Category Archives: Writing Craft
Everyone has a novel in them. Or so the saying goes. Friends and colleagues often approach me, often sheepishly, about their desire to write a book, or problems they are having in getting started. Well it’s fantastic news that you want to write a novel! Go for it.
Here are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked. I hope my answers are useful.
1. I have a great book idea but feel it’s been done to death
Most things have been done to death. There is little new under the Sun. There are only so many plots and character types. I’m generalizing, but few ideas are ground-breakingly original. Most are a combination of other ideas assembled in a new way, or from a unique perspective, or with an unexpected twist. Take romances for example, probably the most successful and popular genre ever. There must be hundreds of thousands of books about girl meets boy, girl loses boy, either to find him again or find another, truer love. Tall, dark-haired, emotionally strong, idyllic men feature in most stories, as do plenty of Mr. Darcy’s. There are sweet romances by the dozen, hot steamy affairs, love triangles, unhappy marriages, happy marriages… you name it. If you read this genre, I bet you could name several dozen examples of everything I just listed. So has romance been done to death? Not judging by the thousands of romance books published each year.
Take fantasy: How many books can you name that feature a quest for a powerful magic item, usually one that will save the kingdom or world? Isn’t there always a young farm lad who has a prophesized destiny or secret talent that he learns from an old wizard? Aren’t there always a group of men, elves and dwarves on this quest, and usually one of them is a wizard, one is a knight or paladin and there is some kind of rogue or ninja like character? Sound familiar? Done to death, but extremely popular.
In your own writing, look for ways to make these themes, or tropes, your own. Flip them, modify them, surprise the reader. What if the paladin has fallen from grace? What if the elf finds out that the dwarf killed his brother? What if the magic item is a maguffin, a decoy? Let your imagination run wild – don’t be afraid. Even if it feels cliched and well-worn as you write the first draft, once you get your creative juices flowing you’ll start having all sorts of cool ideas. Try them, run with them. Trust your instincts. Before you know, that quest or romance will be stamped with your own unique ideas and voice. Trust the writing process. I often find that my first drafts lack the depth or originality that I hoped for, but by the time I am ready to rewrite and edit, my head is buzzing with what-if’s, and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if’s, and the story comes more alive with each draft. I think most authors go through this.
Remember too, that a certain familiarity is what attracts a reader. Why are there so many quest books? Because readers love that plot. Why does the young woman in a romance fall in love with the bad guy against everyone’s advice? Because many readers associate with that issue. Write what people enjoy reading, but make it your own version.
2. How do I start?
Woo, this is a common question and the answer is: anywhere. Trite but true. Writing a novel is an immense and daunting mountain of a task. It’s not surprising that so many budding authors cower at the foot of this obstacle with no idea how to begin. Every journey begins with the first step. Eat an elephant one bite at a time. What these cliches tell us is that any start whatsoever helps us overcome the inertia of our fears. Figure out how you want your story to start and try to write that scene. Don’t worry yet if it is the ideal place to start, or if it even makes sense. Just start writing. OK, what happens next? Then what? Then what? What problem does your protagonist have at the start of your book? Show her trying to deal with that. Perhaps she stumbles. Why? Who or what gets in her way? Who helps her?
Unless you have a firm outline of your story in your head, you just need to start – anywhere – and write whatever comes to you. You might discard these early chapters, but don’t worry about that yet. You have to get your mind into the flow of writing. You have to give it some substance to mull over, some ideas to work with. Trust me, if you just start writing, things will develop. Your mind isn’t used to playing the what-if game yet, so you have to train it. If you find yourself slowing or grinding to a halt, just ask some questions: What would she do next? Should she go down into that cellar or call her friend? What if the lights went out? Keep driving forward. Keep writing. Don’t worry about polish, don’t worry about word choice, just let it flow. Get your ideas down. The first draft is a raw dump of ideas – a giant sandbox for you to play with. Don’t fear the lack of direction. Embrace not being tied down.
3. I want to write so badly but don’t know what to say
There is a misconception about writers that they lounge around coffee shops until the muse strikes them and then they bang out a novel non-stop in a weekend. We wish. I’ve drunk way too much Starbucks waiting for my muse! Maybe she’s a tea drinker. First off, you must have some idea of what you want your book to be about, at least the genre. No? Think about the book you’d most love to read. Maybe it’s like that bestseller by ‘blah blah’ that you wish had ended differently. Why do political thrillers always go to the brink of nuclear war and then make peace, when you’d like to know what would have happened if the nukes went flying? Maybe you lament that there are too many vampire books but not enough about unicorns?
