Drafting on a Deadline: The Idea + The Enneagram

In 2018, I met the two resources that will change the way I plan and draft manuscripts forever.

For my first semester in my MFA program, I wanted to start completely from scratch on a story.

I had no ideas. No characters. No setting.

I knew I needed to start with the Five Building Blocks of Story, so I researched and listed and batted around a hundred of those blocks. Eventually I came up with 12 log lines to discuss with my advisor, which became four pitches, which became one outline, which I constantly revised while I was writing and getting to know my story better. Though I had direction, characters, a setting, and some possible themes, I was still driving at night.

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

This is a great way to complete a draft eventually, and it’s how I’ve written two books!

But it was not an efficient use of my time when I had monthly deadlines to meet, especially when trying to balance writing with a full-time job and a family of four.

Halfway through the semester, I discovered these two resources I’d wish I’d known ten years ago, when I had started writing my first book.

They are The Idea by Erik Bork and the Enneagram.

The Idea by Erik Bork

The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction has this dedication:

For every writer
who for the first or thousandth time
has tried to come up with
a great story

Erik Bork is an Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winner who has written for the screen, blogs, and wrote this book, but he has also written for TV—Band of Brothers, for one.

Writing for TV means coming up with viable ideas: lots of viable ideas. And not just viable, but good, commercial ideas that people will want to spend money or time on.

I have read many dozens of books on the craft of writing, but The Idea is the most helpful book—

  • for writers who want to sell their work
  • when beginning a new draft

I’ve always been a trial-and-error writer who has to outline, then write, then change my outline, then write, this cycle continuing until I have a story that meets the seven elements Bork details in this book. For my first book, it took seven years. For my second, it took three.

It makes sense that starting with those seven elements in mind might save some time, right?

The 60/30/10 Rule

Bork says that at least 60% “of what makes a project potentially successful or not is the core idea that could be communicated in a short synopsis of a few sentences up to a single page.” So, you know—basically a query letter.

Then 30% “lies in the structural choices, the decisions about what will happen, scene by scene, in a story—or what you’d see in an outline.” And then 10% is the actual writing.

Now, I don’t think this is as accurate for writing novels, because novels take a very long time to write (they consist of many more words and scenes than a TV episode or movie) and they need to be revised and edited.

But consider your book from a reader’s perspective.

If you like a book, 60% of what you like about it probably comes down to the concept and characters (or WATCH elements), 30% might be what happens in the story and how the story was presented, and 10% might be specific quotes or imagery from the book.

That 60%—the concepts at the foundation of the story—are also what can carry over to other stories within a series or franchise.

But most courses and books on writing don’t talk about the concept or idea at the heart of your story. In The Idea, it’s the whole book.

The Seven Elements

You may have heard of “the story problem,” which Bork defines as “at the heart of any story … that takes the whole story to solve. It’s a challenge that the story’s main character is actively engaged with, which consumes their attention, energy, and emotion—and that of the audience.”

Bork turned broke this concept into seven elements to create the acronym P.R.O.B.L.E.M. I’ll list them here and provide a quick note on each:

  • Punishing (the longer the story, the more complex and challenging the problem needs to be)
  • Relatable (the main character and their motivation and goals and relation to the problem need to be relatable)
  • Original (A fresh new take on storytelling and genre conventions. In fiction, a strong voice.)
  • Believable (The story makes sense)
  • Life-Altering (Primal stakes and internal changes)
  • Entertaining (meets emotional expectations)
  • Meaningful (theme or meaning that sits with you after the story ends)

For great insight on each of these elements from a real pro and to see if these elements are all present in your manuscript, you’ll need to read the book. I highly recommend having a copy you can highlight or annotate if you can swing it, either physical or eBook.

The Enneagram

I feel like the enneagram is everywhere right now. It’s been around for a while, but for whatever reason, it’s popularity has blown up in 2018-2019. I’m definitely a part of that, not as a creator but as a consumer. I follow several enneagram-centric Instagram accounts and share their stories pretty frequently.

I’ve used Myers-Briggs and the seven deadly sins for character development (and created worksheets and blogs for each), but I was really struggling with coming up with the motivations behind my new characters this past semester.

Enneagram focuses on primal motivations behind different personalities, and learning more about the system has made a world of difference in creating my characters.

I just realized I’m probably going to need a whole page dedicated to the Enneagram…

*** hours later *** 

Okay, well! Here’s a page about Why the Enneagram Is So Useful for Writers, including an enneagram worksheet so you can plan out your cast of characters!


[Download] Printable 2019 Quarterly Calendar

Happy New Year! Track your writing or reading goals with this 2019 calendar: 3 months per page, in color and grayscale options. Click here or the “View Original Post” link below.

What’s your biggest goal for 2019?

