Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (Yes, Really)

My mentor (and all-around awesome human), Stuart Horwitz, has finished his third and final (he swears!) writing book: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

I am so excited about this one—the title nails it. In the intro Stuart says:

Have you ever asked yourself while writing, ‘How many drafts is this going to take?’ That may seem like a question that can’t have an answer, but I would like to propose that it does. And that answer is three. Three drafts, provided that each draft is approached in the right spirit and we take the time we need between drafts.

(And because Stuart is awesome, he’s put together nine online supplementary videos and PDFs to go with the book. Look for me in PDFs three and four!)

So what exactly do these three drafts look like?

Draft #1: The Messy Draft

“Keep writing the first draft, and keep being okay when it feels like a mess.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

This first draft is the most difficult for outliners. They tend to plan, plan, plan but never actually write. Outliners also tend to be perfectionists; they over-plan because they don’t want to face that inevitable “shitty first draft.”

I once read an interview where an author said she was terrified of dying in the middle of her first draft because everyone would see how bad of a writer she was. The solution, Stuart says, is to reframe what “perfect” means when we’re in the first draft:

A perfect first draft covers the ground. A perfect first draft tries material out. A perfect first draft makes a start in a lot of places. A perfect first draft familiarizes you with your material.

Stuart also offers six great tips on how to generate enough pages in your messy draft to move on to the second draft, which he calls “The Method Draft.”

Draft #2: The Method Draft

“Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

Once you’ve completed your first draft, it’s easy to get intimidated by your mountainous, semi-coherent, half-formed story. Where to start? It’s tempting to pull out the red pen and go page by page, correcting here and there, but Stuart says, “What you are trying to do is tackle your book, not tinker with it.”

The method draft is where you step back and shape your story’s big picture. This draft. then, can be difficult for pantsers. “If the messy draft was about getting it down,” Stuart says, “the method draft is about making sense.”

In this draft you:

  1. cut up your scenes (not figuratively—literally),
  2. create a series grid,
  3. and draw a target theme (“because your book can only be about one thing”).

And here’s the awesome part: now that you’ve finished the second draft, you only have ONE MORE DRAFT TO GO. Stuart calls the third and final draft “The Polished Draft.”

Draft #3: The Polished Draft

“Finishing requires tenacity.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

I love Stuart’s chapters on the polished draft because he talks about a crucial topic that has gotten zero in-depth attention in all of the writing books I’ve read, and that is THE ROLE OF THE BETA READER.

Beta reading can push a good book over the edge to greatness, but too many writers, either out of ignorance or pride, don’t properly use it. Getting feedback can be scary, but Stuart lays out exactly what you need to do in order to have a positive, successful experience. He answers such important questions as:

  • How many beta readers should you have?
  • Where do you find your beta readers?
  • What questions do you ask your beta readers?
  • What do you do once you have their responses? (Answer: Put together a punch list!)

Okay, you’ve finished all three drafts, you’ve recruited beta readers, and you’ve finished your punch list, now what?

Know When to Let Go

“The point is not to go through life writing the same book the whole time.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

I feel as if Stuart wrote his last chapter, “The Crack in Everything,” specifically for me (and maybe he did). I’ve realized over the years that, while it’s difficult to start writing something, often times it’s more difficult to stop writing it. 

“You don’t want to get to where you’re holding on to your manuscript too long,” Stuart says. “One of my mentors in Prague, Jim Freeman, used to praise: That fresh feeling, of not having been too well-worked.”

Are you working on a book right now? Have you been working on it for so long that you can’t remember when you started it and can’t see how you’ll finish it? If so, do yourself a favor and read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

PS: And don’t forget to check out the other two books in Stuart’s trilogy, Book Architecture (I’m in this one!) and Blueprint Your Bestseller.

Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a FormulaBlueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz

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The Fastest Way to Jump-Start Your Writing Career: My Mentorship Story

“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because
someone else thought they could.” (Unknown)

A Shortage of Support

In the past, the driving force behind the fine arts was the “support group.” Artists would find mentors to show them the ropes, then the artists would acquire patrons to support their work, and then these artists would become mentors themselves. A miniature circle of life.

But a lot has changed since the times of da Vinci.

Nowadays, more than 80 percent of Americans want to write a book—that’s 250 million people!—so you’d think writers would have the biggest support group in the world, but in fact, far too many of them have no one to turn to.

The Devaluation of Mentors

Our current culture is obsessed with technology. Human interaction has largely been replaced by tweets, blogs, online courses, and self-help books. But here’s what I’ve learned:

One good mentor is worth all those combined—a hundred fold.

