Archive for 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.


Do You Take this Advice?

A few weeks ago, when I was doing the worldbuilding work for the project I’m developing, I looked up the video of Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on magical systems, which I’d seen mentioned in something else I read. It’s part of the course on writing science fiction and fantasy he teaches at BYU, and it was quite good. I ended up watching most of the other lectures in the course. From there, YouTube seemed to decide that I was interested in videos about writing, and that plunged me into the weird world of “AuthorTube.” There are a bunch of videos of authors giving writing advice, with how-to lectures, lists of the worst things you could do in a book, lists of things that are good or bad, etc. I backed quickly out of one because she was very strident and I disagreed strongly with her advice. Another had decent advice, but I recognized exactly where she got it because I’d read that book, and she was using the precise terminology without doing anything to make it her own or perhaps incorporate it into other things to create her own process. The weird thing was that I’d never heard of most of these people, and I’m pretty connected in the romance and SF/F worlds as well as in the independent publishing worlds. But it is entirely possible that there are very successful people I haven’t heard of, especially if their main interaction is on YouTube, where I mostly watch Saturday Night Live skits and history videos.

But then a video came up in my recommended list in which someone talked about reading the books written by some popular AuthorTubers and discovering that they’re actually terrible writers. Just watching part of that video seems to have made YT decide that I want to see more of that, so I was being flooded with videos about how bad this author’s books were. Some were really trying to be nice, talking about how she still produces good content and there are people who know a lot about books who aren’t necessarily good writers themselves, like editors and agents, but they couldn’t recommend these books. I looked up the other writer whose videos I’d seen, and this person who’s talking like a real authority on writing (while basically quoting but not crediting another author) has self-published two books. The reviews there were also about how she’s good at teaching writing, but she’s not a good writer, and people were really disappointed in her books after seeing her videos.

I’m not sure I agree that you can still take writing advice from someone who writes bad books. Those editors and agents who aren’t writers but who can still give good writing advice aren’t publishing bad books. They know where their skillset is and know writing is not it. If you’ve got good judgment about what makes a book good or bad, you’re not going to put your own bad book out. You’ll either fix it or realize that maybe writing isn’t your thing.

But how can you know whose advice to listen to, whether in a blog or a video?

  • First, I’d suggest looking at their credentials.
    Have they worked in publishing in some capacity, either as an agent or an editor? This might be someone who knows what they’re talking about, even if they haven’t written a book of their own.
  • Have they been traditionally published? Not that this means they’re automatically better than people who self-publish, but it does mean they’ve already been somewhat vetted. An agent likely took them on, and then a publishing company thought their book would sell well enough to make money. They’ve probably worked with an editor and copyeditor to improve their book, which is a very educational process. When checking whether someone has been traditionally published, make sure that the company that publishes them publishes more than one author. A lot of independent authors name their publishing company, so it doesn’t sound so much like they’re self-publishing.
    If they’re self-published (and maybe even if they’ve been traditionally published), take a look at the sample chapter available at the online bookstore and look at the reviews. Is there a trend in praise or criticism? Do you like this person’s writing? Do an Internet search on them and see what people are saying about them and how their advice works.
  • Have they published more than one book? I found that the process of writing later books is very different from writing the first book. I’m not sure I’d take advice from someone who has written only one book, unless they’re talking about the process of discovery they’re going through rather than “this is how you should write.” It’s after you’ve written several books that you start to get a better idea of how the process works for you.
  • Are they really dogmatic, talking as though there is only one right way to do things? If that’s the case, then I don’t think they know much about writing and may not know what they’re doing. The more I write, the more I realize how little I know. A process that works for one book doesn’t work for another. A writing method or trick I’ve used at one point in my career no longer works the same way as I move on. I suspect that some of the more strident ones are aiming to get controversy stirred up so that they get more views (hate views count the same way as earnest views in the algorithm) and interaction, and that means they’re more interested in being successful YouTubers than they are in being actual authors.

Incidentally, you should do this kind of vetting before you take advice from anyone. There was a story on the news here the other day about an Instagram “influencer” who was offering fitness and diet advice but it turned out that she had no credentials and her advice was even harmful, and her “influencing” was a come on to a scam in which she sold supposedly personalized diet and exercise plans that she didn’t actually deliver. Slick production and the sound of authority doesn’t actually mean someone is an authority.

