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Author of the Night Angel trilogy and The Black Prism

Writing Interview

1. What are three key writing tools you learned reading other authors? Who were they?
2. What is your writing routine now? How has it changed?
3. Has writing a new magic system changed how you’re going to approach magic when you return to the Night Angel world? How?
4. Would you ever write in another genre?
5. How has having a daughter affected your writing life/plans/schedule?
6. What skills have you had to develop as a published author that don’t have to do with writing your novels? 
7. What are three things you’d tell your younger, unpublished self?
8. How do you challenge yourself as a writer?

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A few silly questions:

  1. What’s it like to be famous? Do you have a rider in your speaking contracts? Do you demand titanium water bottles at your podium? Do fans throw their underwear at you when you’re on stage?
  2. How’s your Bulgarian writer doing? Are you paying him any more now that you’re a New York Times bestselling author?
  3. Will you ever write a Ninja Kitty Night Angel novel?
  4. Pivot Questionnaire (made famous by Inside the Actors’ Studio)

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1. I was wondering how a professional writer, such as yourself, it does when it comes to titles. I myself like to come up with the title (usually along with an idea) long before I begin the project, and then go from there, so I was just wondering what you do when writing the title itself and when you actually name a project (I.E. In the beginning, middle or near the end). Thank you. – Thomas P.

2. My question is: how do you avoid over explaining the details? How much is it acceptable to skim over, leaving the details to a readers imagination? – Mark T.

3. I was wondering if you could give me some advice as to how you make the world come alive. The little sequences between important events that are supposed to make the world come alive (walking down the street and looking at the scenery or people walking by, for instance) don’t feel very organic. At all. What advice could you give to help make the little things have a larger impact? – Andrius

4.Further Questions on Pre-writing/Planning/Outlining:
a) How much pre-writing/planning do you do before starting a new book?
b) How do you make your characters, do you figure them out as you go, or do you pre-write them before you start your novel?
c) I’m having trouble with my own writing. I’ve written three novels and when I outline, I get bored. When I discovery write it’s so messy that it freaks me out. I am curious about how many revision drafts you typically do on a book?
d) By what you write on your writing advice page under OUTLINING, It sounds like you discovery write. Is that the case? You talk about rearranging scenes. Do you do that after writing the first draft, or do you plan your scenes out? What you said, “You make things worse” was a little vague for me.- James C.

What are three key writing tools you learned reading other authors? Who were they?

I think this is a valuable exercise for any reader who’s serious about writing fiction. People often tell you if you’re going to write, you have to read, read, read. This is true, but limited. And quite honestly, it’s inefficient. Reading tons of work, especially when you’re young, helps give you an intuition about how books should work. This intuition is invaluable and irreplaceable. However, as you start becoming more serious about writing, I think it’s really valuable to bring your analytical senses to the table too. Now an English degree might help you do this, depending on how you study. But far too many classes analyze literature through a critical lens, rather than through a creative one. They ask, “What does this mean?” rather than “How was the author solving her problems with this scene? How did she make this interesting? How did she make me care for this character?”

So the analytical exercise that I suggest is any time you read a great scene in a book, or notice something that was really awesome, go back and study how the author built that experience for you. Here are three examples:

1. Dean Koontz. I don’t usually read many thrillers, but I went through a few Dean Koontz books, and what I recognized was every book had a fantastic beginning. So I simply picked up one of his books and started asking how he did it. Look at that first line. The very first line, it leaves you with a question! By the time you get to the end of the paragraph, you’ve got another question. By the time you get to the end of the first page, you’re kind of creeped out, but you have even more questions. Look at how Mr. Koontz is giving just enough detail, but never too much to slow the pace of that first page. He’s giving you just enough for you to ask more questions, and for the questions to be meaningful.

2. Dan Brown. Everyone loves to criticize Dan Brown, but you don’t sell millions upon millions of books without doing something really well. And I would actually say that it’s a good exercise to read very popular books in genres you don’t usually touch, and have no interest in, just to see what it is that that work does well. Dan Brown does tension. Every page, there’s more tension, there’s more conflicts, there’s more questions. He sacrifices everything to that. (Too much, one might say!) But what he does, he does really well.

3. George R.R. Martin. (Two things, because he’s one of my favorites, and he does a lot well.)

a.    He handles a huge cast really well. How? The answer is, George uses what Faulkner termed “grotesques”. That is, your cast is filled not with five tall, bearded white men who are all brawny and all carry swords and wear furs. Instead, one character is monstrously tall and wears a bearskin. The next guy is a greasy weasel who carries a rapier. The next guy is a cripple. The next guy is also huge, but he had a lesion in his brain in Broca’s Area, and can only say one word. The next guy has no nose. The next guy’s a eunuch.  And so forth. All these characters are memorable. Now, the challenge when you use grotesques is that they can become caricatures. So the rest of your writing needs to be strong enough to differentiate these characters from each other so that they feel larger than life, rather than simply ludicrous.

b.    George handles buttons on scenes really well. Using “hooks” and “buttons” is a well-known technique, but many writers who use the technique, use it in a redundant fashion. That is, the closing line of the scene shows the character getting into some new sort of physical danger. This simply gets old. George shows that you can use a button to send the plot in a new direction – Oh, I really have to get back to Jon Snow! – in all sorts of different ways. The button can be physical danger, but other times it can be a new social complication, a surprise visit from a relative, or a king, basically any kind of danger, be it physical, social, political, or moral, can be used in a button. And it makes you want to come back and see the character you’re leaving, as soon as possible. The use of that helps make the pages of his huge tomes fly past.

I’ve used this same technique to examine all sorts of fiction, like the Bluford High series (which is a series of immensely popular young adult verging on middle grade fiction). You don’t read the Bluford High books for their artful descriptions. In fact, you – most of the readers reading this blog post – don’t read the Bluford High books at all. But a lot of young people do. Why? My answer is that these books are blunt and honest about the issues young people face: big ugly issues like messy divorces and abandonment and heartbreak and failure. It manages this honesty, though, without being gratuitous or grimdark. There’s no wallowing in the tough issues its characters face. This isn’t done for shock value, it’s just honest about where its characters live. And I’m sure a lot of the readers find that really refreshing. There’s no irony in these books, no pretend detachment. They’re sincere, beginning to end.

Next, the books show kids struggling to do better, and to be better, despite the temptations and setbacks that beset them. Reading them as they are intended, and with an understanding of the audience to which they’re addressed, I found these books to be moving.

I’ve done the same with the Sookie Stackhouse books, with the Hunger Games books, and so forth, and I intend to continue to read other vastly popular works in all sorts of genres just to see why they work for the readers who read them. I highly suggest the exercise.

What is your writing routine now? How has it changed?

As I’ve said many times, but it bears repeating: the usefulness of my answers to questions like these is very limited. This is what works for me. Something completely different may work for you. However, given that caveat:

I get up every day around 8:00 am. I grab myself a coffee, and I head to my desk. A couple of years ago, I splurged and bought myself a treadmill. And then I got a desk that fits over the top of that. So now I turn on my treadmill, I walk between 1 and 2 miles per hour, and I type. I MacGuyvered some straps to hold my keyboard down. Did I mention I have this funky ergonomic keyboard? I’ll probably have to post a picture. It takes a little getting used to, but I’m the kind of person who paces when I talk on the telephone. I find it somehow helps me focus. Also, writing can be an incredibly sedentary occupation, and walking is good for you!

Brent's Workspace

 

On my favorite days, I only have to do creative work, and I will walk for 5 or 6 hours, or until I get too tired to do it anymore, and just write, write, write. Currently I use Scrivener, but I wrote my first 4 novels in Microsoft Word. (I still currently have to edit in Word–publishing is still pretty tied to it, though some free alternatives can do in a pinch.) I like how I can lay out virtual notecards in Scrivener. When I worked in Microsoft Word, I would physically lay out real notecards, (I’d cut 3″x5″ notecards in half) but when you’re laying out 110 or 115 scenes, you take up an incredible amount of room. A gust of wind can really ruin your day. I did a corkboard, but if you move two scenes to an earlier spot in the novel on a corkboard, you have to unpin Every Last Notecard, move it, repin, and hope you never have to do that again. Scrivener does all that virtually–allowing me to move the notecards around and moving the associated text with it (no more cut and paste and pray). After the initial learning curve, it’s all very easy and intuitive, and it saves me a ton of time.

My day is often punctuated by emails from fans and business partners. Fan emails I put off answering until later, either in the afternoon or later in the week. Work emails sometimes need to be answered right away. And then there’s the general putting out fires kind of thing. Like, just yesterday, I got this message: “I want to buy your audiobook, but I can’t get it in format X!” (I don’t have anything to do with distribution of my novels, so technically this doesn’t come under what you my call “my job”, but if people can’t buy my books, I’m the one who’s not getting paid, so I try to refer these SNAFUs to the people who can fix them as quickly as possible.)

Sometimes when I’m stuck or just need a change of pace, I’ll look at Twitter or other social media or the news – I would not recommend doing that! Not even to myself. Hey Brent, stop doing that.

I find the beginnings of books are the hardest for me, so I’ve come up with some simple brain hacks that I use on myself. Until I get maybe a quarter of the way into a novel, I’ll make my daily word goal be 250 words. Just for scale, my answer to this question is over 500 words now. 250 words is ridiculously low, but that’s the point of it. I’ll write a couple of sentences, and I’m already a quarter of the way done with my goal. (Scrivener has this really sweet progress bar that you can watch fill up as you’re typing. Usually by the time I’ve written even 150 words, I’ve made the decisions that would have paralyzed me: which character point of view is best for this scene? At what point in time are we going to enter the scene? How much explication do we need to root readers in this setting? What conflict is on the table right now?)

At that point, I usually can breeze past 250, and I simply add 250 words to my word count goal. If I make it past 500, I make it 750. If I make it past 750, I make it 1,000. Once I’m past the beginning of a novel, I’ll try to write 1,000 words a day, and toward the end, I’m writing somewhere between 1- and 2,000 words a day. I usually work 6 days a week, although Saturdays I often only work 4-6 hours, depending on what else in real life is demanding my attention.

In my afternoons, I spend some time on the business side of things. Interviews, social media, web posts, reading contracts, composing posts like this one, returning business mail and fan mail, working on my forthcoming graphic novel and other side projects, and sometimes doing research for future books.

When I travel, or vacation, I work at my mobile office. Behold, my mobile office (also, behold my Syndrome hair):

Brent's Mobile Office

Before I got published, it was a lot simpler, although of course being unpublished has its own terrifically hard challenges! At that point, I was a stay-at-home husband. I would make my wife’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and write about 6 hours a day. And I think because I had a singular focus, I wrote 2,000 words a day, every single day. And still had time to play video games.

I miss video games.

Has writing a new magic system changed how you’re going to approach magic when you return to the Night Angel world? How?

I think that broadly speaking, writing The Lightbringer Series is going to have huge effects on whatever Night Angel continuation I do — and that was by design. The reason I didn’t write Night Angel 4, 5, and 6 right after 1, 2, and 3 was because I felt I wasn’t mature enough as a craftsman and an artist to achieve what I aspired to with the rest of the Night Angel cycle.

But that doesn’t mean that my hiatus won’t also cause me problems. In some ways, I think the magic will be the easiest of it. The world of Night Angel is what we might call “low magic”, where Lightbringer is “high magic” (magic is used persistently, commonly, and affects every part of society in the Lightbringer world.) I’ve already defined the Night Angel world’s magic to be much more limited than that. So in some ways, it’s one less thing for me to worry about. I still need to consider the magic and do some mental work regarding societal effects to having a few people in your midst who can do absolutely bonkers stuff that would scare the hell out of you. But it’s much less pervasive and much less work than the magic in Lightbringer, where I could always be missing deeply obvious applications of a complicated system. Others have talked about this as the Refrigerator Problem: if you have a new technology (or to run Arthur C. Clarke backwards, a new magic), people are immediately going to start applying that new power in ways that the creator of it never imagined. So NASA does some tests and some guy in Duluth makes up the microwave oven. It’s sort of the law of unintended consequences as applied to novels. And the more weird powers you make up, the more weird consequences there are.

