This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #008.
Books, magazines, pamphlets, scrolls, clay tablets; the written word is a distinctly human invention. With it, we can share our thoughts, feelings, desires, and emotions across time and space. We can transfer our knowledge and wisdom directly to our readers’ minds, achieving a level of intimate understanding that is unique to our species.
It’s no wonder that millions of individuals around the world aspire to be authors. Unfortunately, however, this is a near-insurmountable goal for the vast majority of them. The ideas are there, as are the feelings and emotions they want to elicit in the hearts of their readers. But writing a book is an enormous undertaking which requires at least a moderate understanding of the art of storytelling.
If you look at the thickness of your favorite novel and despair at the thought of writing fifty to one hundred thousand words of your own, don’t worry. An old adage asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, “One bite at a time.”
It’s totally within your power to chip away at your project, writing it little by little, word by word, developing your story over a period of months, even years. The greatest thing you can do, however, comes before you even write “Chapter One” at the top of your page. The greatest thing you can do is prepare.
In one week, you can lay a firm foundation on which to build your novel. You can develop a course of action that can keep you pointed in the right direction no matter how long you find yourself writing. In one week, you can transform yourself from a dreamer to an author.
There may be 130 million books in the world, but the world doesn’t have your book yet, and with a little bit of guidance and hard work, you can add your unique perspective to the growing legacy of humankind.
Day 1—Writing Utensils
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my many years of trying to get back into weightlifting, it’s that you shouldn’t push yourself too hard on day one. I can’t tell you how many first days I’ve spent pumping iron at the gym, only to be physically unable to bend my arms for the next week and a half.
So, in the same way, you want your transition to the authorial mindset to be a gradual one. On day one, dedicate a few minutes to picking a writing utensil.
Perhaps you might want to go out and buy a notebook and pen, something you can take with you wherever you go. Or maybe you might want to peruse the note-taking apps on the App Store, the Play Store, etc. Evernote, OneNote, iA Writer, Scrivener, Word, Pages… The options are nearly limitless.
Basically, it’s never been a better time to be a writer. You can have access to the tools you need to work on your novel anywhere you need them, any time you want them. In fact, once you’ve selected the appropriate writing utensils, give some thought to when you might want to pull them out and put words on the page.
Do you want to schedule certain amounts of time to write? Do you want to wake up early and knock out your writing goals? Do you want to work on your writing after work, or maybe before you go to sleep?
The most important thing is that you are at peak efficiency when you work on your writing. There’s no point to waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning if you can’t uncross your eyes before 7 o’clock. For me, waiting until right before bed to try to knock out a few articles or a couple thousand words in my latest novel is a complete waste. I’ve never fallen asleep quicker in my life than I do now that I’m trying to be productive with my evenings.
Once you’ve settled on a schedule, grab your writing utensil and write the date on the top. Write down what your goal for this book is, whether you want a certain word count, you want to have it done by a certain time, or whatever other goal you may have to help you accomplish this journey. Then, when you’ve reached the finish line, you can look back and see just how far you were able to go by setting your mind to the task.
Out of every step in this one-week journey to becoming an author, today’s step, in my opinion, is the absolute most important one, and should elicit the most time and effort on your part.
The best part of this step is that unless you live in a box, with no access to televisions, theaters, smartphones, computers, bookshelves, or libraries, then you’ve more than likely already taken this essential step.
What step am I referring to?
Absorbing entertainment. If you want to add to the treasure-trove of stories that abound in the world, you need to know what some of those stories are. You especially need to know what your favorite stories are.
So grab the writing utensils of your choice and make a list of your all-time favorite books, TV shows, movies, or video games. What do they all have in common?
The common denominators of your favorite pieces of entertainment are the very things that are going to inspire you through the rest of the writing process. If you love Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, then perhaps a repeating day story would be the perfect choice for you. If you love Star Trek and Stargate, then perhaps a space exploration story would be the perfect choice for you.
