From Spark to Finish

Posted Aug 13 2017, 10:05 am in ,

Recently, I took to the interwebs to ask if anyone had any questions on writing or process I could answer for the Lemmon 15. Jody Holford shot back with this gem. Talk about a challenge! Rather than try and cram an answer into 140 characters on Twitter, or in the confines of the Q&A section on my newsletter, I decided this one required a blog.

How do you go from a spark of an idea to a whole story with enough conflict and momentum to fill all the pages?

Ho boy.

This is like explaining how to eat the proverbial elephant! 🐘 I’m sure if you asked this question to twenty authors, you’d get twenty different answers. I’m tackling this question in parts–since Jody did a great job of phrasing the question, I’m going to use Spark, Conflict, and Momentum as my jumping-off points.

 

Spark.

I love this word. A spark is what a story idea mostly feels like when it occurs. That subtle flash or pop when a snippet of dialogue comes to me, and the resonating ping in my gut telling me it’s worth documenting. The spark is the exciting part. The potential of more to come. Will the idea flame out, or go on to become an uncontrollable fire?

I do better with concrete examples, so let’s talk about my most recent paperback release, The Bastard Billionaire.

The spark–that flint-to-stone moment that produced Eli Crane was seeing a photo of B.T. Urrella taken by Michael Stokes. In it, B.T. is hanging from a cross, wearing only a loincloth, his hands gripping thick rope, and his legs crossed. B.T. is an amputee missing the lower half of one leg. That image solidified the desire I’d been having to write an amputee hero, but there was a problem: I didn’t know a thing about amputees or prosthetic limbs.

They say you should always attempt that which scares you, so when a tremor of uncertainty quaked in my bones, I moved toward it instead of away.

 

Conflict.

The best way to approach conflict in any story is to start with the biggest conflict, and work in smaller conflicts along the way.

The biggies in The Bastard Billionaire are:

  • Eli is a Marine amputee who’s been honorably discharged. He has a touch of PTSD, is mourning a two lost friends, and prides himself in his stubbornness.
  • Isabella is a heroine determined to build her personal assistant business. Eli is ruining her reputation, having fired each and every PA she sends his way.

Already, there is some interesting conflict brewing. We have a grouchy, determined hero and a feisty, headstrong heroine. When Isabella decides Eli has fired the last of her PAs, she promises his brother, Reese, she’ll show up personally and that Eli will not scare her away. But she’s not going to tell Eli she’s in charge, no no. She’ll play the part of PA until he acquiesces. Now we have the added layer of boss/employee, and a hero and heroine who have high stakes in the game. Eli refuses to become involved with his family business, Crane Hotels, until he’s good and ready, and Isa refuses to let him drive her away since her success depends on coaxing Eli to become involved with Crane Hotels.

I wrote several scenes in the book with their own mini conflicts. Without giving too much of the plot away, I’ll list them below.

  • Isabella’s parents promote her ex-boyfriend to President of their financial institution
  • Isabella cons Eli into being her date for the announcement
  • Eli’s friend Zach shows an interest in Isabella, but Eli orders him to back off
  • Eli has unfinished business with the wife of his deceased Marine friend
  • Eli struggles with sleeping with someone for the first time since he lost part of his leg
  • Eli is unable to protect Isabella at a time she needs it most

 

Momentum.

Ah, how not to lose the interest of your reader? That requires a bit of planning and a whole lot of commitment. Here’s what I do:

Start with a detailed synopsis. I write 10-15 pages detailing what might happen next (mine always, always change!), and use it as a guideline as I write the book. Sometimes it’s super helpful, like when I forgot I was going to weave in detail x halfway through. Other times it’s not at all helpful, like when my synopsis leaps from the scene I just wrote to the black moment, but I realize I need about twenty thousand words in between. 😑

Write every day. Or damn near every day. When I’m writing a first draft, I try to never take more than one day a week away from it. Even if it’s for thirty minutes, get your hands in it. Keep it fresh in your mind. If I’m away for two or three days, I come back to my draft feeling lost. The details are fuzzy and I usually have to reread several scenes to get entrenched again.

