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

Fixing Mary Sue

Who is Mary Sue? Mary Sue is a character that is too perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool. Everybody likes them, and anyone who doesn't gets their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.

Sue is most common in fan fiction.* You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker, Jayne Cobb, and Jean-Luc Picard. I don't think there's anything wrong with Mary in these contexts, but if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue.

I don't think real Mary Sues appear in fiction as often as some say they do, but they do happen.

How do you avoid this? I mean, I [try to] make a living out of writing cool characters who do awesome things. And basically every character draws from myself in some way. How do I keep my super-cool pirates/ninjas/mech pilots from becoming wish fulfillment?

Here are some ideas:
  • Give them a flaw. Not an adorable non-flaw like "clumsiness," but a real flaw like "hell-bent on revenge and too proud to admit it."
  • Support their awesomeness. Why are they the youngest, most clever assassin in history? Did they train harder than everyone else? Were they kidnapped at birth and brutally trained to be a killer by a father figure who never loved them?
  • Make them fail. It's even better if it's their flaws that cause them to fail.
  • Don't let them be the best at everything. Have other characters be better than them at some things, both friends and enemies.
  • Give them likable enemies. Not just spiteful, ugly step-sisters, but characters whose opinions the reader can respect.

I don't think Mary Sue appears as much as the internet thinks she does, but it is something to watch out for. If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you (and also Steven Seagal).

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here (page 25). It's kinda hilarious.

Wrecked by Critiques (and Dealing With It)

Original Picture: Sam Sanford
I know revisions are where good novels are made. I know it. But getting notes back from my critique partners always wrecks me. It's like getting punched in my fear of failure over and over and over and over.

Here's how I deal with it.

1. I have a rule: no reading critiques right before bed. Critiques either make me despair, or else drive my brain into a planning frenzy trying to fix things. Either way, I sleep terribly when this happens.

2. Read it all in one go. No sense in dragging out the torture.

3. Eat some bacon.

4. Write down the major things that need work. Once I see it as a list, I usually realize there's only a couple of things that will take more than a sentence-change to fix (granted, there's a thousand sentence changes, but . . . ).

5. Take a break. My brain needs time to process how to fix things. Optionally: repeat step #3.

6. Make a plan. I don't know about you, but by the time I have a plan (and some bacon), I feel all better.

What about you? Are you wrecked by critiques (and if not, who are you)? What do you do about it?

Connecting With a Character (and Dr. Horrible)

One of the most important things we need to do as writers is help the reader connect with the character. But what the heck does that mean?

It means the character is sympathetic. We like them and want them to succeed. They don't even have to be a good guy. They can be a villian, like Dr. Horrible.

Dr. Horrible is one of the most sympathetic villains I've ever seen (and I won't spoil the series except to say he gets even more sympathetic). What makes us root for him can work for any character, good or bad.

Dr. Horrible: "Ok, dude, you are not my nemesis.... I'm just trying to change the world, ok? I don't have time for a grudge match with every poser in a parka. Besides, there's kids in that park..."

The traits we like in real people work just as well for our characters. They're honest, nice, noble, brave, humble, funny. They play fair and sacrifice for others.

Dr. Horrible isn't all of these things, but he strives not to kill. He's self-deprecating. He really is working for the people (even if he sees those people as sheep, sometimes).

Dr. Horrible: "I got a letter from Bad Horse."
Moist: "That's so hard core. Bad Horse is legend. He rules the League with an iron hoof."

They might be pathetic or ignorant or victims of everything. They might not even succeed, but a character that excels at something is a character worth rooting for. Even if Dr. Horrible's inventions don't work perfectly, the fact is he has a (mostly) working transmatter ray, freeze ray, and he can remotely hijack an armored van. That's pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Dr. Horrible: "It's not about making money, it's about taking money. Destroying the status quo because the status is not . . . quo. The world is a mess and I just . . . need to rule it."

If we're going to root for the character, we need to know what they're striving for. It's hard to cheer from the sidelines if you have no idea how one scores a goal.

And it needs to be a goal we agree with. Ruling the world may not be the most sympathetic vision, but Dr. Horrible's motivation certainly is.

Dr. Horrible: "[reading fan mail] 'Where are the gold bars you were supposed to pull out of that bank vault with your Transmatter Ray? Obviously, it failed or it would be in the papers.' Well, no. They're not gonna say anything in the press, but behold! Transported from there to here! [pokes a bag of gold liquid] The molecules tend to . . . shift during the transmatter, uh, event. But they were transported in bar form..."

Once we're rooting for them, we feel every failure, and every step back makes the victory that much more awesome.

No, I'm not going to tell you whether Dr. Horrible succeeds. You have to watch it.

Seriously, go watch it.

A Tale of Two Johns


This is an old story from the computer game world, but there are lessons here for everyone, even writers.

In 1990, id Software was formed by two men: John Carmack and John Romero. Over the next 6 years, id redefined PC gaming and the first-person shooter genre with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Romero is even credited with coining the term "deathmatch."

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about to this point, here's the summary: Carmack and Romero made really good games; they were kind of a big deal).

The PC gaming world was theirs. Carmack licensed the Quake engine to multiple game developers -- including Valve, who used it to make the even more groundbreaking Half Life. Professional gaming took off with QuakeCon. Everyone wanted to be id.

(Translation: They made lots of money).

But after Quake hit the shelves in 1996, Romero quit (actually he was fired, but he was going to quit anyway). His plans were ambitious, and he felt Carmack and the others were stifling him. Carmack, meanwhile, felt that Romero wasn't realistic.

(The two Johns parted ways).

Carmack -- the technical powerhouse of id -- pushed the envelope with Quake II and Quake III: Arena. Good games, well-received, and very, very pretty. But where they pushed things technically, their general design stayed the same. To the point where Quake III was little more than a deathmatch arena with no substance.

(Carmack's games were technically beautiful, but not very compelling).

Photo Credit: Michael Heilemann
Romero's company released this ad
months before Christmas.
Romero, meanwhile, now had the freedom to be as ambitious as he wanted. He proudly announced his masterpiece, Daikatana, would hit the shelves by Christmas the next year. They would use the Quake engine, so the technical aspect would be taken care of, leaving him and his designers only to design.

(Romero thought he didn't need Carmack's technical expertise).

Christmas came and went with no Daikatana. Carmack had released Quake II by then, and Romero realized his masterpiece looked dated. He grabbed the new engine, not realizing it was so different from the one he knew it would require an entire rewrite of his precious game.

(Romero realized technology mattered. He tried to catch up and failed, badly).

Three years later, Daikatana had become a joke. It was made worse when the game was released with outdated graphics, crappy AI, and unforgivable loading times.

(Romero's game was super late, ugly, and impossible to play).

Carmack thought that technical expertise made a game. Romero thought it was creativity and design. The truth is both are necessary to make a quality game.

It's the same in writing (told you there was a lesson). Technical expertise -- your skill with prose, structure, and grammar -- can make for a well-written story, but one that is thoroughly boring to read.

Creative design -- compelling plot, characters, and conflict -- can create a brilliant story, but if the technical aspects aren't there, it will be an unreadable mess.

Don't sacrifice one for the other. You need both to succeed.

Why Your World is Boring


I'm always surprised when someone who loves fantasy tells me they haven't read The Lord of the Rings. I mean, this book is fantasy. And it's awesome! Why have so many people not read it?

I'll give you three reasons: world-building infodumps, plot-stopping songs, and unintelligible languages.

Listen, I know these are what make LotR what it is. I KNOW. But you have to understand that for a first-time reader -- someone who is totally unfamiliar with Middle Earth -- these parts are boring.

Tolkien loved his world -- and rightfully so; it's amazing. But the truth is that if Tolkien tried to pitch it today as his debut novel, he'd be told to cut the word count in half, split the story into smaller parts (oh wait), and for Pete's sake use a 'k' instead of a hard 'c' in your fantasy names!


Many of us who write fantasy fell in love with it because of books like Tolkien's. We created our own worlds, with new races and cultures and politics and histories and languages. We wrote a story in that world.

But you know what happened? Our story became more about the world than the story. And it was boring.

Now we're full grown authors. We know about character and conflict. We're good with pacing and tension. But every once in a while, we start our story off with an infodump prologue, or we toss a 70-line poem into our story "to flesh out the world."

