It’s no secret here on the blog that I’ve written a fair number of books and stories that have all gone into the drawer of practice.
It’s all practice and experience. Sure, I could read craft books but they put me to sleep. (Great cure for insomnia.)
That’s just not how I learn. I learn from practice, from seeing examples in living color (read: television and movies), and from doing.
I’ve written three fantasy novels, one steampunk/fantasy hybrid short story (which I later tried to transform into a novel. Still want to make it work), two romance novels, two romance short stories (one of which I transformed into a novel), and done world-building on another fantasy and on a contemporary adventure novel. I’ve the beginnings of three or four other short stories on my hard drive. Not to mention all the poems.
What’s the point of confessing all this? To say this: For the first time in my short writing life (two years I’ve been going at this in earnest), I feel like I’m finally getting a handle on how I work as a writer and what’s going to help me make a book as strong as possible.
When I set out to world-build and plot my latest WiP (and the second and third books in the trilogy), I knew where I needed to improve off my last attempts at writing a novel. Every word I’ve written has given me experience. Every word has shown me a glimpse of what works and what doesn’t. Every word helped me to develop that eye and intuition for character and plot which are, in my opinion, so necessary for good writing and revising.
It may take 10,000 hours to become a master at something, but perhaps it only takes one 90,000 word novel to flip the switch on a lightbulb in the writer’s mind.
I’ve been reminiscing lately on how I got started on this whole crazy journey. The start of my writing life is a little nebulous in my memory. (A fact which would shock my family. I’m known as the one with a mind like a steel trap.)
Basically, though, this is what I remember:
In ninth grade I was obsessed with a certain boy band. No, I won’t say which. That would date me. I think at around the same time the movie, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron” came out and, well, I’ve always been into horses. (I used to have one but we had to put him down last year.) Somehow I got the idea in my head to write a screenplay for an animated movie about horses. And since the member of said boy band with whom I was most obsessed was also into horses my brain had the casting down to a tee.
I started working on the idea, trying to learn how to write a screenplay, and coveting screen writing software that would automatically format the script properly. (You know, character names in all caps, action tags, to be used sparingly, in brackets, one minute of screen time per page, etcetera.) Boy was that software going to be expensive. And at the time, I of course didn’t have a credit card. (Oh, to return to that time.)
Somewhere along the way between ninth grade and my junior year of high school (in Utah, middle school is 7th, 8th and 9th, while high school is 10th, 11th, 12th), the idea got abandoned. I’m sure somewhere in all the boxes of books and miscellanea at my mom’s house I still have my basic notes that I took on the idea. (Casting alongside notes on who should do the music, since it was going to be classic Disney, singing characters and all.)
Also somewhere in here I was doing a lot of reading. Fantasy mostly. We’re talking my first exposure to Tolkien (junior year); J.K. Rowling, Tamora Pierce, and David Eddings dominated. I know that thought crossed my mind, “I could do this. I could write a fantasy novel.”
I launched into the world-building. My parents had years before bought a large encyclopedia set and it sat on our shelves. I took to thumbing through it for maps and pulling random place names for locations in my fantasy world. This was after I’d hit on the inspiration for my entire plot, the meaning of a name given to one of the principal female characters in the saga.
By senior year I was writing the story. My English teacher that year, Sly, was kind enough to offer me feedback on my chapters as I went. I spent down time in every class revising those first few chapters. My folder filled with the hard copies of those chapters and my special writing pen were never far from hand anywhere I went in my day. (Nor were the notebooks I wrote in at the time, even when I went to work that summer after graduation.)
Eight years later, after abandoning the novel on two different occasions (and some encouraging words from Jasper Fforde), I launched into a start-from-scratch world-building frenzy and rewrite of the first book in the series. I finished it after five or so months and the monkey left my back.
I have since shelved the book but I still think about it and the characters almost constantly. I know it can be saved, I’m just not there yet.
We made it! The last step of the process! This one is time-consuming but by far the most fun of them all.
All those post-it flags and notes in the margin? They’re coming off.
First, the easy ones. Whatever colors you’ve designated for things to move elsewhere (4 out of 6 categories) are the ones you’ll go through first. Go one color at a time and start cutting and pasting. This is where your margin notes will come in handy. You should have noted along the way where to move something to. Mine read something like, “Use this scene for such and such bit of mythology, character history, whatever.”
As you address each of these changes, remove the post-it. This pass-through will leave you with just two colors and two categories to address: Scenes/chapters to reconsider (which I’ve marked in mine with orange) and things hinted at or foreshadowed that need to be developed further.
These two are the meatiest of your categories and the ones the hardest and most time-consuming to address. But your outline will work for you, not the other way around, with this method. This outline will help you to close up plot holes, deepen characters, adequately foreshadow events, etc.
The easier of these two categories is the foreshadowing/developing further one. For each of your post-its in this category, go back through your margin notes. These notes will indicate places where it will flow naturally to put in a sentence, a short scene, anything that might help foreshadow without giving away or places where a small bit of backstory can be seeded to explain something you’ve indicated.
Don’t remove the post-it until you’ve fully addressed it. This includes scenes that need to occur after the post-it, further on in the narrative. Once you feel that you’ve added everything that needs to be in order to smooth out the plot bump, you can remove that post-it.
Now we’re only left with one color. Scenes and chapters to reconsider. You may find that many of these are no longer something that needs to be addressed and the post-it can be removed. (Many of mine ended up being deleted as I went through the other five categories of changes.) But this category also includes the scenes that you noted in the margins to add but don’t get addressed by the other five pass-throughs.
In the end, you’ll end up with a stronger story and a post-it free outline. (At this point, for future revisions, I would suggest you create a clean outline to work off. This one you’ve just finished with is vastly different from the manuscript as it currently stands.)
Everyone set with their outlines all post-it noted and looking like there’s a lot of work ahead? *crickets chirp*
Right then. Well, we’re going to go ahead and press on to the next step. I recommend your favorite comfort food because this is going to sting, possibly a lot. It’s like picking off a scab. You know it’s going to hurt but you do it anyway. And then it hurts and you cry. But it scabs over again.
Your first part is to knock out the easy stuff. Pull up your latest draft, the one that’s most current and that you’ll work off of for this revision. For me, so I don’t lose anything that maybe will find its way back in later, I copy the entire manuscript to a new file and save it with a later draft number. This way I have a history of the story progress and if there’s something that’s absolutely worth putting back in later, I can access it rather than try to recreate it from memory.
The easy stuff is everything that you put a slash through two steps ago, the second step of the detailed outlining process. (Which I talk about in this post.) If there’s something in the scene that you’re deleting that you’ve marked to be moved elsewhere, I suggest you either leave that in the document file itself or you can create a separate file for those tidbits so that when you get to the next step of the process you have handy access to them.
After you’ve done that, you’ll need to move on to the next part. This is where you start brainstorming the sutures you’ll use to put your poor baby together.
Go post-it by post-it and look at what needs to be done. If it’s something you need to develop further, meaning it’s an event or some such that you’ve hinted at or foreshadowed or that came up unexpectedly when you were pantsing it, this is where you start looking for places you can do just that.
For each post-it go back through the scenes the preceded it or follow it, depending on where it needs to move or if it’s something to set up or address later, and note where you could put some sort of scene or revise a scene to help accomplish that goal.
Or something like this. You’ll have notes all over your margins on some pages. Some pages you might have nothing. It all depends on how strong the individual scenes and chapters are. Because the book is only as strong as its weakest scene or chapter or character.
That’s enough for today. This post is getting long and this step can take a day or two. Come back on Thursday (after a WiP Wednesday with my updates on how well this process is working for me.)
Yes. And I’m here to tell you how to make your outline work for you. I’ve blogged before about the outlines that I do. (I plan to continue this process through many many books. It’s extremely helpful, especially this next step.)
Now, after I’ve created my lovely outline, in a process that takes a while, feels like rolling Sisyphus’ rock, and makes you want to tear out your hair, and proceeded to tear it to pieces, I have a nice messy slate to work off.
This is the next step in the process:
Post-it Flags will be your friends in this step of the process. Here I have 6 colors to match the 6 highlighter colors from step 2.
These and your pen will become invaluable from here on. They’re your best tools, aside from your imagination, at this point.
You can see in the photograph that there are a ton of post-its sticking out the side of my outline. I’ll explain.
First off, you’re going to want to set aside a good hour or more for this part. You’re not just sticking these flags on willy-nilly. There’s a method to the madness.
Next, I recommend a good television program or movie playing in the background so that when your eyes are swimming in colored post-its you can avert them and allow them to re-calibrate.
All settled on the couch? Great. Here’s where you dig in and really make this baby start working for you. You’re now going to go page by page and put a little post-it beside every highlighter mark you’ve made in the outline. Does your page have four different colors marked on it? Great. One flag of each color. You may have to continually reference your little color key you’ve inserted in the front of your outline, but you’ll get there eventually. You’ll start to notice that certain colors appear more than others. This will show you where you might have a weakness or writer’s tic.
In the end, you’ll end up with the right edge looking something like this, only more colorful. (At the point in this process I took the photos, I’d already gone through many of the parts I’ll discuss tomorrow and Thursday.)
Now that’s over, it’s time to move on to the next part of this. Which I’ll post about tomorrow since this is already going on long enough.
Revisions are going slowly. But I’ve launched into them wholeheartedly and am feeling a bit overwhelmed.
There are 3 chapters that I have to add in to the book. I’m partway through one of them. There may end up being need for a prologue just to help set up some of the subplots that got lost when I took a hacksaw to the manuscript.
And my two main male characters need to be renamed. Yeah, not an easy task. My top picks are Halston, Kyler, Loran, Lian, Gage, Declan, Dashiell, and Macrae.
None of them are meshing well with my characters. But they can’t continue with their current first initials. They just can’t.
And that’s all I’m saying about the manuscript for now. Sorry I missed Tantalus Tuesday this month. I’ll hopefully be back next month with an even more exciting teaser than the ones I’ve posted before.
Stay tuned this afternoon when I reveal which of my statements was the truth and which were bald-faced lies. (Or half-truths.)
You know that feeling of being watched? You can tell someone’s got it out for you. That’s the universe staring at you. The universe tends to have it out for you. She likes to interfere with your best-laid plans and your well-intentioned goals.
Like the goal of being done with Oracles Promise before this Saturday.
Not. going. to. happen.
The universe has it out for me. She threw a killer cold my way and I’ve been lucky to get from my bed to the couch. Forget trying to pound out the words that I need to finish before Saturday. New goal= finish by Christmas. I’ll be lucky if I do, but it at least takes some pressure off.
How do you know when it’s time to change MCs?
1- You would rather write the book about a different character
2- To make the book saleable you have to cut the characters that you feel are better and more alive than your MC so you can focus on the MC
3- You just can’t stand your MC anymore, you don’t fell she’s a viable character, etc.
4- Your tired of trying to sound like a 10 year old when you don’t know how to make a 10 year old sound believable.
Can you tell what I’m having issues with?
Julie Dao asked me in the comments to last week’s WiP Wednesday about my character bios. I thought I’d take some time to go over those a little more in-depth than I did in the comments.
My biggest resource for questions to ask about my characters is Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. The first two chapters of his book cover dozens of questions to ask. Chapter 1 is all about the external. What do they sound like? How about cheekbones? Wais size? All sorts of stuff like that.
Chapter 2 focuses on the internal. He covers topics like conversational focus, sub-conscious programs, religion, spirituality, etc.
For any given character I go through most, if not all, of these questions. Until I lose steam. Which is why I can only do a couple of character bios at a time. I make it a goal to at least cover the physical description questions and the stuff about tone of voice, accent, etc.
Take, for example, my bio for Derek, the MC from Lodestar. I’ve got 4 or 5 pages on him. I answer most of the questions found in Lukeman’s book. But then for side characters such as Grady or Evans, I only have a page covering the basics of background and physical description.
Since in Lodestar ethnic background is important I make sure I note that for each character, regardless of how in-depth their bio may or may not be.
I hope that this helps answer Julie’s question a bit better. I’ll probably do another post on bios sometime, too. We’ll just have to see how it goes.