The method of John Irving

Through iTunes U, I watched a brief lecture given by John Irving where he talks about knowing the ending of his books before he begins them. Something about that talk inspired me to take a new approach to how I write my stories, and after using this approach to crank out a short story in two days, it has proven to be amazingly effective. I feel stupid not having used it before, it’s that simple.

Elevator Speech

In a single paragraph, write what the story is about. This paragraph is called the High Concept. This kind of text could easily go on the back cover of the paperback novel or even as a teaser on the DVD jacket when your story is optioned by Steven Spielberg and goes blockbuster. It’s also referred to as an Elevator Speech and for good reason.

Let’s say you are standing on the ground floor of a New York skyscraper, waiting for an elevator to the top floor. Standing next to you is some guy in a tailored business suit. The two of you begin idle chit chat and at some point you mention you are writing a novel. As the elevator doors open and you both step inside, the guy says, “What’s your book about?”

You must convey the gist of your story in the amount of time it takes the elevator to reach the top floor in a way that makes the guy in the tailored business suit — who just happens to be the CEO of Random House — want to write you a six-figure advance check on that book plus sign a contract for your next four novels.

Create Character Bios

I create simple biographies for each of my main characters. These bios are usually 1-3 paragraphs long, depending on how important that character is to the story. Each bio will contain a brief description of the character’s physical appearance followed by any details germane to the story.

Plot Event List

Once you have decided upon the overall plot of your book and written it out in the form of an Elevator Speech, you must then figure out what actually happens in your story. This is the fastest part of the process. With a blank sheet of paper or document on your computer, write out a series of short, simple sentences, one per line, that describe the chronological events or scenes that take place. Try to keep each sentence short enough that it fits onto a single line. Brief is good. Don’t worry too much about the actual order of the events because you can rearrange them later if necessary. Here’s an example:

  • Alice meets John while standing in line at the coffee shop.
  • John takes Alice out to dinner.
  • Alice and John wreck their car while driving home.
  • John wakes up a month later in the hospital, confused.
  • A nurse tells John that Alice was killed in the car wreck.
  • John’s doctors discuss his prognosis.
  • John is told he’ll never walk again.
  • John thinks he sees Alice standing in his room.
  • Alice’s ghost visits John during his rehabilitation.
  • etc.

You get the point. Each sentence represents a single scene in your story.

Create characters and scenes in Scrivener

I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. It is a fantastic writing tool and it’s ability to help me stay organized really jumps my writing effort ahead. Part of Scrivener’s usefulness is it’s ability to help keep my story research organized and at easy reach. One way I do this is create character bios in Scrivener. As I’m writing, I can reference these notes with a single click, then jump back to my story, all within the same program.

I then create empty text blocks called scenes and then arrange them in any order I wish with a simple drag-n-drop operation. I can organize them into chapters, too. Using my plot event list, I create a new scene within Scrivener for each line on my plot event list. I use the scene description to label the scenes within Scrivener, so I can tell at a glance which scene I want to work on.

Write out each scene

Once I have created a scene for each item in my plot event list, I can now write the text for each one in any order I choose. Because I’ve broken down my entire story into manageable, discrete chunks, it’s very easy for me to focus my mind on the creative task at hand without worrying about plot holes and other details.

The plot event list is like framing a house. All the dimensions and layout of the rooms is decided here. Writing out each scene is like putting in the floors, drywall, fixtures, and even the furniture, one room at a time. Since the room itself is already defined, I can focus and flesh it out completely. Since all the other rooms have also been framed, I don’t have to worry about how this room will fit into the overall structure.

Mental Benefit

Since writing a novel is a very large undertaking (described as eating an elephant one spoonful at a time) this approach breaks it into manageable chunks. This helps my brain work more efficiently. I start with the high concept first, followed by brief descriptions of my main characters. Next, I create simple descriptions of scenes and key events in the story. This is an entirely creative process and it goes rather quickly. Finally, I flesh out each scene. Since I’m only having to creatively focus on one scene at a time, I don’t have writer’s block caused by feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the overall effort. It’s like walking around the world but only thinking about the journey 100 yards at a time, yet knowing you’ll reach your final destination because you have the entire route planned in advance.

How do mystery writers compose and solve their crimes?

I am starting on a new writing effort, this time it’s a series of short stories about two brothers that solve crimes. One is free and easy and very creative while the other is analytical, left-brained, literal, and very socially awkward. They sort of dove-tail their skills and perspectives into a unique relationship that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Since it is their mission to solve crimes, as a writer I need to create those crimes. Therein lies the problem. I’ve never written a crime story. Ever. I love shows like CSI and Criminal Minds and have always wondered how the writers contrive their stories. Do they concoct the crime first and then figure out how the good guys solve it? Or do they focus entirely upon the good guys and unravel the mysteries of the crime as it unfolds without any internal prior knowledge of how the dastardly deed was perpetrated?

To Astoria the gnarly way

There are usually several ways to get from Point A to Point B. As my readers should know by now, I seldom use the shortest-distance-is-a-straight-line route. Sunday was no exception.

Here’s the route I took on Google Maps.

I met my buddy, Brutus, at a gas station in Beaverton at 9:30. We chatted for a bit and discussed his new bike, a 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 250, as well as his day-glo jacket and pants which has earned him the unofficial nickname, “The Noticeable One.” We then headed west on Highway 26 before cutting southwest onto Highway 6. A few miles later we turned north on Timber Road. The surface is in fantastic shape and the curves are plenty and offer a nice variety. There are a lot of driveways to farms and plenty of woods, so critters and slow locals are to be watched for. We had to stop for a dog and a cat in the roadway less than a half-mile from each other.

We soon reached the creepy town of Vernonia. I’m sure it’s a great place to live, but every time I’ve been there I have felt like I was in a Stephen King novel. It’s hard to describe but many others I know have felt the same way when visiting the town. Regardless, we were soon through the town and on our way on Highway 47 north, then onto 202 west.

Highway 202 cuts through the northern Oregon coast range and is definitely not a main thoroughfare. It goes through the community of Jewell and its famous elk viewing areas (no elk for us, sadly). The road is narrow and winding and really taxes the rider due to its rough condition. The far west end has seen some repaving but the rest really puts your shocks to work. Riding my V-Strom on 202 is not much of an issue because it can handle the rougher ride, but by the time I went to Astoria and back on my GSX-R750, my back and wrists were starting to complain.

Brutus and I gassed up and ate lunch at the Dairy Queen in Astoria before going our separate ways back home. He headed south on 101 to Seaside where he caught Highway 26 for a straight shot east to his home in Beaverton. I backtracked on 202 to where it met rural highway 103 south. I had never been on this road, so I took the turn and followed it to its junction with Highway 26, busy with weekenders heading back to the city from their visit to the coast. 103 was a delight, with great curves, scenery, and road surface. It was all too short, though.

Back on Highway 26, I resigned myself to freeway riding for the rest of the trip home. I made it through the city and out onto the east side route on I-84 before getting home 265 miles later. I was exhausted but happy.