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The last story writing manual you’ll need: Margaret Atwood’s 9 steps to five-star speculative fiction

It’s a genre that requires spunkiness.

A mind that thinks outside the box. And still blindly knows its way around the box.

How?

Today, I want us to learn from a mastermind of speculative story writing, or as she calls it, the “wonder tales – a woman who is adventurous enough to write a novel about a genetic engineer whose DNA merges with that of a cat and an owl, or a republic called Gilead where women are held as slaves to their commander to bear them children.

Margaret Atwood defines this form of writing as: A way of dealing with possibilities that are inherent in our society now but have not been fully enacted.

Following her writing principles and her journey, you will understand the genre of speculative fiction and get the ultimate manual for writing it with confidence.

Essentially, “it’s characters in a story”. All fiction is.
The characters can take many forms, morph into many scenarios.
Within these characters and events, everything is possible.

The main rule is: hold the reader’s attention. Make it as believable as possible.

But how exactly?

To follow Atwood’s advice, we want to focus solely on the genre, but rather on the process of making it as good a book of its kind as it can be.

Make it real.

Make it strong.

Take the reader on a journey.

How does speculative fiction, which includes the sub-genres of sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia, post-apocalyptic, techno-thriller and much more, differ from the other genres?

Speculative fiction deals with possibilities; be it in technology, science, society or politics. Books like Brave New World or 1984 were arranged in a space that we could be living in.

To master this genre, you need to look around. See what’s happening in the world. Follow publications like Scientific American or Singularity Hub. Read about things people are working on right now. Take an idea from the real world and move it further down the road.

David Baldacci says: Writers have a dark side. They create problems which they are solving over the course of their story.

For example:
If you write speculative fiction about social media, it would be easy to predict that one could take the data to manipulate elections. This development has been coming at us for decades.

You just have to speculate about the arising problems and don’t be afraid to tackle issues and imagine worlds.

But only because it’s speculative fiction doesn’t mean that it’s going to be automatically interesting. Remember: Thinking outside the box means knowing it inside out.

You have to know the rules of story writing.

1. How to find the creative spark in speculative story writing

How to come up with the boldest ideas?

“Immerse yourself into a field.”

Be it art or science, politics or history. Immersion will trigger ideas. This is how human creativity works.

Story writing ideas won’t arise from staring at a blank page. They emerge from real life, from going out into the world and looking for the spark.

For an author, everything is story material. You just have to look through the author prism, think in a way the average citizen doesn’t.

And read. A lot.

Atwood grew up in the woods. She was an early reader with nothing else to do but immerse herself into the pages.

If you find yourself constantly distracted by life – lose yourself in the woods. Shut off the internet. Put away the phone. Seek the loneliness. Read.

A lot.

story writing and reading

Expand your “toolkit of stories” by reading folk tales, fairy tales, and the Bible. Read African and Native American stories, and those famous stories humanity had been telling for centuries.

“Expand your frame of reference to gain more depth when you think of stories.”

— Margaret Atwood

 

This frame of reference is a toolkit.

You want your plot to gain more depth?
Read those classics without interpretation. Know the originals and interpret them in your own unique way.

2. Why research is essential in speculative story writing

When writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood had a rule: Nothing went into the story if it didn’t happen in real life at some time.

She collected a ton of research for this book, amongst it three main inspiration sources:
The 17th century Puritans, the study of utopias and dystopias as a literary force, and totalitarianism, asking herself: If the US had one, what would it be?

The costumes in the book were partly inspired by nuns and old Dutch cleansers.

“Write first and then research the details.”

Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Always crosscheck for more than one reference. Look into old diaries, letters, archives and newspaper reports in libraries.

Researching for a book accurately is crucial. If you get the details wrong, it will throw off the readers. Even things like: When did people start using plastic bags? What color were the refrigerators in 1960? Or else, someone will do an angry internet post that begins with: You idiot.

Never forget your main goal: Make it real. Make it believable.

3. Excellent story writing: why you need a strong plot and how to accomplish that

The definition of a strong plot?

Something has to happen.

No, not just something.

Blood pressure increasing, suspense building events that make us want to know what is going to happen next.

If nothing is happening by page ten, you’re in trouble: You have no story.

This happened to Atwood once when writing a book. 200 pages in, she realized that nothing had happened. Mercilessly, she threw all of them into the trash and started again.

Be merciless with your plot.

Understand the difference between structure and story:

The story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.

Let’s look at Red Riding Hood: There are many ways to tell this tale.

It was dark inside the wolf.
Or maybe from the point of view of the wolf, or as a detective story (There on the floor were two. Murdered.)
Or in time jumps.

Structure determines in what order you tell the story.

Consider the “Rashomon” approach:
Director Kurosawa told a murder story in three versions, leaving the viewer to decide which one is true.

Or the Arabian Nights.

“Some genius put a collection of stories together into a frame story.”

Margaret Atwood

The Sultan kills his bride every morning. To end this massacre, Scheherazade marries him and tells him a different story every night, finishing it with a cliffhanger by dawn. Because he is so eager to hear the rest, she is allowed to live for another day. This continues for 1001 nights. Those stories are told in a particular order to bring a change of mind in the Sultan.

Writing is like any other skill.

How to get better?

Practice. Get your hands dirty.

Start simple. Tell your story chronologically first to see if you can master that part.

You can’t play a Beethoven sonata until you learn to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

4. How to choose the right POV for your speculative story

Don’t leave POV to chance.

Ask yourself: Who are you writing it for and what do you want to tell them?

Here are some options:

  • An omniscient narrator who knows everything
  • Through the eyes of one person
  • As a stream of consciousness – a flow of ideas that goes through a characters head
  • Multiple POVs – Moving further and further away like movie shots

How to decide?

Again: Practice.

Make decisions of what the POV is allowed to know. How can you create the strongest tension?

Does the reader know more or less than the characters?

Hitchcock was asked how to hold a screen kiss for 10 mins. Put a bomb under the bed, he said.

Agatha Christie wrote a story where the first person narrator was the murderer and knew something the reader didn’t. He was lying to the audience the whole time.

Start with a simple exercise: Write the same event from multiple POVs, and see which one works best.

5. Speculative story writing: creating memorable characters

A story is characters interacting with events.

Both exist together, never separately.

Interaction is what changes the characters and reveals them to other people and to the reader. You don’t know who they are until they are put into tough situations.

Getting the basics right

Start with the basics: What do your people eat? How do they look, what do they wear? What does it say about them?

To never lose track, create a character chart with: character’s birthdays, appearances, and special events so that you always know how old they are in relation to important events and also how they look like.


How to create characters that feel real

Reflect the imperfection of humanity, the diversity of humankind.

When creating a villain, make him act in unexpected ways, so that the reader doesn’t know what he is going to do next. If you’re surprising the reader, you are engaging the reader.

Likeability is not necessarily a factor when you’re creating a living character. Characters can be very vibrant and alive although not likable. Think of the Underwoods in House of Cards.

When creating new species as Atwood did in Oryx and Crake, make sure they have their roots in what we already can achieve or are on the road to creating.

The real world is your inspiration, and it makes sure your story is believable.

6. Powerful worldbuilding in story writing

The rule of the particular

Reveal your speculative, new world through sensory imagery

Don’t say: It’s a tree. What kind of tree? How is it growing? Where? What state is it in?

If you want your places to feel real, your characters to feel alive, you need to master the rule of the particular.

In your daily life, exercise seeing special things. The small details.

We are very fond of labeling or abstracting. It happens automatically, but it doesn’t work in fiction.
Purposefully, describe rather the particular than the general.


The rule of facetted description

In Japanese, one word stands for the texture of a piece of white silk bleached on the snow.

This is how facetted this language is in textures and cloth.
How facetted is your language when it comes to descriptions? And how can you improve that?

In this visual world, we tend to focus on sight. But books have an advantage over films: They can use all the senses. How about smell? Touch?

