Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Progressive Checklist for Writers Part I

by Stephanie Morrill

When my husband got serious about running, I was surprised to learn that his training plan wasn't stuff like, "Do 5 miles on Wednesday" but rather a progressive checklist. When he accomplishes one thing - running a mile at a certain pace, or whatever - he checks it off and progresses to the next step.

As Ben shared this with me, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if one of those existed for writers?"

As a teen writer, I regularly panicked that I wasn't doing enough to grow as a writer, or that I was doing things wrong, or that I was stunted and didn't know it. I would have given anything for a smidge of guidance.

This is the image that's coming to my mind of how my growth as a writer looked:



I had lots of height - lots of accomplishment - but a lousy foundation. I could write a full length book ... but I knew nothing about story structure or character goals. When things worked, they worked by chance, not design. When things didn't work, I was pretty clueless about how to fix them.

Wouldn't it be better, I've thought, if instead I had built my skills like this?:

Yes, I really did grab my kids blocks and build these in my office.

Investing time in learning story structure, the art of character arcs, and yes, even grammar, can build that strong foundation for you. It won't make your stories perfect or make writing easy, but you'll be a stronger writer for it.

Today we'll talk about the first couple steps, and then I'll cover the rest next Monday.

Step 1: In the beginning...

You're at step one if:
  • You love writing and you want to do it, but you've never attempted anything outside of an assignment.
  • You have an idea for a story, but you're not sure where to begin.
  • You've written paragraphs or maybe even chapters from time to time, but nothing has really stuck.
  • You have a lot of fun writing, but you want it to be more than just something you mess around with.

Here's what you can work on:

  • Understanding story structure. It's easy to trick yourself into thinking story structure is something you just pick up on, that it's not something you should really worry about. While you likely have absorbed a decent amount of story structure just from reading and watching movies, there's value in understanding why those stories work and how you can do the same for yourself. Jill Williamson will be doing a post soon on the three act structure, or there are wonderful books out there like James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure.
  • Outline the basics of a story. Even if you're a person who prefers to write by the seat of your pants,  jot down a very basic outline. I used to be a seat-of-my-pants girl, but two manuscripts ago I decided I would borrow James Scott Bell's LOCK system. Just plotting out these basics made a huge difference in the strength of my story:
    • Lead Character - who is the main character of this story?
    • Objective - What are they trying to achieve in the story? Your character needs a compelling goal.
    • Confrontation - What kind of problems will arise that prevent the lead character from achieving his/her goal?
    • Knock Out Ending - How will the story end?
  • Try writing your book. If it's not working out the way you thought it would, or you run out of steam, or you get blocked, don't sweat it. There's no shame in setting it aside for a bit and working on something new.

What it's not yet time for: Worrying about making it publishable or worrying about what others will think of it. 

Step Two: Write a full manuscript. But don't pay attention to the word count.

Maybe that seems like it shouldn't be step two, but the more I reflect on my journey, the clearer I see that it really is.

Going back to my husband and his running. Ben ran in his first marathon last April. Leading up to his race, he'd gradually increased how much he ran. The first time he ran thirteen miles, he was exhausted. But during his next long run, when he ran fifteen, he felt great for the first thirteen. The last two were the hardest. After that his long run was eighteen miles. He felt great for fifteen, then struggled for the last few.

Writing a novel will never feel easy - same as running 15 miles will never feel like a jog around the block - but good training makes a difference. And until you write a full story, you won't get better at crafting full stories. Make sense?

What it's not yet time for: Paying attention to the word count. My first "novel" that I finished was actually around 30,000 words. It had an ending, but it wasn't much of one. In general it was a lousy book, but I had learned a lot. My next book was 62,000 words. Still horribly written, but I was getting better at developing my premises into big enough ideas.

On Monday we'll continue our progressive checklist. Want to help out? Leave a comment saying where YOU are in your writing journey!

56 comments:

  1. This is very encouraging! I'm a teen writer and I am currently adding the finishing touches to my ninth novel manuscript, which is around 115,000 words. Thanks for posting this!

    cierahorton.blogspot.com

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    1. Wow, Ciera, that's amazing! What a great accomplishment!

