21 Days to a Novel with NYT Bestselling Author Michael Stackpole

Michael Stackpole began his workshop Saturday at 1pm at the Hyatt Hanover AB the same way he ends it: with a quotable moment. This is not an instruction manual for writing a novel. “That’s fairly easy,” he adds. “Sit down, start typing, and you’ll be done in 21 days.” He walks back and forth as he speaks and points at the wall behind him as if it’s a blackboard. New writers “think too much while they’re writing.” This workshop instead walks attendees through a set of exercises that allow them to do that thinking before beginning their first draft. The key word here is ‘first:’ “Remember, we get multiple bites at the apple.”  

Though this article walks through the basics, the workshop in its entirety covered many more details, including examples. If you see Stackpole during the convention, he’s selling downloads of his full set of notes for $20. You can also learn more about his work on his website. 

Part I: Character  

  1. Write a single sentence describing a character in five different areas of their life.  
  1. Add two sentences to expand on each area. That’s five sets of three sentences- congrats, you already have multiple paragraphs!  
  1. Write one sentence about each area of the character’s life that counters what you have already written.  
  1. Add two sentences to each of these. That’s 5 areas of conflict.  
  1. Do steps one to four for a second character. Don’t think of them as the hero or villain, just a character.  
  1. Write down two short term and one long-term goal for your character (either of them, hopefully both).  
  1. Write down everything in that character’s life that stops them from attaining those goals. Remember, none of these things are written in stone.  
  1. Do steps one to 1-4 and 6-7 for a third character. Triads are a great structure to play with, as they lend themselves to alliances and social dynamics. Writing is all about the characters and what they want, which becomes the plot.  

Part II: Character’s Voice  

  1. Have your character sit down and write a letter to another character. Make it come from a place of vulnerability. It can be asking a favor, offering advice, apologizing, or explaining something. Think about how this letter is delivered, and what it looks like. Is the ink running from tears? Is it written on stationary they saved from a hotel years ago? As you do this, you are making subconscious decisions about the character. Even if they don’t show up in the story, you know them and that matters. Remember to use serendipity. You can always change it later.  
  1. Write a conversation between the person who sent the letter and its recipient. No tags, just dialogue. Another thing Stackpole notes is to avoid use “he said” or “she said” unless it is to create a pause before an important piece of information is revealed. Otherwise, it makes the dialogue choppy. Instead, think about how each character speaks. Maybe they use longer sentences because they’re well educated, or jargon because they were once in the military. Think about how each line of dialogue is linked to the character who speaks it.  
  1. Write about this interaction from the third character’s perspective. Add descriptions of what someone would notice as they speak. Do they wipe sweat from their forehead? Pound their fist on the table? The only time it is necessary to provide a full physical description is if a character is non-standard or non-human. Today’s readers are so used to seeing the world through a camera that they fill in visual details on their own. This touches on something called “reader engagement,” or bringing readers into the story by giving them little things to figure out, like emotions from physical cues. “It’s like feeding them an m&m every time they read a sentence.”  
  1. What is it that locks this character into the world? They need roots, or they won’t be grounded in the world. It’s fine to adjust character bios to do this.   
  1. What in this world encourages or hinders characters in reaching their goals? For them, is this world nurturing or nasty?  
  1. If the character succeeds in their goal, how will that change the world? Is there anyone that wants to stop them? As Stackpole put it, “your characters can only be as heroic as the opposition allows them to be.”  
  1. Either describe a character in their happy place or write about a single place from the point of view of multiple characters. This makes you notice what that character would notice.  

Part III: Plot  

  1. Write the back cover blurb for your book. Your publisher won’t use it, but if you can’t figure it out then you haven’t figured out enough story to tell it.  
  1. This step is the “ heart and soul of plotting” and it has several steps. However, this process “works for every problem in every book ever.” Brainstorm ideas for the following scenes:  
  1. A scene that indicates to the reader that there’s a problem 
  1. A scene that indicates the character knows there’s a problem  
  1. A scene that catalyzes the character into taking action 
  1. A series of scenes where the character develops the resources and skills necessary to solve their problem. This is the bulk of the novel. Think at least six for each short term goal and twelve for a long term goal. These can vary in length, as short as a single sentence in another scene to remind the reader they’re on track.  
  1. A scene where the main character attempts to solve the problem. If they succeed, the story ends. If they fail, we return to step four until they succeed or die. This depends on what kind of world it is.  
  1. Look in your scene inventory for connections. Could you set multiple scenes in the same place? Are there any correspondences in time and place that you could combine?  
  1. What scenes demand a reaction from someone else’s storyline?  
  1. Take all of the scenes you figured out in steps 18-19 and put them in chronological order. That’s an outline! “An outline is to a novel what a map is to a road trip.” It shows where you think you’ll go, not where you necessarily will. The story and characters may develop a life of their own. 
  1. Start the book!  


And a few more words of wisdom:  

Every word you put down is a word closer to the end. Don’t edit as you go, or you’ll never finish. You don’t know how a story starts until you know how it ends. Always save your drafts. Print things out, that way “by every measure man has evolved with, it exists.”  

And finally, write until it’s done, wait two weeks, and dive in again.  

“This stuff is not rocket science. You can all do it,” he said. Everyone who writes does it because they love it, and it might be the story that inspires someone else.  


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