writing

Putting it All Together

I’m in the “putting it all together” phase of my writing preparation. I’ve got the world built. I’ve got my major characters and their relationships to each other figured out. I’ve got the plot outlined, which has led to new characters being created. I’ve got a rough skeleton of possible scenes, with some more developed than others.

The main thing I need to do now is find the “voice” for this book. It’s going to have multiple viewpoints, so I think it will be written in third person, which is unusual for me. I love first person narration, but it just won’t work with this story. So I need to find the narrative voice for each character’s viewpoint. I do that by doing some freewriting exercises, just picking some random event that’s probably not going to end up in the book and writing how that scene might be told from that character’s perspective. I use scenes that won’t end up in the book so that I won’t feel stuck with that scene the way it is. I can play with style until I find what I like and then not have to worry about editing that scene to fit into the final story.

I also need to drill into specifics for the settings that I’m likely to need for the scenes I have planned. What, precisely, does it look like? What colors are there in these rooms, is there carpet on the floors, what does the place smell like, etc. Once I get started writing the story, I don’t think about these things, and I find the details are more likely to find their way in to the book if I’ve planned them in advance and worked them into my mental movie. When I haven’t pictured the settings, the scenes tend to take place in a void in my head, and it’s harder to figure out the details and add them later.

There’s going to be a lot of daydreaming this week because a lot of this comes from just imagining. I’m fine tuning my mental movie.

I’ll be doing more intense development of the first few scenes, too. I had a big breakthrough yesterday with the opening scene when I figured out what was really going on, and that turned the scene on its head and set up something great for later in the story. I love it when things like that happen.

writing

Plotting and Structure

I’m still working on plotting, so I thought I’d talk a little more about the process there. Plotting is one of my weaknesses and always has been, so I have to work extra hard on it. My early attempts at writing all failed because I’d come up with characters and interesting situations for them to be in that were full of potential conflicts—and then had no idea where to go from there. I was good at coming up with people who could do things and situations in which things could happen, but couldn’t come up with actual, specific things to happen to create a story. Because my situations were so fleshed out, I thought that meant the story would be obvious and would come easily, and then I’d start writing, get about three chapters, and have no idea what should happen next.

Some people are lucky enough to be able to plot instinctively. They just start writing a scene, have it end with some kind of consequence that propels the action to the next scene, and so forth, and it all falls together. I am not that kind of writer. I need some kind of structure or framework to give me an idea for things that can happen, and from there I can fill in specific scenes.

There are a lot of story structure charts out there, and most of them boil down to different ways of saying the same thing (for Western/European culture-based storytelling—there are non-Western story structures that are very different). There’s the three-act structure, the story circle, the plot snowflake, Save the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey, and a bunch of others. Just about every writing book has its own story structure chart or worksheet that labels the different steps in a plot. Some are better suited or even designed for a certain kind of story. Some speak better to some writers than to others.

Which one do I use? All of them!

I do find that some structures work better with some stories, but it’s hard to tell which one will click into place until I try it. I have a binder full of these worksheets that I save from workshops or from notes I take while reading a book on writing, and when I’m plotting a book, I’ll work through them. I find that there’s usually one method that really suits each book, and I use that for my core plotting, but going through each one makes me look at my story from multiple angles and gives me different ideas for scenes. For instance, I’d gone through about four different plot outlines for this book, but then this morning I got out my Save the Cat book, and that story outline has already helped me flesh out some blanks that were in my outline because there are Save the Cat story beats that fall between the turning points in the other outlines I was using. It’s given me some good ideas for scenes.

One other thing I do is outline the plot for both the protagonist and the antagonist. After I’ve got a good outline for the hero, I turn it around and pretend the villain is the main character, outlining the book from that character’s perspective. That’s a good way to figure out what the villains are up to, even when they’re offstage and working in the background. Then I know what the villains’ plans might be and what the hero will have to react to. Some of the structures are better suited to this than others. The ones that focus on character transformation don’t work too well, unless you’re going to redeem your villain. Or, I suppose you could have the opportunities for realization and transformation that the character doesn’t take.

