It’s a long road. Just know that going in, and keep plugging away. I’ve heard from a Tor editor that books that come in on their slush piles take 3.5 years to get looked at. Not trying to discourage you, just telling you how it is. If you love this enough, you’ll just suck it up and take the waiting and write lots of books while you do wait.
I know a guy who hated even the thought of writing until he was 40, and since then he’s worked for Hollywood and written TV shows, movies, and novels. What matters, though, is that you read. You have to read a ton of books in order to soak up how writers do what they do, and how to do it well. If you’re not a reader, you’ll never make it as a writer. There’s just too much to learn. It’s sort of like thinking, “I like running. I should go to the Olympics.”
Write regularly even when you don’t feel like writing, even if it’s just a little bit every day. Don’t spend too much time re-reading what you wrote before, because if you’re like most people, you’ll think, this stinks, and you’ll get frustrated and you’ll quit. Or, you’ll spend years polishing that first chapter. Here’s the funny thing: sometimes, you won’t really know what the book is about until you actually get done with the first draft. But you can’t polish what isn’t here yet. So you have to write that crappy first draft, even if it is crappy. And trust me, it probably will be crappy. Try not to think about this for the next year as you write your first draft. We all go through it, there just aren’t that many Mozarts in writing. Decide up front, if this is what you really want to do, and if you have, or can learn to have, a thick skin, and a high tolerance for frustration, because to put it bluntly, there is a lot of that. And then, just start writing. Write to the most fascinating dilemmas and the hardest points and the things you’re most passionate about and the things you’re most terrified of. Keep going to those places, and keep making it worse. If you do that, who knows, maybe that first draft will practically write itself.
Do you write organically, or do you outline? And which do you suggest doing?
Some people like to figure out everything their character is going to do for the whole book. Other people just write from day to day, not knowing what’s going to happen next. Most people are a mix of both. And great writers fall all over the spectrum.
Here’s the thing I do. Wherever your hero is at, make things worse. Make the dangers greater, make there be all sorts of different kind of dangers–that is, threaten not just his life, but also his marriage, his status, his dog, his comic book collection. And then make the dangers real–make him actually lose the dog, or the marriage, or the best friend, just so people know that all the threats are real. Then make all those things that are threatened be even more valuable to him. This comic book collection he’s going to lose isn’t just comic books to him, it’s his last recollection of his father who died tragically when he was young. Etcetera. If you keep making things worse, and make them matter more and more, the journey from point A to point B will be just as rewarding for you as it is for your readers. And if it’s ever not fun, that’s YOUR fault. Ask yourself, how could this be more fun? And then do it. Surprise yourself, and you will surprise your readers too.
You might find the book goes in a different direction than you thought it would. That’s fine. After you get to the end, you’ll start all the hard work of fixing everything. But first, get to the end. Just get there.
How do you get your ideas down on paper?
The first thing is to write the book. The first thing is always the book. You have to write a really great book. How you do that, honestly, is a mystery. I think you just need to write a story that fascinates you. If you get bored as you’re writing it, then you’re the writer, make it interesting.
How do you get started writing?/How do you stop Writer’s Block?
I think Writer’s Block hits when you have either a lack of confidence in yourself, or in the story. Inspiration is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome when you sit down to write and everything comes easily. I know, I’ve had those days where I’ve written seven thousand words (say 30 pages), but writing is work. If it were easy, more people would do it well. When you’re stuck with a scene, write down something. Sometimes it’s just that first sentence–and it may be agony. There are a dozen decisions you make by writing that first sentence. Get it out there. Yes, it may be wrong. But by making the decisions, you’ll quickly figure out which ones are right, and which ones are wrong. If you can’t even begin to start the scene, then write down some notes: Joe and Cynthia fight about her signing up for the army without telling him… and what? Something needs to happen. And she decides to break it off with him? Write that thought down. Then write down, No, that pushes things forward too fast for what I’m trying to do there. How about Joe gives Cynthia an ultimatum to go back down to the recruiting office and unenlist, or he’ll never speak to her again?… Could work… Oh, and she bumps into his friend Blake, who tries to cool things down between them. She’s never noticed Blake is so cool.
See? Now, even though you aren’t getting the scene on paper, you’re making the decisions that will help you get the scene on paper. You’re doing the work.
Mary asked for “ANY and ALL editing advice you might have.”
As it so happens, as I write this, I’m deep into the process of editing, so this has been on my brain a lot. Like every part of writing, some parts of this will come naturally to you, and other parts will be naturally more difficult.
First, if you want to be a pro, act like a pro. If your friends can’t be honest with you because you fall to pieces when they don’t love everything about your book, they’ll lie to you. Yes, we’re artists; we want everyone to love everything we’ve ever done and tell us we’re brilliant. If anyone ever tells you they love everything you’ve ever done, they’re either lying or a moron.
If you’ve written the first draft, you’ve done something that thousands of people who say they want to be writers will never do. Congratulations. Crack a Sprite, pat yourself on the back, howl at the moon twice, and go to bed late, dreaming improbable dreams.
Done? Good, now get your butt out of bed. It’s time to work.
Before, you had nothing. Nothing is hard to shape. Now you have marble, Michelangelo. Thing about marble? It’s tough. Bring your hammers and chisels.
Re-read your book. All of it. Make notes as you go about what doesn’t work. It may help to print it up. You may not remember all the stuff that was good, or bad. After you’ve got that list, prioritize. What are the biggest problems? Do you have a chronological difficulty? Tackle that sucker first, because it’s going to change some other things. Figure out what is most logical to fix first.
When you see all the problems laid out in front of you in an honest fashion, you may despair. There’s so much! It’s horrible! You’ll never fix all this! Okay, give yourself five minutes to wallow in that beautiful little puddle of self-pity. Done? Good. Pros panic, too. Then we get back to work.
If you give up now, all the work you’ve done before this point is for nothing. Don’t.
Have some faith in yourself. This is one incredible, wild, unjustifiable, irrational place in your art to let your ego run wild–you broke it, you CAN fix it.
I like to make my problems discrete, so I can tackle them one at a time. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. So, “FIX Greedy’s dialogue. He doesn’t sound like a Smurf…ever!”
I’ll take this, and I’ll go through the entire manuscript, looking only at Greedy’s dialogue, fixing every instance. Finished it? Okay, maybe it took two days, or ten. Fine, check it off. Move on to the next.
Be fearless as you take apart your manuscript. Change that twelve-year old girl to a seventeen-year-old boy. Juggle that timeline. Make Jill be in love with Timmy instead of Tommy–EVEN IF IT BREAKS THINGS. If you know that the way you have it now doesn’t work, change it. Your manuscript is a moving target. This is hard. But if you’re not willing to make the big changes, your manuscript will not be as good as it can be. And why? Because you’re a coward. Because you’re afraid of hard work. Grow up. Writing IS hard work, and those who pretend otherwise are lying to you so you’ll believe they’re a genius. Even Shakespeare wrote and rewrote Hamlet for years and years and years. Your vampire romance could probably use a bit of polishing too.
If you give up now, all you’ve done until now is for nothing. And you know what? Established writers can sell a mediocre novel now and again. (Though they shouldn’t!) You, however, can’t. There is too much competition for less than your best work to get published. Sorry.
Read your book again if you’ve made a ton of changes. Do the same thing again, writing down what doesn’t work, and maybe what does if your ego needs it. Now read Donald Maass’s books that I’ve talked about a million times, and see if they don’t give you lots of ideas for how you can do better. Does that female character seem cliché? Is there no good reason for that guy to love that girl? Is your villain really believable? Does some point in the novel drag? Are you consistently over-explaining? Be honest.
When you think it basically makes sense and is pointing the direction you want it to point, then send it to your beta readers. (If you have any. I didn’t, but I’m a bit of a lone wolf.)
The most important things your betas can tell you is: (and I’m stealing this from another writer who helped me, Dennis Foley) if they were ever bored, and when in the manuscript they became aware that they were reading a book again. (Which can happen from confusion, or odd sentence structure, or dialogue that doesn’t fit the voice or anything.) Non-writers are sometimes better at this. You want people to flag where things don’t work–not fix them for you or overanalyze.
Then go back and fix. Oh, you’re not done crying yet? Go over in the corner and mope quietly for two days. (It takes me two days to get over a really bruising critique. Yes, still.) But hey, QUIETLY. Make your friends pay for their honesty, and they’ll stop being honest.
Done yet? Oh good. Guess what?
Oh, look at you, already going back to work! Good job. You’re learning, aren’t you?
Once you have the big stuff fixed, the character motivations making sense, the exposition folded in smoothly, the plots giving awesome resolution, the subplots making sense and affecting the main plot, THEN start worrying about the spelling and grammar and the smaller stuff.
Go through the entire novel, fixing everything you see that’s still wrong.
Now go through it again. What? You still see more stuff wrong? Sentences that seem awkward? Congratulations, you’re human. Fix it. Are you sick of reading your own novel yet? Yeah, that’s part of the deal.
Most authors are perfectionists. Some pretend that they only send their books out when they are perfect–and then you read their book, and you have to ask, “Really? You thought THIS was perfect?”
A more honest approach is to analyze when you’re reaching a point of seriously diminishing returns. Generally, you’re close when you notice you’re changing sentences BACK to the way they were written before the LAST time you came through and changed them–and it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. (If you have chapters that still refuse to work after you’ve tried and tried and tried, it’s time for outside advice.)
Then you can send it off. Guess what? Your editor or agent may see a LOT of stuff that you need to fix. Take your hurt feelings… oh, you know the drill now? Done moping already? Back to work already? Fixing it already?
Heck, you may be cut out for this work after all.
Two years from now, when your book hits the shelves, guess what? You’re going to see flaws in the first paragraph of your own book when you read it. It’s normal. It’s a sign you’re growing as a writer. Don’t sweat it. Your next book is going to be better. And look, you’ve already forgotten how painful the whole thing was.
You adorable, snuggly little sucker.
Mary asks, “I have a manuscript in progress, it’s been in progress for a while but I’ve realized recently that it’s just not…enough. Not deep enough, not thorough enough; the characters need to get their hands dirtier, so to speak, everything just needs a more of an edge to it. I was writing my story in ideal fantasyland, so to speak, but I’ve realized that the world I want it to take place in is far from ideal. My question, is when is enough, enough? Is there a point where a writer just has to give up on an idea and start again? or do you think a story is redeemable, as long as the author can see where the changes need to be made?”
Excellent question, Mary. Writing a novel is a huge commitment of time, energy, and passion, and I believe in counting the cost before embarking on anything that could take a year or two or ten of your finite time here on Earth. The question quickly becomes multifaceted, but here’s the first hurdle:
Do you have the passion in you to make THIS novel what it can be? If so, get back to work.
Because I want to praise you: this desire, this yearning to Do Better, is what lies behind all great art. Leonardo da Vinci was surrounded by guys who worked faster than he did. He’d take two years to do a single painting. (Picasso or Van Gogh often did one or two a day.) Lazy, huh? And yet, The Virgin of the Rocks. And yet, the Mona Lisa.
For many of us, the question is more difficult. “Sure, I’d like to work on this book, but the clock is ticking. Is this the best investment of my time?”
