The next Writing Hurts Like Hell weekend workshop will be March 18 – 19. Sorry, but it’s currently offered in Fredericton, NB only. Click here for more details.
I encourage my writing students to create a story board before starting their novels. I stole the idea from Walt Disney, who created a visual story board for the animated cartoon movie Snow White. I think is was something like a half mile long. This isn’t exactly what I do, not having half a mile of wall space.
I use one large card for each scene. Each card indicates the names of the characters in the scene and, very briefly, what happens in each scene. The cards look something like this:
The story board is a form of visual plotting. You can see how the story progresses. You can see where you might need more development, where scenes are missing, where you might need a previous scene to make a later scene make sense, and where you might need to delete a scene because it doesn’t advance the story. It gives you new ideas for more scenes and new directions for the story.
The story board creates a structure for your novel, so that when you start writing, you know where you’re going and how to get there. Starting off with that structure burned into your head saves a hell of a lot of time, cuts down the chances of getting writer’s block and makes it possible to get back into the writing if you’re away from it for a while. It also allows you to put together a realistic writing schedule because you can see what has to be done and the scope of what has to be done.
All this said, there may come a time when the story itself takes over, when the actual writing reaches a point where the story board doesn’t make any sense and you just have to write.
OK, the blood-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails anthologies, J, just said, “But Biff, you spent all that time sweating and suffering over a story board…and then…and then…you have nothing. Ha ha!”
And the fox said, “Ha ha!”
“Hey fox,” I said. “Guess how J writes a novel?”
“With brilliance, insight and feeling,” said the fox.
“Thanks, fox,” said J, smiling like a self-satisfied Canadian, who’s actually an American living in New Mexico.
“No!” I said. “He sleeps. Yes, he goes to sleep with a laptop in his lap and dreams. And while he’s dreaming, he records the dream and when he wakes up…presto…novel finished. And perfectly formatted.”
Just as J and the fox were about to say nasty things about me, I ran into my bedroom and crawled under my bed with my desktop computer. I can hear them shuffling around my apartment looking for me, but I know they’re afraid to look under my bed, fearing whatever stuff a writer hides under his bed. Like the stuff I got from my stag party about thirty years ago. I won’t get into details that might even scare me.
So yes, this just happened to me. I had the story board completed for my next novel, the details of which I won’t get into because they might even scare me. I estimated a short novel of about 60,000 words. I had everything worked out, plotted, carded, and on the wall at my studio.
But, as I approached the 60,000 word mark, things started to happen. The characters started doing things that I hadn’t planned. The story line started finding new paths that wandered far away from the story board. Tomorrow, I’m going to break the 80,000 word mark…and I’ll be nowhere near finished.
So, am I sorry I bothered putting all that time and effort into a story board?
Now, I should mention one other thing. I created that story board three years ago. Then, I took three years off to study photography. I came back to the novel a few months ago. I had the story board to come back to for re-orientation. But more important, I had a structure in my head that had three years to simmer and evolve. I dumped the opening chapter for something that, after three years of second thought, worked much better, and then continued with the original plan.
But, like I said, around 60,000 words things started to get out of hand.
I think J and the fox are looking for me in my refrigerator, and eating everything in it as they look. I didn’t know foxes ate avocadoes. I didn’t know editors ate.
But get this. It’s working. Each day when I start to write, the words are gushing out. New ideas and new directions are falling into the manuscript line inspired rain.
The fox said, “Did someone just say ‘inspired rain’?”
“That sounds like something dumb that Biff would say,” said J. “He’s still here. The refrigerator is empty. Let’s find him.”
So I have to make this fast. The story board gives you a structure to start with. It organizes your brain, and your creative instincts, around that structure. And once you have that structure, you can toss it when the story goes its own way. Without the structure to begin with, you would never have gotten to that point where the story would have taken off on its own.
Now, having said all that, there are writers who never use a story board. I mean, some writers just all asleep with a laptop in their laps. The story board is meant for people like me…busy people with fulltime jobs and myriad other things to do.
If you’re not writing fulltime…take the time to do a story board, especially if it’s your first novel. Get that structure in your head and, if the time comes, dump it and just let your story take you where it will go.
“Hey J,” said the fox. “Biff’s under his bed. And…holy shit look at the stuff…oh…the stuff!
OK…I think I’ve established that I hate winter. I hate the snow, the cold…et al…infinitely. All of that…the cold, the lack of smell, the lack of abundant color…the things you can physically see, smell and feel…are just one bottomless crater in my feelings about winter.
“So, Biff,” said the fox, “what else chills you about winter?”
“Good, one, fox,” said J, the notorious blood-sucking editor, as he laughed.
Oh shit. They’re back. I can’t even wallow in self pity by myself. And the fox was wearing a fox fur coat. “Oh, come on, fox,” I said. “You’re definitely related to that coat on some level.”
“I like to keep my ancestors close,” said the fox through a terrifying smile. If you’ve never seen a fox smile…don’t.
So, Biff,” said J, “I’m working on another anthology.”
