He Wrote/She Wrote. Again: The One Sentence Idea

Welcome to He Wrote She Wrote Again.

The original post can be found here: He Wrote/She Wrote Again

Jenny
Fourteen years ago, we did a year-long blog on the craft of writing. People have asked that we repost that blog, but we’ve changed a lot in fourteen years, so we’re doing new posts on some of the old topics to to discuss what we still agree with and what we don’t. We’ll link to the old posts so you can see where we’re coming from.

Bob
All these years later, it’s going to be interesting to go back through He Wrote, She Wrote and see where things have evolved in the writing process.

Jenny
Also, hello to any old CherryBombs who’ve found us again. We’ve missed you.

Bob’s 2007 post on The One Sentence Idea
Jenny’s 2007 post on The One Sentence Idea

Bob
The last several years I’ve really focused on that word: Process.

I’ve studied other writers and artists, and then analyzed my own over the course of thirty years writing and eighty books, give or take.

How do we create? Lots of people think writers just wing it, but underneath it all there is always a process. Jenny and I managed to collaborate on three books despite having radically different processes (mine was the good one). I’m sure we’ll discuss how we managed to do that in the course of this new blog. We each brought different strengths and weaknesses to the table. We both learned a lot from the other’s process.

But it’s not just my writing process that’s changed over the years.

I know I’m a different writer than I was even a year ago. But, more importantly, I’m a different person. I spent a lot of time talking to psychiatrists. I even had my brain evaluated with a day long series of tests (the MRI showed a vast black hole with some sparkles) and that will also come up. Because I knew I was missing something and the various diagnoses over the years didn’t quite match. It was only about four years ago when I got a proper diagnosis after that testing that I could really cognitively work with the hand I was dealt genetically and with my upbringing. You can’t change the hard-wiring, but understanding how it works was a big step forward.

I also believe our process greatly affects how we approach the business of writing.

Our writing comes out of who we are and how we perceive the world. No matter what genre you’re writing, you are bleeding onto the page.

We captured the craft in the original blog in 2007. What we’re trying to do in 2020 is capture the creative process behind the craft. The more a writer understands their process, the more they can do with it.

There are no rules, only tools. Feel free to peruse the tools and take what you need, leave what doesn’t work, and share. One caveat: whatever you outright reject or makes you upset, focus on that. Because that means it has resonated with you.

Our goal is to entertain and inform during this difficult time where the world seems a bit unreal.

Jenny
Black hole with sparkles? You have changed.

Bob
It’s pretty.

Jenny
Your brain is pretty?
Okay, who are you and what have you done with Bob Mayer?

Bob
As far as the one sentence idea, I’m going to riff on what I’ve been thinking lately and try to keep it succinct. Frankly there’s a Catch-22 to it since every idea has been done. How can the idea be so important if it’s been done before? That’s both rhetorical and not, if you want to weigh in on it.

Jenny
Everything has been done before. You just have to write the best version of it that’s ever been done. Or do a version of it that’s never been done before. Make it new.

I use the one sentence idea as a solution to the problem I have at the end of every first draft I’ve ever written. That’s when I hit a point where I stop and say, “What the hell is this book about?” It’s usually because I’ve gotten so far into the details of the book that I’ve lost the big picture or, more likely, never had it. It happened in the book I’m writing now (for five freaking years) because it was 146,000 words and it was all over the place.

So I stepped back and tried, “This is a romance about loneliness arcing into relationship and community.” That was a little non-specific, so I tried “This is a romance between two isolated people whose worlds are blown apart (symbolically, Bob) when they are forced to fight an Evil Bastard and find connection and love in the struggle.” Yeah, that’s too long. “Two lonely people battle evil and find love.” Too general. “Two isolated people fall in love while fighting a supernatural force determined to destroy them both.” That’s better. A little. Not much. I have a hard time writing good one sentence ideas.

