Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”
There are all sorts of different romance stories.
Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.
All of them.
Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.
You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled
My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.
Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.
Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.
George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)
Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.
For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.
You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.
You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.
Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?
They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling
Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.
Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.
Period. End of story.
I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.
Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.
If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.
The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.
Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)
1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story
THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.
In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.
Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.
Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.
The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.
Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.
And it’s a story that’ll always work.
2) Jason Statham sells tickets
There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.
Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.
You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.
Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.
That’s box office gold.
3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears
Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”
Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.
We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.
So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.
Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.
Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.
With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.
Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:
Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets
This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.
I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.
From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.
Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.
So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).
Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.
If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.
P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.
If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driver—then congratulations, this post is for you.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.
And you should, too.
Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are driving themselves nuts (a) trying to write beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence that (b) build upon each other to (c) craft a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel Month).
The word that matters in that first paragraph is “build.”
You don’t build with beauty.
Because pretty words aren’t what truly matters. Not for anything of length.
Writing is like building a house, except most writers get taught that it’s the surface stuff that matters–the drywall and the paint, the cabinetry and tile work. Then we’re surprised when our pile of 75,000 pretty words crumbles because there’s no foundation.
Sure, pretty words can hide a bad structure when you’re talking about something small, like a beautiful wooden beach hut sitting on the sand. You can hang out in there for an afternoon or a weekend. Sooner or later, though, it’ll get blown down or swept away by the waves, because the hut isn’t built to last.
Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.
This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).
HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.
With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.
When logic and math fail, I’ll resort to dirty rhetorical tricks. You won’t even see them coming.
Sidenote: Yes, many people have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, and you may be one of them. That’s awesome. Get down with your bad self.
The Math, It Is Crazy
Let’s say the finish line for a novel is 75,000 words.
There are 30 days in November, which means you need to hit 2,500 words a day, every day.
Oh, no problem, you say: I’m getting up at 4 a.m. to drink two pots of fine Columbian coffee as I bang on the keyboard for hours. And I type fast. Watch me.
Sure, that math looks easy. Say your average person types 50 words per minute, which equals:
3,000 words per hour
24,000 words per eight-hour day
120,000 words per week
No sweat. We’ll crank this thing out in a week.
Except nobody who writes for a living produces 24,000 words a day. Nobody.
And they’re doing this full-time, with all kinds of experience and support, like professional editors and fancy VR helmets that turn thoughts into words. Kidding about that. They get implants and have to insert a sharp cable thing into their skull. I hear it hurts and itches all the time.
Here come the word counts:
200 words = letter to the editor
500 words = five-minute speech
600 words = newspaper story
800 words = oped
1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
15,000 words = screenplay
20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
60,000 to 200,000 words = novel
Believe me, not even the fastest reporter writes 5 stories an hour, which translates into 40 stories a day and 200 stories a week. Most reporters do two or three stories a day. I’m insanely fast, and I don’t know a single professional speechwriter who’s ever cranked out a keynote speech in an hour, much less a keynote an hour, every hour, for a week. Such a person does not exist. Most keynotes take an entire week of research and writing.
As for novels, not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by illicit substances, produced a novel a week.
This isn’t a function of brains, talent, or being stuck in meetings 3 hours a day when you’re rather be banging on the keyboard.
Writing is more than typing. It’s a sexy vampire (non-sparkly) which sucks out your life force until you’re a dry little husk who needs to recharge. There are only so many words inside you every day until you smash into the wall.
This, for example, does not count as writing.
So what’s the floor and ceiling for daily word counts?
The bare minimum? 500 words
Literary gods like Hemingway were famous for counting words and walking away from the typewriter after hitting 500. Then they went off to drink wine, watch bull fights and whatever else Hemingway and other literary gods did with their free time.
Totally fine, if those are 500 world-class words. That’s 15,000 words a month, which is about two novels a year. Wonderful.
So our floor is 500 words a day, as long as those are good words. Yet this won’t get us there: 15,000 words in 30 days doesn’t get us close to a 75,000-word novel.
What’s the ceiling?
If 500 words is our minimum, we want the max, right? Give it to us. DO IT NOW.
Not gonna lie to you: 1,000 words a day is good, 2,000 words is great and 2,500 would be amazing.
You simply can’t count on being amazing every day for 30 straight days.
