People, Plots, or Planets?

Blessed be, all! I hope your week has been going well! Mine’s been a little rocky, but I’m keeping with it. My draft is lining up exactly as I want it to, which hopefully bodes well for the remainder of this Camp NaNo session. We’ll see how it all falls out!

What I wanted to talk about this week, though, was not so much different kinds of stories as different kinds of authors. Which, I suppose, by extension also extends into the kind of readers one can come across and the kinds of books they’ll enjoy. But for my part, I’m more interested in what it looks like from this side of the screen at the moment.

Understanding what gets you excited to write a story–what you’re telling this particular tale for–I feel is an important step in understanding your writing process and the kind of books you’ll enjoy writing. It also gives you an idea of the kind of problems that you might encounter. Let’s have a look!

  1. The Worldbuilder- These authors love intricate, detailed settings. Whether it’s a fantasy, a sci-fi, a long-ago time in history, or just the next block over, the point of the story is to show off the world. What gets these writers from beginning to end is the where.
    The good news is that they tend to craft immersive settings that feel as though you could reach out and touch them. The bad news is that sometimes it feels as though nothing happens in that beautiful living landscape. They can also come across as empty, being sparsely populated by characters.
    If you find yourself in one of these two pitfalls, try thinking of your world as a beautiful work of art in the Louvre. A painting needs an audience to give it meaning. People your world with characters as fully-realized and detailed as your setting and watch it come to life!
  2. The Schemer- These fine folks are more interested in the goings-on in the world. Whether an epic journey, a thrilling heist, or a forbidden romance, what gets these writers going is the what.
    To be fair, the first thing a person usually asks about a story–be it a play or a book or a movie–is, “What happens?” This puts the schemer at an automatic advantage since they’re to be focused on honing exactly that. The bad news is that this can mean the characters fall into flat stereotypes or seem to be slaves to the overarching plot. It can also mean that the setting isn’t fully immersive.
    For both of these issues, the fix is the same. Get more fully into the character’s mindsets. Let them tell you about the world, and allow their thoughts and motivations to add a level of complexity to your plot.
  3. The People-Watcher- This one is definitely my alley. We’re the ones that tend to be in it for the characters. Their quirks, their voice, the things they want and the things they fear. The ones we love and the ones we hate–they’re all our bread and butter.
    The good news is this makes for characters that read as if they could actually exist. They move on the page, and readers love them or love to hate them. The bad news is it can lend itself to stories about great people doing nothing or living in a whitespace world.
    The best solution I have found is to give my characters more obstacles. Be it other characters at cross-motives, a time crunch, or the environment itself. All of the above help my cast not exist in a vacuum while pursuing their goals.
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Plotter, Pantser, Whatever.

Blessed be, all! We’re underway at Camp NaNo, and things so far are going swimmingly in the draft. I still have about thirty days to finish the story or at least get 80k of it done, and I’m on track for that currently.

Today’s topic comes from one of my writing kiddos. She’s working her way through Stephen King’s On Writing again, and it occurred to her that, even though she loves this book and finds that it, in general, has good advice, she disagrees with his writing method. Stephen King is a hardcore pantser. He starts with a question or a concept (What would happen if a mother and son were trapped in their car by a rabid dog with no help in sight?) and dives directly into the draft with no further development or planning.

Rachel cannot do that. She needs a structure, a plan, which King calls stifling to the creative process. For her, though, it’s the process of making the plan that helps the story feel alive. It helps her create a roadmap for the world and flesh out the characters, their goals, and their relationships.

For myself, I fall somewhere in between. I like to thoroughly build out my characters and my world before I start, but I prefer to only have the basic gist of the flow of the plot while still leaving room for my characters to surprise me. Too much structure and I feel boxed in or bored. Too little and I find myself paralyzed by just how many roads I could take.

