Think a Fiction Formula is a Bad Idea? Think Again…


Another year. Another NaNoWriMo win. Another story fail. Sound familiar?

I completed another NNWM this year, in spite of working full-time. That’s the good news. I can write enough each day to reach the goal of 50K words in 30 days. The bad news is, the story’s terrible. In fact, it’s not really a story. Yet. There may be something salvageable in there, just not right now as I’m tired with it. Bored, in fact. And if I’m bored with it, then for sure my readers (both of them) would be.

So I’m back to thinking about the process of story generation and execution. I now have a few months to get that part fixed (again) and look for a concept that’s big enough to work.

I began by looking around me at things that work. Not machines; business systems. After all, I want to be in the writing business. (If you simply want to write, then you need to go do that. Now.) That way, as soon as I make it to the Big Show in publishing I’ll be set for life. Right? Well, okay; maybe not.

Here’s what I found by looking around. Answer the following questions:

  • What do you call a business without a formula?
  • What do you call a football (baseball, soccer) coach without a formula?
  • What do you call a comedian without a formula?
  • What do you call a TV producer without a formula?
  • What do you call a (commercial) fiction writer without a formula?

Here’s what I came up with as answers:

  • Bankrupt.
  • Assistant.
  • Flop.
  • Hamburger flipper.
  • Broke.

You may have different observations, but you get the point.

Okay, let’s look at some successful ones and see if there are exceptions…

  • Businesses: McDonald’s; Apple; Samsung; Ford (add your favorites)
  • Coaches: Bill Belichick; Nick Saban; Jim Harbaugh; Pete Carroll; Arsene Wenger; Alex Ferguson; Jill Ellis (add your favorites)
  • Comedians: Seinfeld; Carlin; Pryor; Schumer; Hedberg; Gervais; Bruce; Martin; Dangerfield (add your favorites)
  • TV Producers: Matt Groening; Simon Fuller; Chuck Lorre; Norman Lear; Jerry Bruckheimer (you know what to do)
  • Authors: King; Patterson; Rowling; Brown; Dr. Seuss; Roberts; Meyer; Burroughs; Doyle; Heinlein; Clarke; Pratchett (and so on)

You might call it a system. Yes, I use the words synonymously here: System and Formula.  In any case, the more I looked, the more formulaic (systematic) all the winners appeared. I finally gave up looking for successful, non-formula instances. Try it yourself and see! Oh, I found a couple that on the surface appeared to be the exceptions. Digging deeper, however, and it was clear they had a way of approaching their work that was clearly systematic; simply well-hidden from the public. Comedians appear to be exceptions most often, because of the apparent spontaneity of their performances. Don’t fool yourself, most of what they do “spontaneously” is well-rehearsed.

Writing commercial fiction is one vocation where neophytes get the worst advice, sometimes. If I had it all to do over again (going back over 30 years now), I would have forced my first teachers to share insight into their formula. They may aver that they don’t have one, but if they’re any good (that is, making any money), they have a formula.

I’m not talking about routine. That’s how to tactically manage work flow. No, I’m talking about the “creative process.” More than ideas, as those can be generated at any time with little effort. How do they take their ideas and craft stories from them? That’s the magic I’m talking about.

My first teachers spent all the time on sharing in group and critiquing. Wrong approach! That works (and, I must say, only in a limited way) with folks who already understand story construction. Instead, the whole of each session should have been focused on formula, and in some cases, the refinement of story formula.

What about the great literature, you ask. Dig into the whole body of work for a great historical author or two and autopsy their plots and you’ll soon see that they each had their formula. Whether we’re talking Henry James or P. D. James, there’s a distinct formula. (Don’t get me started on the idea of “voice.” It’s not that either.) Unless they were a “one and done” comet across the literary sky, they all had their system.

Did it limit them? Hardly. Does a formula guarantee success? Not at all. Without a formula, though, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll join the pantheon of the greats. It’s much more likely you’ll be flipping hamburgers rather than writing…

Illness Over (I Hope); Back to Writing

I hate being sick. A lot. The good news is, I missed the ‘flu bug (so far); the bad news is, don’t even consider getting whatever that head cold bug is that’s going around. (I’d give you the gory details, but I don’t want to lose both my readers.)

At least I got some time to read and think. Did a bit of note-taking for plots.

Not much else, though. For the next couple of days I’ll be working, actually, with some local travel (about 100 miles each way), so I won’t get a lot of writing in. But enough, while I continue to recover.

For the future, I’ve worked through some materials on my Kindle that I’ll review. Good advice for writers, with some caveats. I’ll also get back to organizing the writers’ group here locally. Hopefully they’ve all been too busy to notice my absence…

Better Health This Year, I Hope…

Not Everybody Survived NaNoWriMo 2012

An interesting view of the NaNoWriMo experience, from a newbie who also writes other stuff for a living.