I’d pondered maybe doing some videos on writing but feared I didn’t have the credentials. It seems I’m more than qualified compared to a lot of people doing this, given that I’ve been dealing with the publishing world since 1993 and actually make a living as an author. I’m thinking of maybe doing some “real world” advice, taking some of the writing theory and showing how it really applies when actually writing a book. I’d rather just write it as blog posts, but video would possibly get a different audience I haven’t already reached. Right now, though, I’m pretty busy with writing — which may be why most of the “how to write” videos aren’t by big-name authors. The authors I’ve heard of may have a few “how to write” videos, but otherwise most of their content is reader-oriented, giving news updates and progress updates or answering questions.


The Process: Characters

I’m at the character phase of the story development process, and this is one of my favorite parts. It’s like getting to know new friends. I’ve had a few characters arrive fully formed in my head, but most of the time, it’s a combination of creation and discovery.

Although I’m known for writing characters people love and you’d think that means I’m a character-driven writer, most of the time my characters come out of the plot or concept. I have a kind of story I want to tell, and I figure out the kind of people I need to tell that story. With Enchanted, Inc., I started with wanting to tell a story about a magical corporation in a modern city. I then came up with the idea of the main character being immune to magic, since I wanted to reverse the trope of the character discovering she has magical powers. That would make her a newcomer to the magical world and a bit of an outsider, so I started thinking of the kind of person that would be. I had an idea fragment filed away about a small-town Texas girl in New York, and I figured this was the story where I should use that. I knew New York pretty well as a visitor, thanks to lots of business trips and conferences, but I didn’t think I could convincingly write from the perspective of a local. That meant this was a good place to use the Texas girl, and it fit the story that she was an outsider in multiple ways. From there, I built out the details of what Katie would be like, and then I figured out what other characters would be interesting for her to interact with.

I do have a mental file of types of characters I’d like to play with someday. Sometimes I’m creating a role for an actor I find interesting (not that I’d expect them to ever play that role because, generally, by the time you write a book and get it published and then sell the film/TV rights and then something finally gets made, that actor you initially had in mind will have aged out of the role). Sometimes there’s a character I like in something else who I feel is either misused or underused, so I want to explore some aspect of that character that wasn’t really dealt with in the original thing. Then I might want to build a character around that aspect. When I’m coming up with a new story, I often turn to my mental file to “audition” these characters for roles. If they fit, then I start building a character on that framework. By the time I’m done with this development, you probably won’t recognize the original source unless you know me really well, know what characters I’ve talked about that I wish had been handled differently in other books/shows/movies, and recognize any bits of physical description that show up. The original character is really more of an inspiration than an actual model.

In the case of the story I’m working on now, I’m being utterly self-indulgent and throwing in a ton of “I want to write the kind of character this actor would play” and “they did it wrong and I’m going to do it justice” characters. It’s all the people I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Some of that does still come out of the story framework. I need a certain kind of character to fill a certain story role, and someone in my mental idea file fits. In this story, there’s also a role that was created just for a particular mental character, and that ended up shaping the plot.

The work I’m doing right now is fleshing out that mental framework, making these characters truly my people. I’m figuring out what makes them tick: what they want, what they fear, how they need to grow, more about their personalities and backgrounds, etc. Over the years, I’ve compiled a bunch of questions that I ask myself about characters, and I make myself answer these questions for each major character. I sometimes do some writing exercises in which I write random scenes (that probably won’t end up in the book) involving the characters as a way of finding their voices. Something I learned from an acting class is to write the scene that happens just before the character first appears in the story from that character’s perspective. That makes it easier to write the character in some kind of context instead of them just appearing from nowhere. They’re not just stepping on stage, they’re coming from somewhere else.

During this phase, if there are actors I’ve mentally cast or existing characters I’m using as inspiration, I may watch things with the actors or characters and take notes about mannerisms I want to use, the way I’d describe how they move or how their voices sound. I may or may not use any of these, but it helps me to get the original in my head and then alter that mental image so that I have my character solidly in my head.

