The key elements of a bestselling novel

The Independent newspaper had an interesting piece today about a pair of researchers (Penguin UK editor Jodie Archer, and associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Matthew Jockers) who have spent the last 5 years using computer algorithms to analyze 20,000 books looking for patterns that make best sellers stand out. The result is a system they claim can predict bestselling books by an 86% margin, which is pretty good.

Naturally, they’re releasing what they learned in their upcoming book The Bestseller Code (and probably marketing their software to major publishers as we speak) however they did release a few interesting tidbits from their research:

“Novels with high or low emotions tend to have a stronger chance of hitting the [bestseller] lists and staying on them.

A couple of pointers from the findings: real people are more appealing to readers than fictional being, so stay away from Dwarves, unicorns, and elves as main protagonists. Those characters who appeal the most are also more likely to “grab”, “think” and “ask”.

The words “need”, “want” and “do” are twice as likely to appear in bestsellers, while the word “okay” appears three times as much. Words like “love” and “miss” appear more often in successful books, apparently appearing three times for every two in lesser selling books.

So, basically, people like reading about other people they can relate to, and stories where the main characters are active and pursuing goals (especially relationships) are what readers want. Now, the word “okay” is an interesting bit, and my interpretation on that is that readers like books written in colloquial and easy to understand language. It may also be a side effect of most bestsellers being modern thrillers and romance novels, so “okay” turns up in modern dialog a lot.

It will be interesting to see the results of this research, and how far it can go. Of course, the publishers would eventually like to have machines churning out their bestsellers like widgets, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Also, it will mean a bunch of books which don’t fit the formula will never get the chance to reach a wider audience, because 86% is not 100%, and many good books could fall between the cracks if publishers start using this to cut costs and be lazy.

Rob

What Jackie Chan can teach us about writing action

Following up my post on what writers can learn from Akira Kurosawa, I’m going to do another blog post on writing- this time based on the nine rules that Tony Zhou outlines in the video below about how Jackie Chan masters action comedy. Naturally, it will be easier to follow if you’ve watched the video, so check it out first.

Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Action is primarily a visual creature, and is a natural fit for film, but can you do it well in prose? I would say yes, but let’s see if Tony’s 9 Jackie Chan “rules” can be applied to prose writing.

Jackie Chan’s 9 Principles of Action Comedy (as noted by Tony Zhou)

1. Start with a DISADVANTAGE

This one is pretty obvious. If your goal is to build tension, then having your character at a disadvantage in a scene in a must, whether they’re supposed to fight or just trying to run away. The more of a disadvantage you can put them at, the better, although I should note that Jackie primarily makes action-comedies. There is a reason Batman doesn’t most start fights at a disadvantage- because he’s a kick-butt reader surrogate and is supposed to make the reader feel powerful. If you take that away from the reader, they’re not going to like it much. (Although even Batman does occasionally start fights at a disadvantage for variety and dramatic purposes.)

 

2. Use the ENVIRONMENT

Tony is actually combining two points here in the video under one.

The first point he brings up is that Jackie uses the environment in his fights, which makes them more real and unique in a sense. If you can offer your reader something they haven’t seen before in a fight, like a character fighting with a ladder, then that can show that you’ve actually taken the time to think through this fight scene and make it interesting for the reader. If you emphasize the environment properly, it gives the reader a sense of place and can be used to help set up shots.

Speaking of which, the second point is really to set up your shots! If you want to have an action scene, then give the reader a sense of the terrain before and during the action sequence. Don’t be afraid to foreshadow or even lead a little with your descriptions like Jackie does in his movies. In the example they give, Jackie does a shot of a stuntman being knocked down a spiral staircase before he himself uses it shortly for his own actions- and there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of thing too! Use people, objects and even descriptions to lead the reader through the action, and make it easier for them to follow.

 

3. Be CLEAR in your shots

This is a trickier one for writers than you might think.