Almost all folks new to writing a novel in November suffer this sort of culture shock. Even, or maybe especially, those who write other things and write them well. Alexandra Petri is a fine writer, and her columns are popular. She undoubtedly has the skill and facility with language to do a real bang-up job on a novel.

That’s not enough, as she learned. And she shares her insight in a clever way. Hope you enjoy it!

Better Luck Next Year…

And, Crayons Down, Writers…

It’s over. Done. Finished. Polished off. Wrapped up.

Yep, NaNoWriMo’s over for another year. As the Chinese would say, the eyes have been added to the painted dragon. That puts thirteen years of them behind us.

I wrote 302,014 words. And sill lost to the dalartha-person. Sigh. It was a good battle, though. I decided it was the gentlemanly thing to do to let the lady get the last words in. Besides, my fingers were no longer doing my bidding, my vision was blurry, and caffeine was no longer effective.

All I had to do to make 300k was to get 42,000 words in the last three days. Or nearly a whole novel in a long weekend. NOW I see how those folks do that. I made 18,000 of it on the last day, by starting at midnight and going all day. I only took one nap of 90 minutes, and a break to get the pup from the vet’s. That’s it. And filling the coffee cup multiple times; but you knew that already.

Now I need to clean out the office and reset it, get a new office chair, then get to editing this mound of mistakes…

The Event is Over; the Work, Not So Much…

The End is Nigh…

Of NaNoWriMo, I mean. In one sense, that’s good. My fingers are sore, my bum’s developed a beastly callous, the snacks are all but gone, and I’m on my last bag of coffee. I’ve even considered drying out the used coffee grounds and eating them for any residual caffeine, and as a substitute for the dwindling supply of comestibles in my office.

Yes, it’s really a good thing this is drawing to a close.

It’s also very sad to consider the end of NaNo. No more hanging out in the chat room, warring with fellow writers, pushing each other to higher and higher totals. No more crazy scenes to work out. No more burned drapes, exploding washing machines, or Big Wheel racing in the halls. (Sorry, Ms. T.) No more living away from the world, all the news (good or bad), the sports, the weather. (Did Truman really win?)

I started this campaign with the lofty goal of putting 210,000 words of fiction down on “paper.” I set that goal because that would be nearly 50% more than last year, and I wanted to see if I could push that hard. Looked at in isolation, that number is scary-huge. I nearly got a panic attack, with the feeling that a brontosaurus had collapsed on my chest. Then I realized it’s only 7,000 words a day. Every day. For a month.

That didn’t make it any easier.

Then I found a reference that said that Earle Stanley Gardner would write 6,600 words a day in what he would call a “writing day.” And that was on an old Remington manual typewriter. Fighting carbons, paper changes every 300 words, and the dreaded typos.

I’ve got it easy. Word processor, spelling and grammar checks, major thesauruses and dictionaries only a hot-key away. That put things into perspective, after a fashion.

At this point I’m about 262,000 words into the month. Far exceeding my original expectation. Running at nearly 10,000 words a day, even with a couple days lost to travel, to and from Missouri. Makes you wonder how many more wonderful Perry Mason novels (or Poirot, or Marple, or even Hardy Boys) might have been written with today’s technology?

From here I expect to get to 300,000 words. At which point I will simply collapse from sheer ridiculosity…

Look Out, Energizer Bunny…


With the annual trek to insanity that is NaNoWriMo drawing to a close, I thought it appropriate to pause and write a bit of haiku in honor of the effort…


Writing, so many

Words that fill my screen with strange

Worlds and fantasies.


To be a writer

You must sacrifice your life

To birth another.


Put your head into

Different realities

To write a novel.


Singing on the Page…

The Novelist Reflects on November 8th, 2012

Bagged the Big One

It’s now day five of NaNoWriMo, and I’m done. Actually, I got done a bit ago, but couldn’t bring myself to leave the chat room. Too much fun!

To recap: I set a goal, a month ago, to try for 7,000 words a day. That would do several things. First, I’d have to write. A lot. Which, as I understand it, is what NaNoWriMo is all about. To write that much I’d have to have a big ol’ pile of plot points, for more than one story, since only Melville, Marquez or Jordan can keep things rolling as the story moves through a couple hundred thousand words.

I began with a fairly straightforward (at least in initial concept) science fiction story, aimed mostly at teen readers. I’m about 60-70% of the way through the story at this point, which means I likely still have 70% more to write. Yes, editing does that. Also characters that won’t stay on script. Still, the story will be essentially as plotted, and once edited I expect it to be a nice, 65-80,000 word tale.

