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Tell us a story—even if you’re just introducing a new systems language.

As if I didn’t have enough to do.

Enough writing to do.

Granted, over the past few years my to-do list had expanded beyond writing. For years before, nearly all the items on my to-do list had been in the categories of writing, editing, and research. I’m not complaining; just the opposite. It was Confucius, a quick Internet check tells me, who said, do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s me. I love writing and editing and research.

But I’m not complaining, either, about the change my life took a few years ago, when my partner Nancy moved us to Oregon, where she took on the running of a farm and restaurant (and now a bakery). A few supportive chores fell to me, so now my to-do list includes items like:

  • Let chicken out in field and gather eggs

  • Edit and post employee blogs to website

  • Process online gift certificate purchases

  • Tend bar

Still, most of my work time on any given day is writing, editing, or research, just as before. So, according to Confucius, I’m not working a day in my life. But that doesn’t keep my to-do list from growing to unmanageable lengths. I love my work, but it fills my days.

So when I committed to write a novel in thirty days I must have been crazy.

NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, takes place every year in November. Tens of thousands of people take part. Participants begin writing on November 1, and the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel by midnight, November 30. One thousand six hundred sixty-seven words a day, on average.

I’d been kicking around some ideas for a mystery novel for years. Why not, I thought, use NaNoWriMo to push me to get something done on it? It could be just the motivation I needed. Of course, motivation without a plan of action is like fuel without an engine, or like that line in “Baby You Can Drive My Car”:

 I got no car and it’s breakin’ my heart,
 But I found a driver and that’s a start.

I had my driver: NaNoWriMo. Now all I needed was a car. I needed a plan.

With the right plan, surely I could fit another 50,000 words of writing into my schedule without adversely impacting my regular work. Surely.

In my many years of writing, I’d come across a lot of writing techniques and tricks that I knew from experience actually had value. I just needed to pick the right techniques, the right plan, for this particular project. I narrowed it down to three.

Pomodoro Technique

I was actually using the Pomodoro Technique for some of my writing and editing. I wouldn’t say I’d mastered it, but I was exploring it and finding it useful. Could I use Pomodoro to write the novel?

“The Pomodoro Technique,” its creator Francesco Cirillo explains, “was created with the aim of using time as a valuable ally to accomplish what we want to do....” It encourages you to see time in a different way, as a natural succession of events rather than as a river rushing past you. Staffan Nöteberg wrote about the technique here last month.

Ultimately, I couldn’t see how to apply Pomodoro to the project. I could see that I needed to generate a certain amount of copy (1600-plus words) every day to have a hope of finishing. My mind would be on that word count, and that didn’t seem to fit well with the Pomodoro Technique’s focus on simply working productively for the next n minutes. My short-sightedness, I’m sure.

800-Word Scenes

This is a technique I picked up from science fiction writer A. E. Van Vogt, who got it from somebody else. Van Vogt claimed to write all of his novels and stories using scenes of (more or less) 800 words.

Van Vogt was a self-described systems person; he constantly sought out systems to organize his life and work, from the Bates eye exercises to Dianetics. Throughout his writing life, he had himself awakened every ninety minutes during the night so that he could record his dreams and use them in his writing. I wasn’t going to emulate that, but his 800-word scene system looked like a good idea, especially given that two 800-word scenes would just about meet my daily word-count quota.

And there were other reasons to embrace the 800-word scene. It seems to be a good minimum length for establishing a setting, the characters involved, the problem, some development, and an outcome, whether it is a resolution or a cliff-hanger. It also seems to be enough for a reader to swallow in a single gulp. And I’ve always thought that it was one of the secrets of Van Vogt’s popularity. His writing was far from perfect: one editor even built his reputation as a critic on tearing Van Vogt’s writing apart. But somehow it resonated with readers, and I think it was partly because of the pacing those 800-word scenes gave his work.

So I’d do 800-word scenes.

