I know you think you are writing the book that’s never been written before, but you’re not. Every idea has been done. You’re just going to do the idea a bit differently. So find a book like what you want to write and analyze it. Remember, everything in a story is done for a purpose. Also, read first and breakout novels. Reading some bestselling author’s latest isn’t going to help you much. They could sell their laundry list.
Do a scene break down, focusing not so much on what happens in each scene, but on the purpose of the scene.
Do an overall story break down, focusing on the five elements of narrative structure. (Initiating event, escalating conflict, crisis, climax, resolution).
Then ask yourself: How are you going to be different?
One thing I like doing is a plot dissection using DVDs of films and shows. Going to scene selection on the DVD. Note how the scenes are titled.
When I watch something I always note what the opening shot is. Normally, this sets the TONE for the story that follows. Remember the opening shot of Saving Private Ryan? No, it wasn’t the old man in the cemetery or the landing craft. It was the American flag. That set the tone for the rest of the movie.
Note the opening scene. This is the most important scene.
Note how the protagonist is introduced.
Note how the antagonist is introduced.
Search for the elements of plot.
In life, think of yourself and others in the same way. What is the first appearance you make to others at a conference? As a writer? What tone are you trying to set?
How are others reacting to you? Personally? Professionally?
Do an author dissection. No, not literally, although I am sure there are some authors you would like to do that to. See what worked in their career. See what didn’t work. Study their career path and their publishing path.
What was their break out book?
What from their career path should you emulate?
What should you avoid?
How are you going to be different?
Warrior Writer Tip: Any time you say “We’ll see” and you referring to something that is just about you, you’re putting a subconscious negative out there. You’re mitigating your responsibility for what it is. I find whenever I say “We’ll see” it’s a big red flag that makes me focus on whatever I’ve said it about. Say “I’ll make this happen” rather than the vague “We’ll see”.
For every What (goal) you have, you need a Why—your intent. A goal is usually factual and external, while your Why’s are emotional, internal things.
Any time you develop a What, you are establishing a Why at the same time.
When you want to change something, there is always a reason Why you want to change.
For many writers, the Why remains buried in their subconscious and does them little good. It is critical to not only bring your Why to your conscious mind, but to write it down to make it real. You also have a Why for every book you write.
The intent (Why) and goal (What) should be mutually supportive. Like the goal, the intent should be a positive statement, because we want positive emotions.
When you state your goal’s intent, follow this format:
I am doing X (goal) for reason Y (intent).
When I first entered the army, the key portion of the operations order was the mission statement, which detailed What the unit and members were to accomplish. About five years later, someone came up with the idea of adding the Commander’s Intent to the mission statement. This considerably improved the effectiveness of an operations order. Since you are the commander of your life (Force Eight—Command), you must know your intent.
Like the goal, the intent should be stated positively. Remember, you will respond better to positive emotions than negative.
Intent helps you innovate and motivate. Because intent gives direction but not specific instructions, it allows a large degree of latitude as you further develop your goals and decide how you are going to achieve them.
But how do you innovate?
Try the following processes:
1. Ask yourself: What if? Project out courses of actions, much like a chess master, trying to see how they will play out. Enlist the aid of others in doing this. Particularly focus on suggestions that you have a strong initial negative reaction to. Our greatest weaknesses have our greatest emotional defenses built around them and that extends to What and Why.
2. Study and research. You are not the first one to face whatever challenges that are ahead of you. Study how others did it. We’ll discuss this more in the next Force when we cover the Special Forces Area Study.
3. Take it one step further. Yes, maybe you can achieve your goal by doing A. But what about if you go beyond A? What if what appears to be isn’t what is really there?
4. Reverse your thinking. Stop beating your head against the wall. Back off, and walk around the wall and look at it from the other side. Change your perspective and stop having tunnel vision.
5. What if you’re wrong? What if your blind spot is controlling you (something we’ll cover in Force 4, Character)? Sometimes, if things don’t feel right, you need to stop and pay attention to those feelings—someone mentioned gut feelings in a question. As a writer, I’m not a big fan of the concept of writer’s block—I usually call it laziness. However, if for several days in a row I feel disquiet inside about what I’m writing, I take that as a warning that I’m going in the wrong direction. At times like that I put the brakes on and step back from what I’m working on. Drop my preconceived notions.
6. Keep it simple. This seems to contradict some of the earlier techniques such as take it one step further. However, when you are doing something completely new to you, it is often best to keep things as simple as possible so that you can focus on the goal and not get bogged down in the process. The first book I sold, the only advice my agent gave me on rewriting before he marketed it was to simplify it. He said I had too much going on. He mentioned Hunt For Red October. He said that was a rather simple story if you look at it. I simplified the book and we sold—remember, the publisher who bought it had rejected it the previous year.
Clear intent helps you stay consistently motivated. When you use your initiative, your morale inevitably goes up.
Warrior Writer Tip: A mentor is critical to being a writer. Do you have another writer who you respect and can turn to for advice? This isn’t just being a member of a critique group, it means a one-on-one relationship with a writer.
I had a couple of false starts with this blog post. I’d write a couple paragraphs and then decide I wasn’t making any sense, or it was getting away from what I really wanted to say. Then I realized I don’t need to say much.
Below is a youtube video of KT Tunstall singing Black Horse and a Cherry Tree live. I found the video because I like the song. I wasn’t expecting that when I finished watching it my first thought would be, “Now that’s how layering is done.”
You’ll notice that KT is the only person on the stage. She has no band, no back-up, it’s just her, and her mixing. She starts with the tapping/clapping, then the tight strings, the tamborine, the “Whoo Hooo” then she begins playing and singing. Then again at 3:33, she starts layering in more to make a big finish.
Now think of the parts of a story…character, plot, dialogue, description, action, emotion, and remember that none of these things alone are as good as the whole. Knowing how to create each aspect of a story isn’t enough. To tell a truly great story, no matter what genre or format you work in, you need to also know how to juggle, blend and weave the parts together.
For a long time I flailed about as a writer picking what to write. Just look at my career path. It was only this past year as I wrote myself out of my last contract and was not contracted for the first time in my career, that I stopped and took a serious look at ‘what to write’. At first I thought, well, I’ll use my platform as an ex-Green Beret and write military thrillers. But I had to be honest with myself and realize I didn’t feel it. After all, if I was that passionate about the military, wouldn’t I still be on active duty?
Then I thought: well, I’m the only male author on RWA’s Honor Roll. I can be the male romantic suspense author. But again, I didn’t have the passion for it. Also, that’s kind of counter-intuitive. Maybe there’s a reason the Honor Roll isn’t full of male authors? After all, men and women look at romance very differently. I remember 200 women hissing at me in Reno at Nationals when Jenny mentioned my character never said, “I love you” to the heroine in our first collaboration. What we finally figured out is that it’s two very different phrases when a man says it and when a woman says it.
So. My platform wasn’t working for me in those directions.
I met my agent for lunch and we talked about it. She told me the scenes she had really liked in my last manuscript. She talked about my platform: military, Green Beret, West Point, best-selling writer. She said it was very unique. I mentioned the male, romantic suspense thing and her enthusiasm was a bit lacking. Probably because mine was lacking.
I went home and pondered. Then I was emailing a friend whose father had also gone to West Point. And the words Civil War came up. I remember as a plebe at West Point one of the pieces of ‘plebe poop’ (yes, enough said) we had to memorize was: There were 60 major battles in the Civil War. In 55 of them, West Pointers commanded on both sides. In the other five, West Pointers commanded one side. I used to think to myself—maybe that’s why the war lasted so long. When the Ken Burns series on the Civil War came out, I used to watch it over and over again. I’ve walked pretty much every major battlefield of the war. I wrote the Gettysburg Staff Walk used to train officers at Fort Bragg in Special Forces.
I started getting excited.
That’s the key to it all.
I loved the HBO mini-series Rome. The way the two fictional characters, Vorenus and Pullo, caused pretty much every major event in Roman history from Caesar crossing the Rubicon to Augustus being crowned emperor. I thought it was brilliant writing and an intriguing way to look at history.
So I took that concept—two fictional characters causing major events behind the scenes—added in my fascination with the Civil War; threw in my platform as a West Pointer and a military expert and decided I would write military historical fiction. One of the key angles to it is that every time I watch specials on the war, it’s always historians they are using for their quotes. But a military person looks at a battle and war with a much different perspective than a historian.