Normally, writers increase the pace of action scenes by using short, clear sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace of the action and story. They also focus on the very key elements of the events happening to keep from letting description bog down the action as it’s happening. However, to be truly clear about what’s happening you need to describe the action, and you need to do it in a way that paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind so they can follow it without being confused.

So you have to find a balance:

  • Too much description = slow reading and pacing.
  • Too little description = reader confusion.

This is one of the things that makes writing action so difficult- finding that sweet spot that conveys a clear image of the events for the reader to experience and enjoy while at the same time not bogging them down with too much, or disorienting them with too little detail.

 

4. Action & Reaction in the SAME frame

Not sure if this one can apply to writing. The only think I can think of goes back to #3, about being clear in your shots and #2b about letting the reader know where the action is going before it does. If any of you have other thoughts on how this one could be applied, please leave it in the comments.

 

5. Do as many TAKES as necessary

For writers, this is really about how much time you want to spend on your action scenes and effort you want to put into detailing them out. Especially in the modern self-publishing world where getting books out fast is often linked with financial success, it can be hard to spending days, weeks (or months) planning an action scene or sequence, but there are times when quality really is linked with time spent.

Again, like most things with writing, it comes down to balance.

You need to know what you’re capable of, and how much time you’re willing to spend, and then use that time accordingly. If you think you’ll benefit from storyboarding out a whole action scene first and you have the time, then why not? (It might also make a great extra for loyal readers, or to get people to join your mailing list.) But, if you’ve got two weeks to finish this book or the rent doesn’t get paid next month, then you’ll probably want to just do what you can and move on.

 

6. Let the audience feel the RHYTHM

This goes back to #3- let the audience understand what’s happening and they’ll be able to appreciate it more. Also, too many quick cuts (jumping from different points of view, or jumping between simultaneous action at different places) can prevent the reader from really appreciating what’s happening. Both POV jumping and jumping between scenes are effective tools for dramatic pacing in a book, but if you overuse them the reader can get confused or tired by it- so as with garlic and salt in cooking, use them in controlled moderation to avoid leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.

 

7. In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit

This is a film editing trick, and I don’t think it can be applied to prose action writing. However, if anyone has some thoughts feel free to note them in the comments section below, I’d be interested to hear them.

 

8. PAIN is humanizing

This one is pretty self explanatory- we empathize with suffering, especially suffering we’ve experienced ourselves, and it brings us closer to the characters and makes them more human. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be hurt, even if it’s just superficial hurts it still reminds us that they’re people and made of flesh and blood like the audience.

Obviously, it also adds to the drama when characters are hurt, because it puts them at a disadvantage in the action and forces them to try even harder to get out of the hole they’re in. If your characters are macho tough-guys, then maybe you don’t want to show them being hurt too much, but if you want the audience to really feel for the character, showing them suffer is a great way to do it. Writer Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) once advised that if you want to connect with the reader describe a character’s feet or their mouth, because both places are filled with nerve endings and give us intense sensations in real life.

 

9. Earn your FINISH

Story can be said to be about struggle. Nobody wants to watch a story about a guy who just walks through park and nothing happens, or someone doing something that isn’t hard or difficult for them to do in some way. While you don’t have to make it a series of ever-stronger bosses like a Jackie Chan movie, you should do your best to show that the character had to overcome something (mental, physical, emotional or social, or some combination thereof) to reach their goals and achieve victory.

Don’t be afraid to stack the odds against your characters, and let them have to do something outside of their comfort zone to win. Of course, if you overdo it, it can become ridiculous, so make sure your poor character does at least have a slim chance of winning in the reader’s minds.

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of writing action in prose form. I think it comes from growing up on comics and action films and then transitioning into literature, where unfortunately the ability to write action varies widely by writer. It’s not an easy skill, and it’s one I struggled with when I was writing my Little Gou short stories and novel, especially since that was literally an attempt to write kung-fu adventures! I don’t claim to have mastered it, and I think I learned a few new tricks watching this video and thinking through this article, but in any case it’s a skill any writer can benefit from developing- whether you’re writing kung fu in old China, car chases through Cairo, or gunfights under the Texas sun.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below!

