You know the feeling. You try to write a story but your mind's as empty as a blown egg. Of course, you could take a plot off the shelf - almost any joke will do - and expand it into a piece of flash fiction. But you want to write a longer story, maybe a novel. You want a challenge to your skills. And your Muse is on vacation.
What's the answer?
Create a Jack-in-the-Box!
It will write you a story in as little as a day - or at least a good draft.
It's the exact process I used to write the eight short stories in my anthology The Cunning Man (61 five-star reviews across five Amazon sites). No story took me more than a day to draft. Editing? Yes, that took me longer.
But I never had to face a blank page each day and chew my nails.
Here's how my Jack-in-the-Box works. Maybe it will work for you too?
1. I carry a pack of file cards about with me at all times.
Why file cards and not a notebook? Because they are, uh, easier to file.
Whenever an idea occurs to me I jot it on a card.
True confession time: I steal a lot of ideas from other novels, as I'm sure you do. But I've learned to note their source. Very carefully. Ideas can't be copyrighted, nor can titles, but passages of text are often copyright, and I have no interest in being a plagiarist.
I reserve separate cards for different topics and when a card is full I file it in a red box under dividers: character notes, scene descriptions, scraps of dialogue, and the like.
Why don't I transfer those ideas to a computerized database, spreadsheet, Word file or Evernote? Or jot them there to start with? If I used a mobile device, I might do that. But I don't.
What's more, computerized notes don't exist. Have you noticed?
They're vapour. They vanish. But file cards are tangible. They're provocative. They leap out at me (quite literally, as you'll see).
And that's what inspires my ideas.
2. I organize my Jack-in-the Box.
I keep two boxes marked GLYPHS and TROPES.
A Glyph is my own whimsical term for a plot fragment.
For example, it might be an ingenious twist that, in the last scene, turns a story on its head. In a 'locked room' mystery a Glyph might be a secret device for locking a door from the inside when there's nobody in the room. Or it could be a plot thread. Perhaps two girls pass themselves off as identical twins when they're not related. Why?
Thereby hangs a tale...
A Trope is a form of words: character notes, descriptions, bits of quoted speech, witticisms, etc.
To use the metaphor of a carpet, Glyphs are the warp and Tropes are the weave.
Did I mention a carpet?
That's the next step. I pluck a few cards at random from the Glyph box and toss them on the carpet. On hands and knees, I shuffle the cards around until an interesting new pattern forms. Lo! It's the start of a plot.
You just can't do that on a computerized system, I find. Nor can you happily chance upon those pens, keys and coins that rolled beneath your sofa many aeons ago.
3. Now I play the 'what if' game.
My Glyph file may yield me, at random, three plot elements. Here are three I found in my box:
A. A poor woman in the 19th century pretends to be an heiress so she can acquire a rich husband and a fortune hunter pretends to be rich so he can marry the heiress. Both discover the awful truth about each other on their honeymoon.How can I whip those fragments into a plot?
That's a promising Glyph. It's worthy of de Maupassant! But it's not yet a plot.
B. A man is found murdered in a locked room but there's no way that a murderer could have entered or left the room. (Yes, I'm fond of impossible riddles like that.)
C. The narrator of the story - whom the reader thought was the impartial author, a person not involved in the tale - turns out to be the murderer. (I stole that one from Agatha Christie.)
I play the 'what if' game.
What if... the disappointed couple learn to hate each other and each partner plots the other's death?
What if... the wife anticipates her husband's attempt? And she kills him with his own murder weapon, in a 'locked' room. (Period crime stories abound with clever gadgets inspired by Science.)
What if... the narrator of the story is revealed to be the woman herself? Is she making a death bed confession? Or is she writing the tale for her own amusement from a haven in Venezuela?
Add a few more 'what ifs' and I'll have a structured plot.
4. I draft that story very rapidly.
Then I test the structure. Does it work? Fine writing can come later.
When I'm satisfied, I open the Tropes box. It's full of fine writing. Arresting descriptions, memorable dialogue, sly jokes, character foibles...
Most of them are my own.
If they're not, I will not use them verbatim, but they'll inspire fresh ideas.
(True, not everyone keeps a box of Tropes but I enjoy playing with words. Doesn't every author?)
5. The story is written!
I print it out, preen, and throw it in a drawer. A month or three later I hook it out, wince, and edit it. At least three times.
BTW: Editing is best approached with a cold mind - like revenge. The time to do it is when you can barely remember the story and it has developed syntax errors, mistypings and absurdities all by itself.
6. Now I grow a Rose Bush.
Never heard of the Rose Bush? It's a method of extreme editing. I think I invented it, but I might be wrong.
I format the story in Word in tiny 8-point type, single spaced, justified left and right... in other words, everything you shouldn't do when presenting your work to a publisher.
I print the pages out and lay them sequentially across the carpet. I take three felt tip pens: red, orange and green.
If a paragraph seems - at first sight - tedious, long or over complicated I strike it through with a red pen. That means Cut, with extreme prejudice.
Paragraphs that simply need more work get the orange marker.
Those that do the job are stroked lovingly with a green pen.
Hence, a Rose Bush.
By the time I'm done, bright flowers and verdant leaves sprawl across the room. It's fun!
Of course, the point of miniaturizing the story, and presenting it as a visual object, is that it can be assessed at a glance as a structure. I feel detached from it. Ruthless. Off with its head!
My darlings are easier to murder.
All that can be summarized:
Write fast.But I haven't yet done.
7. I consult my Significant Other.
Celia has been my sternest critic for thirty years. She believes in Tough Love. Her sweetest verdict on my work is a reluctant sigh. 'It flows.' More likely, she'll grunt 'It's boring.'
So it's back to the Rose Bush.
Moral: find someone who has no agenda to protect your feelings. (That probably rules out your local writing group.) Ideally, locate an impartial, well read person who resembles your target reader. Don't ask with a hopeful smile 'Do you like my story?' Ask 'What's wrong with it?'
If they're truthful, they'll say 'Everything. Let me count the ways...'
It's music to your ears. Back to the Rose Bush.
I concede you may find my strategy too primitive. A Jack-in-the-Box? A Rose Bush? File cards? Pens? They're all low tech. Don't all good authors today use IPads and operate their midget keypads with a sharpened toenail?
Such acrobatics will do for a tweet but they're not writer-friendly.
Nothing works better to provoke ideas, I find, than handling ideas physically. Pen. Paper. File cards.
There's nothing more tangible than a Jack-in-the-Box. Or surprising.
What methods have you found effective for organizing your ideas or plotting a story? Please leave a comment below. Every comment gets a fast thoughtful reply.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is the author of How Did The Author Do That? It’s a how-to writing manual that shows you, step by step, how to write a great novel - while you’re enjoying the novel itself! It’s fun. It’s breathtakingly original. And it’s a unique new way to learn - quickly - how to write fiction that works.
Get it now at a special low launch price at: Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
PS: When you obtain the ebook, email me your Amazon receipt. (My address is at the Contact tab top right.) I'll send you - by way of thanks - the pdf version. You can then print out the book, to study at your leisure, or read it on any computer.
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft