So you want to write a novel

Writers and their bff’s — I do not own this video, this is the original youtube link 


How to write using Supergrade Godstar 5 technology….

If you Googled “How to write a novel”, like I did (!), eventually you’ll land on Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method page. This guy was a mathematician professor who describes who you “fill out” a novel by starting with a one-line synopsis, expanding it, developing some characters, extending the synopsis, etc. It’s very much a back and forth process with a lot of structure and direction built in. I love it! I’ve heard great things about it. I’ve tried it and conquered it.


The snowflake template is available as a new novel template on StoryMill by Mariner Software. This program allows you to view your novel-in-progress in a timeline (so you see all the events/scenes in chronological order), put images and locations and tag characters in specific scenes, and allows you to develop characters, locations, and research tasks as you go along. All the elements in your novel within easy reach.

When you’re not sitting in front of a laptop developing joint pains, then I highly recommend sitting down at your favorite neighborhood cafe with pen and paper in hand. Get high on a cup of strong, Nespresso Lungo, and unleash the Kraken. Didn’t I say, Supergrade Godstar 5 technology in the title?

Really, writing by longhand in your journal or notebook everyday does two things. One, you establish the Creative Habit a la Twyla Tharp of getting into the writerly zone and being productive. Two, according to William H. Calvin‘s The Throwing Madonna, the more you exert your right arm, the more you work the hemisphere of your brain that promotes literary skills. (According to Calvin, this is how cave women evolved speaking for the human race — by throwing spears with the right hand while carrying the baby next to the heartbeat with the left).

Too busy to stop at a cafe? Don’t fret. Your Iphone allows you to download several applications that allow you to complete surgery on an operating table while transcribing your dramatic scene into text using your voice cues: Dictamus Free, Transcribe, and vBox. There are also writing apps like S!plot, Writers App and A Novel Idea at the Itunes store…. Or, you can be like Louis Litt in Suits and buy your own Supergrade Godstar 5 dictaphone!

Suppose you’ve spent shiploads of money outfitting your personal Bodleian library with reference books, magazines, fantasy books, comic books, and DVDs from across genres. And you’re still scratching for inspiration. Here are a few easy ways to get writing prompts: install Writing Prompts application on your Iphone. Open it, shake-shake-shake, voila! Or, get a deck of Doreen Virtue’s angel tarot cards. Nothing like archangel intervention to get you un-stuck. Shuffle, pull using the hand of fate, voila. Character, scene, and interpretation of action plan all in one card. Combine with other cards, you have some dialogue or another action scene. Sign up for Susan Miller‘s daily tarot readings. Apparently different combinations of the stars and their positions vis a vis other stars can trigger life-changing events! The way these readings are written can be so dramatic, I always wonder why I can’t raise the emotional stakes for my own characters and get them to progress as fast as all the signs in the zodiac.  😉

At some point you’ll have full-fledged plots in your head (or your Snowflake template in Storymill) and you’ll be ready for storyboarding. As I point out in an earlier post, I think perceiving your novel as a screenplay and storyboarding key scenes while in the plot development process is much more efficient than writing the whole manuscript out and then going back to edit. Storyboards allow you to put on the hat of an artistic director and think of the mis-en-scenes visually, put key hook lines or dialogues into thought bubbles, and quickly visualize each scene as dramatically/stylized as possible.

You’ll need two things to storyboard, if you want to do it for free. One, GIMP software installation, in order to draw characters, copy paste background images for your scenes from google images, and toggle/play with everything. Two, Celtx, the most recognized storyboarding freeware used by professors and university students. Upload your images created in GIMP to your Celtx clipboard. Storyboard away, referring back to scenes you may have created in Storymill! If you can’t master GIMP, I highly recommend getting tangible storyboard stationery and pencils sold by supply stores.