Do you describe particular textures and how they feel to the tip of the fingers? Are you grasping the fullness of the smell that surrounds a location?

Here’s an exercise Atwood suggests: Block off some senses and see what the others pick up. Let’s assume your character is doing a night journey — the character will be very alert to sounds, light, shadows, smells.

“We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.”
— The Handmaid’s Tale

This fascinating description of a game that would ordinarily not be noticed springs from the fact that it is forbidden in The Handmaid’s Tale’s world. Women are not allowed to read, so Scrabble has become infused with luxurious meaning for Offred, and this paragraph alone holds extraordinary depth.

In your descriptions, include theme and the special meaning your story attributes to ordinary things.


The rule of purposeful description

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How many of these details can you use?

In the new world you create, it’s easy to lose yourself in the endless description of this world.

Remember the rule: Something has to happen.

So to avoid a book where you have no story, apply the rule of purposefulness: The texture surrounding your characters has to be meaningful.

The Handmaid’s Tale contains many flowers. But the repetition is there for a reason. The floral imagery is conscious because flowers have to do with fertility. They are often mistaken for something that is harmless or girly and appears to be safe. But it is not true for flowers as it is not true for the women in the book.

Readers will assume that everything you put on the page is there for a purpose.

7. How to get through the first draft

When writing the first draft, many authors encounter writer’s block for the first time. They just can’t seem to be able to finish.

Atwood offers great advice for the blockages you may encounter during this stage.


Focus of crummy results

It’s easy to talk about discipline.

But what can you actually do to defeat the doubt lurking deep down inside of you?

Let’s be honest, this is our worst enemy.

The answer is as easy as it is complicated: WRITE.

It’s always better to actually write something — no matter how crappy — than to brute about the pain of writing.

“Do it however you think crummy the result may be — at least you’re moving.”

Margaret Atwood


Spin the wheels

No matter how hard: continue the process of writing.

A lot of it may be stuff you don’t use and throw out. But your mind is engaged and you’re working. Like spinning the wheels.

You don’t always know how valuable your writing is unless you step back and look at it.

Famous writers don’t get good at it until they’ve done it for a while. Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it.

You become a writer by writing.

“Do it more, do it again, fail, fail better.”

M. Atwood


Be kind to yourself

Take some breaks.

Writing is not the healthiest way to spend the day. Keyboarding can be bad for the neck and other parts of the body, so look out for yourself.

  1. Go for a walk. It’s an ancient remedy.
  2. Go to sleep. Tell yourself the problem, go to sleep and you might have the solution when you wake up.
  3. Do ironing or something repetitive to distract your conscious mind and let the subconscious work.

Stop complaining.

“It’s fashionable to talk about how much you suffer as a writer.”

M. Atwood

Complaining will only tear you down because it focuses your mind on the wrong things. But if instead, you start speaking positively about your writing, you will see how these words will turn into your reality.

story writing while walking

8. How to work with structure in story writing

The alluring entryway

The first five pages are the door into your book.

“Tell me more. But don’t tell me too much more and don’t overload me with information. Lead me through the doorway and leave enough hooks so that I will want to read on.”

M. Atwood

Finding those first five pages is rarely immediate. You often have the wrong beginning.

During the writing process of The Handmaid’s Tale, the original beginning turned into Chapter Two of the book.

Finding that moment — that perfect alluring entryway — often doesn’t happen until a certain amount of the first draft has been written. But it’s an important task discovering those five pages, and building the perfect entryway that will invite the reader into the journey.

Make sure that they’ll follow along.

The real beginning of your book might be on page ten. Or fifty?

Keep readers engaged through the middle

The middle of the book is always the most difficult part.

Just imagine you are Scheherazade. Your life depends on whether you can hook the reader strongly enough to survive the next day (or chapter).

What was her survival secret?

She always ended on a strong cliffhanger.

Something has gone off the rails and needed to be resolved. A question needed desperately to be answered. So desperately that the Sultan had to prolong her life for another night.

Writing is work. Especially the middle.

It includes scratching things out, moving things around — like rearranging the furniture in a house.
Sometimes you take a turn down a corridor and it’s a dead end.
You put a sofa in a corner and see that you need to move it.

There is no shame in backtracking and revision. It only means recognizing that there are things you can do better.


The carefully crafted ending

“The ending is often not the ending.”

M. Atwood

When exactly to say “the end”?

It can be a closed or an open ending. Novels in the 19th century had closed endings while in our time, open endings are more common.

Think carefully about how much you are going to resolve and why. Craft an ending according to readers’ expectations while still surprising them.

The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of an open ending. The resolution is left to the reader’s choosing: Does she make it as far as England or escape to the border of Canada, or not?

How did Atwood decide on how to end the story? The reason for the open ending is the fact that in history, when you’re trying to trace historical records, figures vanish. Especially in times of catastrophe, people simply disappear from historical records.

So why did you choose your ending? What is the reasoning behind it?

Craft it carefully.

And remember: there is always revision.

9. Story writing is perfected in revision

Completion fear

You might unwillingly sabotage your work, walking around the finish line as if it were made of lava.

It’s not a conscious decision. On the contrary: You wonder why on earth you cannot finish this novel.

Subconsciously, you’re afraid of the finish line.

What if your work is not any good? — This is the deep-seated question that is holding you back.

Atwood gives a piece of advice that helps relieve the anguish: “Remember: You can always revise.”

Nobody is going to see your work until you allow them. Until you feel ready to share it with the world.

What good is your book gathering dust in a forgotten corner?


See it from the reader’s perspective

Sit down. Take a deep breath.

Forget that you wrote this book.

You’re a reader, reading those words for the very first time:
Are the first pages good enough to hold your attention? Be brutally honest. Question your own writing as if you were ripping apart another writer’s work. Why did this character do that? Does everything make sense?

The sooner you stop sugar coating your writing and start thinking like a reader, the faster your work will approach the epic finish.

 

Include more eyes

Once you feel that you’ve done everything you can to the manuscript, show your work to dedicated readers.

Those readers should be simple genre lovers, not in the publishing business, because they represent your target audience.

They should be able to give you their true opinion (so maybe not your spouse), tell you if there is a piece of information missing, if a chapter is too long or if you’re repeating yourself.

Pay attention to how long it took them to read the book. Was it close to “I couldn’t put it down” or two years? With the latter, you definitely have a problem.


Take the last three steps

The final stage of revision is about texture. It can be divided into three steps:

Step #1: Read your novel for grammar and punctuation. If you can, hire a copy editor to do this work for you.
Step #2: Read your text out loud to catch things you wouldn’t by just sticking to the eyes.
Step #3: Print out your work and edit on the page.


Extremely successful books were refused by countless publishers before they turned into bestsellers.

Wuthering Heights, which is now universally acknowledged as a work of genius, was rejected by many.

Robert Louis Stevenson was broke, ill and living with his parents. He had recently burned up his first three novels because he thought they weren’t any good. Then, he painted a map which turned into treasure island – his entry into becoming an international success.

Not everybody will like your books. Just accept that.

As a speculative fiction writer, your main task is to find the ideal reader.

story writing woman reading book

He or she is someone who will get the jokes, be lead along by the clues, understand the depth of your character, be intrigued by the turns of events, will cry at the appropriate places, and come out of the book thinking: Wow.

Follow the footsteps of the famous writers by adopting one of their strongest character traits: never give up.

Make your book as good of its kind as it can be.

Your ideal reader is out there. Waiting for it.

What are your thoughts on writing speculative fiction?
Let me know in the comments!

Book Research – My Scotland Travel Vlog

After the first and second draft of “Prometheus Rising”, I became aware that I haven’t been to several places that appear in the story. There is a lot of movement and exploration in the novel, and the main characters cover an extensive route from the Isle of Skye all the way down to Pembrokeshire and finally, London.

It was a spur of the moment that made me realize I needed to cover all the stops on this route myself – see the landscapes, the distances, get a feeling for those places. So I set out on an exhausting journey of seven days: from Skye to Loch Lomond, Lake District, Pembrokeshire and London.