Rob

Good Advice from Author Scott Sigler about Writing Your First Novel

Parkinson’s Law for Writers- Introduction

Although he was not entirely serious at the time, Cyril Northcote Parkinson once declared one of life’s truisms- “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.”

What does this mean?

Well, let me give two examples:

1) If you only have $10 for food that week, you will find a way to make do with $10 worth of food, but if you have $100 you will spend $100 on food that week even if you could have made do with $10.
2) If you say you have one day to get a project done, it will get done in one day. If you say the same project will take a week, it will take you a week to get it done.

Because of many factors, be it laziness, practicality, or procrastination, it’s just human nature to make maximum use of resources like money or time for our own convenience, even if using them more wisely might bring us long-term benefits. Maybe it’s a side-effect of short-term thinking, or our selfish natures, but this is a problem that keeps popping up again and again, and often we let this side of ourselves keep us from doing what we want to do. This is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law.

I’ll give you an example (the one which got me thinking about this topic)- National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is a month where would-be writers are encouraged to pump out a 50,000 word novel (or 50,000 words of a novel) in an effort to force themselves to write. It creates a time limit, sets a clear goal, and forces writers (who are horrible procrastinators) to actually commit to using that month to produce the book they’ve always wanted to write. The idea is that 1,667 words a day (50,000 roughly divided by 31) is an easily achievable goal for almost any writer, even one with a day job, and if they just reach that goal consistently for 31 days they’ve got their book finished!

It’s a great idea, and for many people it works. It gets butts in seats and words on the screen, and overcomes many of the hurdles that writers tend to find themselves facing in an effort to make their dreams into reality. But, what really made me think was what writer Matt Ahlschlager did- he finished NaNoWriMo in 1 day! In fact, he did it in less than a day, while bogging about it as he went, and this November he did it 3 times!

So why does it take other writers 31 days? Yes, Matt is a fast typer, but couldn’t most people carve out a weekend (2 whole days) and produce a book, especially if they wrote “Chinese Style”?

Isn’t this just an example of Parkinson’s Law in effect? Writers give themselves 31 days, so it takes 31 days, but it doesn’t HAVE to. Writer Michael Moorcock wrote an essay called “How to Write a Book in 3 Days“, and it outlines exactly how to write a book in one weekend. Even most professional writers (the prolific ones) often talk about writing a novel in 2-3 weeks at most, and author Rachel Aaron discusses how to do it in one week by writing 10,000 words a day. It can be done.

Think about it- if you had 2 days to write a 50,000 word novel or pay a $100,000 penalty, could you do it? I bet you could. I bet most people with at least some writing talent could, especially if given a bit of preparation.

So why don’t you?

Every book you write is a potential “lottery ticket” which could actually make you $100,000 (in the long run, if it sells well) and the more stories you write, the better your chances are of writing that winning book. So why are you capable of that kind of productivity only if it’s penalty? Why can’t you do it as a reward? (Yes, I know, one is certain, and one is a gamble, but if you don’t write anything you’re guaranteed to make nothing from it.)

It’s this thinking that got me wondering about how writers could find ways to use Parkinson’s Law to their advantage. If this is a part of human nature, how can we “hack” it to benefit ourselves as writers and make ourselves more productive and profitable in the process?

So let’s explore this “law” and see what it can do for our creativity. When I have time, I’m going to write a series of posts on this topic, and my thoughts on how we can benefit from it.

First up- TIME!

Rob

Structuring Your Story

Today I came across the blog Storyfix, and author Larry Brook’s 10-part Story Structure Series. In it, Brooks lays out his take on the 4-act structure, and presents it in a straightforward and easily useable way for writers of screenplays and novels to make use of when planning their work. Here’s a sample:

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s abetter way.