I’ve done the person I think will be my lead character this week and have discovered some really cool stuff that wasn’t in my original plan. I move on to one of the more mysterious characters next week. I’m not sure what’s up with him, so it will take some digging.


We Need a Hero

Last week, I pondered whether a story really has to have a villain. But I do think that a story must have a protagonist, a character who wants something and whose efforts to get it drive the story — and it helps if the audience wants them to get it. In All Creatures Great and Small (which I mentioned in that post), there may not be a villain, but we have the vet who wants to save the sick cow/pig/dog and has to overcome obstacles to do so. He has a goal that we know about and want him to achieve, and he makes effort toward achieving it. A story without a real protagonist feels unfocused, and it’s hard to get involved in it.

I started thinking about this last weekend when watching the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides (I’ve been rewatching/watching the series). It felt very different from the first three and was a lot less engaging, and I figured out it was because there really wasn’t a protagonist. There were people who wanted things, but we didn’t necessarily want any of them to succeed. The general goal was the Fountain of Youth. We knew that Blackbeard and his daughter wanted it because his death had been prophesied, and they thought this would save him from his fate. But they’re the antagonists. We don’t want Blackbeard to get eternal life because he’s a terrible person. Jack Sparrow is our main character, but he doesn’t really have a goal that drives the story. We know that he’s wanted eternal life throughout the series, but he’s been kind of shifty about it. We don’t know why, exactly, he wants it. He gives up one chance at it (but after learning the consequences that came with that chance). He’s intrigued by the Fountain of Youth, but early in the movie he learns how it works, and he doesn’t seem to want it for himself anymore. We know that eternal life would probably be bad for him, so we don’t want him to get it. He just seems to be along for the ride, kind of wanting to protect Blackbeard’s daughter (though he doesn’t seem to actually like her much). He hopes to get his ship back by cooperating, but that’s treated as an “oh, by the way.” He’s not trying to stop Blackbeard. So, most of the audience probably doesn’t actually want anyone in the story to achieve their goals, and we don’t really know what the main character wants other than to not get killed. The one non-shifty good guy in the story is the missionary, but his only goal is to keep the pirates from being cruel to the mermaid. At one point, it seems like he wants to try to save the souls of the pirates, but after seeing them in action he’s like “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” And then he disappears from the story without any real resolution. So he’s definitely not the protagonist.

I think some of the problem comes from the Pirates universe being grafted onto a novel that wasn’t meant to be in that universe. From what I can tell from the book description, they took the novel’s main character, who did have a goal, and turned him into Jack Sparrow, who didn’t have the same goal, but they didn’t bother giving him a new goal of his own, and then they split out the good-guy hero part of that character to create the missionary, but without giving him that character’s actual goal. As a result, we end up with a vacuum in the center of the story by removing the protagonist and his goal from the story.

This is also a good example of how a fun secondary character doesn’t necessarily make a good main character. Jack Sparrow worked in the first three films because there were other characters to be protagonists, and he worked mostly by being a wild card who could shift things around for all the characters. I think Elizabeth was probably the protagonist of the first trilogy. For the most part, it’s her goals that are driving the story — she wants to stay alive when captured by the pirates and then she wants to save Will when she finds out what the pirates really want in the first movie. In the second movie, she’s hoping to save her father, and in the third she mostly wants to save Jack and then avenge her father. If Jack becomes less shifty, he’s no fun anymore, but as shifty as he is, it means we don’t know what he really wants or why and we don’t know what he’ll do to get it, so he’s not a good protagonist.

When a story isn’t working, it often comes down to the fact that there’s no central character who wants something and is doing something about it. There are just people running around doing stuff. The final season of the TV series Once Upon a Time was a bit of a mess for a lot of reasons, but one big one was that there was no main character who wanted something and was doing something to get it in a way that gave the story a throughline. There was a character who stated a goal, but then she never did much to bring it about and we didn’t know why she had that goal, what had clued her in to the fact that there was a problem. Everyone else just reacted to things without taking any proactive action. The only characters who had clear goals were secondary characters whose goals were about subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. From a structure standpoint, I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be the protagonist.