The reality is that most muses only help those who help themselves. Consider my advice for #2 above. It applies in this situation too. If you start writing anything at all, you will likely find your muse peering over your shoulder before too long, whispering you ideas. Alas, too many people never write because: “I’ll write when I’m inspired”. Flip that thought. You’ll be inspired when you write. Writing is a proactive creative process – it requires that you take action. Writers write. Writers make things happen. You wouldn’t think of sitting at home every day and waiting for your future spouse just to ring the doorbell one day. Nor would you expect the Lottery folks to just mail you a check out of the blue. You have to put forth effort to reap the rewards. Trust your subconscious. Start writing anything, even if it’s just a story about a cat walking around the garden. Exercise your creative muscles and then ideas will flow – probably faster than you can get them down!
4. I don’t understand all this publishing jargon, self publishing and formatting, so I’m scared to start writing
Slow down there, Tex! You’re way putting the horse before the cart. That’s like worrying about replacing your tires on the day you buy a brand new car, or that you might burn your bread before you even make the dough. Put those things out of your mind right now. Plenty of time to learn about such things later. Much later. When you get that far, you’ll wonder why you worried because our distant fears are always more menacing than the reality.
Trust that the writing process works. It has done for generations. Concentrate on writing the book. That’s more than enough to occupy your mind for a while, trust me. Before you finish that first draft, you’ll have gained (one way or another) the knowledge of how to revise and edit it. Long before you grow tired of editing it, you will figure out what publishing route works for you and start to acquire contacts, critique-partners, editors, agents, cover designers, and what have you. But right now, forget all that. None of that matters until you write the best book you can. Don’t rush to get to those later stages. All in good time. Right now, simply concentrate on writing your story.
5. I keep getting stuck when my writing goes wrong and I have to start over
This is usually because you are overthinking your first draft as you write it. It’s very tempting to read over your last page or chapter and wrinkle your nose in disgust. What a pile of poo. Now you feel compelled to go back and fix it, edit it, polish it, change the dialog, etc. The trouble is that now you’ve taken yourself out of the flow of writing and put yourself into editing mode, and it’s too soon for that when you are writing your first draft. Now you’re going to be nervous to continue, because you’re afraid to write more drivel like the chapter you just spent days cleaning up.
Another possibility is that you write yourself into a corner where your plot goes wrong, or your character does something you didn’t plan on, or you just don’t know what happens next, or you changed your mind and have a much better idea than the one you spent hours or days writing. So you go back and rewrite it “the proper way”, fixing your problems. Great! Except that you write a bit further and it happens again. So you go back once more and change it. I’ve known writers spend months and months rewriting the first 40 pages over and over until they get frustrated with the whole writing business. Please don’t let that happen to you!
Here’s the thing… you need to accept that your first draft will be junk. Go on, say it. Accept it. Believe it. You’ll have to one day, so do yourself a favor and accept it now. Almost every successful author will admit that their first drafts are junk. It’s part of the process. You can’t write a polished story out the gate. The purpose of the first draft is to blast down all those wonderful ideas in your head, to lay down the foundation of the scenes, roughly in the right order, with the right characters and getting as much of the plot and dialogue down as you can. It’s a framework. A starting point. Here’s another truth: You will make mistakes. You will write yourself into a corner. You will realize huge holes in your plot. You will write wooden characters, cliched dialogue, use horrible adverbs, write verbose and passive statements.
You have permission to do all of that on your first draft, because it doesn’t matter. No, really, it doesn’t. Editing and rewriting is where the real magic happens, and you can’t reach that stage until you have your story down. All of it down. As best you can. So now you understand why you must not start over on the first draft, just keep going forward. Make notes about things to rewrite, things that are broken, but don’t fix them yet. If you can train yourself to write your first draft in this way, you won’t start over and you won’t get stuck.
6. How do I find time to write? I’m so busy
Some people are lucky enough to be able to write all day, or for hours at a time. From the question, I’m assuming you’re not one of those people. Many new authors are not either. We all have families, day jobs and responsibilities. Writing falls low on the totem pole of things to get done each precious day. But you can write a novel in 30 minutes a day, even 10 minutes a day. Many writers rarely get down more than 500 words a day, but it all adds up. I’ve heard of bestselling authors who write on a bench watching their kid at soccer practice, or while their kids are doing homework. One enterprising guy wrote an entire novel on the subway to and from work. Entirely on his cellphone!
