Yes, we're still on Inspiration, or getting started writing. This shouldn't surprise those of you who've tried it, writing is hard work. If it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doing.

If you look like this, you're doing it right.   Credit.

One of the most common problems for authors is the plethora of old ideas that frustratingly never came to fruition. Maybe you just couldn't take it in the direction you wanted, or it simply stalled. It happens all the time, and it's not a mistake. The only mistake you can make is scrapping it, deleting it, or throwing it out.

In a previous post I discussed how to turn a novella into a novel, so we won't revisit that here. I also discussed how to save those never-fleshed-out-ideas as remainders so it's a good idea to read over that. What we're going to deal with are the ideas that never had an ending added, or if they're just an ending, never had a start. The cocktail-napkin ideas, the scribbled attempt at a start, or the ideas percolating in your mind you just can't get down onto paper.

The first step is a little spiritual. You have to ask yourself why you couldn't turn it into a full story. Most often it's because you had an idea of how it should go, but you can't figure out how to start it to make the plot go that way. Or worse, you have the full story in your head, the action, the characters, the ending, but you can't create a start. Perfect! Let's deal with the former first, and later we'll discuss how those awkward free-writing starts can't seem to be fleshed out.

Now with the two examples above you have a general idea of what you want, and you know why you can't get it going. With either problem there is one simple solution. Step-by-step you must do this: identify your genre, note expected conflicts, create a summary, create character bios, and create an outline.

I hope you're half as expectant and excited as this eel.

In Step 1 you must identify the genre. Just because your idea is about a murder mystery doesn't make it a mystery. What else do you envision? Is it two people solving the murder and falling in love? Then it's a romance. Does the murder lead to a conspiracy of authorities? Then it's a thriller. Does the murder take a backseat to the main character's loss of innocence and coming of age? Then it's general fiction. So on and so on. If you really can't identify the genre, you're not reading enough. A writer must be above and beyond all other things a reader first and foremost. Go read the classics of specific genres until you get a feel for them and then come back to your idea.

Go. read. NOW. If you wait too long, you'll end up in a Twilight Zone episode.

For Step 2 you know the genre and now you have to do is go deeper. Many things separate genres, mostly subject matter, but there is one thing most readers do not realize, and writers do: conflict. Conflict is any presented setback to the protagonist or plot that ultimately propels it forward. Internal conflict is their own doubts, fears, inner debate. External conflict comes from outside sources and impedes the plot as well as protagonist. Red herrings, aggressive antagonists, injuries/property damage that impede discover, etc. There's no hard and fast rule, but if you read enough you can see a coming-of-age story is roughly 75% internal and 25% external conflict. Mysteries are a strong opposite with a 15/85 internal/external difference. The following list is a rough estimation of internal vs. external conflict or the major genres.

  • General Fiction (adult loss-of-innocence): 75% Internal / 25% External
  • General Fiction (adolescent/child coming of age): 67% Internal / 33% External
  • Horror (supernatural force or human killer): 25% Internal / 75% External
  • Horror (psychological / non-corporeal threat): 75% Internal / 25% External*
  • Romance (any sub-genre but thriller/mystery): 67% Internal / 33% External 
  • Romance (mystery or thriller): 60% Internal / 40% External
  • Mystery: 15% Internal / 85% External
  • Thriller: 10% Internal / 90% External
  • Adventure: 5% Internal / 95% External
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy (multiple protagonists): 10% Internal / 90% External
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy (one protagonist): 20% Internal / 80% External
  • Action (war - plot occurs during war and does not concern loss of innocence or coming of age): 10% Internal / 90% External
  • Action (war - plot occurs after and concerns loss of innocence as result of war): 66% Internal / 34% External
  • Action (western): 5% Internal / 95% External  

*This exemplifies an important note about conflict: What determines it was internal or external is how your protagonist sees it. In gaslighting the protagonist does not know what he/she perceives as internal conflict comes from outside sources. As such they percieve it as internal it becomes an internal struggle, hence is classified as internal conflict.

Now you'll notice a few oddities. What if you have a war novel but it's post war and deals with PTSD? Well now you have to figure it out: does it deal with a mystery about the war? Then it's a mystery or thriller. Does it deal with coming to terms with the war without many flashbacks to the war? Then it's general coming-of-age (adult)/loss-of-innocence fiction. If it has many flashbacks to the war it's still an action story and as such has it's own specific conflict mix. The more you read the more comfortable you will be with making these distinctions.

Step 2 is your double-check step. Let's say you think you have a mystery, but you envision the conflict being 50% internal. You have 3 choices here, buck-o: Either you're so goddamn good you can create a new sub-genre that wont be rejected left and right and ultimately flop, or you need to change the genre, or you need to change the conflict. Mysteries, as we've shown, should have a mix of 15/85 internal/external. You can fudge it as much as 25/75 safely but any more than that and you're creating a quagmire for the reader. So do some long, hard thinking. If your planned internal/external mix is not within 10% of any listed above you're going to have change the mix, pure and simple. Unless, of course, you're godlike and can make a coherent new mix, thus giving birth to a new genre. Good luck with that.

