On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

NANO is Starting!

NANO will be starting on Thursday, so this is your last chance to review strategy before you start...

Let me just list a few ideas that might be helpful as you go:

1. Determine how you're going to write 50,000 words before you start. I favor the "Slow and Steady" approach in which you write 2000 words six days per week, but do what works for you.

2. Make a log for which you can record each day's work, and your total words. Once you start writing use this log to enter your daily word count onto the NANO site. It's fun to watch your words pile up.

3. Start at the beginning, and keep going. Use your list of ten events to stay on track. Also develop a "Notes" file into which you write anything you think of that you don't want to break away to do: change your main character Steve's name to Joe in the first 50 pages you've written, give Joe a baby sister or a sky-diving hobby with concomitant past memories, research ways to fold a silk parachute, and so forth.

4. Develop a "Journal" file in which you can free-write if you're untangling a knotty scene or character issue. THESE WORDS COUNT TOWARDS YOUR GOAL!

5. Have fun with NANO. Use all the tools and friends on the NANO site to encourage you to keep going. Many regional areas have a write-in at a local restaurant on one or two nights, where everyone brings a laptop and pounds away on the keys. Just remember that there are THOUSANDS of people across the globe going through the same work that you are. You are not alone.

6. Don't worry that every word you write must be *perfect.* Even if you end up writing 100% garbage, you've gone through the exercise of putting down 50,000 words in a month. This is OUTSTANDING! You've done well, and more than most people.


Here a few resources to consider:

For inspiration that you can write quickly and well, along with practical tips:

Rachel Aaron: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love


Quick method for organizing your plot:

Marg McAlister: The Busy Writer's One Hour Plot

For practical, just-the-facts advice for many aspects of writer's block, plotting, and characters:

Anything by Holly Lisle


If you're stuck you can do these exercises and have them count towards your word count:

Victoria Lynn Schmidt: Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days


And of course, I HAVE to plug my own book! But seriously, it will help you. I originally developed these exercises for my own stuff, and am delighted (and always humbled) that so many have also found them helpful :-)

Amy Deardon: The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story


Good luck! You can do this.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Top Ten Events

This is a short series to help focus your writing for NANO.

Now that you've briefly reviewed an effective way to develop scenes (and sequels) in your story, you need to know how you're going to have your story unfold.

A story has a definite sense of progression. Some general story themes that you can explore, in order from beginning to end, might be:

Introduce your main character (MC), and a few other important characters especially the character with whom your MC has a difficult relationship, and possibly the antagonist. Your MC may be experiencing a slow sense of suffocation in his ordinary world.

Suggest a desire or opportunity for your MC, and describe a limited task or goal he can pursue.

After finishing his limited task show the MC entering into a new environment and being presented with a big goal. If your antagonist enters the story after after the midpoint, you'll need just a big goal. For example, in the film Sky High Will is anxious attending a school for superheroes, since he has yet to demonstrate superhero powers. His goal after he enters the school is to discover or develop these powers. Alternatively, if your antagonist is present from the beginning you'll have some idea of your overriding story goal. In the film U571 the WWII sub crew with Ryan as second in command knows from the beginning that their goal will be to capture a Nazi ENIGMA encoding machine, the story goal.

Describe how the MC successfully adapts to his new environment, and introduce some friends that will walk with him through his journey.

Create a big event that changes the MC's perspective on his big goal. For example, in Sky High Will suddenly develops super-strength, and becomes a school hero in a well-attended exercise. Will will now be OK! (false high). In U571 the main USA sub is blown up and its captain drowned, necessitating Ryan to move his remaining crew to a crippled Nazi sub (disaster).

Explore how the antagonist appears and continues to gain strength, while your MC continues to face problems.

Describe another big scene in which someone or something dies, and the MC now knows what his final encounter with the antagonist will be.

Come up with unlikely ideas the MC may use to defeat the antagonist.

Describe the final blow-counterblow encounters of the MC with antagonist.


These themes describe how a story develops. To do your story, a good trick to start is to list ten main events that will occur in your story. If you can't come up with ten, you'll know immediately that you don't have enough "stuff" to carry a novel -- so add events THAT PUSH THE STORY GOAL FORWARD. Avoid the one-darn-thing-after-another syndrome, in which you describe events that don't really change the main story arrow. As you add events, make sure they're critical to answering your story question.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Organizing Your Scenes

When I write, I like to plan out the broad outlines of a chapter before I start in. I often end up changing it, mind you, but I at least start with a direction.

