Archive for writing


The Book in my Head

We dodged a bullet, weather-wise, yesterday. They were forecasting severe storms with baseball-sized hail, with one wave of it hitting during choir practice and the big wave hitting right at the time we’d be coming home from choir. They moved rehearsal earlier to try to avoid the big wave, and we just had to hope that the earlier wave would be more scattered. I only had two kids show up for children’s choir. We ended up not getting any of the earlier wave where I was, so I got home before there was any bad weather. The big wave seemed to be a lot slower than they expected and it wasn’t too severe by the time it hit us. Still, it was enough to wake me up when it hit just after midnight.

But that gave me a chance to think about the book. I’m currently struggling with a big disparity between the book that was in my head and the book I’m actually writing. The book I’m writing is probably better than what was in my head in a lot of respects. It has more conflict and more nuance and detail. But none of the scenes I had planned fit the story I’m writing. The big-picture plot is still good, but the scenes to carry out the plot no longer work.

I realized that when I was nearing the end of the scene I was writing and I didn’t know what would happen next, so I didn’t know how to end the scene. I went to look at my outline for the next few scenes, and none of them worked. I’d already dealt with some of the planned story beats, which eliminated some of the scenes, and there’s other stuff going on that I don’t have scenes planned for.

So that means I need to do a little regrouping today. I did figure out some things that can happen with the next scenes while I was being kept awake by thunder, but there’s some fine tuning to do.



The other day, I was talking about how tricky beginnings are, but what I’ve been struggling with this week is transitions, the parts that come after the big turning points. Particularly, what comes after the first major turning point. The heroine has achieved her initial goal, and the scene after that is the hard part because it has to establish her new situation plus set up what’s going to happen next. She may have achieved what she wanted, but now she’s starting to realize what she’s gotten herself into.

I think I’m on my third version of this scene, and I can’t just leave it and go on, with plans to come back and fix it later. The things established in this scene will play a big role in how the rest of the book works, so it needs to be right. Maybe not the exact words, but the events and the information that’s conveyed.

One problem I had was figuring out the characters. It’s a school-like situation, and my initial number of people involved was really too big to get a handle on, so I cut back. Then I had to develop all the characters who would appear, which also meant figuring out where they stood. Would they be enemies or allies? Who was going to do what as the story moved forward?

But then that made me figure out something new about the plot once I knew where everyone stood. There’s been a lot of going back and forth.

And still I don’t know that I’m quite ready to write it yet. Yesterday, I reached that scene and couldn’t seem to make myself do it. I told myself that I either had to write or clean.

So now my entryway coat closet has been purged, cleaned, and organized. It’s a thing of beauty. I keep opening it to admire it. It had become sort of the “junk drawer” of the house because there’s so little storage in this house. It’s a combination coat closet and broom closet. And, for some reason, it became the place where the candle supply lives. I have no idea how I ended up with so many candles. I think I’m going to have to start doing more things by candlelight to use them all. I like candles, but it looks like I was given a number as gifts, had a weakness for any kind of sale on candles, and then they might have bred in the darkness of the closet.

But today I will write that scene.


Tricky Beginnings

Beginnings are such a tricky phase of a book, especially in fantasy. You’ve got to introduce characters, possibly a whole world, and set up the story, and do it in a way that draws people right into the book. I think the most critical thing about a beginning is making readers care about the characters. If they care about the characters, then readers will want to know more about their lives, including their world and the history that affects them.

I got a case study in that last week when I tried to read a relatively recent book that shall remain nameless. This was a YA fantasy release from a major publisher, by a debut author. I haven’t seen a lot of buzz about it other than it being on a list of fantasy releases (I’m trying to be better about reading newish books), so I don’t think it was a “big” book given any kind of lead title treatment, probably the same kind of release I’ve had. And it had one of the worst openings I think I’ve seen in a long time.