Lara Willard

Well, I’m officially registered to start my MFA in a matter of weeks.Weeks—eek! I just bought a new weekly planner (I buy the July—June ones), and since my academic year is going into 2019, I figured I should probably print out my quarterly calendars for 2019, too. So good news: you don’t have to wait until December or January for next year’s calendar!

Near the end of 2015, I made a post about time management, which included free downloads to help you get organized, including a Gantt Chart Excel template and a printable blank quarterly calendar.

Download 2018’s quarterly calendar here.

Plan Several Months at Once with a Quarterly Calendar

I’ve been using this quarterly calendar since 2015 as a family planner, color-coding events and appointments for each family member. We can see the whole year at a glance, and I use it daily! It also works really well…

View original post 168 more words

How Revision Changed JAWS (1975)

Jaws is the property of Universal Pictures.

Well, I finally watched Jaws.

(It was never on TV or streaming when I could watch it!)

Like all the big films I’ve been watching this semester—two other finally-watched 70s classics were The Godfather and Chinatown—I was taking notes while watching it, which includes having the screenplay up on one half of my screen while I take notes on the other half.

I pretty quickly realized that the script I had up was not the final one. Scenes were different, dialogue was different.

Quint was very different.

If you’ve read my guest post on The Better Novel Project, you know that I really geek out over dialogue. And if you’ve read other posts on my blog before, you know that I am very passionate about voice.

So of course Quint’s language in the film struck a chord with me like a hammer on piano wire.

And I want to share his first monologue with you. But before I do, I want to share what the original script had him say, because comparing the two is such a great lesson in rewriting to strengthen voice.

I’m going to number the sentences for easier comparison.

Quint’s First Monologue in the Original Screenplay

  1. You all know me.
  2. You know what I do for a living.
  3. I’ll go out and get this bird for you.
  4. He’s a bad one and it’s not like goin’ down the pond chasing blue-gills and tommy-cods.
  5. This is a fish that can swallow a man whole.
  6. A little shakin’, a little tenderizing and down ya’ go.
  7. You gotta get this fellow and get him quick.
  8. If you do, it’ll bring a lot of tourist business just to see him and you’ve got your business back on a paying basis.
  9. A shark of that size is no pleasure and I value my neck at a hell of a lot more’n 3,000 bucks.
  10. I’ll find him for three.
  11. But I’ll kill him for ten.
  12. The bastard is costing you more’n that every day.
  13. Do you wanna stay alive and annee up the ten or play it cheap and be on welfare next winter.
  14. I’m gonna kill this thing… just a matter of whether I do it now — or at the end of summer.

Not bad, right? But not explosive, either. And Spielberg likes explosive.

Here’s the revised version:

Quint’s First Monologue in the Finished Film

  1. Y’all know me.
  2. Know how I earn a livin’.
  3. I’ll catch this bird for ya, but it ain’t gonna be easy…
  4. Bad fish.
  5. It’s not like going down to pond chasin’ blue gills or tommy cots.
  6. This shark—swallow ya hole.
  7. Li’l shakin’, li’l tenderizin’, down ya go.
  8. Now we gotta do it quick, that’ll bring back the tourists, that’ll put all your businesses on a payin’ basis.
  9. But it’s not gonna be pleasant!
  10. I value my neck a lot more than 3000 bucks, chief!
  11. I’ll find him for three, but I’ll catch him… and kill him… for ten!
  12. Now you gotta make up your minds.
  13. Gonna stay alive and ante up?
  14. Or ya wanna play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter?
  15. I don’t want no volunteers; I don’t want no mates.
  16. There’s too many captains on this island.
  17. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself.
  18. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.

Doesn’t this read differently? Same content for the most part, but edited and refined. THIS is explosive diction. THIS is what makes nerdy writers blog even when they should be writing essays for grad school … (oops.)

Go ahead and look between the two and compare sentences.

Then, since we are already getting our nerd on, making sentence graphs and everything, why don’t we count the breath units? (Those are the number of syllables between breaths or punctuation points.) It’s OK if you want to skip ahead to the video. No judgment.

Intense Geekery: Breath Unit Comparison

Here they are in the original version: 4, 9, 9, 20, 11, 16, 11, 3, 37, 26, 5, 6, 13, 25, 6, 11, 7
(Average breath unit: 12.8 syllables)

And since I’m a visual person and numbers start to lose meaning after, like, four of them, here’s a visual:


And in the final film: 3, 7, 6, 8, 2, 16, 2, 4, 4, 6, 4, 7, 7, 14, 8, 14, 5, 4, 3, 2, 8, 9, 7, 8, 8, 5, 10, 10, 6, 2, 4
(Average breath unit: 6.5 syllables)


While the first graph looks more like a roller coaster, which emotionally or intuitively might feel better for a writer to come up with, the second graph is tighter and shows a more natural and consistent flow in a character’s speech.

Why the breath units again?