According to Jack Bickham in Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure, there are two units of story construction: a SCENE and a SEQUEL. Very roughly speaking, the scene follows the advancing plot, and the sequel describes the POV character's reaction to it. Bickham describes that all stories are beads of Scene-Sequel-Scene-Sequel, although many times the sequel can be pulled to speed up the action.

His thoughts on Scene/Sequel allowed me to develop a technique for planning each chapter. Here is what you can do:

At the top of the page, copy in this little outline:


POV stands for the point of view character, in whose head you will be writing from.

GOAL: what short-term goal will your POV character want to achieve within the next few pages? When writing the draft, you should have the character actually state his goal clearly close to the beginning.

CONFLICT: what obstacles will stand in the way of this goal? Obstacles can be both EXTERNAL (other people, physical obstacles) and INTERNAL (fears, worries, lack of knowledge). Come up with at least five conflicts. Even though you don't have to use all five when writing your draft, they prevent writers block -- if you become stuck, simply throw another problem at my poor POV character.

DISASTER: the scene should not end neatly. There are two types of endings that are helpful:

YES, BUT: in this ending your POV achieves his goal, but gets a problem as well. For example, if Jim's goal is to ask his boss for a raise, his boss replies, Yes Jim, but you must also work an extra twenty hours a week.

NO, AND FURTHERMORE: in this ending your POV does not achieve his goal, and furthermore gets more problems. For example, Jim's boss might say, No Jim you may not have a raise, and furthermore you're fired.

Two other types of endings are not helpful:

NO: This ending simply results in failure of the chapter goal. Since this ending does not advance the plot, any sequence ending in a "no" can and should be removed from the story.

YES: This ending stops the action cold.Not helpful.


For a sequel, post this outline at the top:


EMOTION: refers to the POV character's emotional state immediately following the previous scene. Is he frightened, worried, angry, desperate?

THOUGHT: once he's had some emotion, he's able to logically evaluate the circumstances.

DECISION: the character is in a bad situation, and must decide what he is going to do.

ACTION: He begins to do what he decided.


There is no easy way to write, but doing this little bit of preplanning for each scene is invaluable. Occasionally the scene will shape differently than planned, but that's OK too -- just go with the flow.

The scene-sequel dyad gives you a point to write about, incorporating a forward arrow to your story that grips your reader to learn more.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Your Story Engine

This is a brief series to help you prepare for the NANO challenge starting November 1st

Writers can be meticulous planners, SOTPers/pantsters (seat of the pants writers), or somewhere in between. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, articulating your story engine before going ahead will clarify whether you even have a story, and if so, how you might go about writing it.

The story engine is comprised of three components:



The Story Goal is the task that your protagonist wants to accomplish during the course of your story. This task needs to be something unequivocal, something that clearly is successful, or not, by the end of the story.

Make sure that your story goal is something noble: for example, a protagonist who wants to achieve a powerful position so that he can impose his strange philosophy on many people will not be a sympathetic character, and his goal will not be something your reader will root for. On the other hand, if your protagonist is trying to, say, obtain money to help a little girl with cancer, your audience will be sympathetic. It is the protagonist's motive in his story goal that matters.

Your story goal should be able to be broken down into smaller goals. For example, if your character's story goal is to win a big singing contest, she'll need to be struggling in obscurity before learning of the contest, struggle for the entrance money, have classroom run-ins with nasy competitors who may ruin her reputation or costume, convince an important ally to work with her, and so forth before the big night and the climax of the competition. These smaller goals push your story forward since achieving each small goal brings you one step closer to the big goal.


The stakes determine why this story goal is so important to your protagonist. If it isn’t important, he won’t be motivated to achieve it. What horrible things might happen if the story goal isn’t achieved? For example, in our singer's example from the previous paragraph, if the girl doesn't win she won't qualify for the college scholarship that will let her be the first one in her family to go to university... and she thus won't be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor and helping the people in her poor neighborhood. Make your stakes important enough, and noble enough, that they are worth great protagonist efforts in your story.


