It should be obvious that a thoroughly formulaic approach to any form of art would be absurd. And I’m sure even this will draw its critics and detractors. So let me get this out of the way forthwith: if it don’t work for you, don’t take my my advice. I mean that will the utmost respect to people who have their own system.
There’s a sea of bad writing advice out there and I’d hate to contribute to it. It ranges from condemnation of semicolons and adverbs to don’t worldbuild to worldbuild a lot. And, while there’s certainly wisdom in all of it, it’s rarely the golden ticket to secucess that amature writers would like it to be. To my earlier point, this is not “How you should write a story”. I’m not telling you that this is the only way to write a story or the only way to write well. What do I know anyway; I’ve never published a book, just a few essays here and there. I don’t like every author’s writing, why should I like every author’s writing advice. Honestly, I’ve found better advice in just-published authors and in editors than I have in the well-published authors.
A few other things I’d like to get out of the way before we delve headlong into the remainder of this essay.
Word count is a metric I use often, and will use often through this piece. There are error bars on word count. For example, one could write an 80,000 word novel and a 90,000 word novel, and have them both be good, publishable, readable, and convey the same amount of information. The difference between the two works is “in the noise”. However, it’s a very different case between 400 word flash fiction, and 400,000 word tome. The latter two are fundamentally different things. This is important. If you want to write a story, you need to understand what it is fundamentally. Word count is a great way to quantify this in the planning stage because it allows you to do two things, predict how long something will take to write, and, more importantly, how long it will it will take to read.
If you want people to read your writing, it must be something that people want to read. This should be so obvious as to be syllogistic. The less-discussed side of this is that, as an artist, sometimes you have to say things that that people don’t want to hear. Your job as an artist is to get people to want to read something you think they need to hear, but which you don’t think they would listen to if presented unartistically. Aside: If you were looking for a meaning or a purpose for art, look no further.
2. The Idea
Some people outline, some people don’t. If your method doesn’t involve outlining, that’s fine. But know that you will do orders of magnitude more work in terms of rewriting many iterations of the story. If this works for you, and you’re able to write a publishworthy story, than stop here. What you’re doing is working. If however you’re trying the no-outline method and giving up on every story you write between 1,000 and 10,000 words, then read on.
This method posits the idea as the basis for a story. A story idea is the shortest anecdotal version of a story you want to tell. It is a premise upon which to build an argument. It is a basis upon which to justify the telling. Don’t misunderstand me, not all stories need to be allegorical (at least, intentionally and explicitly; we can revisit the unintention and the implicit in a discussion of the value of art). The idea is “what the story is about”. The idea is the writing prompt you’d write if you wanted someone else to be able to write your story for you.
Ideas should be easy. They should be the easiest part of the writing process. You don’t necessarily need a great idea to write a great story. So where do ideas come from? Your life and other art you’ve seen, generally. What do you like; what do you hate; what do you want; what do you value; what have you done; what do you want to do; what have you seen others do; who’s your favorite character, and why. Make a damn list. It doesn’t have to be a full-on manifesto, but it should be what you’re about. If you don’t have something to say, find something. Even if it’s something that’s already been said, say it better. Free writing can help. Essaying on a nonfiction topic can too. Don’t wait until you have something to say it; find something to say.
My ideas are usually begin in the form:
“Bob wanted to buy bread from the baker, but couldn’t.”
There’s ten goddamn words folks, it don’t get more simpler than that. It isn’t brilliant. It isn’t profound but it makes you ask why. The answers to this question will come from “what you’re about”. Justify your premise. You can do it in 100 or 100,000 words, it just depends on how you want to answer. People like to say that the story is about the conflict. I disagree. I think a story is about the premise; conflict is about justifying the premise.
3. The Outline
Like I said previously, I think you need an outline. This is an effort that will take on the order of months to years to complete. If you can charge head-long into other projects of this magnitude, stay on task, complete them on time, and produce a decent product at the end, like I said, read no further.
The outlining process requires knowledge of information quantity and structure. The reason to outline is the same reason that books have chapters, and chapters will often have scenes. You and the people who will read your writing need big pieces of information broken down into manageable pieces of information. The complexity of your outline will depend upon the scope of the process.
The basis of my story structure is the scene. My scenes are typically 1000 to 2500 words long. Character creation is also important at this point as well. Character and scene creation can feel a bit chicken-and-egg, and that’s okay. The outlining process should undergo several revisions just like the story. A scene description will usually include: who’s in the scene, where it takes place, what it accomplishes with respect to the premise of the story.
Flash fiction stories will often take place in only one scene. Short stories will often take place over the course of several scenes. Novels and novelæ are larger and will often bundle several scenes into chapters. Don’t lose sight of the general direction toward the resolution of the premise of the story as you move up in hierarchy. It’s okay if a scene or five take a detour from the premise (one could imagine a literal detour in a travelogue). Detours can add conflict if the scene acknowledges it, and can thus serve to justify the premise.
As you put scenes together, start assembling them into an arc. Know what gets pared with what. Spacing your detours appropriately will allow you to manage your reader’s attention span so they don’t get bored or confused with your story.
I usually start writing with the first scene. It usually wasn’t the first scene outlined, but writing the scenes in the order they will appear is a great way to prevent huge amounts of rewriting. Writing itself is something you can only get good at by doing it, whether that be in the form of storytelling, essaying, peer-reviewed articles, or writing technical manuals. Treat the outline and the premise dynamically while writing. Make changes where it suits you.
After you’re done with your first draft, make a summary of it. This will essentially be an outline for your second draft, and will be much easier to tweak than the whole body of text. Repeat the rewriting process until you have something publishworthy.
5. Final Notes
I wrote this guide for myself. If it works for you than please use it. I see a lot of people struggle with writing, and I’d love to be a help to someone. Writing your own how-to guide might help.