the Hornblower books as examples. But, I’ve never really done that. (I did tear down “The Janson Directive” by Robert Ludlum once, but I didn’t try to get word count as much as what the events were.)

    Now, I’m not clear on what you’d define as “Events”. I read the above section (and the edits) twice, but what I think of as events doesn’t include random chunks. (I guess this would be easier if you had read the book, so I could ask direct questions.) And if you want multiple chapters condensed into an event, how do I learn from that? I guess the particulars are getting in the way for me? How few Events is plausible? And where do you draw the lines of the start of one event and another–especially if there is a gap between the veers in a different direction but bears no fruit?

    • John Brown says:

      Hey, this is what the class is for.

      An event is action, dialogue, thought, or feeling. So when they go back and recap over the bowl of soup, are they talking, thinking, feeling, or moving? If so, that recap is an event. It’s a reaction.

      Think back to the story cycle. Reacting is an event. Thinking things over is an event, and it’s often a big part of the reaction. So is discussion. Thinking is an internal event.

      Maybe this will help. If you were to say, “he did this, then he did that, then he said this, then he thought that, then he did this,” those are all events. They are all things that happened.

      Why don’t you list 3 or 4 of these random chunks, and I’ll help you categorize them. Tell me what happened before and after them.

      As for getting the exact type of story you want to write, don’t worry about matching it exactly or trying to describe the whole subgenre. Just find a few books you really like and that do generally what you want to do in your story.

      For example, in my last novel I wasn’t writing historical fiction, but I was writing a huge battle. What did I do? I broke down a lot of the Cornwell battle scenes I liked in three or four of his books.

      So just identify books you really liked that you’re going to break down to see how all this stuff works. And if they don’t work totally as you’d hoped, that’s fine. Doing this should probably give you ideas about how to change what they did so they work for you. Questions like this are exactly what you’re supposed to be asking 🙂

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