Showing posts with label writing process. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing process. Show all posts

Revision: How to Add a Whole New Character

So when Tricia asked me for revisions, one of the things she wanted (which I totally agreed with) required adding one or two new characters. I'd never actually done this before, and I was afraid the new characters would feel flat or tacked on. Here's what I did to avoid that:

1) Define the character. This is the novel that got me my agent, so the existing characters were pretty fleshed out. I wanted to make the new characters as deep as I could -- goals, motivations, even voice -- before I changed a word. (Yes, I planned. What a shock.)

2) Plan what needs to change. I skimmed through the entire novel, making a note of every scene where the character could appear, and maybe what that would do to the scene or the whole plot if they did. Sometimes this led me down some really interesting roads, though other times I realized it would mess things up too much if they were around.

3) Write the character. For each scene in my notes above, I had to decide whether or not they did appear. This was tricky. I didn't want them to appear only in the scenes where they mattered (no chance for development that way), but I also didn't want them to have a cameo in every single scene just because I could. In the end, I decided to keep them in most scenes rather than make excuses for why they weren't there.

Ah, but how to add them . . .

           3a) Dialog. Sometimes the new character had new things to say, but most of my story was already set. Honestly, about two-thirds of the time, the new character just said things that other characters had said. I just changed the tag and the flow of conversation to support it. You'd be surprised how often -- especially in group scenes -- you can swap lines of dialog around without affecting things.

           3b) Narrator descriptions and thoughts. Whoever's head we're in needs to notice the character. Not just notice them, but have feelings about them that affect things. Otherwise why have them there at all?

           3c) Let them shift the plot a little. I wasn't about to rework whole plot points for these characters, but their presence did change things a bit. Partly, this is what they were being added for (to add emotional weight to certain of the protagonist's decisions), but a couple of events took me by surprise. It's usually good to let these things happen.

           3d) Treat it like a first draft. It's so, so hard to add words to a novel that I know works (see the part where it got me an agent). I want the new words to fit seamlessly with the old ones and to be just as awesome. But it's better to accept that they won't be at first. You'll make them good in a second.

4) Read the whole novel again. Slow. Now that the characters are in there, you have to make sure everything still flows. It's not just about continuity and details, but you have to look at the emotions of the scenes. Do the character's words and actions fit what's going on around them? Is she being flippant when she should be scared, or crying in a relatively tame moment? (Mine was).

I also realized there were places where the protagonist could be thinking about the new characters, even though they weren't in the scene. The new characters were now part of the protagonist's life, and I think this helped make them even more real.

5) Send it to a beta reader who hasn't read it before. You can send it to betas who have read it too, but I wanted someone who knew nothing to tell me which character(s) they thought I had added, which felt the most tacked-on.

I was kind of excited when my beta reader named characters that had been in the novel from the beginning. It did make me wonder about those old characters a little, but the new characters felt like part of the story to her, which means I did it right. And honestly, now I can't imagine the story without them either.

Have you ever added a character in revision? How did you do it?

What Would You Do If You Had To Give Up Writing?

I wanted to ask "What's your dream job?" But for a lot of us, writing is our dream job.

But what if you couldn't write for some reason? What would you do instead?

I originally decided to write as one of many options. I was at my Office Space job one day, thinking about various projects -- none of them work-related, of course. I had an unfinished novel, a computer game, a couple of board game designs, and a D&D campaign bouncing through my head (and, uh . . . open on my desktop).

And I realized there was no way I could finish all of them to my satisfaction. I wanted the novel to be published, the games to be popular, the D&D campaign to actually get played.

Oh, and I also wanted to write a web comic and make movies.

So clearly I wanted to create, to tell stories, to entertain, and I realized if I really wanted to do that, I would have to focus on one medium and get as good at that medium as possible.

Obviously I chose writing, but if I weren't writing, I'd be doing one of those other things. I'd be programming computer games or designing board games or at the very least running RPG campaigns with whoever I could play with (hint: the older you and your friends get, the harder it is to play an RPG).

What would you be doing if you couldn't write?

What Kind of Writer Are You (Avatar Edition)?

Sokka: Our detour into town today has completely thrown off our schedule. It's gonna take some serious finagling to get us back on track. 
Toph: Finagle away, oh schedule master!

You love the burst of ideas that is the New Shiny. Brainstorms, outlines, beat sheets -- you will do whatever it takes to make this story awesome before you write the first word. Why? Because the plan is perfect. What ruins things are those pesky words (and dialogs and descriptions and transitions and . . . ).

Uncle Iroh: You never think these things through. This is exactly what happened when you captured the Avatar at the North Pole. You had him and then you had nowhere to go!
Zuko: I would have figured something out.

You love the draft, the heady rush of new words as the story pours out of you. Maybe you have a plan, or maybe you just sit down and see what comes out. Maybe it gets you in trouble. Regardless, you feel that whatever heart and soul the story has will come right here, but only if you let it. The words are crap, but the emotions are real. Words can be fixed later.

Master Pakku: Katara, you've advanced more quickly than any other student I've ever trained. You have proven that with fierce determination, passion, and hard work, you can accomplish anything. Raw talent alone is not enough.

The draft is done, thank GOD! Now you can get to the part you truly love: turning the crap into a really great novel. Revision is where real novels are made, after all, and you know better than anyone that anything can be made better in this stage. Though it'd be nice if you didn't have to do it so many times.

Katara [about Toph]: How did she do that?
Aang: She waited and listened.

For you, the novel is never truly finished until someone else has read it. It's not that you don't trust your own opinion -- you do, but you know your opinion is inherently biased. You are too close to the story to objectively evaluate it yourself. And when other people start coming back with mostly praise, then you know it is almost finished. You have almost written a novel.

Obviously, we have to be all four of these to be successful, but most of us enjoy one or two aspects of writing much more than the others (and I bet you all have one aspect you hate -- I do).

It's no surprise I'm a diehard planner, but I also enjoy listening to critiques. For me, I can't call a story good until other people start saying it is.

So what kind of writer are you?

When Your Agent Asks You For Revisions

To me, writing a novel -- trying to make a dozen characters and themes and motivations and goals all fit together in one comprehensible mass -- feels like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube.

It takes years, but then one day I'm all, "Holy crap, I did it, guys! I finished the cube!"

Even better, I show it off to agents, and one of them says, "That's a great looking cube. Can I represent you?" And, well, you know how that goes.

Then my agent says, "Now before I can submit this to publishers, I want you to try and put these pieces in, too."

And I'm all:

Stupid Rubik's Cube.

In Which I Work Up the Nerve to Edit Something

There's a lot of waiting coming up in the next few months, in which I have to just hope that Air Pirates is good enough. In which I have to write the next thing. The thing is, I have at least two finished drafts sitting on my computer, one of which probably will be the next thing, but I'm having trouble working up the nerve to edit them.

This is what's going on in my brain, then. Welcome to the crazy.

Brain: Work on Post-Apoc Ninjas. It's pretty good, and it has a lot of the same feel as Air Pirates.

Me: But I'd have to rewrite over half of it. It's so much work! Can't I just work on this New Shiny over here?

You'll have to rewrite that draft, too. It's less work to revise Ninjas.

But what if it's not? What if I write something that's mostly good on the first try?

Has that ever happened before?

. . . But if I rip out half of Ninjas, it'll feel like I wrote it for nothing.

Look at it this way: you still have half of a good novel.

What if I rip out more than half?

It's still part of a good novel. It's more than you had before you wrote it.

But what if I revise Ninjas and it's still not good? All that work will be wasted!

That's what you say before you start every draft.

I'd have to revise it AGAIN!

Look, what's it worth to you to write a good novel?

I HAVE written a good novel. It's called Air Pirates. Have you read it?

And how many times did you revise that?

. . . I hate you.

So long as you finish something.

Statistics, Milestones, and Statistics

As of this morning (last night for you in the Americas), the first draft of Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!) is finished, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Not because the work is done (far, FAR from it), but because drafting is my least favorite part of the process.

To celebrate, I'm posting these pre-revision statistics on the four finished novels I have sitting on my computer. (What, you don't think statistics are fun? Perhaps you've mistaken this blog for someone else's.)

I also submit these in the hope they will encourage any of you who feel you write slow: It Gets Better.

Time to Draft: 4.5 years, both planning and writing (mostly writing).
Outline: None (GASP!), but lots of notes.
Draft Length: 76,000 words.
Avg Drafting Speed: About 1,600 words/month.

Time to Draft: 19 months.
Outline: 244 words.
Draft Length: 100,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,200 words/month.

Time to Draft: 9 months.
Outline: 5,500 words (if you think I'm proud of that, read on; it gets better).
Draft Length: 48,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 5,300 words/month.

Time to Draft: 4 months.
Outline: 9,100 words (<--- !!).
Draft Length: 79,000 words. 
Avg Drafting Speed: 19,800 words/month.

I'm not quite at NaNoWriMo speeds yet, but I am finally at a place where I feel like I could produce a book a year, if I had to. You know, if someone wanted to pay me to do that (do you think that's too subtle?)

Confessions of an Ascetic Writer

My previous confession proved to me I'm not alone in these things, and I know ascetic writers are more common than analytical ones. But still, I feel the need to confess...

I can't listen to music while I write. If there are words, I sing them (and sometimes type them -- seriously!). If there are no words, I still get caught up in the story the music is telling, and it becomes impossible to tell my own.

Sometimes I can edit with music, but even then, if I listen to an epic song during a soft moment, it severely skews how I revise the scene.

I can't eat snacks while I write. I end up eating them all in the first twenty minutes and not writing anything. Then I get gunk on my keyboard.

I can't drink while I write. It makes me have to get up and pee every fifteen minutes. (I don't understand it either. I drink just as much the rest of the day and only go every few hours. It's only when I have to write.)

I can't be near a window. Because then I stare outside at the neighbors and the gardeners and even the stinking DOGS that walk by.

But the worst thing is, I can't write in the same place with nothing to look at, nothing to drink, nothing to snack on, and nothing to listen to but the ceiling fan. I get bored and start to dread my writing time.

Seriously, I don't know how I ever get anything done.

How do you write? What do you need to be productive?

Writing When You Hate Writing

Some days, this is exactly how I feel.

Sometimes it's the novel's fault. As I plow through the draft, crap gets built on crap, building into a gargantuan pile of whatsit that I'm just going to have to fix later. Mistakes and weak plot points devolve into puzzles I no longer want to solve. And I've already used all my stock phrases and have to think of new ways to make people look, shout, cry, and laugh.

Sometimes it's the query process' fault. Being a tad insane, I've been charting my rejections and requests. There is a strong correlation with my mood. Like in August, when I got a bunch of requests and was writing 1,000 words a day, and the beginning of this month when I got some hard rejections and hit a bit of a slump.*

Sometimes it's just life's fault. Social workers come to visit. Kids are home on a day I expected to have to myself. Family issues just send out negative waves.

(It's never my fault, apparently. That would just be silly.)

Whatever the reason, I feel like things will never get better and I'll never get out of it. That's crap, of course, but it doesn't change how I feel.

So what do I do when this happens? Usually I try to plow forward, and sometimes I can. Other times, I have to take a break. Even though I know accomplishing something in writing will make me feel better, sometimes I have to accept that's something I can't do yet.

But what to do on that break? Man, I don't know. Sometimes playing a game works. Exercise. Mostly, though I just have to get off the internet and remind myself what my life's really about.

What do you do?

* I'm better now, but I don't think October will be breaking any records.

Why Do You Write in Your Genre?

Almost everything I write has some sort of fantasy element to it, something that defies understanding for the people in that world.

And I think the reason is my own faith. Part of my assembly code includes a belief that there's more to this world than we can see or understand. I feel like there must be.

So even when I write a story about a forgotten colony of Earth, something creeps in that is bigger than we are and beyond our understanding. Even when I try to set a story in modern-day Thailand, people start fires with their mind or something.

I'm not sure I could write a non-speculative, contemporary story even if I wanted to. Eventually, some character would discover unusual powers or receive visions of the future or at the very least witness something that may or may not be a miracle.

I can't help it.

What's your genre? And why do you write it?

First Draft

I want to make my first draft perfect, but that's impossible.

So I try to make it decent, so it will be easy to fix later or for beta readers to find the flaws. But that's impossible too. I don't know what "decent" is.

So I try to write something interesting, so beta readers will like it and (hopefully) put more effort into making it better. But every beta reader likes different things.

Anyway, that's just a different kind of perfect.

So I try to write the best first draft that I can write at this moment. But I don't know what that is. I always doubt if what I wrote is my best, then I delete it and have to start over.

So I settle for just writing a first draft. I can worry about all that other stuff later.

(Honestly, I usually get stuck on paragraph 2. How do you approach first drafts?)

Ideas and French Cooking

(Remixed from an old post. Hm, that's kind of appropriate, actually.)

Madeleine L'Engle once wrote a book called Walking on Water. It's an interesting look at how faith and art overlap. In fact, to hear L'Engle tell it, the two are far more intertwined than most people realize. I'd strongly recommend this book for artists who are Christian, but I think it has something to say to non-Christian artists and Christian non-artists as well.

This post isn't about faith though. There was a passage about how L'Engle turned ideas into stories. Her method, it turns out, is a lot like mine, though she describes it much more eloquently:

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day's work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don't remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unself-consciousness, of letting go and serving the work.

Plan a Novel 4: Outlining and (sigh) Pantsing

There is a very, very fine line between plotters and pantsers (i.e. those who write "by the seat of their pants").* At some point, everyone has to just buckle down and make up a bunch of crap. The primary difference between these two extremes of writers is that when pantsers wing it they end up with a draft, while plotters end up with an outline.

Both of them still have a lot of work to do.

* For the record, I hate the term pantser. It reminds me of Jr. High and a desire to wear too-tight belts for "security reasons." But since I'm not a panster, and since I've never heard a better a term for them, that's the one we're rolling with.

Anyway, this is where my method starts to look like pantsing (gah, seriously, there's GOT to be a better term). I chose the idea, figured out the major plot points, fleshed it out (and worked through all the sticking points), now I'm ready to congeal my notes and outlines into Something I Can Write From.

For me, that's a chapter outline, but don't worry, the chapters come last.

I do a lot of bouncing between documents, but always revolving around my outline. Sometimes I'll jump out and write a quick doc (I think better typing random lists in a text or Word doc, but that's just me) on some aspect of world history or character backstory, or maybe a single character arc, action scene, or point of motivation. Once I've figured it out, I'll jump back into my outline, add the necessary details, and move on.

For example, in my current WIP I had to come up with a whole game to revolve a third of the plot around. I wrote a doc outlining every scene dealing with the main romance (or what passes for romance, anyway; there were only 7 mini-scenes). I brainstormed two or three docs to figure out the tactics of the climactic siege (I may have gone overboard there, it was kinda fun).

I also cheat. Technically a plotter is supposed to plan the whole thing ahead of time before they write, right? Well, I have a Word doc for those scenes I just have to get out of my head right now. I don't go into great detail with any of them. Often it reads like a crappy screenplay -- a little stage direction and a lot of dialog. Heck, sometimes the "scene" is one clever line (or what I think is clever at the time).

But writing it in its own document helps shut up my inner editor and frees me to use it or not when the time comes.

So you see, even the staunchest plotter can end up leaving gaps, writing things out of order, and making stuff up as I go. But I don't think it matters how you put together a novel, so long as you end up with a novel at the end.

What about you? Where are you on the spectrum of plotter to pantser? And what the heck can we call it other than pantsing? Please!

Plan a Novel 3: Flesh and Getting Unstuck

You've got the idea and have even figured out the major plot points, but a handful of plot points won't always carry you for 80,000 words.

For me, I need intermediate plot points -- the Midpoint and Pinches I mentioned last time -- but even that's not enough. The characters need obstacles, goals, and subconflicts (that still related to the main conflict in some direct way) to get me from that first Turning Point to the Climax.

I get stuck at this point. A lot. As I continue to go over my story, making it bigger and bigger as I go, these are some areas I've found that help trigger ideas:

I usually know which characters have weak arcs at this point. Sometimes it's the MC, sometimes it's the secondary characters, sometimes it's the villain (heck, sometimes I realize I don't even have a villain).

Sometimes my major characters are in place, but it's still not enough. In that case, I'll look at the minor characters and see if any could stand to be bumped up. What are their goals and desires? How do they conflict with the MC's or the villain's?

Often I focus too much on plot and not enough on what I want to say. My themes change a lot over the course of the book, but thinking about them can help me find scenes and connect plot points.

So I think about what subjects I care about that maybe aren't addressed yet. Are there any hard questions I struggle with that I want one or more of the characters to explore? What naturally tugs on my heart? (NOT, however, "What message do I want to convey?" Whenever I do that, my stories always get preachy and soul-sucking.)

Usually this leads back to the characters. I think the best way to explore a theme is to make one of my characters face it themselves.

If the characters aren't providing enough conflict, maybe the setting should. Or maybe there's some critical gap in my world's history, or some cool bit of magic/technology/whatever I could highlight.

So I research(ish). Do I need a war? A revolution? I hunt around Wikipedia for something that piques my interest. Or more likely, I do more research into whatever country/era my world is loosely based on, until something pricks an idea and I realize I have to add that to the story.

Other times it's not history I need, but plot. If something feels weak to me, it's usually because it was my first idea. Lately I've been spending an increasing amount of time at TV Tropes for that -- dangerous, I know, but effective if I stay focused on the tropes I might actually use or subvert.

Often just subverting the weak point the plot is enough to drive the whole story in a new and interesting direction. At the moment, this is my favorite new trick.

Next week will be the last in this series, talking about outlines and cheating. But you tell me -- whether you plot ahead of time or not -- what do you do (or where do you go) when you don't know what happens next?

Level Up: 1,000 Words in a Day

I'm a slow writer. Like, really slow. I mean, I wrote the freaking book post on writing slow. So I'm a little weirded out to have to admit the following:

I have written 1,000 words a day, every (writing) day, for the past two weeks.

Now, granted, I'm usually only able to pull 3-4 writing days a week, but my previous average was 1,000 words per week, so this is kind of a big jump. How am I doing this?

Well... I'm still trying to figure that out.

With Travelers, my only goal was to finish the novel. That took 4.5 years. Air Pirates wasn't much different, but I got that done in 2 years. I had a for-real word count goal with Cunning Folk, but it was a soft goal (meaning I didn't do anything if I missed it). I finished the draft in 9 months, but my production rate was about the same as Air Pirates.

Now? I have a hard goal of 800 words/day. "Hard" meaning on the first day, when I didn't meet my goal during my isolated writing time, I squeezed in extra work wherever I could.

The weird thing is, that's the only day I've had to do extra work so far.

My writing time is two hours. Often, by the end of the first hour, I'll only have written about 100-300 words. It sucks. It's hard, and I feel like I'll never make it. But something weird happens around 600-700 words: I stop paying attention.

I've never had a runner's high (what with my loathing for the activity), but I've heard it's a thing. So maybe there's a writer's high too -- a point at which you stop feeling the pain and just get lost in the story. There seems to be for me. Every time I sit down to write, I dread it and wonder if I can maintain this breakneck (for me) pace. Then by the end I wish I had a little bit more time to write.

I've written enough novels to know the kinds of things I tend to get stuck on and the kinds of things I'm good at just writing through. With this novel, I went over my outline until I had 9,000 words of the thing detailing every major plot point and motivation I could think of (plus a few minor foreshadowing tidbits), until I could read through the outline without any gaps.

There's still a lot I have to make up -- action scenes, conversations, the dreaded segues -- but those things haven't been slowing me down as much as they used to.

I used to revise as I go. Heck, I had a whole ritual every time I finished a chapter: revise, record statistics, send to alpha reader, update blog sidebar, try to remember what the next chapter is about...

I've cut out a lot of that now, but most importantly I've cut the revising as I go. It's hard (especially when sending really rough drafts to my alpha), but it keeps me moving.

I'm a big fan of the idea that you can do basically anything if you practice hard enough. I don't know why it surprises me that writing fast is one of those things.

How about you? How do you maintain your pace (whatever it is)? Got any tips for someone trying to get faster?

Plan a Novel 2: The Skeleton

So you've got a novel-sized idea. What do you do with that?

Well the next thing I do is a heckuva lot of brainstorming, with one goal in mind: the skeleton outline. (Note: I never actually called it that until now).

Much like in the idea stage, I slowly adding bits and pieces to the idea until I'm certain it's strong enough to support a novel. In the idea stage, I'm mostly looking at the premise and thinking, "I don't have a climax for this, but is this the kind of premise that could support a good one?" In the skeleton stage, I find that climax.

Put simply, I'm looking for the main parts of Syd Field's Paradigm (also known as a fleshed-out, screenwriting version of the Three Act Structure), specifically:
  1. Inciting Incident. This is the opening scene (or close to it), in which something happens to the MC that triggers everything else. Luke's uncle buys the rebel droids. Frodo inherits the Ring.
  2. Turning Point: The point of no return. The inciting incident ultimately leads here, where the MC is forced to leave their innocent world behind (or possibly they must choose to leave it behind for something greater). Luke's aunt and uncle are killed. Frodo flees the Shire.
  3. Midpoint: The reversal. Something happens, or some truth is revealed, that changes the direction of the story. This is sort of a screenplay thing, but I love it so much I use it in my novels. Ben Kenobi is killed. Frodo leaves the Fellowship.
  4. Climax: After a series of obstacles, successes, and failures, the MC faces their most difficult moment and, ultimately, must face the antagonist.
  5. Resolution: The MC wins (or loses), but I have to decide how much I want to resolve in this novel, and what I can leave hanging for possible future ones. (I have yet to write a novel where I resolve EVERYTHING).
I might also start thinking about Obstacles (those pesky things that fill the space between the Turning Point and the Climax) and Pinches (brief reminders of what the real conflict is, while the MC focuses on his current Obstacle). Filling out the rest of that checklist helps a lot too.

Often this is the stage where my characters show up. I usually have an MC, of course, but he needs a villain. He might need a straight man, a foil, or a love interest. In order to figure out the midpoint and the climax, I have to start getting to know some of these characters, maybe give them their own arcs. One of them might be lying to another, but why? About what? What happens when the other finds out?

But even though the characters show up, I still know very little about them. I don't know their voice at all, their families or background, or even whether they're funny or not. But there is one thing I must know in order to complete the skeleton: I have to know what each of these main characters WANTS.

Without that, it's hard to get anywhere. But the cool thing is, with that, large parts of the story start writing themselves. Especially when characters have conflicting goals.

Next week I'll talk about turning the skeleton into a full-on story, and the kinds of things I do when I get stuck. To you, though: What's your process? Do you follow a formula (like the 3-Act Structure) when you write, or do you wing it?

    Plan a Novel 1: The Idea

    Someone asked me to talk about how I plan a novel, and the current size of my readership makes one person a significant sample size. So he wins.

    Before I go on, I'm required by law to say that everyone's process is different and valid (assuming it produces a novel -- my old process of "sit in front of the TV until I feel like writing 80,000 words" never really worked out for me). This is not how you must write a novel. It is only how I write a novel. Your mileage may vary.

    Okay, so the first thing you need is an idea. I can't tell you where to get ideas, but you need a lot of them to write a whole novel. Not all ideas are created equal, but I think any idea can be made novel-sized with enough work.

    I use sort of a loose version of the snowflake method. I start small and build up the idea piece by piece, adding characters, plot points, world-building, etc. One thing that's really important for me is writing down my initial idea somewhere, so when I'm stuck, or I feel like the story is dead-ending, I can remind myself what got me excited about the idea in the first place.

    Before I put the effort into plotting an idea, I want to know it's strong enough. For that, I have a checklist based on Nathan Bransford's fantastic post on how to write a novel (you may have noticed my process is not at all original):
    • Premise: One sentence about the main character (MC) and the plot. These don't have to be good. One of mine was the very generic: "MC sets out to save his town and ends up saving the world."
    • Main Plot Arc: Specifically four key parts: (1) where the MC starts, (2) the inciting event, (3) what they have to do (the journey), and (4) where they end up (the ending).
    • Obstacles: Whatever stands in the MC's way.
    • MC: Who they are and what they want (<-- this is very important!).
    • Setting: Including three aspects (from Nathan's post): (1) some setting-level conflict and change underway, (2) personality (what makes the world unique), and (3) unfamiliarity (what makes the world strange).
    • Style and Voice: Honestly I never know what to write for this, but it was in Nathan's post so it's in my checklist. Style and voice are usually the last things I think about.
    • Climax: I don't always have one of these either, but it's not a bad thing to have before deciding to write something.
    • Themes: What bigger issues does this story deal with?
    I think if you've got an idea of most or all of those points, you're well on your way to a strong story.

    You're NOT trying to fill all the boxes. Last time, I had six ideas, so I made a whole freaking table to see where the gaps were. And there were a lot of gaps. I had no climaxes, a lot of missing journeys, and settings with no personality. One story had an MC but no world, and another a world with no MC (though that was one place my table worked out great: I combined the two ideas).

    The table didn't tell me which idea was fully-formed. It helped me get a bird's-eye view to see how much work each one needed, and to get a feel for which one I was most excited about doing that work.

    About marketability. The perceived marketability of a concept is something I considered (and even put in my table), because I think whatever I work on should ideally be something other people want to read. But I don't think you can choose what to write based on what you think will sell. For one thing, nobody knows what will hit it big.


    For another, no matter how marketable an idea might be, it's not worth writing if you hate it. So marketability goes into my decision, but it doesn't make the decision.

    Next week I'll talk about filling these gaps and turning an idea into the skeleton of a story. But tell me about your process. How do you decide whether an idea is novel-worthy or not?

    8 Stages of Querying

    NOTE: These stages are representative and are not indicative of any stage the author (me) is currently in. Although I have been in every stage at one time or another.

    1) The First Query is Sent. Subject spends most of their time refreshing their inbox and planning an "I Have an Agent!" blog post. A small amount of time is also spent researching what to ask when an agent calls, how much time to give other agents to make a competing offer, and how much the average advance is for a debut author.

    2) The 1st Rejection. Subject tells themselves everyone gets rejected. They try to remember what one is supposed to do to move on, but end up refreshing their inbox and staring at their query spreadsheet instead.

    3) The 5th Rejection. Mild depression sets in. Subject looks at their spreadsheet, and the as-yet unanswered queries, with despair. They wonder if the problem is their query letter or their story or their opening pages or that one comment they made on Twitter where all the agents could see or the fact that their blog is white text on black background...

    4) The 1st Request. Symptoms include an increased heart-rate and shaky hands, making it difficult to prepare the manuscript for the agent. Subject looks over the manuscript twenty times before realizing they're not paying attention to it because they were thinking about where they would do their first book signing. At this stage, the subject is completely incapable of working on anything new.

    5) The 1st Rejection of the Full Manuscript. Subject suffers severe depression. They may stop writing or querying for days. Some subjects stay off the internet while others stay on to research self-publishing.

    6) The 15th Rejection. Subject becomes resigned to rejection. They send out new queries reflexively, but don't really expect anything from them. Depending on feedback received and the state of the manuscript, subject may consider major revisions, a rewrite, or an entirely new novel.

    7) The 4th Request. Subject exhibits a timid hope, but continues work on the new project. When new query responses arrive, subject experiences brief excitement before reminding themselves it's just another rejection. Subject begins to see things in their new project that they like. They wonder if maybe -- just maybe -- they could fall in love with something new again.

    8) The Whateverth Rejection. Subject is excited once again. They have completely fallen in love with their new project. Rejections are noted in the spreadsheet but no longer obsessed over. Agents who express an interest in the subject's future novels are added to a new spreadsheet, and their blogs and Twitter feeds are followed.

    Subject tries not to think about what will happen if the old project is rejected entirely while simultaneously reminding themselves they haven't lost anything. Their life is as good as it ever was before they even started writing, except now they have a novel to be proud of.

    And hopefully, still, publish some day.

    Confession of an Analytical Writer

    My characters don't talk to me.

    They don't talk to me. I don't feel like they're my friends or someone I know in real life. I don't spend time with them, and they don't bug me with their story until I write it.

    There, I said it.

    I know a lot of you writers are the opposite. A character starts talking to you, tells you their story, and you feel compelled to write it. And I'm really, really sorry, but that's never how it worked out for me.