My Mentorship Story

I started this blog four years ago. For the first two years it felt like I was pushing against a brick wall. Then one day I published a post where I broke down Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and compared it to Stuart Horwitz’s methods in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller. Within a few months Stuart had contacted me and asked if I’d like to coauthor a chapter for his second book, Book Architecture. (Um, yes!)

Stuart and I emailed back and forth throughout the year as we developed our chapter, which went so well that I also ended up beta reading and offering feedback on the rest of the manuscript. Even though I was excited when Book Architecture was done and ready to be published, I was also sad for the experience to end. I had learned and grown more in that one year than in my past two years of blogging combined.

So I felt incredibly lucky when Stuart contacted me yet again and offered me an internship—a first for him and his book editing firm, Book Architecture.

During my year-long internship, I delved into everything in the publishing world:

  • drawing up contracts,
  • creating style sheets, editorial letters, and agent databases,
  • walking through the entire self-publishing process,
  • and editing on all levels—developmental, line, and copy.

I also was a beta reader for Stuart’s third and final writing book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

As the year progressed, Stuart and I found our collaborative footing and eventually my internship morphed into a mentorship. Unfortunately, not all internships are also mentorships.

In an internship, you’re simply learning “stuff”—a knowledge checklist. But in a mentorship, someone is getting to know you one-on-one and addressing your personal experiences and goals.

Along with all of the valuable “stuff” I learned, I also had mentor talks with Stuart. These talks revolved around any questions I had about the editing business as well as advice from him based on questions I should have asked but didn’t know enough yet to ask them.

In the end, I learned more during my one-year mentorship than I could have learned on my own in five years (or more). In fact, I have not found a single success story where the individual did not have some form of mentorship along the way.

Examples of Modern-Day Mentors

Lena Dunham was mentored by the late Nora Ephron. In a beautifully written piece in the New Yorker, Dunham memorialized Ephron:

[Nora] explained how to interact with a film composer (“Just say what you’re hearing and what you want to hear”) and what to do if someone screamed at you on the telephone (“Just nod, hang up, and decide you will never allow anyone to speak to you that way again”). She called bullshit on a whole host of things, too: donuts served in fancy restaurants; photo shoots in which female directors are asked to all stand in a cluster wearing mustaches; the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.

Oprah was mentored by Barbara Walters. In an interview with Walters, Oprah said, “Had there not been you, there never would have been me.”

Oprah was also mentored by Maya Angelou. At Angelou’s funeral, Oprah gave a eulogy and said, “I think mentors are important . . . Nobody makes it alone. Nobody has made it alone.

Usher has frequently spoken about mentoring Justin Bieber. In an interview with Pharell Williams, Usher paraphrased a line from Italian diplomat Galeazzo Ciano:

Success has a million fathers. Failure is an orphan. [Tweet This]

Now the Question Is: How Do You Find Your Own Mentor?

1. Never stop chasing your dreams.

Jon Hamm didn’t get a single acting gig for the first three years after he moved to Hollywood. Not surprisingly, his talent agency dropped him. Hamm gave himself five years to get his acting career on track; if nothing happened, he’d quit. He said:

I knew a lot of 40-year-old waiters and I didn’t want to be one of those.

In the nick of time Hamm landed his first big Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers, and he was able to ditch waiting tables. A few years later he became the infamous Don Draper of “Mad Men,” which was voted the seventh best-written TV series of all time.

Paula Hawkins has a similar story. Hawkins got her start in the book industry writing a guide to finance. The publishing house that took on the guide asked Hawkins to also write some romance novels under the pen name Amy Silver. Hawkins said she never felt comfortable with the genre and realized that she wanted to write suspense and psychological thrillers. When her fourth romance novel flopped, she decided to try writing one last time before giving it up for good. The result was the fastest-selling hardcover ever recorded—The Girl on the Train.

How many people in history have given themselves a deadline, not knowing that success had been waiting just beyond it?

This mindset of “all or nothing” is not healthy or helpful. I realize we all must face reality—we have families, jobs, bills—but facing reality does not mean throwing away your dreams.

Maybe you have to figure out a different approach or perhaps you have to go at a slower pace, but at least you’re still in pursuit. Because if you’re not actively trying to help yourself, you have very little chance of finding someone who will want to help you either.

As Stuart says in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts:

If you look at the subset circle of people who didn’t make it, the entire subset of people who quit is contained within that.

2. Keep an open mind as to whom your mentor could be.

The secret to success is not in having a mentor but in having the right mentor. Luckily, the “right” mentor can come in all shapes and sizes.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mentor has to have higher credentials than you or has to be more successful than you or even has to be in the same field as you.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:

Here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.

And the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, said:

Don’t always look high when creating your mentor network. Colleagues have great insights about you that you may have overlooked.

Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, John Glenn, and Walter Cronkite all had mentors who were either high school or elementary teachers.

One of Colin Powell’s greatest mentors was his father. Ansel Adams also credited his own father and so did Cal Ripken, Jr., who said:

I don’t know what value you can place on [a mentor], but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that’s been through it before can make all the difference.

More than anything else, a successful mentorship is founded on mutual respect and admiration. One of Steven Spielberg’s mentors was George Lucas. Spielberg has himself mentored many people, including J. J. Abram. Spielberg said:

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.

Stuart and I are very different people at very different points in our lives. We live over 1,400 miles apart and have never even met. But the mentorship has been successful. I attribute our success to the fact that we not only respect our differences but also capitalize on them—we treat them as assets rather than as deficits.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who mentored Henry David Thoreau, summed it up best when he said:

What I need is someone who can make me do what I can. [Tweet This]

3. Look first for mentorship moments. Then let them progress naturally.

A mentorship is not something you can force. Don’t walk around asking people to mentor you—that’s like asking a stranger to be your best friend. It has to be a natural process that evolves over time.

Robert Herjavec, TV star of “Shark Tank,” wrote:

As you consider mentorship, I encourage you to take the pressure off.

Stop the “will you be my mentor?” emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed.

Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.

Three years ago when Stuart contacted me to coauthor a chapter, I could never have guessed that I’d end up where I am today with an editing business of my own. All I was focused on then was embracing the opportunity and learning as much from it as I could. Don’t be concerned if a mentorship moment doesn’t turn into a full-blown mentorship.

Herjavec also wrote:

When I consider mentorship, I see it as a series of moments with key individuals over the course of my career. Have I always had one individual guide me along the way? No, that wasn’t my experience. But there are multiple people that have offered advice or a sounding board along the way . . .

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, agrees with Herjavec:

Throughout my career, I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom and experiences of mentors. Some executives credit one or two key people for coaching them to success, but I believe effective mentoring takes a network.

Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and handle the opportunities and challenges along the way.

Financial advisor Suze Orman, who mentors personal trainer Jillian Michaels, said:

Everyone in life can be your mentor whether they know it or not. [Tweet This]

4. Ask not what your mentor can do for you, but what you can do for your mentor.

The most important thing to remember about a mentorship is:

THE MENTOR DOES NOT NEED THE MENTEE.

Stuart has twenty years of experience as an editor. His book Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best writing books by The Writer magazine and his clients are bestselling authors who have appeared on “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Oprah.”

Stuart mentored me as a favor—not out of necessity. But like all great mentors, he also treated me as an equal. Not once during my internship did he give me a go-get-the-coffee job. That’s not to say that all my work has been enlightening and rewarding and inspiring—every job has its drudgery—but a mentor shows you how to most effectively and efficiently tackle the drudgery.

In the end, you only get as much out of a mentorship as you put into it.

A mentor’s job is not necessarily to make your road any easier. It’s to show you that the road is worth taking.

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Plot Is a Four-letter Word: An Interview with Stuart Horwitz

One of my latest writing adventures was helping out Stuart Horwitz with his latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. I coauthored a chapter with Stuart called “The Expanded Series Grid in J. K. Rowling’s Novel Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” I’m so proud to have contributed to this book because it’s unlike any other writing book I’ve ever read.

Most writing books analyze contained aspects of novels—the dialogue in one book, the characters in another, the plot twist in yet another . . . you get little tidbits but never a bird’s-eye view of why one whole book was successful. With Book Architecture, we finally get that all-encompassing look.

Each of the book’s chapters digs deep into a different work: the movies Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network, the classic children’s book Corduroy as well as The Great GatsbyHarry PotterCatch-22, and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”

Obviously I’m biased, but I can’t recommend Book Architecture enough!

An Interview with Stu

Q. You’ve said before, “Writing a book is a pain in the ass that takes years. Make sure your idea thrills you!” What was it about this book that so thrilled you that you were willing to spend years on it?

Stuart: Asking the hard questions first! On the one hand, I feel that a book has to pull at you, nag at you, and not let you go. . . . And on the other hand, I’m one of those people who just does what’s next, next.

After publishing Blueprint Your Bestseller, the concept of “series” was the thing that everyone wanted to know more about (I see that we’re getting to that concept a little bit later). I got comments that BYB had helped people take their books apart, but by the time we got to Chapter Nine of that book, “Bringing It All Together”—well, that was laughably short.

I protested that we would need lots of full-length examples to show in depth how books are reconstructed, and they should come from popular fiction but also literary classics and Academy-Award winning films, and then I thought: Hey! That’s not a bad idea . . .