One thing that’s good about that last one is that starts with character — always start with character — and the first verb phrase is “find love,” which means it’s romance, not suspense or mystery or horror. This book is a love story. The supernatural battle is background for the love story, it drives the love story, it echos the love story, but it is not the main plot. The one sentence idea has to nail the main plot; we can pick up the subplots later. So it’s not “Two isolated people fight a supernatural force determined to destroy them both while falling in love;” that’s a different story. It’s Nita and Nick falling in love while kicking supernatural butt.

Everything has to serve that one sentence idea, so in the massive rewrite I am only now finishing, I started cutting everything that didn’t feed into that love story. I lost some good stuff, but the story got better, and writing fiction isn’t about showing off how well you write, it’s about telling a great story that gives a reader catharsis. Your first draft is yours, all the drafts afterward are for the reader.

So it’s necessary, after the early drafts, to tell your story in a sentence because that’s the stout stake to which you’re going to tie everything in your narrative. It is, as Bob said fourteen years ago, your North Star. But it’s also necessary because of something I’ve learned since we did the original HWSW: Your first pages are a contract with your readers, a promise you make to them, and they’re the reason they keep reading. And you cannot know what that promise, that contract, is until you know what the freaking book is about. Yep, the one sentence idea.

One thing I do want to make clear, the One Sentence Idea and Theme are not the same.

The One Sentence Idea is your plot: “A woman takes over the care of her ex-husband’s wards in a haunted house, and through protecting them and defeating the undead, rekindles her marriage and gains a family.”

The Theme is your meaning: “Overcoming fear of attachment leads to connection and love.”

The One Sentence Idea is character and what happens, and the theme is what that means. Do not try to figure out your theme until the book is in its final drafts (which is why we did theme at the end of the year in the old HWSW). Theme strangles stories-in-progress. Do not write to a theme, write to your One Sentence Idea and the theme will follow, much, much, much later. I wrote a book that I would have told you was about sexual freedom for women until I got to the end and it turned out to be about motherhood. Who knew?

I’m still not clear on what Intent is, so back to Bob on that.

Bob
I still think the one sentence is key. I prefer to do it ahead of the first draft, not after. Gives me focus. When I said every idea has been done, that’s true. But you twist what’s been done. Intent is what you want readers to feel when they finish the book.

I remember the moment of conception of every book I’ve written. Often, for me, that’s the idea.

Jenny
I have no idea where my books come from. Out of the nowhere into the here.

Do you still outline before you start the book?

Bob
I don’t outline any more. I trust that big black hole and the sparkles in my brain. That’s why the first draft isn’t edited. I put things in there that don’t seem to make sense, but later on they do. An outline is too restrictive to letting the mind free range.

Jenny
AH HA! You’ve come over to my side. I remember when you and Terry Brooks called me daft for not outlining.

Vindication is sweet.

Bob
When I teach, I focus on the one sentence idea because most writers are all over the place. But to be honest, these days, I focus more on having an interesting cast of characters and throwing obstacles in their way.

Terry still outlines and writes one draft.

Jenny
YES! Boy, we’re going to be boring this time out. All this agreement.

Well, Terry is a genius, so there’s that.

Bob
It’s also part of the fact he writes fantasy and has to write inside the world he’s built.

Jenny
Series, too, demands more prep. Which you would know about and I wouldn’t.

But the one sentence idea is for everything.
You just get to choose when to do it.

Bob
I outlined the character for my new series. And then all the characters around him.

I’ll cover how I outlined character next week and it will touch back on idea, because I actually sat down and thought about who I wanted to write and when and what the intent was for a long time before diving into it.

So this is when it gets confusing, because the lines are blurred.

Jenny
You outlined a CHARACTER? How? You hadn’t met him yet. Or her. What book is this?

I don’t know who my characters are until I see what they say and do.

Bob
My new Green Beret books feature Will Kane and go back in time. The first one is set in 1977. In New York City. I’m final editing the fourth one in the series right now.

Jenny
So you didn’t need to outline him, you already knew him?