There would be a paragraph or so about the current action — what the characters are doing now. Then a few paragraphs of backstory about their world. Then a paragraph of action and another paragraph or two about the world. Another paragraph of action, then some backstory about the characters and their history. And so forth. Very little of the backstory applied directly to what was happening in the present, and I didn’t yet care enough about the characters to care about their history and their world. It wasn’t the sort of thing the viewpoint character would really have been thinking about under those circumstances. The present action was the sort of thing that would have taken all her focus.

The result was that I couldn’t really dive into the characters and come to care about them because I kept getting distracted by the backstory. Because I didn’t yet care, I didn’t care about the backstory and kept skimming over or even skipping it. All the skipping back and forth between the story and the backstory meant I wasn’t really following either. At least in those 1970s fantasy epics that tended to begin with the wizard showing up at the tavern and telling the entire history of the world it was one coherent story instead of skipping back and forth. I kept trying to read on in the book, but I don’t think I ever really attached, and after about page 80 (it took me nearly 5 days to get that far), I skipped ahead and skimmed a few bits, found that my guesses about what would happen were more or less accurate, and gave myself permission to put the book down.

It looked like a fairly common rookie mistake from someone who’d heard the advice not to just dump backstory in but who didn’t quite understand how that worked and didn’t get that splitting up the paragraphs didn’t make it not an infodump. I’m just surprised that the editor didn’t do something about it. I think I would have really been pulled into the book if we’d just had that opening scene, which on its own might have been very moving, and then learned exactly why that event was so significant. Instead, we were told the significance before we saw the event, but instead of making the event more meaningful, I think it took away from the emotion. I did notice that the initial Amazon reviews were fairly harsh on the infodumping, but then there was a wave of “how dare those mean reviewers say mean things about this awesome book” reviews (most of which mentioned receiving a free copy in exchange for an honest review).

I was particularly concerned because the book I’m working on now has a lot of similarities to this book (one of the reasons I was reading it, as it might come close to a “comp” title to compare mine to when marketing it to publishers). In my case, there’s an incident in the heroine’s past that’s utterly critical to understanding the inciting incident, but I didn’t want to put it as a prologue. The solution I came up with (which may or may not stick) was to have an opening scene in which she has to deal with a daily life situation that shows her strengths and weaknesses. She got into this difficult situation because she has a tendency to daydream and get sidetracked, and once she’s out of the difficult situation, she goes back into the daydream, which involves obsessing about a memory about this past event, so then I follow her daydream as a flashback, showing that past event as she remembers it. And then the inciting incident happens and we know why it happens and why it’s important to her. We still don’t know why it’s important to the world since the heroine doesn’t entirely know. There are bits and pieces of what she knows in both the present and in the flashback.

I think (hope!) this will work, so readers will care about her and be curious about what daydream is so distracting, then want to see how this past incident will affect her life going forward.


Regrouping and Digging

I haven’t exactly been stuck on the book I’m working on, but I have been dissatisfied with how things have gone after the first big turning point. My heroine has crossed the threshold into the world of the story, to use Joseph Campbell terms, but the new world wasn’t quite clicking for me. I realized that while I’d developed the place the heroine was from, her ordinary world, quite thoroughly, and I had the external trappings of the place where the story takes place, I hadn’t dug into it enough to figure out how it worked and what the people in that place would be like.

So, it was back to the drawing board to figure out the specifics. That led me to really figure out the villain, what he’s up to, and why. Then that made me figure out the structure around him — who’s in his family, who are his allies? That gave me a new character, essentially giving a soul and identity to a character who was basically an extra, little more than human scenery.

And then further digging into things gave me another new character who I think is going to be what I needed to spark this part of the book. My problem was that I had a mostly offstage villain. He shows up enough to suggest that he’s going to be trouble, but there’s nothing the heroine can do about him without making a big stand that will upset the order of things. She’ll probably end up doing that in the climax of the book, but for most of the book there was no specific person who served as a true antagonist on her level. But then this round of digging gave me a henchman who’s a peer of the heroine and who’ll be around her on a daily basis. He’s not in direct opposition to her yet because he doesn’t really see her as a threat, but his presence means she has to be very careful about what she’s doing, and he’s a representative of the offstage villain who will be present in most scenes..