I started emailing my agent about the idea and doing research. My agent caught my enthusiasm (I still email her every few weeks a short note just to let her know the enthusiasm is still there). When she emailed back and said it sounded to her like I was writing something like Lonesome Dove, I knew I had nailed it, because that’s my favorite book. And the more I researched, focusing on Ulysses S. Grant, the more fascinated I became. I kept finding out more and more things I hadn’t known and I started bringing to life two fictional families for my two main characters.
You have to figure out what you’re strong at as a writer and weak at. I’m a great plotter. I write great action. I’m weak with characters. By choosing to write historical fiction, my plot is kind of determined. So all that energy I used to put into plot, is now going into character. When I did the outline for this book, I outlined the characters first. So sometimes what you need to consider is compensating for what you’re weak at as a writer by writing a story that allows you to concentrate on it.
The bottom line though is enthusiasm. I firmly believe that an agent who reps a book she isn’t enthusiastic about, but thinks she can sell, is killing that book. An agent has to be enthusiastic. It starts with the author. Then the agent. Then the editor has to share that enthusiasm and so on.
This is the entertainment business. Emotion/logic. Emotion is more important than logic.
Warrior Writer Tip: As a writer, pick one type of book that you are going to be successful at. Achieve that before thinking of branching out into other types. Don’t send agents the Chinese menu query where they get to pick whether they want your fantasy, mystery or erotica novel. It means you don’t have a single strategic goal as a writer.
. . .and I’m back, after my longish hiatus! Thanks so much to Charlene for filling in for me.
So, I got to thinking about something on my trip. The iPod and other mp3 players have made music and other audio recordings just about as portable as they’re possible to be. (Especially compared to the days of the first Walkman — as big as a box of crackers, plus the pack of cassette tapes that went with it. Remember that?) Everywhere I go, I see people with earbuds hanging off their heads — on the train, in the mall, in the airport, on the jogging trail, and so on. And I always think — how much are you missing, by shutting out the world?
I understand this is exactly why many people plug in — to shut out the rest of the world. Especially on airplanes, there’s no clearer signal to your seatmate that you don’t want to talk than sticking in the earbuds. But I have to say, if you’re a writer, you really need to shut off the music — or yes, even the audiobook — for a while. I know music can be a big inspiration. It is for me — while I’m writing. But when I’m out in the world, I want to hear the world. When I’m on the hiking trail, I want to hear the birds, the wind in the trees, the sound of distant airplanes, or the running water in the creek. I want to hear the bustle of the airport. I want to rudely listen in on the phone conversation happening two seats behind me on the train. It’s my feeling that you can’t write good dialog without actually listening to people talk, even — or especially — when the conversation is annoying or disruptive.
Story ideas are everywhere. I think it’s just as important to listen for them as well as look for them. (On my Australia trip for example, if I had plugged into my iPod during the flight from Alice Springs, I would have missed the conversation with my seatmate — an Aussie gold miner flying home to the coast for his two weeks off. . . . Talk about story material!)
In related news, here’s an NPR story, “Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets,” that suggests that too much information — and the constant access to information that modern gadgets provide — can actually damage your ability to be creative.
Warrior Writer works because other successful people use the same basic strategies and tactics:
Nora Roberts sells 27 books every minute. She has 182 books in print. “You’re going to be unemployed if you really think you just have to sit around and wait for the muse to land on your shoulder.”
Ever watch Chef Ramsay? Kitchen Nightmares? He would be called in to assist restaurants that were failing (BTW new restaurants have the same failure rate as new novelists: 90%). His flow of evaluating and helping the restaurant reminds me a lot of my Who Dares Wins concept. To start, he would walk in, sit at a table, look at the menu and order a meal.
The menu tells him the focus of the restaurant. Often, there is too much stuff on it. He tells the owner and chef: pick one meal that’s going to be your moneymaker. Don’t try to do too much. Many authors use the large menu technique when approaching an agent: I’ve got a paranormal romance, a thriller, a YA book—which do you want? Cherry Adair said a smart thing at the Emerald City Writers Conference in her workshop: you can write in multiple genres, but if you want a career in publishing, pick one genre and become very good at it. Then you can write the other stuff. I’ve written military thrillers, romance suspense, science fiction, non-fiction, paranormal romance, and a bunch of other stuff. I wish I had heard Cherry’s advice 20 years ago.