It’s a lot like running. Sure, plenty of people can run 5 miles in a day (or write 500 words). And yeah, some people could run 5 miles a day for an entire month. Your knees would rebel, but a lot of people could slog through it.
What’s not so possible is running a half marathon every day for a month (13 miles or about 1,300 words). And what’s insane is thinking that millions of amateur runners should try to run a complete marathon every day (26 miles or roughly 2,600 words) for a month. Don’t know about you, but I would be in the hospital after Day Six.
No matter how noble the goal is of NaNoWriMo, it’s setting up a lot of people for failure.
Sure, there are people who train hard and do even crazier things, like the folks who compete in 100-mile ultramarathons because plain old marathons aren’t tough enough. I’m not saying it’s completely impossible for everyone on the planet. People manage to do all sorts of things.
What I am saying is NaNoWriMo is like trying to get average people interested in the sport of mountain climbing by lining them up and attempting to set a speed record for climbing Everest in borrowed snow pants and Moon Boots.
Chances are, a lucky few will make it, as they always do each year, which only makes people who got stuck halfway to the finish line feel like failures.
Even if you quit your job and focus on doing this full time, you’re not guaranteed to finish the sucker, and that may make you give up on the dream of writing, which would be all kinds of wrong. Our world depends on good words, great ideas and compelling stories. We need more writers, and they need to be healthy and happy, not sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remember having a spouse and kids.
An easier, smarter path
Let’s think of a way to get a better product with far less stress and labor.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: it is pritnear impossible to fix a pile of 75,000 words with structural problems. (Yes, pritnear is a word, I kid you not.)
Been there. Tried it many times.
Want to hear a horrible truth? The fastest, most reliable method of fixing a bad draft is this: hold it over the trash can, drop it and wait for the clang to stop echoing. Then start over on page 1.
So even if you succeed in cranking out the required number of words, the end product is probably DOA, which is tragic.
The toughest part of writing is actually drawing up blueprints that work. If you have a solid foundation and good bones, adding the details and finishing the job is a piece of cake, whatever your favorite cake may be: cheesecake, German chocolate (not actually German) or what have you. But not blueberry pie, since that’s pie. Illegal. Not gonna do it.
Instead of quitting your job and holing up in Motel 6 to write 2,500 words a day, no matter what, let’s shoot for 500 words a day. Except those 500 words are foundational and structural.
We’re skipping all the non-essential filler, the description and dialogue, and going to the essence of the actual story: motivations and conflicts, setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations.
You can boil down any movie or novel into what Hollywood calls a treatment. It’s a quick and dirty way of writing the foundation of a movie or novel, plus you don’t need to learn any of the wacky formatting (sorry, sis) screenwriters use in Tinseltown.
Treatments are rough and raw, which doesn’t disguise the fact that the story they tell is pure and beautiful.
So, here’s the easier path to NaNoWriMo in eight steps:
Figure out if your ending is up or down, and make your beginning the polar opposite. There are good reasons for this. Ask me later.
Grab the late, great Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT and figure out what type of story, you’re telling, which is a different animal than genre or setting. JAWS, FATAL ATTRACTION and ALIEN are not a horror movie, domestic drama and sci-fi flick–they’re all the same primal story, Monster in the House: you’re in an enclosed place with a monster, and it’s going to eat you unless you kill it.
Make a copy of Snyder’s beat sheet and start playing around with the typical twists, reversals and revelations of your type of story.
Start your treatment from the villain’s POV, because they get up early and go to work long before the hero stops hitting the snooze button and finally takes a shower. The villain matters more than the hero. Poor villain = poor story, no matter how interesting your hero is.
Let the villain win, all the time, and in interesting ways.
Make the hero lose, all the time, despite their best and most clever efforts. A hero who wins at every turn is boring–that’s a romp, not a story.
When you’ve cranked out your 500 words for that day, pour a glass of whatever you enjoy and watch classic examples of that story, or read great novels in that genre for inspiration. Take a few notes. Notice how they create setups that don’t pay off until later, all the while managing to (a) keep you curious by raising narrative questions they don’t answer right off and (b) find new ways to surprise you in scene after scene.
