How I Write Part 7: Scene Cards & Sound Track

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of the things I’m suggesting may seem like they’d be more suited to moviemaking. There are reasons for that. When people read stories, they play movies of the stories in their heads. They can’t help themselves. So it’s best to make your story at least in some ways, cinematic.

By all means you should write whatever you want to write and if it turns out to be more literary than cinematic, that’s fine. My favorite book is Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the main reason it hasn’t been turned into a movie is that it’s mostly about a father and son on a motorcycle ride. Of course anyone who has read the book knows that a lot more than that is going on, but there’s still the underlying story.

 That’s what this sort of outlining is about. It’s fine to have subtext, but that’s not the sort of thing you can teach. It’s in you and your story or it’s not and at least for me, I’ve found that this is the stuff I like to discover while I’m writing.

So, you’ve got your final outline. You’re ready for the last steps before you jump into the deep end and start writing. Take your final outline and a set of 3” x 5” cards. Write down each scene on each card. Nothing too descriptive. (i.e. “Amber comes  home and encounters burglar”) Every time the place or time changes, get another card. You now have a scene log.

Using your scene log, go through your cards and ask yourself two questions about each scene:

1)      Does it further the plot?

2)      Does it further the character?

If the scene doesn’t do at least one of those things, toss it out and get it out of your final outline. You don’t need it.

 Now you have a list of scenes on cards. As you write the scenes, throw away the cards. This, I’ve found can be incredibly therapeutic. You feel like you’re accomplishing something. Whenever possible use the cards instead of the final outline when you’re writing. This will help you avoid any urge to copy anything from the outline.

But wait! There’s one last thing you should do before you sit down to write your story. This may seem silly and inconsequential, but I’ve found it really helps.

I’m going to assume you have a reasonable collection of mp3s. If you don’t, you know someone who does. Go through your music and make a new playlist. This isn’t necessarily music you’ll be writing to, this is the soundtrack to your story. This music should set the mood you want for your story and will help you get into the frame of mind necessary for the story. Usually, over time, the music list gets longer and longer. This is good.

Now you’re finally ready to write your story. Follow these instructions and I can’t guarantee your story will be good, but it will be solid. Good luck!

I will be posting here throughout the month with updates and tips. It’s almost time to begin.

– Jack Cameron


How I Write Part 6: The Final Outline

Only a few days until the beginning of NaNoWriMo. This weekend is crunch time for me. I’m almost done with my prep work but there’s still some things to iron out.

This is the next to last step in my outlining process. The Final Outline.

Every step you’ve taken so far has changed your story. Your theme turned into a story. Your characters gave your story life. Your characters’ perspective gave you new insight into your story. Now it’s time to take all of that knowledge and turn it into something you can work with.

This is the outline you wanted to write all along, but you didn’t actually have enough information to do so. Write this outline in the order you want it in your story. If your story starts midway through Act II and flashes back to the beginning, write the outline that way. You’ve already worked out any chronology hiccups, so you should be fine. This is your road map if you get lost during the writing.

This outline can be as long as it needs to be. Try not to leave anything out. You can even throw in some dialog if it’s important to the story. There probably won’t be too many new surprises or significant changes in at this point, but you never know. If you do make any sort of major change, go back to your Perspective Outlines and make sure you haven’t screwed up anyone’s story.

Once you’re done with this step, you should feel pretty good about the story. Staring at a blank page shouldn’t scare you at this point. You’re almost ready.

Did I say ‘almost’? Yeah. There’s still two more things you need to do before you finally sit down to write. I’ll get to those next.



How I Write Part 3: Main Character Sketch

The most important thing in any story is character. If you know your characters well enough, they’ll tell the story for you. Good characters can even save a bad plot. This is why it’s important to put together character sketches of each major character. Again, Feature Filmmaking At Used Car Prices informed a lot of what I put together here though a lot of it is my own as well.

