Category Archives: Planning

Forget the writer’s sandwich

You know the writer’s sandwich: a story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end? Well, forget about it.

Here is another way: you play with the characters, the place for your story, the relationship between your characters until you have a story that holds the ground and has enough tensive quality (some call it conflict, but to me it’s too strong a word) that you know it’s going to make a great story. Let me illustrate this with the story I wrote for a film script.

I had this idea about the story of a woman who has a phobia of churches and who goes to a hypnotherapist to get cured. She is desperate to get over it because she is getting married in the summer. That was the first idea. Initially the starting scene was taking place in my house. What I mean is that I visioned the girl coming to my practice which was easy to imagine because I am a clinical hypnotherapist and this is routine work for me. So in my mind, I played with the idea for a while. This girl was a lawyer and really not the usual client for a hypnotherapist but she had been dragged in by her best friend, who swore by hypnotherapy. Great start. I thought. I still do. But as the story progressed, the venue wasn’t so right anymore, so I transported everyone to London (I live in a little village north of Bristol) because this lawyer was quite a high flying chick and that didn’t fit with my semi-rural England setting. London did. And I knew about living in London. I revised my first draft and played with the story some more.

Then, I realised that there was not enough tension in her relationship to her friend. It was too “nice”. Her best friend had quit smoking with a lady hypnotherapist, so she was dragging her best friend there. There was no potential conflict between them. No good. As I was playing with my story, I suddenly had an insight into their friendship. Her best friend was actually her Fiancé’s ex and she hadn’t really got over him. Only she was denying it so she would act out. Hey hey, I said to myself. Much better.

I am not going to reveal anymore of my plot here but you can see that I deepened my story not because of the classic writing sandwich: a middle stuck between a beginning and an end. My story got depth by me playing with the characters, the venue and the setting (modern England). I am sorry if the writer’s sandwich has worked for you up to now. And if that is the case, by all means continue to use it. But if you got stuck or if the sandwich hasn’t worked for you, try this more creative approach. Get to know your characters. See how the venue introduces a cultural element to the story that informs it. Change the venue and see how it changes the story.

to your creativity,

Ange de Lumiere

Can I really make you write?

I want to share with you a story about something that happened to me this morning as I came back from doing my grocery shopping. I had on my shopping list to buy  jam but didn’t buy it from the supermarket on purpose as I wanted to buy home made jam. So I headed for a lady in my village who used to leave her jams and preserves outside her door in a little wooden hut with a honesty jar for people to pay their due. I wanted to buy jar from her but noticed the whole hut had vanished. I knocked on her door.

I asked her what happened and she explained why she had taken it away. We got chatting, as one does, and she asked me what I was up to these days. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. I told her I was now running writer’s workshops for people who want to write books.

I said to her that not all books had a lot of words in them and had she considered writing a book of her recipes for her jams. I told her it could be good for her business. She told me  that she might one day write a book before she died but not before. It was clearly not on her list of things to do. She immediately added that she hated writing with a passion. I told her I wasn’t that good myself and even had a fail as a predictive mark for my GCSEs in English (well it was in France so it was French, but you get the idea) and it was through sheer hard work that I managed to get a C. So not exactly that good at writing myself in school. But could it have had to do with the way it was taught? I didn’t particularly enjoy having to study French literature. And it wasn’t really geared towards nurturing my creative writing skills. If anything it would have stifled them.

I then went on to say that  she could write her book of recipes one recipe at a time, on sticky notes, as she was making her jams. And then all she needed to do was stick them in a notepad and wait until she had enough to make a book. I asked her how many recipes she had. She said at least a hundred. All in her head. I said, get them out even for your own sake. You could get one book printed only for you. I can help you with that. If you write one recipe per day as you make your jams, in five to six months you will have them all down on paper.

She said “Funny you should say that, just before Christmas I said to myself I would like to write down my recipes.” There you go. She left saying that she was definitely going to give it a try and she had completely forgotten how much she hated writing and how she would only write a book on her death bed. I, on the other hand, was thinking that without much effort she would have her book ready by the summer, without even realising it. And then she added “I might just do it to annoy (so and so) and show them I wrote a book”. Why not? After all, you just have to find the motivation.

This is how dangerous it is to talk to me about your vague idea about writing a book or even about the fact that you will never write a book. I know I can make almost anyone write.

My jam lady was the least likely candidate to write a book… and when I left her she smiled and said “I am going to give it a try”. So do you think “I can make you write” now?

To your creativity

Ange

Bird by bird

I hope Anne Lamott will forgive me for using the title of her book but this quote happens to be one of the most powerful message that I retained from it and the subject of today’s blog.

When you embark on a journey to write a book, it can be daunting. The idea of writing between 40,000 and 100,00 words can be enough to put off anyone. Except someone like me because I am a nerd. I hope you will forgive me.