And now I have to replot the book because it’s going in a different direction than I initially planned, but it’s for the better.

I think I also need to do a bit more character work. One of my challenges is that there’s a group of about twenty people, and I’ve been treating about half of them like extras, but I really need to create characters for each of these people. I may go back and cut the number down. That might make it a little easier so I’m not juggling so many people.


A Good Start

I’m more than 14,000 words into the new book, and I think it’s going well. This method of scene-by-scene outlining seems to be working. I’ve had a couple of cases when it turned out that what I’d planned as two separate scenes morphed into one as some events turned out not to be as big as I’d imagined. I’m sure there will be some tinkering in revision. But otherwise I feel like it’s focused what I’m doing.

Now I’m at the point when I need to do a little more outlining. I’ve got the next few scenes planned, but I need to dig a little deeper into them before I write them. I’ve seem a few different versions of the mental movie and need to pick which one I’m going with. There’s an incident that I keep moving around. I’m not sure if it goes in this scene or a later scene.

I’m at the part where the story really kicks into gear, so it should be fun, if a little trickier, to write. And I’m afraid I’m about to launch into all-or-nothing mode, where I don’t want to take my brain out of this story.

However, as today is Pi Day (3-14), I may have to pause to make a pie. I may see if I can cut a recipe down enough to make a 1-2 serving pie so I won’t have leftovers for days. Cooking is good for thinking.

I also think I’m going to have to pause to draw a couple of maps. I need a good layout for the place I’m trying to create so i can keep it all straight.


Getting Into Specifics

Just as I was ready to start writing yesterday, I realized that I’d hit another issue I tend to struggle with: specificity.

I knew my heroine inside and out, and I’d figured out bits about some of the other characters, but most of the secondary characters my heroine would be interacting with in the opening of the book were shapeless blobs. Even in my mental movie, they were essentially the adults in a Charlie Brown special — offscreen and just making noise. So, I needed to get specific about things I tend to handwave over. I had to name these people, think of what they looked like and what sort of people they were, what their relationship was to the heroine and how they’d be likely to interact.

It’s amazing what I uncovered while doing this. Not only did my mental movie get a lot more sharp and vivid, but I figured out some stuff that may affect the plot and that will definitely add some depth to the story. Now my heroine’s parents aren’t just generic parents. They’re people with personalities and their own goals and beliefs. I also realized I haven’t been entirely concrete about my settings and surroundings. In my mental movie, I see the characters moving through vague settings, and I’m not sure I could put that into words.

I may need to write “be specific!” on the sticky note I have covering my laptop’s camera so I won’t forget. When I’m tempted to just toss something off, I need to force myself to dig into it.

Today’s task is to do some visual world building. I know the history and culture, but I realized I don’t know exactly what it looks like. There may be map drawing.

It is possible that I’m procrastinating on the moment when a potential book has to become a real one by being put into words, but all this stuff is making it so much richer. Yesterday I would have said I was ready to start writing, but what I would have written yesterday morning is so much weaker than what I’d write today, and I suspect that what I write Monday will be so much stronger than what I’d write today if I started writing today. One of my general weaknesses about writing is that I’m impatient. I want to jump right into it and get started, and that means some things aren’t as well developed as they should be. I’m going pretty quickly from the first germ of idea to getting ready to write, and it’s easier to develop all this now and weave it in as I write than it is to try to fit all that in after I’ve written a vague draft.


The Joy of Outlining

I normally consider myself some sort of unholy cross between a “plotter” and a “pantser” when it comes to writing. I can’t seem to start writing a book without at least a bit of a high-level outline — something like the stages on the hero’s journey — but then I never truly know what the book is about until I’ve written it, and then I have to do a lot of rewriting.

For the book I’m developing now, I’m trying something new and doing a scene-by-scene outline, digging into each scene to look at how it progresses the plot, how it affects the protagonist, where the conflict is, what the emotional pivot is, and what the result is. I haven’t started actually writing yet, and I can already tell a difference.