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful.

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate.

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

It took me about 90 minutes to read the entire series of articles (which are like a condensed 10-chapter textbook on story structure), and I found that even for someone as familiar with story structure as myself it was still an interesting read. Brooks presents his ideas in a clear approachable fashion, and the way he frames and explains his way of structuring a story is insightful.

One thing I got from the article is the realization that I’m what Brooks calls a “Blueprinter”, which is another take on the whole Plotter/Panster dichotomy. A Blueprinter outlines the key elements of the story structure, but not the details, and then just writes the parts in between those key points. So far, that seems to be the best way to write for me, since I like an element of improvisation, but at the same time I need to know where I’m going so I can direct my writing towards that goal. I’m still trying different styles of planning stories, but this resonated as it’s already something I’m doing.

The one critique of this series I have is that I found the articles tent to get less specific and more vague as they go along. The initial articles are pretty solid, but the later ones (like the one on Pinch Points) get extremely unclear as to what exactly he wants the reader to do with this idea. (Short version- Pinch Points are where the audience (but not necessarily the hero) gets to see what the antagonists are really up to and how screwed the protagonist really is, so that we can build tension.)  He also pretty much ignores the whole issue of climax and how the Second Plot Point is a lead-in to that climax. I can forgive some of this because how a story ends can really vary a lot depending on who writes it, and it’s hard to set down hard and fast guidelines, but I have seen other writing instructors (like Blake Snyder) do it better.

Speaking of Snyder, Brooks has his own version of the Beat Sheet to go along with his story structure, which you might find useful to take a look at after you’ve read the articles. (Since it’s a condensed version of that advice.)

In any case, this series is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re someone who has trouble with structure or are trying to figure out the best way for you to plan your work. The way he presents the parts of a story as working together is pretty solid, and I will be taking some of what he says to heart when thinking about and planning my own stories. Overall, I found this series to be an elaboration on Lester Dent’s Formula in many ways, and I think that’s a good thing, since he takes what Dent offers and reframes it in a way that works for stories as a whole, not just pulp adventure works.

Rob

Plotting Thread

As I discussed in Prepping Your Novel, there are a vast number of different ways you can go about plotting a story. Currently in the Writer’s Cafe on Kboards (the un-official Kindle discussion forum) there’s a discussion going where different writers are sharing their approaches to plotting their novels. And you know what? Almost every one of them is using a different method, and one that works for them.

These run from:

Writer Nicolas Andrew’s very traditional approach:

My outlines are rarely finished, usually because I get tired of summarizing and just start writing. I usually know what the end is going to be, anyway. It’s the middle that gives me trouble. I’ve always used the method of outlining I was taught in middle school, which looks like:

A. Setting
  1. Time
  2. Place

B. Characters
  1. Main Character
  2. Main Character

C. Plot

And so on. For plot, the subheadings used to be a mere list of events. Later on, to cut down on subheadings I would divide it into the five points of dramatic structure (exposition/introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution/denouement). But since I’m not likely to forget these points or their functions after twenty years, these days I simply divide the story into Act I, II, and III. 

I don’t decide what event goes into what chapter at this point. That comes out of the actual writing. I use my instincts on where a chapter break should occur, whether it’s on a cliffhanger, or important information being revealed, or a decision being made. Most times it’s a subconscious thing for me.

To writer Lady Runa’s Half and Half Approach:

I guess you could call me half-plotter, half-pantser. When I begin writing a book I plot the hell out of it but it’s never enough. This is how I do it:

1. Idea: the initial setup and a few main characters. Then I follow Larry Brooks’ structure system (the MC’s journey):

2. I take a sheet of paper and divide it into four parts: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr. This is my hero’s arc.

3. Then I brainstorm the story (it may take a few days or weeks) trying to come up with as many relevant and memorable scenes as I can. Normally they fall within the first two parts. I make sure that every part has its own arc and climax. I also plot out the midpoint (Big Fireworks, Great Revelations) and the third plot point (The Bad Guys Win!)

