Here are some exercises I’ve found based on the book “20 Master Plots And How To Build Them.” It’s a really good book, if you’re thinking of buying a copy for yourself!
by Kevin Kaiser
How do you write a story?
It’s a strange question, really, like asking how to fall out of a tree, or walk across the street, or how to properly skin a cat (not that I’ve ever done that or endorse doing so, though I wonder who considered it first and, more importantly, why).
The answer, I’m afraid, is simpler than you might want it to be, and one I suspect you already know: You simply have to do it. You write by writing.
But before this first weekend of NaNoWriMo, let me offer some encouragement beyond the obvious—encouragement that a writer far more accomplished than I gave me recently.
First, take your writing seriously…
We all write stories by putting down one unsatisfactory word at a time, then more words, and still other words until the thing is finally done. There’s no quick fix because the blue-collar nature of writing sinks bone deep. No way around it.
You will never get much done in life, whether writing a book or mastering long division, unless you take the work itself seriously. Even a blind squirrel will occasionally stumble upon a nut, but only an industrious beaver can build dam after dam. And trust me, beavers take their craft seriously.
I realize the analogy is a stretch, but go with it. All will become clear about halfway through your manuscript.
Second, don’t take yourself too seriously.
There are a good many curmudgeonly writers in the world. They don’t have friends, or cats, for good reason, and quite a few smell funny despite their best efforts. Don’t be one of those people.
Approach your story with a light heart. What you’re doing isn’t rocket science. After all, you’re just making stuff up, right? Take the discipline of your craft seriously, but leave the harsh judgments about yourself (especially yourself), the work, and others’ opinions about it on the curb.
Those things don’t matter, not really. Always remember: we’re just making stuff up.
Most of all… enjoy the process.
Some people say that they enjoy “having written” more than writing and that they’re unable to find joy in the creative process itself. Those people would make terrible musicians; who wants to see a band that doesn’t want to be on stage? And who would want to eat a meal by a chef who only looks forward to “having cooked”?
Don’t wish your life away or try to live in the future as someone hoping to look back on the past. It’ll only rip the space-time continuum. I’ve done the math.
Enjoy the moment and invest yourself in every single word of your story. Every moment. Your story, like your life, only happens in the Now. All the best stuff exists between “Once upon a time…” and “The End.” So, don’t rush it. Enjoy the road along the way because that’s all you really have.
Top writing do’s and don’t’s from Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, and AL Kennedy.
Okay, so I might not exactly be the best to talk about this because I’m a lazy bastard with next to zero motivation. However, I will do my best to provide awesome advice.
1. Set a quota for yourself. Quotas are the best thing I can think of when I’m editing to keep me on track. If you do a solid 1K or 2K every single day. It might seem like you’re slowly chipping away at your manuscript, but it works. A little work every day all adds up.
2. Keep your goal in mind. What’s that one thing you’re working toward? Publication? Being able to claim you’ve written a novel? Becoming a New York Times bestselling author? It doesn’t matter what it is, just keep that goal in your mind, because spoiler alert: you’ll never achieve your goals if you don’t work toward them.
3. Make sure you’re writing what you love. Love for the craft is one of the most important things you need. If you get bored of your manuscript, it does show, and that isn’t a good thing. If you get tired of your plot or your characters to the point where you dread editing every day, it might be time to set the manuscript aside and start something fresh. You can always come back to it at a later time.
4. Don’t doubt yourself. Of course, this will be inevitable down the road. You read over your work and think “This is terrible, I don’t know why I even try.” But don’t. Your story is awesome, and you’re awesome for being able to write it. When it comes to criticism, you are your own worst enemy, so punch yourself in the face and keep on typing because you are awesome.
5. Reward yourself. I don’t care how much you want that cupcake, you aren’t allowed to eat it until you’ve edited at least 500 words, missy. And don’t even think about getting on Tumblr until you do another 500 after that!
6. Talk to other writers. There’s plenty of forums and websites out there that connect writers. You can keep each other motivated, ask for advice, ideas, and all sorts of things. Personally, I like to go and watch John Green’s videos about his novels because they motivate me. I’m also a bit socially awkward when talking to people, so I like that I can just listen to him talk and not be expected to reply.