Q. You say that “plot” is a four-letter word. Why? And what word or words should die-hard plotters replace it with?

Stuart: I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for suggesting that “plot” is a useless word. But it is, for two reasons. The first is that it is a singular word, and seems to stand in for everything that happens in your book that, you know, is important. One word can do all that?

The second reason “plot” is relatively useless is that a focus on plot tends to privilege events above all of the other elements of a work: characterizations, symbolism, relationships, settings, etc. Even in the most relentlessly genre-driven fiction, you still can’t consider the events apart from the personalities and the texture that inspire and surround them.

I think it’s easier to just call everything a series, which as I’ll explain in a minute, is a different use of that word than a set of volumes in a particular genre with a lot of the same characters.

Q. In your first writing book and now in this latest one you’ve introduced the breakthrough writing concept of “series.” Since it is a new concept, it can be difficult to grasp at first: What exactly is series and how can a writer’s understanding of it improve her writing? 

Stuart: Series is the repetition and variation of a narrative element so that the repetition and variation creates meaning. You have likely heard repetition and variation applied to art in general: the use of melody in music, the architectural pattern. But repetition and variation of a narrative element—what is that?

A narrative element is anything that can be identified in a reader’s mind as something discrete, for example, a person, a place, a thing, a relationship or a phrase. In fact, the repetitions and variations of series are how a person becomes a character, how a place becomes a setting, how a thing or object becomes a symbol, how a relationship becomes a dynamic, and how a repeated phrase becomes a key to the philosophy of the work.

The repetitions and variations of each series form individual narrative arcs. When I help writers with their work at Book Architecture, we gain practice graphing these series arcs, including the skills to have these arcs interact, intersect, and collide. We braid these threads of series into a whole tapestry—through the use of series grids, like Rowling’s. And we use the third tool of the series target to make sure that all of these series are about the same thing, because your book can only be about one thing.

Q. On the other end of the spectrum from plotters are pantsers. A big theme in your book is, “Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” You have an outlining technique that you say is non-formulaic, but to many pantsers, an outline in itself is formulaic. How does the Book Architecture Method approach outlining differently?

Stuart: The outline I’m talking about comes from the work itself. It doesn’t supersede the work or dictate how it should go. It is more like a map of where you are and a way to give yourself a sense of the possible directions your work can go.

The type of outline we work with in Book Architecture is spatial in nature and helps visualize the interaction between elements better than the linear list we learned in high school (you know, the one that starts 1., 2., 3. and then under 1. we get 1.a… 1.a.i…).

I love that J.K. Rowling released a snippet of her use of this kind of outline for the fifth volume of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think sometimes people think famous writers don’t use the same tools as us . . . because they’re just geniuses and stuff. But Rowling’s grid—and the grid Joseph Heller put together for Catch-22 featured in Chapter Six of my new book—show that they do!

Q. You’ve been an editor for fifteen years. What are the most common struggles you’ve seen among writers and how can we avoid those pitfalls? 

Stuart: Well, I think every writer could practice being a little bit more realistic. I don’t mean about potential publishing success, I mean about the writing process. We swing wildly from expecting it to be easy to trying to make everything perfect. Neither one of these approaches is particularly fun, and you have to have fun—that is the cardinal rule.

I don’t mean stupid fun, I mean intellectual aliveness, being fully engaged in what you are doing, believing in your work or changing it so that you do. That’s what we have to keep asking ourselves: Am I still having fun? If you feel that window closing, you can change tack or you can hurry up and bring things to a conclusion before you stop caring about the work altogether.

Nothing is ever going to be perfect. What we write represents a time and a place and we have to leave that “fresh feeling of not having been too well-worked,” as my friend Jim Freeman describes it. And then we go on to the next work, which is what I’m going to do after the promotional phase of Book Architecture. It’s what we all have to do.

Stuart’s Bio

Horwitz.Author PhotoStuart Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, New York and Boston.

Stuart’s clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction, and have appeared on Oprah!, The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and in the most prestigious journals in their respective fields.

Stuart’s first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, was named one of 2013’s Best Books on Writing by The Writer magazine. His latest book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, is already garnering five-star reviews on Amazon.

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How Rowling Revised ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Rowling’s goal as a writer is surprisingly simple: “[Write] better than yesterday.” When Rowling sent her editor an email about the third Potter book, she wrote:

I am so sick of re-reading [Prisoner of Azkaban] that I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it. But perhaps the feeling will have worn off by next summer. . .

Rowling has also said:

You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with. [Tweet This]

‘You Have to Plan’

Even when Rowling was nearly finished with the Potter series, she still extensively outlined her work. While writing the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, Rowling said:

I have a large and complicated chart propped on the desk in front of me to remind me what happens where, how, to whom and which bits of crucial information need to be slipped into which innocent-looking chapters.

