Some Key Lessons from the 10-Month Novel & Script First Draft Process
Writing a successful novel or screenplay that resonates with readers doesn't happen by accident. It is an art and a craft that takes time to master. As John Tullius, author and founder of the Maui Writers' Conference, said, "I don't care how talented you are. It's not about contacting your muse. Success comes from taking the time to learn the craft."
There are many different facets that go into the process of completing a story. Broadly speaking, they are - planning, writing, re-writing and editing. One mistake many aspiring writers make when starting out is that they mix the tasks up and find it very hard to move forward to completion.
One key thing, that makes a huge difference when it comes to writing your story is to have a step-by-step process to follow.
As Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer says, "Faculty lies in knowing what to do next. To know what to do next, you must master process ... an ordered step-by-step presentation of materials that presses emotional buttons in your reader, so he feels the way you want him to feel."
Over sixty percent of the writers who do the course, come in without a clear idea of the story they want to write. By following the process and doing the work, the story they truly want to write emerges.
For those who already have a story idea, the step by step process forces them to dig deep and flesh out the initial idea so by the end of the process they have a completed first draft. They are always very pleased with how far the story evolves and develops over the ten months.
Below are some elements we recommend you consider if you want to write the best story you are capable of writing.
1. The Importance of Structure
A story based on classic story structure is one where you have readers wanting to know what happens next, while taking your main character on an emotional and spiritual journey of change.
The events of a well-structured story link the external and internal journey of your main character, thus creating a meaningful experience for your reader. It is the story structure that gives your story emotional depth and deeper meaning.
Academy Award winning screenwriter, Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, refers to screenplays as "machines designed to produce emotion."
According to Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, "The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressure that forces characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to their unconscious self."
It is structure which gives your story shape and meaning, takes your reader on an an emotional journey and keeps them turning the pages.
He goes on to say, “You might have the insights of Buddha, but if you can’t tell a story, your ideas will be as dry as dust. Craft is the sum total of all means used to draw the audience into deep involvement, to hold that involvement and ultimately reward it with a moving and meaningful experience."
The writer and creator of The Wire, David Simon, worked as a journalist for many years at the Baltimore Sun trying to get his stories in the paper about what was going on in the city. It’s racial problems, drug problems, crime, corrupt institutions etc and no one, not even the editorial writers, would take any notice. That is, until he turned the stories into a fictional TV series. Suddenly everyone took notice.
“The process of writing a first draft has been a revelation to me, full of many "ah ha" moments. While I am still sometimes too self-critical and hard on myself, I and my character have both learned to let go and trust.” Claire
“Writing a novel is no longer a daunting, unattainable thing. It is built on a flexible formula that anyone can use. I’m astounded! A major in creative writing at university never taught me these universal ingredients that underpin every great story. Thank you!” Beth
"My story is alive now, I feel and know my characters … I can see clearly that structure and the flow and rhythm between action and emotion is what counts." Josh
2. You Need a Process
Writing a well-structured novel or screenplay doesn't just come about from having a good idea or being a good writer.
As Dwight Swain wrote in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
“Four boys in Fred Friggenhelmer's town last night stole a chalice from a church. Caught, they reveal they'd been reading up on Satan and wanted to evoke Satan. Fred reads about the incident in his morning paper. It intrigues him.
"Here," he tells himself excitedly, "is a story!"
Fred is wrong. The theft is an incident. With skilled handling and the development of point of view and dynamic character and complications, climax and resolution, it may quite possibly build into a story. But for now it remains an incident and nothing more. A story is a complex thing. Its material demands skill in their manipulation.”
Coming up with the idea or feeling for a story is really only the starting point.
"As Pasteur once observed," Swain said, "chance favours the trained mind. Feelings tell you what to say. Technique gives you the tools with which to say it."
To write the best story you are capable of writing, you need a step-by-step process that guides your story and keeps you accountable.
You cannot judge the quality of your story until you have followed the process through to the end.
Understanding that writing a story is a process is a huge step forward for any writer as these two other writers who completed our first draft course explain.
"To allow the story to emerge with creativity, spontaneity and "juice" you have to surrender to the process. Creativity walks through the doorway of the formal story step process." Gilbert
"I've had a ton of new ideas, both from myself and others. I've learnt more and more about structure and I'm not freaking out about it anymore. I've also gotten more depth with my characters, their flaws, their motivations, their hopes and dreams. They have ceased being names on a page or thoughts in my head, instead becoming real flesh and blood people in a real, moving, living world. It's been almost been like magic, which I find ironic since I'm writing fantasy." Kelly
3. An Act of Discovery
Writing a novel or a screenplay is an act of discovery where you take yourself, your main character and ultimately your reader on a journey of discovery. A first draft is about discovering your story and developing your characters.
This is what J. R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings wrote in a letter to W. H. Auden on 7th June 1955.
"I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never before been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there.
Far away I knew there were the Horselords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf's failure to appear on September 22."
We believe that writing a novel or screenplay requires a dance between structure and imagination.
By following the process one step at a time, you discover the true depth of your story and your characters. Participants are always amazed about how much their stories and those of their classmates improve dramatically over the 10 months.