And of course, it depends. If you’re a writer whose fastball is her ideas, you might want to pull a Brandon Sanderson. Brandon wrote six novels in six years while working as a night desk guy at a hotel, each with different magic systems (because, presumably, that’s what Brandon really enjoyed working on). If your fastball is your characters, on the other hand, maybe it’s only on draft 11 that you’re getting Tom and Lisa’s relationship exactly right. Or if your strength is your use of language, maybe you’ve got the poetic nuances ALMOST right, and to start over would be to start all over.
Figure out what you do well. What you do best. Do you really have a ticking clock, or is that your anxiety speaking? Because believe me, it’s better to take an extra year to get published and to sell an extra 100k copies than it is to get published Right Now!
When is enough, enough? Perfectionism is our gift and our curse. There is a balance here. What you’re talking about though, for you… I think you need to do the work. It sounds like you have direction. But there’s a time when enough has to be enough. A lot of times, artists are driven to this by poverty. They’d LOVE to dink around with their work for another ten years (and go insane, likely) but they have to push the project out the door or they don’t eat. And there’s a value to that. I’m a guy with a lot of ideas: if I spend ten years on a novel, that’s probably four other novels that I’ll never have time to write. Okay, so are those extra eight years spent on this novel going to make it five times as good?
If the answer is no, then figure out where you’re going to reach a point of diminishing returns. Six more months of editing makes my book twice as good. Another six months makes it 10% better. Six more months makes it 5% better… When do you stop?
Economists call this opportunity cost. Whatever you do, you pay for it in things you’re NOT doing: you’re not writing the next book, you’re not spending time with your kids, you’re not sending in your resume to that better day job that you could get. Do not, however, divorce this logical equation from your intuitive self–especially if you’re an intuitive person.
When I finished writing The Way of Shadows (well, finished minus a number of editing drafts!), my brain told me the smart thing to do was what (unbeknownst to me) Brandon Sanderson was doing at the same time: write another first book in a different series. That way, if book 1 of Night Angel didn’t sell, maybe book 1 of series X would sell, or book 1 of series Y. This is smart, and it worked great for Brandon, but…
But I was passionate about telling more stories about Kylar. It wasn’t the right move; it wasn’t the smart move, but it was what I was passionate about, and a passionate storyteller is a good storyteller. (In the end, it turned out to be a smart move, too, as I had a complete series ready to hit the market all at once. But we didn’t know that when I was writing Shadow’s Edge. I knew only that I was doing what my intuitive, artistic self needed me to do.)
When I’m writing, I make lists as I go of things I need to fix in the next draft. This helps me keep my forward momentum. Then, when I finish the rough draft, I compile those lists and prioritize. Which fixes must happen first, because the others will depend on how this one turns out? Which ones are easy and would be good to work on when I just need to feel that I’ve done something? By ordering these long checklists, I help give the editing process some shape. I often will poke around at the really big fixes for quite a while: “Oh, X still doesn’t have any reason to do Y, which she has to do for the plot to move forward. Hm. Guess I’ll work on completely-unrelated-Z today!” In this way, I let my subconscious work on the problem. Then one day, often in the shower or late at night–Boom, got it. It helps me to make these lists specific: i.e. “Go through all of Teia’s scenes and make sure she comes across as red/green colorblind in all of them.” Then I’ll make a list of each of her scenes. It gives me satisfaction to tick them off one by one. (Even if, as so often happens, I also end up working on OTHER things in those scenes, too.) And if you stumble across more issues, you can feel free to add them to your editing checklist. It’s okay. In fact, it’s great to do that.
Edits are your opportunity to make your book better simply by the application of sheer hard work. Do not miss this opportunity. There may be a genius out there who is smarter than you, who puts down raw gold that’s better than the ore you drop on the page, but you can smelt your silver and gold and make some damn fine sparkly electrum that looks better than his. Screw that other guy. People don’t care what process you used to make this book shine. They just want it to shine. And you know what? Gold doesn’t go with every complexion. Sometimes people want a nice platinum or electrum, thank you very much.
Now, when are you finished with edits? (Another form of when is enough, enough?)
I tend to say that I’m finished with edits when I’m repeatedly changing back word choices to how they were two edits ago. (No, the old way WAS a little clearer, wasn’t it?)
There are lots of right and wrong ways to tell a story, and sometimes, you may have to face a structural problem that can’t be resolved just by applying good old elbow grease. Maybe you vacillated between using first- and third-person narration in book 1, and ended up going with third-person. It’s published, it’s out there. In book 2, you suddenly realize that for the narrative purposes of book 2, you should go with first-person narration–but that’s just too weird, and you know readers would rebel. You’ve thought of lots of sneaky ways to change this book into first person WITHOUT readers hating it, but no, you’re pretty sure they’d hate it. So, you’re stuck. Well, do the best you can.
Similarly, you may find that your heart is really in telling a different kind of story than you thought you wanted to write. This character is 15, but you find teenagers kind of annoying now. You want her to be 65, like you are!
Now generally, aging the main character by DECADES is going to change everything. I mean, really, who’s going to think that it’s acceptable for a 17 year old girl to have a relationship with a 104 year old guy? (Oh. Um, seriously? Well, then, never mind.)
But seriously, sometimes you make choices that have to stick, and that are tough on your novel. I chose to write a fast-paced story that takes place in a pseudo-Mediterranean Sea basin area, circa 1600. Then, on top of that, I chose to create a magic system that would work alongside a budding Renaissance science system. An incredibly intricate magic system within an incredibly intricate political world–while maintaining as fast of a pace as possible. In Night Angel, I chose a more familiar Western medieval world. Readers felt that they understood how things worked, and I was able to build the weirdness as we went (and as Azoth discovered it). But in Lightbringer, with Gavin Guile being a sort of Emperor of the Known World, there was no room for slow initiations. He already understands how his world works, so any exposition with him would come across as being of the “As you know Bob” variety.
In short, the expositional burdens on The Black Prism were tremendous. There is so much that the reader needs to know in order for her to understand what is happening on stage, that it’s incredibly difficult to also tell a high-velocity story. Now, if my general storytelling style were more luxurious, I could have fit in two pages of magic exposition easily amid the five pages of food descriptions and three pages of dress descriptions and the pages of genealogies of kings.
But my style isn’t a luxurious stroll through a fantasy wonderland, it’s a breakneck race. So two pages of magic exposition was like a flat spot on racing tire rather than a rest area for a palanquin.
When I look back at The Black Prism, it still bothers me a bit. I read it over, and I ask, “Too much exposition? Maybe too much repetition of how the magic works?” But then I get the emails: “I didn’t get it until half way through.” (i.e. After the third explanation.) And “I still don’t quite get it.” Couple that with “I wish he hadn’t over-explained it, I got it after the second time.” Gah!
So in the end, I took on a huge burden. Maybe too big of a burden–but I believe that growing as an author requires trying to lift heavier and heavier weights. There are some things about the first half of Black Prism that make me wish I could have spent another two years editing. But the truth is, every scene is necessary, the magic explanations are clear and unambiguous, and the exposition comes at natural areas in the plot: Kip asking questions, generally. To shoehorn in more exposition or to make it invisible, I would have had to change the plot itself. I could have done it: We open on a peaceful village, and spend a few weeks there learning who everyone is and how everything works, and finally, STUFF HAPPENS!
This is the way many, many books begin: sometimes with a long prologue to disguise the fact that nothing is going to happen in the first 10% of the book as the author establishes the ‘normal’ world which is about to be interrupted by the plot. I didn’t want to start my plot this way, so I made decisions. Those decisions… I have to live with. The Black Prism isn’t a perfect book. I could work on it for another two years and it would be maybe 10% better. Maybe. In the meantime, life.
Also, sometimes there have been single sentences I wish I could go back and change as I write the sequels that would make life easier. “I made that plural? Was I even thinking? Can I just make it singular in book two and hope no one notices? No, no, I can’t. Drat.”
So there is a point where, like your children, you realize your novels will not be perfect–even if you spend years on them. There is a point where you have to kick them out the door. Sorry, hon, you gotta start paying for your own cell phone; 40 years old is old enough.
(DW asks, “Sometimes I find that my story idea seemed too similar with some other story that I’ve probably read or watch years ago and loved. I think you’ve mentioned this in your tips, in trying to think about other branches for the story that are different from others. Problem is I can’t get any ideas that won’t stray far from the message I’m trying to put across…”)
I was actually just talking about this today on Twitter. Without getting too specific, because I don’t want to give spoilers of my own book, I have a magical thing in The Blinding Knife that I wanted to name something that gave a sense of foreboding or dread. It’s a magical, made-up thing, and I obviously could have gone with a completely made-up name, but I find in fantasy we already make up so many names that in this case I wanted something a little closer to English. One of the easiest places to go for something like that is to archaic words. So I called the magic thing some made-up name that I didn’t like just to get through the book, and then when I started my edits, I found the perfect name: the bane. Now bane has been used in other fantasy novels and in games, but as far as I was concerned, it hadn’t been overused, it had a nice feel to it, and it did what I needed it to do, especially for something that does not appear that many times in my novel. Good enough, right?
Then I was playing the fantastic game Batman: Arkham City and among the many villains, Batman interacts with a character named Bane. Ah, that’s interesting, I thought. Sort of funny that I just thought of that a few weeks ago. But I was still quite happy with keeping bane because here was a Batman villain I’d never even heard of, so I figured this went nicely into the second-tier uses of the word bane. Again, obviously the Batman creators were looking for the same thing I was looking for: something kind of creepy, and dark, and arcane, but that still communicated something.
And then I read that Bane will be the primary villain in the next Batman movie. So now, shortly before my novel comes out, the huge cultural juggernaut called a Hollywood Blockbuster Movie will roll through town, obliterating everything in its path. My bane has nothing to do with the Batman Bane or the movie Batman Bane. It doesn’t look similar, it doesn’t act similarly, it’s really nothing alike. However, the conversation plays all too easily in my mind:
“This book has magic and stuff, and there’s these cool things in it called the bane.”
“Oh, he totally stole that from Batman.” Gah!
And this has happened to me before. When I started with the idea for The Black Prism, part of what I wanted to do was come up with a fresh, cool new magic system. I knew I could do that. But part of the challenge of coming up with an intricate magic system is making it, on surface, very easy to understand. When one person says to another, standing in the bookstore, “So you say this has a cool magic system. What’s it like?” it’s nice if you can give people something simple to grasp. So the answer to that question is, “Oh, it’s a color-based magic system.” As I thought about the idea, I liked it a lot. We all understand colors, and we have strong associations with them. Plus, I hadn’t seen a color magic system in fantasy in a long time. (Not saying that there weren’t some, but I hadn’t seen them.) So I wrote the book. It was turning out beautifully. I was maybe 2/3 of the way done with The Black Prism – and then Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker comes out.
Warbreaker, in case you didn’t know, has a cool magic system. It’s based on color.
Sometimes, I wish Brandon Sanderson weren’t such a nice guy. Because then I would hate him.
