The Process – Character Sheets

The first thing you might notice about this post is that I specifically called it “Character Sheets” and not “Characters” or “Characterisation”. Here we’re still talking about the outlining/planning phase of a novel, following on from the last Process post. I’m going to explain my process for fleshing out a character, but obviously these characters will grow, change, and evolve throughout the process of writing the book. One day I’ll probably try and talk about that process, but it’s much more organic/instinctual than this first stage, so we’ll just have to wait and see. (If nothing else, I could certainly provide examples of how some of my characters were utterly changed in the process of writing a book – for instance, there are 2 big examples of this in Repo Virtual.)

To start with, I will just say that I first put these character sheets together after trawling through Chuck Wendig’s blog for writing advice. I would link to the individual posts in question, except this was approximately 4 years ago (in the lead-up to writing Killing Gravity, actually), so I’ve lost the specific links. But, just to be clear – this is me distilling some advice that came from Chuck Wendig. If you ever need more writing advice than the (admittedly rare) advice I give here, Chuck’s blog should be your first port of call. Also, because I pieced my character sheet together from 2 or 3 of Chuck’s blog posts, it might seem like some sections overlap and/or are redundant. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but I find the overlapping can help. It might help you realise that the character is particularly one-minded, or it might help you realise that the character has multiple different fears/goals/whatevers going on at once. The redundancies are deliberate, and occasionally useful. (But, as ever with writing advice, YMMV. Feel free to alter the character sheet to suit your own style/needs).

As I said up top, we’re still in the planning phases of the novel when we begin putting these character sheets together. At this point you should know how many characters are in your story, and have a vague idea of what they need to do/how they need to interact with your main character. This early on, it could be easy to see them as puzzle pieces (with the plot/story being the puzzle you’re trying to solve), so with the character sheets we’re trying to learn more about these characters, flesh them out, and let them become real people (for whatever value of “real” you want/are able to apply to them).

Character Sheet

The character sheet is basically just a list of questions that will help you to think about who these people both in relation to the story you’re trying to tell and external to it. Some of your answers will prove important and enlightening, and will almost certainly end up becoming focal in your story, other answers will never make it onto the page, but will help you to think about these characters as real people.

Let’s begin.

0. Initial Log-Line

I call this one number 0, because I don’t always use it. The idea here is to write a very brief log-line for the character. Think of this as the back cover blurb or film trailer narration of this character’s story. This is always going to be easiest/most obvious for your protagonist/s. For this reason I recommend starting with your biggest characters and making your way down. (You’ll probably want to do a character sheet for every main and secondary character. You can skip the tertiary characters though – the ones who only appear in a scene and don’t have an arc.)

Example from Repo Virtual: JD hustles with the best of them, taking any work he can to help support his mother. Working as a repo man, JD repossesses rare loot in the game worlds and expensive belongings in the real. But when he takes a job that’s too good to be true, he finds himself in possession of the world’s first true strong AI… and a target for corporate and terrorist groups that seek to use the AI for their own ends.

1. What do they want?
2. What do they need?

(Yes, I’m going to use singular they. Deal with it. If you’re at this blog you should already know I’m all about the singular they.)

I’m pairing these two together, because they can interact with each other in interesting ways. Sometimes what the character wants will parallel with what they need, other times the two will stand at opposition. Sometimes it will be what the character wants that drives them through the story, and not what they need, other times vice versa.

For example, maybe your character wants to achieve world domination, so what they need to do is distract the other characters long enough for their plan to come to fruition. World domination is the bigger desire, but I wouldn’t call it a need.

Another character might need to find a cure for the nanomachine virus that’s slowly tearing apart their mother’s body, but all they want is to be able to stop, relax, and drink a cup of tea. The cure is the need that will drive them forward, but the desire for rest could throw an interesting monkey wrench into the works.

3. What do they fear?

This doesn’t have to be the character’s “greatest fear”, or something obvious like heights, spiders, or clowns. It can be that, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, I don’t necessarily have one of those big fears, but I sure as hell have a bunch of weird, subtle fears and other psychological quirks.

