Thursday, May 8, 2008

How to Write: How do you eat an Elephant?

Someone asked me the "secret" of how I write so much, and get it published. I'll tell you my "secret". It's no secret, really. It all starts with the simple joke, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!"

I make myself write at least 1000 words a day, every weekday. Think about it. If you assume there are about 20 weekdays in a month, it is theoretically possible to write 20K or more a month. Now, it doesn't work out like that, but it comes reasonably close.

Don't have a heart attack, now. The reason I can write 1000 words a day is simple: planning. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a pantser. I'm a plotter. I have a plot plan and a wipe-off storyboard. Until I can tell you the story, scene by scene, off my storyboard, I don't sit down at the keyboard.

Here's how it goes: Let's say I have this nebulous idea following Sharon Mignerey's ( 5 steps: A character, in a situation, who wants something, and there's something that stands in their way of achieving that want, which will result in a catastrophe if the want is not achieved. Okay, got that. That's my premise.
Another method is Morgan Hawke's system. ( That's just as effective, but a bit harder to learn. I like it because it is geared specifically to writing erotic romance. We'll go over it later, but suffice it to say I do plan my plot, step by step, to guarantee the biggest emotional roller coaster ride I can provide.

Now I take that sheet of paper and go to my big wipe-off storyboard. This is a simple, cardboard-backed wipe-off display board you can buy in OfficeMax. I grab up my collection of colored wipe-off markers and take the thing out to the dining room table. I divided it up into 25 squares long ago, using permanent Sharpies, so I have a max of 25 main scenes, to match the Plot list. I fill in the blanks off my Plot Planner in black wipe-off marker.

Now, whose scene is it? His? Hers? Both? Who has the most angst, the most to lose? For instance, in the Black Moment, the heroine is dying and the hero must get her to medical care. Obviously, it's his scene. I pick up the blue wipe off marker, and circle that notation in blue. If it were hers, it would be circled in red. After all the main scenes are marked, I look for color balance. Too much blue? Well, go back and add some notes for her thoughts, feelings, etc. How about my love scenes? I circle the whole scene box in pink. Hey, waitaminit.... there's 3 or 4 chapters where there seems to be no pink. Not good! Make a note to add some tenderness/sex/fantasy in there. Note locations/settings in green. Hey! How did I get them from that picturesque French village into the local Abbey? Note to make a bridge scene.

My crit partners and I will often get together at this point. If I can go over the whole story with them, scene by scene, we usually find plot twists or bad judgment on my part. (Hey, Lena! It's HER scene, not his! She's the one panicky, right?) Erase, change. Now it's perfect.

Now, here's where things change. I'm published and established. I make my synopsis off the storyboard and send it to my editor for approval. If they have any changes or suggestions, I want them now. You can make your synopsis now, or wait. Note there's no "dreaded synopsis" syndrome.

After my editor has had her say, I make my plot cards. I've created my own set, mostly based off what Tami Cowden taught in her class, "Anatomy of a Scene". I've changed a few things to suit my style, but the basic stuff remains the same. What's going on, what do they have to overcome to get through the scene, why, day/date, time, location, whose POV, (and my own addition) a list of the five senses. (I always forget smell or something!) They get numbered like so: Chapter 3, scene 1 is marked as C3.1. I've dropped my cards before, and that was a mess!

All this planning and preparation can take up to a week. However, for me, it works. When I finally sit down to type or use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, I'm now ready. The story, start to finish, is firmly planted in my mind. I know what I have to do, and when. I may have remembered a cute or sassy phrasing, and that's on the plot card. The rest, I have to now write. It's a plan, like a roadmap. I can deviate, if the characters "tell" me to, but if I want to get from Denver to Dallas, I'll get back on the main road eventually.

I'm not prolific. I'm a plotter. I don't have writer's block, because I have a plan. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That's how I write. One bite at a time.

All you have to do is set your "bites" to what you can chew. You have a day job. Maybe 1000 words a weekday is too much for you. Okay, so make it 500, 250, or 100. You know what you can reasonably accomplish in a day. Plan, then plant your butt in the chair, and do it, every day. Those bites add up. Even at 250 words a day, 5000 words a month, you can write a full-length novel of 60K or more in a year. Double that to 500 words a weekday, and you can write two full-length novels in a year. Think about it. That's an average of 2-3 pages a day. I write about 5 pages a day.

That's it. That's my secret. It's no secret. I'm going to go over my steps, one bite at a time. A process which ensures as little writers block and stress as possible, because you build a solid foundation, one building block at a time.

I'm not going to lie. Very few people have the over-organized system I do. That's fine. Feel free to modify. However, I urge you to do each step at least once. Try it. If you don't want to use a binder, try a simple manila file folder, for instance.

Warning: I have UNBREAKABLE RULES. They'll be noted and explained.

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