When you’re done with the treatment–shoot for 15,000 words–go through and eliminate or combine every character you can. Show no mercy. If somebody only shows up in one scene, kill them off and give that role a core character. Whatever role is played by evil minions, sidekicks and love interests, try to give those jobs to your villain and protag. Make them do their own dirty work.
That’s it. If you do this, at 500 words or less a day, you’ll have the core of a much stronger novel than if you banged on the keyboard like a rabid chipmunk for 20 hours a day.
This is the short version. Look around this silly blog for all kinds of related posts:
Don’t bother with sending your novel around for beta readers to chew on, editors to edit and proofers to proof. You’ve got 50,000 golden words, right? THEY MUST BE SEEN AND PUBLISHED, TOMORROW, and you’ve already told the dealership to order a black BMW because the advance will be huge.
Forget sending queries to literary agents. Call them on the telephones, right now, or get their cell number and try dinner time, because they’ll be home.
If your novel is truly great, bypass those gatekeepers and fly to the Isle of Manhattan to hail a cab for the offices of Random House with the only copy of your manuscript in your locked briefcase. Make sure there are copyright notices all over the thing and a confidentiality agreement drafted by your attorney before anybody gets a peek, lest they steal it.
Do you have your plane ticket yet? Go get one, right now.
Okay, those folks should be busy on Travelocity while literary agents and editors are hiring a team of former Special Forces soldiers to greet them in the bowels of JFK’s parking garage.
You may have 50,000 words and a spiffy badge, 34,000 words and a feeling of failure, 13,000 words and a newfound hatred of literature or 3,923 words and a pile of index cards that say things like, “The scene where Emily discovers that she hates her husband and wants to become a nun. Then he makes her ham and eggs. The eggs are soggy but the ham is delicious.”
Yeah, I know it’s probably a Word doc. Stick that thing in a virtual drawer. Don’t touch it, not even to fix that scene where Emily is at work and the serial killer is in the copier room, expertly printing his manifesto on both sides and making the machine staple that sucker in the upper left corner before he kills the CFO with an industrial three-hole punch.
2) Take the first page of those five great books in your genre and study them. Just the first page.
Now take your manuscript (mss if you’re a hipster) and print the first page. Only the first page.
Compare them all. Different authors have different styles, sure, but you shouldn’t be writing in second person, or first person plural, if all five of the bestsellers in your chosen genre of memoirs are say, first person. Just a guess. For giggles: Top 9 reasons to write in first-person plural
If you want a quick look at taking a red pen to the first pages of famous novels to rip them up, in a good way, check out these:
Tempted to join a traditional critique group instead? Don’t. Not the kind where you meet once a month, or once a week, and everybody reads a chapter. I’m serious: Why critique groups MUST DIE
5) Read up. A lot.
Read about the business of books, whether it’s traditional publishing, indie or zipping your manuscript to servers at Amazon to start selling it tomorrow.
Read great fiction in all sorts of genres while your manuscript simmers in the oven of that drawer. Learn about writing a query and synopsis, a little marketing and public relations and social media.
6) After a month, go back and crack open that NaNaWriMo manuscript again.
Listen to your editors. Use what you’ve learned about storytelling and from reading great books in your genre. Fix the ending. Fix the beginning. Kill off every character you can and combine their roles.
Keep on working on it while you dream up the next novel, which should not be a sequel. Different characters, different setting.
Does the new idea feel like work, or would you happily burn a day off to crank out chapters? Toss ideas that feel like drudgery and hold fast to concepts that make you excited. Because this should not feel like punching a clock in a Ford factory or going to meetings in a cubicle farm about your TPS reports.
Writing it should make your heart beat faster while you smile. You may even cackle the evil cackle of glee. All those are Good Things, and should be encouraged.
Also: The thing about writers and editors is this: they’re friendly, and as long as you’re not a jerk, they’ll chat with you on Twitter and help you out a little. Great people. I LOVES THEM.
Also-also: If you want to know anything, check out The Writer’s Knowledge Base for a massive collection of articles and posts on every topic a writer could want. It’s like a mega-powered and secret google for writers and editors. Plus it’s free. This thing is a public service. Use it, and tell the folks who run it thanks. Send them tips when you spot great posts or stories and some good karma.