But there’s a huge gulf of structure between 800 words and 50,000. I needed a technique for structuring the novel as a whole.

I’ve used a lot of different techniques for structuring writing, but one that I thought might work well for this novel was to scrupulously follow Jon Franklin’s advice on how to write for story.

Writing for Story

In his book Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner, Jon Franklin shows how to use fiction techniques to write nonfiction. But Franklin’s approach would work as well for fiction as for nonfiction, and I was familiar with it. I thought I could see how to use it to structure the novel I’d been thinking about.

The idea that fiction techniques could be relevant to nonfiction writing will not be news to writers of Pragmatic Bookshelf books. Dave Thomas has pointed out that technical writing can have a narrative. A good technical book can follow a Hero’s Journey.

Franklin spells out a—dare I say—formula for writing stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. And it actually works: follow his formula and you are going to produce a well-structured, engaging story. Seriously. Franklin’s technique doesn’t take any of the work out of the process, but it ensures that you’re headed toward your goal rather than wandering in the narrative wilderness.

There’s a lot to Franklin’s method—he wrote a whole book about it, after all—but the core of the method is the outline. Not just any outline, though, and most definitely not the kind of outline you were taught to come up with in that expository writing class you took in college. Franklin means something very specific by outline. He means:

  • A meaningful complication that confronts a sympathetic character.

  • Three developmental focuses, in which the story is developed.

  • The resolution of the complication.

Each of these five outline components (complication, three developmental focuses, resolution) is a focus in Franklin’s terminology. The idea is the same as the focusing that a filmmaker does in zooming in on a face in a crowd. But Franklin talks about focuses at several different structural levels. At the lowest level, like the filmmaker’s zoom, the focusing of the audience’s attention is obvious. But even at higher structural levels in a piece of writing there is an analogous focusing of attention, and that’s what he’s talking about here. The outline is a device for focusing the audience’s attention.

Each of these focuses also has to meet certain strictures. Each should be a subject noun-verb-object noun clause, with a strong active verb and the protagonist in either the subject or object position. The resolution must clearly resolve the complication. Each developmental focus has its own role: the first, for example, is the only place in the structure where you can place a flashback. Anywhere else it will be too jarring. I can’t do justice to the method here, and have even simplified what I’ve presented, but this example should give the flavor of the desired outline (modified from Franklin):

  • Complication: Company fires Joe.

    • Developmental Focus 1: Depression paralyzes Joe.

    • Developmental Focus 2: Joe regains confidence.

    • Developmental Focus 3: Joe sues company.

  • Resolution: Joe regains job.

If this sounds trite, it should. Franklin points out that when you are dealing at the structural level of a story, what would be a cliché at the sentence level becomes something more universal. Good outlines look sort of simple-minded.

This structure works for anything from a brief article to a long book, but for longer lengths, like my novel, you need to introduce sub-complications, with their own developmental focuses and resolutions, inside the developmental focuses of the main outline. Same basic structure, just recursively elaborated.

So I had a plan: at the day-to-day level, I’d write (roughly) 800-word scenes, and finish (on average) two per day. At the structural level, I’d sketch out, and refine as I went, a Franklin-model outline for the novel, and check each day that I was following the plan.

Finding My Structure

I developed my outline in parallel with writing the scenes. That sounds wrong, but you can imagine how it worked by reflecting on your software development experience.

It might help if I actually show you the structure I was developing, as it appeared ten days into the month. It was changing every day, but on November 10, it looked like this:

  • Major Complication: Killer challenges Ralf.

    • Semimajor Complication: Ralf seeks Weasel.

      • Developmental Focus 1: Ralf begins search.

      • Developmental Focus 2: Ralf develops leads.

      • Developmental Focus 3: Ralf narrows search.

      • Interlocking Complication: Police charge Roman.

    • Semimajor Resolution: Ralf finds Weasel.

    • Semimajor Complication: Police charge Roman.

      • Developmental Focus 1: Landis represents Roman.