This adventure changed the course of my novel, added significant detail and made me fall in love with the British Isle all over again.

Follow the “Prometheus Rising” route with me, walk in the footsteps of Adama and experience all those places mentioned in the novel first hand.

Have fun!

Travelling as a writer – 4 ways to make the best out of itineraries

Researching for a book – Part II

Where to go on the next holiday?

This can be a question that is tough to answer. The choices and decisions are overwhelming.

Travelling has become its own culture, and your list of amazing Instagram itineraries keeps growing.

I’d like to suggest an approach that will not only make travelling more exciting and nurturing but solve writing block and eliminate the blank page scare.

When Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral went hunting in the Alps in 1941, he noticed his clothes were covered in burdock burrs. De Mestral put one of the burrs under a microscope.

This is how the Velcro strips were invented.

Had Mestral never gone out into the Alps, he would have never discovered the burdock burrs that ignited the spark of a new invention. So if you want to come up with new story writing ideas, or deepen your novels by researching for a book, travelling is the magic potion.

But there is Google Maps and Google Streetview. Isn’t that enough? What exactly are the benefits of travelling and how can we make the most of them for our fiction?

I recently embarked on a research travel for “Prometheus Rising”, the first book of my new dystopian trilogy, following the footsteps of my main character to do my last edit. But what I discovered was that it took my novel to a whole new level.

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#1 Travelling as a writer is an experience

Not a single photo, nor Google Streetview can compare to being there. The experience of a new culture, location, the people you meet and the details you discover are nothing like researching for a book on the internet.

The experience of following your character’s footsteps will enhance your understating of the character and the journey she takes. It will give you a sense of the distances, the (non-)consistency of the weather, the changing tides and daytimes. It will provide you with amazing description since suddenly, you can experience the location with all your senses.

If you want your story world to be rich and captivate your readers, you need to experience it firsthand. There is no way around it.

Experiencing the awe of Glencoe, the solemnness of the Isle of Skye and the enchanting greens of the Lake District enriched my story world and my characters the way no photograph could.

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#2 Nobody sees the world as you do

You have a unique way of perceiving things, noticing the details that nobody else notices, and experiencing the world around you in ways nobody can.

This is one of the reasons your readers love your books. Because of the way you make them see the world. And if hundreds of writers had travelled to this location, there is still room for your ideas, feeling and descriptions.

If you want to bring this unique worldview to the locations you use in your fiction, you’ll need to visit them. Nobody else will be able to recreate those experiences and places the way you will. And this is exactly what you readers are craving.

Power-Tip: Take time to write while you’re on location. We tend to forget quickly, so make you write down your observations, feelings and impressions the same day.

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#3 Traveling as a writer holds unknown discoveries

When I embarked on the “Prometheus Rising” research journey, I was aware that there were things about my book I did not know and would find out while on the road.

But I was wrong.

What I discovered during those seven days turned my novel upside down. It made me rewrite and rethink my plot, changed my characters and provided me with brand new ideas about how to design the story world, make it more believable, closer to the culture and the people.

You never know what you’ll discover when travelling. Unexpected things will happen and provide you with countless sparks to give your story a new spin and a new twist.


Travelling as a writer costs time and energy. But it never leaves you empty-handed, and it’s worth the investment.

Writing is also about getting out there and discovering the world. Click To Tweet

In the next section, we will have a look at how to make the most of your book research travel.

The most important thing is: Never come unprepared!


How to effectively travel as a writer

In this part, I will share with you important advice on how to get the most out journey while you are researching for a book. Don’t take the preparation too lightly, because travelling always involves costs.

It’s a nightmare to return home and start writing only to realize that you have missed important locations or details on your journey.

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#1 Travel after your first draft

It’s tempting to travel before even a letter has appeared on the blank paper. If you know you want to write a novel situated in New York, wouldn’t it make sense to travel to New York first?

During your first and even your second draft, your plot will drastically change from the initial story writing idea. For those drafts, photographic and online research is absolutely sufficient. It’s only when there is a map for the hero’s journey that questions start to pop up you cannot answer without seeing the locations.

I’ve been to Scotland two years ago when my novel was but a spark in my imagination. But it was only after the two initial drafts that I understood which locations I needed to see and which details and facts to examine in order to have full clarity about my hero’s quest.

Researching for a book online and in literature is enough for the first and even the second draft.

Power-Tip: Travel right before submitting your last draft to the editor.

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#2 Plan your route

Make sure you plan your route as close to the book as possible.

Do your characters travel from A to B? Make sure you take this route, too.
Are they on this location by day or by night? Try to get there at the same time of day.

You can go as far as method acting, literally stepping into the shoes of your characters, miming their conditions. You could dress lightly in the cold mountains to feel the icy chill, or cover a challenging route on foot if your characters do so. Just watch out for your safety and health!

For the “Prometheus Rising” route, we flew to Edinburgh and travelled all the way down to London via Skye, Glencoe, the Lake District and Pembrokeshire in Wales. In was an extensive route to cover in 7 days only, but it was worth every effort and penny.

Before travelling, I also marked parts of the story that needed a rewrite according to what I’d find on my journey, and wrote down questions I needed to find answers to, like:

What is behind the two doors right at the end of the stairs in Dunvegan Castle?
(continue reading for the answer)

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#3 Take a camera and a notebook/laptop

You’ll need two things to make travelling as a writer count beyond the journey and ease the work as soon as you return to your desk:

  • something to take notes: a notebook or the laptop with your manuscript file and your research folders
  • a camera

The former is crucial because you’ll need to write every evening, at least some bullet points or some free writing about your immediate impression. This writing will be the most valuable when mirroring the “feeling” of the place.

But don’t expect to get much work done on your novel itself. Use the time to actually travel and see as much as you can. Just capture those initials reactions.

A camera is handy for every occasion. Photos and videos will remind you of little details you might have forgotten and bring back thoughts, ideas and feelings once you rewatch them.

I had my camera with me everywhere (as my friends’ pictures above prove) with an extensive setup: the Sony a7s II, a gimbal, the Mavic drone and several lenses. But your phone camera will do as well.

They can also serve as a marketing strategy.

Post the photos and videos on your author website, your Instagram account and YouTube. It’s great to share these adventures with readers, and maybe the most dedicated ones might even consider following your hero’s steps themselves.

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#4 Interact with locals

From researching for my book online, I knew that when entering Dunvegan Castle, a large staircase greets the visitor and leads him towards two identic doors. I was dying to find out what lay beyond them. But while there, we had to make our way straight to the right as soon as we entered, and, after having walked around the whole castle, never saw what lay beyond those doors.

This kind of information you’ll never find on the internet. What now?

I asked one of the museum workers who was eager to answer my strange request: Those two doors were built for the sake of symmetry, an architectural trend during the construction of the castle. Only one of them had a function. It opened the way to a set of stairs that lead to the next level of the castle. Behind the other one was – nothing. A wall. The second door was an illusion.

There are many things you will never find out as a simple “tourist” and this is also the beauty of writing – embedding unknown, marvellous and quirky facts. Don’t be afraid to interact with the people and the culture in the region. You might find out the craziest things that will spark ideas and give your books important twists. Just ask as many questions as you can.

Don’t travel on your own. Observe your companions’ reactions to the scenery and use it for the characters in your books. Consider the group dynamics of your travel party and how it’s influenced by the locations.


Travelling as a writer is a special kind of adventure reserved for bookworms and story enthusiasts. It’s not to be missed and adds a new dimension compared to a simple relaxing trip on the beach.

The costs, the time, the effort … was this really necessary? I had my doubts when embarking on the book research journey. In retrospect, I can only stress: yes!
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Interested to know more about my fiction? Visit my author page and subscribe to get the free novella.

Researching for a book: 4 powerful strategies to take your fiction to the next level

Researching for a book – Part I

The blank page is staring at you like hotel room nr. 13 in a horror movie.

No ideas. That is what we dread.