So someone might fear leaving or losing their children. This seems obvious. But someone else might fear disappointing their children if they return home without enough food/money/whatever, and so they’ll stay away from their children for longer.

Someone might fear going bald. Someone might fear their boss. Someone might fear fucking up – someone might fear fucking up so badly that they never try in the first place and are thus a complete fuck up.

What I’m trying to say here is: think beyond the obvious phobias and use this as an opportunity to delve into the psychology of your characters.

4. Win/Lose/Draw

Simply: what are the win, lose, and draw conditions for this character?

This is one of those sections that can seem redundant. If you already know what the characters wants and needs, then you already have a good idea of what their Win and Lose look like. So, if you’re talking about your main protagonist, the most interesting part will probably be the Draw – what concessions are they willing to make if they can’t Win, but refuse to Lose? Or, if you’re talking about side characters or villains, the Lose condition might be their fate if they’re standing in the way of your hero. Consider this brainstorming for how your characters might end up at the closing of your story.

5. Goals & Barriers

What are the character’s goals, and what barriers stand in their way?

Again, the goals part of this can seem obvious – it’s going to be their Win condition, and it’s probably going to be their need or want. Where it gets interesting is when you start to consider the barriers that stand in their way. This could be mundane, or as weird as you want to make it. You’ll probably get the most bang for your buck if the barrier to one character’s goal is something a different character does to achieve their goal. Tension between characters is conflict, and conflict is what fuels great storytelling.

6. What choices must they make?

This one can be really interesting. Every character in your story needs to make decisions – whether that’s the initial decision that gets them wrapped up in the happenings of the story, or a bad decision that puts everyone in danger, or a tough decision at the end of the story to sacrifice something in order to save something bigger. Depending on the character they might have difficult decisions to make the whole way through the plot, or for a smaller character they might only get one. Either way though, if a character isn’t making a decision, then they’re probably being dragged along by the plot, which can feel really unsatisfying to a reader.

7. Character’s Problem
8. Character’s Solution

This is the bit where I’m going to start paraphrasing Chuck, because he already distilled these ideas down really well, and I found them super useful.

The Character’s Problem is why they find themselves in the story. For example, John McClane’s problem isn’t the terrorists, it’s his failing marriage. Without that failing marriage, he wouldn’t be in LA trying to patch things up with his wife, and he wouldn’t get caught up in the whole situation. The terrorists aren’t a character’s problem, they’re a plot problem.

The Character’s Solution is not your solution. It’s how the character thinks they’re going to solve their problem. Hint: The character can be wrong about their solution. In the gap between the Problem and the Solution is where the conflict lives. And what did I say about conflict before?

9. Limitations
10. Complications

More pure, uncut Chuck. Limitations are internal to the character – a character trait or personal flaw that might help or hinder them (whether or not this trait appears to be positive). Complications are external.

I was going to try and keep rehashing, but instead I spent a couple of minutes looking through the Terrible Minds archive, and found the post. (This is definitely one of the two or three posts I originally used, so you’ll likely find value in reading through it.)

To quote:

A limitation is generally internal — meaning, it’s something within the character that exists as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their problem/solution dichotomy (which we could ostensibly call “the mission”).

Remember how I was talking about Dexter’s “code of honor?” I consider this a limitation to his character — we the audience would perceive that as a strength but to Dexter, it’s also a limitation. It puts a limit on his role as a serial killer and thus creates not only a deeper character, but also offers new plot angles and opportunities for tension.

Limitations are traits of the character’s that get in her way — they might be flaws or frailties but they can just as easily be positive traits that make trouble for the character and the plot.

Complications tend to be external — they are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be more character-based or more plot-based depending on which aspect of the story you’re working. John McClane’s job is a character complication — he’s married more to the job than he is to his wife, which is what leads to the problem, which demands a solution, which opens the door for conflict. And the conflict is further complicated by his intensely cop-flavored demeanor, because he just can’t let this thing go. He throws himself into danger again and again not just because his wife is in the building, but because this is who he is. Shoeless and largely alone, all he is is pure, unmitigated yippie-kay-ay cowboy copper.