So what’s the lesson? The truth is, originality in the Romantic conception of something that has never been done before is probably a bankrupt concept. People are people. We go to stories for certain things. We feel satisfied when justice is served – except those of us who are more satisfied by a gritty portrayal of the world that shows that justice isn’t served. We like it when the guy gets the girl in the end. Except those of us who are sick of those saccharine portrayals and want to read a book where the girl slaps that smiling dude’s pompous face! We like characters who grow and change from the beginning of the novel until the end – except those who stay the same and force the world to change around them. The truth is, every trope is a trope for a reason, and every trope inverted is simply another trope.
Now, Hollywood likes to say that there’s only 30 storylines (or whatever). And most Hollywood movies play out as if they believe this. I don’t believe that originality is impossible, ergo steal everything you can. I think we can tell old stories in new and surprising ways, and I think that’s a human imperative. Clearly there are more and less original ideas. If you start writing your teenage vampire novel now, that vein has probably been picked pretty clean. But clearly there’s something about the vampire story that resonates. And in another 50 years, it will probably have another resurgence.
My advice, if you’re really worried about writing something original, is a bit counterintuitive. I’d say don’t go out and read every fantasy novel you can get your hands on that has something remotely similar to your idea. That way madness lies. Plus, the subconscious is a slippery thing. Sometimes ideas that you swear are yours are really ideas that have infiltrated from elsewhere. This is where Google is your friend.
Instead, as I’ve recommended before, I’d say follow your passions. For me, this means, that I don’t look at the way slavery works in other fantasy novels and try to do something different. From my classical studies, I remember feeling that slavery in fantasy is understandably heavily influenced by the way slavery worked in the American South. But in antiquity, slavery was often not race-based. If your Greek village lost a border skirmish with the Greek village next door, you could be a slave. And so any person you saw on the street might be a slave. And this caused a lot of anxiety among the privileged class. So instead of trying to be different from everyone else, instead I went and studied slavery in Greece and Rome. It turns out its an incredibly slippery topic, because it’s really hard to tell who’s telling the truth, and obviously the slaves never got to tell their side of things.
After I’d done this research, and had already incorporated it into my worldbuilding, I read George R. R. Martin’s latest book – and I swear he’s read some of the same books that I did in between his last book and this one. The lesson isn’t that I’m always the last to the party, believe me, there are a few books out there with covers depicting hooded assassin-y figures who would attest to that! The point is that I can worry a lot that somebody out there is going to accuse me of stealing an idea, even though I didn’t, or I can write the book I’m passionate about. I can write it as honestly and as well as I understand. So some things that I’m passionate about that I incorporate into my work: science, and the history of science, history, leadership, cultures, and religions. I’m really curious about how people understand their world, both physically and metaphysically, and how that changes them, if it does at all. Rather than trying to see what my contemporaries have done with the things I’m passionate about, I go to the sources themselves. And believe me, I think that reading Winston Churchill on military leadership is probably better than reading [insert generic fantasy author here]. Because other fantasy authors probably agree with me, we may well end up drawing water from the same cultural wells. So there may be similarities. Brandon Sanderson probably had the same thought process as I did when he came up with Warbreaker – he just writes faster than I do. But Warbreaker and The Black Prism are completely different books.
If you use your life and your passions and your courage, and if you put in the practice, the hundreds of thousands of words (maybe a million words) to become truly comfortable in your own skin as a storyteller, then when somebody reads your novel, there will be no doubt in their mind that it’s your novel: “Yeah, it’s got vampires, but they don’t sparkle. And they’re all from some eastern European country. It’s sort of got this steampunk thing. Except, I don’t think there’s any cool gadgets. But it’s really good! It’s by this guy named Bram Stoker.”*
*Yes, I’m aware this is not a perfect analogy. I thought it was funnier than putting in some other contemporary who’s written a vampire novel that’s diametrically opposed to the most famous vampire novels of our time.
(Peter asks: “Could you describe for me your workflow, i.e. work habits? How do you go about planning and writing a book?”)
Every book is different. I’ve heard a few authors say things like “I figured out how to write a book when X”. I distrust those guys. Every book should have new challenges. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong. You’re being content with pumping out 100,000 words and a limp narrative that echoes the last 100,000 words you wrote.
If you feel bewildered, if you feel lost in word thickets, you’re on the right path. Everything good is worth fighting for. A novel is not only a journey forward, it’s a journey inward. If that’s easy for you, you’re not going to the right places. You’re not being brave enough.
That said, there are tricks. As always, my tricks may not work for you.
1) Work every day. “I can’t work every day,” you whine. “I’ve got a day job.”
I didn’t say you have to work a lot every day. Here’s some of the most important work you can do: Pick up your problem mentally. Pick at it like it’s a knot (or a scab or a zit, ya filthy animal). Then put it down. Oh, look, you’ve just worked!
Keep that problem in the bin, and your mind is going to keep working at it–while you’re cooking dinner, while you’re screaming at your kids, while you’re lying awake panicking about that presentation tomorrow. Be smarter than your brain. Make it work more, so you can work less.
2) Work in the shower. Whether it’s because your mind is tired and that helps creative thinking, or because of some weird ionizing hoohah, whatever, lots of people report having great ideas in the shower. Pick up that problem, play with it. You’ve showered before, right? (Ya filthy animal.) Surely you can shower on autopilot.
3) Talk to yourself. You’re a writer, you have the right to be quirky. If it makes you feel better, put in a Bluetooth earpiece and pretend you’re having a telephone conversation. The act of verbalizing your problem sometimes shakes things loose. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk through problems with a real live person (if they listen more than they speak), sometimes it’s not. Try both. Also, don’t do this in the middle of Starbucks. What kind of a jackass are you?
4) Outsmart yourself. Your friends and loved ones have been outsmarting you for years, shouldn’t be hard. Do you get overwhelmed by a word goal? I do, when it’s big. You write one sentence, and you’re now 0.25% of the way finished! Ugh, that seems like NOTHING! You might as well give up. You might as well quit. You’re never going to be published! You’re never going to make anything of yourself! Aunt Josephine was right! You should get a real job. And a haircut while you’re at it. And some fashion sense! And ohmigod where is the ice cream?
The first word is the hardest. The first sentence is hardest. The first paragraph is hardest.
Make yourself a ludicrously low word goal to conquer those three firsts. I’m just starting on a new novel. The beginnings of projects have always been hard for me. I’ll feel like I’ve worked all day, and end the day with no words on the page. (I’m on book 3, so I’m done with make some of the really broad decisions like time period etc, so the world building is easier on this beginning than on others, but still.) In order to get moving, I’ve given myself a word count goal of… brace yourselves… 250 words a day, for a month. Two hundred fifty? This post is already over six hundred words, and I’ve been working on it for less than half an hour.
Well, obviously, your fiction should be better than a dashed-off blog post. The point is, that 250 gets me going. I think, Hell, a six year old writing in crayon could get 250 words; I’m a pro! You write a few sentences, and you’re already 10% of the way done. By the time I realize I’ve breezed past 250, I’m already nearing 400. Then I adjust my word goal to 500. I blow past that? I head for 750. Get that? Okay, 1,000.
(For me, 1,000 to 2,000 words a day is about as fast as I go. At the end of a project, it always gets faster, but let’s be clear, if you write 50 weeks a year, 5 days a week, 1000 words a day, you’re going to be writing 250,000 words a year. That’s as long as my longest novel, and twice as long as most novels on the shelf. So when you see authors bragging on Twitter about writing 4-6,000 words per day, most of them are either giving you a snapshot of their best couple of days all year, or are Brandon Sanderson. MOST people just don’t write at that speed. Or if they are, it’s because they spent half the year outlining, so at this point, they’re just putting things in words–which isn’t exactly what you’re thinking they’re doing. I find that generally when I write much past 2k in a day, I start to outrun my creativity. The quality of what I write goes down, even when I know what happens next.)
If you make this low, reachable goal, well, reach it. C’mon, a six year old with a crayon could do this. Got there? Good. Now remember this good feeling. Writing = good feelings. Wire that sucker in there, hard. Oh, you made it to 500? Great! 1,000?! King of the World.
5) Hack your feelings. If you’re a writer, feelings are an occupational hazard. Treat them with care. They’re your bread and butter and your toxic waste. Your feelings are like blowfish. If you know what the hell you’re doing, they’re a delicacy. If you don’t, your throat is going to swell up, your face will turn black and bloated, and you’ll die.
But guess what? You’re a feeling pro! Your job is to sit around and do nothing but think and feel and tell lies. (It’s the greatest job in the world.) Surround the act of writing with good feelings. Make a file, “I like being a writer” and put things in there that make you… yeah, you guessed it. See, I knew you were smart enough for this!
6) You’re not just a feeler, bub, you’re a pro. As a writer, you’ve gotten used to slipping into the shoes of people who are not like you. Guess what? That skill is transferable to Real Life. Put on your big girl pants from time to time. I keep a tab of my daily word output. Sometimes (when it’s abysmal), I don’t write it down. But I can extrapolate. I looked at my word output for The Blinding Knife BEFORE I told my editor when she could expect The Blood Mirror. I made a graph. (No, I’m not sharing.) I knew that I got stuck at the beginning of my last book. I knew that when I was writing consistently, the book got longer, fast. I know that I’m a hard worker, and that when writing is going well, I’ll sideline other pursuits to keep my string going. So I knew that I could do one or two months at 250 words a day and still make my deadline. I know that I generally write faster the farther into a project I get, so I can schedule 250 words per day for a month, 500 words per day for two more months, and then 1,000 words per day until the last few months, where I’ll finish doing 2k a day pretty easily.
I also add in some time for a vacation and travel and getting stuck. This way, I can do those other parts of life that writers are so often bad at without screwing myself up emotionally. This is all about having good expectations.
7) Prioritize according to what is POSSIBLE for you. Writers are supposed to blog. (What, you didn’t get the memo?) My publisher asked me to blog. I said no. Why would I say no to something eminently sensible and demonstrably helpful to building a following? Because it doesn’t fit me. I have a news feed. When something happens, I write about it. If nothing is happening, I won’t write. I have the luxury now that with enough products out there and enough momentum, I have things happening on a fairly regular basis–so I can ‘blog’ at least once a week. But why can’t I blog? For the reason I find out every time I do a guest blog for someone else: I can’t shut off the perfectionist in me. I’ll spend two days on a blog post. Imagine my fiction output if I were trying to blog daily. The main thing is my books. If I make them good enough, I’ll make rabid fans. If I make rabid fans, they’ll tell their friends. If they tell their friends, I will have a chance to make more rabid fans. Blogging is an excellent marketing tool, or venting tool, or a hundred other things. If it fits you, great! It doesn’t fit me, so even though it’s a good idea, I leave it on the table. Can’t do it. Sorry.
Realize that you’re not only a writer, you’re a human being. You have other demands on your time and your affections. If you have to screw off today’s writing to be a good mom, do it. Set up those priorities in ways that you’re deeply comfortable with, and then screw everyone who doesn’t agree. It takes five years between your books? Tough. You might lose some sales (and hey, be honest to fans if you know it’ll be that long. You’ll lose fewer of them!), but if it’s that or lose your kid who’s about to go crazy… or if it’s that or save your marriage… or if it’s that or go literally crazy… People don’t know your situation, and they’re going to be unfair, but you know what? They’re going to be unfair even if you do everything right.
8) Show up. Writing is hard work. You can’t wrestle with the muse if you don’t put on that ugly singlet and show the world your chicken legs and pasty flesh. As Faulkner may or may not have said, “I write only when inspiration strikes, and I make sure it strikes every day at 9am.” Put your butt in the chair, often. Turn off the distractions. Twitter, I’m lookin’ at you.
I’ve adopted a discipline (allegedly) from Raymond Chandler. He said that he gave himself four hours a day in which he didn’t HAVE TO write, but he couldn’t do ANYTHING ELSE. Turn off the wireless, and sit there.
Sit there, dough boy.
Juggle your scene order, think, think, think some more. Grimace. Swear. Try a first sentence. Swear some more. Delete it. Grimace again. Sit more. Write another first sentence. Grumble. Write a second. A third. Half an hour later, get distracted. Think about turning on your wireless. DON’T! Write another sentence out of sheer boredom. Well, clearly, she’d say this next. Oh, look, you’ve blown past your word goals. Pat self on back. Dream of future fortunes. Dance jig. Now go make dinner, your wife will be home in fifteen minutes, dude. (Yes, I used to be a stay-at-home husband, and I make a mean meat loaf.)
9) Have fun. You’re telling lies to people who want to believe them. You’re doing moral philosophy and no one even knows it! You’re changing the world one soul at a time! You’re writing the next Mr. Darcy. Are you kidding me? This is the best! Enjoy yourself. If you don’t enjoy writing, do something else. Stop looking to either side and seeing how much respect everyone else is getting, or how much money everyone else is making. People only share their good news on Twitter and their blogs, anyway. If you believe you’re getting an honest, full slice of their lives… ahahahahaha. Look at your work, and you’ll be too busy having fun with your creations to worry that Author A got some award on Blog B. Perspective, people. If you’re writing to win awards, you’ve already lost. Write big. Write only for purposes that are at least as big as you. Better yet, write only for things bigger than yourself. Awards are smaller than you. Yep, even the big ones. Do you want to know which mystery writer never won an Edgar Award?
Edgar Allan Poe, bitches.
What, you already beat me to the punch line? Crap. Remind me next time I set up a blog: Get dumber readers.
Now go forth, and do what you were made to do.
**If you have further questions that you want me to address on these topics, please leave them in the comments on the main page. (If you really wanted to make my life easy, you could leave them below the post where I announced this writing advice page, but I’ll see them regardless.)**
I. Getting it on the Page: (I am having an issue where I feel that there is a great story in my head, however I can’t seem to get it on paper. I can see world of it unfolding in my mind as clear as day, but when I go to write it down, it only barely resembles my vision. Have you had this issue, and if so, how did you overcome it – Chris Q.)
First, watch this brief stylized video featuring Ira Glass:
Actually, all I know about Ira Glass is that he was featured in this video, but what he says is spot-on. To do great work, you have to have great taste. In our art, this means you read story X and you realize this is amazing, and wonderful, and brilliant. And you read story Y, and you realize this author hasn’t a clue. Eventually, you read enough of those authors that you think, “I can do better than this!” And at some fatal point, you sit down and you try. And lo and behold, you cannot do better than those sucky authors.
Life is hard.
At this point, you can give up and decide to do something completely different, or decide to use your good taste to become a critic. Or you can decide to keep working. I think the best way to decide which path to take is to figure out if the work itself is fun for you. Writing is way too hard if you don’t enjoy it. If you do enjoy it, congratulations, but there’s still no way to get around the challenges in front of you. You’re going to have to fail a lot to even get a chance to see if you could be great. You can work for a long, long time and then realize, “Man, I’m never going to be Shakespeare.” And that can be a really crushing blow for some people, depending on the size of their ego.
What I recommend as you’re trying and failing, is to be honest with yourself about the scope of your talents. Maybe you’ve read Robert Jordan, and you think, “I really want to write a 14-book, 3,000,000 word magnum opus. That’s a fine ambition. However, if you start your magnum opus when you’re 16, you’re most likely fooling yourself. Read Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Believe me, you wouldn’t have wanted to see the next 14 sequels. Why? Because even Shakespeare’s first play wasn’t that great. George R.R. Martin didn’t start his magnum opus, or at least didn’t start putting it on paper until he was in his 40s.
There’s just going to be a disconnect for a long time between what you want to create and what you’re capable of creating. This gap closes over time, but it never disappears, because as your skills grow, at least if you’re an ambitious artist, so will your ambitions. Very few artists, if they’re honest with you – which can be rare, because all artists know they have to market themselves — very few artists are perfectly happy with what they create. It always falls short of what was in your head.
The beauty of the written word as our medium is that we do not create alone. Your reader will be helping you out with the full force of her imagination. That is provided, of course, that you can win the reader over to your side completely! Then she will build, like a talented general contractor looking at blueprints of a home that are magnificent but flawed here and there. A good reader will cover over your flaws and enhance your strengths. (Bad readers, of course, do the opposite, but let’s focus on the positive!)
II. Hating What You’ve Written: (I just was going through some of my old work and had a thought. Whenever I read things I wrote in the past, I always think along the lines of ‘Eww, did I really write this piece of crud?’ I was just wondering if you ever do things like that… – Rachael C.)
Your critical faculty is your friend, not your boss. When it comes time to whitewash a fence, it’s your critical faculty you’re going to screw into doing that work, Tom Sawyer. I’ve pointed to this little Ira Glass video a couple times. It’s right on.
Yes, I still write scenes that don’t work. The difference I find now is that I can differentiate earlier between what kind of problem I’m running into. I either stop my forward progress to decide how to fix it–if it’s going to affect the path of the story or if I’m just artistically dissatisfied (like, man, I’ve seen this scene before, and that’s boring to me, can I put my own spin on this to make it more interesting?)–or if it isn’t going to affect the rest of the novel but just falls short, I leave myself a note about the problem: this scene is low tension, this scene has way too much exposition, this scene happens in a vacuum, where are these people even meeting anyway? Those can be addressed in the edits/next draft.
III. Overcoming Self-Doubt (Did you ever have the fear of starting? I know, this sounds quite abstract, but whenever I’m starting to think over new ideas there is this tiny little voice which whispers: ‘What, if … what if … what if you’re not gonna do it … what if you’ll stop before you are finished … what if this is a great piece of crap…’ Gaaah! It makes me insane. And the worst – I can’t quit this voice, no matter what I’m doing. Any ideas how to manage this self-doubt? — Melissa)
What a terrible question! That’s the worst question I’ve ever heard in my whole life! I can’t believe you’d ask me such an–yeah, just pulling your leg. If your self starts throwing stuff like that at you in your writing, say, “Hey, self, stop being a dick. I got work to do.”
There are some few writers who may never experience self-doubt, although I’d guess that there are mostly writers who are good liars who want you to think their own greatness was so undeniable that even they couldn’t doubt it.
Congratulations, you’ve found one of the fungible skills of the writing life. That is, if you figure out how to manage self-doubt about your writing, you can apply that skill to everything else in your life.
Allow me a religious metaphor. (Works even if you don’t believe the story.) Writing a novel is like walking on water. In the Bible, Peter sees Jesus out on the waves and thinks wow, that looks like fun! Jesus says, Yeah, it’s coo’. Peter hops out of the boat, and is doing fine–that mug is literally walking on water! And then he realizes just what he’s doing. He’s walking on water. You can’t walk on water! And look at the waves! They’re huge! And… all of the sudden, Peter’s sinking. Because he took his eyes off the goal and looked at the problems and impossibilities of what he was actually doing.
We published writers are like Jesus. (Ok, knew that the metaphor was going to break down somewhere. There it was.) You’ve seen us out there. You know it can be done. You even know the direction you need to go.
Do the work. That’s the solution. You don’t manage self-doubt. You ignore it. You don’t look at the fifty thousand sentences that are going to make up this book. You look at the one you need to write next.
Okay, sounds paradoxical, right? Am I supposed to focus on what’s immediately at my feet, or the dude out on the waves? Both. Either focus on walking, or focus on the ultimate goal. You’ll be too busy to start looking at the crashing waves to either side.
Create first, edit second. You’re going to have to figure out where that balance comes for you. I know writers who edit what they wrote yesterday, and then write today’s words, every day. Other writers write a page, then stop, edit the page, then write the next. Some writers can’t edit until they finish the first draft completely, because once they get into editorial mode, they can’t get back in creative mode easily.
There’s only one way to address that voice that tells you that you can’t do it. It’s not by arguing with the voice. It’s by doing it.
So hey, get your ass out of the boat.
IV. Staying Focused
“You’ve inspired me a lot but anytime I start a novel I get sidetracked on other plots and ideas and well…I overwhelm myself a bit. Do you happen to have any tips to keep myself focused on writing?” – Nathan J.
ADD is my superpower. My nickname is Distract-a-Boy. Stop looking at a short attention span as a deficit. (I know, I know, attention DEFICIT disorder, but screw the doctors.) So you have a thousand ideas. You know a great forum for showing lots of ideas? A novel. Not a script. Not a screenplay. Not a short story. In writing a novel, your embarrassing riches of ideas are not a hobble.
However, undigested, unexplained ideas that you spew at a reader are, well, vomit. No one wants to be puked on.
You have a lot of ideas. We all do. What’s the best idea in there? What’s the story that connects with you on the most levels? You’re trying to write a fat kid, but you grew up thin and athletic and everyone loved you? Maybe that’s not the idea for you. Not your first time out. (There’s plenty of good that can be accomplished by stretching yourself, but I think just completing a novel may be enough of a stretch for you at this point in your career.) You do Parkour, and your last four girlfriends all cheated on you? Okay, this is a start. Your novel is going to circle around the themes of freedom and betrayal.
Or whatever. But the more your story taps into what you love passionately, and what you feel deeply, the more true it’s going to be. What’s the central problem for a guy who does Parkour? Gravity. Can you tie to that his central relational problem? Love is like gravity. You’re always falling, and you can’t stop yourself, but every time you do, it comes closer to killing you.
So the girlfriend is the villain. But he thinks he can change her through the power of his love. And he can’t. There’s your tragedy there.
All your thoughts on government and animal rights and the beauty of rainbows, and how much of a stud Bruce Lee was can be fit into the rubric of what they say about love, betrayal, and freedom, can’t they? Look at all your wildly divergent thoughts through the lens of those things you’re most passionate about–and then they aren’t random, wildly divergent thoughts, they’re all revealing new facets of your central theme, deepening it and making it more powerful.
Practically, I like to write down Things I Think Are Cool. When I’m writing a scene where they don’t fit, I just add them to the list. There. Not lost. Saved for future use, where they’ll be used to maximum effect.
Everything you do in your novel is to make the stuff you think is cool be used to maximum effect. Why are you describing this alleyway? Because when the creepy guy grabs your hero from behind, the fact that your hero is in a scary, dark, damp alley that stinks and scares the hell out of him makes it creepier when the guy grabs him. Why are you describing the creepy guy’s crooked teeth and stank and the brush of his beard against your guy’s neck? Because that’s creepier than saying, “The creepy guy grabbed him.” Why are you describing the castle wall? So that when your hero uses his amazing Parkour moves to scale the wall or whatever your reader can see just how amazing that was. Why are you describing how traumatic his girlfriend’s past was? So that when she betrays him, you can see why she would do that–she’s got a history of self-sabotage, and even as you hate her for hurting him, you hate the world for making her hurt so much that she feels she can’t find her own freedom in a relationship at all. (Double whammy, see?)