The blank page is said to be every writer’s worst nightmare. But I found that the root of all evil is indeed the blank mind.

You might even have several rough story writing ideas. But what now?

There is a way to escape the horror scenario: research.

Research will deepen your story world, your theme, give you inspiration and fresh ideas. A well-researched book brims with depth, colours and fascinates the reader.

Researching for a book has never been so simple yet so overwhelming. With the power of the internet, we have access to literally everything. This can be a scary prospect if you don’t know where to start, which book or article to read first or which video to watch.

In this article series, I want to empower you with research strategies for fiction (and to a certain extent for non-fiction as well) that will help you make the best use of the media and resources given to us. I will help you find the information and inspiration you are looking for and implement it into your book.

Step #1 Brainstorm your book research ideas

In the first stage, anything is possible. Don’t censor yourself and write down everything you know about your story.

Roz Morris introduces in her book “Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence” a great concept she calls “the hat game”. She makes each note on a separate piece of paper and throws it in a box. Any piece of research that comes across with story potential makes it into the box.

I have a more structured approach to the hat game: I create a “research” folder in Scrivener and structure it with subfolders that are categories for research.

Find categories that make sense for your book, and don’t be afraid to adjust them once you’re in the process. Here are my suggestions:

Worldbuilding (f.e. visuals of Buildings or Interiors/Places, Rules, historical research a.s.o.)
Ideas (literally everything you come up with, then see Step #3)
Characters
Technology
Politics

Use them as a basis, and play around with them until you find the best way to structure your own book research.

If you have an idea that is rough and raises more questions than answers, write those questions down:
How will this work? How will you solve this?
Those are things you will need to find out in the process of further research. But this is how you’ll know what to look for.

Write everything down that you know already: about your world, about your characters, any other ideas you might have. Don’t censor yourself at this stage. Write down questions about things you don’t know. Then proceed to the next step.

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Step #2 Places and characters

Visuals are the secret weapon when lacking ideas or details. This is why you should integrate the visual research of places and characters into your process.

A visual imagery of your world and everything that populates it can do wonders for your fiction.

Say you have an underground city: How does it look like, how does it work? You might have a rough idea, but don’t get too hung up on it just yet. Simply type “underground city” in google and take it from there. Look at the suggested pictures. You’ll see how many more possibilities or ideas will open up in front of you. Don’t copy, but let the inspiration drive you to further exploration and thus to individuality and uniqueness.

Create a visual overview.
You can print all the pictures and place them on a board. You can create a Pinterest board where you collect the pictures digitally. This is great for an overall look at your world.

Save them into your Scrivener research folders along with notes, sorting them into your pre-made categories, which will allow you to explore the world in further detail.

The same thing goes for characters, although I don’t like to assign them to well-known and famous actors, and rather make them unique and specific. Still, visual inspiration won’t do any harm. My recommendation is to look at those people who inspire your character’s appearance and describe them on a separate character sheet, adding quirks and special details. Those character sheets will come in handy once you start diving into the first draft.

Let the inspiration drive you to further exploration and thus to individuality and uniqueness. Click To Tweet

In your first draft, pictures will do wonders. You will always return to your research folder once you begin creating your world from scratch, reminding yourself of your vision and making sure you stay consistent and detailed with your world.

James Patterson recommends writing with the movie projector in your head, but this inner movie projector will only come to life if you feed it with visuals.

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Step #3 Study when researching for a book

This step number one to deepen theme and characters – the study of ideas in science, history or any other field related to your book.

While I still plotted my first novel, I heard Joanna Penn rave about a book she read that explored the idea of the ecstatic state – Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. The concept fascinated me. I read the book and it inspired me to emphasize this idea in my novel. This changed my story and especially my theme into something that suddenly possessed depth and a much stronger connection to reality.

Christopher Nolan takes this principle to a whole new level.

Movies like Inception or Interstellar combine science, interesting principles and ideas with his story world and create storylines and themes that possess depth and reach into the heart of the viewer (not to mention his extravagant talent for visual imagery). In Interstellar, Nolan explores the theory of relativity, making “time” one of the thematic ideas. He also goes into depth with space travel, black holes and gravity.

You can use this principle with any genre. Look at Dan Brown using historical and modern ideas of art, religion and science. Consider the countless historical novels. You don’t have to revolve your story around those principles, but well-researched ideas will seize people’s interests beyond a gripping story and make it more believable.

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Step #4 Inspiration as a lifestyle

Make a habit to look for inspiration wherever you go.

Travel, museums, books, podcasts, and films and TV. Films are a great tool for inspiration in storytelling, setting the mood and creating characters if you learn how to watch them the right way and put on the creator lens.

How Watching TV And Movies The Right Way Can Revolutionize Your Writing

Everything can inspire you if you are on a constant lookout. Become a sponge, absorbing everything around you. The research stage is where this habit will highly pay off, and you will overflow with story writing ideas.

Here’s a little tool for random inspiration: The CURIOSITY App & Website. It’s a great app that will feed you with innovations, principles, all kinds of videos and everything you’ve always wanted or maybe even didn’t want to know. A regular look inside will refresh your inspiration and provide you with ideas.

Everything can inspire you if you are on a constant lookout. Click To Tweet

Effective research is a skill learned by the power of practice.

Sometimes it can be daunting and time-consuming to dig through the endless forest of Google and literature. It’s important to filter here, and not to be afraid to skip paragraphs or read summaries to get the research done eventually.

Be aware that this process needs to be balanced. Have your story in the back of your mind while you dive into research, and see that your research serves it, not vice versa.

If you want to learn how to get the most out of watching film and TV as a writer, download the “Inner Movie Projector” exercise book that will train you to revolutionize the way you view films.

What is your research process? Let me know in the comments below, and let’s exchange experiences to perfect our storytelling skills.

5 SIMPLE tools and mindsets to skyrocket NaNoWriMo

Do your knees tremble with anticipation? Are your hands shaky because of the challenge ahead? Is self-doubt starting to show its ugly face? Or is the excitement rising as you finish the last preparations?

Normal people just call it “November”.
But for us writers, it’s NaNoWriMo.

Preparation is key for this 50.000 words challenge. But what kind of preparation? More tools? More books on writing? More ideas and tips? Maybe. But maybe not.

Maybe those 5 simple tools and corresponding mindsets are all you need to embark on this sprint towards a beautiful storytelling journey.

At least this is what I found after years of writing – there is power in simplicity. As soon as I reduced my writing process to those simple 5, I realized that this was all I needed.

The tools are practical. But don’t underestimate the mindsets. They are also key, even more so than the tools.

With the right mindset and the supporting tools, you will be ready to skyrocket NaNoWriMo and make November your favorite month of the year.

#1

Tool: Notebook

Alternative: Board

There are many techniques for outlining, but to whether you are an outliner or a pantser, my biggest tip for you is:
Know where you are going, and always have the big picture in front of you. No matter how deep you want to go into detail here, do not start the journey without a compass and a clear story goal.

The simplest tool for this is a notebook – preferably bigger than A4 – where you can plot out the big picture.

There are also alternatives like a giant board or cards you can position on your table. No matter how fancy you want to make it – make sure you have at least some plot points and the final goal in front of you before you start writing.

This way, every time you sit down to write a scene and are at a loss, your compass and your goal will guide you.

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Mindset: The ultimate answer to your WHY

The same goes for your mindset: Know WHY you are starting NaNoWriMo in the first place.

An answer like “I want to write my novel” is simply not enough because it misses the big picture. Writing your novel is just a tiny step in the journey, but where is your journey going?

Do you want to make a living writing? Have more freedom? Share your stories with the world, inspire, create? Have a community?

Whatever the reason, know what role NaNoWriMo is playing in the big picture. More often than not, it’s a milestone for authors. If you know how this challenge is related to your big WHY, you will stand the ground when it gets hard to pull through.