People don't want to read about your world. They want interesting characters to root for. They want a compelling plot. Give them these things and only then will they listen to whatever you've got to say about the history of the Sidhe (or why it's pronounced 'she').

Readers that love your characters will love your world, not the other way around.

What about you? Did you get into fantasy because of Tolkien? Where do you stand on stuff like this:

Go on, John Ronald. Tell me why this was necessary.

What Makes a Character Funny?

I'm still trying to figure out funny. It seems like just another kind of voice: once I get my head in it, everything kinda flows. When I put the right kinds of characters together, funny just sort of happens.

But not all my characters end up funny, and I can't always figure out why. This is my attempt to figure out certain types of characters that make humor easy to write.

"You know me. Just when I'm getting a grip on something Fate comes along and jumps on my fingers." -- Rincewind, Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

This is my preferred form of funny (and the reason I'm writing this post, lest all my characters end up this way). This character probably has good points, but either they can't see them or they don't think they're useful. They're cynical about themselves, even as they step forward to achieve their goals.

Examples: Rincewind (Discworld novels), Hiccup (How to Train Your Dragon), Flint Lockwood (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs)

"You know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with 'til ya understand who's in ruttin' command here." -- Jayne Cobb, Firefly

There are a lot of flavors of ignorant. The thug who doesn't understand the clever wit of those around him. The genius with zero social skills. The ultra-strong gentleman who can't believe someone would actually lie about being in trouble so they could steal his money. One important thing about all of them, though, is that while they're ignorant about one thing (to the point of hilarity), they are specialists in what they do best. 100% ignorant isn't as funny as you'd think.

Examples: Jayne Cobb (Firefly), Carrot (Discworld novels), Nobby (also Discworld), Joey Tribiani (Friends)

"The bright side of it is that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we’re safe from being drowned in the river." -- Puddleglum, Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

If you're ever optimistic, the cynic will be sure to correct you. They'll point out that the plan will never work because nothing ever works (this is especially good if they're genre savvy). It's easy to go too far, but if you keep the character sympathetic, they can be one of your most lovable.

Examples: Puddleglum (Silver Chair), Sam Vimes (Discworld novels), Dolorous Edd (Song of Ice and Fire saga)

"Your work is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster." -- Tony Stark, The Avengers

These are the characters that seem disconnected from reality in some way. You're never sure if they really know something you don't, or if they're just crazy. But they're willing to watch spoiled rich kids put themselves in danger, to commandeer large Navy vessels by themselves, and to poke green rage monsters with a needle. The weird thing is, most of the time it works.

Examples: Tony Stark (Ironman and The Avengers), Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Willy Wonka (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

The beauty is you can combine these types (and others!) to create lots of unique characters. The trick with all of them, I think, is to keep them sympathetic so the humor doesn't go too far. Give them goals, real emotions, and moments of awesome, otherwise you'll end up with the opposite of funny.

There are lots of types of funny I haven't mentioned. What can you think of? Or how would you define characters like Wash and Chandler, or Sokka and Bolin?

When Characters Are Too Safe


So, you're watching The Incredibles. You get to the part of the climax where the giant robot knocks Violet out and is about to crush her. Is it tense? Are you afraid Violet might die? Well, a little, but deep down you know that something will happen at the last second to save her. Why? Because she's safe. She's a major character -- and a child at that -- in a movie in which nobody has yet died on-screen.

For The Incredibles, that's no big deal. We don't need the added tension of "somebody might die." It's enough to wonder if they'll win, and how. But what if you want your reader to truly believe that anybody could die at any time, even the protagonist?

If you want the reader to believe that anything could happen, that the stakes are real, you need to build a reputation. Some authors spend multiple books building that reputation and carry it with them in every book they write, but you don't have to be a multi-published author to let the reader know that nobody is safe. All you have to do is kill safe characters in this book.

What makes a character safe? There are many contributing factors. How important are they? How likable? How innocent? The safer the reader believes them to be, the more tension is added when they die. Kill enough safe characters, and by the time the climax hits the reader will believe that nobody is safe.