Last, just completely practical. If your lack of focus comes because you’d rather dink on the internet than, you know, write, welcome to modern life, where the gods of equilibrium decided that (because we can now research medieval pyrotechnics with the click of a mouse rather than a trip to the library and a two week wait) they would also give us lolcats and Twitter.
Solution: 1) whatever the hell works. Turn off your wireless. Snap your wrist with a rubberband every time you subconsciously try to turn it on.
2) Institute Chandler time. No, not Chandler from Friends. Raymond Chandler. He would give himself four hours a day wherein he didn’t have to write, but he didn’t allow himself to do anything else. Maybe you can only make it two hours at first, but you know what? It totally works. Writing is work, but it’s more fun than sitting in a room doing nothing for several hours. Especially if ADD is your superpower.
Also, when you’re getting really distracted, you can now put on baggy pants and say, “Stop! Chandler time!”
(I was listening to my friends talk recently, and I realized that there are a lot of umms, and uhs, and of course, likes… In chapter 58 of the Black Prism you have Liv teaching Kip about drafting green. During this she goes off on a story about native culture, even referencing the fact that she went off on a tangent. I guess that my question is this: do you think it’s better to have characters goo off on tangents, have common interjections, or both? And although my speech is very natural and cynical, I have trouble converting that into my story, instead producing a hyper descriptive almost formal text. How do you do it? –Mason D.)
I.e., how do you write natural sounding dialogue when actual, natural dialogue stinks?
Odd thing about reality: most of it’s boring. You can be at a dinner party with Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde and most of the dialogue would be things like, “Pardon me: would you pass the peas?” Most of reality is boring. The trick of fiction is to write the most interesting reality possible that still looks like reality to the people who read it. If you ever tape a conversation, you will be surprised (as Mason points out) by how many ums, ahs, meaningless questions, tangents that go nowhere, and pure dead-end sentences there are. But this is reality! Our brains know it’s so boring that they automatically filter it out already. You do not want to write fiction that shocks readers by its perfect grasp of the blandness of being. That is, unless you write literary fiction like [name redacted]*.
Elmore Leonard gave some great advice to anybody who wants to be a commercial writer: skip the boring parts.
Truth is, different writers have different philosophies about what deserves to go into a book. George R. R. Martin responds to criticisms of his lengthy and frequent descriptions of feasts and clothing by saying books aren’t just about plot. He says if you just wanted plot, you could go read a summary on Wikipedia. Other fantasy writers believe that part of what’s wonderful about fantasy is wandering around and exploring this secondary world. Which is why you so often have fantasy where you have people wandering around and exploring the world, and not doing all that much. Many science fiction writers have used the characters in their novels as mere caricatures set in place to explore an idea. Similarly, propagandists aren’t particularly interested in writing honest characters: they simply want to communicate their politics/religion.
I vest primacy in the story. I believe that everything in a novel should be able to justify its reason for taking up space. I do this in my dialogue as well. I tend, when writing a conversation, to skip the boring parts as much as possible. Thus, rather than spending five minutes while characters come into the room (if the readers know all of them, and they just don’t know each other), I will write “they made their introductions.” Thus dispensing with hundreds of words that are, in fact, meaningless.
Then I write what matters. Why is reality TV fascinating? Because people are always fighting. Conflict is interesting, and in a novel you can make a novel much more interesting than just “Why did you sleep with my girlfriend, you dirty #?%@?” The conflicts in a novel can be layered, and dialogue is a perfect way to explore those readers, because even as characters speak to each other, you can show what they’re thinking, which is one big advantage books have over other media. There’s often a gulf between what we say and what we wish we could say. Or what we say and what we really mean. You can explore that in the characters’ thoughts even as they’re having a conversation on a completely different level. It’s one of the coolest things we can do.
At the same time, the novelist earns that rarest of pleasures — indeed, I think this may be the best thing about being a novelist, period; for this is what we earn with our blood, sweat, toil, and tears; this is indeed the height of human endeavors — I’m talking, of course, about l’esprit de l’escalier.
Now, I don’t usually drop pretentious foreign phrases in the middle of my webposts, but this is one case in which IT HAD TO BE DONE. One of the suckiest things that happens in life is that you have an argument with somebody. And they win. And then, as you’re leaving, driving home humiliated, perhaps a few little tears leaking down your cheeks, you think of Just The Thing. The French call that thing “the spirit of the stairs”. Or, the kind of inspiration you get as you’re leaving, and you think of that perfect, perfect argument, or witty phrase or punch line. Or devastating insult. It makes you wish you could turn back the clock. But no one can turn back the clock.
We get as much time as we want to serve up the perfect opportunity to drop that witty line right on somebody’s head. And then if we read it twelve times and decide it needs to be tweaked, we can. The aforementioned Oscar Wilde was actually accused of writing his work purely as an excuse to showcase his wit. (And with wit like that, who can blame him?) The truth is, I don’t think there’s any excuse for boring dialogue. Now, your dialogue might be workmanlike and even clunky at times if you miss things or you have a bad ear, but it should never be boring. That’s just a sign of lack of work.
In the example Mason mentioned where Liv is teaching Kip about green luxin, and she goes off on tangents, and even catches herself going off on tangents, she’s not actually going off on tangents. She thinks she is, and Kip thinks she is, but I’m using the tangents to build the world, and to build character. Those tangents fill in some blanks that readers need to know. And they also show that Liv is not a practiced teacher. They give some flavor to how she talks and thinks.
Depending on your level of skill and talent, you can embrace more diversity into your dialogue itself. But know your limits. There’s nothing worse when watching a movie than when an actor has a British accent half of the time and slips back into straight American accent the other half of the time. A Tom Wolfe or a Mark Twain can nail regional dialects, many different kinds, spell them in ways that help the reader to capture it, and keep it consistent over many pages. If, when you try an Australian accent, it comes out sounding German, you might not want to opt for this. Even Orson Scott Card, who I think writes dialogue very well, has related stories about readers coming up to him after speaking events and saying, “Your sense of humor is just like your characters’ sense of humor. You tell jokes exactly the same way.” And he sort of looked at them and said, “They’re all me.” Some writers like to put in little rhetorical tags: this girl always says “like”, this guy says, “a’ight”. (Again, done poorly it becomes a caricature. Do the work.)
Realize when you write that dialogue is what readers skim to. They expect the dialogue to be the interesting stuff. You should meet that expectation.
Think about all the interesting ways that people speak. And then consider divvying these up among your characters. To go to an extreme example, I remember reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and being furious when I read the character of Hodor! Because I wasn’t published yet, and George got there first. In modern medicine, a patient was discovered who was only able to say a single word. They named him “Tan” because, as you might guess, the only word he could say was, yeah. Exactly. When he died, they discovered that there was a lesion on his left frontal lobe, a place which became named Broca’s Area after his doctor. When I learned this in a college psychology class, I thought it was the coolest thing ever and immediately decided to use it in my fiction. But George got there first. Dammit.
But of course, there are lots of different ways that people’s speech is interesting. Pay attention and see what you can capture. Then I’d suggest when you finish doing a specific line of revision with each character. Read all of Auntie Mame’s lines. And ask yourself, “Is this what a snarky, highly cultured drunk would say?” Then go through and do the same thing with each other person who has a distinct mode of speech.
Sounds like lots of work, huh? Genius usually is.
Dialogue is your tool to advance the plot, build character, capture interest, and leave readers with solid gold that they’ll carry around with them for years.
It’s also the best excuse you will ever find for laughing at your own jokes. Enjoy.
*Actually, everything is permissible in fiction. Just be aware of the risks of boring your readers on purpose. Say you’re using the suburban ennui of Julia’s life to show why she has to escape into the arms of Derrick Longspear. But unless readers have reason to trust you already, they may well just think that you’re boring.
(Do you ever have to make notes separate from your work for little details like descriptions of locations, or personalities, appearances, and intricacies of characters? I always find myself opening a separate document to jot down little outlines for characters, or places that are commonly visited so that I may get back to them instead of going based off of my own memory. I think it makes it more accurate, but is it wise to do, or do you know? – Clayton B.)
Yep, do it all the time. When I started my first novel, I had maybe 150 pages of this kind of stuff. Most of it I never used, but it helped me solidify the look and feel of the world that I wanted, and gave me some fun conflicts between characters and good lines of dialogue. Sounds like it’s working for you. Go with it.
What are your thoughts on prologues?
As a reader, I got burnt out by prologues. I think after Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, every writer felt they needed a prologue to show how big and serious their fantasy was. I yawned through too many stuffy ‘epics’ that were epic only in scope, not in feeling or artistry or language or perspective or meaning, so I tend to throw up in my mouth a little when I open page one and see “Prologue”.
But that’s just a bias born of my particular set of circumstances as a reader and the books that hit me—and those that bounced off!
As a writer, I think a prologue is a wonderful tool for a certain jobs, but it’s a heavy tool that should be handled with care, intention, and skill—or not handled at all. A prologue struts onto the stage of your book and grabs the microphone, saying, “I’m sorry, Taylor, Imma let you start, but first…” More seriously, it does tell a reader that what they’re about to read isn’t exactly part of the story proper. “I’m going to tell you a story, but first you need to know…” What is this, Great Expectations? “I’m going to tell you the story of an orphan, but first, you need to know his entire family history….”
Let me float the proposition that giving a reader—as their very first experience of your book—reasons not to care about what they read might be something you want to consider carefully. “I don’t know what’s going on in this scene, but it’s the prologue, so it probably doesn’t matter. How long is this, anyway?”
Consider the challenge you’re setting yourself: You’re flagging that you’re going to start your story twice. You’re saying, “Hey reader, I’m going to throw you into a new book where you have to learn the names of the characters, learn why you should care, and orient you in the tone and vocabulary and scenery of this world—and then I’m going to stop that first story and we’re going to start all over again, but this time with a new tone, scenery, and probably characters, too! But trust me, because…”
Well, can you answer that? Have you already written a few novels, and this one needs a framing story and flashbacks and a prologue because all of that is integral to readers having all the information they need at the story’s climax for the climax to have its full impact? Or is it because you’re nervous that starting with a poor farm boy and his three friends is going to be too boring, so you need to show that your bad guy is the baddiest bad guy who ever polished his chariot with a human-scalp chamois?
Are you shifting tones between the prologue and chapter one? If so, realize that if either tone doesn’t work for a reader, they may well put down your novel. I’ve read two novels that were both light fantasy novels with great adventures of the kind that could easily get a PG rating—and there was nothing at all wrong with that! But here’s the thing: Both started with a prologue featuring torture. Totally out of keeping with the rest of the story. It gave you a false first impression of the story, and, honestly, both felt like they did so because someone said, “Gritty is really in right now. Can you make this gritty?” If you tack on grit, or time travel, or pink cowgirls blowing bubbles in your prologue and it doesn’t fit your book, your book will not please either those who like grit/time travel/pink cowgirls OR those who hate those things. So, you can certainly have a tonal shift, but you need to close the circle between those two tones before the book ends. Farm boy becomes the guy who learns the benefits of human-hair chariot polishing, or the hero uses his skills at torture to make the evil kitten give up laser ball chasing, or what have you.