If your protagonist can simply achieve the story goal, there is no story. All stories need multiple obstacles, both internal and external, holding the protagonist back from getting what he wants. An important rule for writing is to never make it easy on your hero. Internal obstacles are within the protagonist; things like the protagonist dealing with fear, lack of knowledge, or hiding a deadly secret. External obstacles are more visible; things like the protagonist outsmarting an enemy, crossing difficult terrain, or needing to find an object. Before you start writing each chapter, list a few internal and external obstacles that your POV character will have to deal with. These obstacles will prevent writer's block as you go through the scene.


Take a few minutes now to work on your goal, stakes, and obstacles. Any events in your story should relate to your story engine to make sure the narrative pushes forward. Determine several different levels of stakes so that the story goal becomes increasingly important. Come up with imaginative and multiple obstacles so that the story goal becomes increasingly in doubt. This planning at the beginning will pay off dividends soon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's Almost That Time of Year: The NANO Challenge

National Novel Writing Month offers an annual challenge that is the equivalent, for writers, of running a marathon: 50,000 words in one month. This seems to be an impossible dream for some novelists, especially those who are perfectionist or otherwise have significant writing blocks. This challenge always takes place in the month of November.

When I first heard of the NANO challenge a few years ago, I was in awe of those who could do this -- or even those writers who were brave enough to register. After a few years, though, in a rebellious mood I decided I was going to conquer this. In 2010, with trepidation, I signed up. Darn it, I WOULD conquer this challenge!

I'm happy to tell you that I actually did it :-), not only in 2010 but in 2011 as well. I wrote a lot of garbage without much publishable, although I did spend lots of time developing some ideas. I'm going to go for it again, this time with a serious goal, to knock out my prequel to LEVER since it's been long enough without having finished it.

Do you want to be brave with me and try this?

Some writers doing NANO go in spurts: a few hundred words during the week, then ten thousand words over the weekend. Other writers make a great start but don't enter their daily output after the first week. I would like to suggest my own strategy that works without being totally exhausting. The secret is: slow and steady wins the race.

Here's my strategy: Write 2000 words per day for 25 days. Since there are 30 days (4 weeks, 2 days) in November, this gives you one spare day per week, plus an extra cheat day. Even garbage writing counts since there isn't time to get the prose perfect, merely to get the words down. Producing so many words per day takes, oh, two hours or less. If you get up an hour early, put in 30 minutes during your lunch hour, and write another half hour before going to bed, or other schedule that works for you, you can squeeze in this time.

Admire your word count! As a personal ceremony every morning before you start, put in the previous day's work on the NANO graph. Check out the happy comparisons to the progress line. This is a definite motivator.

Now, before November 1st, if you decide to do this you'll need to take a few days to get used to the NANO idea. Over the next few entries I'll go over some preparation work you can do to organize your novel (ideas for plot, characters etc.) so that you can run out of the gate on November 1st.

And if you decide to do NANO, make sure you buddy me. My NANO name is Amy_D. Write to me at amydeardon at yahoo dot com, to let me know so I can buddy you back. And good luck!

More soon...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Organizing my Kindle Books

Kindle is an amazing device, but it still has limits in its ability to organize books. I have enough books that I don't want to search down my list every time I'm looking for something to read. So I've been experimenting with different ways to organize, and have found a way that works well for me. I'd love to hear if you have other tricks and ideas on this also! My process of organization is still far from perfect.

For those of you who have a Kindle, you know that you can create Collections (folders) on the device and then put your books into one or more folders. So, say you want to find a writing techniques book, you just have to look in that Kindle Collection and browse through to choose what you want. For my Kindle I had 12 Collections, including a "To Read" and a "Reference" folder. Since the Kindle screen only shows 8 Collections at a time, I had to scroll through even the Home page to see the entire contents rather than being able to take in everything in one glance.

The Kindle is capable of storing, what is it, 1000 books? Something like that. Still, I enjoy the Amazon feature of being able to take a book off my Kindle if I know I'm not going to be reading it in the next few months because I don't like cluttering up my machine. Just like a regular bookshelf: I used to keep my "active" print books on the shelf near my desk, and the rest went in another room or in the basement. Since I've gotten a Kindle I am slowly getting rid of most of my print books, and love the extra bookshelf space. On my Kindle I don't want to read through every single title even in a particular category on my Kindle, because for some of my categories I have more than 60 books. I have more than 100 in "Fiction." Most of my books I have archived, or in other words, taken off my Kindle.