Shit, I thought, more sleepless nights. More calls in the dead of the darkness: “Write, Biff, write. Need stories. Need your pain. Need your suffering.”
This is how editors talk to writers…even the editors that write.
“A…another…anthology?” I mumbled, lips quaking, sweat rolling.
“Yep,” said J. “It’s going to be a Twisted Tails anthology. I’m calling it Twisted Tails: The Ultimate Pain.”
“I like it,” said the fox. “It has a pizzazz ring to it. Does Biff get to suffer?”
“He sure does,” said J. “But that’s OK. Biff likes to suffer. It gives him an excuse to wallow in self pity. Right, Biff?”
I felt like a fly caught between a steaming pile of shit and a Snickers bar. But I wasn’t going to let the sinister editor get the best of me. “I wallow…therefore I am!” I blurted. Wondering as the words came out of my mouth…wtf.
The fox and J laughed for hours. And hours. Into days and nights and weeks. They laughed for weeks as I wallowed. “You guys almost finished?” I said.
They immediately stopped laughing and stared at me, straight-faced. “You don’t like the sound of laughter?” said J.
“You hate laughter?” said the fox.
I wasn’t taking any more of this shit. “CAN WE GET BACK TO WINTER?” I suggested.
The fox and J looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said together, “OK, Biff, winter.”
I took a deep breath, composed myself, took another deep breath, composed myself some more and said, “It’s like death.”
Simultaneously, the fox and J yawned.
“C’mon guys,” I said. “Look around! Everything’s covered in a shroud of snow. A shroud! There’s no smell, no warmth…nobody’s wearing shorts and t-shirts. No sandals. The beaches are closed. The swimming pools are empty. The outdoor patios for every bar and coffee shop in town are closed. As far as I can see, there’s not a single happy blade of grass. Winter is death and death is winter and all I want to do is wallow in self pity and cry for every blade of grass buried under a shroud of snow. And I want to put on shorts and sandals and a t-shirt, curl up under my bed and wait for spring.”
“Whoa,” said J. “That was good wallow, Biff. Are those tears in your eyes?
“Yep,” said the fox. “Biff’s crying. Ah…Biff…did we make you cry?”
They laughed again. For days and weeks. Laughed as a tsunami of tears washed over my face. “And my money tree died,” I said.
The fox and J looked at my dead money tree, browned with death and wondering, “Wtf?” And they laughed some more.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to make it annoyingly clear that I hate winter. I know I’ve made promises to people that I’ll try to get along with winter…and I have. I’ve actually gotten out of bed a few times. Like right now. I put on clothes and buried myself in a winter parka. I went into the the parking lot, into the frigid January daylight which, as soon as I stepped outdoors, turned to overcast skies, and a sub-zero wind that would lay a membrane of frost around Hell whipped out of the frozen air.
“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “Like my new coat?”
Damn fox was wearing a mink coat.
“You do understand that you might be related to that coat, don’t you?”
“Are you giving the fox a hard time again, Biff?”
I looked behind me. Floating in the air in lotus position and wearing a 10 gallon hat full of steaming hot water from which pipes extended to form a circular heating system around him was J. Richard Jacobs, aka J. He wore a housecoat with a ninja turtle motif.
“J,” I said. “So, that really was you the other day, sitting on my kitchen counter.”
“Yes, Biff, it was. I read your blog and realized that the fox wasn’t making your life miserable enough. It takes an editor make life truly painful for a writer…even one like you, who just barely meets the qualifications for being literate and can’t follow simple formatting standards.”
“Biff,” said the fox, “J and I talked about your plans and your purpose for being. We decided that your search for peace was…well, you know…kind of futile. I mean, look around. Nobody wants peace anymore. There’s no money in it. There’re no movies in it. And besides, people like hating each other.”
“We don’t necessarily like our conclusions,” said J, “but, yes, the fox is right…we put more effort into hating than we do into loving.”
“Hating is more profitable,” said the fox. “And it makes for better best sellers.”
“People have more fun hating than loving,” said J. “Haven’t you ever watched reality TV? It’s what we’ve become.”
“It’s all a big TV show with bad script writers,” said the fox.
“So we’ve decided that you need to focus your less than ample talents on something else,” said J.
I felt like I was between a brick wall and a thousand foot precipice with flying demons trying to bite my ass off. “OK,” I said. “I’m game. What should I focus on?”
The fox and J went silent. They looked at each other. They looked around. They looked at me. They looked back at each other. They looked up. They looked down. They looked all around. J started to speak…but looked up instead. The fox scratched his head…and looked at J.
J suddenly smiled and beamed and the pipes surrounding him tooted.
I swear…they tooted.
“I have an idea,” he said. The fox snapped to attention. I dropped my forehead into my right palm. This was going to be bad. I mean…he tooted.
“Biff,” he said, “it’s time for you to come to grips with winter.
There followed two hours of silence as J’s words tumbled around inside my head trying to fall into some kind of coherent meaning. J and the fox stared at me during this time. Just…stared.