Same goes if you choose a framing story. Why’d you do it? Why is it necessary? Why _that_ frame? You’re making a promise when you make this choice—and the promise is that the backstory and the main story matter to each other, and that the very act of telling the backstory will impact the main story. If it doesn’t, the frame doesn’t justify its existence; it’s merely handwaving at complexity that doesn’t exist.
Next, you have to ask yourself if you’re good at beginnings. If beginnings are where you really struggle, writing a prologue doesn’t mean you get to skip the hard stuff and go to the fun thing first, and then once you have the readers’ attention, get to go back to your boring beginning. Sorry, no. Writing a prologue means you have to start your book twice.
If you excel at beginnings, though, and if the book needs information that isn’t available any other way, and if you want to show a vastness of scope or a seriousness of endeavor, and if you’re willing to trim the fat ruthlessly so that your prologue is understandable, and if you can give readers reasons to engage immediately twice, a prologue may just the thing!
In sum, a prologue is a claymore. If you’re small, if you’re weak, if you’re more Bobby Bruce than Robert the Bruce, maybe… clay less?
(Aug 2022: Thanks to a fan asking, we’ve unearthed this post from 2015–it got buried during the last site update. It’s a great read, especially in context with his essay On Ending Well, which he wrote when THE BURNING WHITE was released in 2019. Enjoy!)
Should there be happy endings? Why or why not?
Absolutely there should be happy endings. But the ending has to fit the book. A literary critic once said that comedy and tragedy are different only in the answers they are willing to accept. So theoretically you could write Romeo and Juliet as a comedy. However, you couldn’t just stick a comedic ending on it. The tone of the ending has to fit the tone of the story. If you put a happy ending on A Song of Ice and Fire —that is, if in the last book, all the kingdoms decide to cease fighting each other, nobody else died, and the right people married the right people and lived happily ever after — it would simply strike readers as bizarre. It not only doesn’t fit, but it would feel so wrong that it would destroy the illusion of a secondary reality that all fiction strives to build. (Okay, some experimental fiction/theatre/etc loves to point out that it’s fiction and break the fourth wall, but that’s not what most fiction does.)
Now you could put that happy-go-lucky ending on something like The Princess Bride and it would be fine, because TPB is full of silly outrageous characters stopping and doing silly outrageous things. (“He’s only mostly dead!”) Indeed a full-on tragic ending for The Princess Bride would be awful. So I think that a writer should strive to find not a happy ending but a fitting ending. A reader should feel in some sense like this character earned this. Or if the character was evil or did some really awful stuff, this character deserved this. Or even if the character gets worse from life than they deserve, it’s something you could kind of see coming or maybe that they themselves should have seen coming. In Hamlet [spoiler alert!], Hamlet dies at the end, but as soon as he kills Polonius, who’s a jerk but basically innocent, you have a strong suspicion where this is going. Shakespeare’s already also built the world of this play to show that sometimes bad guys win. After all, the story starts after Claudius murders his brother, who we assume was a good king. If there’s a fake-out moment in The Princess Bride, it’s when Wesley appears to be dead—and we cut to the kid asking his grandpa, “But he’s not really dead, right?” If there’s a fake-out moment in Hamlet, it’s when Claudius appears to be repenting of his evil—right at the moment Hamlet is about to kill him!
There are, I suppose, probably some good counter examples and exceptions. But if you think that you’re such a great writer, you can write that exception, do remember to handle your exception carefully. In King Lear, there’s a catastrophe, when Cordelia is executed. It feels so much worse than she ought to have gotten. (Though it doesn’t feel like a cheat; we certainly saw it coming from the very first scenes of the play.) But this catastrophe was so devastating, so cruel, that a guy named Bowdler rewrote Shakespeare—yep, that’s ballsy—in rhyming couplets no less, and no one died, and everyone lived happily ever after. And this play was played as Shakespeare for (if I recall correctly) nearly two hundred years. So be careful not to violate your audiences’ expectations too much! They may simply reject your ending as crap. Audiences do it now, and not just with endings, “Episode I-III? Those movies never happened.” By the same token, one can almost imagine Bowdler saying in upspeak, “This doesn’t match my head canon? In my head canon, Cordelia marries? and…”
But if some works require a catastrophe, others have long turned the other way toward a eucatastrophe: when Frodo gets to Mount Doom, he fails. He gives in to the temptation of the ring. Now we’ve seen this coming for a really long time; Frodo has been struggling against this temptation and weakening all along. But then the incredibly unlikely happens: Gollum unintentionally saves Frodo and also unintentionally destroys the Ring, thereby sort of becoming the hero.
Now eucatastrophe has a lot in common with a deus ex machina which a lot of readers use now to mean “a cheating ending”. But the original understanding was an ending in which humanity had screwed things up so badly that only the gods could sort it out to bring any sort of justice to the situation at all. If Tolkien were of a darker frame of mind, or a darker philosophy perhaps, he might have felt that Frodo had earned his evil end; Frodo was going to get it: Frodo puts on the Ring, becomes evil, but really isn’t even that powerful of an evil guy, so Sauron comes and gets the Ring back. The good guys lose, all of Middle Earth becomes like Mordor. The end.
However, in Tolkien’s conception of Justice, that ending, while perhaps deserved by the choices and weaknesses of the characters involved, felt terrible. A universe that loves those who are trying to do good the way we love Frodo and Sam should give us something better. Thus Tolkien chooses to write that eucatastrophe, and maybe a secondary one with the eagles — although people love to argue about the eagles. (The eagles are actually, by far, the smaller deus ex machina. I don’t know why everybody looks at the eagles, but gives a complete pass to Gollum’s far less probable actions.)
In my own work, though, the choice is frequently more intuitive first. I’ve gotten to places where—rationally—a character was supposed to do X (live/die/marry Person Y) and found myself literally unable to write that because it felt wrong. Not because it felt mean. I’m fine being ‘that mean author’ if I’m making a choice that the logic of the story demands. But I don’t default to meanness. In Night Angel, I spent two years planning to save a character. It didn’t work. Once I decided she had to die, everything fell into place: I had that sense of, okay, yes, this works. On the other hand, I’d also planned to be mean to another character for several years: this character must marry this character to set up the conflicts in the next book… and got there and couldn’t do it. I wrestled with it, and gave up, was merciful and went with my intuition… and everything fell together far better than it would have if I’d gone according to my plan.
Sometimes you need to trust your gut.
Thus, to answer your question: How do you decide to give a happy ending to a character?
You don’t. You write a fitting ending.
How do you decide to give a happy ending to a book? You don’t… precisely. You look into your own heart and you decide what kind of endings you believe in.
Career-long spoiler alert: I am not capable as a human being of writing a nihilistic ending to a book. Ever. People wanted a prequel novel of Durzo Blint before Night Angel. That story ends with Durzo Blint believing something that I believe to be a lie: nihilism, pointlessness, destruction, self-hatred. I could, as a storyteller, write that novel. I could write it well, because I’ve been there. But I can’t write it as a human being. It’s destructive, and I’ve matured past adolescent blow-up-all-the-phony-shit desires. I get them, and I don’t discount them or those who feel them, but I couldn’t—as a human, or an artist—leave the story there. I couldn’t spend two years painting a picture that left its viewers in a darker place than they began. Artists have a duty to truth, too. Artists have a duty to beauty.
Write what is true and beautiful. Find a story you believe in, an ugly truth or a profound beauty that changes you. If your story never moves you to tears, it’s fluff. Fluff has it’s place, if it’s not harmful—and some is, let’s not kid ourselves. But fluff is inferior. It’s entertainment, but it’s mindless almost by definition. It doesn’t live. You have it in you–or you don’t!–to write a story that lives. Be strong. Be fearless. Write that story. Write a story that ennobles you for having told it, and maybe it’ll ennoble those who read it, too.
This is a calling that becomes deep when it’s tied to what is deep and true and noble. Or it can be fluff, if you’re simply here for commerce or cowardice. Your choice.
(from the Comments, Mary asked): Any tips/strategies/etc. for World-building?
A lot of writers have different takes on your question than I do. My world building tends to happen kind of under the radar. So people don’t even notice it, and it’s something that I’m rarely complimented on, so you may want to go to another source for this question.
But my answer is that the story is what matters. You should introduce world-building as it becomes pertinent to the story. Obviously you want to seed some of the world building earlier so it can pay off later, and you want to fill in enough of the details about the world so it doesn’t seem like your characters are wandering through a fog, disembodied, talking and fighting with each other, but the world should be introduced as its important. So, for example, I have a character walking down a street. If it’s just a street and it doesn’t matter, I don’t describe it much. But, if the street is an alley and my character isn’t used to walking through dark, stinky, steamy alleys littered with garbage where they have to watch their feet so they don’t step in crap or kick rats, and it makes them feel really, really nervous just to be there, then that’s worldbuilding I’ll do right there. Because you’re accomplishing two objectives at the same time: you’re establishing what this city, or at least this part of this city, feels like, looks like, and acts like and you’re also establishing the character and setting them up for what’s going to happen next. If you can do a lot of your world building like this, people won’t even notice that you’ve done worldbuilding. They’ll just notice that the story seems really vibrant. If, instead, you say “over to the left, he saw the Dragon Mountain, which was built on….” and then continue for two pages about the Dragon Mountain, that’s boring, but it does build your world. And in some few cases it can be worth it to get a lot of info out there quickly. Just realize that if you drop an info dump before you’ve given your readers a reason to care about all of this extra information, then you’ve just dumped a ton of information on readers before you’ve given them a reason to care. Bad writer!
There are more and less elegant solutions to the problem of how you set up an entire world and lay the ground rules quickly. Many of these solutions you can figure out by reading the first couple chapters of any great fantasy novel and paying attention: How does this author let me know where I am? What are the rules of this world? It’s one of the biggest challenges in fantasy, but one that every fantasy writer has to struggle with. So get out your highlighter and start studying.
I’m not going to be able to do justice to your question about world-building in one short post here. As with most things in writing, there are a lot of ways to do this well, and a lot more ways to do it poorly. First, let me be upfront: fairly or unfairly, I am not renowned for my world-building. And I think that’s because, in The Night Angel Trilogy, I introduced the world at a different rate than I introduced the characters, motivations, and actions. In The Night Angel Trilogy, I started in book one with one city. Book two became national in scope, and book three became international. So I like to think that, over the course of the entire work, there was a lot of world-building that went on. However, I’m just the guy who wrote it, and some of the critics had different opinions, so take my advice with all that under consideration.