(And of course the rub is, a character’s limitations and complications are also the things that may help them succeed in their mission even while still causing them grave disorder.)

11. Physical description

We keep this at the end, because now that you have a good idea of who this person is, you can think about what they look like. Don’t go with your default – think about who they are, and think about how different physical characteristics can reinforce, counter, or add nuance to who they are as a character. If your default, or your first-instinct, is white, cis-male, and able-bodied, ask yourself if they really need to be that, or could your work be improved by diverging from the first thing your brain reaches for? But, also remain sensitive to the real people who could be affected by your depiction of a character who might be outside your own experience. If you write a non-white character that is steeped in harmful stereotypes, then you’re really not doing anyone any favours. (For more on this, check out Writing the Other. If I lived in North America I would certainly look to get involved in some of their workshops, but if nothing else the WtO ebook is a great starting point.)

As an aside: you should be thinking about diversity before you get to this point, but this is a good place to solidify your thoughts. Also, remember, you can change things as you go! The longer you wait, the more revising it will take to get an altered character to a point where they feel natural, but if it’s going to make for a better character or story, it’ll be worth the effort.

12. Revised log-line.

The idea here is that you can re-write your initial log-line now that you have a better idea about the character. After everything you’ve done to develop them into a person, how does this description change? While I often skip the initial log-line, this one is too useful to skip.

A good way to think about this is to write the blurb or the film trailer narration for the story that this person is the hero of – even, or especially, if this character isn’t your main character. What story do they think they’re in, and how can you and your protagonist fuck that up for them?

So there you go – a (long-ish) distillation of some Wendig Wisdom (you can have that for free, Chuck). Sure, I’ve published a couple of books, but to get to the point where I could write something good enough to find publication, I had to learn from somewhere. If you want to take your writing seriously, you should be reading a lot, but also don’t be afraid to buy some writing books, or delve into a blog like Chuck’s. There’s no shame in needing help. And there’s also no shame in taking only the advice you need and jettisoning the rest. It’s your writing, your practice, your creativity. Do what you need to build it and maintain it.

The Process – Outlining

Recently I’ve been thinking about writing the first draft of my next project long-hand. The quote from Joe Hill at the bottom of this post put the idea in my head, and it was reinforced when Austin (of Oh Nothing Press and the Nothing Here Newsletter) told me about how much he’s enjoying the process of hand-writing the Zero Draft of his next project.

I’ve hand-written long-form work before. My first novel (a middle grade book inspired by The Invisibles, but which ended up looking more like Harry Potter by way of William S. Burroughs) was written by hand, and that came to around 50,000 words. But if I do it right, my next book will be closer to 90k. That is a lot of notebook pages, a lot of hand cramps.

But there’s definitely merit to it. You do feel freer working by hand, you can add notes and comments and all the rest into the margins of your page which just works and feels better than using comments in MS Word. The main place where it falls apart though, is in moving text around. Say you write a paragraph, and then decide you actually want to shift that around? It’s possible, but in my experience it means a lot of long arrows scratched into page margins, and much flipping between pages when it comes time to type it all up.

So, while I’m still not sure about hand-writing the draft, one thing I am all about is outlining by hand.

Because when you’re in the outlining phase of a project is when you are (and need to feel) freest. (Damn, that word looks weird, doesn’t it?) This is the time in the process when you want to be interrupting yourself, crossing things out, underlining, writing in different colours, adding asterisks and break-out boxes and quotes and ephemera. This is the part in the process when being stuck inside a rigid program is most likely to restrict your thinking and creativity. This is the ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ phase of the process, and by definition that means you need to get messy.

Now I’m going to let you in on a secret – I do all this twice. You see, the messy outlining is great for brainstorming and the aspect of pure creation, but the outline is a document with a very specific purpose. The outline is your blueprint, and a blueprint has no value if you can’t read it. There is nothing worse than knowing you solved a narrative problem already, and being completely unable to find the solution amongst all your inky mess.