Rowling later added in an interview:

I plan; I really plan quite meticulously. I know it is sometimes quite boring because when people say to me, “I write stories at school and what advice would you give me to make my stories better?” And I always say (and people’s faces often fall when I say),­­ “You have to plan,” and they say, “Oh, I prefer just writing and seeing where it takes me.” Sometimes writing and seeing where it takes you will lead you to some really good ideas, but I would say nearly always it won’t be as good as if you sat down first and thought, Where do I want to go, what end am I working towards, what would be good—a good start?

Rowling’s Outline for Order of the Phoenix

Rowling not only plans, she’s also not afraid to revise her plan—and revise it and revise it and revise it. Back in 2006 Rowling posted on her website a snippet of her series grid for the fifth Potter book, Order of the Phoenix.

Below is my transcription of the outline, which I created for Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. (I also cleaned up the outline by writing out abbreviations and completing sentences.)

Transcribed Rowling Outline

When Rowling shared her outline, she said that it was an “umpteenth revision” of Order of the Phoenix—but she still went on to revise the outline even more.

In the grid below I’ve tracked all of Rowling’s changes between her outline and the final Order of the Phoenix. Red is what Rowling deletes from the story; yellow is what she swaps around; and green is everything she adds after the outline. Very little is left untouched.

As William Zinsser said:

Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost. [Tweet This]

Transcribed Rowling Outline with Revisions

Rowling’s Revisions

I won’t discuss every change, but the majority of Rowling’s revisions fit into two broad categories:

1. Eliminating Needless Repetition

2. Increasing Suspense

At times these two categories overlap: If you eliminate needless repetition (the parts that “readers tend to skip,” as Elmore Leonard said), you typically ratchet up the suspense automatically. (My two examples below show this overlap.)

On the other hand, these two categories still need to stand on their own. Increasing suspense doesn’t always eliminate needless repetition, and eliminating repetition doesn’t always result in suspense.

Eliminating Repetition

In Blueprint Your Bestseller Stuart Horwitz talks about the importance of striking a narrative balance between repetition and variation:

Repetition can get dangerously close to boring. You have to be careful when you have the same event or adjective or discussion happening over and over again. [But], you can’t have all variation, either . . . it is the pattern created by repetition and variation that communicates meaning.

Example of Repetition: Hagrid’s Return

Hagrid is sporting injuries quite early in the outline—before even chapter thirteen, because Rowling writes that he’s “still” getting injured, which means he’s injured before chapter thirteen as well.

But other than the unexplained injuries, Hagrid’s storyline has no significant development until we meet Grawp in (then) chapter thirteen. I believe that Rowling realized she had too much repetition without enough variation, so in the final Order of the Phoenix, she doesn’t introduce Hagrid’s injuries until chapter twenty and she waits to introduce Grawp until chapter thirty.

Example of Repetition: Occlumency

In the outline Harry is already getting Occlumency lessons from Snape in (then) chapter thirteen (the same chapter where Hagrid still has injuries). But the final book postpones Harry’s lessons until after he attacks Mr. Weasley in a dream. Why is this change important?

First, the Occlumency storyline is vital to the believability of the whole plot. As Lupin says, “Harry, there is nothing so important as you learning Occlumency!” If we the readers don’t buy into Occlumency—if Rowling can’t convince us of its importance—then the entire story is weak.

With the Occlumency storyline, Rowling is dealing with the same issue as Hagrid’s injuries: the repetition of the lessons is becoming boring; there isn’t enough variation. Rowling also needs to convince us that Harry’s situation is indeed dangerous.

If Rowling had Harry starting lessons simply because Dumbledore (or whoever else) said so, that wouldn’t be nearly as believable as Harry needing to start lessons because he’s already proven himself a threat—by attacking Mr. Weasley. Actions speak louder than words.

Increasing Suspense

Example of Suspense: Hagrid’s Return

By delaying Hagrid’s return, Rowling not only eliminates needless repetition, she also increases the suspense. Hagrid’s unexplained disappearance adds mystery to the plot, and therefore, more suspense as well.

Rowling creates another offshoot of suspense by having Hagrid return right when Umbridge is desperate to fire teachers. In fact, right before Hagrid strolls into the story, Rowling has Umbridge put Professor Trelawney on probation. Naturally, we start worrying about Hagrid.

Rowling then uses Hagrid’s tenuous work situation as the reason to introduce Grawp. Notice in the outline Hagrid is refusing to leave Hogwarts, and we only happen to meet Grawp when Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to warn Hagrid about Umbridge. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, we don’t meet Grawp until the situation is clearly out of control (Hagrid is now on probation); and instead of refusing, Hagrid is okay with being fired, which gives him good reason to bring Harry to Grawp—someone needs to take care of Grawp in Hagrid’s absence.