I think my greater problem when I revisit Night Angel will actually be stuff that I made up and said was true that 10 or 15 years later aren’t that interesting to me, or don’t seem that original. As a trivial example, I’m kind of over the use of apostrophes in names. This was sort of a big thing when I grew up reading fantasy. It was all over the place, and by the time I wrote Night Angel, I didn’t over use it, but we have things like Sa’kagé and Ka’kari. Now, aesthetically, I am over that. Like Picasso after his blue period, I don’t want to use blue for a while! Nothing wrong with blue. I just have seen enough damn apostrophes to last me another twenty years. However! I will be writing about the Sa’kagé and the Ka’kari. So I’m stuck. And there are bigger examples. It’s an inherent problem when you start writing a huge series while you’re still young. Jordan and Tolkien and Martin all started their big series when they were older, and in a way that gives them a really big advantage because their work has a consistent tone. Their own approach to fiction had solidified. As a younger man, I feel that my style is still in flux, and part of my job when I return to Night Angel will be to mimic my younger self, but only in good ways. And only when it helps the books be the best they can.

I like to also think that the process of writing Lightbringer has given me a ton of experience and insight into how to craft a longer narrative than I had when I began Night Angel — and to be honest, than most epic fantasy writers have these days, period.

Would you ever write in another genre?

I’ve had numerous ideas for books in other genres. The latest one is a YA novel that strikes me as very timely. But time is the problem. I think that any writer who approaches a new genre needs to do so with tremendous sensitivity. YA is not just a dumbed-down, simplified adult novels. And I think some writers think they are. So for me, it becomes a matter of: do I have the time to write a novel that is outside of my experience, perhaps outside of my audience’s expectations, and keeps me away from writing the fantasy novels that I love so much. Unlike that one guy, I can’t write a YA novel in a weekend, or even a week. And I already have ideas for really fun, interesting fantasy novels, both within universes I’ve already established, and beyond.

How has having a daughter affected your writing life/plans/schedule?

I’m not totally sure. My daughter has brought tremendous joy to my life, but she’s certainly brought some distraction too. I think ultimately she’s going to help the quality of my writing, and my experiences with her will give me insights that deepen my characters, and I also think that being a dad is a calling that is going to take me many years to figure out. Right now, when my daughter’s having trouble, and she needs me, but my writing is going well, I usually drop the writing. To me, being a good dad is more important than hitting my word quota. But kids need different things at different ages, and so do writers. Thus far, for whatever reason, my daughter hasn’t slowed down my writing. Somehow the work gets done.

What skills have you had to develop as a published author that don’t have to do with writing your novels? 

Once you get your deal to get traditionally published, you have to look at that as entering a new phase of your professional life. It’s like being a CEO versus working in the mail room. Well, minus the CEO compensation, golden parachute, and Learjet. You have to decide what you’re going to do, out of thousands of options.

What is your marketing going to look like?

What social media platforms are you going to use?

What content will you put on each of those platforms?

How often will you update your website? Is it a blog, do you talk about incendiary issues? Do you keep it international?

How much do you pay attention to the analytics? That is, how many “likes” each kind of post gets, what your rankings are on Amazon, what your Bookscan numbers are?

What your website posts are, (how many comments your website gets, how many pings, and trackbacks), and how much do you care about all of that?

How much do you follow your reviews? How do you deal with it when somebody posts a review that has factual errors? How do you deal with mean-spirited reviews? And sadly, how do you deal even with glowing reviews that compare you with writers you don’t respect at all? How do you deal with glowing reviews that are too glowing?

How do you stay the same person you were, or should you?

How do you deal with your editor when she wants to make changes that you really, really don’t want to make. Especially if this is your first book, and have no clout in this relationship whatsoever? (Imagine working on a film and Steven Spielberg is directing. He suggests some changes. How much are you going to fight him?)

What if you get a cover you hate? What if your agent doesn’t email you back for a week, or two weeks?

How are you going to deal with the emotional trough of your book coming out, there being a bunch of publicity, and then… nothing happens. You walk into a Barnes & Noble and they have tens of thousands of books, and you go to find yours, and there it is. One copy or two. Not face out. And you feel devastated. Or, maybe, there’s an empty slot where six of your books used to be. And every time you visit that bookstore, there’s that empty slot. And you’re like, “For the love of man!! Could you please buy more books? They’re selling out! What the hell is the problem here?”