To archive, Amazon stores your books for you in what is called "The Cloud," that big hard drive in the sky. To read any book that isn't already "on" your Kindle, simply go to "Archived Items" and pull up the title. The WiFi or 3G capabilities in the Kindle download the book to your Kindle in a few seconds. You're good to go.

There are (at least) two limitations with storing Kindle books. The first is that, on the Kindle device, you can make only one level of Collection. There are no subdivisions; to put one book into Historical Fiction category and another into Adventure Fiction, you have to make two separate folders -- you cannot put both folders within your Fiction folder. Too many Collections make too many things (books or folders) needing to be searched through. My discomfort with busy screens means that I can't use overly specialized Collections, so must archive books to avoid not being overwhelmed while going through my one-level Collections, which leads to problem #2...

The second problem with organizing Kindle books is that, when archived, they're only in a list by title or author. There is no option to categorize. This is why I carried more books on my Kindle than I was likely to read in the next few weeks -- maybe 100 -- because I didn't want to forget about their good information that I wanted to get to sooner than in five years.

But this became a circular problem: cluttered Kindle, or unmarked archives list? What to do?

A few weeks ago when I was particularly frustrated searching for a book I couldn't find because I couldn't remember the title or author, I decided to figure out a better solution. What I came up with is not perfect, but not too clunky and frankly I can't think of anything better. If you have a better system, I'm all ears.

I decided to use my computer as a second record of my books to be able to categorize archived items. I used the free app from amazon, although I'm sure Calibre or other book programs would also work. Here's what I do:

On the app on my computer I developed categories. I didn't want to download each book onto my computer since I think they're OK in the cloud (and downloaded books clutter the program), but I still have a list of all the books linked to my account. I simply sorted all titles, archived or not, and categorized them on my computer. The next step was liberating -- I went through my Kindle and got rid of all but about six books, plus my reference file (dictionary, Bible, and Archives). The six books are in my "To Read" Collection, compact enough to see the list on one screen with two spare places, and how cool is that to have a single Home page!

As I finish a book I simply archive it. To consult my book list for replacements etc., all I have to do is go to my computer to check out what I've earmarked to read next. It's not perfect, since without my computer I'm flying blind, but this system DOES make me happy with decreasing clutter, and works reasonably well.

OK, so do I have a problem, or do multiple screens of Kindle books bother anyone else?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Whoa, Nellie! My Experiment with Free E-Books

For the past few months I've been selling on average 4-7 ebooks of Template per day (total monthly ebook sales between 120-220, plus print sales of 120-200). I'm just delighted that so many people seem to find Template helpful, especially since I wrote this for myself and decided on a lark to put Template in a book. A number of people have written to me with happy stories of what they're writing and how it's going. You guys go! Congratulations on forging ahead with an intimidating dream, and I don't doubt you will make it if you keep working.

I've been learning about e-marketing. This weekend I decided in the interest of research to offer my ebooks for free on Kindle Amazon.

I still don't know if this is a good or a bad move. The theory behind offering a free book is that you can get your name out there with more books, and also push up your rankings. The downside of course is that you lose sales money. I need to wait to see if my sales the rest of the month go up, stay the same, or go down. I can guess that offering one book in a series is an advantageous move, since you may pull more sales on the other books. My two books are both singles though so I'm not sure... will have to wait. If nothing else, this was an entertaining weekend, with some unexpected results.

My reaction in a nutshell was whoa, Nellie! There are a LOT of people who like free kindle books. I gave away 9000 ebooks in two days (7484 Lever/1517 Template), which dwarfs my normal sales of 300-400 books total (print plus ebook) per month. I suspect most of the people who grab these free kindle books troll the lists and download 30 at a time to store for possible reading in the future. In other words, this population is different from the discriminating, buying person who carefully evaluates each book to find the best value for answering a specific need.

My primary observation was unexpected: my novel (A LEVER LONG ENOUGH) was five times as popular as my nonfiction book (THE STORY TEMPLATE). LEVER, I think I've mentioned to you before, is self-published. (This is a long story why I took this road that I won't go into now). LEVER came out in 2009. It received very positive responses, including two well-known author endorsements, two independent awards, and 36 4- and 5-star amazon reviews (and one three-star). This novel is my baby, and I am very proud of it. However, despite marketing the heck out of it, in three years I've sold only a few more than 500 books. This is considered an extremely respectable sales record for a self-published novel, by the way, especially because LEVER came out just before ebooks starting ruling the market, and therefore most of these sales were print. However, these sales are pathetic compared to this past weekend, in which I gave away 7484 LEVER ebooks in two days. I figure if only 10% of the people who downloaded it read it, I'm still ahead of the curve. And wow! I'm excited about this, since for the past year I was selling zero to five per month. Since I wrote it I've wanted as many eyes as possible to see LEVER, more important to me than the money I might make.