So what I do is this: I start writing my outline in my ‘proper’ project notebook, and the moment things start to get vague – the moment a word like “somehow” creeps into my head – I put the ‘proper’ notebook aside and pick up a scratchpad. This is where the real mess happens, this is the land of chicken scratch handwriting, crossed out words and paragraphs, underlining, asterisking, and an almost conversational back-and-forth that would possibly sound unhinged if I was doing it out-loud instead of in the privacy of my notebook.

Sidenote: Have you heard of Rubber Duck debugging? Even if you haven’t, it’s something you’ve done; it’s something we all do. When you need help sorting a problem out, sometimes the best thing to do is explain it all to another person. Rubber Duck debugging is when you replace that person with an inanimate object – because most of the time it’s the process of explaining the problem that helps you solve it, rather than any reaction/feedback/help from the person who’s acting as your sounding board. All this is to say that sometimes when I get stuck, I just start automatic writing, having the conversation with myself on the page. It either fixes the problem, or I know I need to let the ideas keep composting before coming back to it later.

Once the free-wheeling mess has helped me get past the block or solve the problem, I write “my findings” into the proper notebook – a clean version of the part that I just hashed out on the page. So for every notebook page, there is probably 1-2 pages of handwritten mess that informed it.

So there you go – a look at part of my process. Let’s call this The Two Notebook Method of brainstorming, outlining, and generally making a mess.

I might make The Process an ongoing (but irregular) series. You’ll get more Process talk on the Nothing Here Newsletter. If you want to know why I call it “The Process”, then you probably want to listen to this episode of Reply All. Part Two of The Process (if and when I get around to writing it up) will cover Character Creation because I have a great little sheet I pieced together from Chuck Wendig’s blog that I’d love to share.

And as a little bonus – here’s the very first page of notes I put together when I started outlining Static Ruin. (To be completely honest, I can’t remember if this was before I after I pitched it to Tor. I always had a vague idea of what the third book would be, so this could have been after the pitch.) You’ll see me brainstorming for titles, and you’ll see a conversation between Mars and her father which never made it into the book.

“Does a star feel guilt for all the worlds it holds in its thrall? Does a supernova feel guilt when it explodes?”

Honestly, if I ever get back to the VoidWitch Universe, I’ll probably resurrect that line.

Serious Writers

A lot of people offer the advice that writers need to write every day. And a lot of people call bullshit on that notion, for a variety of reasons. If you want to know what my biggest pieces of advice are for aspiring writers:

  • Live as cheaply as possible.
  • Work as little as possible.
  • Put the time you saved into writing.

This is what worked for me. It was around two and a half years from the time I decided “I am going to take writing seriously”, cut my work hours back to part-time, and started putting the hours in, to when I signed the book deal for Killing Gravity. Two and a half years. That’s nothing. At the time, it felt like an eternity of constant writing and endless story rejections, but in the grand scheme of things, it is no time at all.

Now, if I wanted to take the above advice and distill it down even further, I would say this:

  • Consciously decide to take your writing seriously.

That’s it. That’s the one piece of advice that works for everyone, because it is different for everyone. I’m not saying “write every day”, I’m saying, make a conscious decision that this is what you want to do with your life and find a way to make it happen. For me that means writing six days a week (and, honestly, Sunday I’m still working on the newsletter and other stuff), but for you it can just mean carving out a few hours a week to dedicate to writing.

I have no kids, and no mortgage, so I can live very cheaply, and I can get away with only working 20ish hours a week (yes, I still work a day job). I also don’t go out much, and I rarely spend money on anything that isn’t a necessity or books (so, just the necessities). This is the life I chose for myself. If you have chosen a different life for yourself, then you will need to figure out your own solution. Only you can know what becoming serious means for you. But I will say this – the most important thing is making that decision. Until you do that, you’ll feel lost. Trust me, I know.

People always say “I want to write…”, “I just can’t find the time to write…”, “I’ve got this idea for a book…”, or whatever, but until you make the decision, it’s only ever going to be this nebulous maybe for a nebulous future that, frankly, you’re never going to reach. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s true. Nobody accidentally stumbles into a successful creative career. (Ok, that one person did, but they’re a once-in-a-generation talent who makes everything they do look effortless, and we hate them.) If you’re not going to take it seriously, then give up. I did this too, and experienced the worst depressive episode of my life. But this was at least instructive. I learned that if I don’t write, I don’t enjoy life. Now if I ever feel like quitting for whatever temporary depressed reason, I can look back at that time and know that I need to press on.

