Tuesday, January 26, 2016

WYNM, Victory 1: The Ultimate Story

This post is a continuation of the walkthrough mini-series covering Write Your Novel in a Month* by Jeff Gerke. All opinions are my own.

Today, we are going to be talking about the first official chapter or "victory" of the book entitled "The Ultimate Story."
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As you can probably guess from the title, this victory focuses on the act of actually writing out a story. Gerke points out that most people want to tell the story that hasn't written yet (or, at least, that hasn't been written well). This victory represents the first step to writing a novel, and Gerke encourages writers to go big, to let their imaginations run free, and to not be hindered creatively by the nagging voices in their minds (this idea is stupid; there is no way you could do that story justice; you aren't good enough to make this idea work).

He makes a valid point. When you are first starting out on a project, you should unleash your creativity and let your idea for a story swell and grow into something mighty and powerful. It is in the writing of the story that you can hack and chop and hew away at the fat of your idea until you are left with enough bones and meat to make a good story.

Later on in the chapter, Gerke talks a little bit about craftsmanship in fiction. He does a good job of allaying the beginning writer's fears and over concern with the rules of craft or "laws of fiction." As Gerke points out, even so-called fiction "experts" disagree when it comes to the rights and wrongs – the do's and don'ts – of fiction. He suggests that writers not get themselves so tied up in worrying about fiction rules, saying:
The problem is that there is no universally acknowledged set of rules when it comes to fiction. For every LAW engraved in granite, there's a glaring exception. For every expert saying, "Do X," there are five others saying, "Whatever you do, don't do X." (p. 14)
He cautions against following writing "rules" from various sources, lest writers be "rendered paralyzed" by the onslaught of conflicting opinions (ibid.)

Gerke acknowledges that there are going to be gatekeepers like agents, editors, and publishers who will turn down your novel or rip it to shreds because you did or didn't have a prologue, or did or didn't have too much description, or had terse dialogue, or had too many POVs, or had poor characterization, ad infinitum. Instead of letting yourself get inundated with the latest and most tried-and-true writing rules, Gerke suggests following the "one commandment for fiction":
You must engage your reader from beginning to end.
While there may be some minor bits of craft that you need to master in the revision process, as long as you have written a novel that engages readers from cover to cover, you have been successful at writing a good novel.

To emphasize his point, Gerke references commercially successful series like Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, pointing out that these books may not be technically perfect or show a refined skillfulness on the part of the author, but that they were successful in the market and grew into cultural phenomenons because they engaged their readers.

After discussing his self-called "one commandment for fiction" a bit more, Gerke moves on to discussing the beginning elements needed to write a novel.

#1 The Premise

Whether or not a reader has a refined literary palette, s/he is probably scoping the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble for a book with an interesting premise. A premise is that certain bit of "ummph" that makes readers want to read your novel. Going back to Gerke's assertion that most writers sit down to work on a new novel because they want to tell a story that hasn't been told yet, the ultimate idea (that thought or tinge or feeling that made you want to sit down and write in the first place) is what excites you about your story whereas the premise is the bit that makes readers excited about your story.

He goes on to give examples of what a premise would look like:
"Someone is killing people across the internet. Don't log in. You might be next." – premise for one of Gerke's own books (p. 18) 
"An archaeologist struggles to rescue the lost ark before the Nazis can use its power." – Gerke's version of the premise for Raiders of the Lost Ark
Gerke's examples of what a premise looks like reminds me of loglines.

He then advises that writers sit down and spend some time thinking about what the premise for their novel would be. If you started with a general idea that you want to spend 50k+ words developing, this part should be easy; all you are doing is coming up with a way to spin your idea so it has maximum appeal and interest for readers.

#2 Your Story Core

Once writers have their ultimate idea and the refined, reader-friendly version of that idea (the premise), it is time to move on to the story's core idea. Gerke suggests taking all of the bits and parts of your ultimate story idea and your premise and mashing them into a big, amalgamous ball of awesome, something that gets you really fired up to write. He then suggests that you write a sentence, a single sentence, that covers all of those bits of your idea that make you want to blaze through your novel. He calls this single sentence – this condensed version of your idea – your focus statement.