There followed another two hours during which I chased J and the fox around the parking lot, needing desperately to beat both of them to death with my camera.
Just as I was about to bring my camera down onto the head of the mink-coated fox, a lid in the parking lot flipped down and I fell into the paving.
How did I never notice this before? I thought.
I tumbled through a tunnel under the parking lot, thinking, This is probably how Alice must have felt.
It seemed like I tumbled for several minutes that turned into several hours and turned into days and into months…and entire lifetimes flashed by my right and my left and right through my head and body as I tumbled into the openings of void after void and I thought: How did I not know this about the parking lot?
Eventually, I landed, camera in hand, on the walking bridge. So I took a couple of pictures before the other two figured out where I was and set out to torment me.
And I still hate winter.
I hate winter. I hate snow. I hate the cold, the dark, the icy roads, the shoveling and scraping but, most of all I hate the absence of color and aroma. This is why I love taking pictures in winter.
Yes, there’s the beauty of snow-capped and ice-framed trees…the sublime quiet of their form and texture. Like this…
But you can only take so many thousands of pictures like this before you say, “I want a living leaf. My imaginary kingdom for a living leaf.
And some color would be nice
So, beloved Canon 5D2 in hand, I ventured out into the cold Canadian winterscape in search of color (after kissing the camera of course) (and the Sigma 24-70 lens) (after having my lips stuck to my wonderful Kia Soul just a few days ago, I patted my Soul affectionately and said, “Good girl.”) (and then left my Soul behind).
I walked for miles. And miles. And miles with a song sitting vaguely at the edge of my mind, but ever elusive. I traversed vast snow-shrouded fields, trekked to the summits of cloud-touching snow banks and giggled as I made now-angels to mark my path so that I could find my way back.
All this within the borders of Freddie Beach, a small city perched precariously at the edge of the Earth.
Just as I was about to scream, “Oh shit!” to the gods and those who haunt the forests with snowmobiles and snowshoes…and thermos full of tasty hot chocolate (which, at the time, was sitting safely on my kitchen counter wondering wtf)…I spotted the color. It was muted and almost shy, like something recently birthed from the frozen ground.
I quickly cleaned my lens and set my camera to ISO 200 (it was overcast), f/11 (to bring out a world of detail), 1/240 (because I was shaking from the cold) and 70mm (because there was no way I was going to struggle across that wasteland of white up to the subject).
I think, at one time, this might have been an ice house…a structure used to keep winter within its walls year ’round to preserve food. Or it might have been someone’s pot garden…a structure used to keep summer within its walls year ’round.
I took three pictures, using different compositions. I rejected the two with dragons flying out of the door. They seemed so out of place, and I would have been accused of gratuitous Photoshopping.
It wasn’t until I processed the image that I saw it.
A dust spot…rearing its ugly head at the top left of the image. Just as I was about to eliminate it with the Spot Remover, I thought, That’s not a dust spot. That’s a dragon flying into the void of another Canadian winter. So I left it in…for those who still believe in dragons. See it?
Back to the moment, though, I suddenly had an urge to crawl under my bed with a thermos of hot chocolate and wait for spring to arrive.
When I arrived home…the hot chocolate was gone and I had a feeling of something ominous present. And I heard a voice, “Serves you right, Biff.”
I looked at the counter behind me. Sitting on it with a terrible smile was…the fox! And beside him, smiling just as evilly was…the soul-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails Anthologies…J Richard Jacobs.
He ground his teeth together and said, slowly, coldly, blood-suckingly, “Hello, Biff.”
(To be continued)
The Writing Hurts Like Hell weekend workshop gives you the tools and techniques you need to start and finish a novel. You’ll learn how to overcome writer’s block, create memorable characters, develop a compelling plot and set up a writing regimen to fit your schedule and lifestyle. Based on ten years of teaching writing workshops, Writing Hurts Like Hell will lead you step-by-step through every phase of writing a novel. Classes will be held in various locations around the city. The techniques you’ll learn in this workshop can be applied to other forms of writing as well: poetry, creative journaling, business writing, short fiction, blogging, podcasting, screen writing, etc.
Instructor: Biff Mitchell
Location: Various (first meeting will be at Starbucks at the Regent Mall)
Time/Date: November 5 and 6 (10 am till 4 pm)
Price: $95. Payment is cash only. No cheques, promises or trades.
For more information or to enroll: firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 455-2433. Please be sure to say your phone number twice, slowly and clearly.
Enrolment is limited 10 students. To take this workshop, you must enroll prior to the first day of the workshop. The workshop is currently held in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.
Biff Mitchell is the author of five novels, dozens of short stories, novellas and poems, the bestselling eMarketing Tools for Writers, 2nd Edition and Writing Hurts Like Hell: How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time to Write a Short Story. Biff has been teaching writing workshops for 10 years including the Maritime Writers Workshop, the FogLit Literary Festival and the UNB College of Extended Learning on subjects ranging from science fiction and mystery writing, how to get published, how to write humor and how to write a novel. You can visit him at biffmitchell.com.