Did I just get real? I think I got real.

So, make that decision, and dedicate what time you can to your craft. I’m not saying you’ll get published, but I’m saying you’ll write, your writing will improve, and that little voice in the back of your head that nags you for not writing will finally, mercifully, shut up. (There will be a whole new host of voices, but I’ll talk about them at some other time.)

Also, tangent: the other non-negotiable thing that writers do (apart from take it seriously), is read. If you come up to me and want to talk about writing and you don’t read, the conversation is over.

Writing is a conversation. It’s a conversation between the voices in your head, it’s a conversation between you and the reader, and it’s a conversation between your work and the stories and authors that inspired it (and if you’re lucky, it’s a conversation between your work and the stories and authors it will inspire). If you’re not reading, then you’re the arsehole at the party who loudly talks over everyone else without listening. Don’t be that arsehole.

If you think you don’t have time, listen to audiobooks on your commute, or at your job. Read novellas – they’re short enough that you can read one in a day. If you want to write short stories, read short stories. If you want to write comics, read comics. Pay attention to what works, and try and figure out why.

Anyway. When I first came here to write this, I was planning on referring to this post that I came across thanks to Ryan K. Lindsay. Go read it, there’s plenty of interesting stuff there.

Turkey City Lexicon

It’s been a while since I did a writing advice post, and I just came across this post via Cat Rambo’s twitter feed. The Turkey City Lexicon is a collection of terms that help define some common pitfalls in science fiction, as seen and defined by a number of SF voices, including some of those who were integral to the creation of the cyberpunk subgenre.

Sadly, most (if not all) of these pitfalls are still common in SF today, so it’s worth reading to see where you might be able to tighten up your prose.

And just to prove I have some ability for self-criticism, here are some I know slip into my work (hopefully most of it is stamped out before publication, but maybe not:

“Burly Detective” Syndrome
This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

Not Simultaneous
The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

“Said” Bookism
An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Tom Swifty
An unseemly compulsion to follow the word “said” with a colorful adverb, as in “‘We’d better hurry,’ Tom said swiftly.” This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without a clutter of adverbial props.

Check out the full list here, along with introductions from both Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling.

China Miéville’s Structure

If you’ve seen a photo of China Miéville, you know he’s a structurally significant human. I mean, just look at him. Oh wait, he’s talking about novel structure? I guess that’s relevant.

I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?

“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.

And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?

Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.

If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen. The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”

Via this link right here.

Slush Wisdom

Aidan Doyle has posted a great piece over at Medium, What I’ve Learned From Slush Reading at PodCastle, which as well as containing some great advice for submitting to PodCastle in particular and to other venues in general, it also contains links to some other fantastic articles, and is well worth checking out.

Aidan links to Confessions of a Slush Reader over at Shimmer which contains a lot of advice for writing a story too compelling for a slush reader to pass on with examples of story foibles and suggestions for how to avoid them.

He also links to Zen and the Art of Short Story Titling by John Joseph Adams, which has some tips for writers who – like me – struggle with finding the perfect title for a story… or even just a good one.

Check those links out, and find Aidan on twitter right here.

Editorial

I swear I’m not actively trying to talk about my upcoming book with every post, but seeing as it is my first book, this whole experience is one of many firsts. So today I want to talk about editorial, and why it might be tough, but very, very necessary.

Like I said, this is my first book, so I’m going to assume (perhaps wrongly?) that my experience is more-or-less the norm, and tell you about how it has all been unfolding for me, so if/when you find yourself in the same position, you know what to expect.

Step 1: Editorial Letter

Now, I’m not sure why it’s called an ‘Editorial Letter’, or even if that’s an industry-wide term, but it is far less formal than it sounds. It’s basically just addresses issues in your manuscript in a  loose, big-picture kind of way. This is where your editor says “Your book is great, but this, this, and that don’t quite work as well as the rest.”