I’m developing characters right now for my new project, and I’ve got three potential protagonists. They do all have goals, but I’m figuring out which will be the central one so that I have a clear protagonist, someone my readers can latch onto and follow through the story.


The Process: Worldbuilding

I’ve been tracking my process as I develop a potential new book series, and I’m now in deep worldbuilding.

When I was in college, I took a course on “parageography,” which is the geography of imaginary worlds. In other words, worldbuilding. Although we studied worlds from fictional works (mostly classics, because the course was taught in the Classics department, which meant The Odyssey, etc.), we were mostly isolating the world from the story. In this course, our focus wasn’t on what happened, but on a place where things can happen. Our main project in the course was to create a world and find a way to show that world that wasn’t an encyclopedia entry, a list of things about it. As I recall, I used the card catalogue from a reference library in a monastery school, showing the works that were readily available in the library, as well as those that were restricted so that only some people could check them out (and this was years before Hermione tried to get books from the restricted section in the Hogwarts library).

Until recently, that’s been the only fictional world I’ve built from scratch. With the Enchanted, Inc. books, I was layering a magical world on top of the real world, so the main thing I needed to know about was the real world. I took a research trip to New York and actually walked around all the areas that I planned to use in the story. I already knew the city fairly well, having gone there for a number of conferences and business trips (I worked for a company based in New York), but once I got ready to write, I explored the specific things I needed to know. From there, I just had to add the magical things and figure out how that worked. The same thing applied for the Fairy Tale books. I took a trip just to research the real-world settings, and the fairy Realm was meant to be rather dreamlike, so there wasn’t any real worldbuilding. It was what the people there made of it. I researched a lot of folklore involving the fae and pulled from that to create that world. The Rebels books were a bit more of a challenge, as they were based on a real place but in a different time. There’s a lot about New York that still exists from that time, but a lot is gone. I didn’t make a special trip for that book. I have a historical atlas of New York I used, showing the layout of the city at given points in time, with photos of a lot of the locations. I tried to be as accurate as I could be for the time, but when I needed something to be different for the story, I figured that the fact that there was magic and the British still ruled would explain any discrepancies (I had a lot of arguments with my very literal editor about this).

I did have an imaginary “secondary” world in Spindled, but it was meant to be a generic fairy tale world, so I just had to work out some of the geography, and it was mostly based on a few towns I remembered from living in Germany. I’ve had a few projects that haven’t gone anywhere that are set in fantasy worlds, but I didn’t get to the point of truly doing worldbuilding.

Now I’m really creating an imaginary world from scratch, and the more digging I do into it, the more I realize how sketchy those shelved projects were. They were essentially Generic Quasi-Medieval European Fantasy Worlds. I’m making a real effort now to work out the culture, economics, history, etc., of the places in this world that I’m going to use in this series, and that means digging into details like what the buildings look like, their forms of transportation, arts and culture, what their major holidays are, what marriage means to them, and other details like that. I’ve got lists of worldbuilding questions I’ve been putting together from various sources over the years, and I’m going through them, making up answers to each of them (based on the research I did on some of the real-world places and situations I’m using as the basis). Making up these answers makes the world get clearer and clearer in my head and gives me other ideas. I may or may not end up using any or all of this in the story, but I have been getting some plot ideas from this work, and me knowing it may inform other choices I make along the way.

I’m not trying to create something totally from scratch. It’s still basically Earth-like with some magical touches, but I hope that doing all this thinking will keep it from being the Generic European Fantasy World.

So far, I’m finding that coming up with names for places is the most difficult part. I don’t want to use real place names or use names that actually translate in a real language, but I also want the names to be consistent and sound like they really are from the same language. I don’t want to go off the deep end into full-on fantasy names that are impossible to pronounce. I’m tempted to just translate some words into Norwegian and maybe alter a few letters.

Next week, I’m going to start developing my main characters. I already have some ideas and notes for some of them, but now it’s time to really figure out what they’re like and what makes them tick.

movies, writing, TV

Do We Really Need Villains?

Before Christmas, I wrote a post about low and high tension stories and whether you really need to have edge-of-your-seat tension for a book. Sometimes you just want to go on a fun journey (literal or metaphorical) without having to worry about the hero’s fate. In the same post, I talked about the requirement that the hero be proactive and defeat the villain, while it can sometimes be really satisfying if the villain causes their own downfall, without the hero doing anything to cause that downfall.

Now I’ve been wondering, do we actually need a villain?

My latest bit of joy has been the new version of All Creatures Great and Small that’s been on PBS. I rewatched the first season the week after Christmas and the second season is on now. This is a show that goes beyond cozy to downright cuddly. It’s the story of a young veterinarian from Glasgow who gets a job in the late 1930s working for a practice in Yorkshire, where they treat both pets and farm animals. His boss is gruff and demanding but turns out to be decent at heart (he mostly just likes animals more than he likes people), and he sometimes has to deal with difficult personalities but there isn’t really a villain in the story. The interpersonal conflict generally comes from people who have good intentions but disagree about the right way to deal with a situation or from people who have an emotional involvement that clouds their judgment. Otherwise, there’s a lot of “man vs. nature” conflict in figuring out what’s wrong with an animal and how to fix it — or how to deal with it if it can’t be fixed. There is some personality clashing within the vet practice, especially once the boss’s younger brother joins them, since he has a very different attitude about life (at first, you might expect him to be a bit of a rival to our hero, but they become best friends). The closest thing to a “villain” is a rival vet, but they aren’t trying to hurt each other. They “defeat” the rival by trying to do a better job of diagnosing and curing a farmer’s cow. Nobody’s really mean. There’s no evil at all, and it’s quite refreshing. This is a show I can just sit and watch without doing crosswords or knitting, so it keeps my attention even without all that conflict.

In fact, I find it ironic that the show that’s on before it has felt the need to shoehorn in a villain. That’s Around the World in 80 Days, and you’d think that just trying to deal with all the stuff they’re facing on this great journey would be enough conflict, but they’ve thrown in an enemy who’s trying to sabotage them. And I can’t watch that show without also doing something like crosswords or knitting because it doesn’t entirely hold my interest.

Another no-villain thing I’ve seen lately is Encanto, the Disney movie. It’s about a family in a Columbian village. The family all has magical powers they use to help the village, but one of the daughters has missed out on a magical gift and has realized that things are going wrong (hmm, where have I seen something along those lines before, the person without a magical gift who solves things for the magical people …). There’s conflict within the family, but there’s no villain, no evil person causing the problems. It’s just good people trying to do their best and sometimes going about that the wrong way. There are still a lot of emotional stakes. There’s even tension and action, all without a villain.

I’m reading a fantasy novel right now that may not have an actual villain in it. There are some not so great people, but they’re not what I’d call a villain, not someone that they have to defeat to save the day. I’m only about halfway through, so it could change, but mostly it seems like the force they’re having to fight is nature. So, it can be done (though this is an established author).

The series I’m developing does need a villain, so I can’t play with this concept here, but now I have a mental challenge to see if I can come up with a story with no villain.


The Jerk with Layers

In my reading lately, I’ve been trying to think about what it is that I really like (and don’t), what draws me in or makes me excited about a book (so that I can be sure to put this in my own books). I’ve identified a trope that I seem to be a sucker for if it’s handled well (but it can kill a book if it isn’t). I call this one the Jerk With Layers.

This is a character who isn’t a villain. He’s definitely on the same side as the protagonist, and there’s not really a question of him betraying the hero. But he’s still kind of an antagonist, someone who might be competing with the main character at school or work, someone who’s annoying and obnoxious. But then we start to get clues that he’s more than he seems, and maybe he even has something of a reason for being the way he is — his behavior or attitude are reasonable responses to what he’s been through previously. And along the way he changes, becoming less of a jerk, possibly because of learning from the hero, possibly because of getting over whatever happened in his past, maybe because going through the experience in the story brings about growth. When this trope is at its best, I start out hating this guy and looking forward to him being taken down a peg, and at the end of the book, I’m his fiercest defender.

I know that a good percentage of romance novel heroes fit this trope, but I generally don’t like it when this character is the love interest, except maybe in a series where the romantic relationship doesn’t begin until after the layers start being obvious to the other characters and he’s already changing. I really don’t like the “I hate him, but he’s so hot and I can’t resist him” thing. I recently read the first couple of books in a series with this kind of character, and he did become a love interest, but the first hints of romance didn’t start until near the end of the first book, after he’d shown layers, had put himself at risk to help the others, and had started changing, and the relationship didn’t really begin until near the end of book 2, after the heroine had a good look at the situation that had led him to be the kind of person he was and he’d gone through a lot, leading to major growth.

I’m also not crazy about this character being the main character. That’s the Jerk Genius thing that’s been so popular lately, with the Iron Man movies and all the various Sherlock Holmes retellings (including House). I think this trope works better when he’s not the protagonist so that there’s a main character I actually like at the beginning of the story.

It’s easy to tip this over into the “woobie jerk” kind of character, where it feels like the writer is making excuses — you can’t blame this poor, misunderstood person for being a jerk because his life was so sad (even more annoying when his life isn’t all that sad, especially when compared to the protagonist, who isn’t a jerk). I think it works better if the character doesn’t seem to be consciously making excuses, if his behavior is an unknowing reaction to his situation, not a “poor, sad me.” When the character (or writer) makes excuses, the change doesn’t feel genuine or is surface-level.

I guess this character is similar to that character who has room for growth that I also like, but I think the main difference is that with that character, the layers are front-loaded, so you get the sympathy for the character before you see any of the areas where the character needs to grow. If the character has sharp edges that might make them look like a jerk, we see the reason for those edges first, so we understand the bad attitude or behavior better.

These are not meant as any kind of writing rules or how-tos. These are just my preferences of what I like. I don’t think I even represent the mainstream.

It’s hard to come up with good examples because the fact that there are layers to the jerk is usually a spoiler, but I think the poster child would have to be Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. He comes across as a real jerk at first, and then we get glimpses that there’s more to him, then we learn his side of the story, then we see him more in his comfort zone and learn about him from his family and employees. He changes in his behavior toward Lizzie, and he corrects where he went wrong. I think he works as a romantic hero for me because the novel isn’t structured like a modern romance novel. Lizzie isn’t all that impressed with him until she learns a lot more about him, so there’s no “I hate him, but he’s so hot.” And he’s offstage through most of the book, just popping up here and there, so we don’t have to sit through a lot of him being a jerk. He’s also not as big a jerk as some of the other characters.

I’ve generally found this trope to involve male characters, but I think Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fits. She’s the snobby Mean Girl of the school who torments Buffy and her friends, but she’ll join in to help fight against monsters. We later learn there’s some bad stuff going on with her at home, so there are layers, and she ends up changing rather dramatically over time.

Even though I’ve realized I like this character type, I haven’t really used it in my own writing. The closest I might have come is Rod in the Enchanted, Inc. books and Flora in the Rebels books, but they’re very mild on the jerk scale. Now I’m looking at the book I’m currently brainstorming and trying to decide if there’s room for this kind of character. I tend to write nice people I like, and if I’ve figured out the layers of a jerk, once I start liking them I have a hard time really writing them as a jerk. Maybe I should make an effort to lean into it, since it’s fun to watch someone you disliked at first get a bit of a comeuppance and then grow. I need to try to write a Mr. Darcy.


The Process: Brain Dump

Before the holidays, I was giving updates on my writing process as I develop a new series. I’ve returned to that work this week. I’d been doing a lot of research reading to figure out what my world would be like, then once I got ideas, I began focusing my research on those areas. After completing (I thought) my research reading, I went back through my notes to pull out the things I wanted to use and organized those into categories.

This week, I did what I think of as a Brain Dump. This is one of my techniques for dealing with Shiny New Idea Syndrome, when a new idea that feels like a perfect book that will totally change my career pops up while I’m slogging through a difficult part of another project (often while I’m proofreading or doing revisions). To keep the Shiny New Idea from taking over my brain and being a distraction, I do a Brain Dump, writing down everything I know about that idea. Usually, that Shiny New Idea that I want to dump the current project for amounts to about three sketchy paragraphs, and I realize it might give me one good scene and possibly the kind of description that would go on the book cover, but it’s nowhere near ready to write. Knowing this makes it possible to get back to what I’m supposed to be doing without that idea distracting me. In the rare case when I end up with pages and pages and each idea inspires more ideas, I might actually work on it.

