An easy approach to develop your story

People often ask me how I turn my story ideas into a story. They probably believe that there is some special fairy magic that goes on behind the scenes. The truth is much more mundane than that, but in many ways more exciting too. I follow a simple approach that is available to anyone to use. You don’t need to be some colossus of literature to do it and it really opens up the possibilities for story development. So what is it? Today I’m going to talk you through this process and show how you can go from a blank page to a fully-fledged story idea really quickly.
Step one: The six plots
I begin by choosing my plot. Not making up, but choosing. Though there are more stories in the world than it is possible to count, I believe there is a limited number of different basic plots to choose from. In fact, a literary theorist named Christopher Booker believes there are seven, as he tells us in his aptly named book ‘The Seven Basic Plots’. Booker believes that all storylines are simply a variant on these basic seven. I’d go one step further and say there are six basic plots, as follows:
  1. Overcoming the monster - Many of the most popular books and films of all time fall into this category - Harry Potter, Star Wars, James Bond and most crime thrillers. Ultimately it covers any story where the main plot is about defeating an opposing force (whether it be an actual monster, other people or your own inner demons).
  2. Rags to riches - A particularly popular theme in fairytales such as Cinderella or Aladdin, but also in Dickens.
  3. The quest - Probably the most popular plot after ‘Overcoming the monster’ and used in stories from the Lord of the Rings to Indiana Jones. 
  4. The comedy - This is basically any story that simply narrates a series of comic events as its main focus. Examples in children’s books include the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series.
  5. The tragedy - Though many of the other plot types can involve a fatally flawed hero or heroine, the consequences of this fatal flaw are the main focus of tragedies from 'Oedipus Rex' to 'Madame Bovary'.
  6. The change - Though particularly common in fairytales (e.g. the Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast), this remains a popular plot type from ‘A Christmas Carol’ to 'Despicable Me’ where changes in character occur rather than physical changes.

Though I don’t agree with everything Booker says, I have found his theories a really helpful way to approach storytelling. Once you have picked your basic plot or plots (many quests are also about overcoming the monster and many ‘rags to riches’ tales are also comedies) then you’re ready for step two.
Step two: The six characters
Once I have my basic plot I need to decide who are the individuals who will carry the plot along. As with plots, I believe there are also a limited number of character types. As a student, I was particularly intrigued by theories of Vladimir Propp developed from his analysis of Russian fairytales. He concluded that every character in these fairytales falls into one of seven types. I’ve found these invaluable in my own story development and have adapted them to my own purposes and again narrowed these to six general types.
  1. The hero / heroine - The person (or sometimes persons) around whom the story revolves. They may be an anti-hero or anti-heroine, even, but without one you haven’t got much of a story. 
  2. The villain - Arguably not every plot type requires such a character, but some of my favourite characters from children’s books have been villains (Shere Khan, Cruella De Vil, Mr. Twit).
  3. The false hero - A classic character of fairytales whom we still meet in modern media with characters like Prince Charming in 'Shrek 2' and Zapp Brannigan in ‘Futurama’.
  4. The victim - This character type is a development from Propp’s own character type called the ‘Princess or prize’. I find it much more helpful to think of this character as the person to whom something unpleasant has happened which the hero or heroine needs to solve in the story rather than the hero’s goal.
  5. The helper - This character basically facilitates the story by providing some sort of help to the hero or heroine. Characters of this type include the Fairy Godmother in ‘Cinderella' and Short Round in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'.
  6. The fool - This character is not necessarily important to the development of the story, but provides comic relief, like Donkey in Shrek or Falstaff in Henry IV, part 1.
Armed with these simple ingredients it is very easy to go from no story idea to a story outline in minutes. It has helped me development my two books to date (find out more here) and I am using it currently for my next book.  Will you give it a go?

Why everyone should have a regular writing habit

I recently wrote my first book. It was by turns an uplifting and a disheartening process. On some days my writing seemed to flow like a mountain torrent, on others I simply wanted to jump off a mountain. Going through all of this, the good, the bad and the ugly, taught me one thing: everyone should write. Really? Do I mean everyone? Yes, I do. Not necessarily a book, but everyone should write something meaningful to them on a regular basis.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden
Like most people, I’ve been writing since my early school days and I take it for granted. Until a few years ago, it was rare that I wrote for any reason except to achieve a task (send an email at work, text a friend to arrange to meet, fill in a mortgage application). Writing for any reason but to get things done would probably have seemed a luxury, something bohemian and, perhaps, a little elitist. But writing a book encouraged me to do even more ‘non-essential’ (which is to say ‘more meaningful') writing and even take up a journal. The benefits I’ve gained from this have convinced me that everyone should write. Here’s why.

Writing helps you work out what you believe

Surely we know what we believe? Why do we need to write it down? Just the act of sitting down to write what you believe will answer this question for you. You will probably write a couple of bold statements (as I did) and then re-read them and think of something else which contradicts or substantially changes what you’ve already written down. In a short time you will have written down, crossed out, added and removed dozens of beliefs. They probably all existed inside of you, but just hadn’t been questioned. Writing them down on paper is the only way I’ve found to marshall these thoughts effectively. You may ask why it’s important to know clearly what you believe. How else will you navigate the difficult decisions of life with any kind of clarity if you don’t?
This isn’t simply a once and done activity. You will need to revisit it, because, if you are writing regularly, you will find that your beliefs are being shaped and modified daily.