4. I come up with all the characters using Dwight Swain’s character sheet (it’s AWESOME). As he suggests, I make sure that my cast is as varied and contrasting as possible. I come up with all their arcs making sure they’re relevant to the story. I never bother with petty stuff like “what school they went to and what music they like”. This is what I love about Dwight Swain’s sheet: it only includes what’s really relevant.

5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about novel writing it’s you can’t overdo on drama. You can, but it’s extremely difficult. So I try to make sure every scene is dramatic and memorable. Using Holly Lisle’s term, I try to make every scene a “candybar scene” – something I itch to write. No fluff.

6.  Now I plan the living daylights out of the first two parts: scene by scene. I plan every scene very closely, spelling out the setting, the characters involved, the conflict and the chars’ secret agendas. I also plan as many scenes of Part Three as I can – and a few of Part Four.

7. I plant my backside firmly in a chair and write Parts One and Two based on my scene sheets. Normally, as I do so, all sorts of little alterations start to pile up. New better ideas force me to change certain things, which is why I never plan rigidly after the Midpoint. Normally, by the time I reach Midpoint, I have a whole lot of new better ideas and characters that force me to change a lot of the story.

8. So after Midpoint, I sit down and plot out the rest of the book. I’ll change certain things and add more dramatic and memorable scenes based on those alterations. One rule I never break comes from Larry Brook: I never introduce a new major character after Part Three.

So I guess, I’m a half-pantser because as I write the first two parts from my spreadsheet, I end up with new ideas that ultimately improve the book. I’ve got a few traditionally published novels now and work on the next one so it seems to be working – for me at least. I do recommend this “flexible planner” style to those who feel they can’t just sit down and write a book (I can’t!) but who disagree with the “rigidity” of planning.

 

To writer AnnChristy’s unique “Ellipticaller” Approach:

To an observer, I’m a pantser. Total and complete Pantser.

But that’s not quite true.

Instead, I’m an ellipticaller (Is that a word? If not, it should be.)

I get an idea and then I elliptical a great deal, building the story as I do, rearranging it, tearing bits out and putting bits in, building characters and all of that. I logged 22 hours on the elliptical creating the story for Strikers over a short period of time. 

Then it took me the time to write it. But I don’t use notecards or whatever. I build it entirely in my head. Small details like exactly what everyone looks like and their preferences (handedness, a nervous tick, whatever) I do put in a separate scrivener page.

Whole process: 3 months for about 400 pages. 

If I try to use a more written outline method, I would never get done because I’ll constantly reference it and confuse myself. The only way it works for me is to absolutely memorize it and know it like you know your favorite TV show.

 

So, if you’re on a quest to find what kind of plotter you are, give the thread a look! There’s lots of great perspectives there and you might just find something that works for you!

Rob

Why Your First Draft Should Suck (and That’s a Good Thing!)

Superhero

I’m a couple chapters in to my newest work-in-progress, and it kinda sucks.

But that’s okay, in fact, that’s great!

Let me explain.

Of the many pieces of advice often handed out to new writers, two are in my head at the moment. The first is “It’s okay to suck.”, and the second is “The first draft is the writer telling themselves the story”. These two combine nicely to explain my feelings about the story I’m working on, and how I feel differently about it than the first draft for any story I’ve written in the past.

Let’s break those two statements down, and then talk about how they work in harmony.

It’s okay to suck,” which I first heard said by Mur Lafferty, is advice to writers who find themselves paralyzed by the quality of their writing. Now, she doesn’t mean it’s okay to publish a work that sucks, that would be a huge mistake. No, what she means is that when you’re writing your first draft of your story, some parts of it might be really bad, but that’s okay. You shouldn’t let your desire to produce a perfect work of art keep you from writing, because rough drafts are exactly that- rough. They have parts that don’t work and will later be replaced and thrown out. So, if the part you’re working on now sucks, that’s okay, because that’s just a placeholder for something really cool you’ll come up with later on during editing and revisions.