Chances are, the things that your editor points out are likely things that you weren’t 100% sure on yourself, but after beating your head against the keyboard on a number of rewrites, you simply couldn’t come up with a better way to to do it. But guess what? Now you have an editor on your side, and they’ve already agreed to publish your book, so if they want it to be the best book it can be when it comes to market, they HAVE TO HELP YOU FIX IT.

This editor is likely working with you because something in your manuscript spoke to them, because they love it, because they believe in it, or some combination of those things. They also have likely edited (or at least read in slush) any number of manuscripts, so you can trust that they’re going to have a fine eye for picking out issues in your manuscript. They may also be accomplished writers themselves. Either way, trust that they know what they’re talking about.

When it comes to fixes, they might have ideas that completely resonate, and which you can immediately see and grasp, and which set your mind spinning with all the ways you’re going to incorporate these changes, or they might have ideas that don’t sit quite right with you. But, hey, this is a dialogue, so if it’s the latter, talk about it. Try and figure out why they’ve made those suggestions so you can come up with your own solutions that answer the same questions.

(Or, in other words, don’t be stubborn, don’t be a dick [obviously], don’t try and argue with them when they want to kill your darlings [they need to die for a reason], and realise that just because they want to publish your manuscript it doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.)

Anyway, after you’ve fixed those bigger-picture issues and you’re both happy with the changes, it’s time to move on to…

Step 2: Line-Edits

For some reason, this step caused my anxiety to peak. Personally, feedback from friends is easy, no matter how thoroughly it tears my work apart, because I know them, I understand their tone and exactly where they’re coming from. When it comes to people I know less-well however – like an editor I’ve only met in person a couple of times, or absolute strangers on a critiquing website – the criticisms get right under my skin for some reason.

I realise this is just down to me and my mind-spiders, so perhaps none of this is relevant for you, Miss No-Mental-Illness-For-Me, but hey, I’m talking about my experience. It’s not that my (brilliant) editor (Carl Engle-Laird) was harsh or anything like that – again, this was totally about me, not the experience – but going through the line edits was almost paralysing. I’d be able to spend two (distracted, anxious) hours at it, and then need to stop. By day three I’d convinced myself that the manuscript was so shit the only reason they decided to publish it was because it was somehow the least shit out of the submissions they received and they’d taken pity on me. Needless to say, that was a dark day. Thankfully, by day five, nearing the end of the manuscript, I’d completely turned a corner on the line-edit process. I’d come out the other side and realised all the things that would have been obvious if it weren’t for the anxiety:

  • It’s a good manuscript.
  • It’s not shit.
  • The line-edits were to make it sing, not to tell me that I’m a bad writer and I should feel bad.
  • The process had made the manuscript that much better.

Seriously, I was so happy with the manuscript at the end of that first run-through that I was slightly embarrassed that an earlier draft had gone out to other authors in the hopes of getting blurbed. The word I’ve been using to describe the effect of the edits is ‘elevated’ – it pointed inconsistencies (or things that weren’t necessarily inconsistent, but which needed clarity), and completely elevated the prose of the book by pointing out over-used verb forms and sentence styles, repeated words and phrases, and probably other things I’m forgetting.

I realise that when it comes out, Killing Gravity is still not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m not satisfied that it is a damn fine cup all the same.

You’ll go back and forth a couple of times with the colours of Track Changes scarring your manuscript until you’re done. Up next is…

Step 3: Copy-Editing

Which is the step I’m waiting on now, so I can’t actually tell you much about it. Though I’m assuming it will be someone with extremely technical knowledge of the English language telling me all the things I did wrong and telling me that all my dumb, made-up sci-fi words are entirely too-dumb to see print. But hey, we’ll see, and if the process is interesting enough, maybe I’ll write about that too.

An Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories

If you haven’t already read Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, I cannot recommend those books enough. The series is part Lovecraft, part Stalker, part X-Files, part climate-change polemic, yet completely original. I finished Annihilation in a single night, and read the other two within the week. One day I hope to be able to write a series (or even a book) that is as masterfully-written, intriguing, and harrowing as the Area X books.