A great example is Joss Whedon's Serenity (SPOILER WARNING; if you haven't seen it, skip to the last paragraph). Coming off a well-loved TV series, and with serious sequel potential, it was easy for me to believe that none of the main cast would die. Normally this would result in a final battle that -- like The Incredibles -- is totally fun but not very tense because I know everyone will be okay in the end. Then Joss goes and kills my favorite character.

When he did this -- in such a way that it was clear Wash was really, for real dead -- it made the rest of the battle more intense than any adventure film I can think of. Zoe gets slashed in the back, Kaylee gets hit by poison needles, Simon gets shot, and the whole time I really believe they could all die. And while I still think Mal is going to accomplish their goal, I'm fairly certain he's going to die in the process too. If Wash had lived, I wouldn't have felt any of that. (END SPOILER)

Today's tip, then: If you want the reader to believe the main character could die, kill a safe character or two before the climax. The safer, the better. Your reader might not like it, but maybe it's for their own good.

Getting Unstuck

I've been working on revisions for Post-Apoc Ninjas, and it's been taking way too long. I once again have questioned whether I really should be writing, whether I deserve an agent, whether Air Pirates is some kind of one-hit wonder. I keep thinking if Air Pirates doesn't make it, Ninjas will be my next shot. Which means it has to be not just as good as Air Pirates, but better. And it's not.

But that's totally unfair. Of course it's not better. I've been working on Air Pirates for 4 years. It's been through dozens of beta readers and two or three major revisions. Post-Apoc Ninjas has only been through one very rushed draft.

But that didn't help me get unstuck. Here are some of the things that did, eventually, get me through it:
Pen and illustrations
courtesy of K. Marie Criddle
  • Read books on writing.
  • Think about the story 24 hours a day.
  • Create a dozen text files full of brainstorming and trying to work things out, with titles like "Random Revision Thoughts," "More Revision Planning (Invasion-Focused III)," and "Revision, Take Whatever" (You think I'm joking?).
  • Write plot points on index cards and shuffle them for no reason.
  • Use Awesome Pen of Power.
  • Make ridiculous, masochistic Twitter bets.
  • Make even more ridiculous punishments.
  • Take really long drives alone, like say: drive your daughter to her mountain village 2 hours away.*

I did finally get unstuck, and though all of these things helped (especially putting off reading BEHEMOTH), the only way I got through it was to never give up.

Who knew?

How do you get yourself unstuck?

* For the purposes of this post, driving "alone" and "with a teenager" are the same thing.

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?

On the Ridiculous Idea that You Can Steal an Idea

Stop me when you know what famous book this is:
A young kid growing up in an oppressive family situation suddenly learns that he is one of a special class of children with special abilities, who are to be educated in a remote training facility where student life is dominated by an intense game played by teams flying in midair, at which this kid turns out to be exceptionally talented and a natural leader. He trains other kids in unauthorized extra sessions, which enrages his enemies, who attack him with the intention of killing him; but he is protected by his loyal, brilliant friends and gains strength from the love of some of his family members. He is given special guidance by an older man of legendary accomplishments who previously kept the enemy at bay. He goes on to become the crucial figure in a struggle against an unseen enemy who threatens the whole world.
If you said Harry Potter, you're right. But if you said Ender's Game . . . you're also right. This quote is from an article Orson Scott Card wrote, berating J.K. Rowling for this one time she got mad at someone for "stealing" her ideas.

Guys, you can't NOT steal ideas.

Don't believe me? Visit TV Tropes for like two seconds (if you dare). Such a site wouldn't even exist if the tropes listed there hadn't been done time and time again. Not because people are unoriginal, but because we are original, but that does not mean what you think it means.

Being original means we all take the same raw materials -- life -- and turn it into something unique. But it's because of those common raw materials that we all come up with chosen ones and special powers and wise old mentors and unlikely leaders. Because those are the things that move us.

Don't worry about someone stealing your idea, and don't worry about stealing someone else's. Ideas cannot be copyrighted and no one can win a lawsuit because you also made references to the Bible. If they could, the Tolkien estate would own Hasbro by now, and C.S. Lewis's benefactors would have a number of things to say to that guy who tried to sue Assassin's Creed.

Keep moving forward, taking people's ideas and letting people take yours. It's all good, and it'll come back around anyway. Because the goal is not originality or even money. The goal is to show people old things in a new way.