It’s fairly simple and gives you a good idea of what kind of character you’re dealing with. You should do this with every major character in your story. Most of this stuff probably won’t even make it into the story but having the character background makes it easier to figure out how your character will behave in any given setting.

Character Name and Age

Physically: This is mostly self-explanatory. What does your character look like? Do they drink or do drugs? Do they exercise?

Family Background: Are they an only child? Do they come from a broken home? Did their father beat them? Were they treated like royalty? What was their childhood like?

Education: How did they do in school? Did they like it? What was their favorite class? Did they play sports? Did they go to college? What kind of school was it? Were they popular?

Social Life: Do they have a lot of friends? Do they go out drinking? What kind of places do they like to go to? Do they have parties? Have they had sex? Do they go out with anyone? In short, what do they do with their lives?

Work History: Where do they work? How long have they worked there? Where did they work before that? Do they like their job? Is it a career job or something just to get by?

Other Details:

So you know what they look like, what kind of family they have, how educated they are, what sort of friends they have, and what their job is like. Now it’s time to make this character just a little more real. 

Hobbies: Do they collect comics books? Do they knit? Play chess? Gamble? Not only does this help round out the character but if you need the character to be doing something, you have something.

Habits: Do they chew their nails? Drive fast? If they switched bodies with someone what would be the give away that of who they really are?

Phobias: What is your character genuinely afraid of. It can be something as silly as spiders or as universal as death. Knowing their fears will help you really get inside their head.


You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but you get the idea. Below is a character sketch I put together for a project that was never completed. Continue reading

How I Write Part 1: Outline

Over the years, I’ve read many books, articles, and websites about the writing process and how best to craft a story. The result is that my creative process is an amalgamation of these various sources and some things that I’ve found on my own that tend to work well.

What I want to cover here isn’t specific to the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo, but just what my approach is to creating a story. If you’re a writer, you may find this useful. If you’re not, then you might be idly amused. Whenever possible, I’ll give credit to my sources.

Before I get started I should point out that I am going to assume that you know how to tell a story. I’m not going to talk about three act story arcs or defining the narrative or any of that because really if you can tell a joke, you can tell a story and if you tell a story, then these tools will make that story better.

The first thing you have to understand is that outlining is your friend. When I first started writing, I loved that I had no idea where the story was going as I wrote it. It was exciting discovering with the characters what was going to happen. While, it was fun, it rarely led to great storytelling because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you get there.

I once attended a talk with mystery writer Earl Emerson. He said that in the beginning of his career, he’d write entire novels with no outline and no idea how they’d end when he’d start. And every one of them got rejected. After years of this, he decided to break down and do an outline. The first book he outlined, he sold.

There are those who would say all the writing before was a waste of time, but that’s simply not true. I believe the more you write the better you write regardless of what you’re writing. Writing a novel isn’t like building a house. It’s like a road trip. You need a destination. You need a road map. And you need to remember that the map is not the trip. Once you start, you’re still just as likely to find some surprises along the way. And that’s what makes the trip worth it.


The Sound of Silence

Whenever I’m working on a project, I occasionally will send out little experiments to a handful of people just to see what the reaction will be. So last week I sent out a very short piece that was basically in the ‘voice’ that I want to write my second novel (yes, I’m not done with the first but I like to plan ahead). Usually my group of readers (aka friends who tell me the truth rather than just saying ‘it’s good’) would get back to me after a day or two. It’s been a week and none of them have responded at all. This is a first.

This of course has made me stop asking ‘is it any good?’ and start asking a thousand other questions. Is it all coincidence? Are they all too busy? Did I break my readers? What have I done? Should I have taken out the masturbation scene?

I have no idea what’s up and I’m almost afraid to ask them.


A Novel Concept

Last year I had the goal of publishing my ‘self-destruct’ book, Ruin Your Life. I had worked on it long enough and really wanted to have that little project completed. And now that it is (And you can buy it or download it for free by clicking the ‘Ruin Your Life’ tab above. Shameless plug over.), I’m working on the project for 2008: Write a novel.