But shilling for Mr VanderMeer isn’t why I’m posting today – I’m here to share this post of his, which went up a few days ago at Electric Lit: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories.

I thought it would be useful to take some very dramatic job that a character has — in this case, a dragon slayer– and demonstrate how it is that the average day of a dragon slayer is no different than the average day of an insurance salesman, in terms of not necessarily being of any interest to a reader.

When you’re first thinking about story and scenes, you have to choose what to dramatize, and what you won’t.

Lots of great advice and helpful diagrams at the link.

Work Harder

You may have heard about my good friend* Hugh Howey, who is one of those recent few writers who have turned eyeballs on self-published and serialised fiction into success and book deals and bathtubs full of whiskey (but not whiskey that was made in a bathtub, because that would be gross). Anyway, he’s posted some advice, and goddamn if some of it doesn’t sound damn fine. Choice cuts pasted below.

*I’ve never met the man and he has no idea who I am.

So here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period. Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.

[…]

1) Make a long-term plan. My plan was to write two novels a year for ten years before I ascertained whether or not I had a chance of making this work. You don’t get into the NBA without at least ten years of shooting drills and pickup games. If you set a longterm plan like this, and stick with it, you will succeed. Because you’ll find yourself in the top 0.1% of aspiring writers. 99.9% of your colleagues will drop out before they finish their plan. But you’ll outwork them. And yes, even if a thousand of you read this blog post, and all thousand of you implement the plan, all thousand of you will earn a living with your writing, leaving not much room for everyone else. Tough shit. There are more seats on this bus than there are people willing to put in what it takes to make it. Keep in mind that the videogame and TV busses are packed. We can lure more and more of them over if you implement your plan. And that plan all starts with:2) Reading. I assume this is a given, but you never know. I’ve met people who don’t read at all but want to become writers because they think it sounds like an easy gig. The underwear! The mumbling! The Googling! The thing about writing that’s different than playing a guitar for a living, or acting on stage, or painting, is that we all do some writing. In fact, we do a lot of writing. We write emails. Blog posts. Facebook updates. A novel is just more of that, right? Wrong. The writing is the easy bit compared to the crafting of engaging plots and characters. There are some things you only gain through absorption. Read a lot, read the greats, and read outside your comfort zone. Want to write science fiction? Read crime thrillers and romance novels. Learn how to unspool a mystery and how to inject love into your stories.

[…]4) Daydream. Most of the writing takes place away from the keyboard. I did most of my writing as a yacht captain, roofer, and bookseller. I also got in the habit of driving with the radio off, in silence, with just my thoughts. Tune out the distractions and live in the world of your creation. Know your characters, your plot, all the twists, the larger world, before you start writing. And then keep most of that shit to yourself. The reader doesn’t care. Most of what you think is interesting is boring. Your novel is going to be a greatest hits collection, every one of your best ideas packed into a single volume. Hold nothing back. You’ll have more great ideas.

5) Learn to fail. Your first book will not be your best. The elation of completing that first draft is awesome; soak that up; remember it; get addicted to it. Because you’ll want to do this ten or twenty times before you write your best work. We’ll get to the craft stuff in a bit, but for now, just know that you should revise, revise, revise, edit, publish, and then get started on your next book. This was the best thing I ever did: I didn’t waste time promoting my works until they were already selling. I kept writing. So when things did heat up, I had seven or eight works out there. All those works are brand new as long as they stay undiscovered. You aren’t in a rush. Remember the plan.

Learning to fail also includes learning to write like crap and not care. Push through. We all write like crap, some of us by the steaming, fly-buzzing bucketload. The reader will never see it. You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.

[…]
6) Plot trumps prose. The thing you absolutely should not do if you want to make a living as a writer is go to school to learn how to write. MFA programs churn out editors and waiters. Sure, you can craft a perfect sentence, but you’ve got nothing to write about, because you’ve been in school your whole life. Readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui. Hell, they’ll even take the horrible delivery of a great story over the absolute perfection of dullness. Some of the bestselling novels of my lifetime have been lampooned for the writing style therein. Granted, if you can do both, please do. But first learn to craft a story and tell it in the clearest manner possible. That means studying story. Read Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces ($13 for the hardback!). Watch great films and TV shows to see how they pull it off. Read what’s selling and ask yourself why it’s selling.

