Planning Ahead

If you didn't know, I'm a planner. (Also, if you didn't know that it means you're new, so welcome!).

I love planning. I know everyone's different, with their own process that works for them, and so I can't tell you how to write. But listen. If you don't like your process, if you feel like your stories lose direction halfway through, if you find yourself quitting on stories because they don't go anywhere... you might try planning.

You might even like it.

So first of all, I'm neurotic (totally selling you on this planning thing, aren't I?). When I'm in a draft, I can't skip scenes, I hate retconning the beginning, and I have recurring nightmares about getting to the end and finding out it's stupid.*

But when I'm planning, I can do all those things and it doesn't bother me. Maybe because revising an outline takes like a hundredth of the time it takes to revise a draft. Maybe because I'm insane. I'm not sure.

I've seen people say they don't like planning because it takes all the surprise and creativity out of writing - as if there's no reason to write the draft once we know what happens. But see, there's so much surprise and creativity that happens while I'm planning, but it happens faster. It's like taking a week to discover the story instead of a year.

Does that mean the draft is a chore once the planning is done? Heck, no!** I'm obsessive about planning, but even I don't plan every little detail. I know who wins the fights, but I don't know how. Someone convinces the protagonist to change their motivation, but I don't know what they say. Characters I didn't realize I needed appear sometimes. Sometimes my outline even changes.

I know, I'm such a hypocrite.

And even if I know exactly what happens, down to the details of who hits who and how hard, there's still the surprise and creativity of figuring out how to say it. It's not like I ever think, "Oh well, gotta write this scene now. Sigh." The scenes I've thought the most about are the ones I'm most excited to write. Always.

So for me, planning doesn't remove any surprise or creativity; it just shifts it around. At the same time, it gives me some element of confidence that the weeks and months spent drafting are not wasted on a story doomed to crap out on page 212. It lets me know, in a relatively short amount of time, that the idea is sound (even if I fail later on execution).

Like I said, everyone's got their own process that works for them. Planning might not be for you. If you're not sure, maybe try it out on a short story or even just a chapter. Outline it down to a sentence or two per scene and see what happens. It might be better than you think.

*I still do those things, but planning helps minimize it - all the more as I get better at writing.

**Well, yes, sometimes. But I've never met anyone for whom drafting isn't a chore at some point, planner or no.

Thinking Through Airships

I've been debating increasing my blog output here to 3x a week. I'll try it for a bit, see how it goes. No guarantees.

I've also been thinking about posting my sketches. As I've said before, I'm trying to draw once a week, but I'm more motivated if I know people are going to see what I draw.

That said, these sketches are pretty old, but I wanted to show you the evolution of the Air Pirates' airships a little. This first one is how I envisioned them looooooooonnnnggg ago - about 4 years. Back then airships were called cloud busters or dusters (in my story). Their airbags were called squits. Thankfully, very little of that slang survived.

I never liked that version, and anyway, airbags are not very conducive for ship-to-ship battles - one bullet through the bag and it's done. Below is another sketchbook page from a couple years ago. It's me trying to figure out what I wanted the airships to look like (I don't know who the girl is).

The ship at the bottom is Shadow's End, a 'dropout' belonging to a pirate named Kiro. That design survived and makes its first appearance in chapter four, "Hagai's Death". (You may also recall Natalie used the same design in her drawing of Sam).

Don't expect all my sketches to be about what I write. I'm rarely happy with the drawings that come out of my imagination, preferring to draw from life instead. But who knows? The more I do this, the better I get. Right?

Hero's Journey

Last time I talked about the Three Act Structure as a way to map out your story. Today I want to talk about the Monomyth, or the Hero's Journey.

This one's kind of cool because it has transcended both time and culture (i.e. it's really old and lots of cultures' stories use it). Meaning this story is one that, for whatever reason, resonates with us as people. In fact, you'll see a lot of similarities between this and the Three-Act Structure.

The hero's journey is separated into three sections: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each section has its own features, not all of which are present in any given story. But you'd be surprised how many are.

Innocent World:
The hero starts in the normal and mundane, though they are not always mundane themselves. Frodo in the Shire. Luke on his uncle's moisture farm.
Call to Adventure: Something happens that draws the hero outside their world. Frodo inherits the Ring. Luke meets Ben Kenobi. There is often a refusal of the call at first. Frodo doesn't want to leave. Luke refuses until his aunt and uncle are killed.
Supernatural Aid: Once the hero has committed to the quest, their guide appears - Gandalf or Obi-Wan.
Crossing the Threshold: The hero passes through some ordeal to leave the innocent world and enter the world of adventure. Frodo is hunted by a Ring Wraith. Luke and Obi-Wan fight their way out of Mos Eisley.

Road of Trials:
The hero faces a series of tests, often failing. Frodo's fall at Weathertop. Luke's attempts to save Leia.
Meeting with the Goddess: The hero finds his love, or something like it. Frodo meets Galadriel. Luke meets Leia.
Atonement with the Father: The hero reconciles with whatever has been holding him back. Gandalf's death and Boromir's betrayal forces Frodo to set out on his own. Obi-Wan speaks to Luke after his death.
Apotheosis: Literally, becoming divine. In the story, this is when the hero comes into his/her own. Sam faces temptation from the Ring and rejection from Frodo, and he overcomes them. Luke turns off his computer in the Death Star trench.
Ultimate Boon: The hero achieves their goal. The Ring and the Death Star are destroyed.

Sometimes the hero does not want to return to the normal world. Frodo wishes to stay with the Elves.
Flight: Sometimes, when the quest is complete, the hero must escape, and/or there is a return threshold that the hero must cross. Frodo and Sam escape Mt. Doom. Luke flies away from the exploding Death Star.
Master of Two Worlds: Part of the resolution shows the hero as competent both in the adventuring world and their normal world. Frodo and friends rescue the Shire from Saruman. Luke (later) returns to Tatooine as a Jedi.
Freedom to Live: This mastery of both worlds leads to a new contentment, freedom from fear, and love for life. Sam gets Rosie. Frodo leaves for the Gray Havens.

Obviously not every story is a hero's journey, but it's surprising how many of them are. Personally, this is one of my favorite stories. I find myself constantly coming back to this structure when I'm plotting. I hope this is useful for you too.

Three Acts

By popular demand (8 out of 15 votes), the new working title for my WIP is The Cunning. I want to thank everyone who voted and commented. You've given me a lot to think about for later when I give this thing its real title.

And a special thank you to the folks who said they liked the story idea. That kind of encouragement is always welcome here :-)

So I'm plotting out The Cunning now. I freaking love this part. Everything's out there, just waiting for me to figure it out, and (because I plan before I draft) I don't have to spend a lot of time doing it. I might talk more about that later. Right now, because it's on my mind a lot, I want to talk about the Three-Act Structure and (maybe later) the Hero's Journey.

The simple form of the 3-Act goes like this: (I) setup, (II) confrontation, (III) resolution. In more detail...

Act One

* Introduce protagonist, "normal" world, and supporting characters.
* Introduce simple conflict.
* Ends when the main conflict is introduced and the protagonist's world is irrevocably changed.

Act Two
* In an effort to solve the main conflict, protagonist tries and fails against increasingly difficult obstacles.
* Ends with the Final Reversal - the last bad thing before everything is resolved. The protagonist has had enough, or the villain thinks they have defeated the hero for the last time. Whatever.

Act Three
* The protagonist faces the main conflict in the climax.
* Everything else is resolved.

That's one way to look at it, albeit a simple one. But it doesn't explain much about Act Two, which is supposed to be half of the story. Screenwriter Syd Field saw this and improved upon the 3-Act Structure calling it the Paradigm...

Opening Image:
The first image or scene that summarizes the story, especially its tone. This is kind of a screenplay thing, but it can work in novels just as well.
Inciting Incident: The protagonist encounters the problem that will change their life.
Plot Point 1:
The turning point, in which the protagonist's life is irrevocably changed.

Pinch 1:
A reminder, halfway between the beginning of Act Two and the Midpoint, of the overall conflict (e.g. while the protagonist deals with his obstacles, cutaway to the villain for a scene).
Midpoint: An important reversal or revelation that changes the direction of the story. Field suggests that driving the story to this scene can keep the middle from sagging.
Pinch 2:
Another reminder scene, connected to Pinch 1, and halfway between the Midpoint and Plot Point 2.
Plot Point 2:
The final reversal, when the hero has had enough or the villain believes they've defeated them for the last time.

Midway through Act 3, the hero confronts the problem for the last time. They don't have to win.
Resolution & Tag: The issues of the story are resolved, giving the audience closure.

This post is long enough already, so I put my examples in the comments. Feel free to add your own too; trying to match stories to this formula will probably teach you more than I could. (I learned a lot just figuring out my examples).

And remember, the three-act structure is not The Formula By Which All Stories Are Told. It's just one way to think about things. If you're not sure where your story needs to go next (like me) then it can be really helpful.

Your Call: New Working Title

For over a year, I've been using the working title Joey Stone for my next project. The name came from a short story I wrote about a powerful psionic-in-training believed guilty of treason like his father.

Unfortunately, that title and storyline is 100% obsolete. So I need a new working title, one that does as much of the following as possible (in order of importance): (1) makes you want to know more about the story, (2) conveys a sense of the world, (3) conveys a sense of the plot.

I know that's totally subjective and that there's no perfect title that does all three really well. Clearly, in situations like this, the best thing to do is to use an unscientific online poll:

I'd like you to vote without any more knowledge of the story, so please vote before reading on. If after reading the blurb below you change your mind, or think you have a better title than the options above, feel free to say so in the comments:

Suriya thought she'd hid her powers pretty well, until a group of Chinese bounty hunters comes after her. She escapes using her ability to call fire, but the fire gets out of her control and destroys an entire Chiang Mai city block. Even worse, now everybody knows what she is.

More bounty hunters come, but Suriya finds unexpected help from a woman named Charity.
They don't speak the same language, but Suriya understands when Charity speaks directly into her mind. She says Suriya is one of the Cunning - a group of people born with fantastic abilities. Charity wants to take her to the US where she can be trained.

Suriya wants to trust Charity, but when she overhears her speaking with the bounty hunters in Chinese, she wonders if Charity is telling the truth. She wonders if she can really trust anybody.

Writers' Journey

I'm trying to draw something every week, so when someone mentioned a map for Natalie's hiking analogy, my muse said, "Oh!"

The hiking analogy is like this: writing is a hard, long trek up a mountain. It's beautiful, but sometimes you wonder if you'll ever get to the end. And a lot of us are trapped in the Forest of Lost Minds, where we begin to wonder why we started this journey in the first place. But there is a way out and a point at which everything is clear; you can see how far you've come, how not ready you were before, how close you are to getting "there" - Lookout Point.

That's the short version. Read Natalie's post for a better explanation. I added some things too:

On a related note, does anybody know anything about oil pastels? This is my first time using them, and the effect was only slightly better than if I'd used crayons. I like the mountains, but that's about it. Any tips?


You guys asked some really good and difficult questions. Hopefully this is as much fun for you as it is for me. If not, well, that's too bad, because I'll probably do it again.

Ben asked: What is your least favorite book?

Of books I've read to the end, my least favorite is probably Tribulation Force from my least favorite series, Left Behind. It wasn't the theology that bothered me (I was actually interested in a 'what-if' of rapture theology). What bothered me was the dozens of major characters all alike, the paper cut-out villains, the huge apocalyptic moments handled in a single paragraph.

So why this book rather than one of the other 16? The title edged it out. Tribulation Force is just... not a cool name.

Ben: What is the worst thing you would do to get published with your favorite editor?

I would crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women.

Was that your question?