Recreating new story-worlds from the past

Professor Susanna Braund, from the Classics Department at University of British Colombia, had an interesting take on re-vocalizing mythology. In her podcast, commonly available on Youtube, she looks at Margaret Atwood‘s Siren Song as a re-vocalization of the sirens (read: harpies) based on their origin stories, incorporating Homer (the Odyssey) and Ovid‘s (Metamorphoses7) versions. Her song is from the siren’s perspective; it was written during the height of postmodern feminist movement in the mid 70’s. In essence, Margaret Atwood succeeded in injecting a new perspective on an existing character (the Harpie) that many would have recognized and bought into already, familiar with stories of Persephone’s abduction, the curse of Phineus, the Greek tragedies.

Many immersive storyworlds today recreate from entire worlds of the past because they are easily recognizable and at once immersive. Greek mythology provides a great storyworld because not only is there an existing pantheon of gods, demigods and mortals to draw from for rich characters (and intertextual stories), there are famous locations rooted in real world places, and a whole set of rules/morass informed by Ancient Greek civilization. Those rules include ethical codes, societal expectations, beliefs, interpretations of the divine/supernatural, gender roles, political relationships, laws of the land.

If you have Playstation 2, play God of War. It won’t take long to recognize characters and species, locations, battle scenes taken entirely from Greek mythology: harpies, sirens, Castor and Pollux, the Minotaur, Artemis, etc. “[God of War] is set in Ancient Greece with vengeance as its central motif. The player controls the protagonist Kratos, a Spartan warrior who serves the Olympian Gods.”  If you get past Castor and Pollux at the temple, you’ll get to consult with the Oracle of Delphi 🙂 for your next steps.

Videogames are the best references for entire storyworlds re-created from myth. Sometimes they are also recreated from history, such as Assasin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s bestselling franchise. The game is a historical action-adventure where the player gets to inhabit different characters from different time periods in the past, in order to get through a challenge and complete his mission.

With so many series of the game out there, the storyworld created started getting so big that Ubisoft had to hire something like 20 writers and put them in a room to compile the be-all-end-all compendium of Assassin’s Creed for the company, so that its creators did not make mistakes that would ruin the make-believe for the players. No wonder game guides, wikias and game walkthroughs are so prevalent. They serve as references that extend and boost the make-believe of the overall storyworld.

Lord of the Rings, Britain’s most prodigious piece of mythology in the last century, was strung together from JRR Tolkien’s knowledge of motifs within two story-worlds: “Middle Earth” from the cosmology of Norse mythology, and knights and dragon-slaying and greed (represented by the obsession of the gold ring) from Arthurian legends. I don’t have to go into how much his work influenced the fantasy-fiction genre that followed.

Of course, there are really hardworking fantasy fiction authors out there who create standalone story worlds with no hook in history or myth. Trudi Canavan drew up extensive maps, characters, histories, and geo-political relationships of the Sachakan and Kyralia people for her Black Magician trilogy. Nevertheless, the inspiration for the relationship between the poor citizens who were “purged” from the cities to live in slums in Kyralia vs the Magicians who roam the guilds was taken from the Beijing Olympics held during the summer of 2008.

Getting started in Hollywood…

Every writer should get started in Hollywood. If you want to write a bestseller, go to Hollywood and pitch it to 90 agents at the Storyworld Conference at the Kodak Theatre. It’s the annual conference of the who’s who up and down the supply chain (from content producers to marketing agents and distributors) for Hollywood’s biggest storytelling industries: Books, Film, Television, Games, and Advertising.

They’ve been figuring out story worlds for almost a century. Scott Trowbridge, the Vice President of Walt Disney’s Imagineering, will tell you all about how Disney has had a private think tank since 1952 that does nothing but test stories on audiences to come up with great stories, bring characters to life, create places where audiences can live right next to characters, and create new ways of engaging the audience. Today, they have massive theme parks where they beta test stories by having unsuspecting visitors participate in role-playing games. They have massive computers that are programmed to write every possible permutation of story-plots and run statistics figuring out which ones will be the biggest hits. And they have all the resources in the world to scale up once they hit the jackpot. And by that, I’m sure you know, I mean take something and run it through every platform available.. the merchandise, theme park, publishing, online gaming, etc machines.