So pull out your start from the cocktail napkin or the 5 pages you wrote on the computer. Get familiar with it. Write down your genre and the internal/external conflict mix. For Step 3 you have to know if you're writing a short story, novella, or novel. The first thing to do is figure out how much to write. Get familiar with the word count ranges of of these and note ultimately it can vary based of genre, not just expected story length. Using fast and loose rules expect (typing using Times New Roman 12pt, double spaced, normal default margins) a short story to be 10-30 pages, a novella to be 75-150, and a novel to be 220-500. Let's just go with a default of 30 for a short story, 100 for a novella, and 300 for a novel for Step 3.

If you majored in English not because you love literature but because you wanted to avoid math...suck to be you now, doesn't it?

In Step 3 you have to create a summary. A summary is a short extremely general "outline" of the story. It concerns only the major protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), details the major, not minor, conflicts, and shows the beginning and end. Major conflicts are the internal and external conflicts that propel the story forward.One example could be a private detective concluding what seems to be an unimportant interview only to be physically attacked. A minor conflict is anything that does not propel the story forward, though it may be key to character development. One example could be in a coming of age story a girl catching sight of her reflection and deciding on a makeover which boosts her, but the makeover does not have affect on the plot. If that makeover put her in the sights of a serial killer which propels the plot, it becomes major.

Once you know the difference, for the summary, you will have to identify major conflicts. How many should you have? how many you have determines the pace. A good rule of thumb (again NOT a hard and fast rule) is 3-5 for a short story, 8-15 for a novella, and 20-30 for a novel. If you want your story to be fast-paced pick a larger number as a goal, if you want it slower paced aim for the minimum.

Now write your summary. Identify the main protagonists and antagonists. Any sentence introducing a protagonist or antagonist should relate major characteristics of them and how they relate to the story. For the rest every sentence you write should describe conflict within a summary or relate to a plot point that inspires conflict.. Here's a sample paragraph:

Jim is 31 and a married accountant with PTSD, Katherine is a 29 year old alcoholic single mother with depression, and both served together in the National Guard in Afghanistan in 2002 on a one year tour. Jim is visited by the police and informed his former CO has been murdered and his name appeared in his CO's records, but refuses to discuss this with his wife as he does anything to do with the war. Katherine is visited as well which delays her from a custody hearing about her son. John contacts Katherine to discuss the case and they revisit their tour of duty. His wife suspects an affair, and tells friends, casting suspicion on John when she disappears.

When done your summary should be about 1% the length of your story (slightly ore for a short story). It should be typed in Times New Roman, 12 pt font, normal margins, single spaced. For a 30 page short story the summary should be 1 page long. For a novella it should be 1-2 pages long. For a novel it should be 3 pages long. Never exceed the upper limit. If you do, go back and edit until it conforms. If you seek an agent or publisher for your work they almost always want to see the summary and outline as well as the work and they are strict about length. It must include all major protagonists and antagonists, the conflict that drives the plot, and the ending. You can always edit your summary to 100% reflect what is actually written after you're done writing the story.

If you steal this idea, the kitty gets it. Not kidding. I'm using an idea my father has always wanted to write. He's a retired marine sniper...and a dog person.


For Step 4 you create character bios for the major players. Click on the link to download a form I use, or create your own based off it. You will want a picture (use one of a friend, from online, or draw one by hand if you're talented in that way) and use that to base descriptions on. Include habits, mannerism, common idioms/expressions they make. Note their favorite foods, movies, books, music, possessions. Discuss their family background and general personality. Note their primary motivations in life and the story. No publisher will ever see this, it's just for you, but this how you create 3 dimensional characters.

The final step, Step 5, is to write an outline. The words summary and outline are counter-intuitive As we've seen a summary is a short nearly bullet-point brief description of the story. The outline is your writing guide. Using the example of a 30 page short story, a 100 page novella, and a 300 page novel your outline should be 10% of the length. An outline for a short story will be 3 pages, a novella would be 10, and a novel outline would be 30 pages. These can be likened to Cliff's Notes, and though agents & publishers will want to see it, when you create it you will use it as a writing guide only.

Here you will note the things that a reader would hit on. More important details on characters, minor conflict, minor plot points that do not include conflict. Here is a 3 paragraph example based off our summary example:

Jim Anderson is a 31 year old accountant in Spokane, WA, trapped in an unhappy marriage. Though he loves his wife Mary the tensions stem from his lingering PTSD. He served in the national guard and was called to serve a 1 year tour in Afghanistan when he was 21. He witnessed many horrible things and the only person he could relate to was Katherine "Kathy" Dubois. They had a brief affair and both were hated by the CO, Jerry Meyers. Most vividly Jim has nightmares of an assault on a cave ordered by Jerry which killed thirteen children. He has always doubted Jerry's orders and felt his CO should have been court-martialed, but slugged through one year and resumed college, marrying his sweetheart Mary.

