The Part & Parceled Writer

The many teachable pieces of fiction

In this installment of the Greater Than series, we’re going to talk about the “parts” in the Aristotle quote:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

To be able gain clarity on what makes a great writer, we’ll first look at the definable pieces, and that will hopefully lend us insight on the more abstract ones. As you go through this list, you’ll probably realize that you’ve seen articles on all these topics before. That’s because these are the pieces of writership that are easily transferable. We can talk about these things in concrete terms, sometimes even laying them out step-by-step.

These parts come in four layers, though every layer is activated at any given moment as stories are like living things that converge and then melt and shape-shift. In other words, this is not a checklist, but an overview of the bases you should cover first.

Gather

In this beginning phase, you are getting a good view of the market you want to write in by reading a whole lot, in multiple genres. Reading great writers is how we get an comprehensive idea of what it is we’d like to write. It’s also how we establish the expectation gap. (That is, the level of expectation you have for what good writing looks like, and the gap you have to close to reach it.)

Gain genre trope insight.

A trope is a common element found in a subgenre. Space stories often involve pirates, aliens, and black holes. Medieval fantasies often involve wizards, dragons, and elves. By reading specific subgenres, you start to narrow in on what the general expectations are for that category of story.

This is akin to learning the rules of genre, with the intention of breaking them later. You have to understand what people expect in order to surprise them. That surprise factor is how you’re going to come across as punchy and inventive.

Read famous works.

Along the same lines, but for different reasons, you should read famous works close to your chosen genre. Often, these books are not up to current trends, but were trend-setters in their time. You’re not reading these to gain insight into how to shock and awe, but into the pillars of your genre’s foundation.

Additionally, these books will have stood the test of time because they’re good writing. You must read well-written books. If all the books you read exist at a lower par than the classics, your expectation gap will be skewed.

Study your chosen topics.

Alongside all that other reading, you’ll want to read into the topics you’re drawn to. Plot and characters will be one side of your story, but there’s very often another specialty present in sci-fi and fantasy. Worldbuilding tends to center on a deep interest of the writer’s–be it advanced tech, the nature of time, war and politics, anthropology, physics, or folklore.

Taking the time be a quasi-expert in something you know will be heavily present in your work is only going to make your story more nuanced.

Keep an idea notebook.

Ideas are like butterflies. They float in all graceful and lovely but when you reach out to try and grasp it, they flit away like they were made of only color. Keeping a small notebook or digital note app on you at all times gives you a fighting change in capturing these ideas. Else, you get home two hours later and try to remember the pattern of the wings and you just can’t. It’s gone.

When the idea well dries up, as it occasionally does, you have a nice repertoire to retune to. It’s also handy when a singular idea is neat, but isn’t quite it. Plucking a second idea and combining it with the first will often yield some pretty cool results.

As you keep the journal over time, you’ll be able to look back and see the way your idea inspiration changes according to how deeply you understand story. You’ll realize your early ideas were actually more like half-ideas, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much your craft control has grown.

Plan

All the things you did in the gather phase will fuel your planning phase. Gathering is what fills your creative reservoirs. Planning then, is taking all that wild creative energy and harvesting into workable forms. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, making the planning phase one of fluidity, spontaneity, and occasionally frustration.

Nonetheless, it’s an incredibly important part of the process. The very foundation, even, which is where we’ll begin.

Create a sturdy foundation.

Taking the time to get organized ahead of time is often either overlooked or over-managed. It’s healthy to make it a ritual that you get in touch with on a regular basis. But it’s not something you need to go overboard on because sometimes the act of getting organized can feel like productivity, when it’s really just the precursor to productivity.

Being clear on your schedule allows you to be clear on your efforts. Know what part of the day you’ve set aside, and know which tasks need to be completed in which times frames. Drafting and editing is a grueling process so the more certain your goals, organization, and time management are, the better change you have of seeing the story through to its completion.

Fortunately, Rebecca specializes in exactly this subject. Check out her guide The Foundation. It will help you look at your week on a map and determine a projected completion date for your manuscript.

Develop multi-faceted characters.

Creating character is an in-depth process because they need to be as multi-dimensional as real people. That means flaws. Lots of flaws. That also means side characters who exist for more than main character support. It means a believable antagonist who has their own motive beyond just being an evil-doer.

The antagonist is a conniving force that has to push hard against the main hero. I’ve written a post called The Bad Guy on developing a bad guy who is just as fleshed out as your good guy. It makes a story that much better.

But for your main character, we’ve put together a set of worksheets that look deep into who your character is. (Far deeper than many of the common worksheets you see that ask you their favorite food.) With these Character Development Worksheets you’ll define your MC’s past, beliefs, motives, and what internal changes need to incur for maximum impact.

Structure a plot that stands on its own.

This is a tough one. There’s a lot of advice out there for how to best build a functional plot. A lot of is incomplete, too. Many plot instructionals are helpful only to a point and leave you with an outline that’s only partially formed.