Sure, I’ve written a book, some short stories, even a few feature length screenplays, but I’ve always specifically avoided the novel. My writing tends to be very terse and very dense. I’m not one for a lot of exposition or description. I’ve written short stories that would probably be full novels in another writer’s hands. So putting together a novel is going to be a bit of a trick for me.

And that’s why I want to do it. I’m not someone who wants to make something and then make a career out of selling variations of that same something. I’m not Kevin Smith (not that I don’t like Kevin Smith, but do you want to bet on whether or not his next movie will have a dick joke in it?). It’s not that I think of myself as some incredible creator who has to keep challenging himself to make new art. That’s not me either. It’s just that I tend to get bored with doing the same thing all the time so I like to switch it up a little.

I’m not going into this novel thing blind though. I won’t be spending a bunch of time starring at a blank computer screen. The key to writing anything of a good length and quality is having done the preparation for it. I wrote the first draft of one of my screenplays in six days. It’s not that I write fast, it’s that I spent the previous three months working on character profiles and plot outlines and scene descriptions. I knew the story inside and out. All I had to do was write it.

When I was younger, my favorite thing about writing stories was not knowing where they would go. I’d write something and while I was writing it, I’d come up with something that would surprise me. I loved that. So it took me a while to warm up to the idea of outlining. It wasn’t until I started outlining things that I realized that there were surprises and I was still having just as much fun.

That’s the most important part if you ask me. Sure, it’s great if you can make a few bucks off your writing, but if you don’t enjoy writing, you shouldn’t do it. Sure, I hope I can find a publisher for my novel once it’s done. And if you buy a copy, that’s great, but right now, I’m working on it because it’s one of my favorite things to do.

Ever Thought About Robbing A Bank? Read This First.

If you’re like me, when you walk into a bank and wait in line, you might idly wonder what it’d take to pull a bank job and make the ultimate cash withdrawal. Maybe it’s just a fleeting thought. Maybe you’ve actually got the whole plan in your head for that one day you finally lose it all and just decide to go for it. Of course, also, if you’re like me, you’ll never go through with it simply because you’re smart enough to know that most bank robbers end up spending at least a little time in prison, and I’m not big on prison.


Still, bank robbery has a certain romantic appeal. Some of my favorite movies, like Heat and Out of Sight are about bank robbers. When I’m watching the news I’m always interested in the latest bandit and how they did it and how they screwed up. This is probably why I had so much fun reading This Here’s A Stick Up by Duane Swierczynski.


The first part of the book is a history of famous American bank robbers. There are many familiar names including Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger to name a few. Through this book, these names stop being just people you’ve seen in movies and become real people. Bad people, but people nonetheless. Swierczynski’s writing style is informal and fun and sounds a lot like a guy telling stories over a couple pitchers of beer. The difference is Swierczynski isn’t bullshitting you. He’s done enough research to scare your average FBI guy.


After learning the history of American bank robbery, the book gets into actual techniques in robbing banks. The book is so full of information that it was actually found in the getaway car of a bank robber in San Francisco. He tells you what to do, what not to do, and where to do it. He also tells you what to do if you happen to end up in a bank that’s getting robbed.


This is the sort of book they weren’t thinking about when they taught us to read. It’s a fun and informational book. You may be wondering why someone would write a book like this, but then again I wrote a book on ruining your life, so I get the appeal.


Once I finished This Here’s a Stick Up, that bank job plan in my head has been tweaked to a professional level and I’d be willing to bet it’d work out pretty good. Ultimately though, I think robbing a bank is a lot like group sex: it sounds like a nice idea in theory, but the logistics and consequences can be more trouble than their worth.


Now I’m reading another book by Swierczynski called The Wheelman. This one’s a novel, but you can see how his research has informed his fiction. I’m looking forward to more of his work and I’m glad he’s using his talent to write books rather than rob banks.