    I usually get a world first, one that's in danger somehow. And then I have to think of an epic plot to save it. The characters come later as I ask questions like: Who lives in this world? Who has the abilities to save it but is least likely to do so? Who are their friends? Their enemies?

    Even once I find the characters, they don't tell me their story. If they ever did, it would be like, "I read books and don't do anything interesting." Or "I'm a ninja and go on missions and stuff." Or even "I start fires with my mind, but only when nobody's looking. I'm just trying to stay out of trouble."

    They don't talk to me, but if they did, this is what they would say. Because my characters wouldn't want to get involved in the story I put them in. That's the whole point (and maybe one of my themes): my characters don't want to save the world, which is exactly why I choose them.

    And they don't tell me their story. I tell it to them.

    My characters never break the fourth wall. They do whatever I need them to do. The guy who used to work in a bookstore? Now he works on his father's shipyard (and only wishes he worked in a bookstore), because there's more conflict that way. The ninja who was framed for killing his clan leader? Maybe he really did kill him -- or was about to -- because that makes later plot points that much more dramatic.

    They don't complain. They just...change.

    Sometimes I wish they spoke to me, because then I'd know I was starting with a strong voice and a deep character. Instead, I have to decide what I want their voice to be and what their goals are. And I have to decide if that fits the story I put them in.

    I know there's no wrong process, but when other authors talk about these characters that won't leave them alone, sometimes I wonder if I'm doing it right. So I had to confess: I'm not like most writers. I don't write novels in some kind of inspired dream state. I solve them like a computer program or a Rubik's Cube.

    And for some reason, it works, too.

    Throwing Rocks at Your Characters

    They say when you don't know what happens next, or when the story is slowing down, the best thing to do is throw rocks at the characters. It means make things hard for them. Just when they think they got out of one scrape, toss them in an even worse one.

    I learned this best from one of my favorite chapters in Air Pirates. Hagai (not a pirate) needs the help of Sam (pirate) to find his mother and plans to leave the town of Providence with him. Unfortunately, the Imperial Navy and another particularly nasty pirate named Jacobin Savage don't want Sam to go.

    The outline for this part said "Hagai helps Sam avoid arrest then together they escape Providence." But when the time came to write it, I wasn't sure what that looked like.*

    It started simple. Hagai boarded their airship just as two Navy ships showed up and starting shooting at them. Fortunately Sam and crew had a clever piratey maneuver to get them airborne fast and out of range. It was a good scene, but it felt too easy.

    So I threw rocks.

    They escaped the first two ships, but the Navy was ready for them. Over half a dozen new ships came out of the clouds and surrounded them. They attached themselves to Sam's ship with steel wires and started reeling them in.

    It was good. It was tense, but now I had a new problem: how would they get out of it? Whenever you throw rocks, you'll run into this, but that's when you know you're doing it right. If the situation isn't impossible, it means it's too easy.

    I won't tell you how they escape (hint: it gets worse before it gets better), but I will say that what started as a clever-but-simple maneuver turned into one of my favorite battle scenes in the entire book. (In fact, I had a hard time topping it for the climax...I'm still not sure I did). All from throwing rocks.

    To sum up:
    • When the story is slow, or you don't know what happens next, or things feel too easy: Throw rocks at the characters.
    • Throwing rocks means: Every time the characters think they're okay, make something even worse happen.
    • When the situation looks impossible, you're doing it right.
    Have you done this in your stories? How did it work out for you?

    * It's true, my outlines used to be really vague. They've gotten progressively more detailed the more novels I write. But no matter how detailed your outline is, eventually you do have to make up something.

    What Are Your Themes?

    Every writer has themes they come back to again and again. Whether intentional or not, these are the issues that weigh on our hearts.

    One of those issues for me is trust. All my stories seem to have some character wondering whether or not they can trust someone and a critical point where they need to decide if they do. I don't know whether this is something I struggle with or not (maybe it is!). But while I was writing Cunning Folk, I was consciously thinking of one of our kids who had difficulty trusting authority figures. They had good reasons for their mistrust, but it was very difficult for them to believe they could really trust us.

    Actually, a lot of our kids struggle with that. Maybe that's where the theme comes from?

    What about you? What themes do you keep going back to, either in what you write or what you watch/read? Where do those themes come from?