One trick we learned is very helpful when you’re in the early stages of creating a plot is to write a short synopsis of what you know. Using these Three Sentences will whittle down your huge, unruly idea into sections that show you succinctly how the story will progress.

Our prized product, though, is really our Building a Story Workbook. It’s the product of hundreds of hours of research and coaching. Our aim was to create something that would genuinely lead writers into an outline that was so comprehensive it would serve as a blueprint to the final work. We use this process with all our current clients and it has yet to fail us.

Execute.

Draft ruthlessly.

Drafting is where the rubber meets the road. It will challenge your willpower. And your confidence. It’s the kind of thing, I think, that the less you stew about it the better. Just do it.

When you begin, don’t let anything stop you. Write swiftly and with full commitment. You want to maintain a consistent drafting pace because if you let something interrupt you, it will cost time and mental energy figuring out where you were again in the story and what you were doing. If you write the story as a unified piece, it will read like one.

Your skills come into play here, obviously, but this is also a test of that planning foundation we talked about earlier, sheer discipline, and focus.

Use narrative elements effectively.

Along with plot and character, you will also balance narrative elements during the drafting process. These are things like action, dialogue, description, tension, pacing, and tone. Once again, your gathering stages will have cemented a good notion of how these should be used. Tension, pacing, and tone can trip people up, however, so we’ll go over them briefly.

Action and dialogue are where your prose will be centered. These are the things that move a book along. Description is sort of a support aspect that crops up when necessary and to break up the routine and instill color in your reader’s imagination.

Tension is how tightly you hold the risk your character is in at any given moment. Tension can be that they’re late and can’t find their keys, that they’re in an argument debating on telling the truth, or that they’re literally in the dragon’s mouth, their sword slippery with saliva. Tension needs to wax and wane. Too much can desensitize the reader.

Pacing is the pace at which you pass through the plot. When you take a half page to elaborate on backstory or describe the setting, you slow the pace down. When characters are acting at a clip and progressing—for better or for worse—the pace picks up. Sounds obvious but it can be tricky. A proper outline can ensure your pacing is even and picks up in all the right places. Our workbook, referenced above, is designed to do this.

Tone is sort of the flavor of a scene. Is it dreary? Somber? Euphoric? It’s ensuring the scene around the character matches what’s going on in the struggle, whether internal or external. If you handle the above elements properly, the tone will often take care of itself.

Work deeply.

Cultivating discipline, focus, and stamina is a big part of being a writer. That’s why writers are always portrayed in solitude, scrunching their face up as they strain over their text. It’s not glamorous. But it will generate personal growth.

You’ve probably heard stories of people who had to write their books 500 words at a time or during the hour their kids napped. Sometimes that’s what we have to do and the only thing that really matters is that the draft gets done.

But as you mature in your writing abilities and needs, it becomes critical to be able to block off time where you can go deep within and find flow state. That means no distractions—no email, no phone, no knocks on the door. This is difficult to achieve in our stimulating and overly busy world, but if you can manage a string of Do Not Disturb hours, it will pay you back two-fold in the quality and drive of your writing.

Fulfill

By this phase, you’ve completed the story itself and are ready to move on to bigger things. This is an area that gets a lot of attention because how your book does professionally will impact your overall career. For that reason, we’ve written extensively on these subjects and have a good number of resources to provide.

Editing.

When you’ve completed your draft, you will of course do a self-editing pass, tidying up the things you catch on your own. But never underestimate the power of a fresh set of eyes. You know everything about your story, so to you, it seems like it’s all coming across and working out. I guarantee you an editor who’s not you will pick out things you didn’t even consider.

There are various types of editing. Developmental Editing takes a broad scope and works out major flaws. While a Line Edit zooms in and focuses on your line work and language issues.

Publishing.

This can include both querying agents and going to indie publishing route. Both are wrought with their own pros and cons and you should do broad research before deciding which his best for you.

Rebecca has written The Ultimate Self-Publishing Guide for those of you looking for a crash course on how to do that.

Our Bonus Resource Pack contains write-ups on writing a pitch and choosing an agent, but also on cover design and blogging.

Marketing.

Marketing is an ongoing task that’s really never done. It starts with a website, complimented by some social accounts, and topped with book signings and convention appearances. Here are four excellent articles to get you started:

Notice the layers we followed were on a path from the ambiguous to the tangible. Gather is a phase that’s almost cloud-like, barely existing but in whisps. Planning is making a strong attempt at wrangling that whispy vigor. Executing is when we put a plan in action and make something that exists in the world along with us. Fulfill, then, is the phase where we go business professional (pretending like we knew what we were doing all along) and try to give the story life in imaginations other than our own.

With that, your story becomes part of someone else’s gather phase and the cycle starts anew with another writer. You become an integral part of the cultural melting pot that is literature.

In the next issue of the Greater Than series, I will talk about how to begin bringing all these parts together into one skill so vast it becomes more of a lifestyle. Stay tuned for: The Holistic Writer.

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