“The past 10 months has been full of surprises, learning, new skills and digging deep within myself to uncover the best story I am capable of writing. The way the course is structured allows plenty of opportunities to explore the possibilities of the story. The feedback and guidance proved to be worth its weight in gold. I’m more, committed, disciplined and determined than I thought I could be.” Rebecca
“I’ve learned so much during this course – about story structure, about my character, about myself. When I came in I had no idea what I wanted to write but a strong sense of what was important to me. This course has helped me harness this, drawing out a strong character, with a strong desire and some daunting obstacles to overcome.” Rowan
4. The Dance Between Structure and Imagination
If you have completed our Four Week Unlocking Creativity introductory writing course which is the first step in the process, you will appreciate the power of your imagination, which we believe is the true source of creativity.
It is the source of many of your story ideas and gives your writing that quality that makes readers want to read what you have written.
However, if you just fly by the seat of your pants without a process or an understanding of story structure, your novel or screenplay will wander all over the place and have no meaningful shape or direction.
If you plan too rigidly, your story will go dry and flat. By following a step by step process, you set up dance between the left and right sides of your brain, enabling you to access the power of your imagination while grounding your novel or screenplay in solid story structure.
Author Tina Howe said, “I think the cruelty of the form is that to write a good play the architecture has to be impeccable. The form demands rigour and a sense of structure. But then the cruel part is that for a play to live you have to surrender control and let your characters go. It’s a constant balancing act. The structure has to be right, but you have to leave room for spontaneity, mystery and silence. As territorial as we are it is important to be challenged.”
Good structure stimulates your imagination and produces magical results if you complete the journey.
“When forced to work within a strict framework," said T.S. Elliot, "the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”
Your imagination informs the structure of your story and vice versa. This back and forth between the two produces magical results, enabling you to come up with story ideas that you never would have thought possible.
Once you learn to trust the dance between structure and imagination, you will be surprised by what emerges. As these two writers discovered while writing their stories with us.
"What at first sounded like a total contradiction actually made complete sense by the end; it made everything fall into place. The joy of not knowing what will appear next in the story and seeing new characters reveal themselves makes facing that blank page worth it.” Satyam
5. The Fun of It
Writing your first draft should be a profoundly enjoyable experience and the act of writing becomes its own reward. Kathleen and I always aim to make all our courses great fun. Elmore Leonard, the great crime writer, said he only started getting anywhere when he started having fun.
"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates or making friends. In the end it is about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life as well. It's about getting up, getting well and getting over.
"Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Much of this book - perhaps too much - has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it is about how you can do it better. The rest of it - and perhaps the best of it - is a permissionship: you can, you should and if you're brave enough to start, you will.
"Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. So drink. Drink and be filled up." Stephen King
We believe that if writing is your thing, the process of writing your story will enrich your life.
"This journey has been profound, life changing. I love being part of a group that has the same passion for writing that I do. I feel like I belong and can be me. This course has challenged me more than anything else I have ever done, apart from having children, in a safe and nurturing environment. Thank you.” Sarah
6. One Step at a Time
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day.We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.
Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
A Note About Our Courses
The importance of imagination and intuition in the storytelling process is why we make the 4-Week Unlocking Creativity Course a prerequisite for our 10-Month Novel and Script First Draft Course. (If you book straight into the longer course, Unlocking Creativity is free.)
Unlocking Creativity enables writers to experience the power of their imagination, which we believe is the true source of creative power, an essential ingredient of the first draft course.
Further Course Reflections
This photo is from one of our end-of-course dinners that we hold at the end of our 10-Month Novel and Script Live course. Everyone is on a real high after completing the first draft of their story. It is a huge achievement and everyone cannot believe how far they have come on this profound journey.
“I’ve had this concept for a novel rattling around in my head for 10 years, but have never got far past Chapter 3. This course is the first time I’ve had the focus and shown a structure that has propelled my story idea into a fully-fledged first draft, revealing to me along the way not only what my story is about, but also how to build a creative connection between the story and the structure and the value of melding both the creative process and the story architecture upon which it rests. The result, a story infused with life, excitement and energy.” Clare
“The course has been amazing. It has transformed what seemed like an impossibly enormous dream into manageable, exciting, challenging steps. It has taught me that as a writer and as a person we can only focus on what is in front of us. The art of writing has brought my life to life. It has become the favourite part of my everyday. I see my story weaving in and out of my own daily life. It's like being between two worlds which often collide on the page.” Erin
“This course has given me joy and a goal to strive for. This course unlocked my creativity and kept me open to possibilities for my main character that one year ago, I would not have thought possible. I am excited and amazed by the outline of my First Draft. Thanks Roland and Kathleen for encouraging me to continue…” Susan
“When I started this course I knew I was captivated by the power of a handful of words to reveal a truth that speaks. I had a few snatches of story but I had no idea how to assemble them together to create something more durable, more sustaining than just a snapshot of a moment. And I had no notion of the power in generating more and more moments so they existed as a whole. And yet here I am, 10 months later with a first draft that hopefully catches those glimmering moments and also gives them a bigger meaning and a longer life.” Michael
“Over this 10 month period I’ve learnt about the value of daily “micro-efforts” and what devoting tiny increments of time can amount to. I’ve learnt that no-one’s first novel draft comes out as a living, breathing, fully-formed worked of art. Daily effort and perseverance and wanting it badly enough is the only way. I’m astonished to think of everything I have down on paper now – the sheer breadth of it all. I’ll never look at time the same way again, knowing what you can do with 15 minutes a day, (nearly) every day, for 10 months. But even more important than the end product, is discovering how rewarding that daily effort is when you let go of the need to make things perfect. Thank you – it’s been amazing” Emma