Kathy is 29 and an alcoholic haunted by the same memories as her friend Jim, living in Seattle, WA. She had a child five years earlier but her alcoholism granted her ex-boyfriend custody. Struggling to regain custody she fights a battle with her ex as well as drowns her demons with cheap wine. She has never told anyone, not even Jim, that her CO Jerry sexually assaulted her. She often spends time looking him up on the internet and has never sought treatment for her abuse.

When Jerry Meyers is found murdered in Vancouver, WA, the only clue police have is a list by him of five names. All have alibis but two, former troops under him, Jim and Kathy. After a phone consultation with both police first speak to Jim. He is shocked by the murder but refuses to discuss anything with police. His guilt and shame from the war consume him. The police accost him at his home and leave frustrated. Mary demands answers but Jim refuses to share any with her, which causes a huge argument. Upset, he tracks down Kathy and discovers she too has been visited by the police. Over a week they speak on the phone and she tells him the police kept her  from her court appointment to gain custody. Feeling for her he offers to contact a lawyer he knows in her area who might help. 

Notice one thing: summaries and outlines are written in preset-tense. Always. No exceptions. NEVER write your story in present tense. Small sections can be, but overall always use past-tense in a story. Another important note at this stage: always begin outlines with any background information/action that relates to the story. The actual story could begin at Mary's disappearance, but these facts leading up to that are important. The outline need not begin where the story does, but it must end where the story ends.


Is that it? Can I start writing now? NO!

If you follow all 5 steps you can turn any faulty-start or aborted idea into a fleshed out story. Now you have your outline, your writing guide, and can work at your pace with no worries. Remember changes can happen, you may write something new or omit something that was in your outline. Change your outline to match. If you change more than 10% of your outline you will get lost and end up where you started. Repeat the 5 steps and you'll be back on track.

What if you have the full story in your head, but can't get started? It's fairly simple. You follow the process above but start at your summary. Write the summary, character bios, and outline. Once you're done with that it should be easy to start. Simply look at your outline and ask yourself what is the one act that sets the story in motion? You may have gleaned from my examples it's Mary's disappearance. Jerry's murder is important to that but so is Jim & Kathy's tour of duty, the incident at the cave, and their previous relationship. Your additional step is to identify the most important conflict to start the story. If you find that difficult, look to the conflict in your summary. What's the first conflict that all the others relate to? trace them back to the one that drives all the action. Look at your outline for help. Once you find it, start there.

All you need to do now is ask yourself how fast paced your story is. Look at the summary and outline. Is it chock-full o' conflict? Then start in media res

Already late for work Jim swore as a knock on the door turned into a pounding he couldn't ignore. He spilled his coffee on his hand as he ran to open the door to the same two cops who'd been there just a week earlier.

"Mr. Anderson, is your wife at home?"

"No. Look, she was staying with her sister, let me get you her cell phone number."

The burly cop, Kellner if he remembered the man's name, frowned. "Where were you last night at seven p.m.?"

On the phone with Kathy, Jim thought, but seeing as that was why Mary left he wasn't about to admit it.  "At home, why?"

"You'd better come with us," the younger less paunchy cop said.

"Look, I'm late for work."

"Mr. Anderson," Kellner interrupted, "Your wife was abducted from her sister's home at gunpoint at 7p.m. We're going to need you to come down to the station with us."

That's in media res. You the reader find out about the disappearance the same time Jim does. This is a mystery so we've planted lots of tantalizing clues. Who's Kathy? Why were the cops there a week before? For mystery readers this is that first free hit to get them addicted and wanting more.

If your outline and summary reveal less conflict, start after the event that gets the story rolling:

Swiping his hands through his hair Jim stared at the phone. why hadn't she called? Had she staged her own disappearance? Mary was completely wrong, he wasn't having an affair, but she was bound and determined about it, telling all her friends. Now some madman had abducted her at gunpoint from her sister's home and the police were convinced it was him.

It didn't help that just a week ago they'd questioned him about a murder. If anyone deserved to die it was Jerry Meyers, but he hadn't seen his former CO since being discharged nine years earlier from the National Guard. 

The only person who could understand was Kathy, cast under the same cloud of suspicion as he, but if he called her to talk that fueled the fire of the rumors of an affair. He wanted to talk to her, see how she was doing, and damn it, he was tired of being alone. 

Grabbing his coat he cursed and made a swift decision. He'd drive to the payphone outside of town and they'd meet halfway. He needed answers, and he needed them now.

There you go. Some simple rules and guidelines. This has been a hard lesson, but no one ever said writing was easy. Using this system no idea is a bad idea, it just requires work. If you ever find yourself with writer's block, go back to an old idea and try this system, you'll be writing in no time.

Okay, maybe you're a dog person. So, if you steal my idea the kitty AND the puppy get it. I couldn't find any fish or reptiles at gunpoint so ichtymaniacs and herpamaniacs get free reign.