It was gratifying to watch both my books climb the amazon rankings, even though I know it's transitory. LEVER hit #16 of all free ebooks downloaded. Here's a screenshot of it as #1 in the MYSTERY category.


TEMPLATE hit #130 of all free ebooks downloaded, not quite high enough to show in the top 100 list. Still, for a specific how-to book this isn't bad. Here's a screenshot of it as #1 in the Reference/Writing subcategory.

That was fun! OK, now it's time to wait to see how much damage/how much help offering a free book gives to my sales figures...


Monday morning, 6 am EST: At the top of this blog I've pasted my new report screenshot that I just took. 24 Template sales (thank you, guys, and I really hope this helps you write :-)  )and, wait for it, 44 of LEVER! This makes me happy, since as I said before Lever is my baby. It makes me happy people are seeing it -- a jump from the 0-5 sales per month it's been making, mostly from those who buy my writing book and then want to see what I've done. BTW for you TEMPLATE readers, since I wrote LEVER before I did my studies for TEMPLATE, it doesn't quite follow the template since my midpoint is at 40%, but my subplot midpoint is at 60% so it evened out.

LEVER is ranked 2887 in total paid sales right now.

And yes, for everyone who read Lever and is dying to know more, I'm working on the sequel. Hope to get that one finished soon. NANO is coming up in a few weeks for a kick in the writing pants, happily.


NOTE: Free Kindle ebooks can be found at www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks. Go to the right, scroll down, and hit the tab to "See all Best Sellers in Kindle Books." Categories are to the left.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Sample Edit of Susie Q's Bio

Oh, I can't help myself. I just found this bio on another blog as a posting for a blog book tour. Within two sentences I thought, "This book has to be self or subsidy published, " and sure enough, at the bottom I saw "lulu.com." Let's take a look. (I've changed the identifying characteristics).

The original bio:

Ms. Susie Q is the youngest of five children.  She was born in CITY, STATE on May XX, 1964, her parents separated when she was very young.  She was raised by her mother and grandmother.  During the teenaged years of her life certain decisions were made for her life that created problems for her that she never imagined or intended.  The book TITLE is the story of what Susie did to save her life from complete ruin.


Let's take a look at impressions:


No typos, misspellings, or glaringly incorrect grammar. This writer is separating sentences by two spaces, not one, after the period. This is a quick-and-dirty indication that the writer has not yet moved to the 21st century standard of professional writing. Still, for right now nothing is a red flag.


Ms. Susie Q is the youngest of five children.
This sentence is perfect.

She was born in CITY, STATE on May XX, 1964, her parents separated when she was very young.
This sentence is obviously missing a conjunction linking two independent clauses, but it's passable if it doesn't happen again. While this information has some specificity (location and date), the personal side is general. After all, many people's parents separate when they are little. It may be early for me to be too critical, but my detector has been alerted to make sure specifics come into play soon.

She was raised by her mother and grandmother.
Yet another statement in passive voice; I am noticing this now since every verb but "separated" so far is passive. The sentence content (raised by mom and grandmom... snore) is also general. I'm waiting for details!

During the teenaged years of her life certain decisions were made for her life that created problems for her that she never imagined or intended
 Several problems:

1. wordy.
2. passive voice yet again. Did Susie Q just float through life?
3. repetitious: "her life" and "for her" are both repeated twice in the same sentence.
4. "decisions," "problems," "imagined," "intended"... General information, and this is now the third sentence out of three. There is NO specific information counterbalancing. At this point I've decided Susie Q will not have anything worthwhile to tell me in her book, even if I like her topic.
5. "imagined or intended": this is Noah's Ark where the modifiers come two by two. Be bold and choose only one.

The book TITLE is the story of what Susie did to save her life from complete ruin.
Sigh. Passive voice and general descriptions. I don't doubt Susie Q has dealt with tough problems, but I don't know what they might be, or how she might have dealt with them. The editor sez, Pass.


How might one make this bio better?

Questions when contemplating a rewrite...

