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?

    Books I Read: The Count of Monte Cristo

    Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
    Author: Alexander Dumas
    Genre: Historical Adventure
    Published: 1844
    Content Rating: PG (people die, but barely)

    Edmond Dantes has everything: a loving father, a beautiful fiancee, and a promising career. Unfortunately, three men conspire against him and he is unjustly imprisoned on an island prison. But there he meets a man who teaches him everything he knows, including how to escape and how to find a treasure of untold millions. When Dantes escapes and learns how his enemies have prospered, he starts in on the longest and most classic revenge plan of all time.

    I'm always iffy on the classics. I blame highschool. But while this book definitely had wordy prose, overwritten dialog, and a host of characters that were either black or white, it still managed to grab me from page one.

    At first it was Edmond's generous character. Then it was the tension of escape and revenge. But by the end, what I was most interested in was the subtle and unexpected shades of gray that showed up. Edmond took much of his revenge on his enemies' families, but not all of them were horrible people.

    I forgave this book a lot of flaws considering it was written 167 years ago, but even with its flaws it's still a good read, which is not something I say of most classics. Don't learn writing craft from this book, but adventure and revenge? Yes.

    How Agents Can Make Rejection Easier (Maybe)

    Querying sucks. There's no way around it. Tens of thousands of wannabe authors query a mere hundreds of agents, who submit to mere dozens of publishers. And we're not just querying ideas, but whole novels we spent months or years working on, only to be told no over and over again.

    We all know rejections aren't personal, but they feel that way. It's an emotional process any way you look at it, but I think there are a few things that could make it hurt a little less.

    Maybe.

    AUTO-RESPONSES
    Querying has enough uncertainty as it is. Some can be taken away with a short automatic reply when a query is received. Pretty much every e-mail program and service can do this.

    The best part is the message can say anything you want. One agent I queried repeated their guidelines and the genres they represent in their auto-response, and I knew immediately that my information was outdated and they no longer represented what I sent them (whoops).

    NO RESPONSE MEANS NO
    I know I'm in the minority on this, but I honestly think that -- emotionally -- no response is better than getting a form rejection. No matter how many times I get turned down, every e-mail from an agent sparks a tiny, misguided hope. Having that hope shattered hurts more than not getting any e-mail at all.

    That said, this only works (emotionally) if the agent offers a time limit. Most agents who've opted for no response have something in their guidelines that says, "If you haven't heard from me after X weeks, you may assume I have passed." (This is a great thing to get in an auto-response message, btw). When the time limit passes, I still have that tiny, misguided hope ("Maybe they're just behind in their queries..."), but as the days pass quietly, that hope dies a gradual death that I barely even notice.

    It hurts, but it hurts less and I don't try to read into it.

    IF YOU MUST RESPOND...
    Not all form rejections are created equal. We all know not to read anything into the rejections, but there's a part of us that always tries. We can't help it. This is why I think no response is better, but for the agent that must send a form rejection, these are things I've seen that have taken a little of the sting out:

    • Something positive. Even the worst story can technically be said to "have potential" or "look promising." I know it doesn't mean anything, but small positive phrases like that help me trick my brain out of believing my work is crap and I'll never amount to anything.
    • Something hopeful. Similar to above, it can be said of any rejected manuscript that "it's not right for my list" or "it's not what I'm looking for at this time." The main thing we writers want to know is what did we do wrong? Agents don't have the time to tell us, but it helps me feel better about myself if I think it's not my fault.

    Maybe these are misleading, especially for a particularly awful project. But honestly ANY form rejection is going to be misleading. I say it's better to mislead in a hopeful direction. It hurts less and makes us less likely to argue or ask for a reason.

    PERSONAL REJECTION
    Even a small personalization added to a form rejection takes a lot of time. I get that, but I wanted to mention that the very best rejections I've ever gotten were personalized (in one case, the agent said they recognized my name from the comments on their client's blog -- I don't care if it's true or not, it made me feel awesome!).

    The few agents who personalize form rejections still say all the same things: "Your work has potential, but it isn't right for my list," "This is a subjective business and another agent might feel differently," or something equally nice-but-unenlightening. But that small personal touch at the beginning makes it different somehow. It feels like they mean it.

    (Writers: this is also why you should personalize your queries, even just a little).


    I'm under no illusions that this little post can change the industry, or even that my opinions are 100% correct. Even if I were right, I still expect silence from some agents with neither auto-response nor time limit. I still expect curt form letters that make me wonder if my ideas suck. And I still expect that, even for an agent who does all the "right" things, I will feel the sting of crushed dreams.

    But, hey, it's my blog.

    Have you ever gotten a form rejection that made you feel good? Terrible? Share in the comments.

      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.

      Nobody.