Don’t make the mistake of waiting until “one day” when you have hours to indulge on your novel. That time may never come. I bet you make time for your favorite TV show, or for that cup of Joe at Starbucks, or to walk the dog. So too can you make time for your writing. You have to make it a priority. Squeeze in time where you can, or cut out something you can do without. This may mean making a pact with your family, like “8pm to 9pm is daddy’s writing time. You can have my attention all day except this hour.” These schemes might not be ideal, but they’re infinitely better than the alternative of not writing at all. No one is busy 24 hours a day. Good luck!
If you have other questions or want further advice or tips, doesn’t hesitate to contact me. Ask away! I don’t bite.
First world problems for authors: Editor deadlines. How much of a stressor is this for the modern author?
Though authors have worked with publishing and editorial deadlines ever since some ancient druid told his craftsman “Finish runes on this stone before setting sun at solstice, or Gods seek revenge!”, I believe deadlines have grown tougher in recent years. Why? Since the advent of Indie publishing there are hundreds of thousands more authors seeking the help of a pool of editors that have likely not expanded so radically. Put simply – there are too many manuscripts seeking too few editors.
It is not atypical these days to have to reserve your spot with your editor up to a year in advance, to get into their busy schedule. Good editors are in demand! I’m lucky to have an awesome editor, which means I had to book ahead.
It’s great to get locked in, but then I faced a dilemma: If I book too far in the future, my completed manuscript will be sitting around, and not out earning me readers and cash. Book too soon and I’ll end up scrambling to be finished. I set a reasonable date that seemed so far into the future that we’d have those flying cars we were promised, or at least warp drive; but no – that deadline came hurtling toward me like a freight train! I’m still polishing now, just a few weeks before my hand-in deadline. Fellow author friends have been forced to put in incredible hours to meet their own punishing deadlines. It’s a big stressor on an author, right at the time we are so ready to let our literary baby fly the nest (read as “I’m tired of this damn thing, make it go away!”)
In preparing for this piece, I spoke to a handful of editors, and most of them told me they are turning authors away, so as to better serve their existing clients. Wow – what a position to be in. Sounds enviable, but remember that editors are voracious readers, and it must pain them to turn down a manuscript that sounds awesome, just because it won’t fit their busy schedule. You can bet they’re going to turn down the irritating applicants first, so:
How to be professional with your editor:
- Never argue or push them with regards scheduling. They are unlikely to upset existing clients by rushing you to the head of the line. No, you aren’t that important.
- Keep them abreast of your own schedule and plans. If you warn them of changes ahead of time, they are more likely to accommodate you
- Be flexible. If one of their clients cancels and they have a free slot, maybe it’s worth a ton of extra work to get your m/s ready to fill it.
- Similarly, accept that they might hit road blocks that causes them to take a little longer. Life gets in the way of all of us.
- Polish your m/s to the best of your abilities first. Don’t give your editor sloppy work full of obvious typos and glaring errors. He/she might not work with you again.
- Pay on time
- Format your m/s to their specifications, get it to them a few days before the due date, and provide good contact details in case they hit a snag.
- Learn to assess how long it takes you to write a book
The last point deserves attention. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to be able to measure and assess how long drafts take you, how long your beta-readers will take, how long your rewrites will take. Learn these numbers for you and allow for disruptions in your schedule, be it day job, vacations or even the mythical “writer’s block” (more on that in another post).
Your editor is your best business relationship as an author. Nurture it. Thank your editor, work with them, always be polite. Editors make our books look great – don’t annoy them. Publishing is a small industry and some editors trade blacklists, so don’t ever mistreat an editor. Or anyone you interact with.
Oh, and for goodness sake, cough up to send them a signed paperback, or a free ebook at the very least. They’re probably proud of their part in making the book shine, or at the very least they can burn the copy to vent their frustration at working with you, if you’ve been an annoying client.
Authors, please share your experiences with editors. Editors, please jump in with advice. The comments section is open for business…
Does a plot have to have an antagonist – a villain? Do you enjoy books or movies without a villain?
One of the classic plot lines for a story is a protagonist – the hero – defeating the antagonist. It’s the classic good vs. evil tale, and in most cases the hero is an underdog, someone thrust into the limelight against his or her will, and comes of age or defeats his/her fears or weaknesses during the process. Sometimes this is an iconic clash mano-a-mano, e.g. Superman fighting Zod, or Harry Potter vs. Valdemort, or Ahab vs. Moby Dick. Sometimes it is a series of encounters with minor villains, or henchmen, culminating in the big fight at the end, e.g. Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire, fighting his father, and finally defeating the Emperor, or almost every Bond movie where 007 battles and tricks his way through countless minions to confront the evil mastermind.
So do we need an antagonist? No. That said, without one, we need some other dramatic force for the hero to foil against, but this could be nature, the environment, his own fears, anything that provides tension and interest. Let’s look at some books/movies without an antagonist: 2010, Wool (pre the shift trilogy), Gravity, Europa Report, Apollo 13, Deep Impact, Castaway, almost every disaster movie ever made, Flood, Ark (Both by Stephen Baxter), Love in the Time of Cholera, Contagion, Rain Man, Close Encounters. Here’s a post by David Brin.
Then there are those plots that on the face of it have an antagonist, but that isn’t the point of the movie/book. The clue here is that if you removed the villain(s) the plot would be almost entirely intact. 2001 for example: It’s a mission to find an alien artifact, the fact that HAL operates against the cast is incidental. Titanic: The husband is a villain, but the movie is about love found and lost on a sinking ship. Up by Pixar: Yes there’s a madman with an airship, but the movie is about discovering and exploring a lost world. If inclined, you could put many murder mysteries into this category. Certainly the murderer is the villain but is often only the inciting incident, and the plot is about the detective solving the clues.
My 3rd novel, that I am working on right now, falls into this category. Certainly some folks aim to stop my heroes, but the book doesn’t have a central villain. Actually, it sort of does, but you’ll have to read it to realize who it is.
What about you? Do you need a villain to hate?
I’m sure most people think authors are a calm and level-headed breed. Our bio and PR pictures depict us as well groomed and smiling, and we try to be witty and intellectual at dinner parties. Ours is one of the few professions where glasses and gray hair can actually improve our standing and charisma.
It’s all true (not), but you should sit with me when I’m editing or polishing, like I have been this past week. It’s true that I rarely need haircuts as the final draft takes shape – I’m too busy tearing out my hair. My expense sheets tend to fill up with purchases of coffee and whisky. There is a very good reason why authors have had a reputation of being manics or drunks, or just plain neurotic.
Editing is a love-hate relationship with my book. I’ve already lived with it for over a year and the honeymoon period is over. As I work my way through the manuscript, page by page, line by line, I suffer radical mood swings from “this scene totally rocks, this is NYT bestseller material”, to “what a pile of ****, I’m a terrible writer.” As the saying goes: Feel the fear and do it anyway, right?
Some of the things rattling around my head include: Plot arcs: Is this tense and dramatic enough, does it flow properly, is it exciting and believable? Characters: Will the reader fall in love with them, hate the bad guys, laugh with them, cry with them, dream about them? Structure: Are my paragraphs of varying length, am I overusing adjectives, or adverbs, are all my sentences “he did this, he did that”? Word choice: Should he scowl or frown, chuckle or giggle, is it a chill wind or an icy wind? And my own pet bugbear: Does she look, see, gaze, study, glance, peer, gawk, goggle… or a hundred other words that just mean “she saw something, dammit”?
You might not think that every word matters but it does. So does sentence length, and knowing when to interject a feeling, knowing when not to state the obvious because the reader will get it, when to foreshadow, when to trick the reader, when to layer in backstory… The irony of writing is that if an author does pay attention to all these things, the reader will never know because they will be swept along by the story without the mechanics of the written word getting in the way. Next time you are yanked out of a book because of how a sentence was worded, stop and think about it for a moment and you’ll probably understand what the writer missed. We’re human, mess up we sometimes do. (See what I did there?)
At the editing stage it is so hard to remain objective. I can agonize over a word choice or the form of a sentence only to come back ten minutes later and put it back the way it was. I’ve been known to kill masterful art because it is too verbose or intrusive at that point. On the flip side, I’ve added in horrible and clumsy explanations because I’ve convinced myself that the reader won’t understand without it. There comes a point at which I no longer trust what I’m doing – I’m fiddling with the manuscript because I’m afraid to let it go, let it fly the nest. This is where the beta readers and professional editor save my bacon by bringing fresh objectivity.
Thankfully, I’m a harsher critic of myself than others are. I’ll beat myself up mercilessly, but if my editor or readers give me constructive criticism I will hang on their every word and happily consider their changes. I’m quite harmless in that regard. I might be neurotic but I’m not an axe-murderer, so sleep well at night.
So if you ever consider me neurotic and overly-sensitive, with a tendency to flip-flop and waffle, then you know you’ve caught me editing and polishing. Just smile, back away, and when you turn the corner, run like hell.
Oh, did I say how much I love writing? Yes, even editing. Love-hate, remember?
Ah, the exclamation point, or exclamation mark as some call it… I believe it is seriously overused, and I like to think that most editors would agree with me. Don’t you hate reading a book where every piece of dialog ends in one? Commonly it us used to indicate a raised voice, shouting, surprise, alarm, etc. Lazy! (See what I did there?) As a writer, if you cannot show the reader a character’s emotions or tone of voice in any other way, then you aren’t being creative. Context should indicate whether they are whispering or shouting.
Am I being unfair? As a reader, do you believe that is exactly what the exclamation point is for – to indicate an exclamation? The dictionary would support this claim:
1. the sign (!) used in writing after an exclamation.
2. this mark sometimes used in writing two or more times in succession to indicate intensity of emotion, loudness, etc.: Long live the Queen!!
3. this mark sometimes used without accompanying words in writing direct discourse to indicate a speaker’s dumbfounded astonishment: “His wife just gave birth to quintuplets.” ( ! )
All right, but where does it stop? Often I see double marks, e.g. “Stop it!!” So how do we interpret this? If one mark is shouting, what does two mean? Believe it or not I have read a published book (whose author shall remain nameless) who frequently used up to 5 (yes five!!!!!) exclamation points. Now we’re just getting silly. Some authors fall into grammar traps too, such as “What the hell are you doing here?!” I do believe those two punctuation marks should never appear together.
There is even a term for the overuse of the exclamation point: Bangorrhea:
1. Overusing exclamation points in a vain and failing attempt to make your writing sound more exciting. Trying to put more “bang” in your prose, but looking instead like you have exclamation point diarrhea.
My goal is to limit myself to one a page, and then only during intense dialog. I can happily go chapters at a time without using one. In the editing stage I search for them and play a game of seeing how many I can remove and still get the meaning across. Does this mean the reader has to work harder at understanding? Yes, but I don’t regard that as a bad thing, since your writing can be more nuanced without resorting to the loud “bang”. Avoid using them frequently, or they diminish in effect. Ask yourself whether the sentence is a true exclamation or is just a statement. In doubt err on the side of the period.
The simple truth is:
If everything is emphasized, nothing is.
Let’s end on a quote from an author who knows a thing or two:
“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald —
What do you think? Am I being unfair to a perfectly acceptable element of punctuation. Please share your comments below.
Today, on the morning of July 4th, my book had its own Independence Day. My book has been freed. What am I prattling on about? Let me step back a week.
Last week I celebrated the completion of the first draft of my new dark fantasy novel. A major milestone, yay! I started preparing and collating my notes for all the changes and improvements to make in the second draft. The second draft is where the book really comes alive.
And this is where I ran into problems over the weekend. I began to find plot flaws, things I hadn’t noticed when writing it. In some places the reader has to make unreasonable intuitive leaps. I found situations where the hero or antagonist does things to make the plot work but that weren’t sensibly inherent to their character, or vice versa, they don’t do things that they ought to have. This usually comes about when you craft a book by plot points and not organically based upon a deep understanding of the relationships between all the characters, and their goals and motivations, internal and external.
Many authors are no doubt nodding their heads at this point, having gone through the same pains between first and second drafts. It’s typical to find such flaws, particularly in a book with a complex plot, but they’re all fixable. For me, the second draft is the most creative and fun (if frustrating) part of writing a book – this is where you mold 90,000+ words into a dramatic, tense and exciting plot.
But… I had another problem. Three secondary characters play a pivotal role in my story. They’re unusual characters, and I’ll give you a quick teaser by saying that at least one of the three is dead. I adored writing these characters and their inclusion is both fun and essential. What’s the problem? They never became embedded in the story at a fundamental level. I don’t like tenuous links
Back to the present day – morning of July 4th. I sat down and made a complete plot line on index cards and highlighted all my plot flaws and issues. I didn’t want to just shore them up; I wanted an over-arching way to fix them. And I found it. I now have a historical subplot that links my three important secondary characters both in the past and the present of the book. From that I systematically fixed my plot flaws in what I believe (read as hope!) is a consistent, organic way.
My book has been freed.
And to serve as the finale fireworks, my efforts this morning also built me a richer, deeper, more satisfying plot, one that should make my second draft significantly better than the first.
Happy 4th everyone!
A few weeks ago I had to design the huge, climatic scene for my latest book. Doing so had scared me for ages, and it’s amazing how long I can procrastinate for. I wanted every character from the book to play a part, thus tying together all the loose ends in what I hope will be an intensely satisfying finale! Well that’s what we authors tell ourselves, and only hope that our readers agree!
If you don’t know by now that I’m a geek and nerd, then you aren’t paying much attention are you? heh. As an anal engineer, I tend to utilize lists and outlines, but over time I’ve learned to merge this tendency with my creative side and indulge in freeform brain diagrams. What? Stop looking at me like that. OK, so they’re just scribbles on pieces of paper, but I can see the order in the chaos, even if you can’t.
So the first thing I did was jot down the names of every character and faction that would feature in this monumental scene. Take a look at the image below:
Here I have my scene-by-scene outline and my cast. Then I wrote down the goals and motivations of each cast member. What are they doing here? What do they hope to achieve? How do they win the scene or lose it? How do they relate to every other character/faction in the scene? Luckily this mirrored the relationship diagram that I had already drawn up for the entire book. Then I scribbled ideas about how everyone could achieve their goals. If A does this, how will B retaliate, and what will C and D be doing all this time? Wouldn’t it be unexpected if E sided with B? What if A thought C was on his side but C was really working for F? OK, so you get the idea.
Then came the blow-by-blow, or “I should have bought stock in the Post-It company”:
Working through every idea from my pages and pages of scribbles, I wrote one action or event per Post-It note and stuck it to my desk. It made sense to start with the villain(s) and lay out their actions as if no one stood in their way, then I went back and did the hero, working out how he could disrupt the antagonist’s plans. It’s super easy to shuffle these yellow squares around, and I found it easier than cutting-and-pasting on the computer. I learned this tip from screenwriting books years ago.
After that, I systematically worked through every character and faction and layered in their actions and reactions. I spent hours scratching out ideas, changing events and moving them around for greatest drama and suspense. Many times, a fresh idea sent a handful of Post-Its to the trash. Soon, I was forced to stack my Post-Its as I ran out of room on my desk. This one scene took over 100 Post-It’s of which nearly 50 stayed in the final version. It also took over a week of revisiting the sea of yellow and reworking it night after night.
Then things turned from geeky to nerdy, and I dug into my D&D figurine collection. (I warned you this got nerdy!):
This scene was so complicated that I had to act it out to make sure it flowed smoothly and that no characters ended up standing stupidly about for long periods. I assigned a figurine to each character and placed them in position. Then the fun began! After putting all of my Post-It notes in a single pile, I simply read through them and manipulated the figurines appropriately. This is where I found out that A couldn’t see B and C interacting, and that D and E would easily overpower A unless F was there to assist. Was everyone moving and reacting appropriately or was the scene too static? Was everyone getting their time in the limelight? Oh the headaches of being an author!
During this stage, more Post-Its got rearranged and edited, but eventually I’m happy. After putting my toys away, I returned to the keyboard and typed out the scene outline, enlarging on the few key sentences written on each Post-It. Now I had everything I need to actually write the scene, knowing that I can concentrate on the creative details and dialog because I know exactly how the scene will flow.
You can stop shaking your head now. No, I don’t do this for every scene, just a couple of crucial, complex scenes that I don’t trust myself to wing it at the keyboard. Now who said designing a scene couldn’t be fun?
As you may have noticed, I have an unusual spelling of the name Graham: it is in fact a Scottish spelling. This was never a problem for me when I lived in the UK where this spelling is almost as common as the usual form, but since coming to the US it’s been a constant battle spelling my name or listening to people butcher it. It’s actually humorous watching people read my name from a piece of paper, and wrestle with it in their mind, trying to figure out how to pronounce it. I never mind if people get it wrong, I just smile and enlighten them. It’s not their fault.
About a month ago, while picking up my favorite beverage at Starbucks, I decided to start a new game. I’d seen so many different spellings of my name on the cup, that I set out to collect the variations. I’ll reveal the results of my experiment at the end of this post, so if you can’t wait just scroll down and look at the picture.
This got me thinking about names in general and particularly names in books. Why are characters named the way they are? Why are some names distinctive and legendary, while others are forgotten a month or two after reading. It is possible that many authors just pick the first name that comes into their head, but I suspect that most are chosen with great care.
Contemporary fiction is easy, almost any modern name will do, be it Mary, Peter, Jonathan, Jon or even more exotic names like Jebediah. Typically the author picks names relevant to the culture of the character concerned or of the book as a whole, such as American names, Chinese names, or Viking names. This sort of naming is obvious and very easy for the reader to accept and think little of, until the rules change. If you’re reading a book set in contemporary America with characters such as Amy, James and Brian, the moment Mustafa enters the scene the readers mind goes to work. This can work for or against the author. Some writers purposely avoid names that offer symbolical or hidden meanings, so that the reader comes at the character with a clean slate, much as we do when we see an unknown actor in a movie. Sometimes the writer just likes the sound of the name. Other writers will choose a name precisely because it conjures an image. Such stereotyping is common and saves the writer a lot of work. Luke Skywalker sounds heroic, Jar Jar Binks sounds humorous, Darth Vader sounds ominous.