And then if you’re so lucky, you might get fan mail. How do you respond? And if you’re luckier, maybe you get a lot of fan mail. And soon, your policy of responding to each gets unwieldy. How many original ways can you answer the question, “Are you ever going to make a movie of this book?” (Because you obviously have $100 million with which to make your own movie, right?)

And what do you do when you find your first dedicated troll?

Then, if you’re so lucky, when do you decide to hire a CPA? When do you hire a lawyer? Can you hear that sound? It’s the sound of $20s flying out of your wallet! How do you get one you can trust?

Are you going to set up your own webstore? Are you going to sell your own books? Are you going to self-published? Everyone says self-publishing is the way these days! Are you going to commission cover art? How are you going to find a good cover artist? How much do you pay those people?

Are you going to go to conventions? Which ones? Just the professional ones? The fan ones? Or the mixed ones? What is your purpose there? Just to have fun? To sell books? To make connections? Who are you trying to make connections with? How mercenary can you be about that?

Then, if you’re even luckier, are you going to hire an assistant? What will they do for you? How much do you pay them? What if they do it wrong? What kind of paperwork do you have to have to hire somebody? How do you do quarterly reports? Can you ask them to bring you coffee, or does that make you a horrible person? Do you set up a 401(k)? Health insurance? How much health insurance is reasonable?

Why is your wallet empty?

Then, oh yeah. Write a book. Faster than those last books when you were just writing books, please.

“Oh, it was all right. But I like his earlier work.”

 

7. What are three things you’d tell your younger, unpublished self?

Younger, unpublished me would hate some of the advice I’m about to give him. Also, I’m going to take this question literally. That is, I’m not going to answer this as if I were writing to a generalized, ideal unpublished writer. So this may be the worst writing advice post I’ve ever written.

Don’t give up. It is going to take longer than you want it to. A lot longer. But this time isn’t wasted. You aren’t going to have to get a real job, although you need to give up Kraft macaroni and go straight for the generic store brand. Just do it now. Ditto with the peanut butter.

Yes, that first scene is terrible. You should give up on it right now. Because the truth is you’re going to rewrite it a hundred times, and it’s never going to be right until after you finish the whole friggin’ trilogy. Then you’re going to sit down one day, and it’s going to come out really easy. So skip all that work that you did in between. You’re welcome.

No, your publisher isn’t going to fire you when you reject some of their bad suggestions. However, it was still a good call to reject those suggestions nicely.

It’s ok to ignore guidelines that other people set you, like when they ask for only three things, and you give them four. Or when that third book is 200,000 words, and you cut 30,000. Actually, the book would have been fine with those still in it. Your publisher is not going to fire you because the book is slightly too long.

8. How do you challenge yourself as a writer?

There’s some things about becoming a good writer that are actually transferable to real life. This question — How do you challenge yourself as a writer? — is basically the same question as: How do you challenge yourself as a person? Some writers stumble into their proficiency. They grow up reading a lot of Westerns, and they write Westerns and their Westerns are dynamite. They’re good at all the things that Westerns are good at. They don’t really have to think about it because they’ve internalized all the stuff that makes a Western good. That writer, however, will never write the book equivalent of the movie Unforgiven. That is, they won’t become self-reflective enough to critique the genre that they love. Now note, it’s easy to critique the parts of the genre that you don’t love. Fans do that all the time. “Oh, that hard science fiction! All ideas, terrible characters.” Or: “Oh that sword and sorcery! All action, but not a word of poetry!”

When I write, I write not to a market, but to my passion. If I had known too much about other people’s analyses of fantasy, it might have given me pause that with The Way of Shadows, I was writing a sword and sorcery fantasy novel. Shadow’s Edge would probably be considered heroic fantasy, and Beyond the Shadows is epic fantasy. When I started The Black Prism, I’d never even heard of flintlock fantasy. I just thought that mixing guns and swords and magic would be awesome.