The world-building has to occur along sort of two tracks: first, you need to set up a lot of things that you absolutely know about the world. That is, is this world analogous to some time period in our world’s history? Is the technology the same as 1100 AD France? Or 450 BC Greece? If you’re setting your world into a specific time period that is close to what the analogous Earth time period was, you answer a lot of questions for yourself. The more different you make your world than any culture in earth’s history, the more challenging it is both for you as a writer and for your readers to imagine (this is why I talk about The Black Prism as being set in a 1600-esque Mediterranean world. People might not know all that much about the Mediterranean in 1600, but they at least have some referents.) The farther afield you go, the more work you’re going to have to do explaining things to your readers.
Secondly, you’re going to have to think about just how the world works. And this is where your education and imagination can run wild. This is where you ask the big questions: is there slavery in your world? What is the status of women in your world? How much magic is there in your world? What are the economic systems in this world (i.e., feudal, mercantilist, capitalistic, communistic)? The beauty of secondary world fantasy is that you can make up anything – as long as it makes sense. Human societies have done all sorts of crazy things over the ages. And as long as your society feels psychologically and sociologically true, you can do it. If your world feels too weird, your readers won’t buy into it. So in some ways, the weirder you make things, the more you have to make sure that readers see that your characters experience these weird things as normal (every woman has six husbands? Explain the mundane day-to-day things of how a woman with five husbands finds her sixth; or how disputes get settled among husbands’ number one and number five and so on). Think of the most normal objections readers would have to the weird things in your world, and confront them head on (Da Vinci Code: surely, no one could have hidden the fact that Jesus had a daughter! Oh, but the Merovingian kings had unimaginable powers in the early church… or whatever.) The fact is, your readers are willingly suspending disbelief. So you’re not making an airtight legal case here, you’re just trying to make your imaginative leap not seem completely stupid.
So along that first track of thinking, you, outside of the fiction, need to make all of these decisions about how the world actually works. This just takes time and thought. It may take study, as you look into how societies that had slave economies worked (most societies in human history). Or it may just take time thinking. Whatever it is, you want to have the broad outlines of how people interact in your world settled in your own mind. Is your character lower class? How do lower class characters have to react legally when a noble tells them to lick the mud from his boots? What happens if your main character peasant punches that sneering noble in the face instead? Define in your own mind what the normal course of events is. Second, onto this, you can layer as many other cultures as you’re willing to juggle in your own mind. Does the kingdom next door have no nobility? Or not believe in magic, or believe in reincarnation, or… whatever. This can get as mind-boggling as you’re willing for it to get. How are foreigners from Egypt treated in your alternate medieval England? What is their legal status? Basically, there’s a lot of hard work here, and none of it will show up on the page. At least, none of it will show up as extra words that you write.
Third, do things differently. If you’ve seen lots of other writers do X, do Y. This will make your world more interesting. In my writing, I’ve seen lots of other writers portray only societies in which there is no slavery. However, my studies of history tell me that however uncomfortable we are with slavery, it was a fact of life for most of human history. So instead of doing what I’ve seen a lot of other people do, and what’s easy to do, I’ve instead put slavery into the world of The Black Prism – and have at least a few of the main characters not even think about it. Because if slavery is the norm in this world, then at least a few people aren’t going to think that slavery is weird. Even people that are otherwise admirable. Doing things differently from what you’ve always seen is a habit of mind that you should cultivate as a writer. I will talk about this tendency of doing things differently a lot. And Donald Maass talks about it a lot in his books. But I’ll return to that in future posts.
Fourth, now you have to put all of this into practice. You’ve decided how your world works, you’ve decided your characters’ status within this world, and now you have to write the novel. This is where I may diverge from a lot of my contemporaries. I choose, as I write, to give very broad outlines of How The World Works; then as the character moves through the world, I will reveal those things in specifics as they become influential to the plot. So if my character is running around the streets, violating laws, then I am not going to focus on the legal connotations and the system of justice until my character gets arrested. Instead, I focus on how he’s breaking the law and what the moral consequences are for him as he robs person X and only focus on the legal system once he gets arrested. At that point, when it becomes important to my character, I will reveal that police are allowed to beat suspected criminals as long as they don’t disable them (or whatever). The effect in my worlds is that the plot moves forward at high speed, and you don’t really notice the world building. This is a trade off. It may look like I am just creating things as the headlights show them, rather than having created them all in advance, and only illuminating them as the headlights get there. Your choice. I find my way to be less boring.
Note that as you write, you may come up with things that are much more interesting than the way you’d originally crafted your world. As long as you haven’t published the previous books, it’s totally fine to go back and change the worse for the better that you’ve just made up. This is how the creative mind works. You give yourself a structure to work against, and that’s incredibly helpful, but as you advance, you think, “Man, if the structure were a little bit different, I could do this cool thing.” If you come up with something cool and amazing, take a step back, and look at that in the context of your whole world and all the systems that you’ve said work. If it doesn’t break the systems, go ahead and put it in. Sometimes you may even find that you’ve made your systems much stronger by having this apparent aberration work. Maybe your world is matriarchal, but in the history of your world, there have been four male rulers. And these men are referred to as the tetrarchs, and your male main characters are the reincarnation of…. whatever, you get the drift.
Fifth, the biggest thing about world building is that you can talk at length about anything you find fascinating. Whether that’s Marxist principles versus Hayek’s economics, or criminal psychopathology – whatever you find fascinating, can make your book stand out from every other book that has ever been written – as long as you make it fascinating got the reader. In some ways, this is an easy sell. If you find something fascinating, it’s probably pretty easy for you to communicate your passion to others. Think about this in terms of Dexter explaining blood spatter analysis to people. Most people would find this gross; but because of Jeff Lindsay’s passion about this, we find it fascinating too. Tom Clancy routinely wrote 50 or 100 pages about obscure military technology – and still sold millions of books. If you find ancient depictions of the divine feminine to be deeply moving – oh wait, that’s already been taken – point is, obscure, weird stuff can be made obscure cool stuff if you love it. But you need to take care to communicate that with readers. And if you can do that within the flow of the plot, they’ll barely even realize that they’re being lectured, and instead will love you for it.
Go forth and build worlds!
(Murayama Tsuru asked, “How do you develop you characters’ personalities, so they seem different from each other? When I write, all my characters tend to blend to having the same personality and behaviors.”)
As a human being first, and as a writer second, you will bring certain strengths and weaknesses to the page. The process of writing a novel, if you are passionately invested in it, will reveal both of these. So I hope I can say, without pride but also without false modesty, that writing characters is one of the things that comes naturally to me as a writer – because it comes naturally as a human being for me to put myself in other people’s shoes. Like every skill in writing (and perhaps in life), your skills in portraying characters can be strengthened.
I’m not going to snow you here. Writing great characters is one of the hardest things to do in writing. Most very successful writers either write great plots or write great characters. Period. Very, very few do both well. In some ways, you can take this to be a huge comfort. You, too, can be successful by writing a great plot and mediocre characters. Or, great characters and a mediocre plot. Not that any of us here are aiming for mediocrity!
So, how do you write great characters? Here are some of the things that I keep mindful of as I create characters for my novels:
First, variety. One of the biggest challenges in writing characters is that every character is you. The best writers are simply those who are the best at hiding that fact. Take a guy who’s fantastic at writing dialogue, like Orson Scott Card. If you read five books by Orson Scott Card, after a while you realize that the sense of humor that every character has is pretty much the same. (And it’s a great sense of humor, don’t get me wrong. And also, Orson Scott Card freely admits as much, so I’m not poking him in the eye here.) Or if you read a brilliant dialectician like Tom Wolfe, you’ll eventually realize that every character is concerned with power. Now, both of these guys blind me with their brilliance. They’re so good, it makes me throw books across the room and weep bitter tears. However, both men have limitations. You will too. Welcome to the human race.
So, one of the easiest ways to set about disguising this essential sameness of character is to set up your characters at the beginning as very, very different people. Faulkner used “grotesques” and George R.R. Martin uses the same technique to help differentiate an absolutely giant cast from each other. George R. R. Martin doesn’t have the guy who’s 6’1” and the guy who’s 6’2”, he has the guy with no lips and the 7-foot-tall giant who can only say the word “Hodor.” By starting with characters who are vastly different from each other, young and old, rich and poor, high class and low class, thieves and noblemen, etc., you not only start your people from very different places, but you help readers remember who is who – especially important if you have a large cast.
Second, as I write is to keep in mind that the obvious thing is the most boring thing. I assume that my readers have seen the same movies I have. They’ve seen the obvious solutions to the obvious problems. So when I come to those obvious decisions, I will try to make my characters make the non-obvious choice. The fact is, real people are surprising, they’re inconsistent, and they have foibles which we didn’t expect even if we‘ve known them for a long time. So you put your character into an impossible situation (nice writing!), she has to either marry the loathsome nobleman or destroy her family’s fortunes (my, that is a nail biter!). Your job as a writer is to look at this stereotypical dilemma and come up with solutions three, four, five, and six. Anytime you come to a place where you think, “Well, my character could do this, but I’ve seen that a hundred times.” that thought is a flag for you, telling you the road to suckery lies straight down that path. Or… you can sit there and wrestle.
My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. “I need my character to marry Bob the loathsome nobleman, but she is a spunky 19-year-old who has no regard for tradition. (And a surprising 21st-century sensibility for an 17th-century girl.)”
Here is where you ask yourself as an author, “Why ever would she do such a ridiculous thing?” Because that is what your reader is going to ask. And you shouldn’t shy away from that. In fact, you should probably play it up. Make it more ridiculous. “There is no way she would do this. She can’t expect to yield to Bob’s executive power simply because some watery tart threw a sword at him!” So my advice is to sit there with the problem and worry at it like a dog worries a bone, looking for marrow. Think of your readers and all of the reasons they would come up with for why Sheena, lithesome beauty, shouldn’t marry Bob. Then ask yourself, what reasons close to Sheena’s hearts would impel her to overcome all of those objections? Maybe Bob has some hidden Mr. Darcy-esque personal nobility in addition to his really, really nice house that makes him extremely attractive. Maybe Bob has fomented socialist rebellions, a cause near to Sheena’s heart, in repressive monarchies throughout Europe. Maybe Bob is 5’2” and Sheena secretly has a thing for vertically-challenged men. Whatever it is, and especially if you can make your examples slightly less ridiculous than the aforementioned, backfill those concerns into Sheena’s life. So you hadn’t decided until now that Sheena was a social democrat (In the 17th century, Sheena is really ahead of her time). That’s fine. Nobody gets to read the novel yet; they only get to read the finished product. So go back and look into every scene where Sheena expresses passion about anything or where social democratic ideals can come up (without making her seem totally obnoxious). Now it looks like Sheena has always been passionate about these things for as long as you’ve known her, and the sudden reveal that Bob is also a candidate for social change will make him seem like the sweetest guy in the world. Plus, he has a really big castle. And he’s hawt.
