Last week I approached a good friend and told him my woes. “I started structuring my novel about two months ago… I kind of lost wind. Not really sure I know where I’m going with it.”
“How long do you think it would take you if you really pushed yourself?”
“Probably seven days.”
“Okay, then if you’re not done by noon next Saturday, then you owe me fifty bucks, and you get to know that you failed.”
And that’s how I knew I have a great friend.
The last week has been a little crazy.
Definitely depressing. Filled with many thoughts of, “Holy shit, I can’t even figure out how to escalate the tension in this scene, I’m such a hypocrite! I’m the worst writer in the history of authorship.”
But seven days passed by, and I am left with thirty pages of scribbles, scratches, and huge Xs trying to cover up half-baked ideas.
I kept my fifty bucks and my pride.
Okay, that’s a lie.
That structuring exercise sapped my pride for a year.
Next year I’ll be prideful.
Here are a few lessons I learned this week. I hope you can learn from my exercise as well.
1 The age-old question, ‘Which is more important, plot or character?’ is utter crap. I tried only focusing on plot for 48 hours before I called my buddy back. “My plot sucks. I need to bounce ideas off you… now.” He told me to flesh out my characters and plot would follow. And it did. They are a symbiotic relationship. Don’t treat one more important to the other. The way you approach it can be unique, but both are equally as important.
2 Get a second opinion. You need external input. Some of your “most brilliant ideas ever” are total crap. You don’t know that until someone sane tells you that in the most loving way. Don’t finish your novel before you let a friend read it, and now 400 pages later you realize that the premise is fundamentally flawed.
3 Don’t think about your antagonist as a bad guy. For the first couple days (before I named my characters) I scribbled “antagonist” as a placeholder. Then I realized my mistake: there is no such thing as an antagonist. Just a person with good motives and circumstances happen to put them at odds with your protagonist. But they’re not “the bad guy.” And if, heaven forbid, you think of them as the bad guy, then they will be one-dimensional. I ended up changing my main character’s name and turning him into the antagonist because I wanted a truly likable, dynamic antagonist. And suddenly, I liked the “bad guy.”
4 Write. Seriously, this is a point. Since I had seven days to write thirty pages of structure, I turned down Netflix to write. I know you scream heresy, but I structured a novel in 7 days, so I’m not ashamed. I said no to some social outings, and my wife supported my solitude. If you want to write, you have to write. Simple as that. I plan on cancelling Netflix as I write my novel. Only one thing can truly have my attention. And that will be my novel.
5 Read. I started and finished a book last week. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which I highly recommend. If you don’t make time to read, I won’t make time to read your writing. Because a writer who isn’t studious is an insult to their audience. You can always be better. Please don’t act like your writing is great now. So read for goodness sake, and you’ll improve.
6 Work out. Your mind is most stimulated and active when your body is healthy. And doing something like running (without music) lets you actively think about the menial task at hand, while your subconscious works out your plot holes. For Sherlock Holmes it was violin. For me it’s working out. Yes I just compared myself to Sherlock Holmes. Please don’t scorn me.
7 Start with a plan. To reach your destination, you have to know where you’re going. Write down your steps. Stick to those steps. And when you write, let your characters take you where they want to go. But you at least have an overarching framework to reference.
8 Celebrate the small wins. If you hit your daily 3,000 word count, holy smokes, you’d better celebrate… not with sweets though. Eat food that will fuel your energy, not make you want to nap at 6pm.
9 Keep it simple. Wouldn’t it be cool if zombies, werewolves, pirates, and ninjas all fought against each other? Yes it would. Wouldn’t it also be cool if there was a race against time to save the president’s life? Okay, yes. Wouldn’t it be cool explorers in the arctic found out that there was a massive tectonic plate shift going to happen any day now and millions could die? Yes, that would be cool. Please, not all in the same story though. Pick your battles. Or your reader will battle you.
10 Take a lesson from Dan Brown. Say what you want about his writing, plot, or controversial subject matter… who cares. What he is undeniably good at is cliffhangers. Every single chapter ends with a cliffhanger. And his chapters are usually around 5 pages long. Yeah. Talk about serious adrenaline rush. That’s why people can’t put down his books. I’m not saying your chapters are bad if they’re longer than 5 pages, but what I am saying is the more cliffhangers you have, the more likely your reader is to clutch the book tight in the light of his/her lamp at 1am even though they have to wake up early for work the next morning.
11 Get rid of cliches. I struggled with this one. I’m writing an NA adventure story. There are staples in the “adventure” genre like every hero has to have a wise mentor who helps him in the beginning. To avoid those cliches, I’m making the mentor extremely self-aware that he’s the stereotypical wise mentor. If your novel doesn’t have the leeway to use tongue-in-cheek humor like that, then avoid cliches like the plague. See what I did there?
Twelve. Be consistent.
13 Let it sit. Know when to walk away and do something else. If you’re too close to it, you won’t be able to see any glaring mistakes. Unfortunately this is not the prevailing problem with writers.
14 Don’t be distracted. I’m the most distractible person in America. I truly believe that. The internet is slowly turning my cognitive function into Jell-O. As soon as I sit down to write, suddenly I NEED to look up that one actor from that one movie to see if they’ve been in anything recently. Turn off your phone. Close the browser. Sometimes I go somewhere without Wifi. I know. Crazy. But, it works. Without distractions, all you can do is sit and think, or write. And if you dare to say, “But I need the internet to research!” Please. You know that’s a lame excuse. Writing time is for writing, not researching. Don’t confuse the two separate times. If you do, you’ll end up on a Buzzfeed quiz, ‘Which GoT character are you? Mine surprised me!’ and you’ll snap out of a coma 3 hours later on a disturbing subreddit regretting everything.
15 Don’t censor yourself. Write from the heart. Don’t try to be overly vulgar because you think that’s a more raw form of art. Just be yourself and write what comes out. No more. No less.
16 Study your genre. You need to know the staples of your genre. Your audience expects some things to be familiar to other novels they’ve read in the genre, and many things to be unique. If you don’t know where the lines are between being familiar and unique, your readers will likely be disappointed.
17 Don’t allow yourself to fail. For me, I needed a friend to threaten to take my money if I didn’t get it done. Don’t be naive and say you can’t rush the creative process. They’re called deadlines. And the real world lives by them. If you don’t set yourself BRUTAL deadlines, then you’re choking your potential. Setting lenient deadlines promotes apathy. Sprint. Don’t meander. I would never read a novel that meanders, even if it’s a dramatic romance set in the 17th century. I still want the emotional turmoil at sprinting pace.
That’s just a few of the many things that stood out to me this week. Other than slight emotional trauma that I will likely need to seek therapy for, I think I will survive.
Question of the day: Do you set rules for yourself when you write? What’s worked and what hasn’t?