But this Brain Dump has a different purpose. It’s a way of pulling together all the ideas and research and seeing where I stand. I wrote out everything I knew or could think of about the world, the characters, and the plot. That made it very clear what needed a lot more development and what’s pretty sketchy. I found that although I have vivid mental images of my main characters, they actually need a ton of development to become characters I can write about. I’ve got the main society of the story pretty well fleshed out, but the rest of the world is really sketchy, and events in the rest of the world play a big role in the story. The protagonist has personal stakes and goals, but those are going to be affected by larger events. I need to know where these events are happening and what’s making them happen.

So, I have more work to do. Fortunately, I’d just bought a book a few weeks ago that should be a big help in structuring what the rival society looks like, and that will shape what’s going on elsewhere in the world. It will also affect the development of some of the characters. Once I have that all worked out, I’ll need to start doing serious character development.


Conventional Wisdom

Some of my recent reading and viewing has made me question the conventional wisdom about writing. The things I’ve enjoyed most have violated the “rules,” while I find that stories that do what editors say they want are much less satisfying.

One of the bits of advice is to “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them, and then set the tree on fire.” To keep tension high and pages turning, your characters should be in constant trouble. Things should never work out well for them, and if something they do works, that outcome should land them in even bigger trouble. They shouldn’t get what they want during the course of the book, until maybe the end, unless what they want is actually bad for them.

I’m reading a couple of books right now, one that follows this advice, and one that doesn’t. Following this advice is why I’m reading two books. I realized I can’t read the “characters in a tree” book at bedtime because it stresses me out too much, so this is the book I read in bits and pieces when I have reading time during the day. The main character in this book starts in a bad situation, gets out of that situation only to land in another bad situation, and everything that looks like it might help only makes matters worse. The main character is up against impossible odds and going through terrible things. It does make for an exciting book, but I have to admit that I’m not finding it very fun to read, and though you’d think this would make for a page turner, I can only bear to read a few pages at a time before I have to put the book down.

The other book isn’t really throwing rocks at the characters, but it may actually have higher stakes and deeper conflict. If the characters fail at their assignment, it could affect their futures, but they’re learning that if they succeed, it might make things worse for society. They do have some personal struggles, so things aren’t entirely easy for them, but we move in and out of those parts instead of things getting worse and worse. The “worse” part is more about that dilemma of what to do. I’m tearing through this book and only putting it down at night when I can’t keep my eyes open, even though it’s not as obviously tense as the other book. It’s by an established author, so I don’t know if that dilemma would count as enough tension for a major publisher to buy it from an author without a name.

The other conventional wisdom, something I hear often from my agent and from editors, is that the main character needs to have agency. The plot needs to be driven by the decisions the main character makes, and these decisions should be what leads to the defeat of the villain and the conclusion of the book.

But a while ago I was watching a miniseries based on a Victorian novel, and although it violated this in a big way, I found it incredibly satisfying because the villain got a huge comeuppance she brought entirely upon herself. The heroine did nothing but stand her ground and hold true to her personal ethics. She never actually tried to oppose the villain. I often find that it’s far more satisfying when the villain brings about their own downfall than when the hero defeats the villain. In this case, it was a lower-conflict situation, not really a “vs.” type of conflict. The villain wasn’t truly evil. She just wanted something and thought the heroine was in the way, but everything she did to try to get the heroine out of the way just made her own situation worse and backfired. Ultimately, circumstances shifted so that she suddenly needed the heroine to get what she wanted, after she’d spent all this time being terrible to her, and the moment in which the villain realized this was an outright fist pump of triumph moment of awesomeness. The villain bringing about her own downfall and having to eat crow was far more entertaining and satisfying than if the heroine had been trying at all to stop or defeat her.