Because there’s a lot of good karma among the folks who love books. This isn’t a zero-sum game where somebody has to lose for somebody else to win. People who love books and writing also love fellow writers and editors. We’re brothers and sisters in arms, battling word counts and deadlines and plot bunnies. It shouldn’t be stressful. Because this is fun stuff, the making up of stories to entertain each other.
Say it’s your first time writing a novel, and you’re a smidge behind. On the 15th of November, you should’ve hit 25,000 words.
Do not despair.
Also: For those who’ve burned vacation time, dumped their significant others and sent the kids to boarding school, because you’re going to hit 50k if it kills you, I say this: dance not the dance of victory, because 50k isn’t actually a novel. It’s a novella. You want to hit 80k or 90k to be safe.
Writer peeps tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo, which is Esperanto for “I’m trying to write a novel in a single month, and I’m 10k behind already, so I’ve quit my job and divorced my husband. I vaguely remember that we had some kids. Ready for a sprint?”
God bless all who sign up for this. I believe a novel is the toughest thing a writer can tackle, and the most rewarding.
If a friend of mine said they were doing NaNoWriMo, I’d want them to have a good experience and not pull their hair out because they missed two days of writing at that wedding and now they need to write 3,000 words a day and IT’S NOT HAPPENING.
It’s great that there’s a national month encouraging folks to write a novel. I just don’t want new writers to bang their head against the wall and feel like a failure if it doesn’t happen. You’re not a failure. The math is stacked against you for NaNoWriMo.
So here is what I would say to that friend wrestling with word counts and freaking out, or to anyone considering doing NaNoWriMo next year.
1) Spend all of October training for this literary marathon
For writers, a novel is like running a marathon. You don’t pop up off the couch on Nov. 1 and bust out 26.1 miles. You’ve got to train and build up to it.
Ignore the veteran pantsers and their crazy “I never outline” ways. Anybody writing a novel for the first time on Nov. 1 should spend October doing this:
Read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee
Figure out what primal story, per Blake the Snyder, you’re going to write—that’s your genre
Watch movies (hey, this homework stuff is tough) or read your favorite books in that genre, and see how those movies and books do setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations
Map out a three-act story, using Blake’s spiffy Beat Sheet, and if you want to get technical, he breaks Act 2 in half, so you’re really looking at four Acts
Figure out your story on that one-page Beat Sheet, and do whatever research you need for the Writing of Many Words
2) The goal is actually more than 50,000 words
You might say, “Hey, mister, fifty thousand words is a lot to write in a month. Don’t make this any harder.”
Sure, 50k is a lot. We’re talking about 1,667 words per day, every day. Except 50k is a novella, not a novel.
It’s more like half a novel.
Google it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, not really. I’m over there, watching funny cat videos.
So: Literary agents, publishers and book peoples have all these standards for word counts when it comes to novels of different genres, and if you’re going to run a literary marathon, let’s make sure you hit 26.1 miles, not 14 miles and call it a marathon.
Chuck Sambuchino is an editor, author and expert on what agents and publishers want in different genres. Here’s a TL;DR version of his post about word counts for novels: “Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.”
Therefore: you’re really shooting for 80 to 90k. Which leads us to Number 3.
3) Make it NaNoDecemberO to stay sane and married
Trying to hit 50k in 30 days is hard. The math, it doesn’t add up.
I know full-time authors who write one book per year. Maybe two. If they wrote 50,000 words a month, they’d be cranking out six to ten books per year.
Which doesn’t happen.
Not even Stephen King puts out six books a year, and he (a) writes faster than anybody, (b) has decades of experience writing fiction and (c) has the money to spend all day doing nothing else, if he wants.
People doing NaNoWriMo typically are not independently wealthy, retired or able to call on decades of fiction writing experience. I bet most folks have full-time jobs and kids and life. So asking them to write at least 1,667 words a day is asking a lot.
Especially when the real finish line is really 80,000 or 90,000 words.
80k words in 30 days is 2,667 words per day
90k in 30 is 3k a day
People expect three bullets, except I don’t have another set of numbers on this point, so here’s the start of an infinite set, just for you: 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 512 1024 2048
That’s crazy talk. Old school authors like Hemingway would count their words, words printed on these things called typewriters, doing it by hand with a pencil. And they’d call it a day when they hit 500 words, going off to drink bourbon and watch bullfights, because 500 words a day is roughly three books a year.