To figure out your story, you have to do it backwards, because the writing part is a given. If you can’t figure out a log line that works, and pitch it past a screaming Christopher Lockhart, who has read more than 30,000 screenplays and casts top billed actors from the biggest talent management agency in Hollywood (and is therefore very impatient), then you haven’t got a story to write. Of course, you’ll need some characters. And lots of conflict. “What do you mean you don’t have conflict? Get out of Hollywood! Go write poetry!”

Storytelling is serious business for the screenwriter’s guild in Hollywood. If anyone has plotting, dialogue, scenes, characters, when to put bombs into a movie, down to a scientific formula, it’s those guys. And guess what? it works. Writing a screenplay to them is no different from an architect designing the construction of a house. Plot devices literally provide all the structure they need to fill in and carry the story arc. With all the cogs and screws in place, they are very well-oiled machines. No wonder James Cameron wrote Avatar in 2 weeks flat.

If you’re into character driven plots, ask Karl Iglesias, UCLA Prof, who adapted Einstein’s e=mc2 formula into something much more to explain how Pixar creates characters we all love.  He can take two movies, like Finding Nemo, and Shark Tale, and reverse engineer the first five minutes for you to explain why one cartoon hooks you in but the other does not. He points out that when John Lasseter talks about the emotional core,he’s coming from USD 7B at the box office, 13 movies, 26 Oscars, 6 Best Animated Features. Given the investment that goes into each movie, Pixar spends 12 years developing its story-reel of characters!!!

Plot points in a screenplay have to be achieved in a discrete amount of time. It is so much more efficient to think of your book as a future screenplay and figure out scenes you really need to get your story across. Syd Field wrote THE bible — “Screenplay”. He’s THE screenwriting guru everyone in Hollywood is acquainted with; his textbook has become mandatory course reading for budding screenwriters at UCLA and USC film schools ( He advises people to reverse engineer scripts they like; identify 15 beats to every script. In the Hunger Games, every scene unfolds in a straight line…

I mean, wouldn’t it be cool to make storyboards of your entire novel, covering major plot points in key scenes, BEFORE writing out the entire novel?! You could technically take those storyboards and turn them into comic books too! Modularize and commercialize the book idea in a different platform. (Screenplay + comic book for kids + book = 3 marketable platforms!) Hollywood has several advanced software for this: Dramatica, Final Draft, Movie Magic, etc…

Image result for Dramatica

Authenticity is key to your story. And authenticity sells. Michael Hague, who sits on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriter’s Association, works with Hollywood executives, producers, agents and managers to achieve commercially successful screenplays. He’s also the author of “Writing Screenplays That Sell”. He can literally sift through an impossible mess in a 30 minute conversation and guide you to the powerful, authentic material that drives the plot. “The hook is the dilemma at the end of the pitch that the character faces that seems impossible.”

Yes, the sheer amount of resources for writers in Hollywood is just phenomenal. Jeff Gomez, at Starlight Runner Entertainment (no intro needed), can take you through the 10 Commandments of 21st Century Blockbuster Franchise Production. Creating storyworlds for him is like branding a franchise… and this coming  from the man who’s creating the nation’s first transmedia incubator… he believes that this know-how should be open-source (read, free!)…. what a guy!

Hollywood takes storytelling seriously because they have serious clients. Pamela Jaye-Smith founded Mythworks, a company that helps organizations by “applying mythology for a more powerful reality”. She trademarked the term “Warrior Archetype” and advises the FBI and the US Army. Her production company wrote and designed the Command Briefing CD for the U.S. Army Signal Command.


[The Writer’s Guild Foundation library is located on 7000 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles –> go there, the librarian on duty is a walking encyclopedia…pick up a real screenplay in your hands, and read it. It took me 30 minutes to get through most of Witness, winner in 1984]