Your way.

The Secret to World Building

"Part of the attraction of the Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed."

                               -- J. R. R. Tolkien, Godfather of World Building

The secret to creating a compelling world is to maintain the illusion that there is always more.

The second biggest mistake amateur world-builders make when showing off their world is to explore all of it. The worst is when they let the narrator or the protagonist or, God forbid, some professor character infodump all over the reader about their beautiful world -- all its countries and cultures, its languages and latitudes.

But even those that avoid the infodump -- who take their protagonist through the world so the reader can experience it -- will sometimes make the mistake of showing everything.

As the author, you need to know everything about your world, precisely because of what Tolkien says above. The reader wants hints that the world is much bigger than what they see. And if you always "go there," if you tell them all about it, you destroy the magic.

The Hunger Games still has districts we know nothing about. Mistborn implies the existence of undiscovered metals, with undiscovered powers. Even if you've read everything the Tolkien estate has ever published, there are still places in Middle Earth that you've only heard about. That is what will make your world compelling.

What are your favorite fictional worlds? What parts do you wish you could see more of?

A Common Query Problem (also Kung Fu Panda)

Disclaimer: The only query slush I read is on the internet, but there's a lot out here, and I read most of it. So don't knock it.

Every query letter is different, but I've seen a lot lately with the same problems. It looks kinda like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook.
Paragraph 2: Innocent World.
Paragraph 3: Inciting Incident (often repeating the Hook).
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master, but he gets more than he bargained for when he's mistakenly named the legendary Dragon Warrior.

Po has spent his whole life in his father's noodle shop. Blah blah [his father's a goose] blah blah blah [Po plays with kung fu action figures] blah blah [he doesn't actually want to cook noodles] blah blah, etc.

Until the day it is announced that Master Oogway will decide who is to become the Dragon Warrior. [Po tries to get in to see it. Can't.] When Po crashes a slapped-together rocket chair in front of Master Oogway just in time to find the master's finger is pointing at him, his life is changed forever.
A few reasons why this doesn't work:
  1. The hook is repeated and redundant.*
  2. The reader is forced back in time at the beginning of paragraph 2.
  3. Paragraph 2 is setup and backstory. There is no plot.
  4. The query stops before it tells us the meat of the story.
  5. There is no difficult choice for the MC and, therefore, no stakes.

What you want to do with your query is more like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook, Innocent World, AND Inciting Incident.
Paragraph 2: The struggles that occur as a result, leading up to...
Paragraph 3: The Sadistic Choice

Obviously the three paragraphs are just a guideline (mine had four; your story might do it in two). The point is to start with your inciting incident and end with your sadistic choice. A compelling choice is what will make agents want to read more.

Let's look at Po again:
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master instead of making noodles, but he gets more than he bargained for when Master Oogway names him the legendary Dragon Warrior by mistake.
(See? The inciting incident IS your hook, and you don't need to spend more than a few words on the innocent world. Now the rest of the query is free to talk about what agents really want to know: the story. Moving on.)
Unfortunately, Po suffers from weight and incompetence problems. The Furious Five mock him, and Master Shifu is trying to get rid of him. Even so, Po is determined to learn everything he can, and his refusal to give up eventually earns the respect of the Five, even if his kung fu skills do not.

Master Shifu receives word that the powerful Tai Lung has escaped from prison and is on his way to seek his revenge. He runs to Master Oogway, the only master who has ever beaten Tai Lung, but Oogway insists Po is the one who will defeat Tai Lung. When Oogway passes away, Po must decide if he will risk his life based on the ramblings of an old man, or if he should run away, risking the destruction of the entire valley.
It still needs work of course (query letters are hard, guys), but hopefully you get the idea. Start with the inciting incident, end with the sadistic choice, then connect the dots (all the while being specific and skipping everything that isn't necessary for the agent to understand the weight of the choice -- hey, I said it was hard).

What do you think? Is this helpful? How would you handle things differently?

* The concept of a "hook" paragraph comes from query help sites like this one. It's a sound idea, but often misunderstood.

Uncle Iroh on Revision

When I talked about why I don't hate synopses, some of you were disappointed. I talked about how I got myself to actually write one, but you wanted to know how to write one well, to which my completely useless solution was "Make it sound good."