Be aware that this is not the time to force a story out of your head fully formed. You shouldn’t be doing any planning or writing right now. If you happen to think of something, feel free to jot it down in the corner of your notebook, or on a separate file in your app, but otherwise, at this point, you simply want to access your brain’s creativity, let it run wild, so that when it’s time for you to start creating, you might find the first sprout of an idea already growing in your subconscious.
Today is the day for you to start conceptualizing the parameters of your novel. This doesn’t mean planning specific details of the story itself. We’ll get to that later. Right now, what you need to do is form a picture of the end goal in your mind so that you can begin fitting the pieces in place. After all, piecing together a puzzle is much more difficult to do if you don’t know what shape it is, what the picture is supposed to be, or which pieces actually belong to the puzzle you’re piecing together.
For example, imagine that yesterday, you identified your love for heist stories. Today, you might extrapolate from that the need to have an ensemble cast with each individual specializing in a specific skill.
If you identified your love for hero stories, then it would be more likely that you would only have one main character, an individual who discovers a special ability or privilege that sets them apart from everyone else in the story.
If you identified your love for war stories, then the possibilities are really endless. You can write a story about the futility and loss of war from the perspective of a soldier, you can write a story about the leaders of the war planning and executing their strategies, you can write a story about the civilians who are placed in harm’s way, you can even write a story that covers the entirety of the war from beginning to end, or even a story that extensively details the events of one specific battle or altercation.
This isn’t the time to lock yourself into a specific story yet, and if you have multiple ideas, then write them all down on separate pages or in separate files. This step is simply meant to give you a firm foundation from which to push off.
Once you’ve finished establishing the parameters of your story, then go ahead and call it a day. Take the rest of the morning, afternoon, or evening off. Daydream about what your story could be. Let the creative juices flow freely. Tomorrow, you’ll begin shaping your story.
Day 4—Settings, Events, and Characters
Hopefully you’ve had the chance to get in a little day-dreaming. If not, then go ahead and put off your writing until a little bit later today, if it’s convenient for you to do so. Creativity is the cornerstone of any novel, and cultivating it is one of the most important things you can do if you want to become a successful author.
Now that you’ve allowed your thoughts to run free and wild, we’re going to start working on the really fun part of this process. We’re going to be brainstorming events, settings, and characters.
This is the time for you to let your creativity run wild, to embrace the most enjoyable, exciting aspects of novel-writing. Now, we’re going to talk about each of these three topics in order, but don’t think that means that you have to tackle them in the exact same order, from settings, to events, to characters. Stories are like Chinese finger traps. You have to push everything into place at the same time to unlock their full potential.
A great number of stories will naturally lend themselves to one setting or another. If your story is about surviving an onslaught of poisonous serpents in close quarters, then your setting is going to need to be, by necessity, an enclosed space, one that you can’t simply walk away from whenever the going gets tough, perhaps something like an airplane.
On the other hand, if your story is about two individuals falling in love, then the options for your setting are nearly limitless. From the Garden of Eden to the Roman Empire, from the Wild West to the 24th century, such a story is largely timeless.
In your writing utensil, place three words with space between them:
Once you’ve chosen your setting, write it in the appropriate blank space. Next to it, brainstorm a half dozen different ways that your setting might affect the plot of your story. For example, if your story revolves around a couple starting a family in the Wild West, then infectious diseases and complications with childbirth will be very real threats for them.
Now write your complications down in the blank space next to your setting. These are what you’re going to come back to if your story staggers or your creativity otherwise needs a boost.
Events will come to you as you picture your story more and more fully in your mind. If you’re going to write a love story, then you might realize that you want to have the main heroine mistakenly believe that her love interest has done something terrible, one event, which leads her to removing him from her life, a second event, only to realize that she was mistaken the entire time, a third event. How is she going to correct her own mistakes? The answer to that question will form a fourth event, a fifth event, and more.
