THE 80/10 RULE FOR WRITERS

You’ve probably been told how important good grammar and punctuation are to becoming a good writer. And they are.

You may have been made aware of certain “rules” or even current fads for writing fiction. “Show don’t tell.” “Eliminate all ‘wases.’” “No head hopping.” Then you scratch your own head when you see a best-selling author do all of those things. On one page.

You might have learned about story arcs, the snowflake graph, the best way to outline, structure, beginnings, endings, and a huge amount of other tips and tricks.

But still you don’t get it done. You don’t finish a story or a novel. You get stuck in the middle. Or even at the beginning. You think your skills are pretty darned good, but what good are they if you can’t finish what you start, or even get started in the first place?

There’s a new “thing” (I don’t know what else to call it, although it’s usually called a rule) going around about the 80/20 rule. This rule says that 20% of whatever you’re trying to accomplish is worth more than all the other 80%. So, you should concentrate on accomplishing that 20%.

I believe the 80% for writers are all the rules, guidelines, and mechanics of writing, and throw in the business side there, too. The 20% is the story, which is made up of words, sentences, and scenes. If you’ve read a lot and paid attention to how things are written, your subconscious probably knows a great deal about what is good writing and what isn’t. But all that reading, both about writing advice and fiction, can’t teach you how to put words on the page.

So, is there a trick for that? I think there are several.

First, stop worrying. Quit wondering where your next idea is going to come from, how you’re going to set up the murderer to be caught, how you’re going to fill the page.

Second, if you don’t have an idea right now, just pick one at random. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, who the characters are, pick anything. An object, a place, a person, a situation. Pick one of those things and start writing about it.

Third, eventually your idea will tend to peter out. This is where you stop and think consciously. Up until now, your subconscious was just doing stream of consciousness about what you decided to write about. Now, you need to start focusing more on a story.

Fourth, be pro-active in thinking about what to write next, about where your story can go from here. Use either pen and paper or your computer keyboard to let the ideas flow. Ask yourself “what if” questions. List all the possibilities that could happen next, no matter how outlandish (you may decide to write humor where outlandish is good).

Fifth, pick the idea you think is the most interesting, the most fun, the most unique, the best of all you’ve thought of.

And sixth, write some more until you come to the point where you have to repeat steps four and five.

If you insist on outlining, you use the same process. As you outline, just as those who do not, you will come to spots where you are stuck. Personally, I don’t outline for this reason. My first draft is basically my outline more fleshed out. And because this system is the way I write, I rarely have to make major edits to the story. So, I save a lot of time.

Some of the ease from this comes with more writing. Like most things, the more you do, the easier it gets. Usually.

And getting back to the 80/20 “rule.” Do the process steps over and over again while learning the current rules and fads for writing in this decade. In other words, pick them up as you go—don’t make them your main focus.

This works for me. I’ve had days when I’ve written three thousand new words in a novel. Most days I can get one thousand down, and many days I can pretty easily get close to two thousand. Each thousand words takes me approximately an hour or so to write, after a short time brainstorming with the what if/what happens next process.

I believe in learning by finding out how other people who are experts in their fields do things. I don’t classify myself as an expert—I’m not that arrogant. But I can tell that many prolific, successful writers, use this method. They may not even realize themselves how they’re doing it.

Give it a try. And let me know if it works for you.

CAPTURING IDEAS

You are sitting around or working, and a sudden idea hits you. Could be something to add to your shopping list, or a note to call someone, or a brilliant idea for your next novel. What do you do with it?

1.     Continue working because you’re sure you’ll remember it later?

2.     Tell someone else, hoping they won’t steal it?

3.     Write it down?

That was a test, and of course #3 was the right answer.

I had an idea for this post as I was doing something else—answering an email, actually. But I stopped and quickly opened a new Word .doc and wrote down the title and a few lines. I will come back to it later to flesh it out, and that will be an easy column for me to have ready some time in the future.

And now I’m back. Before I got here, however, I thought of a couple more ideas and “captured” them as well.

Ways to save ideas:

1.     If I’m on the computer, I open a word processing doc, either a new one for something I plan to flesh out later as a document, an old one to add to I’ve already started about the same subject, or key it into a .doc I’ve labeled “Notes.”

2.     If I’m not on the computer, I always have a small notepad nearby, and I jot the idea down there.

3.     If you have a handheld device or smart phone you can make notes on and can do so as quickly as you could writing them down by hand, that’s another way to do it. I love my laptop, but I’ve never used any handheld device enough to be able to make a note easily and quickly, so I carry a small notebook in my purse instead.

Do you have other ways to capture your ideas? Please share in the comments.

WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM?

Every published author will eventually be asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Stephen King has his “boys in the basement.” Riffing off of that, I have my aunts in the attic. (And probably bells in my belfry, as well.)

Victor Banis has his muse Snotty. Other writers and artists have had muses through the ages.

A muse is defined as: a spirit or source that inspires an artist. Some famous writers, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, used real women as their muses, then married them. Unfortunately, the muses soon divorced the writers. I don’t know what that did for the writing of the writers, but it couldn’t have been very good in the short run. In the long run, it may have inspired a lot of writing, especially about what women are like. Or what they thought women were like.

For me, a muse is a spirit. A made-up-by-me spirit. But besides the aunts in the attic, and perhaps the Mad Hatter, I don’t really have any muses that I call on regularly. When muses are mentioned, I think of the aunts and the hatter, but otherwise, not very much.

If you dig deeper into the idea of a muse as inspiration, you realize it is really only a trigger. Or something to get angry with when the inspiration isn’t there.

In order to really get ideas, I suggest more concrete tactics. To start, just pick something, anything. Animal, mineral, vegetable. Rock, paper, scissors. Then pick another and another. It would help if they are not usually associated with each other. Next write whatever comes to mind for as long as you can. Eventually you most likely will get stuck and not know what to write next. Ask yourself, what if, and list all the things that could possibly happen next. Pick one, or combine some, and off you go again. It can be weird, strange, unlikely, odd, whatever. Quirky is good.

Other ways are to visit places you’ve never been before, people watch at the mall, look at pictures of strangers or even of people you know—one or two of their traits might spark something.

The trick is to absolutely believe that you will come up with something. If you write steadily every day for about a month, this confidence will come more easily. I’ve written so much that I never have any doubt that I can come up with something, that really, I’ll never have enough time to write everything I can think of into publishable form.

So, if you think having a muse will help, make one up or use a real person for inspiration. If you just want to go right to the writing, pick a few fun things to write about and Go.