It's good advice, but not very practical. Drafting is (for me) the hardest part of writing, but revision is where real novels are made. It's something you have to be good at to make it in this business. Unfortunately, it's not something I can give an algorithm for (not yet). But I do have some tips to share with the help of my favorite uncle.

Remember Your Basics
You know all those rules you learned? About commas and semicolons and spelling and grammar? About description and metaphor and not starting a story with the MC waking up? Revision is where you apply them.

Feel the Flow
When you read your story, you see everything you've ever dreamed or imagined. When someone else reads it, they only see what you tell them. As you're revising, you have to empty your mind and think, "Does this actually flow? Or do I just think it does because of all the extra stuff in my head?"

Kill It With Fire
You might not be able to predict when your reader will be bored, but you can tell when you are. If some part of the story (query, synopsis, etc.) is boring to you, it will bore someone else. Insert some voice, connect us with the character through emotions or goals, or just kill the whole thing. You'd be surprised what doesn't have to be there.

Credit: Dark Kenjie
Work Your Belly Off
Revision is hard, and like all hard things, it takes practice. You have to develop a feel for how a new reader will interpret things, an eye for where things slow down, an ear for voice. You can practice by getting critiques and fixing your own stuff, but you can only do that for so long before you run out of material.

If you really want to practice hard, the trick is to critique other people's stuff. You don't even have to network to do it. Just hit up Miss Snark's First Victim or Evil Editor or Work those critting muscles like a fat fire-bender stuck in prison!

Yeah, I know I just said to work your belly off, but you need to relax too. Partly because you need a break from the story to even hope to read it like a new reader, but also because writing is hard, and you need to take care of yourself. A man (or woman) needs his rest.

What are your tips for revision?

Getting better at something is a very, very, slowly, gradually, very, very slow thing

And that's all I have to say about that.

(Totally unrelated, my agent sister Daisy Carter is having a Q&A with our agent on her blog. So if you've got any questions for Tricia Lawrence (and maybe want to win a free book), head on over there!)

How I Came to Not Hate Synopses

Synopsesesssssss, we hates them! Curse them and crush them!

But then I had to write two in a row, with no time to procrastinate. I still don't like them, but I no longer fear them. Why?

Because I found an algorithm.

STEP #1: Plan the story. Or write it, in the case where you're writing a synopsis after the draft. Either way works, but writing the synopsis before the draft makes it easier to condense things, I think.

STEP #2: Write the Crappy Synopsis. Just write everything that happens, in whatever order you think of it. Always telling, never bothering to show unless you happen to think of it that way. Always remember: no one will ever see this version.

STEP #3: Make a list of Main Events. Use the Crappy Synopsis as a guide. Just write a sentence or two per event. Try to pick events that are critical (and skip events that are merely transitional), but don't worry if you get too many.

STEP #4: Make a list of Condensed Events. In a new document, take the Main Events list and condense it. Delete every event you can (meaning the synopsis still makes sense without it). Combine the events that you can almost-but-not-quite delete into other critical events.

REPEAT STEP #4 until your list is about as long as you want the synopsis to be. For me, that's usually 2-3 pages. Keep in mind that what appears "critical" in novel form may not be necessary to understand the synopsis. You can cut a lot more than you think you can.

Then again, I like cutting better than adding.

STEP #5: Write the Friggin' Synopsis. Use the Condensed Events List as your guide. This is usually the hard part, but for me, by the time I got here, I was mostly turning each list item into its own paragraph. It was like magic.

STEP #6: Revise. Make it sound good. Make it flow. Add voice where you can.

And that's it! Will it work for you? Heck, I don't know. All I know is my agent liked both of my synopses and now I don't have to write one for a while.

Hm, maybe that's why I don't hate them at the moment.

So You Want to Kill a Character...

Sometimes characters have to die. Because facing death makes people do crazy, vengeful, courageous things, and when we need our characters to be crazy, vengeful, or courageous (etc), sometimes killing their mom/best friend/cute guy they just met/dog is the best way to do it.

But it's really hard to kill a character. We love these fictional people that exist only in our heads. We don't want to kill them.