Let’s make it NaNoDecemberO and give you two months to write a full novel instead of a novella.
80k words in 60 days is 1,334 words per day
If you go long at 90k, that’s still only 1,500 words a day, less of a workload than NaNoWriMo’s 1,667
That’s right: write fewer words per day and actually have a full novel instead of a novella
Therefore: go ahead and turn it into NaNoDecemberO.
It’s okay. The NaNoWriMo police won’t come to your door and take away your keyboard. You’ll get more sleep and your friends and family will thank you for doing something incredibly hard in 60 days instead of 30.
4) No matter what, don’t set a goal of more than 2k a day
You might think, “Hey, I’ve got a free Sunday coming up, and I’ll spend six hours writing, 2k an hour, so that’s 10 to 16k, easy.” Might happen. Probably not.
It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do or whether you write an hour a day in the morning or all day as your job. Reporters, screenwriters and authors all seem to hit the wall at 2k a day.
Though you can edit all day. Hmm. Interesting. Write 2k, then edit like a madman. There may be something to that.
HOWEVER: Let’s say you can go all out and hit 3k a day, every day. You’re going to miss days. Weddings, anniversaries, holidays, soccer practice, late nights at work. It’ll happen. If you need 3k a day, and miss a day, now you have to make up for it with 6k tomorrow. Ugh. Even spreading that out over a week would be tough.
Don’t be a literary tough guy and set yourself up for painful falls. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 2k a day or less is smart.
5) Don’t do it alone
Writers are friendly and helpful. Ask. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.
And find some people to trade chapters with and such. You don’t want vague happy nonsense like “it was great” or vague critical nonsense about how they hated chapter 2 and don’t know why.
Find a few fellow writers who need critique partners. Everybody needs beta readers.
Or omega readers. 🙂
Yes, that’s an inside joke. And a good one. I’d throw down a double-sized happy face, if I knew how.
6) Let’s turn January into NaNoEditMo
The secret to all writing is editing—and the longer a piece of writing is, the more editing love it needs.
Don’t bother with critique groups where people read chapters aloud. Are you really going to read 80,000 words to the group? Might take six days. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.
There are all sorts of books, blogs, web sites and secret societies when it comes to editing fiction. Dive into it. Learn all about editing, and practice on things you steal from the Interwebs or pull down from your shelf.
Because you can’t edit yourself. Not at first. It takes experience bleeding on the pages of others before you can turn your own pages red.
The way to learn is from horrifically beautiful writing and amazingly bad prose. Mediocre stuff doesn’t teach you how to edit.
One thing will pop out fast: story and structure matter more, over the long term, than the quality of the writing. You’ll probably enjoy entertaining trash in the genre you’re writing far more than literary novels where every sentence is a poem, and this is true if the genre novels are insane stuff about a zombie pirate in love with a robot ninja from the future.
Also: Yes, somebody has probably written that exact book. Bonus points if anybody can point me to the cover of that novel. I’ll do a blog about this zombie-pirate/robot-ninja shebang.
Also-also: NaNoScriptMo would actually be fun and practical. A screenplay is about 15,000 words and that’s 500 words a day. Hemingway would approve. Then he’d drink a whiskey and watch a bullfight.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: OBLIVION is an interesting and beautiful movie that could have been classic.
Why did it flop?
Let’s look at the prime suspects:
5) Tom Cruise fatigue
This is an easy target. Cruise has gone from “Biggest Movie Star on the Planet” to “Incredibly Excited Actor Jumping on Oprah’s Couch” to “Scientologist Who Gets Divorced a Lot.”
As a huge fan of Lee Child’s Reacher novels, I have to say that Reacher is something like 6’5, 250, blond and quietly sarcastic, while Cruise is short, light, dark-haired and loudly cocky.
HOWEVER: I will give the man his due, because Cruise did a fine job of acting in this movie. The average sci-fi apocalypse movie would have a hot new 20-something actor mumble his way through the thing looking stoned while trying to seem macho. Cruise was an upgrade from the typical New Action Hunk.
You could’ve put Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling or George Clooney in this sucker and it wouldn’t solve the problem. Cruise gets a pass.