This leads us to “The first draft is the writer telling themselves the story,” which I’ve heard credited to Terry Pratchett (and others). This piece of advice is a little trickier to understand, but in essence he’s saying that the first draft isn’t the story that the world will see, but a draft only for the writer themselves. It’s a version of the story that exists only for you to understand and explore your story and characters, and is not meant to entertain anyone but you.

So, what do we get if we combine these two?

We get freedom.

The first draft is a playground in which you can suck as hard and fast as you want to, and not be afraid because nobody else on Earth is going to see it. You can (and will) change anything and everything later, so who cares what parts are placeholders and what parts will get erased? This is you, the writer, mucking around and seeing what kind of story you can put together for your own fun and pleasure. Some bits will rock, other bits will be less-than-awesome, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s all for you, and you alone.

Stephen King, in On Writing, suggests that you never let anyone see your first draft of a story, no matter how tempting it might be. I think he’s right! Because if you at any moment feel that another person will see this draft, you will start to edit and censor yourself as you’re writing, which completely defeats the purpose of this rough first draft. Get it out onto the screen (or paper, Luddite!) and then worry about making it presentable to the world during revisions. Right now, it’s a mud castle like you made when you were a kid, and you get to play in it and shape it how you want- so don’t hold back.

If you do, you’ll find writers block and procrastination wait to tie you up and hold your creativity for ransom- don’t let them!

So, it’s okay that the stuff I’m working on now sucks.

It’s laying the groundwork for the writing that comes later.

And that, will be glorious!

Rob

 

Picture Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/2303174468/ 

Word Counts for Fiction

A common problem for writers is trying to decide how long to make their stories.

Now, the proper answer is of course- as long as it needs to be.

However, there are still some standards (albeit ones which are slowly changing thanks to eBooks) that most publishers go by when determining how long a book should be. As more than two-thirds of the publishing market is still dead-tree print books, even eBook authors might want to keep them in mind.

The basic rules are:

  • Novel: 80,000-110,000 words
  • Young Adult Novel: 50,000-80,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
  • Novelette: 8000-20,000 words
  • Short Story: 500-8000 words

But there’s a lot of variation by genre, which is where this by-genre list of word counts on Literaryrejections.com comes in. For example, Romance novels can go as low as 40,000 words, but it depends on the type of book. In any case, if you’re planning to write a novel and want to know exactly how many words you have to play with, it might be worth checking that site out.

Rob

Writing Chinese Style, or how to Crank Out 50,001 Words in a Day.

Not everyone knows this, but Chinese and European chefs actually take a radically different approach to cooking.

In the European style (which we naturally follow in North America), the focus is on short preparation times and long cooking times. This likely came from the nature of European vegetables (lots of tough starches) and the style of pots and ovens they used to cook with. In any case, the key to European style cooking is all about the cooking process itself, and not so much about the preparation that goes with it.

Chinese style is the complete opposite. A typical Chinese dish is almost completely prepared before the Wok is even fired up. They were usually just working with one fire and one cooking surface, so anything fancy had to be done during the preparation stage, because they only had one shot at it.

So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, generally there are considered to be two polar opposites when it comes to approaching writing. One side, referred to as Pantsers (as in “Fly by the seat of your pants!”) are people who come up with an idea and just start writing the story,  developing it as they go. The focus for Pantsers is exploratory writing, as they’re basically telling themselves the story when they write their rough draft.

Being a Pantser is a lot like being a European chef, as the focus isn’t so much on the prep as the actual cooking itself. Of course, there’s the opposite pole as well- Plotters, who are like Chinese chefs. For them, it’s all about the preparation, and at an extreme you get writers who write 60-100 page (or more) outlines before ever typing a single word of dialogue. (That’s like writing a book to write a book!)

