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!