I love the idea of crafting a focus statement, and I would even further Gerke's suggestion by saying that it wouldn't be a half-bad idea to hang this focus statement up somewhere near your workstation (or tape it to the edge of your laptop screen if your workstation is mobile like mine). You can use your focus statement as a guide through those dark times when you are sitting at your computer with 30k+ words, all tangled together, and you don't know what to do next.

Once you have your focus statement handy, Gerke says that the next step is to "celebrate your core idea." Spend some time – and a fair amount of writing space – writing out all of the ideas you have for this story, those little, underdeveloped concepts that you want to give attention to in your novel because they fill your with joy and are just plain cool. Now, go back and spend some time writing out exactly why you think it would be awesome to write about that concept or idea and why you would enjoy it.

Gerke suggests this for the times when you lose objectivity over your novel, when you start to see it not as a series of words you have written on the page but as an extension of your creative mind, your own little literary brain baby. Gerke says:
"[W]hen you reach that point of lost objectivity, the doubts emerge from the shadows and pounce on you. You will be assailed by voices telling you the idea is stupid and not worth working on. And you won't be able to resist those voices, because you won't 'feel it' anymore. You won't remember why it's such a good idea."
And that, my readers, is the beauty of both the focus statement and the page where you celebrate it. Both can serve as a reminder to you of how awesome your idea is and how worth your story is of being told (and why you should be the one to tell it).

#3 Developing the Idea

Okay. You have refined your super-cool, totally awesome, extra fabulous story idea into a premise and a core idea (and you have written your future self a love letter explaining why this idea is so awesome and why you need to put on your big girl/boy panties and get it written). Great!

Now, you need to flesh that idea out a bit. The premise and core idea are basically the bones of your story; they are what would be left if someone ripped the characters and setting and tone and theme and genre and details away. Spend some time thinking and, for the love of all that is good, writing down the ideas that bubble to the surface.

Gerke suggests you ask yourself:
"If this is the story I'm going to write, what do I already know about the task ahead?" (p. 23)
In other words, if you have your story idea down, you need to ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I have a character or two in mind? If so, what do these characters look like?
  • Where is my story going to take place? What is the environment/weather like?
  • When is my story going to take place, and how would the time period have an effect on the characters and their actions?

Gerke says that you should write all of this – and more – down, preferably in list format so you can let the ideas flow freely without getting bogged down too much in the particulars. The goal here is to think of as many unique aspects of your future story as you possibly can.

#4 Goals
At this part of the chapter or "victory," Gerke shares with the reader of WYNM his list of explicit goals that one will need to follow if one wants to write a novel in a month.
Goal 1: Establish a Word Count 
WYNM is structured around the idea that you are aiming to write at least 50k words in thirty days. He acknowledges that your novel may be a good deal less or a good deal more than 50k, or that after thirty days you may have 50k finished buy 100k to go (I am looking at you, my fantasy writers). As he says, the important thing is to set your word count goal at 50k so you can get the bulk of your story started/finished quickly. 
Goal 2: A Useable Rough Draft 
Here, Gerke makes it clear that the purpose of WYNM is to help writers come up with a workable work draft. What does this mean? Well, at the end of thirty days, you won't have a draft that is publisher ready. Instead, you will have the bones, meat, and maybe the fat of your story. You will have something that you can go back and revise and rewrite and polish into that future-published manuscript. 
Don't feel bad about yourself or your novel if, after the thirty days are done, you have something that looks like a hot mess. The point is that you have your novel written out and ready to be perfected. It is getting your story out of your brain and onto the page that is the hardest part, after all. 
Goal 3: Something Proved 
Gerke says that the main goal for WYNM is for you to prove to yourself that you can write a novel. Getting through your first draft can be a confidence booster, and completing a WIP can knock down that wall you have built within yourself. You know, the one that lays between the "you" you are and the "you" you want to be (i.e. a novelist).
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Enjoying our walkthrough of Write Your Novel in a Month by Jeff Gerke? Leave a comment below telling me the most inspirational or enlightening thing that you have read so far. Be sure to stay tuned for more posts.

Can't wait? Pick up your copy of Write Your Novel in a Month here.*

*This blog uses affiliated links to keep the laptop charged and the word juices flowing. Don't know what affiliated links are? Click here to learn more.

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