4) Double mumbo-jumbo
Screenwriter Blake Snyder (may he rest in peace) says in SAVE THE CAT that audiences will buy one crazy piece of magic or sci-fi. They’ll buy a giant robot assassins with heavy Austrian accents or they’ll buy witches with real magic powers–but they won’t suspend disbelief to see a movie featuring magical witches battling a robot assassin.
Audiences might buy sci-fi techno stuff mixed in with a little magic if you distract them with lightsabers and don’t try to over-explain the magical stuff. But if you start talking like an idiot about the magic being caused by science, say something insane like “midi-chloridians,” they will turn on you, and hate you for ruining things forever.
OBLIVION throws all kinds of stuff in here: an apocalypse, an alien invasion, evil robot drones, massive human cloning, frozen astronauts who are 85 years old or whatever plus and a serious fetish for spiffy helicopter-things.
All of this, however, is under the happy umbrella of technology. Even the craziest stuff seems plausible given the setting of the movie. Also: Cruise should spend his salary from this movie to make a working replica of his helicopter-jet thing, which I’m gonna call the Tom-mobile.
3) Insanely confusing plot
This is a good suspect. While the movie technically avoid the double mumbo-jumbo trap because it’s all science, there are enough plot threads to weave a throw rug.
We’ve got dream sequences in black-and-white, Morgan Freeman channeling Morpheus by way of Mad Max, some Minority Report flavorings and a dozen other subplots thrown into the blender.
Even so, the director holds it together. You understand it. So the confusing parts of the plot aren’t what keeps this movie from being an instant classic.
2) Happy endings are for suckers
The ending is happy, which fanboys never like. Tom Cruise Clone #1 and the dying Morgan Freeman blow themselves up in the mothership of the aliens, saving the world, and later we see Tom Cruise Clone # 2 finding his wife and baby daughter.
Reunited and it feels so good. Except it doesn’t feel great.
1) The villain
There are three parts to a villain, which I’m making that up right now.
Let’s call it Guy’s First Law of Villainy, which states villains must be motivated, fascinating and scary.
Motivated: If your villain is simply doing bad things for no reason, it’s nonsensical.
This is a huge problem with OBLIVION, since these aliens invading Earth go through all kinds of trouble to (a) find Earth in the first place, (b) travel a bazillion light years to get to our precious rock orbiting the sun, (c) wage a long and brutal war to gain control of the planet so they can … (d) suck up all the water in our oceans to create nuclear fusion or whatever.
Water is no big flipping deal. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Oxygen isn’t exactly rare. You can find water on asteroids, comets and planets. There’s some moon orbiting Jupiter or Saturn that we think is a giant ball of water with a frozen crust of ice on top.
I don’t buy aliens going through massive amounts of trouble to steal our water. Sci-fi needs to make sense, because sci-fi fans are smart people who care about this stuff. So this is a huge problem.
Fascinating and scary:
If you’re going to have an alien invasion movie, don’t forget the aliens.
OBLIVION has no aliens. I kid you not.
It has all kinds of drones, which look like angry flying cousins of Pac Man, yet tiny little drones aren’t scary of fascinating. Give us big, threatening bad guys, not cute little ones.
Who is the ultimate villain of the movie? A big faceless computer.
That’s not fascinating or scary. At all.
To make this movie work, we needed amazing aliens, the kind that are incredibly fun to watch. ALIEN got this right, as did ALIENS.
PROMETHEUS forgot about this rule, and therefore wasted the gross domestic product of Paraguay on Michael Fassbender and special effects for no good reason.
This is the reason OBLIVION failed as an alien invasion classic: no aliens. You can’t expect audiences to go wild for a boring, faceless computer as the bad guy.
It’s the same trap that doomed THE MATRIX sequels. We never saw Neo battle the ultimate bad guy in charge of the machines. He died playing anti-virus cleaner for the machine lords, which put the B in Boring.