So there’s a large element of “Know Thyself” in this. After The Night Angel Trilogy came out, we had some early signs that it would be very successful, and I had the option to continue to write what some might derisively call “ninja novels” for the rest of my life. I could have made a very, very good living doing so. But to me, doing the same thing over and over sounds like just another desk job. You’d find yourself working in a novel factory rather than in a widget factory.

Now there’s nothing wrong with people who work in a novel factory. There are certainly worse things you can do with your life, and worse ways to make money. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing that. So instead I have consistently tried to write a new kind of novel with every novel I’ve written. I didn’t have the labels for the subgenre each Night Angel novel would fill, but I knew they were different kinds of stories from each other. And when some people liked the first book best, and some people liked the second book best, and some people liked the third book best (or, conversely, especially hated book 1, or book 2, or book 3), I felt that was a sign of success. That’s me growing and changing as a writer.

Now at the same time, the guy who writes a great post-apocalyptic thriller may simply not be the right person to write a tender romance between octogenarians. When I started the Lightbringer series, I knew that I wrote certain kinds of characters well, I wrote action well, I could write a world with little description and constantly rising levels of tension. And I wanted to include all of those things in Lightbringer. But I also wanted to do more. So those were the questions I asked myself. What “more” can I do that’s different, but that’s within my reach? Can I make a fat kid be the main character? Can I make him be psychologically realistic as the son of a drug addict? He’s insecure and a bit whiny. That’s an easy character to hate. Can I make you eventually root for him and even love him?

That’s a pretty tough challenge. And what I wrote didn’t work for everybody. That’s the risk of doing something different. People who like what you did last time may not come along for the ride. But the point of trying something that’s outside of your current abilities, or is right at the edge of your current abilities, isn’t just the thing itself. By stretching yourself, you make yourself a stronger writer, and you carry those strengths on to every project you attempt from there on out. I made mistakes in The Black Prism. I’ve made mistakes in every book I’ve written. I would do it differently if I could do it now. But the only way I could get to a level of technical proficiency where I could now go back and fix those mistakes is by attempting those challenges in the first place.

Again, the flip side of this is having the wisdom and humility to attempt challenges that you might reasonably attain. It’s ok if something new you do doesn’t work for a certain fraction of your readers. But if it doesn’t work for ANY of them, then you’ve got a big problem.


 

A few silly questions:

1. What’s it like to be famous? Do you have a rider in your speaking contracts? Do you demand titanium water bottles at your podium? Do fans throw their underwear at you when you’re on stage?

Being famous is awesome. Whatever you can imagine — it’s better than that. We tend to complain about fame so that people don’t know just how good it is. 24/7. Good. It’s amazing.

I wake to a Swedish massage. No seriously, that’s my alarm clock. And I go to bed with Reiki. In between, I do things illegal in 34 states, with police, and they just smile at me. Because fame. I’m not even typing this answer. In fact, I’m not even dictating it. I have people for that.

2. How’s your Bulgarian writer doing? Are you paying him any more now that you’re a New York Times bestselling author?

Unfortunately for my Bulgarian, he forgot to add an escalator clause to his contract with me, so it turns out he’s still working somewhat below minimum wage for the next year or so. It turns out that if you know the right people in Monaco, and can get diplomatic visas, indentured servitude is still totally a thing. Unfortunately, his contract will come up in about a year and a half, so please don’t anybody talk to him in the meantime.

3. Will you ever write a Ninja Kitty Night Angel novel?

It’s already finished. I’m just not showing it to anyone to punish impertinent questions.

 


 

Pivot Questionnaire (made famous by Inside the Actors’ Studio)

1. What’s your favorite word?
Slubberdegullion.

2. What is your least favorite word?
Taxes.

3. What turns you on?
[This answer omitted because it would be awkward to dictate to my assistant.]

4. What turns you off?
Toe lint.

5. What sound do you love?
Crackling fire.

6. What sound do you hate?
My name repeated over and over and over.

7. What is your favorite curse word?
Oksana Baiul!

8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
Director.

9. What profession would you not like to do?
Underwater welding.

10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? 
“Hey, I gave you long enough to finish your last series. Now get in here!”

__________________________________________________________________

I was wondering how a professional writer, such as yourself, it does when it comes to titles. I myself like to come up with the title (usually along with an idea) long before I begin the project, and then go from there, so I was just wondering what you do when writing the title itself and when you actually name a project (I.E. In the beginning, middle or near the end). Thank you. – Thomas P.