How do you get over that daunting feeling? By tackling it in small bites. If you consider that an average page contains 300 words and you aim at writing a book with an average word count of 60,000, this means 200 pages. If you write one page per day, you will take approximately six months to get your first draft done. If you had more times on your hands, however, you could write two pages a day and you would have a book in a little over three months. I am being very approximative here but hey, writing is not an automated process. Although some writers claim to be able to do that but that’s another story all together.

This is where planning (structuring) your book can be a boon. Imagine if you took a few weeks to let the story develop in your head. You first focus on your main character and what it is exactly that he (or she) wants. You start defining his character, his life experience, where he lives, what he does for a living, whether he is single, straight, employed, etc. In fact most of your first week should be to delve into this person’s life to such extent that if you were interviewed about him for one hour, you would be able to answer any questions the interviewer shot at you as if it was your own life.

Then you need to bring to life a “villain”. Fiction is always about conflict. A villain is someone or something that will come in the way of your hero’s goal or aspiration. Supposed your main character was a woman of fifty years of age who had just been left by her husband for a younger woman and who aspired to be in a loving relationship again. Brave woman. Her villain might be the fact that she has seven children at home. It can make it a little more challenging to find a partner when you have that many children. But if you will forgive me a small digression, I listened to a phone in three years ago on BBC Bristol on Valentine Day, and heard the most beautiful love story ever of precisely that: a man who bumped his trolley into the trolley of a woman (who fitted this profile exactly) and who immediately fell in love with her and swore to look after her and her tribe until the day he died. They were happily married fifteen years later. Now that is a good story for a book. Don’t you think?

If, however, they met right away and eloped, that wouldn’t make a good book. There has to be a journey. Where would you start the book? Probably at the time she found out about her husband infidelity. Then you would plan the story’s outline and define thirty or more scenes with who is in it, what is the action for each scene (each scene has to contain its own little conflict). Perhaps initially our heroine would give her husband a second chance and he would mess it up.

You can see that by planning and slicing up your story in small chunks, it can make it a lot easier to write it because you then only commit to writing a few pages at a time. And this is where Anne Lamott’s title comes into it. It is an anecdote from her book when she tells her father that she can’t possibly learn all that there is to learn and feels overwhelmed. I have to admit I can’t remember precisely what her anecdote is about. And her father, who is a writer, tells her “bird by bird”, meaning take one bird at a time.

To your creativity

Ange de Lumiere

To plot or not to plot

There is a big divide between authors who outline their novels and those who don’t and they both argue that theirs is the best way. In reality both camps have valid arguments for their method of approaching the art of story telling. Let’s say I am going to go beyond their arguments and suggest we talk about structure instead of outline.

Structure is essential for both fiction and non fiction work. This was illustrated by a recent client of mine who writes about healing. She had been posting on Facebook little snippets about her case studies and wanted to write a book to empower people to heal themselves without an intermediary and share with them her protocol. As soon as she talked about her project, I had a very clear idea of how to structure her book. It made sense to her and has made her writing her book easily as she now just slots her writing into a pre-existing structure. She says this tool had been invaluable.

A great way to find a structure for your non fiction book is to brainstorm all the ideas that you want to include. Jot them down on paper. Then, organise them. I find mind maps very useful. To see examples of mind maps, click here. If you have never used a mind map and want to get started, I suggest Tony Buzan’s book.

For fiction work, as mentioned above, the subject is more controversial. Some like to outline, some don’t. At first, from hearing about the outline camp, I thought I was not part of their tribe as they claim to work on their plots for two to three months before even starting to write their book. But after reflecting for a while, I realised the divide was an illusion. Every writer outlines their story even if it’s in their heads to some extent. Then some of them jot the ideas on a piece of paper whereas others formalise things more and go more in depth. For those who claim to properly outline their novels, who is to say that what they call an outline is not only one step away from someone else’s first draft.

In view of the above, I have come to the conclusion that a little bit of planning can go a long way. It would be foolish to go on an adventure without any map at all, as after all, writing a book is about going from A to B. And some authors claim that the digressions are part of the journey. And to an extend they do, as long as they don’t lead to a dead end, or bore your reader. The difference is whether you take an ordinance map with the finest details or a more general map to give you an idea.

What I write about books is also true for blogs. A successful blog has a purpose, a direction. Some call it a “stake” and you find out the stake of your blog or project by asking yourself how would you like it to change the world.

Most authors agree that whether or not you plot your book in advance, the biggest mistake is to rigidly stick to the map. The story or book (for non fiction) will evolve as you write because you will know the terrain. You will discover things that weren’t on the map. And mostly it will be people. Your characters, once they come to life, will want to interfere with your plan. As their personalities deepen, it impacts the story and creates twists that no writer could anticipate. and for non fiction authors, it might be a while angle that you had not anticipated ahead of writing. Stay flexible. Your work becomes an entity of its own nice you start writing it. Collaborate. Don’t resist.

To your creativity

Ange de Lumiere