Hagrid’s delayed return to Hogwarts also increases the suspense in the Quidditch storyline. Hagrid shows up right after Umbridge bans Harry from Quidditch. Although Hagrid’s unexpected arrival directs us away from Harry’s ban, it also increases the suspense because we’re not focusing on it—we’ve moved on to Hagrid’s story, yet we’re still wondering how the Quidditch problem will pan out. (Additionally, Harry’s ban from Quidditch serves as his excuse for sneaking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Grawp.)

Example of Suspense: Occlumency

In the outline Harry is skipping his Occlumency lessons simply because he wants to skip them. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, Harry looks into the pensieve and sees something unsettling from Snape’s past. Snape is so furious that he throws Harry out and refuses to give him any more lessons. Talk about ratcheting up the suspense! Harry’s peek into the pensieve both increases the tension around the Occlumency lessons (as Hermione continually nags Harry that he needs to resume them) and increases the mystery around Snape’s past.

A Few More Examples of Rowling Increasing the Suspense

  1. Rowling originally has Grawp as Hagrid’s cousin, but he later becomes his half-brother. Even though Hagrid has always been soft-hearted, it’s more believable that he’d so desperately cling to Grawp if Grawp was his last lifeline to an immediate family member.
  2. In the outline Rowling has Harry running into MacNair visiting Bode in the hospital; she later deletes this scene—probably thinking that it would decrease the suspense by giving away too much.
  3. At first Rowling only has Harry suspended from Quidditch, but she decides to increase the stakes by giving him a lifetime ban.
  4. In the outline, Rowling has Umbridge not suspect the existence of Dumbledore’s Army until much later in the story, but in the final book, Umbridge not only knows about the D.A. as soon as it forms, she also immediately threatens expulsion with Educational Decree Number 24. This significantly increases the suspense, because now we’re not wondering if Harry is going to get caught but when.
  5. Originally, Rowling has Harry attack Mr. Weasley and then stay at Hogwarts until Christmas break—she even has him shop for Christmas presents in Hogsmeade. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, she has Harry and the rest of the Weasleys leave immediately for Sirius’ house. The snake attack is an important turning point in the story (the midpoint, to be exact) and Rowling doesn’t want to downplay the consequences.

Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. [Tweet This]

—Colette

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Top 5 Best Books on Writing in 2013

#5

Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort Of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected by Jessica Page Morrell

While this book seems to have gotten buried under the mounds of other writing books out there, it’s still a gem. Morrell’s advice is spot-on and—bonus points—she’s funny. I gobbled up the nearly four hundred pages in a matter of days.

#4

The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication by Ralph Keyes

Keyes’ first writing book, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, is more popular than this one. I’ve read both and my advice is to read one or the other; they pretty much cover the same concepts. But I would definitely recommend reading one of them, especially after the beating you’ll get from Morrell in Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us.

#3

Write Every Day: How to Writer Faster, and Write More by Cathy Yardley

I read this little e-book in one sitting (I love that Yardley doesn’t pad her writing books with unnecessary fluff). Write Every Day is the writer’s version of an awesome pep talk before the big game.

#2

Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method by Stuart Horwitz

This one is an obvious winner given that I have written four lengthy posts on how the methods in this book helped Rowling create complex plots and deep characters for her Harry Potter series. If you haven’t read my posts yet, here’s the first of four.

And now for my number one writing book in 2013 (although it’s not technically a writing book):

#1

Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey

This is a psychology textbook that was originally published back in the late ’70s, then revamped in 1998. Keirsey begins his book with a quote from Henry David Thoreau:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

I chose this book as my number one pick because you cannot write incredible, believable fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) if you do not have a deep understanding of people.

In three hundred fascinating pages, Keirsey delves into everything you can imagine about the sixteen different personality types: their interests, values, self-image, social roles, word usage, mating and parenting styles, even their sexual inclinations. He somehow manages to be both sweepingly broad yet painstakingly detailed.

One of Rowling’s particular strengths as a writer is her ability to depict so many different types of people in a very believable way. Her Harry Potter characters go deeper than looks and mannerisms; she gave them complex wants, needs, motives, and temperaments.

So if you’re looking to step up your writing game, check out Please Understand Me II.

(And if you missed last year’s list of best writing books, click here.)

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How Rowling Developed Suspense, Surprise, and Shock (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt IV)

This is it! The last post on Rowling’s outlining process and how she used series to develop her complex plots.

Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve talked about so far based on Stuart Horwitz’s Blueprint Your Besteller:

  1. A series is the repetition of any narrative element within a story (like a person, an object, or even a place or phrase). Some examples of series from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix include: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; Dumbledore’s Army; the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape; and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp.
  2. For a series to be worth keeping in a story it needs to a) repeat but vary, forming the undulating effect of a narrative arc, and b) intersect and interact with the other series in the story in such a way that it sends the story spinning in new directions.
  3. The strength of a novel is determined by the strength of its key scenes. A key scene is when multiple series come together and play off one another. Key scenes tie together all the loose story threads to create a tight-knit novel. An example of a key scene in Rowling’s outline is the scene following Harry’s dream about Mr. Weasley being attacked by Voldemort’s snake, Nagini. The scene deals with four of the six series listed above: The Hall of Prophecy; Ginny; Dumbledore’s Army; and the Order of the Phoenix.

How to Create Suspense, Surprise, and Shock

When Rowling outlined Order of the Phoenix, she was able to keep track of her complicated plot by dividing it into columns on paper based on which series a storyline belonged to and jotting down the development of each series in each chapter. And it’s because Rowling took the time to break down her plot into individual series that she was able to precisely place throughout her story the important elements of suspense, surprise, and shock.

Readers love books that have suspense, surprise, and shock. In fact, a book that doesn’t have those three S’s probably won’t get far off the shelf (or out of the desk drawer).

Unfortunately, a book that’s lacking suspense, surprise, or shock is not easily fixed. You cannot just toss a random bar brawl into a story and expect it to surprise or shock a reader. The hardest part about including the three S’s is figuring out how to organically grow them from the roots of your story, and that’s what Rowling is so good at in her Potter books.

Everything in Rowling’s intricately developed seven-book-long plot has meaning and purpose—from the very beginning in Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid uses Sirius’ motorcycle to drop off Harry at the Dursley’s front door all the way to the end in Deathly Hallows when Snape reveals the significance of his patronus. Rowling had to keep track of every one of those details throughout the 4,195 pages of her story.

But before she could even get that far, she had to first figure out how to get her readers to want to read 4,195 pages.

How to Track Your Plot’s Development

By dividing her story into series and then noting the development of each series in its own column, Rowling was able to pinpoint when, where, and how she would surprise or shock her readers, or continue leaving them in suspense.

Look at this bit of outline she wrote for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Transcribed Rowling Outline

Creating Suspense

Let’s start with suspense. In Blueprint Your Bestseller Horwitz explains how to create suspense in a series:

The effect of suspense is achieved when we are continually told what we don’t know . . . The iterations [of a series] are closer together and they are well managed to produce the effect that something is imminently going to be communicated to us.

An example of suspense would be the “Hagrid + Grawp” series. Rowling obviously changes things between this outline and the final draft, but still, she plans from the beginning to continually remind us of Hagrid’s injuries without telling us where he’s getting the injuries from. She continues to build the suspense by mentioning his injuries getting bloodier and more frequent, until nearly the end of the book when she relieves the suspense by revealing the secret behind his injuries in Chapter 30, aptly titled “Grawp.”

That’s suspense. Now for surprise.

Creating Surprise

Here’s Horwitz on how to surprise readers:

When the gaps between iterations are longer, surprise occurs . . . When an individual series suddenly returns to our conscious mind after such a pause and we experience the next iteration as unique yet familiar, this is surprise.

For example, at the end of Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore reveals to Harry that the person who prophesied that Harry would be Voldemort’s equal is the highly unlikely Professor Trelawney. Trelawney is an extremely un-gifted Seer and has only given a real prophecy once before, back in book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Rowling hadn’t mentioned Trelawney’s sporadic prophesying for quite some time, so the effect is surprise.

Creating Shock

And lastly, how to shock readers:

Shock occurs when there is barely one iteration before a disclosure takes place. With shock there needs to be something that would have admitted this possibility—the iteration that delivers a shock seems to come out of nowhere while not being totally unexpected in hindsight.

Rowling uses shock quite a bit in her Potter series—a difficult thing to pull off because readers don’t like to be tricked (they liked to be shocked but not tricked).

For shock to work, a writer has to give her readers all the hints they’d need to figure it out themselves, and then the writer has to somehow unexpectedly twist things around at the end.

An example of shock in Order of the Phoenix is the death of Sirius Black. It seems to come out of nowhere, but Rowling slyly set things up so that, in hindsight, it’s not completely unexpected.

For instance, Rowling clearly establishes that Sirius is hot-headed, impulsive, and very unhappy staying hidden at home instead of working alongside the rest of the Order. On top of that, Sirius is extremely loyal to Harry and would stop at nothing to protect him, which is ultimately what leads him to his death. All these things, however, are relatively minor character details that are easy to skim over in Rowling’s 870-page book, so when Sirius dies, the effect is shock. But the reader does not feel cheated because Rowling includes enough of those minor details so that it all adds up in the end.