      • Developmental Focus 2: Ralf deepens investigation.

      • Developmental Focus 3: Ralf closes in.

      • Interlocking Complication: Ralf pursues killer.

    • Semimajor Resolution: Ralf clears Roman.

    • Semimajor Complication: Ralf pursues killer.

      • Developmental Focus 1: Paintings trouble Ralf.

      • Developmental Focus 2: Ralf pursues killer.

      • Developmental Focus 3: Killer threatens Ralf.

  • Major Resolution: Ralf catches killer.

Ralf is my protagonist. What any story needs to do is to get a sympathetic protagonist into and out of trouble. A good reason to write a how-to article as a second-person story is that you automatically have a rich and interesting sympathetic protagonist. Everybody wants to read about themselves.

Despite appearances, the basic structure of this novel is simplicity itself: Killer challenges protagonist, protagonist pursues killer through several steps, protagonist catches killer. That’s the structure of virtually every murder mystery. Within this outer story there are three sub-stories: the novel has an episodic structure typical of sagas or Hero’s Journeys.

Finding My Schedule

With techniques borrowed from Van Vogt and Franklin, I thought I was prepared for managing the novel itself, but there remained the parallel challenge of managing myself. If I were to be able to devote the required time to this novel without it adversely impacting my regular daily work, I needed a schedule. And years of experience had taught me that it needed to reflect the realities of my life and metabolism.

What I figured I could give to the novel were my evenings, early mornings, and the odd moments of inspiration throughout the day. The rest of my day belonged to my regular work. I built a writing schedule based on those constraints.

After dinner every evening, I wrote. I wrote with a pen on a yellow pad, lying on the couch watching The Daily Show or House or some NetFlix selection. The following morning before I walked the dog or gathered eggs or combed my hair, I keyed in what I had written the night before. I also entered any changes I’d come up with the day before to the outline, read what I’d typed, fixed typos, and recorded the day’s word count.

During the day, whenever inspiration struck, I wrote down thoughts about the next two scenes I’d need to write that night, or about the outline. Because I only did this as ideas came to me, I rarely gave this process more than half an hour out of my day. There were two things that I tried to accomplish in the course of the day: to come up with half a dozen key points that had to be covered in each of the next two scenes, and to develop my thinking about the current sub-story or about the novel as a whole. But it was in the back of my mind all day that I needed to be ready to start writing those two scenes the minute I picked up the yellow pad that night.

Progress Report

So how did it work? I can’t tell you. As I write this, I’m only a third of the way through the month. But I can give you, as I have given myself, a status check.

On Wednesday, November 11, after keying in the previous night’s writing and correcting a few typos, I did a word count. 16668 words.

Although it was the morning of the 11th, I counted it as the 10th, since I had done the writing the night before. Ten days out of thirty: one-third. One-third of 50,000 words: 16666-2/3. I had cleared the bar by 1-1/3 words.

Will I complete this 50,000-word novel by November 30? Only time will tell, but I know as I write this that I’m on track.

Now whether it’s readable or complete garbage, that’s another question altogether. Time will tell about that, too.

Afterword

This story would be more interesting if it had some implications for nonfiction writing of the sort we publish in our books and in PragPub. I think it has, and that, I guess, is the moral of the story. Jon Franklin’s approach is based on fiction but intended for nonfiction writing, and I used it to write this column. Here is my Franklin-style outline for this column:

  • Complication: Novel challenges Mike.

    • Developmental Focus 1: Mike explores techniques.

    • Developmental Focus 2: Mike implements technique.

    • Developmental Focus 3: Mike implements schedule.

  • Resolution: Mike finishes novel.

I also used the Pomodoro Technique in writing this column, but if I told you how many Pomodoros the writing took, Dave and Andy would want to cut my salary. Because that statistic wouldn’t include all the false starts and discarded drafts that I went through before I found my approach. And that’s part of writing, too.

Michael Swaine is the editor of PragPub.