Saturday, 10 September 2016


I have a friend who is always looking for the next solid-gold, get-rich-quick scheme.

She's tried 'em all - from the pyramid-shaped 'own businesses' like Avon and Amway, to auditioning for talent and 'reality' tv shows, hoping to prove she's The One with The Only Way to Bake Off The Voice Factor.

And while I can see how landing a solid gig with any one of these options could beat working in a shop for the rest of your life, let's be honest, it's not exactly an arena that's wide open to all comers. You've got to have something a bit special in you to make it, and by 'special' I mean 'actual talent for that particular thing' (even if, as is the case for certain 'reality' tv shows, that 'talent' is no more than being spectacularly dumb or annoying. Wow, I think that sentence just broke my personal record for use of ironic quotation marks!)

She knows I'm a writer, and that I'm currently working on Redemption. She also knows I've been reading a tonne of books about writing, plot and story structure, characterisation and all the other tools of the writing trade since I started taking my writing seriously. But she's also swallowed all the media hype about self-published millionaire authors, like the tale of a certain Ms. E.L. James who wrote some book that's (allegedly) badly-written but yet still somehow sold gazillions of copies. And all because she apparently woke up one morning and thought "Hmm, what shall I do with myself today? Oooh, I know, I'll write a novel based on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series! Mmm yeah, try something creative, because I've never done anything like that in the past..."

Before the likes of Fifty Shades and Amanda Hocking, my friend had no interest in writing anything at all. She'd observe how long it took me to get anything I wrote published or performed, compare it to the monies earned and tell me it seemed like "an awful lot of hard slog for sod-all reward." But once she'd heard the fairy story of Cinder-E.L.-a, writing novels suddenly began to look a lot like another of those potential get-rich-quick schemes. Clearly I was doing it the hard way though, what with all the learning from books and rewriting stuff until it was good enough. There must be a by-the-numbers, idiot-proof System you could follow that would streamline the process, surely?

So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when she asked me "Isn't there some sort of template for a novel out there - y'know, like a form you can fill in or a computer program you could use that will write your novel for you?"

I have to admit, my first instinct was to think "I bet there is, somewhere. Hell, there must be - there's templates for just about everything these days, even eating your breakfast. That is, after all, how that godawful term '[insert thing]-hacks' was spawned."

And a lot of the books I've read about plot and structure - all that three-act, Hero's Journey, Story-Grid and twelve-step stuff that charts the rises and falls readers expect - if not demand - from a great story - seem to give the impression that a blueprint of some sort does exist. Most of the best-loved novels of our time will slot very neatly into any one of the aforementioned methods for writing a successful novel.

But I know my friend well enough to know that's not what she meant. What she was after was some kind of reusable widget you can use to churn out novels like you're on a factory production line. All you'd have to do is come up with an idea for a story, and then you just open up the Novel-a-gram and fill in all the pre-determined fields for each stage of the story by answering a bunch of helpful, leading questions. And when you've finished - bam! One novel, ready for publishing.

Could something like that exist already? Hell, yeah, probably! One that actually works? Dream on. After all, we've got this thing called the internet now, and even before then, we should never underestimate the human desire to separate gullible people from their money.

A guy called Edgar Wallace had a bash at it back in the prehistoric days of No Computers with his 'Plot Wheel' - if you were stuck with your plot and needed some inspiration, all you had to do was spin the Plot Wheel (kind of like Wheel of Fortune but without a prize - or much of the accompanying excitement, I would imagine.) And - ta-da! It would dial up some completely random and rather ambiguous Plot Event you could try to shoehorn in. But that's not really a template - and if you tried to use it as such you could only end up with a novel no-one would ever want to read.

The closest thing we've got to templates are the aforementioned structural set-ups like the three act-structure, the Hero's Journey and all the other variations that can be found in a myriad of writing how-to books. These will certainly help to steer your story in the right direction with regard to pacing, plot progression and characterisation - but only if you have at least the bare bones of a plot, setting and characters to start with. No story structure in existence will create all of that for you; they exist purely to advise you what to do with that stuff once you have it.

All of which means that some sort of story-o-rama machine, which will take your one vague idea for a story and automatically create a simple join-the-dots crib-sheet where you can just fill in the blanks to complete a full-blown novel...

*... does not exist, and probably never will. Sorry about that, especially if you just skipped from the post title to here. That was a bit mean of me, wasn't it?

The only way to write great stories is to write lots and lots of them, for a long time. First you have to write bad ones that get universally rejected. Then you have to read them and understand why they're bad, and use that understanding to write not-as-bad ones. And then you learn from them, and so the cycle continues until eventually you're writing really good stuff - good enough to publish.

It's not a quick process, like, say, learning to ride a bike or memorising all the dance moves to Beyonce's Single Ladies. That's why it needs to be something you do for the love of doing it, not because you think it might be an easy way to make a quick buck. Because you're gonna be doing it for a very long time.

You want to churn out novels like Apple churn out new products? Your only hope is to become James Patterson. But even he has to write the outlines for his little minions to ghost-write for him, supplying both the recipe and all the necessary ingredients for his little cooks to mix and bake. In effect, he is their story-o-rama.

And that's why it's his name that ends up on the book covers and not theirs.

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