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  2. Thank you so much for this! And do I spy Melissa & Doug blocks?

    Currently, I think I'm past step two. The manuscript that came from that was *horrible.* I'm on my second manuscript now, which is almost longer (it may be there now. I'd have to check)than the other one, and still has more to go. I'm happy about that since my last one, complete with start, middle, and horrid ending, was only about 48,000 words. I believe I'm getting better, though. The more I write, the more improvement I see.

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    1. Lol, Kelsey - yes! My daughter had a very confused expression on her face when she came down to my office after her nap and found I had been building with her blocks...

      Thanks for sharing where you are in your journey!

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  3. I would say I'm somewhere between step one and step two...

    I have a question- how strong does my objective need to be?

    Thanks!

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    1. Strong enough that much would be lost if your character abandoned his or her journey. And many times they have an outer objective that they're aware of ("To climb Everest!") and an inner one that they don't know about ("To feel loved!")

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    2. Ok, thanks, Stephanie!! :D

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  4. I did a lot of outlining, now I'm on the first few chapters to get a feel for my characters, then I will work out the rest of the seams when I feel my characters are strong.

    By the way, I love the blocks :)

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    1. They're such a great, classic toy! McKenna got them for her second birthday, and we've found tons of uses for them these last few years.

      Thanks for sharing where you are in your journey, Alyson!

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  5. Wow, this is a great post! I've been writing short stories and poems for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I've attempted a full length novel. The fabulous YA author Shannon Hale has a quote on her website that I think applies: “Being a novice novelist should be like being a kid at Christmas. Don’t stress about the ham being cold or the rolls not rising or a present not yet wrapped. Just have a ball.” – Shannon Hale

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    1. Brilliant! I love that - thanks for sharing!

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    2. I love that quote! It certainly describes how we should all begin to write.

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    3. Ooh, that's a really good quote. Thanks! Will have to stick that away for those "my book is horrible and why am I even doing this anyway?" days.

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    4. From Amo Libros:
      Oh, that is a great quote! Ditto, Allison!

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  6. I must be somewhere after step 2...I have three manuscripts, two of which I'm editing right now.

    I'd probably still be stuck on step 1 if it wasn't for the One Year Adventure Novel, though. I was a perfectionist and had no idea how to build a story five years ago.

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    1. OYAN is amazing curriculum. I'm happy to hear you're using it!

      Yeah we'll cover steps 3 and beyond next week - stay tuned!

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      Hi Nairam!! (LEmerald)
      Oh good, I can't wait!
      Yeah, I think I would be too (still stuck on step one, that is). I learned SO much about how a story is structured. Some of it I knew by feel, but some of it...not so much. For instance, when I started outlining, I realized that this idea I'd had for a novel since I was 11 was only about 3 chapters worth. My story is much stronger now, assuming I can ever finish it. Could you do a post on how to write endings, Mrs. Morrill?

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  7. This is a great post. =) I like that it tells you where you are, and then what you can do to get further in the process of writing.

    I think I would have been stuck hovering between steps one and two if not for Nanowrimo, which basically makes you sit down, suck it up, and do step two. Of course, your idea of not focussing on word-count goes right out the window if you have to write 50,000 words in a month. Still like you said - the only way to learn about writing is to write, and sometimes the only way to do that is to force yourself.

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    1. Alice - NaNo is an excellent tool! I wish I had known about it before I had kids :( You're right that you can't ignore word count, but like you said, it makes you suck it up and complete your story.

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  8. I'm currently working on my first full manuscript, and I've been stressing a lot over the word count. This was so helpful, and I'm going to try to just write my story, instead of worrying about the word count, from now on!

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    1. I'm glad to hear it, Jill! You'll find it very freeing, I think.

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  9. I'm in step two. My first novel manuscript was somewhere around 160,600 words. Not sure exactly, I just edited it a bunch. I just started outlining things. I had always jotted down a couple points about the characters, but I just did a character chart on one of my WIPs, and I'm thinking about outlining two others. Great post! cant wait for Monday.

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    1. That's a huge manuscript! Way to go!

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    2. Really? I thought it was really small.

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    3. Well, you said 160k in your original comment. Did you mean 16k?

