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.

The value of a handwritten journal

Motorcycling became a big part of my life back in October 2006. I took a class, got my license, and purchased a used 250 cc Honda Rebel. After putting 1,000 miles on it during that winter, I sold it and bought a new adventure-tourer, a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650. Since then I have ridden over 46,000 miles up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada, almost all of it solo. During my trips I have recorded my experiences in handwritten journals.

Recently I pulled out my journals and read them from the beginning. It was fascinating to rediscover the adventures I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve seen. What made the rediscovery more profound was the realization that the ink I saw on paper was laid down at the time it happened. Even my handwriting changed based on how excited or tired I was at the time. In recent months I began taking an iPad on my trips and would type my journal notes on that, leaving pen and paper at home. At first I thought using the iPad was a better way to go because my notes were longer and more detailed. But, compared to my handwritten journals, they lacked character.

A good way to understand the difference is with an example of communications between friends. If Jane wants to tell Mary about the lunch she had with her new boyfriend, John, she could send Mary an email. In that email she could use descriptive text and even emoticons like :-) and other forms of non-verbal communication, such as LOL and OMG. Or, Jane could take Mary out to lunch and tell her in person, using body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions to convey the story.

Using this analogy, typed notes using a journaling app on my iPad is like Jane’s email, and it can only convey a certain amount of character regardless of how voluminous the notes may be. A handwritten journal is more like the face-to-face lunch.

I have vowed to change back to the old way of journaling my trips by taking my small, leather-bound journals and a pen and making notes during break stops and at night before bed. I can always transcribe my notes and expand on them when updating my blog back at home. For me, when it comes to travel journaling, the handwritten approach is the best way to go.

Scrivener: My main writing tool

ScrivenerI discovered Scrivener after reading an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) thread on Reddit by author Michael J. Sullivan, and it’s easy to see why he likes it so much. It’s more than a word processor, it’s a writer’s tool. The premise takes a word processor and adds tools and methods that help you stay organized as you write. Scrivener is also non-linear. Instead of having one long document, you can write individual scenes and then organize those scenes into chapters — and you can experiment by changing the order of those scenes with simple drag-and-drop maneuvers.

This tool is worth a few hundred dollars, but it costs less than $50. It’s produced by a small team in the U.K., originally just for the Mac, with a brand new Windows version just released in November, 2011. The interface is easy to use yet has the complexity under the hood to let you really take charge of your writing project.

Scrivener isn’t just for fiction writers. Screenwriters can use it as well as researchers and any producer of non-fiction. I have found it to be extremely useful as I work on my book and am amazed at just how much it adds to my writing experience.