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#2

Tool: Scrivener

Alternative: iA Writer/Ulysses

I love Scrivener because it allows me to bring my writing project to one single place: Research, Plotting, Characterization, Cards, Images, basically anything. There are countless great tools in Scrivener that help me prepare for the writing stage, and beyond.

For those who prefer simplicity, I also discovered iA Writer – a simple and clean writing tool.
Ulysses is also something other authors recommend, but I haven’t had the chance to try it out yet.

But why do you need a writing tool? Why don’t just write in Word?

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Mindset: Commitment

You could easily write in WORD.

But what I’ve found when buying a slightly more expensive writing program is that it signalizes real commitment. I’ve spent money and I am taking my writing business seriously now.

WORD is for everybody. But the extensive and special writing tools are only for those who are ready to take it to the next level – for the writers.

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#3

Tool: Wordly

Wordly is an app I came to love while writing my first novel! It transforms the challenge of writing faster into a sport, measuring you WPH (words per hour) as if you were an athlete.

Wordly allows you to create writing projects and track the word count. It displays data per day, duration and WPH, shows you total stats of your writing and even graphs of progress.

The simple and clean design takes the writing fun to a next level, especially with a challenge like NaNoWriMo where you need to hit a word count.

Mindset: Challenge

Especially with writing the first draft, a challenge is a mindset that will motivate you throughout the long writing hours.

Sports is fun because of the competition, even if the only person you are trying to beat is yourself. If you adopt the mindset of an athlete for the first draft, and especially for NaNoWriMo, you will be able to accomplish the sprint of November.

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#4

Mindset: Focus

Our mind is bombarded by the distractions of the modern world. We have forgotten how to focus, and instead, are juggling our focus between several tasks that are competing for our attention.

This will never produce real results. You need to train your mind how to focus again, and this can be learned.

Tool: Pomodoro Timer

A great tool to learn focus again is the Pomodoro Timer. It lets you choose intervals of work and break, forcing you to work for a limited amount of time.

Don’t start with an hour, but instead, split your hour into:
15 mins work – 5 mins break – 15 mins work – 5 mins break – 15 mins work – 10 minutes big break
(I know it’s a little more than one hour 😉 )

15 mins is a great timeframe to start with. Try to move the concentration up until 30 mins. During this time, shut off the phone and any other distraction and make sure all you do it dedicated, focused writing.

#5

Mindset: Inspiration

Inspiration will never drop from the sky. The muse will not magically materialize in you room and kiss you. You will have to chase it, create an atmosphere that will prompt and inspire you.

There are countless tools for inspiration, but the mindset is: Look actively for it.

Do your research – it can work wonders for your writing and your ideas! Watch the movies that are close to your story, TV series, read scripts and book, historical and scientific research, and – listen to music.

Tool: Spotify Playlist

Alternative: Amazon Music/Apple Music or Nature Sounds

Create a playlist especially for NaNoWriMo. It will take you a little time, especially because it needs to be a longer than 3-4 songs.

I recommend listening to soundtracks or instrumental music as words tend to be distracting. But you can choose whatever you prefer. Soundtracks set the mood for writing – I suddenly begin to see the story in front of me as if it were a movie.

Music produces a flow of writing. It touches the heart and helps deepen the words. I try to write so that my readers can nearly hear the music and feel the emotion I am feeling right now. And the music is what inspires me to do so.


Are you ready for NaNoWriMo?

Don’t look for the next big tool. Instead, adopt the mindset of a writer. Maybe this is your very first long writing project. Maybe you’ve failed last year to accomplish your goal.

Leave everything behind now, take those simple 5 and start writing. Nothing is missing, and you are a writer – skyrocket this month that might change your writing life!

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Let me know how you are doing if this article was helpful and let’s chat about NaNoWriMo.

10 things I wish I had known before writing my first draft

Are you about to write your first novel?
Stop right now and read this first.

I wish I had stumbled upon an article like this before I started writing my very first draft. I wish somebody had told me those 10 things.

And especially, I wish I had taken them seriously. Now that I am editing my first draft, and looking back at the process and the things I have learned, I see how much work I could have spared myself by taking those 10 things into account and integrating them into my process.

Learn from my mistakes. Here is a treasure box of those 10 things that can spare you lots of hours if you understand and implement them before writing the first draft.

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1. Craft the ending & the beginning first

One thing stuck with me when I listened one to of the Creative Penn Podcast Episodes:

I know the beginning, I know the ending, and the rest is just everything in-between.

Rachel Aaron advises in “2k to 10k”: Write down everything you know, then fill the holes.

So when preparing for the outline, it’s important to know where your story starts and where it needs to go. If you don’t know it yet, figure out before you start.

Nothing is as bad as having to change the ending and accordingly the whole book to set it up. Believe me.
I’ve been through this, and I won’t make this mistake again because it turned my book upside down.

Craft a strong beginning and a strong ending first, then fill the holes.

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2. The Outline is the book

This realization came to me during the James Patterson Masterclass.
Reading the outline is like reading your book. So put a lot of work into it.

I tried to be a “pantser”, but I know I’m not, and I really admire the people who can crank out a bestseller just like that. I need my outline! And it better be a good outline.

During the process of outlining, I could not wait to start writing, because outlining is not really writing, right? I felt like I was wasting time because no actual letter of my book had been written yet.

But this is a huge mistake.

The more detail you put into your outline, the more time you’ll save editing later.

My outline was not working when I began writing. But I thought: I’ll figure the rest out as I go.

You have to read your outline and see the book in front of you. It has to work. Your plot holes and inconsistencies have to be fixed by the time you start your first draft.

Once you write it out, your story will inevitably change. But the changes won’t be as global and empower you to finish the book sooner.

The more detail you put into your outline, the more time you'll save editing later. Click To Tweet

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3. What is the question you need to be answered?

When I started to write, I had a concept. But I had no theme.

What is the difference between concept and theme?

“[…]theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general.” Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering (S.118).

Stephen King argues in his book “On Writing” that his theme emerges when he has finished his first draft. This is a fascinating way of finding your theme. But I wish I had known the theme sooner because it would have saved me so much work.

What can help you understand the theme is Ted Dekker’s advice on writing a bestseller: What is the question about this world that is bothering you? When you set out to write a story, this story has to be your quest as well. It has to challenge you and answer a question in your own life.

This is your theme.

So don’t think about a topic that you can preach to readers. Think about a question that is bothering you and that you want to try and answer in your story on a deeper level.

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4. Create more than one villain

Many story writing books teach us about the hero and the villain. How to craft the perfect, strong and believable villain.

But one villain is not enough.

Your story has to have one main villain, the one your struggle begins and ends with. But he will never be enough to hold the reader’s attention and carry the story through the middle.

For this, you need at least three different villains that have both similarities and differences and challenge your hero on different levels.

This will make your story so much richer. In order how to draft the four-corner-opposition, see more here.

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5. Secondary characters are variations of the theme

I was only able to form my secondary characters into real people in the third draft because of a principle I failed to realize before.

There are many rules on how to create rich secondary characters, GMC amongst my favourites. Debra Dixon describes this method in her book, which in short means that every character who appears in your novel needs to have a goal, a motivation, and a conflict.

But one amazing technique is to make your secondary characters a variation of the theme. If your theme is “fear”, give those characters completely different approaches on how to cope with fear. If your theme is “romantic relationships” (f.e. in romantic comedies), all of your secondary characters need a different outlook and experience concerning relationships.

Amongst all those great techniques of how to craft them, make sure to give them at least a subtle hint of the theme to make your story and their part in it richer.

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6. The first draft is just one layer

Only when editing did I realize that with every draft, I added another layer to my story. The first draft is the first layer, and this can be both a liberating as well as a challenging thought.

Liberating because this means that your first draft is only a layer, and you can add or subtract as much as you like in all of the following drafts.

Challenging because at the same time, it’s the foundation you lay to your story, and a good foundation saves you time, headache and makes your story sustainable.

I thought: As soon as my first draft is ready, it’ll need a little tweaking here and there, but will basically hold the finished book in my hands.

Far from that.