Alexandra popped a steaming potsticker into her mouth and bit down. The crisp bottom skin gave way and thick, salty pork stuffing spilled (“thick, salty pork stuffing spilled” is a whole lotta modifiers and alliteration) salty pork spilled onto her tongue. She waited for the spicy heat of the sriracha to start burning up the back of her throat, but it didn’t come. Chewing, chewing, chewing, and no heat. Without a thought, she plucked the skillet from the heat and dumped the rest of the plump, white puffs into the trash. with a sliding sizzle (More alliteration brought to you by the letter S, which is too much for the same paragraph)
Shesnapped (snapped is bitchy) turned around, coming face to face with the new prep cook, Marcus, who waited on her response. His brown eyes round (I believe most eyes are round instead of square ), he stared back in unblinking silence. Lexi (Hold up: is this a new character, or the same one? Let’s pick a first name for the heroine and stick with it) slammed the skillet onto a cold burner and sucked in what she hoped was a menacing breath.
“How much hot sauce did you use? Precisely.”
Marcus stammered,. He picked up the wrinkled,hand-scribbled (Do people scribble with toes or put notecards in their laser printer?) notecard, and skimmed it. (Three commas in that little sentence is maybe three commas too many. Two short sentence with no commas is better.) “I followed the recipe.”
“You eyeballed it.” She drew closer to him, suddenly aware of how much she towered over his willowy frame. (Wait, is this a little kid, a student? I did not sign up to read LOLITA meets HELL’S KITCHEN) A quick twinge (Of what, chest pain?) almost made her back off, but Fiona’s words rang in her ears: hHow can you teach these kids if you don’t come down on them? How like Fiona (Who is Fiona?) to encourage beating someone into submission. Channel your inner Domme, honey. Easier said than done.
Notes from the Red Pen of Doom
There’s a deep connection between food and sensuality, so even a giant Swede like me can understand where Camryn is going with the whole foodie-romance thing. While Camryn the Rhys is a great writer and a good friend, I will resist the urge to go easy on her. She’s the female version of Batman — she can take it.
It’s well done. Nice mix of action, description and dialogue. Emotions also come through clearly.
Camryn can clearly write.
I like the idea of food and romance. Great. And the setup of this heroine — Alexandra or Lexi, whichever name you want to go with — is fine for a romance.
Little things threw me off, especially the kid thing. Do I want to picture a towering teacher being all mean to a scared little student? No. Lexi doesn’t seem sympathetic.
We need to see her save the cat, as Blake Snyder says, before we see her be this snappy and unpleasant.
But forget the little things. Let’s think about the big things for a bit.
Page one is the beginning. How is this character going to change on the page that says THE END?
My wild guess is that she’ll still be tough, if not dominant. That she won’t change that core part of her personality.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she flips, and becomes kind in the kitchen and elsewhere after realizing that she put thousands of high school students and ex-lovers in therapy. Maybe she becomes a nun in Tibet after reading a biography of Mother Theresa.
I do know this: whatever genre the story may be, the best stories make characters take long, interesting journeys. Not as tourists snapping photos. As people.
For any romance, the ending is up, right? Two lovers get together.
So for a big journey, the hero or heroine should be alone and unloved on page 1.
And if we’re doing a foodie-romance, the end has the hero or heroine eating delicious food with a yummy love affair cooking on the front burner. Let’s think of the biggest possible journey: if the end is her being in control, in love and in touch with all her senses, then Page 1 should start with her being alone, afraid and out of touch with her senses.
So: I’d like to see this Lexi change and learn and grow. Is this a flat character that goes on a series of romps, or is there a real journey? Page one is where that journey starts.
What if the person on Page 1 lost their sense of smell and taste in an accident, and had to rediscover cooking and kissing and all of that? Hmm. That would be a big journey, wouldn’t it?
The Verdict: Good writer, good writing. I worry about the head fake toward LOLITA meets HELL’S KITCHEN, and I want to see Alexandra/Lexi/Fiona or whoever actually change and grow from Page 1 to THE END.
And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.
Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.
It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.
In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.
Writers struggle with those first five seconds.
What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?
Science shows us secrets
Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.
Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.
Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.
It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)
Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.
The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.
This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.
They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.
Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.
This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.
You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.
And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.
Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.
Hold it out and squint
Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.
Hold out your first page of your text and squint.
Is it a sea of gray?
Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?
Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.
Later on, though, it will make or break you.
When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.
Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.
Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.
That’s why the Squint Test is so important.
Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.
Less is more. Simple works best.
The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.
Putting this knowledge to evil use
Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.
How can we writers use that knowledge?
Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.
Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.
JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.
Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.
Can you do it in a sentence?
How about nine words?
Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.
The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.
Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.
You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.
Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.
That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).
Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.