Unique isn't the Same as Good

One thing I love about So You Think You Can Dance is how similar the audition process is to querying a novel. It's got everything: the people who are okay but just not strong enough, the wackos who may or may not have stepped into the wrong theater, the ones who think they're awesome but aren't, the dancers who are good enough for Vegas (I'd call that a full request), and the very very few who make it all the way to the Top 20.

Much like agents, the judges say they're looking for uniqueness, something that stands out from the average dancer. Unfortunately this has resulted in folks coming in on stilts and roller skates, dressed in drag or weird unitards made by someone's mother. Yes, these are unique, and they do stand out, but not in the way the auditionees hoped.

The writing equivalent might be a query written in first person, a literary graphic novel about a man trapped in a white room, or a query about unicorn/bovine romance written in verse. Unique, maybe. But totally weird and not what most people are looking for.

So don't use gimmicks to make your work stand out. Learn the craft, get critiqued, and write the best dang novel you can. Then let it stand out for itself. Remember:

Just because you are unique does not mean you are useful.

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!

Three Things to Remember About Rejection

Have I talked about rejection enough? No? Good, I'm glad you agree (geez, you'd think I was querying a novel or something).

So that first post had some practical tips on what to do once rejection hits. But my the problem is, in that moment you realize what you're reading is a rejection, you don't actually feel like doing any of those things. There's no easy way around this, much as I'd like to think there could be. It just fricking hurts.

But after having gone through it so many times, I find myself repeating some of the same things. Sometimes they even help.
  1. The pain will go away. No matter how many times I've been rejected, no matter how much it hurt or how strongly I believed I would never get over it, I always did. I'm pretty sure that means I always will.
  2. It's not you, it's them. Rejection doesn't mean you suck. (I mean, it could, but you can't know that from a single form letter, and certainly if it was a manuscript that was rejected, it means the agent/editor saw something they liked.) The only thing you can know from a rejection is that it wasn't right for them.
  3. It's the internet's fault. Turn it off. The rejection isn't the internet's fault, but sometimes it makes the pain last longer. All those happy people retweeting new book covers and happy things their agent did that day. I love these people, but right after I get rejected is not the time I want to celebrate with them.
Is there anything you tell yourself when you get a rejection? Seriously, I want tips!

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?