Consider the first draft only the first layer of what is yet to come. Make sure you lay a firm foundation, but at the same time, don’t stress out about it needing to be perfect.

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7. Fall in love with your main character

In the middle of my first draft, I found myself unsympathetic to my hero, for one reason only: I did not really know him. I was not close to his heart.

Sometimes we get so lost in the technicalities of the craft that we forget to love our characters. Do you care for what happens to your hero? Do you care if he fails? Are you feeling his joy and his sorrow?

Because if you don’t, the reader won’t.

It might sound crazy, but you need to make the hero your friend. Spend time pondering on his motivations, his thoughts. You need to become fascinated with him. Find (or create) characteristics you admire, and if he hurts, make sure you hurt as well.

This process takes time, as every good friendship does, but it’s a time well invested because it will make you fall back in love with your story, and ensure that the readers will stick to it as well because of your characters.

Become fascinated with your hero. Click To Tweet

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8. Have an action plan and a deadline

Especially if you are self-publishing, it’s hard to set a deadline and stick to it. Consider your writing business.

Just recently, my online mentor Joanna Penn said in her podcast that one novel a year won’t ensure a full-time living. This scared me. It meant that I needed to write at least three novels a year, alas one novel in four months. How is this even possible?

The key is a solid action plan.

You need to write this plan before you set out writing your book, and you need to stick to it. However your daily life looks, create a realistic plan from the outlining up until the publishing date, and stick to it. Take your own deadlines seriously. Because if you won’t consider your writing a professional business, no one else will.

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9. WHY do you want to write? – Your mission statement & your book statement

Answer this question now, before you start writing.

The answer needs to be rock solid. It needs to take you through all the ups and downs of the creative process. It needs to get you through the darkest moments.

There can be many layers to the answer. But it needs to be more than money. Here are some of my reasons:
– I want a life where I can have financial freedom and time to do the things I love: write, work out, travel, be with my family, create.
– I want creative expression, evoking change in my readers by helping them, inspiring them and making them see life from another perspective.

Those are your mission statements. Before you set out for a writing or any other creative career, you need to craft those mission statements. Pin them to a board or anywhere else where you can read them when times become tough.

Then, you need to answer this question for your book specifically. Because every book is time-consuming and you will need an unshakable reason to stick to the idea. Test your story writing idea to the bones, honestly asking yourself: Is it really worth it? Do I like the idea enough to stick to it for months and invest all this labour? Be honest with yourself. Find the reasons why you love your concept and your idea. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to throw the idea overboard.

Both your mission statement as well as your book statement will help you get through the times when writing life is especially tough.

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10. Push, push, push!

So you know why you want to write? Good. Now, make it a habit.

The process of habit making often means that you need to push yourself in the beginning. You don’t feel like writing? It doesn’t matter. You think that all you are producing is pure rubbish? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you sit down to do the work.

This is why you need your action plan so desperately, the same way you need a workout plan. It frees you from the decision making. You look at your plan, and you do the work. Period.

Sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you’ll hate it. That’s how we humans are wired. The point is that you are doing the work no matter how you feel.

And you know what? Eventually, the emotions of satisfaction will become addictive. If you pushed yourself and met your daily deadline, you leave the desk with a feeling of satisfaction.

Don’t be afraid to write. Be afraid NOT to write.


Knowing and applying those principles would have spared me a lot of trouble. This is what I want to do for you.

Are you ready to set out on a new writing adventure? Because this is what your first draft really is. A yet unknown but exciting journey.

Don't be afraid to write. Be afraid NOT to write. Click To Tweet

4 setup & payoff techniques that will make your story unforgettable

A red car drives up, the mp3 player is turned on, playing Bellbottoms by THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION.

Four characters with dark sunglasses stare at each other. Three dismount and we are left with Baby Driver and his hilarious performance, before being swept away into one of the most extraordinary car chase scenes in movie history.

If you are one of those who hasn’t seen the Baby Driver 6-minute opening scene, stop and watch it now:

Curiously, this beautifully orchestrated action scene is not what makes the film. It’s the unexpected moments that make you sit at the edge of your seat for nearly 2 hours. Twists you would not anticipate.

The plot of Baby Driver is completely unpredictable. You are misled most of the time.

But why is the plot still believable and satisfying?

Let’s look at Edgar Wright’s 4 setup and payoff techniques that storytellers can learn a lot from.

ATTENTION! It’s nearly impossible to talk about payoffs without spoiling the film, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to watch it first, because there are spoilers ahead!
Still, you can read only the Takeaway sections for the practical lessons without risking any spoilers.

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1. Baby & the mentor

Doc promises Baby that this will be his last job to pay back his debts.
Somewhere close to the end of the first Act, he holds this promise, which is something you would not predict, and your gut feeling tells you that something is shady about it.

When later, Doc doesn’t keep his promise, the relationship between Baby and Doc takes a strange turn.
Baby quotes Monsters Inc., saying: “You and I are a team. Nothing is more important than our friendship.” But you don’t believe him because everything about the situation tells you that Baby is pressured to say those words. They sound ironic. Fake. What friendship could Baby even talk about if he is so inferior?

Only in the end, when Baby returns to ask Doc for help, we realize that he has been serious about it. He considers Doc his friend and vice versa. We are misled to consider doc the main opponent when in truth he is his best friend, a friend who even sacrifices his life.

How does this work?
The unlikely friendship is foreshadowed with this very quote, and as the quote is repeated later, it’s filled with a new meaning.

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Takeaway #1

How do you create a twist that is both unpredictable but probable? – Create an ambiguous relationship.

In archetypical forms, this is also called “The Shapeshifter”, a character who “serves the dramatic function of bringing doubt and suspense into the story” (Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey). The typical use includes a romantic interest that shifts from being a passionate lover to a hateful shrew or a villain who masks himself as a helper only to reveal his true nature.

But as it is “one of the most flexible archetypes”, try to find ways of using it in unusual ways. Edgar Wright turned it the other way round, shifting the villain to be the mentor.

To make the shift believable, you have to use at least one moment where it is foreshadowed. But make sure that in this very moment, your audience won’t fully understand the foreshadowing because of the circumstances or missing information. Only in the end, where the shift happens, can you reveal this moment in a different light and thus create the aha-experience.

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2. Baby and the bad guys

But who exactly is the villain of the story?
Edgar Wright combines different techniques.

The first technique we talked about before, where he turns the main villain into the mentor who sacrifices his life.

The second worst opponent is clearly Bats, a crazy criminal who from the first moment on targets Baby, unable to understand his kind nature and love for music. We think he will be our biggest problem when – Baby suddenly kills him right at the beginning of the third act!

This killing works so perfectly because it is set up by Baby constantly staring at the truck in front of him, contemplating. But Bats, the seemingly most threatening villain, wouldn’t die this fast, would he? What an unexpected twist!

Then, there is Buddy. Also a criminal, but he seems more like a friend. He tries to understand Baby, protect him and share his love for music. It is he who turns out to be the worst and main villain.

How does it work? Because on several prior occasions, Wright made clear how mad this guy can become if something ever happens to his beloved Darling. As soon as she is killed, he turns into a monster.

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Takeaway #2

Don’t make your story just about the conflict between good and evil, the hero and one villain. Instead, use the “4 corner opposition” described by John Truby in The Anatomy of Story.

Here is a great way it is explained in “Batman Begins”:

And while Nolan used one of the three opponents in every single act, Wright switched the role of the opponents in the third act completely.

Think of ways to create a strong 4 corner opposition for your story and bring in an unexpected twist.
While doing so, never forget the setup to make the twist believable. Make sure that you hint towards what could happen, as improbable as it might seem at first.

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3. The Ending

When Buddy, the most dangerous villain, is finally defeated in the climax of the story, and Baby wakes up on a beautiful country road, listening to a song with Debora, it seems like a fairytale ending. Except that it’s not.

Police block the road ahead, and instead of trying to escape yet again, Baby suddenly decides to surrender. This is also still not the ending.