I might also do some brief outlines for the secondary characters whose actions might affect the plot or who have a subplot of their own. The book I’m working on now is going to have multiple viewpoints, so I need to plot the stories of the various viewpoint characters and then weave that into the main plot.

You don’t have to get too obsessive with structure. It’s a framework to hang scenes upon, so don’t twist your story around to slavishly adhere to some plot structure worksheet if your story doesn’t fit. You may not hit all the beats of every structure. However, if you find that your story doesn’t fit anything and you’re missing most of the major beats or turning points, you might need to develop your story or your characters a little more.

I like screenplay structures, but keep in mind that screenplay structure is different from novel structure, so you’re not going to hit the page numbers they do or even the proportions. The difference in the storytelling media means it takes a different amount of pages to tell the same story visually as opposed to in text. For instance, a movie can convey visually in a second or two what it might take paragraphs or pages to describe in a novel. There are also more “rules” for writing in Hollywood than there are for novels. Movie studios expect a particular structure, with events happening at certain points within a movie, and publishers just care about whether a novel is interesting all the way through. So, don’t get too hung up on all the advice in screenwriting books.

I also find that my outline may or may not hold up as I write. I may discover things along the way and change my mind, but that may also have something to do with the fact that I let myself get vague about events later in the book. With this book that I’m putting a lot more development effort into, it may be different.

writing

Plotting

I’ve wrapped up the character development phase for this book (except for characters who come up as I plot or write) and have moved on toward plotting. When it comes to the plotting (planning the book before writing it) vs. “pantsing” (writing by the seat of the pants, making it up as you go) debate, I generally end up being both, the worst of both worlds.

I have to have a general sense of the plot before I can write. I at least need to know the major turning points. But most of the time, I don’t really know what the book is actually about until I’ve written it, and once I get close to the ending, I realize I have no idea where it’s actually going because what I thought was an outline was way too vague. Then I have to do extensive revisions to mold the resulting mess into something resembling a story.

I’m trying to do something different with this book and do some extensive outlining. One thing I’ve realized might be my problem is that my outline is more about ideas than scenes, which means there’s nothing concrete or specific. The final confrontation is usually just “final confrontation” in my outline. I may have a sense of what’s going on emotionally with the characters in this scene and what choices they’ll have to make, but I don’t know where it happens, exactly how it happens, how they get there, what it looks like. The farther I am from the beginning, the worse it is. I usually have about the first three or four chapters planned in detail. I have scenes worked out, even bits of dialogue. Then once I’m really into the actual story, beyond the setup, I have a few events. Closer to the end, it’s more vague concepts.

When I started the plotting process on this book, it was exactly like that. I thought I had a lot of detail, but all I really had in any concrete form was the setup. It went vague at the first turning point. So, I started with the ending—what does the final confrontation look like? I worked that out, and then went to the previous scene, to see how we were getting to that final confrontation. I’ve also worked out how the midpoint scene will go. I’ve still got gaps, but it helps to have those big scenes planned. When I’m writing and hit a big point without knowing what will happen, I often go with the first thing that comes to mind, so I get something obvious or trite. Thinking about it ahead of time is giving me a chance to go deeper. It also means I know what I’m going to need to set up earlier in the story.

I’m spending this week doing heavy-duty plot brainstorming, then I’ll put my outline aside over the weekend and come back to it next week to see if I can add to it or improve it. I’m getting really close to the actual writing part, but I’m forcing myself not to get too impatient.

publishing business

Kickstarting?

The big news in the book world this week was Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter campaign that basically broke the Internet and Kickstarter. The last I heard, he’d raised more than 20 million dollars in only a few days. He announced that he’d written four extra books during the pandemic, during the time he usually would have been traveling to book events and conventions. Now he’s offering these books at various tiers, from e-book to a subscription box with monthly stuff and special hardcover editions of the books. This has had a lot of authors (and publishers, I’m sure) considering the possibilities.

