I get asked all the time, “I have this idea for a story, should I just start writing or should I plot it out?”
And while this is a great question, it’s the wrong question for people who are just starting out as writers. Worse, the real answer is something no new writer wants to hear.
The fact is, if you have an idea for a story, you should not just start writing it, nor should you start plotting it out.
Stories are so much more than people assume. They are incredibly difficult to create. Yet in today’s instant gratification self-publishing world, this fact has been lost. They have replaced “It’s hard to create a story people will want to read.” with “It’s so easy to get your book published!” In today’s digital printing world, writers puke words onto a page, and without any cost to themselves what-so-ever, upload them and expect to get paid for their “work”. But they have skipped the most important part – they must be educated on how to create stories worthy of being bought.
To circle back to the question, someone with a story idea and an interest in writing for profit should start by educating themselves on what it means to be a professional writer.
QUESTION: Is it really that hard to create a story? I mean, I’ve been watching books and reading movies my whole life. Don’t you think that through simple osmosis I’d have picked up what I need to tell a story worthy of being paid for?
ANSWER: No. The problem is, stories that are amazing are amazing because the writer wrote it in such a way that the mechanical elements are invisible to the reader/viewer. And there is so much to think about. Way too many to discuss in this blog post, but let’s take a look at just one – the Compulsory Scene.
Compulsory Scenes are scenes that pretty much have to be included in a story, depending on the Genre you are writing in. As an example, in a murder mystery, one Compulsory Scene will be the discovery of the body. You can’t have a murder mystery without a murder, right? So, at some point in a murder mystery, usually at the start, there will be a scene where someone is either killed, or someone discovers a dead body. This may sound “elementary” (pardon the pun), but it’s so much deeper than that. You can’t just write, “And here’s the dead body!” because that’s been done a million times. You will never stand out from the crowd – i.e. you will never sell copies of your book. What you must do is make your Compulsory Scene of “finding the body”, which has been done a million times in a million different ways, different in your novel from all others. And that is where time, education, and effort will come in. You have to know what you’re doing to be able to do it in a way that no one else has done before.
Step over to my Genre, Epic Fantasy. There are tons of Compulsory Scenes that must be in Epic Fantasy for it to be Epic Fantasy. I could take the easy road and bring up that in Action/Adventure, a Compulsory Scene would be that the Hero has to come really close to death. But that’s as obvious as a body in a murder mystery. So let’s dig deeper. Another Compulsory Scene in Epic Fantasy, one that if not done well will hurt your Epic Fantasy story, is “the Journey”. In every Epic Fantasy book, the characters will start in one place, and travel to another. But since it’s been done a bazillion times, how do you make yours unique? And the answer is not, “Well, I’ll be unique by not including it in my novel!” Because then, you are not writing Epic Fantasy! Go back to my last example. You can’t write a murder mystery that doesn’t have a murder! That’s not how you can be unique. Compulsory Scenes are named such because, well… they’re compulsory. Are they required? No. But readers will be expecting them. Your job is to make them unique and interesting. And if you don’t include them, you better do so in a unique and interesting way other than just not including them. But if you don’t study this, if you have never heard of a “Compulsory Scene” before, how the hell are you going to know it needs to be done?!?!
And Compulsory Scenes only scratch the surface of what a writer needs to know. You need to have an intimate understand of pacing, beats, character development, themes, symbolism, motifs, plot arcs, plot hooks, conflict, tension structure, reversals, and the list goes on. And that’s just for story creation. None of that is used in how you write the words that will convey all that stuff! Once you get into the actual writing the list of what you must master grows exponentially, because now you move from creativity to English grammar. Meaning, yes, you must know the basics like sentence/paragraph structure, punctuation, etc., but it moves into more complex topics such as author intrusion, utilizing Point of View, understanding how to “show” with words instead of “telling”, Verb Forms, Gerunds, Participles, etc., and then rises to such extreme heights as understanding structural patterns created by how you write, being able to identify them, break them, and create new patterns!
And all this takes time to learn. Years, in fact.
But no one wants to hear that. They feel that since their mommy says they are the best little writer in the whole wide world, they should be able to skip actually learning what it means to be a writer and just go right to the New York Times Best Seller list.
So what to do?
Well, the easiest way is to go to college and get your degree in English and Creative Writing. An MFA (Master in Fine Arts) is always appreciated by the publishing industry.
But who has time for that? Well, your only other option is to do it the more time consuming way.
1) Read books on the subject. I have started a recommended reading list here. Read at least one book every month on creative writing, grammar, or the business of publishing.
2) Read books in the genre you want to write in. Not for pleasure, but as a professional dissecting the work. Understand why it works, and where it fails or could have been better.
3) Write every frickin’ day. Seriously. You are going to have to write one million words before you will write your first word that is worthy of being paid for. That is not an arbitrary number. One Million Frickin’ Words!!! To reach that, you must write every day.
4) Join a critique group that meets weekly. First, it will make you write something new each week for your critique group to critique. Second, you must critique other people’s work to grow as a writer (just like reading published books in your genre).
5) Attend lectures on writing whenever you can. Writers’ Conferences, Local Classes, Fan Conventions, Book Festivals, there are tons of places that have workshops and classes. Follow me on social media and see where I teach.
6) Do the above for ten years. Consistently and without compromise. Do all this for ten years, and if you also have storytelling talent, you will develop the skills you need to actually become a professional in this industry.
Hate me? Good.