If it feels dull, it probably is. I don’t know a single writer who sits down to write a first draft and believes every word gold. There are scenes I write that I know will work later, after some editing and scrutiny, and so I keep writing, pushing through my #1k1hr to achieve my daily word count. Then there are the scenes that I write that I know probably won’t work. I  don’t know if that’s instinct or because I’ve written twenty-one first drafts, but I can feel as my fingers are typing away that the scene is off, or worse–boring. If it’s boring me, it’s probably going to bore the reader.

Brainstorm. When you feel the “sagging middle” of your manuscript, it’s time to stop writing it and start thinking about how else to move forward. I’m a big fan of grabbing a pen and a notebook and working through my questions on paper. Here are a few examples of my notes I dug up–only a fraction of the pages I dedicated to working out the conflict of The Bastard Billionaire.

Set a goal. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether 100 words a day or 10,000 words a day, but I caution you to choose a goal that a) challenges you and b) doesn’t overwhelm you. For me, that number fits comfortably in the 3,000 word range per day. If I work six days a week and all goes according to plan (ha, never happens!), I can hammer out 18k a week. Hiccups and snags can be expected, so I try and allow extra time for my goal. My window is 4-6 weeks for a first draft, but if it’s a new project or a sizable one, I allow 8 weeks to get it done.

Note: A goal should make you feel a tad bit nervous when you look at it, but not make you want to dive off a bridge. Know what motivates you. For me, it’s being able to check the day’s goal off as “DONE” on my planner. Without a goal, you never know how you’re progressing. If there is no way to measure your work, you can falsely feel accomplished: like you worked all day when you actually spent most of your time playing on Facebook. Or worse, you want to “write as many words as possible” and so you never truly feel accomplished since “as many words as possible” isn’t measurable. Instead, every day is rife with stress and knowing you can’t possibly get it all done. Take it from me: set a goal.

 

To summarize:

How do you go from a spark of an idea to a whole story with enough conflict and momentum to fill all the pages?

  1. Come up with your characters and their basic conflict. Write the blurb, or BCC (Back Cover Copy).
  2. Write a detailed synopsis, layering in more conflict. Will there also be a secret baby? Pretend fiance? Is the ex there to stir up trouble?
  3. Get to work. Write everyday. Brainstorm the next scene, and then the next.
  4. Have a goal. Push yourself to write more than you thought you could, but pull back if you go to far.

 

I hope this helps! I’d like to thank Jody for the question. If you have questions to ask, I have answers. Go to my Contact page and ask away! You could be featured on my Blog and/or my newsletter, the Lemmon 15.

 

Happy writing!

Jessica

 

Buy links for The Bastard Billionaire:

 

 

 

5 Comments

Comments

5 responses to “From Spark to Finish”

  1. John Thomas says:

    Would you have any helpful suggestions/tips about writing said BCC (Back Cover Copy)?

    Horrified to hear these should be written FIRST (!)because writing “short” is a cruel or unusual punishment (8th Amendment, US Constitution), but willing to try anything for a kick-start.

    • Jessica says:

      Ha! Don’t be horrified. This is just my method–and not a “have to” by any means. When I started out I didn’t write BCCs or Synopses first, but as I’ve grown accustomed to turning in these two to my agent, I’ve realized they really help with the process.

      The most helpful suggestion I have about a BCC is to read a LOT of them. Go to the library or book store, find your genre, flip over the back of the book and read. Even copy them exactly and try playing around with inserting your own characters’ names and plot. I thought it was cruel and unusual torture by my agent–she’d send them back with notes like “shorter”, “better word here”–but now I have the hang of it and find it fun (?!).

  2. Jody says:

    I think learning from others is such a strong way to improve my own craft– I love knowing HOW other’s approach and carry through. Thank you for this. It’s excellent <3

  3. Marcie R says:

    Since I received a rejection on Monday I definitely need the “conflict” part! Thanks for giving those of us seeking publication these tips!

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