Most writers, I think, are some combination of plotting and pantsing. It’s also important to note that some will vary by the project. I have heard of stories that vehemently defy any attempt to plot them but fall together effortlessly when pantsed. I’ve heard of tangled messes that lay down in neat rows when plotted. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, just what you need as a writer and what works for the particular project in front of you. It’s all a matter of knowing how to narrow down your process to find the way to do this specific story.

Wait For It

Blessed be, all! Sit down with me a moment; I want to talk about something that’s near and dear to me right now. Or maybe a couple things. The first of which is the musical Hamilton, which I mentioned back in this post here. The second is taking the time to do justice to the story while also caring for yourself.

But wait! Doesn’t being a writer mean working even when you don’t want to? Even when the inspiration isn’t there or when you’re convinced the work is terrible? Even when you’re tired, even when you don’t have the time? Don’t you have to Write Anyway and keep your hands on the keyboard and all those platitudes?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer, though, is yes, but.

What brings this about is this: an agency that I follow obsessively is going to be holding a Twitter pitch party within the next month. Two of my top-choice pie-in-the-sky dream agents will be participating. And me? I’ll be playing Cinderella, stuck home from the ball.

The reasons I came to this decision are threefold. First, both of the two stories that I’d like to query are in the middle of intensive revisions, and I don’t feel that a month is adequate time to get either of them in shipshape. Second, I know that the month of June is going to be an extraordinarily busy one for me, and I don’t need the added stress of a deadline contributing to my load.

The third reason–and the one I want to focus on–is that you only get one shot to make a killer first impression. Just like with the query letter, you want your manuscript to showcase the best of your ability. While you may be eager to start querying or pitching your project right out of the gate, it’s better to sit back, let it cool, take another look, and then send it out when you’re sure it’s the best you can do.

You’d be surprised just how much your craft will improve between one draft and the next. Things that you’d never thought of before will suddenly be obvious; moments that you thought were beautifully rendered will feel flat. Holding back for just a minute gives you a chance to fix those things instead of realizing after you’ve gotten a rejection from your dream agent that, oh. That wasn’t my best work, actually. And being unable to take it back.

I speak from experience on this. The two top-choice agents I mentioned above have both seen an early draft of my vampire history. One of those being an incredibly premature draft with flat writing, an overdone opening, and–being frank–tons of plotholes that I was too underdeveloped as a writer to notice. Even after extensive rewrites, I will probably never get those chances back again. You can read Danielle Burby’s (one of the agents in question) thoughts on first impressions and if your manuscript is ready here.

All of this brings me back to Hamilton. I have friends who write, especially among my classmates from grad school, who are routinely selling short stories or talking excitedly about their latest novel’s release date or the agent they just landed. I find myself feeling like Burr in the song “Wait For It,” watching as life passes by and wondering when it will be my turn.

In recent days, though, I’ve decided to embrace the core of the song. I’m working to the best of my ability. I’m getting better every draft, honing my skills all the while. Sooner or later, my opportunity will arrive. All I have to do it wait for it.

Camp NaNo: Hourly Goals!

Blessed be! It’s the first Thursday of April, so I’m working way at Camp NaNo. In a way, this is an update to my monthly goals post in which I said I was aiming to complete fifty thousand words worth of work on my fantasy romance. That was before I realized that the fine folks at NaNo had added an option for this year: an hourly commitment for the month.

I will admit, I was skeptical at first. After all, isn’t the whole point of NaNo to generate as much new material as possible, regardless of quality? And, technically, this is true. But. This is Camp, which, is first of all, a lot more lenient than NaNo proper. Secondly, my thought is that, as long as you are pushing yourself to do more than you thought possible during NaNo time, you’re winning.

Which brings me to the hourly goal. Since I’m working on revisions now, it’s hard to quantify it in terms of word count. I could just count the total words of scenes that I’ve completed, but that feels like cheating. Especially looking forward to when I start getting into the parts of the story that don’t need a lot of surgical overhaul. If all I’m doing is moving punctuation and fixing sentence structure, I don’t feel that I’m really pushing myself the way I need to be doing to make a NaNo worth it.

With all that in mind, I set myself to doing seventy-five hours on my manuscript this month. I’m off to a good start; I should hit twenty or so by the time I end my wording binge tonight. The great part about it is that it lets me engage the perfectionist side of my brain–the part that makes drafting ordinarily a slog since I hate every single thing I type–while still feeling like I’m making progress. It changed my vocabulary from, “It’s been almost a week, and I’ve only written five thousand words,” to “I’ve written a chapter and a half, and it only took me seventeen hours!”

I’ll see how I feel about it at the end of the month but, as of right now, the change of perspective alone is worth it!

Five Things: Determining Your Word Count

Blessed be! Hope everyone’s had a great week so far. Me, I’m knee-deep in making notes on my historical fantasy so that I can go into the next round of edits with a road map. Among the changes I’m looking to make, I’ll be aiming to up the audience from YA to adult fiction. With that comes a ton of considerations, including but not limited to what my upper-end word count limit should be.

Authors, especially those working toward their debut novel, are often told to mind their word count. No more than 100k tends to be the standard advice and, in general, I find that to be pretty sound. But then, I don’t tend to like great gallumping books. I want the story in as lean a presentation as it would suit the story to tell it. But there is much more to it than just that.

This isn’t meant to be a hard and fast breakdown of what your book should be, but a tool by which to evaluate if your novel really needs to break the bank where length is concerned. Let’s have a look!

  1. Mind your genre. Not all genres have the same expectations when it comes to word count. Fantasy and sci-fi tend to be more forgiving of heftier books. Since the author has to build a brand-new world from scratch and immerse the reader in it with only their words, it makes sense. Historicals, too, often run longer than, say, a mystery or a thriller which tend to run lighter and swifter. Look at the books that are debuting in your genre and compare your story to it; that will give you a fair idea of how much leeway readers are prepared to give you.
  2. Check your audience and age group. There will always be exceptions but, in general, the younger the audience, the shorter the book. Consider both your audience’s attention span and possibly their available budget. Longer books tend to cost more to produce; think honestly about if your young adult audience is going to be willing or able to drop more money on your book when there’s a shorter one next to it for half the price.
  3. Consider the story itself. I’m sure you’ve experienced this at some point: you’re reading a book or watching a movie. It comes to a satisfying conclusion, and it’s time to move on to something else. And then you find out there’s another chapter. Or still another scene. Or, worse, a sequel. What? But it was over!
    The thing is, not all books need to be as long as they are. Not all novels need to be series. Heck, not all stories even need to be novels! Some stories just lend themselves to being shorts or novellas, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Tell the story in as few words as will do the plot and characters justice. Don’t try to stretch it out for the purposes of meeting an arbitrary “sweet spot” like word count parameters. When the story is over, let it end.
  4. Look at comparable titles. If books are being released in a similar vein to yours, look at what those books are usually running in terms of length. Read them and compare. How does your manuscript line up in terms of pacing and density? How are the other titles performing relative to each other? You may have to make some adjustments if you find yourself way outside of the norms.
  5. Evaluate your word economy. If you’re still concerned with the length of your manuscript, ask yourself: is there anything you can leave out without negatively affecting your readers’ enjoyment or understanding? Are there characters or scenes you can excise or combine? Is your novel a work of precision?

If at the end of all these things your book still weighs in hefty, it might just be a big book. And that’s all right! If the writing and the story is sound enough, you don’t have anything to fear!

Five Things: When You Break Your Story

Blessed be! I hope everyone’s had a slightly smoother week than I have. It’s been one of those weeks that it seems, if it can happen, it will happen. Leaving aside the mundane so I can talk just about my writing life, my vampire history hit a huge speedbump.

There I was, moving along in my notes at a decent clip, when a terrible realization came crashing down on my head. In one of my climactic moments, one of my favorite scenes in the whole manuscript–indeed one of my favorite things I’ve ever written–I had overlooked something crucial. One small detail that changed the trajectory of the entire rest of the novel. I had broken my story.