If you’re going to write a fantasy story, then you might realize that you want the main character to find an item of great significance, one event. Then he’s confronted by an old, wise man with a big, white beard, a second event. The man begins to train him in the use of the item, a third, a fourth, and maybe even a fifth event, until finally the old man sacrifices himself so that the main character can escape, a sixth event.
If you can’t picture more than one event at a time, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the point where you need to be stringing them all together, although it wouldn’t hurt to do so if it comes naturally to you. If you can’t think of any events at all, that’s totally understandable. We’ve been trained as a society to consume media constantly, but when asked what makes a good story, most people wouldn’t know where to begin.
If you feel this way, then it’s time to go back to your inspiration. If you have to, go as far as to borrow a few events from the stories you enjoy. Did you like when the army of robots attacked Del Spooner in I, Robot? Then maybe you can include in your list an event where a thousand robots all turn evil all at once. Did you like when they uploaded kung fu directly into Neo’s brain in The Matrix? Then maybe you can include an event where someone has information uploaded into their brain.
Finally, we come to the characters. The people with whom you populate the pages of your novel are essential for the forward momentum of your story.
If Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, to concoct an absolutely absurd premise, had been bitten by a radioactive spider, he would not have accepted the great responsibility that came with his great powers. Rather, he would have hidden out, working hard not to bring attention to himself, just as he did in the aforementioned novel. If Jane Bennet had caught the eye of Mr. Darcy, rather than her sister Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, she would have never been so quick to judge his actions, and they would have never had a falling-out.
The single most important thing to keep in mind when choosing which characters fit in a given role is their motivation. If Thomas in The Maze Runner had been pessimistic, even suicidal, he never would have exerted the effort that he did in order to escape the maze and lead everyone to safety. If Jake Sully in Avatar had been wealthy and privileged, he never would have accepted the assignment to head to Pandora.
Once you’ve identified your characters, then begin filling in the blank space of your writing utensil with their descriptions. Especially keep in mind the ways they will affect, and be affected by, the story. What are their skills? What is it they need to achieve self-fulfillment? What is their fatal flaw?
A well-crafted story will utilize all these aspects of its character in order to craft a compelling story around them.
Now, I know this seems like a big chunk of work to do all in one day, but that’s the reason why the last few days were so easy in comparison. If you’ve taken the time to really dwell on your inspirations, then, ideally, there should be at least a few ideas that spring from your brain fully formed as if you were discovering them rather than creating them.
Day 5—One-Sentence Premise
If you still felt like the tasks of day four were too complex, then today is the day to take things a little easier. We’re going to focus on what your story is actually going to be about. Specifically, we’re going to write a one-sentence premise for the plot of your novel.
This is the culmination of the last four days’ work condensed into one compound sentence. To achieve this, you have to factor in everything you’ve already determined about your story. You have to do your best to imagine it as one whole, rather than separate, unrelated parts.
If over the course of this week thus far, you developed a modern-day setting, a killer robot, a time machine, and a woman being chased, then your one-sentence premise would be something like this: “What if there was a time-traveling robot sent to our modern-day world to kill people?”
If over the course of this week, you developed a space setting, a dark wizard, and a planet being blown up, then your one-sentence premise would be something like this: “What if an evil dark wizard uses a planet-destroying weapon to secure his rule?”
The one-sentence premise is the way you’d describe the bottom line concept of your story. It should be boiled down to its simplest, purest form, and it should cover at least one third of your novel.
In The Terminator, the premise of the time traveling robot trying to kill the heroine lasts for roughly one-third of the movie, at which time she meets up with a soldier sent from the future to save her, and the premise transforms into, “The target of a time-traveling robot goes on the run with a man from the future as they attempt to destroy said robot.”
In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the premise of an evil dark wizard using a planet-destroying weapon to secure his rule also lasts for roughly one third of the movie, at which point the premise transforms into, “A young farmer must travel across the galaxy in search of the Rebellion, joining its ranks in an effort to destroy said planet-destroying weapon.”
Tomorrow, we will build that summary to include the other two thirds of your story. For now, sit back, relax, and revel in the knowledge of how close you are to your goal of writing a novel.