I haven’t tried doing any kind of crowdfunding because the fulfillment would be time consuming. When I publish a book, I just send it to the booksellers, and they take care of getting it to readers. With a Kickstarter, I’d have to buy the books and then mail them out. Sanderson has an infrastructure and staff for this sort of thing (and likely will use a fulfillment house to actually put the boxes together and send them out). I doubt I’d sell enough to make a fulfillment house worthwhile, and I don’t really want to spend my evenings filling and labeling boxes. Doing a Kickstarter takes either time or money. I wouldn’t rake in that kind of money, and I don’t really have the time. For the release of one of the Enchanted, Inc. books, I did a mailing to a list of targeted booksellers, introducing the series and sending some bookmarks they could hand out to customers. I don’t think there were more than 50 on the list, and just printing, signing, and folding the letters and stuffing and labeling the envelopes took me at least a week of evenings. For the release of Rebel Mechanics, the publisher sold it to a subscription box, so I had to sign 700 book plates to put in those books, and that took me days.

I can’t even imagine the workload that would come with selling enough things to raise millions. In my PR days, I worked on the launch of the cellular network now known as Verizon. Back then, a “cell phone” was something expensive that businessmen used to make important calls. They were launching a different kind of network (digital) that would be used for everyday things, so the launch event was a pizza party. The executive would make the first call on the network to order pizza. The invitations to the press and VIPs were sent in pizza boxes, and our staff got to spend a weekend putting those packages together. (I did not get pizza. I had to work in the company’s PR office that day so their PR people could go to the event. And then there was a bomb threat at their headquarters, so I spent most of the day standing in the parking lot after they evacuated the building. This is one of the reasons I write books now instead.)

I also haven’t tried to do any other kind of crowdfunding thing, like Patreon. I can’t get 300 people to subscribe to my newsletter for free, so I can’t imagine getting anyone to pay any kind of monthly fee, and I have no idea what I’d offer to subscribers. I can’t come up with something to put in a newsletter most of the time, and my fiction writing goes into my books. It seems that my fan base just wants to read books. They don’t subscribe to newsletters or do social media, or anything like that, so the best use of my time is writing. Not that I could write four extra books of the length Sanderson writes. I wrote three short books last year and just about burned out (though I don’t know how much of that was the writing itself, what I was writing, or the general state of the world and having almost no social interaction).

So, don’t be looking for a Kickstarter from me. But buying my books would be nice. Ideally, I could get back into traditional publishing and have a publisher deal with all the business stuff so I wouldn’t even have the up-front expenses, but they don’t really want me, so I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and hope it works.

 

writing

Constructive Procrastination

I sometimes joke about finding ways to label things I do for fun “work” and consider it part of my process, calling this “advanced procrastination techniques.” But the truth is that procrastination isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to creative endeavors.

Our society is bad about prioritizing productivity. Work doesn’t feel like work unless you’ve got something to show for it. If you don’t have a word count, are you really writing? But I’ve found that the longer the span between the first spark of the idea and the time I start actually writing, the better the outcome. Although I get a lot of valuable information from research, intensive character development, “casting” characters and watching movies and shows with my cast members, coming up with playlists, etc., I think the main value comes from feeding my subconscious and giving it time to work so that the idea is more fully formed and developed before I start putting words on paper (or screen). Once I actually start composing the text, that seems to lock things in place. Even though I can still edit and rewrite, the story doesn’t seem as malleable once I put it into words.

For instance, I’ve been visualizing the opening scene of the book I’m developing for at least a year. I see the “movie” in my head, and I keep making little tweaks as I keep thinking about it and how it will fit into the book. This week, I came up with a new character who’ll be involved in that scene (just by thinking about the logistics of who will be there), and this character’s presence completely shifted the scene, plus it brought about a question I hadn’t considered that may somewhat adjust the plot. If I’d written this scene down when I first thought of it instead of just replaying it over and over again in my head, I’m not sure I would have realized this thing. I might not have realized that this character needed to be in the scene, or I’d have come up with a different character to fill that role. My editing and rewriting would have been fixing that original scene, not coming up with something different. Giving my mind time to play with it before I committed to the scene probably means the book will be better than it would have been if I hadn’t been “procrastinating.”