I won’t lie. The very first thing I did was panic. I texted my crit partner and whined at my wife about the sheer amount of reworking I would have to do to get my story back in shipshape. It would take so much heavy surgery to fix it, assuming it could even be done without rewriting the entire end of the story. So much for my “quick” editing pass!

The next thing I did, once I’d calmed down, is to start making a plan. With so many drafts and so much work already invested in this story, there was no way I was about to let a bump in the road deter me, no matter how big a bump it was.

So, how did I work through it?

  1. Don’t panic! Okay, this one can’t really be avoided. It’s human nature. So perhaps the better way to say it is this: calm down. Get some distance from the problem for a few minutes. Take a walk or a hot shower. Come back to it with an open mind, ready to look for solutions.
  2. Brainstorm. Start throwing possible fixes out to see what works. Get a second set of eyes or ears on the problem. Especially if you have a beta reader, crit partner, or significant other who’s been helping you with your story. Once you’ve amassed a pile of possibilities, you can start whittling it down to things that will actually work.
    The thing to remember, though, is you aren’t looking for a patch. A quick and easy surface fix is just that: a surface fix. To really heal your plothole, you’ll need to find the solution that gets you down to the root of the problem and address it there. It won’t be easy. But your story needs you to do it.
  3. Build a framework. Now that you know what your solution is, you need to start laying out the plan for how you’re going to get there. If you just jump into the manuscript slashing and stitching, you’ll make just as many problems as you solve. Go through your story with the solution in mind and tag things that will have to move or change. You may find that a lot of the things you already have can be repurposed for use elsewhere. Mark places where you’ll need to write something fresh to bridge gaps or replace cut scenes. This is the part of the process that I’m currently engaging in.
  4. Let it cool. Or marinate. Or percolate. However you’d like to describe it, the result is the same. Put the manuscript away and don’t touch it for at least a week, ideally longer if you have the time to spare. Let it turn over in the back of your mind; you may find details that you missed when you laid out your plan, and your story will thank you for taking the time to let them come to the surface.
  5. Take a deep breath and dive in. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way around this one. It’s time to dig into the dirty work and start with the big changes. Just like we talked about in the surgery part of the editing board series, you need to get the bathtub out of the kitchen. Treating it just like your very first editing pass, make it ugly. Move things around. Rip out the walls according to your blueprints. Make a mess if you must; don’t be afraid to get dirty!
    Slowly, the dust will settle. You can begin to fix things at the scene or sentence level and clean up transitions. And before you know it, you’ll have a beautiful story, much stronger for you taking the time to heal it from the inside out!

Group Dynamics

Blessed be! I’m up to my knees in my vampire history, which means that I’ve got… well. A lot of characters. One thing I’ve noticed, though depending on who’s in the scene, they tend to act completely differently. Some have said this points to inconsistency on the page, but I find quite the opposite. It actually lends a sense of realism and complexity. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Everyone has a history. Each character will bring their affections, grudges, prejudices, and preferences to the table. This might make for rifts or alliances that only appear when certain people are together. Maybe these two really hate each other, but they both hate this third person more. That can create interesting new tensions for you to play with.
  2. Secrets and taboos. There are certain topics that just won’t come up in some characters’ presence. You’ll want to be careful about who knows what, but this is another way to inject some much-needed tension into your group scenes.
  3. People show different sides. Certain people will bring out the best in you or the worst. The sweetest character might just snap. The most prickly jerk may have someone that they care about and show affection to, at least if they’re alone. As you’re playing with the dynamics, pay attention not just to who knows whom but also what sides of themselves they tend to show and when!

Lit Snobs: Judging a Book by its Genre

Blessed be! I survived Valentine’s week (and the chest cold that had me coughing the entire week, though that still lingers). I’m still working on getting my productivity back to where it should be, but I’m being gentle with myself as I recover from both the massive amount of overtime hours and my ill health.

