For as long as I’ve been a writing coach I’ve been focused on the novel-writing process. I’m always looking for new ways to produce work faster. For me and for my students.
If you know me at all, you know I’m a hard core Blake Snyder fan. I use his methods to create my structure, to revise against, and even when I’m story editing someone else’s work.
Since discovering Snyder’s Beat Sheets, I get story in a way I never did before. And, because I analyze published novels for their beats, I am improving my screenplay-to-novel understanding and finding my personal differences with using a screenwriting tool for novels.
Recently, I launched a pilot program called the Genre Series Project with two of my students. The three of us are working on launching a genre series. I’ve chosen to write a romance that ties into one aspect of my sci fi/ fantasy, The Julia Set. As we’re working on our projects, we’re studying and perfecting our process so we can turn out series work faster.
My goal is to write a 60k book from idea through revision in 90 days.
- 30 days plotting and character work
- 30 days writing scenes
- 30 days revision
I had planned to plot the entire book and then start writing, but I discovered that as a former pantser, I still rely pretty heavily on the discovery process in the actual writing to figure out the plot. I’m working on changing that. For me pantsing adds too much time to the equation.
But I am having a hard time seeing the second half of the second act where things start to fall apart and get serious. It’s as if that late second act is too far out for me to be able to see. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that so I know it’s an area I will work on.
So, yesterday, since the first 30 days were up, I altered course and even though I wasn’t finished with the entire plot, it was time to start writing. So I did.
The best thing about planning is that when you start to write, it just pours onto the page. I just love that. I can handle the 2500+ words a day I’ve assigned myself. And, the 5-point scene arc I created helps me plan out the scene before I write, should I need it. So, for me, the writing month feels like it will be the easy month. It’s early, of course, but I’m loving the story and loving this process.
Since the first 30 days are over, I thought I’d do a recap after each 30 days in the hopes that my process might give you something you can use in your process. You’ll recognize some of this as Snyder and some as me.
Transformation and Growth Periods
I like Snyder’s way of looking at story as a character transformation. One of the ways I differ from Snyder is that I think each of the major characters is the star of their own story. And everyone is transforming all the time. So each of my characters gets their own beat sheet that tracks what they need to learn and where they are in their life, transformation-wise, while the story is taking place. Then I weave the two beat sheets into one that creates the story beats.
Story may be the record of a process of transformation. In fact, I think life itself as one great big transformation. One of the ways to get really good at recognizing transformation is to start to look at your own life as a series of growth periods. A growth period is when you are playing out some sort of event as a healing or a learning experience. In real life, we’re always in the midst of a growth period, or several overlapping ones. We face and master challenges and grow. If we don’t learn and change, we get the opportunity to face the same lesson one more time. And sometimes, that lesson is bigger and the consequences more dire.
As a writer, seeing life in growth periods has been an essential skill for me to learn. Sometimes it’s easier to look at someone else and identify what growth period you think they might be in. Or, if you have one of those friends who’s always getting into the same jams, or attracting the same guy, can you see what her growth period or lesson might be? If so, you can write a story about it. And show how it might transform if it was a story and not the sad shape of someone’s real life.
All transformation, both real and imagined, comes in three acts. There is an early period or preparation to any process. There’s the long hard middle where transformation is shaping or the lesson gets imparted. Then there is the painful part at the end when the character has to change. Or doesn’t. If they do change and master the growth period – there’s a happy ending. If they don’t master the growth period, it’s a tragedy and the energy of that end is that while this growth period is over, there’s more on that to come.
Spence and Lila
So when it’s time to look at the character arc I ask a few questions. To use an example, I want to talk about a book that has stayed with me a very long time. It’s called “Spence and Lila” by Bobbie Ann Mason. It was published in 1989. I’m pulling this from memory as I don’t think I have this book any longer - it was given to the library in “Deb’s Great Book Armageddon of 2004” when I gave away a pickup truck full of my books. But here’s what I remember:
The story is a quiet one about an older couple in the Midwest. It’s from Spence’s point of view. He’s a curmudgeon. That sour old man, a farmer who’s tired and cranky. His wife, Lila, has to go the doctor to have a lump tested (or maybe removed, I don't remember). Through the course of the story, Lila may or may not be sick, but the experience forces Spence to stop being so sour, to unfreeze and face the fear of death that has been plaguing him. He learns to appreciate the love he has, and has had, with Lila for however long he can still have it. The story brings Spence into the gratitude of the present moment.
Blake Snyder refers quite a bit to creating a “primal” connection with your audience. Your character needs to be going through something primal. But I want to be sure you understand that this doesn’t mean drama, drama, drama, or the biggest drama you can think of. It merely has to be relatable to your audience on a primal level.
Look at Spence and Lila. That’s primal. This couple is getting old. Death is coming for us all. So while the story is one that takes place over a short amount of time, and concerns one man's life and his love for his wife, it's primal.
Stasis = Death
Another caveat Snyder talks about is Stasis = Death. What he’s referring to might be a literal death, but more often it refers to the death of some part of the character’s life. Maybe the death of a dream or a relationship, or their self-respect, etc. Some sort of death is on the line in a primal way.
Stasis means “things staying the same.” And death means death, as in, if things keep on keepin' on like they are, some part of somebody is going to shrivel up and die. And even though the protagonist doesn't really want to get up off the couch and fix it, the story is going to make that happen.
So here are some questions to ask while you’re in the character planning stage:
Where is your character in the beginning of the story? – In “Spence and Lila,” Spence is busy. He’s annoyed at his wife’s doctor’s visit and the implications of it. Annoyed to think that his wife might really be sick. So he doesn’t think of it. Doesn’t face it. He just grumps about everything else.
What is the stasis? - Spence is frozen in fear and doesn’t even know it until later in the book.This is one of the tools I used for my character work this past month. When I had the answers to those four questions, I was on my way to developing the story my characters would live through and grow from. Can you answer these questions for your novel? And, please, if you have anything to share about your process, chime in on the comments. I’m always learning and sharing. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary occupation.
What is the death? - Since he and Lila are getting older, death is a reality. Since Lila is sick, death is coming. So if Spence continues to do what he’s doing, he will waste whatever time he has left with his wife. When she dies, he will be sorry.
Where does the character end up? - Spence resists but finally thaws and the story ends on a beautiful note of love.
Stay tuned for my analysis next month on how the writing month went. Can I finish this book in the next 30 days? That’s the goal.
About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fifteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more,