There are a lot of ways to do constructive procrastination. One is to do work related to the book that doesn’t involve actually writing the words. That’s stuff like research, filling out character worksheets, brainstorming, mind mapping, making playlists of your story’s “soundtrack,” watching things that remind you of the story, setting, or cast, doing writing exercises, etc. These are all things that may help develop the story while also giving your mind time to play with it. To fight that sense that I’m not really being productive since I have no word count, I use a stopwatch to track the amount of time I’m spending on these activities.

Then there’s physical or mindless activity that’s entirely unrelated but that gives your mind a chance to play in the background. Long walks are excellent for creativity. Some of the best ideas come while taking showers. Housework and organizing may look like procrastination, but you can do a lot of high-quality thinking while washing dishes.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from constructive procrastination to plain old procrastination? I think one sign is when the thing you’re doing to procrastinate doesn’t have any value in and of itself and doesn’t make you feel better. When you can make a direct link to your project or when you get something else out of it, like exercise or a clean house, it’s probably still constructive. If it’s bad for you (like spending a whole day eating junk food and binge watching that’s not sparking any ideas) and doesn’t leave you better off than you were before, it may be ordinary procrastination.

I find that I know when a story is ready for me to start writing it. There are two peaks of enthusiasm. One comes when I first get the idea and I’m so excited about it that I want to drop whatever else I’m doing to work on it right away—I call that Shiny New Idea Syndrome because any new idea is going to be more exciting than the project in progress. Writing down what I know about the idea generally shows me that there’s not much to it yet and I don’t need to start writing it. Then there’s all the research and development, planning and plotting, and I finally get to the point where I’m seeing the “movie” in my head. I’m hearing distinct voices for my characters, seeing them vividly, noticing details in the scenes I see, and I’m getting so excited about it that I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in a book. I want to be able to read this book. That’s when I know it’s time to start writing. There’s a little fear about starting and committing to a direction, but it’s outweighed by wanting to get into this world and play.

Constructive procrastination can come up again during the writing process if I get stuck or reach a turning point and want to really consider what comes next. Then I may do some of my usual pre-writing activities or I may take a break and take a walk or do housework so I can mull it over. This is when I have to be really careful about the difference between constructive procrastination and regular procrastination. Do I really need to think about this, or am I just avoiding it because it’s hard?

All of this presumes no deadlines, of course. I usually only do this extreme level of preparation for the first book in a series. After that, they come more quickly because I’ve already got the world and most of the characters in my head.

writing

Fantasy Casting

One thing I didn’t mention in my character development process was fantasy casting, thinking of real people who resemble your characters. That can be a great tool for some writers, though there are some potential traps.

By fantasy casting, I don’t mean figuring out who would play these characters in the movie made from your book — a realistic cast of people around the right age now who might be available to do this kind of project. I would caution against trying to put together this kind of fantasy cast. For one thing, even if a movie or TV show does get made, the odds are slim that the author would have the kind of clout to dictate casting, and that means you’ll inevitably be disappointed if you’ve already got a firm cast in your head. For another thing, as long as publishing and Hollywood take to develop projects, by the time any movie or TV series got made, your planned cast would have aged out of their roles.

But finding people to serve as models can be helpful. The best comparison I can think of is the live reference actors they sometimes use for animated films to help the animators get a sense of the characters and how they would move. If you look at some of the footage that exists of the references for the Disney animated movies (these are sometimes on the DVDs as bonus features), they aren’t exactly like the characters, but were close enough to help the animators create more realistic characters. A fantasy cast can help a writer in a similar way by putting a physical form to the person. You can get a sense of voice, facial expressions, movement and mannerisms. This can be especially helpful for people who don’t have a strong visual imagination. These writers may know the inside of the characters but can’t quite picture them physically. Watching movies or shows with the fantasy cast can help these writers picture the characters.