Day 6—One-Paragraph Premise
It’s time to map out the other two thirds of your story. For the one-paragraph premise, you’re going to need to pull yourself back, as far away from the project as you can get, until you have a bird’s-eye view of the entire story and all it encompasses.
This perspective is essential for making a coherent and meaningful story. It allows you to discover plot holes, illogical progressions of events, as well as to identify the theme and major story beats. It also allows you to make a simple, straightforward roadmap to guide you through the process of plotting out your novel.
Your one-paragraph premise needs to cover every major event in your story in terms that are as simple as you can make them.
For example, a one-paragraph premise of Avatar might go like this:
“A paraplegic veteran agrees to go on a dangerous mission in a far-away world in exchange for spinal surgery. He soon realizes the situation on the planet isn’t as cut-and-dry as he would like, and the closer he grows to the natives, the harder it is for him to continue with his assignment. Finally, he chooses to refuse his orders and save the natives from destruction. In the ensuing battle, they defeat the humans, forcing them off the planet, and he transfers into his avatar body permanently.”
A one-paragraph premise of Iron Man might go like this:
“A wealthy weapons manufacturer is captured by terrorists and forced to build missiles for them. Instead, he creates a tactical suit of armor with which he gains his freedom. Upon returning home, he discovers that the head of his company is crooked, selling weapons to terrorists, and he makes it his goal to make things right. Finally, he confronts the head of the company, who stole his technology and made his own suit with it, and he defeats his former mentor.”
Keep it simple and straightforward. Also, your main character should follow an arc, starting with their want, the thing that they think will make them happy, such as Jake Sully’s healed legs in Avatar. Then they realize that there’s something more important than what they want, such as Tony Stark’s mission to stop the underhanded dealings at his company in Iron Man. Finally, they fully embrace the change, often, but not always, giving up their want in the process.
We have one day left, and it’s a fun one. So rest up, and prepare for your final day of novel-writing preparation.
Day 7—Plotting Like An Excited Seven-Year-Old
Here we go. We’ve made it to day seven. You’ve almost finished your novel preparation. You’re just about to lay out the last domino that, when pushed, will lead inexorably to your goal.
Today’s task is a big one, but also a fun one. I like to call it, “Plotting like an excited seven-year-old.” If your son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandson, granddaughter, or the like, were to watch a movie and summarize it to you, what would it be like?
Children are so full of excitement and energy when they’re talking about a movie they really enjoy, and that’s how you need to be on day seven. That excitement will help you to complete this task, even if you’re an ardent pantser, someone who dislikes preparing outlines before writing.
Imagine a seven-year-old explaining Titanic to you.
“Ok, ok, so first this guy is playing some game, and he like wins, and then he gets on a big boat, I think it’s the Titanic, and he meets this girl. They hang out for a while and look at nudey drawings, and then they eat a fancy dinner and dance together. Then she gets naked, and then they sit in a car together, and then the ship runs into a big piece of ice!”
You don’t have to include all the oks and the ands, but the point is that this is the opportunity to highlight all the exciting moments that made you so eager to tell this story in the first place. This summary is your roadmap to guide you through the entirety of your novel-writing process.
The One-Week Author
At this point, you’re in one of two categories. On the one hand, you’ve finished this quick, straightforward program, and you’re well on the way to achieving your dream of becoming an author. On the other hand, you’ve just read through the entire guide, and now you’re ready to start with day one.
Either way, allow me to congratulate you. You’ve taken the first step to the fun, rewarding, and unforgettable experience of writing your own novel. For people like us, this is one of the most meaningful things we can do with our creativity. This is one of the most successful ways we can share our voice with the world. I can’t wait to enjoy yours.
The Writer’s Everything
This article, as well as many others, have been featured in previous issues of my writing journal, The Writer’s Everything, in which I, along with occasional guest contributors, provide essays, guides, encouragement, motivation, writing prompts, character bio development kits, and anything else that can help you turn your dream of becoming a writer into a reality.
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