You can come up with a title at any point in the process, and depending on your publisher, the title you choose may not be the title the book is published under. There’s a lot of give and take with your publisher on this, because a title is part of the book’s marketing, and marketing is your publisher’s expertise. You might have written an amazing book, but you’re terrible at coming up with titles. Or, unbeknownst to you, your title has connotations within your genre (or even another genre) that make your secondary world fantasy sound like a romance novel, or whatever. For The Night Angel Trilogy, my publisher rejected my first titles, and I ended up going through lists of different possibilities with them. Ultimately, we settled on The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge, Beyond the Shadows, which worked thematically and ended up being absolutely the right choice both artistically and in marketing terms. With my second series, I spent a lot of time discussing titles for the first and second books in The Lightbringer Series, but the third and fourth were my original titles.

I have found that knowing the title before and as you write the book helps you bring some focus earlier in the first draft, rather than having to make sure that it fits everything, later. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter when you come up with these. As with everything in writing, no one cares about anything except the final product.

My question is: how do you avoid over explaining the details? How much is it acceptable to skim over, leaving the details to a readers imagination? – Mark T.

And… I feel that my answer below tackles both of these questions.

I was wondering if you could give me some advice as to how you make the world come alive. The little sequences between important events that are supposed to make the world come alive (walking down the street and looking at the scenery or people walking by, for instance) don’t feel very organic. At all. What advice could you give to help make the little things have a larger impact? – Andrius

There’s really only one test for how much detail a scene should have: Is This Detail Pertinent? What that means in each scene can vary. For example, if a character is rushing to the other side of the city to find her kidnapped son, then you don’t need to describe every odor in the farmer’s market that day. It’s simply not pertinent to what the scene is accomplishing, it’s not pertinent to the character. Now perhaps the farmer’s market is incredibly crowded, and she can’t get through it. A description of the crowd as an obstacle to her, maybe some personification of how it seems like an “unyielding beast” or things in that vein. Those would be pertinent details.

On the other hand, if a character is lying in a field, dying after being victorious in battle, maybe a long description of the beauty of the clouds is pertinent, because it’s meaningful to the character and to the readers how this character is savoring what little life is left to him.

Now not every detail that you’re going to use in a novel is going to be that meaningful. I tend to be pretty sparse with descriptions in general, because I mostly find them boring. But you can be too sparse as well. I think Stephen King describes this as characters becoming floating heads talking in a fog. Scenes do need to take place in a place. And ideally, you can make that place matter to the scene. Having a fight with your husband is very different if you’re having it in your bedroom versus if you’re having it at your in-law’s house versus if you’re having it in the middle of his law office.

If you’re talking about other kind of details, like the details of what a character is thinking, sometimes in the first draft, you may need to write some extra sentences to try to get exactly the thing you’re looking for on the page. And that’s fine. In the editorial phase, you can ask yourself things like “Is this redundant? Have I already explained this? If I explained it twice, which description was better?”

All that said, some writers are simply going to have a more or less descriptive style. And that’s perfectly fine. Some readers prefer more, and some readers prefer less description. But readers will skim if the thing being described really doesn’t matter. And usually the metric for if it matters is: Does it matter to the characters?

Secondarily, if the description itself puts the readers in the correct mood for what you have planned next, then that is also sufficient justification. Just make sure you’re doing it right.

4.Further Questions on Pre-writing/Planning/Outlining:
a) How much pre-writing/planning do you do before starting a new book?
b) How do you make your characters, do you figure them out as you go, or do you pre-write them before you start your novel?
c) I’m having trouble with my own writing. I’ve written three novels and when I outline, I get bored. When I discovery write it’s so messy that it freaks me out. I am curious about how many revision drafts you typically do on a book?
d) By what you write on your writing advice page under OUTLINING, It sounds like you discovery write. Is that the case? You talk about rearranging scenes. Do you do that after writing the first draft, or do you plan your scenes out? What you said, “You make things worse” was a little vague for me.
– James C.