The fun thing about this kind of fantasy cast is that you aren’t bound at all by reality. You can cast someone who’s been dead for decades based on how they looked seventy years ago, or you can cast someone who’s current. You could have Judy Garland playing opposite one of the Hemsworth brothers. You aren’t even limited to actors. You can mentally cast singers, athletes, newscasters, politicians or other public figures, even people you’ve seen in real life. I got the “reference model” for one character from someone I saw on an airplane once. I’d been developing this character but didn’t know how he was going to look, and then I saw this man on the plane and thought he’d make a perfect fit. You can also cast multiple people for the same role—one person for the voice, one person for movement, one person for facial expressions. You can cast based on appearance or for the essence you’re trying to convey. You can cast the actor or you can cast based on a particular role, essentially casting a character to play another character.

But you don’t want to adhere too closely to your casting once you start writing, especially if you’re using a real person you know or another character. Fantasy casting works best just as a tool to help you bring a character to life so you can write that character more vividly. I find that once I actually start writing, the casting goes away as the characters take on their own lives in my head. The more I write the characters, the less they resemble the casting. The mental casting mostly serves to prime the pump and give me the initial mental images I need to start writing. After that, I’m just writing my characters.

You can get into some trouble if you use a real person you know who’s recognizable enough that other people know exactly who the character is based on. If you’re using real character traits, put those traits in an entirely different body in different circumstances. Mimi in the Enchanted, Inc. books was inspired by a couple of people I once dealt with at work, but I gave her an entirely different appearance, a different personality, and a different situation. People who’d worked with one or the other of the real people recognized the inspiration because of what she was like to work with, but the one I had any contact with after I wrote any of those books didn’t recognize herself because she had a blind spot about what she was like to work with, and she was otherwise absolutely nothing like Mimi. That “everything in this book is fiction and any resemblance to any person is purely coincidental” disclaimer may or may not protect you if the resemblance is too obvious, and people who aren’t public figures have more legal protection against libel.

I don’t know if there’s any legal danger from casting a character as a character, since plagiarism involves the actual words, not the ideas. I’ve seen authors be quite open about the fact that they were inspired by other characters. There was a historical romance author who did an interview with an entertainment magazine about the fact that the characters in her book were based on House and Dr. Cuddy from the TV series House. A good chunk of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels had heroes who were quite obviously Spike from Buffy. As a reader, I find it a bit annoying when I can tell the source of the character, but fans of that character might find that appealing. I just think, personally, that if I can tell exactly who or what the character is based on, then the writer is doing it wrong and not adding enough of their own creativity. Use other characters as inspiration, but don’t just plunk a character from something else into your own book and change their name.

As for how much you share of your fantasy casting, that’s up to you. I like to keep it to myself because I want my readers to be able to come up with their own mental images. Most people seem to want to read books before they see movies because they want their own mental imagery instead of the movie, and telling the fantasy casting is kind of like forcing people to see the movie first. On the other hand, there are authors who’ve dedicated their books to the actors who were their fantasy casting for characters.

You don’t have to “cast” your characters. It’s just one possible tool out of many. I only do it some of the time. There have been times when the casting was so obvious to me that I leaned in to it and watched some of that person’s movies just to make it clearer in my head. There have been a few times when I actually created a role for that person because there was something about them that intrigued me and I wanted to play with it. There have been times when I was struggling to get a grip on a character and casting the role made it all come together. I’d guess I did no casting at all for most of my characters, or I went so far from my original casting that I no longer associate that casting with my character. And I think half of my mental casting may actually be a procrastination method to allow me to watch things I like and call it work.

writing

Fleshing Out a Character

I had a fun moment in my character development work this week that provides a good illustration of what happens during my process, so I thought I’d share. This will be more specific about how I go about creating characters, though I’ll avoid specific details since I don’t want to spoil my book, and I don’t even know exactly how it will go in the book because I haven’t started actually writing.