The most common reason for choosing a name is to fit the genre. Galadriel conjures the image of a gorgeous elf Queen. Fantasy names are normally made up to sound magical. Meeting Joan in Lothlorien just doesn’t have the same impact. In historical fiction aristocrats typically go by the moniker of Miss Haversham, Duke Wandsworth or Bertie Wooster, or double-barreled names like Wellington-Smythe or Campbell-Black, while commoners are often named for their trade such as Bob Carter, or William Tanner. What sort of character do you expect when you come across Basher and Bert? What genre do you think of if I list the names Black Lotus, Sly Dragon, Black Widow and Gray Shadow? Or Captain America, Superman or Wonder Woman? Which is the prostitute, Molly or Emily?
Careful selection of names add to the authenticity of the book, and poor choices can be disastrous. There used to be a trend in science fiction for alien names that were totally unpronounceable with lots of K’s and Y’s and apostrophes, like Klak’Lk’Krazzj. Thankfully we seem to have grown out of this! The author must follow through on his choice of names, since the reader is likely to be confused should the character named Mae Fairweather turned out to be the heinous villain at the end, unless this is part of the plot twist of course.
Names can be used as a plot device too. Imagine a story about a character called Alex where the reader doesn’t find out the gender of the character until the end of the book. That could be clever. Some characters don’t have real names at all, and are just known as captain or doctor. This too can be a plot device: not knowing the real name of Dr. Who makes him more mysterious. JK Rowling was careful to give her real-world characters conventional names, like Harry, and use more fantastical names for the characters associated with the magical world, such as Hagrid. Alliterations in names go in and out of vogue, like Bilbo Baggins or Severus Snape, and roll off the tongue nicely.
In my book Ocean of Dust, I wanted the kids names to be familiar and innocent, like Lissa, Alice and Pete, while the sailors bore rougher names, like Grad, Farq and Jancid. I kept my names short, as if they could be nicknames or shortenings of their true names. The cook is simply known as Cook, while we never hear the Captain’s real name until the end. Farq sounds like a villain (hopefully!), while I thought Lyndon sounded more stuck up, more slimy, than Pete. My favorite fantasy names are those that sound almost Earthly and familiar, yet with a fantasy twist.
As promised, here is a collection of names courtesy of the wonderful baristas at Starbucks:
Somebody recently asked me how much the final draft differs from the first. Great question! Here is a snippet of the first and final drafts:
She sat up, her head held high. Alice wasn’t going to win! She thought of Mampalo, and the physiker and the klynaks. They all believed in her, and there was one thing that she was determined to master. But first she had to prove Oban wrong. That wasn’t going to be easy, but she would start now!
When she emerged from the hatch onto the outside deck, there was a strong wind that blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously, reminding her of a nest of hive bugs. They had stowed the canvas awning that had shaded the deck, and men were aloft handing down globe lights, securing ropes, and lashing equipment to ladders and rails.
They seemed oblivious to the dust blowing around them, whipped up into eddies and finding its way into just about everything. Hazy circles, low in the sky, marked the position of both suns shining dimly through the overcast. Storm clouds threatened the aft starboard side of the ship, as if chasing them. Lightning crackled above her, arcing with a bright flash into the dust ocean. Her head began to throb once again.
She jumped in surprise, and then darted amongst the crew to the stairs. She ran up them two at a time, even though the ship pitched heavily. She turned her back on the flying dust, and knocked on Oban’s door.
Upon his command she marched boldly inside and shut the door behind her. The noise of the wind subsided immediately. The rear windows had been fastened shut and the drapes pulled closed, as if such an act could end the storm biting at the ship’s heels.
Oban looked up at her and scowled. “Are you going to annoy me every time you see me?” he said. His eyes flicked to her hands as if expecting a tray. “What do you want now?”
She took a deep breath, and dared look him in his black and purple-blotched eyes. “I want to fix your book, sir. It was my fault that it got wet, and I intend to repair it for you.” His glare and pursed lips drained her courage. Her shoulders dropped, and she almost ran from the room.
She bolted upright and blew all the air out of her lungs. Alice wasn’t going to win. Mampalo and the physiker believed in her, even the Klynaks did. The navigator didn’t, but she would prove him wrong.
She jumped up and headed topside. When she emerged from the hatch, a strong wind blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously like a nest of hive-bugs, as they took down globelights, secured ropes, and lashed equipment to ladders and rails. They wore bandanas against the swirling dust, but their skin was bright red. Sheets of the grey powder lashed over the ship and swept across the deck to pile up in the corners.
Hazy circles marked the position of both suns above the overcast. Inky clouds chased the ship, flickering white as lightning stabbed within them. Thunder crashed, rumbling across the sky like the Gods at war. Her head throbbed.