Writing clarifies complex situations

Evernote Snapshot 20160518 164951
Just as writing helps us to work out what we believe, it helps us to simplify the complexity of what is going on in our lives and in our heads. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or down I sit down and write. I write down the things swirling around my brain and the feelings they engender.  The simple act of writing gives me a sense of regaining control over these thoughts and feelings. Once they are on a page in front of me, I can identify the important and the unimportant, dismiss the unimportant and start to address the important. Trying to address these thoughts and feelings in my brain just causes clutter and stress. Writing them down gives me the space to work out what to do about them.

Writing regularly fixes memories in your mind

This is perhaps the best reason to write regularly. My memory of recent events has improved dramatically. Writing down the events and feelings of a day force you to re-live them and in so doing this fixes them into your brain much more securely than relying on simple memory. The most effective revision technique I found at school and university was to re-write my notes. It’s taken me many more years to realise the value of this in life more widely.

Writing regularly improves confidence

Photo credit: Green Chameleon
Photo credit: Green Chameleon
This is not a product of writing alone, but of writing and sharing. Writing something and showing it to other people is scary, no matter how many times you do it. You feel you’re putting yourself on the page to be critiqued. However, the more I do this, the more my confidence generally (and not just with writing) grows. If you are taking up a writing habit, I would recommend you keep your writing to yourself as you start out, but at some point you should start to share it with close family and friends who you know will be supportive. Even showing to these people to begin with will be daunting, but the more you do it, the more your confidence will grow. Another wonderful by-product of sharing my writing has been realising the widespread and genuine support I have among the people I know (even with those people I might not have expected it from).
So, what’s holding you back? Or, if you do write regularly, what are your reasons for doing so? Please do leave a comment below to let me know.

Six tips for keeping productive as a creative

Keeping productive: the constant battle

It may come as a shock to the thousands who dream of freedom from the tyranny of working for someone else that being only accountable to yourself is often even harder. It definitely is for me. The one thing I’ve struggled with particularly in my move into 'indie authorship' is staying productive. Who knows (unless I tell them) that I watched South Park rather than writing those 1,000 words I meant to write? What concern is it of anyone but me if I spent the time I meant to use to update my author Facebook page clicking on links to funny animal videos instead? You would think that being accountable to yourself should of itself mean you are more intrinsically motivated and likely to achieve your goals. After all, surely you don't want to let yourself down, of all people? Sadly, I’ve not found that to be the case and so I have put into place a few approaches to keep me on the straight and narrow.

My top six productivity tips

1. Set deadlines

time-481444_960_720This is perhaps the most obvious and the most important tip. No matter how artificial it is, a deadline creates accountability and urgency, even if you are the only person who knows it and no one else is impacted if you miss it. When you have a big task like writing and self-publishing a book it is necessary to break this down into further deadlines and milestones (e.g. complete outline; complete first draft; submit to editor; commission cover designer, etc.). Not only does this create further urgency, it also creates a sense of progress and achievement, which is often one of the things you most lack and most need when working for yourself.

2. Batch similar activities into blocks of time

How many of us check email, Twitter and Facebook whenever we see a notification (and stop doing what we were meant to be doing to do so)? This switching back-and-forth from one activity type (e.g. writing) to another (e.g. scanning your Facebook feed)is not highly effective multi-tasking (though I used to tell myself it was), but a massive productivity killer.So, I try to group similar activities together into blocks of time. For example, I have three email and social media check-in points per day (early morning, lunchtime and mid afternoon). I do all my checking and responding then. This reduces massively the dreaded social media time-drain.

3. Treat writing like any other job

conference-room-768441__180This goes for any project where you are only accountable to yourself and not only writing. Scheduling my writing and related activities in the same way I would a meeting in ‘normal’ work and respecting the timings significantly increase the chances I will do it. In fact, I rarely fail to do what I've scheduled and where I do fail it is normally that I’ve not worked on whatever it was for as long as I wanted rather than I haven’t done it at all.

4. Tell other people what you are doing (whether they want to hear it or not!)

As I said, being accountable only to yourself is actually harder than being accountable to someone else, so create ‘false’ accountability to other people. If you’ve told your spouse, best friend, mum or Aunt Tabitha’s dog that you’re writing a book (or starting a business, or finally going to clear out the attic) you’ll feel more like you have to follow through than if only you know it. Some people often go further and set up formal accountability with other people and have regular check-ins. This is sometimes called an ‘accountabilibuddy’, which is a truly appalling term which I believe was coined by the creators of South Park (or at least that is where I first heard it). I haven’t got an ‘accountabilibuddy’ as yet, but, in spite of the silly name, it seems a very promising idea. 

5. Write things down as soon as they occur to you

study-1231393_960_720Do you get distracted from what you’re meant to be doing now by what you’re meant or want to be doing later or what you’ve already failed to do? My brain used to swirl with 'to do' lists and reminders of what I’d forgotten to do. Then I read the ‘Getting things done’ methodology (by David Allen) which proposes the premise that your brain is not meant as a store of things you need to do or haven’t done. In fact, it is absolutely rubbish at that (whenever I say to myself “I must remember to do…”, I can categorically guarantee that I will not remember to do whatever it was). Writing things down allows your brain to focus on higher order activities, like idea generation and critical thinking.I find a product called Evernote great for this as it’s on my phone, tablet and computer, so I will always have access to what I’ve written.

6. Identify the essential, biggest impact activities for the day

When I was a management consultant one of the almost daily mantras was a quote from the management expert Peter Drucker - “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all". Putting in place the approaches above is pointless if you aren’t using them to do the right things. Something I’ve recently started doing each evening is asking myself “What must I do tomorrow if I do nothing else?" This has been really effective as it has helped me hone in on the important activities and means I have a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

What would you add?

So, there you have it: my top six productivity tips. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I have found these approaches the most helpful in keeping me motivated and productive. What tips would you add to the list? Please let me know in the comments below.