Of course, most authors fall somewhere in between these two extremes, using some hybrid method of Pantsing and Plotting- whether it be loose outlines, or a plotter who never looks at the plan while writing. There is no right way to write, and you have to go with whatever works for you.

That said, there are more efficient ways to write if your goal is churn out your rough drafts as fast as you possibly can. And, the truth is, they pretty much all involve using the “Chinese” approach of plotting the hell out of your book first, so that the actual writing of the book turns into an exercise in detail and letting your creativity flow instead of worrying about what goes where. Essentially, you do the creative heavy lifting first, so that the the writing itself turns into a long jog in the park instead of running a marathon through the Alps.

On a recent episode of the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast (an episode every author should listen to no matter what their writing style), writer Matt Ahlschlager outlined how he managed to finish Nanowrimo’s 50,000 words/month goal in a single day!

How did he accomplish this goal?

I’ll spoil it for you and tell you the answer was:

  1. The software Write or Die
  2. Planning. Planning. Planning.

He always knew where he was going, so he never had to stop and think about it, and could just keep writing. (Which is good, because Write or Die is a merciless little piece of software that will punish you in nasty ways if you stop writing!) Two weeks of planning based on Mary Robinette Kowal’s method of outlining put him in a position to know who all his characters were, what the story was, and where all the scenes went. After that, writing became the easy part! No wonder he could crank out 50,001 words of a novel in a single twenty-four hour period, have time for social media updates, and still finish with a half-hour to spare.

Naturally, there were a few other tricks and techniques involved (you can read a list of most of them if you click on the RSP episode link and also check out the file marked “Fast Drafting Guide”) but it pretty much all came down to planning ahead.

Of course, Matt isn’t claiming to pull off a ready-to-publish novel in those 24 hours (he even turned off spell check), just an extremely rough draft which can later be edited into something that might be worth publishing. He puts a lot of work into the editing and revision when he writes (he plans to publish 8 novels this year, and already makes a living with his writing), but that may be the better way to go for some writers. Editing can be a lot easier than writing it the first time, and even if you have to do a total re-write, it will still be easier than trying to get it perfect the first time for most writers.

As Nora Roberts once put it- “You can’t edit a blank page.”

So, should you give up Pantsing and turn yourself into a Plotter?

Not necessarily. There are a few Pantsers out there who churn out a novel a month, and they seem to do fine without a map. Also, if your goal is quality over quantity, maybe you do want to pick every word with tweezers and take the time to let your muse slowly guide you on a wonderful journey of discovery.

The only problem is that in the Self-Publishing World, Quantity = Money, because the more you write, the more likely you’ll write something that people enjoy reading, and the more you get your name out there and build a loyal readership. You need to write lots, and write often, and anything that can give you an advantage can make a big difference if you plan to make a living as a writer.

Also, I should note that there are degrees of plotting as well. Author Rachel Aaron is famous for being a 10,000 word a day writer, but she only plans a few chapters ahead before she puts her words on the page. And the speed can vary, Matt himself has only done the 50,000 words in a day thing once as a challenge, and has yet to actually publish that particular book. He normally writes at a fast (for most writers) pace, but nothing close to 50,000 words in a day.

So, like anything, it’s about finding what works for you and getting your butt in that chair to write. Even if you’re a Pantser, it might be worth experimenting with new plotting strategies in order to see if they help up your output. After all, the more you write, the better you will naturally get, and the faster too.

Just like most European chefs at least try cooking Asian cuisine to boost their skills at some point, taking a cue from the Chinese way of cooking might boost your writing as well!

Becoming a better writer through purging “thought” verbs.

Chuck Palahniuck (writer of Fight Club, the book) had this great advice up on Lit Reactor that I thought I’d share. His argument is an old one (“show, don’t tell”) that every writer learns towards the beginning of their career, but he explains it very well in a way I haven’t seen before. The whole article is worth a read, but this first excerpt has the core of his argument.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

via Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs | LitReactor.