And there you have it! It’s ultimately because Rowling understood how to organically integrate suspense, surprise, and shock into her plot that she was able to create a new and exciting story for each of her seven books. 

And that brings us to the end of this series of posts (get it, series?). I’m excited for my next few, especially my post on the best writing books I read this year.

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Looking for more posts on the Book Architecture Method? Check out these:

How Rowling Turned a Story Idea into a Best-Selling Series (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt I)

How Rowling Formed Her Narrative Arc (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt II)

How Rowling Created Key Scenes (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt III)

How Rowling Created Key Scenes (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt III)

Remember that a series is the repetition of any narrative element within a story (like a person, an object, or even a place or phrase). Here are some of the series Rowling outlined for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Hall of Prophecy; Harry’s feelings for Cho and Ginny; organizing Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape, and the mystery of Hagrid’s half-brother, Grawp. Notice in Rowling’s outline that each series has its own column, and for each chapter she jots down how each series is developing. She also has a column that’s simply labeled “plot” where she keeps track of which series is stepping into the spotlight when.

Transcribed Rowling Outline

I ended my last post on series with a question: How did Rowling know that each of the six series she listed was worth keeping?

A series worth keeping not only evolves in its own right but also has the power to change the direction of the entire story. In Rowling’s outline, all of her series intersect and interact with each other in such a way that if one were taken out, the story would be off-kilter. The individual scenes in her “plot” column illustrate especially well how her different series come together and play off one another. And that is the definition of a key scene: When several series collide and send the story spinning in new directions.

Not having these very important interactions between series in a key scene is what readers are describing when they say a book is “slow” or “nothing happens.” Here’s what Stuart Horwitz has to say about it in Blueprint your Bestseller:

When series interact, anything can happen. They can conflict and send one another spinning. One series can slow another down or stop it all together . . . [But] if you don’t have key scenes, if your series don’t intersect that often, you may have found the root of the problem with your manuscript. This often comes about in the middle of the narrative, where the length of time a reader has invested in your work is not being repaid – the payoff lies in being able to make the connections that key scenes produce when series intersect.

All scenes should be good scenes, but not all good scenes are key scenes. So how to differentiate between a good scene and a key scene? Here’s Horwitz again:

A good scene may be an important scene, a memorable scene, but it is not necessarily a key scene unless it contains the maximum interaction of series.

Where is a good scene and where is a key scene in Rowling’s outline?

The “Hagrid + Grawp” column is full of examples of good scenes. Rowling obviously changed a number of things between the time when she wrote this outline and when she finished writing the book, but you can still see that many of her good scenes for the “Hagrid +Grawp” series made it into the final cut. For example, Chapter 30 is titled “Grawp” and that’s what the majority of the chapter is about: It focuses on the “Hagrid + Grawp” series with pretty much no interaction with any of the other series. That’s a good scene, but it’s not a key scene.

Now take a look at the scene that deals with the aftermath of Harry dreaming about Mr. Weasley being bitten by a snake. It starts in Chapter 22, “St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.” In this scene, we’re dealing with multiple series interacting with each other: the Hall of Prophecy (because that’s where Mr. Weasley was attacked); Ginny (because Harry watches her reaction when she’s told about her father’s injuries); Dumbledore’s Army (because the Weasley kids make up a sizable chunk of the D.A.), and the Order of the Phoenix (because Mr. Weasley was injured while standing guard for the Order). That’s already four of the six series on Rowling’s outline. It’s a key scene.

(I’d also like to point out that this scene is the midpoint of the story. This is when everything changes. Until then, Harry’s dreams appear to be just dreams, but this dream is real. Mr. Weasley’s attack is the catalyst that forces Harry to become a warrior and start taking action. Plot points, such as the midpoint, usually involve the collision of multiple series because that’s when everything starts coming together. For more on story structure, click here.)

One of Rowling’s biggest strengths as a writer is that she is so adept at tightly intertwining her series so that everything in the story feels like it has a purpose (even if we don’t know why at first).

Stay tuned for the next post where we’ll discuss how to determine your main series and how you can use series to create suspense, surprise and shock.

More posts on The Book Architecture Method: 

How Rowling Turned a Story Idea into a Best-Selling Series (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt I)

How Rowling Formed Her Narrative Arc (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt II)

How Rowling Developed Suspense, Surprise, and Shock (Rowling’s Outline and the Book Architecture Method, Pt IV)

*Photo by Gabrielle Courchesne Delisle @ 500px / CC BY-ND