For one thing, there was a scene I envisioned that I thought did a good job of showing what the heroine’s issues were and building toward the decision she ultimately makes. But once I started digging into the scene, I realized I didn’t need it at all. The emotional beats were identical to those in the previous scene, and all this scene did was delay the start of the main action. I think previously I would have written the scene and then agonized over cutting it. This way, while outlining the previous scene I already knew I wouldn’t need the next one, so I didn’t waste a lot of time on it. I’d seen the mental “movie” of it, and I think I got some character insight from it. Some of the bits I like from that scene will probably end up in a later scene that’s more pivotal. The time I spent thinking about it isn’t wasted, but I’ve also saved myself a lot of writing time.

Then there’s something about analyzing a scene this way that forces you to see the nuts and bolts and how they work. One problem I had with a previous project I struggled with and then shelved was that my agent kept telling me my heroine wasn’t proactive enough. She did make decisions about how she reacted to things, but the major turning points in the story were all her reacting to other people’s actions rather than her taking action, and once I’d written the book, it was really hard to fix it without starting from scratch (which is why it’s shelved, at least temporarily).

Once I started digging into my planned scenes, I realized I was doing the same thing all over again. The heroine gets an opportunity to do something, and her parents bring it to the clan leader to decide. The clan leader rules on it, then assigns the heroine to prepare herself for it. After smacking myself on the head when I saw the pattern, I changed it so that the heroine is the one suggesting bringing it to the clan leader for a ruling, then the clan leader leaves the decision up to her, and then the heroine is the one seeking to train to prepare herself. These are minor tweaks to make now, but if I’d already written these scenes when I noticed it, it would have been more difficult. Even if I changed a few sentences to make it her decisions, the emotions and tone wouldn’t have been quite right, and the inner conflict would have been different.

And then after I fixed all that, in a later scene I caught myself setting it up that someone offers her help when really it should have been her asking for help.

Doing this kind of analysis before writing can also help fix those problem scenes — the scenes you need to convey information and set something up but that don’t really have any kind of inherent conflict. By digging into the potential and looking for conflict, I moved the scene to a new setting, made it more active, and added elements from a subplot to it. Now the main plot purpose may be mostly exposition and setup, but there’s stuff going on from a subplot to make it a real scene. I’m not sure I’d have noticed the problem if I’d just written the scene the way I originally thought of it.

Of course, the moment of truth will come when I have to actually start writing and I see if the plans translate well into actual words. That will likely come later today.


More Fun with Research

I’m still in heavy-duty research mode, having picked up even more books at the library yesterday, and it really isn’t just creative procrastination because I keep finding little details that spin my story off into a different direction or that give me ideas. Or that validate my ideas in an almost creepy way.

I’d decided that I was going to very loosely base my villain on a certain historical figure, but blended with some other stuff so that it’s not just this historical figure. I’d figured out a lot of stuff about his character, adding on to what I knew about the figure. Then I started researching this figure. I didn’t know a lot about him, just the general big-picture stuff. And it turns out that some of the stuff I made up to add to this real person in order to create a fictional character was actually true of this real person. My made-up character loosely based on a historical figure turns out to have been a reasonably accurate depiction of the historical figure.

Which means I may need to make up some more stuff so it won’t look like this person is just a fantasy version of the historical figure, but that means I need to do a little more research to make sure that I’m not accidentally just adding more real-life details about the historical figure. I don’t think some of these things I’ve found are really common knowledge, and my target readership probably isn’t going to go, “Hey, that’s that guy from history!” but editors might.

Meanwhile, since I’m looking at multiple books on the same topic, it’s been interesting to see how widely differing views tend to be. In one reference book, this person was supposedly his mother’s favorite child and he turned out the way he did in part because his mother doted on him so much. In the next book I read about these same people, supposedly he turned out the way he did because his mother was so harsh and strict with him and she never really showed him any interest or affection. The first book is more recent and was based on correspondence among these people that was previously hidden in archives, so it might be more accurate, since it uses the actual words of these people and the people around them rather than speculation based on observations recorded in publicly available documents. That’s why you look at multiple sources for your research. Of course, it doesn’t matter as much if you’re just using the history as inspiration for totally fictional characters in a made-up world that has magic in it.