We’ll see.

First day, I got my goal, though just barely. I began at exactly midnight (local), at the write-in held in conjunction with the Austin region’s Halloween kickoff party. What a hoot that was! Meeting folks I’d known for years but never seen was worth the price of admission. (Free is good. And yes, Zach, you’re much taller than your picture.) Then seeing a rollicking party morph into a sea of computers operated by (mostly) silent authors, all in the matter of minutes, was inspiring. And more than a little spooky, in keeping with the theme of the evening.

By 2 A.M. the Dragon’s Lair (Thanks, folks! Great support, and my grammatically correct Dr. Whom shirt is awesome!) was emptying out, and the tired night crew were vacuuming up. I don’t know exactly how many actually showed; next year I’m going to see that an attendance book is filled out. Could easily have been upwards of 60, counting folks who came and left early due to inane interferences like family, work, sleep and so on. (Come ON, folks! Get a writer’s life here!)

I had just a paragraph of words more than 2,000. A nice start!

I slept in until just past 0600, then got into the saddle. Oh, not without starting the coffee cooker! (I’m crazy, but not necessarily foolish. I’ve got brothers to cover that for me.)

By evening I was one tired extinct dinosaur, and I had my first day’s production in the can. (Backed up, too.) Just a smidgeon past 7,000. I vowed to do more the next day, and trundled off to bed.

The second day I added 7,595 more bits to the pile of prose, though I got a fairly late start due to chores and hanging with Paula Jo. Word wars in the chat room got me past aching fingers. The story was grabbing hold of me, though; I knew I’d have a big day on Saturday. Spousalperson went to her brother’s house to hang curtains and otherwise hang with family while I bashed the board; it’s a tough life being a NaNoWidow, but she copes adequately.

Sure enough, Saturday was awesome. I made 12,000 words. My second-biggest output day ever! And, even though my fingerprints were completely sanded off by that point, I vowed to push harder on Sunday. I started at 3:30 A.M. (thanks to daylight saving time moving to daylight spending time), fortified with caffeine and supported by the felines and canines who own us. Their support amounted to sleeping a lot, but that worked fine. At 7 A.M. I made the write-in at Shipley’s, and even with all the chat and fine dining I made another 1,800 words. (I still don’t quite know who Big Earl was, or why Shipley’s turned him into sausage and stuffed him into the kolaches. Maybe a starter for a horror novel? But I digress.)

Sunday’s output exceeded expectations: 11,031 words! So I’d written almost half of the 50,000 words required to “win” NaNoWriMo’s annual challenge, in just two days! I was now within striking distance of the winner’s circle. Okay, it was likely a stretch, but I could do it. All I needed was about 18 hours clear, and plenty of liquid caffeine.

Monday’s start was encouraging, then I hit a slump. By evening I still wasn’t to 50,000, but I could see it. I felt so tired, though. I stepped into the chat room to see what was happening, and All Was Chaos! I fit right in that way, and soon I was embroiled in a series of word battles that took me over the top. And well past! I made 15,543 words, then my fingers rebelled. I went to bed, a grand total of over 53,000 words in the bag.

The elusive Impossapotamus was a trophy yet again!

I’ll slow down a bit now, but I still want that 7,000 a day. That seems like a small total, nowadays…

The Novelist Reflects on November 2nd, 2012

Tablets and Writing: Microsoft Surface Review

There are getting to be a variety of choices in tablets in the marketspace these days. Shoot, we even own an iPad. (Okay, I’m not proud of that, but there it is.) PJ loves the thing, and she’s actually learning to use it for more than games.

As serious hardware, though, they still leave a lot behind. Especially if you’re a writer. Oh, if you are determined enough you can write on one, but not for very long; at least that’s been my experience. Too little functionality overall in the software, and physical comfort is, shall we say, minimal. They’re good for a note or two, and especially for reading.

But a serious writer will usually find tablets wanting.

However, one reviewer has taken a long look at the new Microsoft Surface as a writing productivity tool, and found a gem in the rough.

The reviewer, Kevin Hall, points out three attributes of a mobile device that a serious writer has to have: Easy to tote, no frills, easy to type on. He’s looked at iPad and MacBook Air, and found them weak on text processing. A little too much “no frills” there. The Surface, however, is okay in this regard, and that’s a key item for someone who intends to pound some keys long-term on the device. Yes, it’s still a first-gen device; not all the warts and hair have been sanded off.

If you’re a writer and looking at tablets, maybe you should look at the Surface as an option. If you’re not quite ready to plunk down cash, at least watch this one for improvements in the coming year or two…

Getting Better; Not There Yet…