Hi James,

Remember that when people create these rubrics of “discovery writers” vs. “outliners”, this is all ex post facto. People are trying to put analytical labels onto a creative enterprise. I don’t fit into either camp. And from what you’re saying, it sounds like you don’t either. Here’s a suggestion for you: (This is what I do) Pick some huge, pivotal moments for your characters and for your plot. This is the moment Lisa decides to betray the Rebel Alliance, at this point there will be a gigantic fight on the burning Starbase, and Lisa will heroically die finding redemption at last. This is the moment when our hero, BarBar Jinks, meets Lisa in a cantina. She seems like a real bastard. Make as many of these big moments as you can, or as excite you.

See if you can make the moments of inner tension and outer tension align as closely as possible. Spend as much time doing this as is fun for you, or until you feel like it’s all so foggy that you just have no idea what you’re doing anymore. And then start writing. Maybe you haven’t settled on the particular accent that BarBar is going to speak with. Is it going to be Jamaican? Wait, are you any good at writing accents at all?

Now this is one of those moments where you might freak yourself out, because obviously if you figure out right away what BarBar’s accent is going to be, it’s going to be a lot easier for you to write all of his dialogue correctly. But you know what? Sometimes you just have to start rowing your boat in the right direction. If you get paralyzed by making all the decisions, just get moving. Yes, you know what, you may have to come back and change every single line of dialogue in the book that BarBar speaks. Yes, that’s daunting. But you know what? A lot of failed writers aren’t willing to work hard. Numerous times, I’ve done entire drafts where I just go through and look at every line of dialogue one character speaks, to see if she sounds like herself in every instance, and not just the same as every other character.

But ok, you can fix that. (Granted, this is an extreme example. It would be really nice if you can figure out how your main character is going to speak before you write thousands of lines of dialogue for him.) If your alternatives are writing nothing or writing something that you’re going to need to fix, write the thing you’re going to need to fix.

With this approach, which I call the Mountain Peak approach, you see those story and character points in the distance, and you write toward them. If a scene doesn’t get you toward those peaks, it shouldn’t be in the book. Every scene should be necessary. And ideally, it should be necessary both to the character development and to the plot development. You may think that “Oh, this deep, meaningful scene of my characters talking for 10,000 words about how they can’t decide which girl is prettier, really reveals so much about them that it’s necessary to the book!” Well…. Ok. I can imagine that such a scene might… maybe… develop the inner lives of these characters in a way that it serves their character arcs. But a whole lot of readers are going to think it’s just boring. And a whole lot of readers are probably going to be right. Now, if it turns out that somehow which girl is the prettiest is going to show which girl is going to get kidnapped in Chapter 5 by the bad guys, and they have to figure out what the bad guys think about this (whilst also showing their own biases and developing their characters arcs), then this actually becomes plot-necessary. (Still, 10,000 words on that is probably way too much.)

The good thing about the Mountain Peak approach, is that if six months from now, you find a scenic route that still gets you to the Mountain Peak, you can pursue that, which a Strict Outlining approach does not allow.

But yes, this approach still does have many of the supposed downfalls of discovery writing. You will make mistakes. You will, three-quarters of the way through the draft, realize that the climax would be a lot better if BarBar was secretly a rebel all this time. (Oh no! That invalidates everything you’ve said in Chapter 6! And something you mentioned in Chapter 9, and that other thing you referred to in Chapter 13.)

This is actually not a weakness. A slavish obedience to an idea you had a year ago is a weakness. This kind of writing, with lots of rewriting involved, allows you to get your best thoughts onto the page. It requires many drafts. That’s a good thing. That’s polishing. A novel is a home with many rooms, and many skills are necessary. You might be able to install the drywall flawlessly, but for you, the electrical takes a lot of work. Ok, fine, take some time on the electrical. You may figure out after framing that you messed up the kitchen. Well, what’s better? To do the drywall and the cabinetry in a cramped and inefficient kitchen, or to fix the damn kitchen? Fix the kitchen. It will take longer than you want it to, it will always fall at least slightly short of what you hoped it was going to be. That’s the nature of this work.

Figure out what it is that allows you, as a human and as an artist, to get the work done, and then do that thing. Let analysts slap labels on how you did it.