But it also can show the difference between public and private personas and perceptions, and that’s something that can fuel a plot. It seems that people at the time saw this person as having cruel, unfeeling parents that he was rebelling against, and they had no idea that his mother was actually quite sympathetic and intervened to try to keep his father from being harsh with him. He seems to have been playing the public for sympathy to try to pressure his family and others into giving him more money.

It’s fun feeling pieces of story click into place as I research.


Researching Fiction

Some of the ideas and insights I got during yesterday’s round of research reading reminded me of one of the few points I was allowed to make in last weekend’s Panel From Hell. If you want to create a vivid world that doesn’t perpetuate tropes and stereotypes, you can’t use other fiction as your reference or source material. You need to do actual non-fiction research.

You can see what happens when people use fiction as a source in a lot of the fantasy from the 1970s and early 80s that’s essentially just a take on The Lord of the Rings, or the 1970s and 1980s space opera that’s heavily inspired by Star Trek or Star Wars.

But since magical lands with wizards and elves and great space empires don’t really exist, how else are you supposed to research them?

Everything we humans write is based on human experience, one way or another, so you find analogues in our world that you want to base your fantasy worlds and cultures on. That’s what Tolkien did in the first place. You’re more likely to get something interesting and original by going to the sources he read than you are by going to what he wrote. Read about the history of the era you’re basing your world on, read about the culture. Read world history to see how various things came together to make certain conditions happen. If you’re writing about a space empire, look at how some of the empires on earth have worked.

That doesn’t mean that you have to (or even should) write The British Empire — In Space! But studying the British Empire would probably give you a lot of ideas for what might happen in an empire with far-flung territories and no real-time communication, and the result would be more unique and interesting than yet another thinly veiled retelling of Star Wars.

When it comes to fantasy worlds, you’re better off using your research to generate ideas rather than trying to be meticulous about re-creating our cultures in that world. You probably shouldn’t have an obvious Magical Asia, Magical Europe, and Magical Africa, but studying the ways cultures intersected and interacted might give you ideas for creating your own cultures.

The one area where fiction might serve as a reference is if you read novels written in the time and place you’re basing your story on. That can give you a sense of how they used language and what was going on with the culture in that time. If you’re writing a world based on Regency England (or an alternate history in that time), you really should read the works of Jane Austen. But you can’t just read those works, or else you’ll end up with yet another take on Jane Austen rather than something original. Period novels are part of your research, not all of it.

I do try to read whatever’s been written in the general area of my story idea, but not to get ideas. I want to know what’s been done so that I don’t inadvertently copy it. I can choose to go my own way once I know what others have done. It’s also good market research to know what’s been done and how well it worked.


Research Serendipity

I keep thinking that I’m getting to the end of my research process, but then I keep finding new stuff. I was reading a book that I thought I probably didn’t need but that I thought might be interesting and I discovered something that helps me set up the main part of the story. Then I was reading another book that I suspected would probably be overkill, since it was about what would happen if the characters didn’t take the action they take — and it ended up having a key bit of information I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere. So maybe I need to keep digging.

I think a secondary benefit to the research phase is the additional time spent thinking before I start writing. That gives me a chance to mentally flesh out the characters and their world before I start committing to actual words. I’m seeing lots of the “movie” of the story in my head, and it’s gradually filling in details. As much as I have figured out, I’m realizing how much I don’t know. Like, I don’t have a lot about my villain and I don’t have a secondary cast. I know a lot about what one part of my world looks like, but the part where the bulk of the story takes place is a bit of a blank.

So there’s work to be done. Unfortunately, some of the information I need is kind of scarce. I’m having trouble tracking down exactly what I’m looking for. I guess I’ll just have to hope for more research serendipity. Maybe I’ll stumble on exactly what I need while I’m looking up something that initially seems to be extraneous.