Ben: What is your favorite quality of your writing or yourself as a writer?

When I'm outlining and drafting, I love everything. When I'm getting critiques and rejections, I hate it all. I will say this: whatever anyone else thinks, I love writing air pirate dialog. It's just fun, aye?

Of course even my most critical betas said they enjoyed the way air pirates talk, so I might have just decided, after the fact, that I like it too.

Anne L. B. asked: Why do you write (other than you can't not)?

I've always loved to create stories - kindergarten make-believe, Star Wars action figures with my brothers, writing Choose-Your-Own Adventures, designing video games, GMing D&D sessions...

About 6 years ago I decided my time was too limited to do everything I wanted. I chose to focus on writing because - between making novels, board games, computer games, or movies - I thought a novel was something I could most likely complete with the skills/resources I had.

Of corollary interest, around the same time I wrote a prototype game based on the Air Pirates world. It just shows how long I've been thinking about it, I guess:

Natalie said: I've always admired what you do in Thailand. What made you want to go there and work with kids?

The short answer: God called us.

A longer answer: Cindy (who is Thai-American) wanted to run an orphanage since highschool. When I first told her I liked her, the third thing she said to me was, "If God calls me to be a missionary overseas, what will you do?" (Yeah, we were thinking long term from the start). That got missions in my head.

Years later we finally decided to "become missionaries." My original thought was to plant a church or something, but one thing after another kept putting Fatherhood on my heart. When we moved here, and started volunteering at a children's home while we learned the language, I realized being a father was all I wanted to do. It's what I was made for.

Natalie: What's your favorite Final Fantasy? Least favorite?

I've only played the big ones a little bit (meaning VII thru XI). Of the ones I have played, Crystal Chronicles is my favorite. You can't beat multiplayer RPGs, I think. Four guys on a couch in a boss fight, yelling at each other so we can get the combos timed just right... Yeah. Good times.

My least favorite was probably Final Fantasy I, not because it wasn't good, but because I recall many hours of fighting Frost Gators just to level up. On the other hand, FFI introduced me to airships.

Hilary asked: After reading the first page of my manuscript, would you want to keep reading?

Yes, largely due to the stranger (yay, tension!) and because I want an explanation for the last paragraph. I left more comments in your comments.

Hilary: When/where are you most inspired to write?

For some reason, the ocean tugs something inside me; when I see it I want to write, to create worlds. Mountains and other landscapes do it too, but nothing quite as strong as the ocean. I don't know why. It sucks that I live like 20x farther from the ocean than I've ever lived in my life.

Excellent stories also make me want to write excellent stories. Miyazaki, Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, and Naruto inspire pretty consistently (yes, most of that is anime). Though occasionally something really excellent, like say Dark Knight, just makes me think, "Man, I'll never be able to write like that."


I'm a little burnt on posting amateur writing tips,* so today is your opportunity to ask me anything you like. Put your questions in the comments, and on Friday (well, my Friday... you know, in Thailand), I will answer them.

I agree to answer all of them, however nosy, strange, or inappropriate. I agree to answer with the truth when possible** and humor otherwise. And what the heck, I agree to post at least one picture.

There. I feel better already.

* This may have something to do with critiques that are coming in now. At the moment, I don't feel like I have much to say on how to write. Don't worry. I'll get over it.

** Which, of course, means when I feel like it.

Again With the Infodumps

I've been doing some critiquing lately. I think I've critiqued about 8 short stories/novel chapters since I joined, and at least half of them have the same problem: infodumping. (I know I've talked about this before, but bear with me. There's an Air Pirates excerpt a'coming.)

An infodump is when the story stops, to exposit information about the world or the character. This happens a lot in SF/F stories because they involve worlds with which we're unfamiliar. We need them to be explained, but usually not as much as many writers (myself included) believe we do.