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    4. Woah! Good on you, Maddie!

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  10. I'm kind of hovering between half of step two. I'm doing nano and today I'll hit the halfway point. I love nano, like someone else said, it forces you to suck it up, and write!

    That's so comforting that your first "book" was 30k, Stephanie! So was mine! An awful book. Then I wrote a novella (I think? It was 14k.) that I over-plotted. Now I've got a WIP at 23k. I'm very excited to see where it goes. :)

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  11. I THINK I'm on step 2. I'm currently working on two novels, but I have yet to finish them. On second thought, I may be between step 1 and 2. We'll see how this goes...

    Thanks for the great post!

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  12. I'm step two...actually, a little past that, I think, since I've written 2 or 3 full-length novels. (The latest about 90k words, I think.) And this was a really helpful post! I think structure is one of the points I need to grow in. :) Thanks for writing this up!

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    1. Cynthia! A delight to find you here. :)

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  13. I think post-Step 2? I did Camp NaNo this year, and wrote a horrible novel that will never see the light of day, at abut 54,000 words. Obviously, I was watching word-count, but now I have an idea that I love for a new novel, so I'm planning that, and maybe writing it for NaNo this year. I'm not going to worry aabout word-count as much this time, though, as I have an actual story idea and something that resembles a plan.

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  14. I feel like saying "can I get an amen?"! What have been receiving my thoughts telepathically this past week? This summer? It's all I've been thinking about! I want to be a writer but I don't exactly know what to do & feel confused about things'. I've spent a lot of time thinking about where I need to start, how to build a foundation, & what I do & don't need to focus on.

    I'll cut my rambling down here. I figured out some places that are probably wise to start & am working in putting all the other thoughts out of my mind, not easy for a organized goal setter, but I narrowed it down to studying "plot & structure" I've spent the past few days coming up with LOCK'S :) no lie!

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  15. My novel started at 27,000 words, graduated to 50,000 words one day and now at draft 8 it's 68,000 words!!!

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  16. I've done step two...but I'm a bit stuck in it--lol! I keep writing "step two" type "novels". Hopefully soon that will change! :)

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  17. I'm probably somewhere after step two. I've written five novels, lots of short stories and a few poems. Nothing has reached 50k yet.

    Like Nairam said, One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) is really what helped me think about the nuts and bolts of writing instead of just getting words onto paper.

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  18. I'm in step two, hopefully on the verge of step 3 ... whatever that is. After writing countless thousands of two-or-three-chapter, forever-left-hanging, pathetic stories, I finally sat down, wrote out a plot, and started a "real" novel. 64,893 words into the first draft, I've grown so much as a writer through it - grown past it, you might say. So after I get through to the end, I'm planning on doing some extremely editing ... and rewriting.

    By the time we're done, we'll have come a long, long way together, my book and I.

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    1. I can totally relate to the 'writing countless thousands of two-or-three-chapter, forever-left-hanging, pathetic stories' bit. I think the farthest I've gotten was 6k... and I had pretty over-the-moon dreams for that one, so now I just choke after a couple chapters, 'cause I'm so sure I'll screw it up.

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      Oh yes, that's me!

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    3. When I was writing all those, I had no idea I how directly I was growing as a writer. I thought I was just having fun - and I was! Those scraps, worthless as they were in and of themselves, got me to the point I am now.

      In other words - go ahead, screw it up! As long as you're writing, you're learning. The screw-ups pave the way for the good stuff. I'm hoping they will for me, anyway. :)

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    4. From Amo Libros:
      I'm sure you're right, Allison. At least, that's what I'm seriously hoping, because if you're wrong then I'm in big trouble ; ) Really, though, I've now heard several authors say that the first novels they wrote (and, I assume, any early stories they wrote) were pretty worthless in and of themselves, but the process (and, I assume, fun) of writing those was what taught them how to write, and enabled them to go on and do something good and for real.

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    5. Allison, in case you haven't figured this out, you're pretty great. Thank you so much

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  19. I finished yesterday (super excited I might add)!! Eek!! This is my billionth rewrite, but that's okay. Rewriting is a good thing (or so I'm trying to learn). My first book is 92k. But it wouldn't be where it is now if I hadn't written the first billion drafts.

