On Writing

In which the author offers up his humble insights into writing stories people will love

The Path

You want to learn how to tell stories. You probably want to write novels.

Where in the Sam Hill do you begin?

You begin in the same place you do for any long journey. You begin with a map.

The map outlines your path. It tells you what you need to learn and the order you probably should learn it in. I’m going to give you a path that should get you to the point where you know:

  • What the crap you’re really trying to do (no, it’s not to write a novel or story)
  • The key principles that underlie this secret thing you’re trying to do
  • The key principles of getting and developing ideas so you can do this thing
  • How to take your work to the world

Along the way, I’ll share some tools (techniques) that you can use to start building your writer’s toolbox. And you’ll learn enough to have a good idea how to continue learning on your own. I’m still learning. Most writers I know, even those with lots of successful novels under their belts, are still learning. Heck, even if you make people weep and cheer and wear funny wizard clothes or vampire dresses in your honor with your first book, you’ll still probably be learning (you can tell from their later books that those two dames were).

Be aware that this trek will often feel like an adventure. You’ll very often feel like an explorer. You’ll feel explorer highs and lows. Sometimes you’ll feel like your wagon’s been busted up, or your ship has smashed upon the rocks, or everyone has malaria. It’s a lot of work. But that’s okay. That’s part of the adventure. In the end, you’ll find the lost city. Or you’ll die at the hands of the natives. That’s part of what makes this so exciting.

So, if you’re ready, here’s the path of literary destiny. There are other paths, by the way. But I think this path will get you there quicker. On this path, you need to learn five things:

  1. The service readers are paying for that you want to provide
  2. How that service is created
  3. How to find and develop ideas that will deliver that service
  4. How to get the work done
  5. How to find your audience and get paid (in dollars or glory or chickens)

You’ll notice I start and end with readers. What I’m interested in and will share below is all focused on the storyteller-reader exchange.

Let’s start.

You’re going to have to use your own legs

The first thing you need to realize is that I can’t travel this path for you. What I can do is explain some things and then guide you through activities that will help you learn what you need. But you have to act.

Learning is something you build. All a teacher can do is guide you through and support you in the activities that help you build that knowledge. Well, and help with motivation. But what matters is what you do.

Because of this, each of the lessons contains one or more things I want you to do. I have highlighted them by making them bold face and green so you don’t miss them. If you want to learn, you will perform the activities. If you want to stay at the beginning of the path,  you will simply read.

See & Sensitize

Lesson 1: What the crap are we doing?

Until you know what you’re doing, it’s kind of hard to do it. In this lesson, I help you discover precisely what you’re after. And to tailor it to your personal objectives, not mine.

Lesson 2: How in the world does that work?

An aeronautic engineer needs to know how lift and drag and all sorts of other things work to get a man or woman in the air and keep them there.  A storyteller needs to know:

  • The fundamental parts of story
  • Story structure
  • Plots
  • How suspense works
  • What makes characters interesting
  • The core driver of stories
  • And more

That’s what you’ll start to discover here.

Lesson 3: Learning to see

To be able to use something, you need to see examples of it in action, examples of how others have put it into practice. And because stories are about delivering experiences, you also need to sensitize yourself to how it feels.

For you to succeed, it’s critical you learn how to see and feel.

In this lesson, you’ll start to see and sensitize yourself to how a story works its magic.

Lesson 4: More cause and effect

There are many effects stories create. There’s a lot to learn. In this lesson, you will continue to develop your ability to see and feel.

Sketch the Idea

Lesson 5: How do you get and develop ideas?

Beginning writers are dying to know this. And they should be. In this lesson, I pull back the curtain and reveal some of the key secrets.

Lesson 6: Develop your idea – character, setting, and problem

Work trumps theory. Every single day.

Lessons 1-5 have all been about helping you see how stories work, becoming sensitized to the effects they have on you, and understanding the principles of creativity. Now it’s time to get to work. In lesson 6, you will start developing your own story. I will help you by guiding you through a method and a number of key techniques I’ve found helpful in getting me to the point where I’m ready to write my first drafts. In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • Creative Q&A questions for developing zing about setting, characters, and your THOMR
  • A powerful technique to help you clarify the core of your story
  • And more

Lesson 7: Develop your idea – plot

In this lesson, we continue to develop the story. You’ll learn:

  • How to figure out how many scenes you need
  • Techniques that help make potential events for your plot flood into your mind
  • Patterns to use for your specific type of story
  • And more

The goal is to have you ready to start the first draft of your story when you finish.