Because now, it’s time for the last payoff. All those simple nice moments where Baby helped the people around him during the robberies – a lady he warned not to enter the building, another lady whose bag he returned and apologized – had a function beyond mere acts of kindness to show Baby’s character. They were all set-ups. All those people testified in court to defend Baby, thus enabling a mild penalty for him.

When he is finally paroled after five years in prison and is free to live his life, this makes for an even better, unexpected ending.

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Takeaway #3

This is one of the techniques that James Patterson explained in his class: in terms of ending, think about everything that could happen, and pick the most outrageous one that makes sense.

“Outrageous” meaning not what the audience would typically expect.

In order for it to still make sense, there has to be a setup. And the most beautiful setup moments are those not recognized as such because they serve more than one purpose.

Here, Wright used them to both reveal Baby’s character as well as set up the ending beautifully, placing bits and chunks throughout the story.

To add to the unexpected, make sure to mislead the audience, making them assume for a moment that this might be how the story could end before you throw in yet another twist.

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4. One great theme

Music. This is what connects all the dots of the story.

The music connects Baby and Debora, makes his character unique and special, it flows throughout the whole movie and is even traced back to his Ghost – the terrible accident where he lost his mother.

According to the stunt supervisor, the gunfights were the hardest to shoot, because every gunshot had to correspond to the music of the scene. Every step had to be on time, every line had to be the same.

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Takeaway #4

Find one theme to make your story special, and use it to the maximum.

We all have influences like Wright was influenced by “the Holy Trinity of 90s heist movies”: Heat, Point Break, and Reservoir Dogs. But he was not copying. Instead, he used elements of those movies and brought something unique to the table, combining heist movies with an extraordinary love for music. This is what original story writing ideas truly are: unusual combinations.

So whatever genre you are writing in – sci-fi, comedy, romance, thriller – and whoever your influences, make sure you always include an unexpected theme that makes your story differ from the others.


Baby Driver is a great piece of storytelling we can learn a lot from. Especially when it comes to the art of setup and payoff.

Here is a recap of the four techniques you can apply in your own story.

Visit movie theatres more often and watch the films mindfully, noticing what you can learn from the stories, whether bad or good. If you want to learn simple techniques that will take your movie watching skills to the next level, download this stylish exercise workbook. 

Hidden Content

How to write a bestseller by using the unfair advantage

You want to write a bestseller. Just admit it.

Don’t you put your hopes in every book, thinking: This might be it?

Don’t you yearn to crack the bestseller-code, discover that one formula that will get your books to the top?

I will let you down.

There is no formula.

If there was, everybody would write one. But wait! Don’t click away, disappointed with yet another useless article. There is one unfair advantage that bestselling authors have over others. And there is an unfair advantage over other writers I will give you right now on how to write a bestseller.

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How to write a bestseller by answering one question

There is one question that will reveal your book’s bestseller potential. The question is: Why? 

Why do you write your story? Have you ever thought about this?

Whether you start writing or aspiring to write a fiction or non-fiction book, have you ever stopped to wonder: Why?

You could answer the question in countless ways, all of them legitimate: self-expression, passion, life experience, a strong argument …

But is there a right answer to this question? An answer that could turn your book from average into a bestseller?
Ted Dekker calls this answer “the unfair advantage”, an advantage that will take you to the bestseller list.

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How to write a bestseller: the author’s journey

Dekker wrote his first two novels over the course of three years. He also rewrote both of them from scratch and got published two years and three novels later. His best work did not come to him right away.

He explains how he came to the realization of the “unfair advantage” and understood why the first versions of his two novels did not work and have been constantly rejected.

Now, he has written over 30 novels and sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

But what is his secret of success – this “unfair advantage” that apparently took him from writing average stories to climbing the bestseller list?

How to write a bestseller according to Ted Dekker

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The principle of transformational fiction

Dekker argues that every story we write has to be about two different kinds of transformation.

#1 The transformation inside the character

Your main character starts out with a question he needs answered, a goal and a quest.

By the end of your book, he or she cannot stay the same. A deep-seated change has to occur inside of him – his outlook on life, his character, his decisions – not just on the outside of his world.

This principle is not new. Everybody is talking about the character arc, but do we really understand it?

“We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.” – Robert McKee, Story

There is much to be considered when creating characters: goals, backstory, conflict, likeability, to name a few. It is easy to get lost in the details.

Transformation is a simple yet important principle to guide you. Your character’s outside transformation – his success or failure in reaching the goal – is the plot that forms the structure of your story. But beneath, there is another layer – the inner transformation. And both of them are neatly intertwined, even the same thing, as McKee puts it.

Your readers want their minds blown and their hearts touched while they embark on the journey with you. This can be accomplished by a clever plot, but the essence is still missing.

I never seem to remember movies like Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne in detail. Yes, there were some great action bits. A clever and surprising ending. But nothing stuck with me in the long run.

Bestsellers live from word of mouth. If you want your book recommended, your readers have to be invested with the characters even while they are not reading. They have to remember.

Inner transformation is the key. A shift of worldview. The fight of an inner wound and demon.

But this principle raises a tough question: How do you make the transformation real and believable without sounding preachy?

Dekker suggests an unusual solution.

A writer learns how to write a bestseller

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#2 The transformation inside of you

Let’s come back to the question we asked in the beginning: Why do you write this story?

There is a right answer. One that will set you free from the pressure of being published, pleasing everybody, even the pressure of writing a bestseller (ironically).

There is a second transformation that needs to take place in your story.

Yours.

You, the author, need to be transformed along with your own book.

Dekker always sets out to write his books with a problem he struggles with on a personal level. He dares to become very vulnerable in his stories. When he wrote “Water Walker”, he had an inner struggle on the issue of “healing”. While plotting and writing his book, he set out to find a solution; an answer for himself and his characters. He was transformed along with his characters.

You are the first reader of your book. The first one to live this adventure. The first one whose life might be changed along with the characters.

This is the key to authenticity, and ultimately, the way to write a bestseller. If you write to change your own life, the change will bleed onto the page.

Many authors refrain from a drastic transformation in their fiction because they are scared to sound preachy or intrusive. Think about McKee’s quote. True transformation is equal to story structure, so the only way to show authentic transformation is through action and plot. The underlying level to all of this is your own authentic quest for an answer.

Why do you write your story? To change your own life.

You will become the greatest beneficiary of your story. And the blood of your transformation that is captured on the pages will inevitably transform your reader.

How to write a bestseller according to Ted Dekker

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How to write a bestseller using the unfair advantage

I was challenged when I heard about this unfair advantage, asking myself about my own transformational journey while writing my novel.

As a writer, you do much more than putting words on paper. You are an adventurer, philosopher, and you need to be unafraid to experience the world, meet people, and confront the issues of life.

Ask uncomfortable questions. Be bold. Be vulnerable, and your readers will pick up on that.

If you write to change your own life, the change will bleed onto the page. Click To Tweet

What is your take on the unfair advantage? Let me know in the comments below.

14 lessons from James Patterson’s masterclass

James Patterson’s palms are sweating.

It’s the Edgar award ceremony of 1977, the most prestigious awards in the genre.

The winner of the ‘best first mystery’ is about to be announced.

Patterson knows who is going to win. But up until his name resounds, he cannot believe it.

He walks up the stage with hesitant steps, and as he finally holds the award for a book that has been prior rejected by 31 publishers, he says:
“I guess I’m a writer now.”

James Patterson is an author whose books have sold more than 300 million copies. The first author to sell 1 million e-books, write 114 New York Times bestselling novels and hold The New York Times record for most #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author, a total of 67, which is also a Guinness World Record.

But he also had to face rejection and insecurity.

I took James Patterson’s Masterclass and summed it up to 14 valuable lessons authors can learn from his knowledge of the craft and his method of story writing.

In the videos, James came across as a grounded person. Straightforward, warm. Family always comes first for him, the relationships at home have priority. The positive change has to start with your house, he argues. His proudest accomplishment yet is his son.