As a writer, there are times you have to close doors. I sold back the third book of a three-book deal to the publisher because I knew, based on the sales numbers from the first book that the third would just die. I didn’t want to write a book that would die. I wanted to spend that time writing a spec book that had a better chance at success. Walking away from a contracted book is a hard door closing, but a necessary one.
I think it’s exciting times. I predict numerous start-up publishers springing up in the next couple of years. I also predict 90-95% of them will fail as they make the same mistakes that many restaurants make. One key to being a successful publisher is to focus on selling to the reader, not selling to the author. Another key is promoting synergy among the authors at the publishing house.
Chef Ramsay then eats the meal. It tells him the quality of the food and how good the chef is. How good is your writing? The best idea in the world has to be supported by solid writing.
A big problem he runs into time and time again is that no one is clearly in charge in the restaurant. Under Force Eight COMMAND of Warrior Writer, no matter how good your agent, editor, publisher, etc are, you are in sole command of your writing career.
Often the problem is the chef. But the owner is afraid to fire the chef. I’ve let go of three agents. I did it before I went looking for a new agent. It’s hard. It’s scary. But it is something you control. A key thing to remember as a writer is: pretty much the only power you have in the publishing business is the power to say NO. Close a door.
Ramsay goes back to the restaurant several months later to see how they are doing. What’s amazing is often the restaurant is out of business, or still teetering on the edge of failure because they have not implemented his recommendations even though they asked for his help.
I think Chef Ramsay and Kitchen Nightmares set a good example for author nightmares: change or be left behind.
There’s no denying that there’s a definite connection between body and mind. When I started writing full time I slowly stopped paid attention to my fitness regime, and then my eating, and I gained weight, lost energy, and finally was unable to handle stress to the point that I quit writing. This process took a couple of years, but that is the way it happened.
I told myself that I was just taking a break, a hiatus of sorts. But then a year went by and I hadn’t written a thing. I also hadn’t got my butt back into the gym or regained any of my healthy habits. I did clue in that the two things were connected, but knowing it, and doing something about it is like many things in life…easier said than done.
For me, the key is to start slow, both with the writing, and the healthy life changes and to that end I’ve started to blend those things together in my life. And it’s helped. It really really has. When I’m active and eating right, my mind is fluid and my writing flows. Ok, so the writing doesn’t flow easily, but it flows better. 😉
With that in mind I though I’d share some tips I found online for Staying Limber while working at a desk…..Taken from Everyday Health.com
Practice good ergonomics. Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace to fit the worker. Keep your computer directly in front of you, slightly below eye level. Have your hands reach the keyboard without having to bend your wrists; have good back support; and have your weight evenly distributed. “If you are craning your neck all day to see your computer, you will strain your eyes and your neck,” warns Plasker.
Maintain good posture. “Good ergonomics won’t do you much good if you have bad posture,” says Plasker. “From behind, your back should be straight. From the side, your lower back and neck should maintain their normal curves. Twisting, slouching, or stretching and extending your back or neck can cause pain and damage.”
Follow the 50-10 rule. “That means for every 50 minutes of sitting, you need to get up and move around for 10 minutes — and that doesn’t mean getting up to go sit somewhere else,” says Plasker. “Walking for 10 minutes is a great exercise. It gets your hips and lower back in motion and gets your heart pumping.” ***Personally, I have a short attention span, I tend to follow the 20-10 rule. Write fro 20 minutes straight, then putter around the house, go tot he washroom, get a drink – for 10***
Take the stairs. “Using the stairs is a good aerobic activity. This increases your aerobic activity and your range of motion,” explains Plasker.
Stretch your back. “Bend forward and touch your toes. If you can’t make it down to your toes, just touch your knees. Keep your knees just slightly bent,” says Plasker. You can relieve the pressure in the small of your back by putting your hands on your hips and leaning back while looking up.
Stretch your neck. “It’s best not to roll your head around in circles,” advises Plasker. “Just tilt your head forward, backward, and from side to side.” You can add some gentle pressure to these stretch positions by pushing your head with your hand. Stretch positions should be held for about 30 seconds.
Loosen your upper back. You can relieve the tension in your shoulders and upper back by keeping your arms at your sides with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Now flex your shoulders backward, squeezing your shoulder blades together. You can also get relief by letting your arms hang straight down and rolling your shoulders upward and backward. Repeat these exercises about 10 times.