My first thought is that Susie Q was born in May 1964, which means she now must be 48. Yet she talks only about her teenage years, so I'm wondering why she's leaving out everything after.

I'm also wondering what sorts of teenage problems Susie Q experienced that affected her so strongly. Was she raped when she was 12? Did she get pregnant or even have an abortion when her boyfriend and she went too far? Did she get leukemia, or crash her car, or escape a fire? Did her mom and grandmom lose their income, and Susie Q became homeless? Did she get into taking drugs on the streets? Or did Susie Q live in more privileged living circumstances where she eloped with someone of whom her mother didn't approve because he didn't have the correct antecedents (and her mom turned out to be right)?

Susie Q also talks about being "the youngest of five." So I further wonder, did she grow up with her siblings? What were they like?

Why did her parents separate? Was her mother too involved in her work, or was her father an alcoholic? What was her grandmother like?

OK, let me make up some details to rewrite this bio. Since this was an inspirational-type book I will include those elements in the bio.


Ms. Susie Q is the youngest of five children. After her alcoholic father squandered their food money for the last time, Susie and her mother hid with Susie's grandmother in a nearby city while her siblings went to live with her uncle. At six Susie didn't understand the attraction of whiskey; by fourteen, she did. Warnings, restrictions, and even a military-type school weren't enough to break Susie's addiction. After narrowly escaping death when she drunkenly drives her car into a creek, at nineteen she ran away to live on the streets.

Susie Q's book, TITLE, describes the long journey into alcoholism and back again.


Remember that your goal is to intrigue, not just convey information. Especially in something as short as this bio, every word must pull its weight.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

If It's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Badly

I don't know about you, but I find the most pushback to writing when I need to start a new project. It's tough -- I don't know what it's going to look like, and yet I want it to be *P*E*R*F*E*C*T*  I hate to imagine marring this image of what I want to accomplish with the reality of what it will be.

And so, I might procrastinate, maybe working around the edges but too afraid to dive in. And in case you're wondering, I also get into the pool this way, but have found once I dip down to get my shoulders wet I'm much happier.

WRITERS WRITE. If you are a writer, by definition you write. Now is the time when the rubber meets the road.

Some people will say that when you're doing a project, you just need to sit down and write until you have so many words, and if you're stuck you keep writing. This advice, while true in a sense, frustrates me because if you don't know what you're trying to say, writing more garbage won't help.

As the saying goes, you can eat even an elephant if you eat it in pieces. The trick, then, is to divide your project into so many small actions that you can work through it, one tiny thing at a time. So, how does one do this?

The first step before anything else is to write a specific sentence that describes what you want to do and why:

"I want to write a speculative short story of 5000 words that I can enter into XX contest."
"I want to finish this business article for work to advance my career (and so my boss will stop nagging me)."
"I want to write my novel so that I won't regret at the end of my life that I didn't do this."

Writing goals down is magic. I don't know why this is, but I've found that putting my desires in a tangible form dramatically increases the chances that I will reach them. Trust me, and do this.

Next, you need to develop your plan of attack. A short piece is easier than a long piece, but they both need to be planned at least in a primitive fashion. Sit down and think about your goals for your project. Make them achievable and not dependent on other people. For example, my short story goal might be to find an original speculative "twist" I haven't seen before, or to finish and polish the story before the contest deadline. I wouldn't state my goal to be winning the contest, because I have no control over that.

Now break apart that goal: what do you need to do in order to reach it? If I'm looking for a good "twist" I'd take some time freewriting to play with ideas I already like to find that new combination. If I have a deadline, I'll calculate how many words per day I need (and include a reserve of days for editing and skips as well).

Once you've got your goals, free write a rough outline of the project: one sentence for each major part. In a story there is a beginning, middle, and end, so three sentences. In a research paper there is introduction, methods, results, and conclusion. Then, keep breaking down each of these sections into smaller ones, and go for it.

Be cautious about getting trapped into too much planning though, because this can become more comfortable than writing. You've been brave enough to get into the pool, but sorry, you've got to get your shoulders wet now.

Choose your word count goal. I like to use weekly goals since this gives flexibility for a day off, but daily goals are also fine. 300 words per day, or 2000 words per week, are doable to start, although keep pushing these up as you get in the groove. Create a log. Do the daily writing. Keep doing it.

The hard part of writing (or many things) is starting. So start. If your project is worth doing it's worth doing badly.