This was based on a Victorian book, so I’m not sure you could get something like that published now, with a heroine who doesn’t have a goal other than getting through life and maybe having a little happiness and who has very little agency. I guess you could compare it to the Cinderella story, where Cinderella is just trying to survive, maybe go to a ball, but she’s not really trying to bring down her stepmother. It’s the stepmother who ends up making herself look bad to the prince.

I’ve been trying to think of ways to pull off this kind of story in today’s market because it really is so fun when the villains defeat themselves. It’s also reassuring, serving as a sign that evil doesn’t pay and that it will cause its own downfall. That doesn’t mean things are easy for the hero. They can only win by not giving in or giving up, and they may go through some tough stuff along the way. I wonder if you could make the hero fail, but then the bad guys are still defeated because they brought it upon themselves.

I think there may be a disconnect between what people want to read and what editors like. I’m sure that reading tons of manuscripts of varying quality skews your tastes. You’d be drawn to things that make you sit up and take notice, that are more intense. Quieter books don’t stand out so easily unless they have something else going for them.


The Process: Research

Here’s another post about my writing process. Previously, I talked about how I decided I wanted to try writing a “world” series, which would involve a number of semi-standalone stories set in the same world.

If you’re writing a “world” story, though, you need to have a good world, a place where lots of interesting things can happen. Most of my books have involved a ready-made world. There was the New York of Enchanted, Inc., which was the real world with a magical layer added, so it was obvious what I needed to research. I just needed to figure out the magical stuff, and that’s all made up. For the Rebels books, I was using the Gilded Age New York, and I needed to figure out my alternative history and what adding the magic and steampunk touches would involve, but it was still obvious what I needed to research.

For this new thing, I wanted to do a more traditional secondary-world fantasy, so I wasn’t sure what I needed to research. I had a vague idea of what the world would need to be like to tell some of the stories I wanted to tell, and I knew some things that needed to exist in this world, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure. So I took the things I knew needed to be there and started my research reading.

I have two kinds of research when I’m writing a book, idea research and detail research. The idea research comes in the planning stage, when I’m looking for ideas of what might go into the book. Even when I’m making things up, I like to ground my books in some kind of reality. I think that gives them that sense that this could all be real. With a secondary world, it’s about plausibility. I like finding fun little details in the real world and spinning off of them. This kind of research is mostly about reading a bunch of stuff to fill up my brain, and then my brain will digest it all, synthesize it, and create something out of those raw materials. You may not recognize any of the source material in the finished product. It’s like the ore going into the smelter to create iron and steel, which is then made into a washing machine or a car. You can’t see the car in the ore, but you can’t make a car without it.

The detail research comes when I’m actually writing and I need some particular fact to make sure the story works properly. In my previous books set in real places, that usually means a lot of maps and things like “when was this building built?” I have no idea how it will work in an imaginary world, since no one will be able to say “Aha! There’s no bus route serving that location!”

For a couple of years now, I’ve been doing this idea research reading. I started broad, then found a couple of details that intrigued me, so I narrowed in on those topics. Along the way, the world gradually began forming in my head, which gave me more ideas for how the stories might work, which gave me more topics to read about. There have been a lot of branches and rabbit trails along the way — ooh, I could use this, but then I’ll need to know more about that and that. I have about three and a half spiral notebooks full of notes I’ve scribbled down when I’ve found something I think I might use. I’ve learned a lot about a weird variety of subjects.

Now I’ve decided that I’ve done enough reading and it’s time to start putting it all together. I’ve been rereading my research notes and jotting down notes about what might go into my world and how I might use this information. It’s interesting seeing some of the things I was researching at the beginning before I’d narrowed in on a particular place and time I wanted to work with, and I can see the point when I found something that made me decide what the basis of my world would be. There was a very clear moment of “okay, this is what I’m basing this place on.” This process is probably going to continue for a few more days. It took me a day’s work to get through one of the notebooks.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching documentaries on these subjects. That’s a good way to get mental images for settings and clothing. The fun thing about a secondary world is that I can pick and choose from the real world and also make things up. If I like the women’s clothes from one period and men’s clothes from another, I can do that. Or if I like parts of the clothes but dislike other parts and the hairstyles, I can do that, too. But that means looking for a variety of sources to decide what I’m going to use and then get the images settled in my head so I can describe them in words.