      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?

      So You Want to Read Steampunk...

      While not pretending this list is comprehensive, these are some of the steampunk novels I've read that I would recommend to someone just strapping on their goggles and starting down the clockwork rabbit hole.

      What is steampunk? Very, very simply, steampunk is Industrial Revolution-era fiction with a sci-fi twist. Computers running on gears and steam, floating battleships, bio-mechanical soldiers, stuff like that. Steampunk is much more than that, of course, but that's the archetype.

      THE CLASSICS
      Jules Verne and HG Wells are considered the precursors to steampunk. Technically they're science fiction, not steampunk, because they were written in the era in which they take place. But if you want to understand the steampunk feel, you can hardly do better than to read The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

      THE ORIGINAL
      One of the first steampunk novels is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Published in 1990, it takes place in a 19th-century Britain where Charles Babbage has built the first computer out of gears and cranks -- becoming a Lord among a new breed of tech-savvy nobility -- where race cars and tanks run on steam, and where the Japanese build clockwork robot servants.

      TODAY'S STEAMPUNK
      These are my three favorite steampunk novels. You can read a more in-depth review by following the links.

      Boneshaker -- An experiment gone wrong turns 19th-century Seattle into a walled-off zombie town, and a hard-working mother must go in to rescue her son.

      Leviathan -- An adventure novel set in World War I, except instead of Central vs. Allies it's the massive machines of the Clankers vs. the genetically-engineered monsters of the Darwinists.

      Perdido Street Station -- A dark tale that mixes technology, psuedo-scientific magic, a myriad of sentient species, and bio-engineered monstrosities in a city with the feel of 19th-century London, but way creepier.

      That's just a beginning of course. Other books I've heard of, but haven't been able to read yet, include Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, the Steampunk anthology edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, Jay Lake's Mainspring trilogy, and Kenneth Oppel's Airborn.

      And probably lots more I've never heard of. Steampunk readers, got any good recommendations I've missed?

      Fantasy Slang: Starting from Scratch

      Last year, I wrote some posts on where slang comes from and how to make your own for a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Among other things, I said coming up with unique terms and idioms for a world was "very hard" at first.

      Man, was I right.

      The last couple of days I've been working on the beginnings of a glossary for my post-apocalypse world. The bad news is it's just as hard as I remember it being the first time around. The good news is, I've figured out some steps to help you (and future-me) start your own fantasy glossary.

      1. Determine what feel you want. Old West slang (like Firefly) has a very different feel from pirate slang (like Air Pirates) or Mexican slang or British rhyming slang. Each will flavor your book and your world differently.

      2. Research that type of slang. Write down words you like, that sound cool, that are so obscure you think you could use them without most people knowing the source. Even for words you don't like, write it down if it means something you think you'll need. In that case, pay attention to where the term came from (if possible) and see if you can use the same method to create something new.

      For example, when researching pirate slang, I wrote down "grog" and "booty." The terms were too well-known for me to use them (and, in fact, their origins made it impossible for me to use them realistically), but they helped me get the right feel for my own.

      3. Know your world's origins and metaphors. If your world is at all based on Earth, you'll want to think about how language might have evolved. For example, Firefly mixed Chinese phrases and swear words with English based on the idea that the two "mega-cultures" had combined.

      And Earth or not, every world has its own metaphors. What is (or used to be) important in your world? An icy world might have snow and cold metaphors (like, maybe they'd say "Toasty!" instead of "Cool!"). An agricultural society might use farming or animal terms -- like "groundhog" for someone who's never flown before -- while a city-planet might not know what a groundhog is (though maybe they used to know, and it's become a dead metaphor!).

      4. Make up some basic terms. Once you've collected everything above, start with some or all of the following (apologies in advance for some of the examples):
      • A greeting ("Hey!" "What's up?" "Are you well?")
      • A couple of honorifics (Mister, Miss, Your Honor, Madame, Sensei)
      • A term between friends (buddy, bro, mate)
      • One or two insults (bastard, prick, rat orphan)
      • One or two oaths (oh my God, damn it, sh-t)
      • A positive epithet (cool, awesome, rad, pure guava)
      5. Play with it. Try writing a dialog-heavy scene with your new terms. Don't worry about presenting it to the reader (or about writing well at all, actually). Just try to see where the new slang feels wrong, where it might be too much, but especially where you make up even more terms or phrases (e.g. where you've used some modern cliche that wouldn't make sense in the fantasy world).

      Once you've got the world in your head and a start to the language, it gets easier. You build momentum for thinking up future phrases, and the bigger your glossary (because you are writing them all down, aren't you?), the more momentum you have and the easier it gets.

      At least I hope it gets easier. Otherwise I got a loooooong road ahead of me.

      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.