|Our video guest this month is Michael Ridpath, author of best-selling financial thrillers, on the subject of research. He is also featured at greater length on the bonus for chapter 3. His new thriller, See No Evil comes out this month.
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Stuart Tombs writes, “I was so inspired by your book that I had to forward my appreciation. I read the whole thing cover to cover in a trip down to Cornwal, making notes about things to do differently and really I can see it making a tremendous impact on my writing.”
The Story Spine that Can Help You Write Your Novel
Sometimes the reason that it’s hard to write a story is that we know too much about it. The more we know, the harder it is to find the true spine of the story, the core around which everything else is built. I have found it useful to reduce the story to its essence using this simple structure:
1. Once upon a time…(basic setup)
2. Every day…(conditions at start)
3. But one day…(inciting incident)
4. Because of that…(conflicts that move the story along)
5. Because of that…(several basic conflicts & escalations)
6. Until things came to a head when….(the highest point of conflict–the one that will determine the outcome)
7. And finally…(the resolution of the conflict)
8. Ever since then… (new status quo)
ACTION: To be clear about the story you are telling, at the beginning of writing a novel, or even a short story, create a simple structure using these eight points. Then write it. It may be useful to come back to this structure when you’re ready to start on the second draft—if you feel like your story got lost somewhere along the way, relating it back to these points can help you reclaim it.
New tips on writing fiction will appear here regularly, so be sure to come back and check for more. Also subscribe to the Brainstorm creativity and productivity newsletter and visit Jurgen’s blog at www.timetowrite.blogs.com.
Your Dreams to Solve Writing Problems — New Research Shows How
It has long been known that many great writers were inspired by their dreams (for example, Mary Shelley for “Frankenstein” and Robert Louis Stevenson for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). But now research suggests you can also use dreams to solve specific writing problems.
A study reported in the Journal of Sleep Research got 470 people to write down their dreams and rate them in terms of their intensity, emotions, and impact. The participants were asked to also recall various events that took place up to a week before. Then independent judges were asked to evaluate the dreams to see whether they contained possible solutions for problems arising from those events.
Their conclusion: dreams do offer insights and solutions in the week after the problem comes up. The solutions can appear in dreams as quickly as the night after the problem first arises, but also six to seven days later.
You can make it even more likely that this will happen if you focus on the problem just before you go to sleep. Don’t do it in the form of worrying, but rather as a question to which you expect an answer. Then go to sleep, and the next morning jot down any dreams you remember. Don’t analyze while writing, just write down everything you can remember. If the dream wakes you up, record it then (you might forget by morning).
The next day, sit down in a quiet place and look over what you’ve written. Dreams are metaphors, so the solution to your writing problem may appear as some kind of symbol. For example, let’s say you feel your protagonist is too boring or one-dimensional. You dream about someone burglarizing your house. From this, you might get the idea that your protagonist has the secret that he once committed a crime. How might this affect his actions in your story? Would it be better if he got away with it, or if he was convicted but is keeping his criminal record a secret? If you let your thoughts flow, with the dream as your prompt, you may come up with several solutions to choose from.
ACTION: Keep a notebook by your bedside and jot down your dreams every morning (practice makes it easier to remember your dreams). Once a day, sit down with these jottings and see whether your subconscious mind is using your dreams to offer help for any writing problems you’re encountering.
Creating a Writing Flow – Make Writing Effortless
You may be familiar with the concept of “flow” as written about extensively by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high”). It’s that state in which you are so involved with writing or whatever you are doing that you lose all track of time. Often it’s an exhilarating experience in which it seems like we are just writing down the thoughts flowing through us.
The question is, how can we induce such a state when we’re writing, rather than waiting and hoping for it to occur spontaneously? Here are three keys:
1. Pick a task that is at or just above your level of ability. If it’s too hard or too easy, you won’t enter flow. So if you want to write a novel, break it down into chunks you can handle. One might be writing a rough outline. Another might be doing a character biography for your protagonist.
2. Make sure that the task includes immediate feedback, so that you know as you go along whether or not you are doing well. For instance, you can start by setting yourself a goal of writing a certain number of words per half hour. Generally, you need to feel positive at the beginning stages, and eventually the task may so absorb you that you stop thinking about how you’re doing it, or how well.
3. Create an atmosphere in which you have as few distractions as possible. Again, later in the process, you may be so involved that you don’t even notice things like a phone ringing but it helps if you can start off in an environment that makes it easy to concentrate. This also includes setting aside a period of time when you won’t feel you really should be doing something else. It’s also useful to have around you anything (pictures from magazines, for example) that remind you of some aspect of the story you’re writing.
ACTION: Schedule some time during which you want to tackle a fiction writing project and create the conditions described above. Go into the process with the idea that if flow occurs, that will be great, and if it doesn’t, you’ll still get a lot done (that mentality makes it less likely that you’ll distract yourself by asking ‘am I in flow yet?’).
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“With compassion, wit and the wisdom from a long successful writing career, Jurgen Wolff guides you step by step, on the inner and outer journey to writing success.”
— Robert Cochran, co-creator and Executive Producer, ’24’
“Highly recommended. Your Writing Coach pays as much attention to writers as to what they write and should help seasoned pros as much as it will help beginners.”
— Julian Friedmann, agent and editor, Scriptwriter Magazine.