Write the Draft

Lesson 8: Treat it like a project

In this lesson, you’ll learn how many hours it will take to finish your first draft and to set up a working schedule.

Lesson 9: Working on it . . .

Publish

Will get to it when I finish the Write the Draft section.

More

Here are some presentations others have found useful in addition to the path above.

Recording of “How to Write a Story that Rocks”

This is the two-hour 12-part video recording of the seminar Larry Correia and I gave on Feb, 11, 2010 at BYU’s “Life, the Universe, & Everything: The Marion K. ‘Doc’ Smith Symposium on Science Fiction & Fantasy.” We share a number of important concepts and principles, but I think the biggest thing you can learn from this is seeing how to go about coming up with and developing ideas. It’s an excellent example of “thing 3: the creative process.” And here’s the How to Write a Story That Rocks – Handout

Recording of “Lessons on Story from the Hunger Games”

This is the recording of my presentation Lessons on Story From the Hunger Games given at the 2011 LTUE conference (spoilers galore!).  And here’s the presentation in PDF: Story Lessons from the Hunger Games RWA 2011 (delivered a year later in Park City to the Utah chapter of RWA).  Thanks again to Stephen Nelson for the recording!

Recording of “How to Get and Develop Killer Story Ideas”

This is the recording of “How to Get and Develop Killer Story Ideas” at the 2011 LTUE with Larry Correia. We might not look pretty, but we had a great time with a full house. Use the How to Write a Story That Rocks handout from above.

Recording of “Vivid & Clear”

This is the bootleg recording of Vivid and Clear which I presented at the 2014 LTUE conference.  The room was packed.

Recording of “Story Turns”

This is the bootleg recording of Story Turns video bootleg style. which I presented at the 2014 LTUE conference. The video I use in the presentation can be found on the 2014 LTUE presentation materials page.

Do I Read & Critique Manuscripts?

I would never fault anyone for asking a published author if they would read and critique a manuscript.  I mean, duh, if I wanted to learn cabinet making, shooting, accounting, writing, whatever–I’d want a professional to give me tips and feedback. So I don’t think anyone should feel bad for asking. Alas, I am simply too busy with my day job, my writing job, and my family to even think about being able to do this. So I do not read and critique manuscripts. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get expert feedback.

First, I will happily give you feedback on your story idea, as stated in story setup format described in lesson 6 on developing your idea or the Blake Snyder Save the Cat! books. It must be no longer than 300 words.

Second, there are pros who DO read and critique. You have a number of options. For example, Marco Palmieri, an editor who has many many years of experience with Simon Schuster and Tor Books, provides developement edits (story), line edits, copy edits, and proofreading. I’ve never used his services, but have heard good things. You can contact him at his site Otherworld EditorialMette Harrison, a pro author, provides such services as well.  Mette reads a massive number of books each year and so can respond to many genres. She has a regular writing advice column on Orson Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. If that’s not enough, know that Orson Card loves her work (his review of Mira Mirror and Princess and the Hound). There are other pros. Just Google and look at their backgrounds.

Third, go to pro author workshops. I don’t have time to critique, but I do make time to share what I know. If you come to a workshop, I can certainly respond to your pitch or concept. I still won’t have time to read and report my experience with the whole manuscript, but it’s better than nothing. On the other hand, while I am limited, there are workshops by pro authors that DO take time to look at your whole novel. David Farland and Dean Wesley Smith, both excellent pro authors, hold novel workshops that do this. I’ve attended workshops they’ve held and can recommend them to you.  And if you just want an all-around killer workshop, then Orson Card holds a week-long literary boot camp (announced each Jan-Feb) where you’re required to write a short story, but it’s so much more than short stories. I can’t recommend Card’s workshop highly enough. But don’t limit yourself to the three pros above–there are others.

Finally, sometimes the best insight comes not from feedback on your own work, but by you reading other people’s work (as a reader, not a critiquer) and simply asking yourself where it was unclear, unbelievable, or boring AS WELL AS where it was clear, believable, and interesting. For each case try to identify what was going on that made it that way for you.

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