Bob
I knew pieces and parts of him. Along with his supporting cast. But the fun part is, as you write them and they interact, like real life, they surprise you. I have one character that has a secret that surprised me in the first book, but I’m still keeping it because there hasn’t been a need for it to come out yet. But in my FLASHBACK, I just wrote, I let out another secret from Kane’s past that’s been there since book one.

Jenny
I’m much too mature to respond to the obvious trolling of the flashback.

Flashbacks are bad, Bob.

Bob
They’re just out of time sequence from the rest of the story. Many great writers have used flashbacks.

Next week, I’ll explain how Will Kane came about. Because it will show process and also how you have to be true to your own belief system and what you can and can’t do.

Jenny
Isn’t next week outlining?

Are we skipping outlining?

I would love to skip outlining.

Bob
What’s next then?

Jenny
No, no, I was wrong. It’s “Situational vs Character Ideas.”
Although I’m against situational story ideas.
So we can argue about that.
No, wait, we changed that. It’s the Conflict Box and Central Idea.

Bob
I outlined Will Kane, picked a time and place and then meandered my way into a story. Situation versus character works well with that. Because I’ve done both. Now I start with character and figure out their situations.

Jenny
YES. Damn, we agree on things now. Well, I’m glad you’ve seen the light and come over to my side. Have a cookie.

Okay, the ONE SENTENCE IDEA which is what we’re supposed to be talking about (I don’t care how many great writers. have used flashbacks, Bob, they’re a bad idea in third limited PoV, which I’m pretty sure is what you’re using because you can’t do flashbacks in first) is the key to your novel. I’m doing a writing exercise on my blog right now that’s just a bunch of scenes about a character and the people she meets in the diner where she works, and I have no intentions of turning it into a novel, it’s just a playground for the blog. And it’s driving me crazy because I don’t know what it’s about. Time for a one sentence idea, even if it’s wrong.

Bob
Interesting because a diner scene every morning anchors Will Kane. Turns out he co-owns one with the cook. In the Meat-Packing district in NYC, across from the stub of the High Line, when it was still a rail line.

Jenny
That’s close to that apartment in the Village I used to stay in. I love that part of NYC. Good choice.

Bob
It was a slum then. Going bankrupt. Son of Sam. When I grew up. Happy times.

Maybe the problem you have locking down the sentence goes to locking down your conflict?

Jenny
What conflict?
I have no stinkin’ conflict.
Yes, I know there’s no story without conflict.

Bob
That’s the problem. If you don’t have conflict, where’s the idea?

Jenny
There wasn’t any idea. I had one scene that I put up there for them to play with. 20,000 words later . . .

Bob
It’s meandering, right?

Jenny
Meandering would be a step up for Surprise Lily.

Bob
Just kill a few people. Then go after the killer.

Jenny
It’s a romantic comedy, Bob. No death.
Although we could spare Uncle Louis.
Hmmmmmm.

Bob
Well, it’s interesting because I realized in my third book, the women were doing all the killing of the bad guys. Kane didn’t weigh in until the very end.

Jenny
Always leave the difficult stuff to women. We’re ruthless.

I think we’re done on the One Sentence Idea. Was there anything else you wanted to say on that?

Bob
One last thing about ideas– I always recommend trying to uncover the idea in every book, show or movie you imbibe. It should be there somewhere.

Jenny
For example . . .

Bob
Why don’t we leave that to the readers?

Jenny
Nice sidle out of the kill box, Bob.

Bob
Always avoid the ambush

Jenny
In the Slack Chat, there is death.

Bob
Darkness. Always the darkness.

Jenny
Now with sparkles.

Bob
Occasionally.

Jenny
Next week: Situational and Character Ideas, except now we both start with characters so we’re not doing that. Next week: Conflict! We know conflict here at HWSW.

Bob
I’ll walk through my process from idea to developing both the situation and character. That’ll cover both.

Because I’m thorough.

Jenny
Yes, you are. Good night, Tennessee.

Bob
Good night, Jersey.

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