    Can't wait for the next installment of these posts! Seriously good!! :]

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  20. I guess I just reached step 2 with my novel. I decided not to worry about the word count, since I didn't want to feel like the word count was dictating how much time I spent on different parts of the story. I ended up with a complete first draft of around 67,000 words! It's the first novel I've completed, but I've already learned a lot from the experience that'll hopefully help shape my next project.

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  21. Thanks for the post, Stephanie! I think I'm between step 1 and 2 at the moment. I really enjoyed this post.

    I'm kind of stuck for a fresh idea for a novel right now, and it really annoys me. I still write other stuff but I want to start on a new novel! Aah! I'm desperate! :)

    BTW everyone, you are all doing so well! Keep writing!

    Thanks again, Stepahanie! Can't wait for the next part for this post! :)

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  22. This post is really helpful :) I'm two and a half chapters away from finishing my second manuscript at around 110,000 words. What I have trouble with is actually finishing stories. I've found that it's not that I can't finish, it's more like I don't want to. I've been stuck at the 2 and a half chapters left thing for about two months now.

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    1. Funny, the ending of my novel is always my favourite part to write! Is it that you've grown attached to your manuscript, and can't face that you're near saying goodbye? It's like, you know, saying goodbye to your daughter when she gets married and moves out. Something like that.

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    2. I'm at a point much like yours, RandomThinker. I'd much rather be rewriting than finishing. But I'm trying to make myself just suck it up and finish - THEN go back and take all the time I want just to enjoy the story.

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  23. From Amo Libros:
    I think I'm on step two...I'm working on my first rough draft, but I can't seem to finish it. It doesn't help that I keep getting ditracted by things like the fact my character arcs are virtually non-existant, my story structure is ok-ish but could use a lot of help, etc. Is it normal to be bothered by stuff like this? And when you're writing, how do you pick just one out of all the possible things that could happen in a situation (they could find a secret tunnel, or maybe they could climb out of wherever they're stuck, etc.). And (I know this sounds silly) do things have to stay that way? Once you've picked a route can you go back and change it later?
    This is my first novel, and it's very dear to my heart, and I want it to be perfect, even though I keep reminding myself that first drafts aren't perfect. I think my desire for perfection is starting to strangle my creativity. Any ideas on what I could do to stop this?

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    1. I certainly get where you're coming from, since I'm also on my first novel and I often feel the same way. Although it's difficult, I think your best bet is to just write as much of your novel as you can. Characters, plot development, themes, etc. are obviously very important, but it's unlikely you would be able to use them at first to put together a wonderful first novel. Try getting the story down on paper first and worry about the story elements later. Remember you can always go back and fix up your story when you're finished writing.

      Hope this helps!

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    2. THANK YOU!!!
      ~Amo Libros

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  24. Excellent idea, Mr. Morrill!

    Stephanie, you are seriously dedicated. Not only do you give us advice, tips, and suggestions (helping us build our foundation), you build block towers to give the visuals among us a better grasp of what you're talking about. :)

    Looking forward to that post by Jill, by the way!

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  25. Step 2, probably. Believe it or not, I gulped when you said that your first novel was 30,000 words. My first draft was 14,000 and I've just managed to beef it up till it's in the 20's. The longest book I ever wrote was 25,000 words and that was fanfiction.

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  26. I have probably said this before, but I will say it again: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR GO TEEN WRITERS!! I would not have gotten as far as I am or learned as much as I have without this resource (and place to hang out with other people who are just as enthusiastic about writing as I am). Thank you SO much! You truly are a blessing from God.
    ~Amo Libros

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    1. Oh, goodness, you're so welcome! It's a lot of fun for us :)

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  27. Thank you so much for this. ^ ^ This is really neat. I think I'm just past these stages. I know my characters, plot and settings and I've written several manuscripts, but I still feel like I'm fine tuning things, but Go Teen Writer's posts, books and conferences have helped me so much. :) A lot of time writing teachers assume that one already know things, but it's nice to have it really broken down like on Go Teen Writers, so one knows the anatomy of writing. :D Thank you for these posts. ^ ^

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