When I began my intense research phase for this series a couple of years ago, I initially was planning to model the main character for this book on a particular historical figure, so I started reading about this person. Along the way, I changed my mind about the character, so although she faces some similar situations as this historical figure, she isn’t actually anything like that person. But there were people in this person’s life I thought were interesting, and there was one in particular whose actions I thought might make for an interesting plot element, so I kept that in mind, jotting down a note in my “things that could happen” list.

Once I started thinking about the plot, after I thought I was done developing the main characters, I decided I needed to use this plot element, and that meant I needed a character to do these things. There was also a trope I wanted to play with, and I figured this character would be the perfect place to use this trope. At this point, the character was just a plot figure. I knew nothing about who he was as a person, just what he would do in the story, so I had to reverse engineer a character who was the sort of person who would do the kinds of things this character does.

The first bit of coming to life came when I figured out what he wanted and why. I knew what he was doing, but what did he hope to gain by doing it, and why did he want or need to gain that? Once I figured that out, I realized that fit well with another idea I’d come up with for this series.

The plan is that this will be a “world” series, with a bunch of interconnected books taking place in the same world, each with a different main character (though as I develop it, I’m thinking there might be miniseries within the series, with perhaps multiple books following some characters). I had a dream that gave me an idea for a later book in this series, and I realized that this character could be one of the characters for that idea, which is great because it allows me to set up that future book here and develop this character as a secondary character before he gets his own book. Pieces were starting to click into place, which is always satisfying.

Then I turned to some of my characterization shortcuts. There are a lot of personality profile things out there, things that give you a fairly coherent list of traits for a given personality type. Some common ones are zodiac astrology signs, the Myers-Briggs types, archetypes, and enneagrams. These are a good way to find a general personality type for a character and then find some common traits and issues that might come with that kind of person. I don’t end up slavishly adhering to any of these types, but they’re a great starting point for figuring out what kind of person a character might be while making the combination of traits feel believable instead of random.

And then once I have the rough basis for the personality, I can start going through a few lists of questions I ask myself about the characters, build a backstory, and generally flesh out characters so they start feeling like a person in my head. I know I’m getting close when I actually picture the person doing things while I answer the questions.

So now a guy who started as a possible plot idea has become a fleshed-out character who may get his own book down the line. I was prepared to dislike him, based on what he does in the plot, but now that I understand him better, he’s growing on me. The real test will be whether I can do him justice in the book and have him be in the story the way he is in my head.

writing life, My Books

No More Murder

I’ve been working on the next Lucky Lexie mystery, hoping to have something to release by spring or summer, but I’m putting that on hold for now because murder is hitting a little too close to home right now, and it just upsets me to write about it.

First, I heard a murder happen near my house last week. In my neighborhood, the houses don’t face the main street. That street is just lined with trees and brick walls, and the houses face side streets or cul de sacs. My house is on a corner, so my office window on the second floor of my house overlooks a lawn, a wall, and then that main street. Last Thursday, I was sitting at my desk, writing, when I heard five loud pops in quick succession. I was still trying to figure out if that was gunfire and if I should call the police when I heard sirens, and soon an ambulance and a bunch of police converged. They closed the street, and it looked like there was a crime scene team taking pictures and measurements. In a later news release, the police department said that a young man had been found shot in his car, and he’d died on the way to the hospital. According to security footage they got from a business across the street, someone in another car leaned out the window while he was stopped at the intersection behind my house and shot him. The license tags of the shooter’s car were covered, which makes it sound like it was a planned hit. Last I heard, they haven’t made any arrests.

I wouldn’t have seen anything even if I’d been looking up at the right moment, but it’s still a bit shocking to know that I heard the shots that killed someone, and someone was killed right by me, in what’s normally a very quiet neighborhood.