“I find things that I like, and I do them.” – James Patterson

There is one thing he knows: How to write a bestseller.

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1. There are no new ideas

Essentially, completely new story writing ideas are rare or non-existent.

What we perceive as new ideas are new connections between different ideas that we have at some point seen or heard.

This means that instead, our mind combines the knowledge that nobody had combined before.

Take the film “Alien”. Do you know how it was pitched? As “Jaws in space”.

This means, the author had a certain love for “Jaws” or monster movies in general and some knowledge of spaceships and decided: why not combine it?

This is why Patterson argues: you need to increase your knowledge. If you have never seen certain movies, documentaries, read books on different ideas. Use travelling as a writer to places and learned of their history – how will you be able to combine lots of interesting topics into a new one?

Creativity originates when we learn about lots and lots of new things. We need to “have a big universe of stimulation”.

The more you know, the more you are likely to combine things into new ideas that are striking.

Have a big universe of stimulation. Click To Tweet

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2. Everything needs to be in the outline

Before James Patterson sets out to write the first draft, he writes a very detailed and plotted outline.

Everything has to be in it: the character arcs, the villain, the set-ups and payoffs. He writes and rewrites his outline until he is happy with it.

Only then does he begin to write the actual book. In fact, Patterson considers the outline to be the book already. He aims for people to read it and say: What a terrific story! It should have tons of promise. The reader should go: I can’t wait to read the scenes! And you, the writer, will go: I can’t wait to write these chapters!

This makes the first draft a whole less daunting. You only face the blank page once – before outlining. Which is not very scary.

So for James Patterson, the outline is what makes the book. On the other hand, he states that during the course of the first draft and editing, it never stays the same with his books. Still, you should be able to read the outline and go: I get this book!

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3. Freight train through the first draft

The next step for Patterson: sprint through the first draft.

Allow yourself to write badly, do not review or rewrite. As hard as it may be: Shut down the inner critic.

Also, give yourself permission to write TBD (to be done) on those scenes that frustrate you and you just can’t seem to get through. Skip them! Don’t torture yourself.

With some scenes, Patterson has TBD on them for several drafts until he finally gets them and is ready to write them out.

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4. Just tell the story

Such a simple and powerful weapon: Just tell the damn story.

Don’t think about the sentences. Actually, don’t even write sentences. Write a story.

Writers often tend to get obsessed with language, pace, style. But the story puts all of it in perspective. Tell your story, and the rest will follow suit if you do it right.

Keep writing as though it was a movie in your head. Scene after scene after scene.

Just tell the story. Click To Tweet

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5. Try to write every chapter as if it was the first

The first chapters always get a lot of attention. Which is not wrong, because they decide whether the readers abandon our book.

But James Patterson urges to write every chapter as if it was the first one.

Give every chapter value. Put a lot of attention to it. Make it count.

Don’t write a chapter that doesn’t propel the story. Everything you write has to move the story forward. Delete everything that readers would skip.

James Patterson encourages writers to not just set out to write a good story but set out to write a number 1 story.

Another interesting hack: If you’re smart, make the reader a woman. Women buy 70% of Patterson’s books.

Don't set out to write a good story, set out to write a #1 story. Click To Tweet

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6. Put notes to yourself all the time

Patterson always writes notes to himself.

Not just negative notes and critique. He writes helpful notes, those that encourage and motivate, things he liked about his writing, scenes that he nailed.

But also those moments that need to be done in particular scenes, things that need to be changed and rewritten, added or deleted.

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7. Learn to concentrate

Focus. You need to learn how to focus in every situation, on every occasion. This way, you will be a prolific author. You can use your focus skills to write in every situation, and use the time given to you: in airplanes, trains, busy cafés.

You need to be able to concentrate on your story writing. In a world where distraction is waiting on every corner, this is a skill we need to practice.

Concentration is essential in order to get into your story. You cannot write and watch a movie at the same time. Instead, you need to get into the scene, be aware of the character, and get into the flow of writing.

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8. Write complex characters

When you write characters, you need to evoke feelings. Make the readers feel. You need to get the emotional part of the character right, make the readers like them, love them, and this will get you over the bumps in the specific story details that sometimes might be inaccurate.

Put yourself into the situation. You need to BE in that scene:
How do your characters see the world? You need to capture the complexity of the moments, their thoughts, their doubts.

Never make your characters flat or predictable. Show other sides of them. Make them round. A boxer might be ruthless when in the ring, but how is he when his daughter hugs him good night?

For the readers to never forget your characters, you need to create an intimate relationship. Make them know your characters, from the inside out.

Villains need to be clever and surprising. If the reader goes: “I didn’t see that coming.”, then it’s a good thing.

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9. Everything you write should be moving the story and the sense of the character forward

Whatever you write in your story, dialogue, descriptions, action, it needs to move your story forward.

Every chapter should move the characterization and the story towards the climax because your writing is about story. If it isn’t, cut it out.

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10. Have a movie projector in your head

You need to see, smell and be in the scene. Like a movie projector that you turn on every time you write. See it in front of your inner eye.

This is where the POV also comes in handy. Think about which POV would make the scene most interesting? What’s the best POV? What will make it come alive the best?

Use the senses to make the scene vibrant. Use sound. Also, always know what you want to happen emotionally in your scene or chapter.

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11. Know your genre and what’s out there to avoid it

Writers should be readers.

Especially if you write genre, you need to know it. Not to imitate though. But to avoid it. To avoid writing something that’s already out there. To avoid repeating the mistakes others have made.

Instead, introduce something fresh and new, something that has not been written yet.

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12. Give away your secret in pieces

Set up your story with questions that the reader MUST have answered. He just has to know.

But never make the outcome predictable! If your reader can predict it, he will feel disappointed, mocked.
Write in twists. Always stay open and try out things in your outline, things you wouldn’t have thought of in the beginning.

Keep thinking the unthinkable. Think about it, maybe don’t write it just now. But then once in a while, allow it.

Give the notion: Don’t assume anyone is safe. Everyone can be the target.

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Set up your story with questions that the reader MUST have answered Click To Tweet

13. It’s a cat & mouse game

The ending has to be properly set up. Hints need to be placed everywhere. It should be an “aha” moment. But never give away hints that make the readers see the ending coming. Mislead them.
Be really aware of what you’re doing and how it affects the reader.

This is a cat & mouse game: Imagine sitting opposite your reader and not wanting them to get up before the ending. You have to be a better player than they are. You have to outwit them.

For the ending: Write down everything that could possibly happen. Then pick the most outrageous one of them that makes sense. The most outrageous one will be the best one.

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14. Everything communicates

After your first draft, you should delete everything that is not on point. Even if you like it. Especially your dialogue will need an edit.

Break the edit down into parts and try to conquer one part at a time. Otherwise, it’s too overwhelming.

While editing, don’t allow yourself to think that you’re making mistakes because you have to keep fixing things. That’s how it works. And it’s good that you polish your writing.

Everything you write communicates to the reader.

Descriptions. Words. They will make a mental note and wait for a payoff. They’ll think that you included it for a reason.

You are the god of your universe, and the reader tries to make sense of that universe – so you better give it meaning.

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You and the reader

I love this picture of me and the reader sitting in a room, playing the cat & mouse game. Of me trying to outwit him, to hook him, mislead and wow him.

It puts story writing into a whole new perspective: with the reader in mind. This notion forces me to also think about my ideal reader. For some, it may be a child, for others a woman, a teenager, or a mystery fan.

With James Patterson, novel writing suddenly becomes more than just self-expression. In fact, it seems that he always has the reader in mind when he starts writing. Might this be the secret to writing bestsellers?

In our distraction-filled world, it’s a challenge to hold the reader’s attention for several hundred pages. And whilst there are things we cannot control – a call, children coming home, water boiling – the challenge is to make our novels flow in a distraction-free way (no logical gaps, confusion, misconceptions), always pushing those questions that the reader just must have answered.