In the meantime! It dawned on me toward the beginning of this month that I’d been a bit of a hypocrite when it came to turning up my nose at books. See, I love YA lit. And I love fantasy. And I love dystopias and fairytale reimaginings, all of which are things that, in my undergraduate program, weren’t considered “real writing.” One of my professors even went so far as to write on my YA fantasy story that I “had good instincts, but [she] wished [I’d] write something worthwhile.” It made me defensive of the stories I adore, perhaps overly so. Any critique of those genres by extension became a critique of both my writing and of me as a person.

So, when I got to my MFA, which encouraged and applauded these sorts of stories, I built something of an echo chamber around myself. My stories were valid! My tastes were valid! The work I did and the novels I loved weren’t of lower quality or lesser merit! And this was a good attitude for me to have. But.

But. I took it too far. Somewhere along the way, I decided that “YA is worthwhile, too!” meant that “Adult fic is universally boring and preachy.” For years, it didn’t matter what you handed me. If it wasn’t YA, I would either not read it or I’d read it grudgingly and use every instance of slow pacing or thematic embellishment to support my prejudices against adult fiction.

I didn’t even realize how deep-set this reaction in me had become until one of my betas and my CP both told me that my vampire history would be better served by treating it as an adult novel. I actively rebelled. I didn’t want to venture out of YA because I had convinced myself that anything else was lacking!

After a long talk with my CP (and a lot of soul-searching) I’ve started trying to deprogram myself. I’ve developed a long list of adult fic recommendations from a group of trusted friends that I’m slowly working my way through, broadening my horizons and undoing a lot of self-brainwashing. I’m rereading my vampire history, as well, looking for places where my blinders-on approach to YA might have hampered the story. I won’t say I agree that the book is best served now by a change of audience, but it certainly won’t hurt to venture outside of my box!

Old Stories; New Beginnings

Blessed be, all! As some of you may know, today is Imbolc, one of the eight Wiccan Sabbats. While I no longer identify as Wiccan, I do still keep loosely to the Wheel of the Year. Imbolc for me is all about new beginnings, cleaning out the old to make room for new growth.

On that note, it’s fitting that I took a fresh look at an old story today. I’ve been actively working on it for five years now, done so many drafts and revisions that I’ve lost count. I think I’m currently on number seven, which is more than I have done on any other WIP. I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve built. But. The more I look at it, the more I can see places where it could be better.

Just today, my critique partner and I started looking at ways to bring some of what I learned in writing the sequel back into the first book. Some of it was obvious: a new motivation for one of my protagonists; a bit of nuance for the other. But now we’re taking this old story and looking at it literally from a new perspective. In the sequel, I introduce two more viewpoints in addition to my two mains. The plan now is to take one of them and run it back through the first book, too. If all goes well, it should be the extra push this story needs!

January Goals: Final Check-In!

Blessed be! Thanks for joining me for month-end! Let’s see how we’re doing so far in 2017!

  1. Notes for Kheras: Done! I finished these about a week ago, so I’ve been making the transition to my note project for February. More on that below!
  2. Touch base with my betas: Done! Now that I’m done working on the Kheras notes, I’ve been able to open the door to discussion on Virtues and gauge interest. Feedback should start flowing in by the end of February or so is my hope. I know one thing: I am never doing a closed-door beta again. I thrive on the interaction!
  3. Finish Transformation by Carol Berg: Done! This one, I accomplished pretty early on in the month, so I’ve moved on to the rest of the trilogy. More details below!
  4. Bonus Goal–Work Every Day: Twenty-six days and going strong! Pat on the back!

Looking ahead to February, now, what’s on the docket?

  1. Writing: Notes for Noble Virtues- The first book of my vampire history is much longer than Kheras’s rough draft, so I’m hoping to get through the first third in the next month. The first half, if I’m aiming for the moon.
  2. Reading: Finish the Rai-Kirah trilogy by Carol Berg- I’m just a few chapters from the end of the second book, REVELATIONLast up will be the finale, RESTORATION
  3. Bonus Goal: Work Every Day- With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, this month promises to be among the busiest of the year. Still, I’m committed to doing something pertaining to my work each and every day.