Then Wednesday night this week, I was watching the evening news when they did a story about a young woman being shot outside a coffee shop in the adjacent town. Then they said the victim’s name, and my heart dropped because I knew her. She’s the daughter of some old friends. I’ve known her since she was born. I was at her baptism. I had her baby picture on my refrigerator until a couple of years ago when I got a new one and cleared off all the clutter. I used to tease her about still having her baby picture on my fridge. I’ve watched her grow up and go off to college. The age they gave seemed a bit too old, so I was hoping against hope that maybe it was someone else with the same name who lived in the same town and was close to the same age. I was trying to think back to how long ago she was born, trying to reassure myself that she couldn’t be the victim because the age was wrong. But then I got an e-mail yesterday morning from the church giving the sad news and offering condolences for the family.

I’m utterly shattered. This beautiful, talented, sweet girl was shot by someone she knew, who then killed himself. And now I can’t make myself look at murder as something to make entertainment out of. I can’t write a funny, quirky story about the thing my friends are going through as they face the loss of their daughter. Not too long ago, I was laughing at myself because when I wrote the murder in the book I’m working on, I cried for the loss of this fictional person who hadn’t actually appeared in the book and I cried for his family’s loss.

Which is making me wonder if maybe this is the wrong genre for me. I think it’s important to humanize the victims and not dismiss the pain of their loved ones, but at the same time that really gets to me. When I was feeling burnt out last year, I wonder if maybe this had something to do with it, if it wasn’t so much because I was tired from working a lot or if writing about murder and what it does to the people left behind was getting to me.

I’m going to focus for now on this fantasy book I’m developing. I don’t think anyone will die in it. There’s no murder investigation, just some courtly intrigue. It’s possible that I may be able to return to the mysteries, but definitely not soon, and I’ll have to think about whether or not this is something I want to do. Until the mysteries, I hadn’t killed a character in a novel. I’d planned for a dragon to eat Mimi in No Quest for the Wicked, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill even her.

writing

Creating Story People

I’m in the character development phase of my pre-writing process, and it’s a lot of fun “meeting” my new story people.

Writers often talk about whether they’re “character-driven” writers or “plot-driven” writers. I seem to be known for my characters. When I get fan mail, it’s almost entirely about the characters in my books, not about things that happen in the stories. I feel like characterization is my strength. But my plots almost always come first, or, at least, the situations do. I think of the story I want to tell, then figure out what kind of people I need to tell that story, or perhaps what kind of people will be most interesting in that situation. I almost never come up with the character first. Usually there’s some back and forth, where I have a vague idea for a story, think of a character who might fit that story, which gives me more details for what the plot might be, which then gives me more information about who the character is, etc.

I started developing this particular series a few years ago when I came up with a very big-picture structural concept for a series. In my list of stories I might tell within this series, the book I’m doing detailed development on now wasn’t even in the picture. It came up when I figured out what I was going to use to tie the books in the series together, and that made me realize there was a story I needed to tell to set up that element.

And then it started evolving. There was a historical figure I had in mind as a model for the main character, and that gave me ideas for supporting characters and things that might happen, but then I changed my mind about what the main character would actually be like, and now there’s a totally different kind of person in that role, but still with most of the supporting characters I came up with, and that makes for a really fun mix. Looking at my brainstorming notes over the past few years as my ideas shifted is interesting.

Until recently, the characters have all been very vague. I knew the most about one of the supporting characters, who seemed to spring to life fully formed. The rest I could picture physically, and I had a sense of their role with the plot, but I didn’t know who they were as people. I’ve come up with so many fun little details about them, and I’ve had a few little “tingle” moments, when I realize how a detail I came up with for one character might fit with a detail I just created for another character in a way that will either make them clash or work together really well. I generally try to avoid deliberately creating characters who will interact in a certain way. I just build people and then figure out how they’ll interact, and it’s exciting when I’ve done that and then see some interesting possibilities for what I can do with them. Sometimes there really is an actual tingle.

When I start with the character, it’s almost like the equivalent of a stick figure, except instead of sticks it may just be their story role. Then I add details until they’re more like a 2D drawing, and I keep going until I can see a flesh-and-blood person in my head. I like doing some writing exercises (sometimes actually writing, sometimes just in my head) in which I throw them into situations that may or may not actually make it into the book and try to picture what they would do or say. Seeing them in action like that gives me even more ideas to make them more real to me. I may come up with more information or insight about them while I’m plotting or writing.