If you can’t explain why something doesn’t sound right, check out the breath units.

Is counting syllables tedious? Sure. Eventually you’ll train your brain and your ear to hear a more natural rhythm.

Do all of your sentences have to be short? No. But if you look at the differences between the rhythm of the first graph and the second graph, you can see that the more natural-sounding speech doesn’t go from three syllables to 37, just like that. And if you try to say 37 syllables in a row without breathing, your lungs will feel how unnatural lengthy breath units are, simply because humans need to breathe. Twenty-five syllables or more might not look impossible on the page—and sometimes, when we are nervous or anxious, we can spit out a lot of syllables breathlessly—but readers and actors will pick up on dialogue that is unspeakable.

Rewriting Jaws

We know that Robert Shaw, the actor who played Quint, rewrote his major monologue near the climax of the film:

In addition to being an Oscar-nominated actor, Shaw was an award-winning writer of novels, plays and screenplays, and when he took a crack at polishing up the monologue, he made it into something unforgettable. Spielberg asserts that the monologue was a joint effort between two screenwriters and Shaw, while others say that Shaw did the heavy lifting to make the monologue so perfect.

—Linnea Crowther, “Robert Shaw as Jaws‘ Quint: 8 Facts

I assume that Shaw is responsible for this monologue’s rewrite as well.

Written out, the monologue might seem unrealistic, even silly: “Bad fish.” But in the hands of a master actor, it feels natural.

How did Shaw rewrite it? It wasn’t just that he was an award-winning writer. It’s because he spent so much time listening to a real local fisherman, Craig Kingsbury, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard. After listening so intently to a real-live person, Shaw was able to bring that authenticity to his work.

And here it is:

For more tips on writing realistic dialogue, read my guest post at The Better Novel Project.

Do you have a favorite voice in fiction or film? Share in the comments or tweet me @LaraEdits.

Writing Exercises: Voice

I sure have missed blogging and interacting with you all over here. Though I can’t commit to posting regularly (my course load for my MFA is now much higher than before), I do still want to make this a place where writers can get new or at least renewed resources. Why else subscribe? Besides getting access to my free downloads, I mean.

Speaking of downloads, I added a link in the navigation so you can find them all in one place! Get there under Writer Resources in the main menu or by visiting larawillard.com/downloads

So I decided to start posting writing exercises every Friday on Twitter @LaraEdits and Facebook. I don’t want to post that often here on my blog, but I’d like to do a monthly roundup for you.

Here are the writing exercises from the past couple of weeks and the rest of October:

1: Latinate & Anglo-Saxon Diction

Switching between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon roots for different connotations:

Write down a list of 5–10 adjectives describing yourself or your protagonist. Look them up in the dictionary and see if they are based on Latin/French roots or Germanic (or Old English) roots. Then come up with a syllable that comes from the other family.

Source: Latinate vs Anglo Saxon Diction

2: Rewriting

Rewriting makes better writers, just like repainting makes better painters (see Hokusai below) Today’s is a long assignment, so feel free to just do number 8!

Assignment: Diction & Rewriting


3: Reimagined Lyrics

Pick a song with memorable lyrics. Look up those lyrics. Rewrite the song by swapping out the words and imagery for those of another character’s point of view. Some ideas:

  • One of your characters
  • Romeo, the lovestruck Shakespearean teenager
  • A pothead (e.g. one of Cheech’s, Chong’s, or Seth Rogen’s portrayals)
  • A proper British lady trying desperately to impress her in-laws
  • A man who has been cryogenically frozen through several decades and just woke up
  • A seven-year-old who wishes to be a princess
  • A toddler

Source: What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

4: How old is your voice?

But my book is is full of sex and violence! How could you say it sounds middle grade?

  1. Take a scene or paragraph from your character’s point of view and see if it “sounds” the right age by checking it against these guidelines: https://larawillard.com/2016/02/25/when-voice-and-genre-dont-match/
  2. Then rewrite it as if the character were in a different age category.

5: Pirate Voices

Go to your local library and find a picture book—fiction, not nonfiction—about pirates. Read it aloud in a pirate voice. I recommend Pirates of the Sea by Brandon Dorman or  Pirate Pete’s Talk Like a Pirate by Kim Kennedy. Can’t find a pirate book? Read Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and see how each of the baby owls has a different personality based on their dialogue.

You can stop there or write Talk Like a ___________ for a different profession. What would Talk Like a Podiatrist sound like?

6: Characters in Costume

Are you dressing up for Halloween? Would one of your characters? Take that costume, turn it into a character, and write a Trick or Treat scene from that point of view. Dressing up as a strawberry? Write it from the POV of a strawberry. What kind of observations does that character see? Is the weather foreboding or gleefully dreary? Does the character’s age affect how they see the event? Are they a creature or inanimate object? Use all five senses.