[…]
9) Write Great Shit. This seems obvious, right? But here is what separates failed works from those that succeed. I think a lot of craft writing advice is outdated. Times are different. Attention spans are shorter. You can coax a reader along, and give them a slow build, but only if you hook them first. So start your story at the most tension-filled moment, even if that’s in the middle or at the end. Introduce a likable, flawed character in the first paragraph. In that same paragraph, name the stakes. It used to be that we had to distill our novel down to an elevator pitch for prospective agents. Now we need to do the same for readers, and your book should open that way.

[…]

10) Find your voice. I put this last because it’s the hardest, will take the longest, but may be the most important thing you ever do as a writer. What the hell is your voice? It’s how you write when you aren’t aware that you’re writing. Everything else you do is mimicry. Self-awareness is the enemy of voice. When you fire off an email to your mom or best friend, you are writing in your voice. When you blog, you will begin to find your voice. Your voice will change the more you read and the more you write. That’s normal. It’s still your voice.

Why is voice important? Not because it will land you an agent. Or because your works will win literary awards. No, screw that. Your voice is important because you can’t enter a flow state without it. When you find your voice, your fingers won’t be able to keep up with your writing. You won’t stumble. You won’t flail. You won’t sit there wondering what the next best word is. You’ll have an idea or a concept, a visual image, a conversation that you want to convey, and you’ll know immediately how to convey it.

Your voice will get easier to find the broader your vocabulary becomes. You’ll have more pieces to slot into the jigsaw puzzle of your prose. Your voice will improve as you study your own writing to see what works and what doesn’t. My voice is sing-song. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets and read so much iambic pentameter that I can’t help but have my syllabic stresses rise and fall to a beat. I like the way it feels. It feels like me. I also discovered that I love run-on sentences, with lots of comma clauses, but only if I intersperse those sentences with a bunch of choppy, short, incomplete clauses. My mother pointed this out to me. She was right. Nailed it. And I learned to embrace this.

Getting comfortable with your voice means becoming less self-conscious about your writing. When this happens, you can tell the story in your mind without getting in your own way. Stop reading what you’re writing as you write it. See the world in your head. Visualize it. Smell it. Hear it. Sprinkle in details from the periphery of your character’s senses. Make the world real. Then just tell it as naturally as you can. I promise this will go better than trying to impress yourself or anyone else. I promise.

There’s plenty I didn’t bother to copy, so go have a look at the whole thing yourself. The only thing I’d add based on my own experience – self-care. Look after yourself. Find out what your limits are and don’t push yourself beyond them. Burning out isn’t fun. Stress sucks. Mental health issues are real issues that you need to be wary of and consider when you’re chaining yourself to the keyboard.

And now, speaking of, this novel isn’t going to edit itself.

Advice from Ursula Le Guin

I came across this post at openculture and thought I might share it here with you all. There’s more at the link (and more at a links at the link), but here are the three bits that grabbed me the most:

  • The problem of exposition:

Most of us, Le Guin writes, “Are telling ourselves backstory and other information, which the reader won’t actually need to know when reading it.”

To avoid the “Expository Lump or the Infodump,” as she calls it, Le Guin advises the writer to “decide—or find out when revising—whether the information is actually necessary. If not, don’t bother. If so, figure out how to work it in as a functional, forward-moving element of the story… giving information indirectly, by hint and suggestion.”

 

  • The problem of description:

It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.

  • The problem of dialogue:

All I can recommend is to read/speak your dialogue aloud. Not whispering, not muttering, OUT LOUD. (Virginia Woolf used to try out her dialogue in the bathtub, which greatly entertained the cook downstairs.) This will help show you what’s fakey, hokey, bookish — it just won’t read right out loud. Fix it till it does. Speaking it may help you to vary the speech mannerisms to suit the character. And probably will cause you to cut a lot. Good! Many contemporary novels are so dialogue-heavy they seem all quotation marks — disembodied voices yaddering on in a void.