I may be almost at the stage where I start plotting, but once I have more details about that, I’ll probably have to create some more characters.

Life

Digital Minimalism

The Internet has been a real mixed blessing for me. It opened up the possibility for access to so much information and connection. I first started really using it to connect with other people who were interested in the same things I was, and that was life-changing. I’d always felt like such an outsider, and finding other people who were into the same things I liked was exciting. I’ve made so many good friends online, and I’ve been able to find and get back in touch with old friends. The access to information has also been wonderful, being able to look things up right away instead of having to go to the library. I can’t imagine writing the kinds of books I write now without being able to look things up without leaving my desk. I’ve promoted books in the days before the Internet was widely used, and it’s so much easier now (not that I do a lot of it or do it at all well, but there was almost nothing you could do in the old days).

On the other hand, it’s a huge time sink and attention hog. It’s so easy to fall down the research rabbit hole and find that the one quick fact you looked up has turned into an hours-long research project. It’s even easier to get sucked into social media. But I can’t step away entirely, since I do use the Internet for work, and for the past couple of years, most of my social life has taken place online.

I recently read an interesting book on how to find some kind of balance, Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I’d previously read his Deep Work, about how multitasking doesn’t really work and how you need time and focus to do your best work. This book gets into how a lot of social media works on your brain and what you can do about it. It’s addictive (and designed to be that way) because it works on the same principle as a slot machine, with inconsistent and unpredictable rewards so you keep coming back.

I thought I was pretty bad, but after reading this, I think I may have it under better control than I thought. I don’t use any social media on my phone unless I’m traveling (or need to post a photo). I don’t have any notifications turned on, and my phone usually lives in my purse. I can go days before I notice a text. I may get sucked in while I’m at my desk, but you won’t find me sitting at a restaurant with other people, checking my Twitter notifications. I’ve been trying to take steps to minimize my online time, so I’m already somewhat on track with the recommendations in the book. I started working upstairs in my office and keeping my computer in my office instead of on the laptop desk I kept by my sofa. I’d fallen into the bad habit of checking online while I watched TV or movies, and it was killing my attention span. I’d get curious about who that actor was, look it up on IMDB, then end up reading about the rest of the cast, reading the trivia connected to the movie, etc., then while I’m there, might as well check e-mail, Twitter, etc., and next thing I knew, I’d missed half the movie. Having the computer upstairs has made a huge difference.

I’m also trying to break the “better check Twitter” reflex and stop using it as procrastination. I have a list of other things I can do if I don’t want to work, like my Norwegian lessons. I’m also trying to limit my social media time to a couple of times a day in designated slots, though I do sometimes slip, like yesterday when there was an incident on the street outside my house and I kept checking Twitter to see if the police department was saying anything about what was going on.

The thing suggested in the book that I haven’t been doing but that I want to implement is coming up with more active leisure pursuits. This came up last year when I was feeling a bit burned out and realized that my brain never got a break from story. My work is writing stories, and my leisure is either reading or watching stories. Newport suggests actually making things. Go online to learn how to do something, and then do it. This includes stuff like repairs, woodworking, art, cooking, music, etc. I think that’s a good idea, and I’ve been trying to have mostly offline weekends, in which I take care of the things I need to do online, then shut the computer off and do something else. To start with, I’ve been making a point of cooking on weekends, the kind of dishes I can’t really do on a busy weeknight, with chopping, measuring, stirring, and long cooking times. I need to get back into playing music. I’ve got an embroidery project I want to do (and I picked up a book on embroidery at the library today).

I need to get back to something he suggests that I used to do, which is scheduling and planning my leisure time. It sounds boring and lacking in spontaneity, but I’ve found that if I don’t have a plan, I tend to just sit and surf the net, but if I have a plan and a schedule, I’m more likely to do actual fun things.

If you feel the need to get your online life under control and rediscover your offline life, I recommend this book. It’s a quick read and quite thought-provoking.