She clasped one hand across her nose and mouth and ran up the aft stairs two at a time, gripping the rail as the ship pitched. She knocked on the navigator’s door. Upon his command, she marched inside and the wind slammed the door behind her. The howling of the wind subsided. She brushed a thick layer of dust from her clothes. He had fastened the rear windows shut and pulled the drapes, as if doing so could deter the storm biting at the ship’s heels.
His head jerked up. “Are you determined to pester me at every opportunity?” His eyes flicked to her empty hands. “What do you want?”
She met his gaze. “I want to fix your book, sir. I allowed it to get wet, and I intend to make it good.”
Several things to notice here:
- The final draft is less verbose, with much of the filler removed. I hope you’ll agree that it is easier to read
- The verbs in the final draft are more active, more exciting, e.g. “bolted upright”, rather than “sat up”
- The final draft is more dramatic, with greater atmosphere
- The dialog is snappier
I think this is a good example of how the first draft is meandering and definitely not polished enough for publication.
Well, all right, not the real world, just the world I am currently writing about in my second book. “Oh,” you say, disregarding the whole thing, but for an author this is a big deal.
When it comes to planning, there are two types of authors: “Pansters”, so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They have a rough idea of their characters and where the plot is heading, but essentially make it up as they go along. Then there are “outliners” – my camp. We plan everything in advance, scene by scene, often in spreadsheets or on index cards. We carefully craft how the plot unfolds, the foreshadowing, who does what, when and to whom. It’s all there before we write, like directions from Google Maps.
Am I painting the impression that outliners are superior? *Laugh* Not at all. There is no correct way, and many authors take a hybrid approach. Actually, I envy the freedom that “pantsers” enjoy, and admire their ability to pull a book together on the fly. I’ve tried their approach and it didn’t work for me. I’m an engineer. I don’t think that way. Oh, all, right, I’m anal. It’s true!
So, here I am, happily half way through writing my current book, and bang! It falls apart. In a moment of total horror, I realize that the whole second half isn’t going to work – it will be confusing, unbelievable and probably very unsatisfying for the reader. Arg!
This happened on my first book, “Ocean of Dust“, too. I suspect that it happens to many authors. That first time, I panicked: “I can’t write!” “This book’s too hard,” “I should just give up and shred it all.” But I persevered, (obviously because my book is published *smile*) and went back to the drawing board. At the forefront of my mind was “what would entertain the reader?” I re-planned half the book, rewriting as little of the first half as possible.
What makes a book go off the rails like that? Many, many things. Plotting an entire book before you write a single word is a challenge, and that is the chief drawback of being an outliner. An outline is just a sequence of scenes with a few paragraphs of notes about each one. Sure, I can imagine the character’s goals and motivations at each stage, consider what they learn, how they adapt; but it’s just not possible to think of every angle.
As I actually write each scene, I’m in the moment with my characters. Suddenly, it might make more sense for them to do this rather than that. As the sentences flow, I consider that another idea is more entertaining that my current one; maybe it would add more tension, more drama. Setting this in an inn is clichéd, how about a street market? That’s silly that my hero could defeat the guards so easily, how about this…? All the time, I am making small deviations from my outline.
These minute deviations act like a Butterfly Effect. Before I know it, the ripples moving through my book have become tidal waves, waves strong enough to break future scenes, to rip a hole in the fabric of space itself! Well, a hole in my outline, anyway.
At the same time, I might be making changes that are more sweeping. There’s a flaw in one of my story-arcs, perhaps because my character did something different than my outline told him too. His act made sense three scenes ago when I was in his head. Sometimes my writing group or beta readers will hate a character or a scene. Maybe it was… shock, horror… boring!
When you think about it, almost nothing in life goes according to plan. It requires constant course changes in light of more recent information. Maybe those pantsers have something after all? Sometimes, you have to head in a different direction entirely. So why should writing a book be any different?
And it isn’t, of course. It just seems like a catastrophe because creative pursuits like writing tap more into the id and superego. An artist in any field will describe similar feelings of baring one’s soul to create their chosen form of art. We are no longer hiding behind our everyday mask, but bringing forth inner imaginations and showing them to the world. When this goes wrong, when my plot falls apart, it is a direct blow to my id.
Such are the challenges of writing a novel. It hurts to have hit one’s writing stride only to come to a screeching halt, and have to rethink everything. But it’s a great excuse for revisiting the plot in light of what has been written, and using all that extra knowledge to build a stronger book, a more exciting book, with a richer, more powerful second half. The caring author thinks not of the extra work, but delivering a better experience for the reader.