There comes a time in every writer’s life when they realize that the funniest, saddest, and craziest stories they can tell are their own. Here is a shortlist of great memoirs to add to your reading list:
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
- The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
- Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
- Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster
- My Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jeremy Leggatt
- All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
- The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
- The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant by Dan Savage
- Please Stop Laughing at Me… One Woman’s Inspirational Story by Jodee Blanco
- Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr
- Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
- Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi
- Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen
- The Midwife Trilogy by Jennifer Worth
- Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- Naked by David Sedaris
- Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
- Stranger Than Fiction by Chuck Palahniuk
- Bossypants by Tina Fey
- Darkness Visibleby William Styron
- Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
- The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux
- A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Into the Wild by Jack Krakauer
- This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
- The Color of Water by James McBride
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Singsby Maya Angelou
- Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
- My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark
- I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max
- When Rabbit Howls by Truddi Chase
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
- Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
- The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
-Wolf Hartman and C
What are your favorite memoirs?
Blame social networking and reality TV. Thanks to them, we live in a time where there’s little distinction between a person’s private and public life. Think about how easy it’s become to learn about a person. It used to take years to learn the intimate details of someone’s life. Now, just pop over to their blog. You can learn everything you want and even some things you don’t. Technology!
Memoirs are sometimes considered a dusty, dehydrated mode of expression. We’re a generation eager to talk about ourselves in front of our numbered friend count. Yes, people talk about themselves—and often—but they rarely strap their past selves down on the operating table and do some exploratory surgery.
So, let’s talk about autobiography and memoir. Since the two are so closely related, let’s set out some basic definitions here:
Autobiography (n): Ideally non-fiction; The biography of a person written by him- or herself that puts the person’s life in context (of time, place, etc.).
Memoir (n): Ideally non-fiction; A sub-genre of autobiography; an account of the personal experiences of the author, usually limited to an era in or an event of a person’s life.
Autobiography and memoir are now used interchangeably, but usually, autobiography encompasses an entire life while memoir revolves around a single event or subject in a person’s life. This event or subject can be anything: a family trip, your experience with a friend or relative, your struggle with substance abuse. It can span from a page in length to a monster of five volumes (like Sir Osbert Sitwell’s Left Hand! Right Hand!, one of the longest autobiographies ever written).
“While an autobiography typically focuses on the ‘life and times’ of the writer, a memoir has a narrower, more intimate focus on his or her own memories, feelings and emotions.” (x)
But why bother with this genre anyway? Do you really get anything out of this? Yes. Here’s what you get:
- It forces you to be introspective. Writing is an intimate act and it helps us know ourselves better. Writing is talking with yourself, debating and fighting with yourself. The better the relationship you have with your own psyche, the more productive you will be. Thoughts flow better when you’re not muddled with regrets and what-ifs.Fiction proceeds on the notion of what if? Nonfiction proceeds on the notion of what was? There is no if in nonfiction. (x)
- It shows you what you believe. We believe any number of things depending on who we are with. But when it’s just us with all of our social obligations stripped away, we are confronted with our own beliefs. Be it politics, social issues, god, no god, love, sex, or whatever, you will be surprised to find out what you believe and how you feel about the past when you attempt a memoir.
In our opinion, those are both pretty great outcomes of memoir-writing. So, without further ado, here are some tips for writing a memoir:
Note: I am not saying these things are bad in all situations. They’re just incredibly hard to pull off well. I personally would avoid them.
- Forget things. It may be a common human failure, but it’s a cheap cop-out in fiction. Your protagonist can forget things anywhere in the backstory right up to the start of the plot, but afterwards, they should always have as good a memory as the most diligent reader. Actual amnesia, on the other hand, is fine.
- Use their emotions to channel the spirit of the author. People react in different ways to emotional states. I get that. However, you shouldn’t have your protagonist do something plot-specific out of rage because people will do anything when they’re angry. Have them do something plot-specific out of rage because it flows naturally from their character.
- Have big, sweeping character changes every few pages. Character development is a slow process, alright? It’s fine to have somebody change because of a revelation, but their whole personality shouldn’t invert at the drop of a hat whenever needed.
- Have “too heroic” as their flaw. A) No matter how bad you make it out to be, since being “too heroic” involves having good intentions, it isn’t really a flaw at all. B) It’s a tired cliche.
- Whine too much. I don’t mind whiny characters. What I do mind is reading a story through a whiny POV. It takes the fun and drama away from your story.