The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to welcome back novelist Maddie Dawson—author most recently of The Opposite of Maybe, published by Broadway Books in April 2014—as a guest poster. She tells us what lessons a veteran author can learned in a highly regarded writing course:
Here are my usual steps when I’m writing a novel.
1. An idea shows up, usually when I’m driving 65 mph on the highway, or in the shower dripping wet, or falling asleep after a long, hard day.
2. I pull over, dry off, or get out of bed (whichever action is required) and seek a pen and paper and start to write the idea down.
3. Over the next few weeks, with the help of a main character, I write 50 pages, with no idea where I’m headed with this story.
4. Then I rewrite them. Again and again. Months pass.
5. I have a house full of little scrawled notes to myself, sometimes written in the middle of the night. Some say things like: “his mother’s banana bread, the full moon, frog statuary.” Believe me, I don’t know what any of this means.
6. I write 150 more pages. This takes months. (Every few days I rewrite page 1 again.)
7. I take long walks with friends and try to think of what comes next in the plot. I write out a haphazard outline. I change it 24 times.
8. One day, months (sometimes years later) and usually at 4:10 a.m., I finish the book.
See? Eight easy breezy steps to novel-writing. “Pantsers” (that is, people who write by the seat of their pants) can relate. I actually wrote (and published) five novels this way. After each one, I vowed that I wasn’t cut out for this business, that I should check out schools that teach welding. Or car repair.
Meanwhile, my agent was telling me I should learn to write faster and faster. Publishers were interested in authors who could come up with a book a year–at least, she said. Chop! Chop! Some of my writer friends were actually writing two a year, and I knew for a fact these were people with children and cars and houses and dental appointments and a normal need for sleep.
Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for that kind of schedule for myself. But wouldn’t it possible, I wondered, to maybe find a shortcut through some of my steps—like step #4, “rewrite them, again and again”? Or maybe I could even take a closer look at step #3—specifically that phrase “with no idea where I’m headed with this story.”
And then I heard about John Truby and his amazing book, The Anatomy of Story. Truby, who is an internationally renowned screenwriting guru and who has enough Hollywood and New York credentials to take up the entire rest of this blog post, believes that writers can save themselves a whole lot of headaches by following some simple steps before ever putting pen to paper, or pixel to computer screen.
I read the book and then I went to New York and took his weekend course last May—three glorious days of listening and learning about structure and why it’s not such a bad thing to know what you’re doing before you set out…and how, once you do even the simple step of coming up with a premise before you begin, you can save yourself months of rewriting while your characters run amok through your story, taking over with insignificant plot points, ordering you around like you’re their servant, and generally making projects take waaaay longer than they ever should.
A premise, says Truby, is simply a one-sentence statement that tells what the story is about and includes what action is going to take place to get from the beginning to the end. It gives a sense of the beginning, the main character, and then the outcome. That’s it.
You want an example? Of course you do. Here’s one from Truby himself, for The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.”
Simple, yes? But, he says, 90 percent of stories fail because the writer hasn’t thought this out in advance. (I am raising my hand here.)
Your premise is your inspiration; it’s the reason you wanted to write the book in the first place. Often it includes the “twist” that makes your story unique. And once you have that premise, Truby says, you can sit down and explore all the scenes that are going to go into your story—making sure, of course, to leave out the ones that don’t contribute one bit to your original premise.
He suggests taking weeks and even months to come up with precisely the right premise, because your ability to write this book depends upon it. Once you’ve nailed the premise, then you’re going to be able to move forward, figuring out who your characters are, what they desire and what they need, what the central conflict is, what the story challenges and problems are, how the character is going to change, and what difficult choices your main character is going to have to make.
He suggests that after you have all that figured out, you write a list of scenes that are going to take place to lead to the resolution of your premise.
And all this is before you begin writing in earnest. In other words, by the time you are starting to write your book, you have thought through all the little hang-ups in the plot, all the places that would otherwise be knocking you to the ground with despair, keeping you up in the middle of the night trying to wriggle your way out of plot details you’ve created but can’t figure out how to solve.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re imagining that all the joy and surprise of writing will be drained away if you know these things in advance, that the whole reason you love writing is for those hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments when your character shocks you with some revelation you didn’t see coming.
But I’m here to tell you, as a former “pantser,” this is not true. There are still surprises as you write your scenes. There are still moments that undo you, as they will undo your readers. There are twists and turns and changes that take place that will take your breath away. But they are all contained in your premise. They are all part of your vision for this book.
A plot is a character experiencing a desire which changes and morphs as the book goes on. You will constantly be readjusting the desire that your character feels as he or she moves through the story. The desire changes as you go, you know. You will find yourself still changing around scenes and thinking about what works better, but you will know where you are going, and that is a wonderful, liberating feeling.
But there was one more thing I learned from the Truby workshop, something that I hadn’t really ever thought about before, and that I think is perhaps the most important element of his workshop.
He tells writers to “write the book that will change your life.”
This is no small thing. But the book you write tells the world something of who you are, how you think the world operates, how you think human beings should behave. It is nothing short of your vision and your prescription for living.
Think about it.
And when you write that book, Truby says—and when you get to the end of it, it chances are it will speak to other readers as well.
And if, for some reason, it doesn’t sell? Well, then at least you’ve changed your life—and that’s no small thing.
Now that Maddie Dawson, author of The Opposite of Maybe (2014) and The Stuff That Never Happened (2010), is no longer a pantser, she is hoping her new novel-in-progress, Until You Called Me, will be on a much faster schedule.