For example, in one chapter Sam is in danger of losing his most trusted friends. His pirating used to be an attempt to do good, but Sam has become just as bad as the people he attacks. While his crew celebrates the Winter's Night festival in Savajinn, Sam stays on board his ship to think. The following outline is how the scene went in the first draft:

  1. A paragraph about how Sam's ship was refitted from a merchant ship and the changes he made.
  2. Two paragraphs about Savajinn and Sam's relationship with the town they'd moored at.
  3. One sentence of Sam thinking.
  4. Four paragraphs about Winter's Night, it's origins, traditions, and the differences between the festivals of Savajinn and the Imperium.
At the time, I thought it was all important. No, that's not true. I knew some of it wasn't, but I wanted to share all the cool stuff I'd come up with - like Savajinn and Winter's Night. The problem? Most of it had no bearing on the story. To the reader, Savajinn is just another country and Winter's Night another festival. Unless the details define the plot, readers don't need to know more than that.

In my first edit, I cut the infodumps by half and rewrote the remainder to be (mostly) more connected to Sam. Below is part of the scene - the paragraphs about Winter's Night, both before and after. It's still kinda infodumpy (I bet I could cut the whole thing actually), but it's better than it was. I submit it here with the hopes of helping some of you who may be doing the same thing, but don't realize it:

The sun set alone beyond the sea. It marked the beginning of Amber Winter, when the amber sun eclipsed the warmth of its sister. At the same time, fireworks went off in town, for the first setting of the eclipse also marked Souls’ Day – though in Savajinn, where the monks had little influence, the holiday was still known by the old traditions as Winter’s Night.

Souls’ Day was a day to remember the dead, to celebrate their life and their afterlife. People would feast and pray to their dead relatives, then launch fireworks and hot-air lanterns in celebration. Winter’s Night, on the other hand, was not a night to remember the dead, but to fear them. On Winter’s Night, it was said, the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks and lanterns were meant not to celebrate, but to drive the spirits back to their world.

Same traditions, different meanings. Although the monks did have this much influence on Savajinn: there were no Winter’s Night feasts before the monks came.

Sam watched the celebrations from the prow for a long while. There was singing and dancing, even a parade winding through the streets. Children went here and there dressed as ghosts in what was once a prank to scare older folks, but had since become part of the fun. Some children even dressed as Azrael, for the pirate had become something of an icon to this feast of death.
Fireworks were set off in the town of Chuffton below. Everywhere, people released hot-air lanterns into the air. It was Winter’s Night, when – according to Savajinn tradition anyway – the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks were meant to scare them away, and the lanterns to guide them home, though few took those things seriously. Mostly Winter’s Night was another excuse to get drunk.

I Draw Like I Write

I've been drawing again, and every time I do it, I realize more and more how much my drawing process is like my writing process.

I drew as a kid, but stopped when the things I drew didn't come out like they were in my head. I would doodle occasionally, but no more. So I guess that's the first similarity: I quit because I thought I wasn't any good.

Something inside me still wanted to do it, though, because I bought Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain a few years ago and worked through it. I think it was that book, more than anything, that taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: I learned I can be good at anything I want to be good at, if I'm willing to work hard.

Okay, so the first thing I do when I decide to draw is I don't. I write down "draw" on my todo list and put it off for a few days. Then when I'm done with that, I open my sketchbook and stare at a blank page for about 5-10 minutes. Why is this important? It's not. It's bad, actually. But I do it every time because: I'm afraid of drawing (or writing) something wrong.

When I finally get started, I plan. When you write, it's called outlining. When you draw, it's called blocking. Not everyone does it, but I do because I want to know that everything is in the right place before I start drawing "for real." So in both: I plan until I'm confident the end product has no major flaws.

Lastly, when I write, I'm constantly going back over each scene and chapter to clean it up. This is sometimes wasted effort when things get cut or rewritten, but I do it anyway. Apparently I do this when I draw too. I'll start with maybe the left eye, and I won't move on to another part until I've got all the detail - not perfect - but good. See: I want the part I'm working on to be "done" before I move on.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I treat both kinds of art the same way. It's me, you know? I am surprised at how much fear plays into both processes. I guess I need to work on that.