For me, this is just one more reason I plan. When I'm outlining, the characters are just pieces of a game to me. I don't really kill them, I just take them off the board. I'm like fricking George Martin, slaughtering characters left and right until there's hardly anyone left to denouement with.

But when I'm actually writing the draft, they're no longer game pieces. They're people, with feelings and hopes and dreams, all of which I'm about to crush with a single, over-written sentence. I could bring them back, sure, but I'd have to cheat. Some readers might be happy their favorite character didn't really die, but others would feel ripped off.

So I think, "Does this character really need to die? Can't I keep them a little longer?"

As it turns out, that's a good thing. It forces me to re-evaluate whether I was just going crazy in my outlining phase. It dials me back from George Martin to, maybe, Joss Whedon -- to killing one or two characters who really, truly have to die to serve the plot. (Though usually I do end up sticking with the outline.)

How about you? Do you kill characters? How hard is it for you?

Things I Always Forget When I'm Plotting

I seem to always get stuck in the same places when I'm plotting. I'm good at figuring out my world and my set pieces, who fights whom, and who wins. But I often get stuck on the why. Why does any of this matter?

At the recommendation of Susan Quinn and others, I've been reading this book by Peter Dunne called Emotional Structure. And while Dunne exudes some arrogance, and crushes my geekery like so much broken glass,* he did remind me of some very important things to cover when plotting.

* He knocked down The Terminator because Arny's character never worried about the families of all the people he killed (Hi, um... Arny's a ROBOT . His amorality is kind of the point). He also said Superman lived in Gotham City, at which point I nearly threw the book away.

Yes, I know how childish that is. Shut up.

What does the protagonist WANT?
Without a goal, the novel is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, and nobody wants that.

What is the protagonist AFRAID OF?
Not like "spiders" or "heights" or "face-huggers." I mean, what is their deep secret that must not be exposed?

Of course, once you know these two, it's easy to play them against each other. Hiccup wants to learn the truth about dragons, but he's afraid his father will be ashamed of him. Po wants to learn kung fu, but he's afraid he doesn't have what it takes. Flint wants the town to like him, but he's afraid he's a failure as an inventor.

Those are simplifications, but you get the idea.

What does the character HAVE TO LEARN ABOUT THEMSELVES in order to overcome their fears and get what they want?
And this is the key, the one I always forget. Dunne makes an important distinction between plot (what happens) and story (the emotional context behind what happens). This is the MC's character arc.

When we talk about formulas like the hero's journey, we talk about the obstacles the protagonist fails against. But these aren't obstacles like 4 random skeletons. I mean, they could be, but only if those skeletons expose the MC's greatest fear at the same time.

See, when the MC fails, it's not because they lose a fight or get captured. It's because their weakness -- the thing they are most afraid of having exposed -- is what caused them to lose. Hiccup fails to tell his father the truth about his dragon. Po fails at every training exercise his master puts him through. Flint fails to turn his invention off before it destroys the town.

Until finally these failures lead to the climax, where things are as bad as they can get because of the MC's fears. And now the MC has to overcome their fear to make things right again.

Not that every story has this same formula, but it's one that works really well for me. How about you? What do you think?

Writer's Reference: Distance to the Horizon

[You've entered the Giveaway in Support of YA Asian Book Covers, right? Today might be your last chance! (Boy, I should've thought of a better name).]

How far is it to the horizon? How far away can you see an approaching object? This is something I come across in Air Pirates a lot, but it always takes multiple clicks and conversions to get at the simple formula I want. So, fully expecting mathematics to drive away half my audience, here it is (in both kilometers and miles):

So someone 5 and a half feet tall (1.7 meters) would see the horizon disappear about 3.1 miles (4.7 km) away.

Keep in mind:
  1. These are approximations. Don't be doing science with these numbers.
  2. These numbers only apply in clear weather.
  3. You could still see tall objects peeking over the horizon. More info on that below.

Measuring the distance to something over the horizon only requires one extra variable. When the top of the object first peeks over the horizon, you can figure out how far away it is like this:

Now if you wanted to figure out how far away an object is based on how much of it is peeking over the horizon . . . well, you're on your own. I love math and all, but I'd lose the other half of my audience if I did any more of it in public.

Boy, I hope at least one of you cares about this.