Third, take left turns. I’ve alluded to this a couple of times already, and I don’t know if it’s simply a habit of mind that comes naturally to me, or if it’s the product of some good advice, and a high sensitivity to my own boredom, but don’t do the thing that you’ve seen a hundred times. Your character is totally shocked by the revelation that Tad is a serial killer? And she’s carrying a teacup? Please, please, don’t let her drop the teacup. Why? Because it’s boring. Sometime long ago in a dark, smoky room, some Hollywood producers decided, over too many bottles of bourbon that a breaking tea (or coffee) cup would signal that a character is shocked. I’ve seen that movie, that TV show and that stage play. Twice. So have you. So your character is shocked, and you’re looking, rightly, for some outward physical expression to show that she’s shocked. Good job, you’re looking in the right direction. Just don’t pick up the first blunt object in your path and use it, because it’s been done. That’s not to say that everything that’s been done in fiction is bad. The cliché behaviors are often the true behaviors, things that resonate with the human psyche. That is, in real life, when someone’s been murdered, the cops often ask you to sit down before they tell you. Why? Because people actually do faint. So there’s one cliché that’s rooted in the human psyche. It might be worth maintaining. But play it differently from there. Instead of dropping the teacup, Ms. Fitznibble continues putting sugar cubes in. Ten, twelve, twenty sugar cubes, until the tea spills over. You’ve accomplished the same thing and maybe a little bit more, showing she’s the kind of person who values routine but has been thrown off her usual habits by the shocking news. You can get to the same human truths that are expressed through clichés through non-clichés. That is, three lefts to make a right.
Fourth, spend time with your characters, especially the ones who are hard for you. And ask questions. Part of this, I think, is that there’s a fundamental humility that needs to go along with creating art. You are naturally going to do some things well. And simply by your natural genius and natural gifts and innate intelligence… well, those things are going to fail you at some point. No matter how great you are. Maybe you came from a deeply dysfunctional home, and you’re trying to portray healthy family relationships, and it’s got you completely stumped. Alternately, maybe you came from a fairly healthy family background, and you’re trying to portray how divorce tears up a young kid inside. At some point as an artist, you’re going to come to a place where you Just Don’t Know. At this point, you can fake it. We’ve all watched enough TV shows to make some guesses at how people are going to react to things. But that character is going to be much weaker than your others. This is not the end of the world. This is a chance for you to learn and grow. Not just as a writer, but as a human being. If you can’t understand the kid who grew up in the broken home, well, newsflash, you run into a lot of that kid in real life. So this writing exercise is going to make you a little better at interacting with that kid, either when he’s a kid or when he’s grown up.
This is a point where some pointed research can pay real dividends. When I was writing Karris in The Black Prism, I knew that my portrayals of her weren’t as good as I wanted. So I started asking questions of the right people. You’ll find that people are amazingly tolerant of your boorish questions when you say, “I’m doing some research for my novel, and I want to know the answer to five questions,” and then you ask them five limited questions that they can answer, and you make them feel like an expert who’s contributed to the cause of Art. So I went to a women’s cross country coach who was both an elite athlete herself and worked with many elite athletes. And I asked her about body image issues, emotions, psychology, and physique. She happily answered me and I think my resulting portrayal of Karris was truer to real life. That may sound really hard, but really it only took me a couple of hours. In other cases, simply finding a textbook or a psychology journal article about your topic might be a huge help. The Internet can be a huge waste of time, but if your character is dealing with something that you’ve never dealt with, even reading the Wikipedia entry on nightmares and PTSD might give you a huge leg up. Again, this isn’t cutting and pasting Wikipedia articles into your fiction: take left turns. People deal with trauma and love and death and betrayal in their own unique ways. And your character should too.
Fifth, Mozart once said, “Love, love, love — that is the soul of genius.” Love your characters. Know them and care about them, and understand why they do what they do. Even when it’s not a good excuse, even when what they choose is abhorrent and wrong. Understand it, understand them, and then depict both.
Marcus asks, “I just started reading the night angel series and I must say, Durzo Blint is bad ass. I love the guy. I mean just great. I’m working on a novel right now, and its really hard to come up with a really good antagonist/bad guy. Can you give me some tips or processes you use to develop a solid bad guy…”
So…How do you write a bad guy?
I think of my older brother.
(Kevin, if you’re reading this. I’m sorry. I love you. I didn’t mean it. Please don’t hurt me.)
“Dear Master Weeks, your magic systems are the best I’ve ever seen. Or imagined. How do you make them so incredibly awesome?” – Jonas, an imaginary fan that Brent just made up.
Can I call you Joe? Yes, I think I can, ‘cause I just made you up. Magic is probably the key element that separates fantasy from other genres. Although to be fair, if you write the kind of artsy, literary book that eggheads (who would never admit to reading something as lowbrow as fantasy) like to read, you may get away with the label “magical realism.”
The truth is the boundaries of fantasy have expanded enormously in the last few decades. And with that expansion has come a huge expansion in definitions of magic and approaches to writing it. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings was about one super powerful ring whose power was to… make one person invisible. And with this power, Sauron was going to take over all of Middle Earth! Wait, what? But opposing him, there were elves and wizards who also had rings that gave them the ability to… light up their staves in dark places. Wait, what? We were told constantly that these characters were really, really powerful. And almost never saw it. However, Gandalf did have the power of falling really far.*
Those who followed Tolkien tended to follow his lead, and the advantage of this was that magic was mystical. And it was wondrous. And – for the author – it could get your characters out of practically any scrape. Because the reader didn’t know what magic could do, you could have magic do something really, really cool right at the end. And this was awesome. The first five times readers saw it. But after that, magic started to just feel like a cheat. And in response, fantasy began a counter movement. Arthur C. Clark said that “any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic.” So fantasy authors reacted against the “cheating” of their immediate predecessors and decided to make magic look more like science. That is, there would have to be rules. There would be limitations. There would be things you could never do. (Not that earlier fantasy was completely lacking these things. Any capable dramatist is going to introduce limits to what characters can do, even if they are wizards. David Eddings wouldn’t allow characters to be brought back from the dead, even though a wizard tries at one point. I am talking about big movements here in fantasy, so there will be outliers. And I don’t pretend to have read even half of the fantasy books ever written.)
Robert Jordan probably typifies this movement. There are five schools of magic, men and women do things differently, etc. (Saidar is like X, but saidin is like Y.) The real problem for those of us who follow Robert Jordan’s generation is if you make magic too much like science, if you tie it up with too many rules, you eventually strangle it. And now suddenly you’re writing science fiction. And people will start correcting you because photons don’t act that way in a warp core. And the newest superstring theory shows that your plot twist in Chapter 26 is scientifically impossible.
So I think the challenge in writing fantasy for any author today is in finding your own sweet spot between the two extremes. J.K. Rowling opts almost completely for wonder. And so her magic system isn’t really a system at all. It’s a collection of amazing, cool, wondrous things. If you think about parts of it too hard, it falls apart–but if you think about it too hard, you’re missing the point.
So I won’t call what I do in my magic systems the Right Way. Choose your own way. But since you’ve come to me, and apparently think I know what I’m talking about, here’s my way:
I’m fascinated by systems, and I’m fascinated by learning. And I’m fascinated by the cool stuff that sits all around the edges of science and knowledge. Things like: because of how time is warped around a black hole, if you fell in, it would subjectively take you forever. Or the dual nature of the light-wave. Or in less scientific realms how mythology and history intertwine. (Was Arthur really a king? Were the Thugee really death-goddess worshiping super-assassins?) Or many cultures have myths of a golden race that existed before us. Or of a cataclysmic flood. So in my writing I love to pick up those things and shake them around and say, “What if?”
In The Lightbringer Trilogy, I took something that any long-time fantasy fan has probably seen before: color magic. Color magic is cool because we all understand colors. And having differences between different colors just makes sense to us. It makes sense to us that colors also bring along with them some emotional content. You simply feel different in a sterile white hospital room than you do in a red and yellow McDonald’s or in a totally pitch-black alley. Those things – instantly appealing to senses and categories that readers understand – drew me to the color magic.
And that brings me to Benjamin’s question (June 28, he’s actually a real reader): “I am in fear of making something that might directly resemble another’s writing.” Well, here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go out and find all of the fantasy books that I could find that used color magic.
There’s an apocryphal story that Leo Tolstoy believed as a child that any wish he could make would be granted if he could wish it while standing in a corner not thinking about a pink elephant. So what doesn’t help is to see all of the cool things that everybody else has done and then try to do something different. We’re not reverse engineering a video game here; instead, I give you this commandment: go forth and play!
Do you want to know what’s cool about colors? For real, like in real life and science? There aren’t just the eight colors that were in your childhood Crayola box. In fact, people speaking different languages have different color words, and different definitions for those words. So indigo is one of the primary colors for certain speakers. Further, in ethnographic studies, if a language has only two color words, the colors will be white and black. If they have three, the third color is red. (I think I learned this from Stephen Pinker.) Do you know what the cool thing about colors is? Colors are just the visible electromagnetic spectrum. So of course it makes sense that different cultures are going to dice up that spectrum differently. It’s a continuum, so where you place your markers on it is influenced by a host of factors. Do you want to know what else is cool about colors? Women tend to be better than men at perceiving differences in the pink range. This is why there are jokes about men not being able to match their tie with their shirt: those men literally cannot see the difference. And there are colorblind people – almost always men – and because color is light, and because color is simply the visible ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, you can imagine people who can see beyond the normal visible range. In fact, the more study you actually do about colors and light and photography and perception and cultures, the more ideas will be absolutely exploding in your brain.
Me? I took those ideas and added them to a very simple idea that magic must have mass. And if the different colors are going to be different from each other, they might as well be different physical properties, different emotional properties, different smells, and different uses. This is also very cool, and very simple and intuitive when explained one step at a time to those of us who live in a scientific era, but in some ways it gave me a hideously complex system. One flaw of The Black Prism is probably that I got so excited about sharing this cool thing that it sometimes got pretty complicated to explain all of it without hindering a narrative that I wanted to move forward quickly.
But your idea doesn’t have to be grandiose by any means. In fact, simpler ideas are better. What if, by taking different kinds of drugs, a magician could have different kinds of powers? Oh wait, drug use sounds bad, let’s make those drugs metals. (I haven’t read the books yet, but I hear Brandon does a fantastic job with them!) 😉
In my tiny corner of handling magic, I think that simple systems that have analogs to other human systems make the most sense. And I find it most satisfying if the magic always has costs and limitations. As Kirk (May 29th, also real) asks, “I would love to add more depth to my own system and would love to know how you go about it,” the costs are the obstacles that help keep moving your plot forward:
To get my fleet across the ocean, I have to sacrifice somebody of royal blood (Homer, of Iphgenia; also stolen by George R. R. Martin). And then it also has limitations: i.e., prophecies are really useful, but they don’t always mean what you think they mean (real Greek history, a Delphic oracle prophesying that “only a wooden wall” would stop the Persians. Gee, thanks, did that mean a wood wall around the Acropolis, or did it mean a wall of ships? (Ships won, and so did the Greeks at Salamis)). Or, sometimes prophecies are just flat out wrong (see, real history and George R. R. Martin).
The choices you make about how you’re going to handle magic, however, are really fundamental to your novel. Handling a low-magic world (that is a world in which magic is rare or weak) is much simpler from a technical perspective than handling a high-magic world (where magic is very powerful and/or very common). And how you explain your magic early in your narrative is how you set up your contract with the readers. If you make it very clear that magic is a genteel art by which people can be charmed with glamours (a la Mary Robinette Kowal), and then in the last chapter your heroine is suddenly hurling fireballs, you’re going to lose a significant chunk of your audience (Mary doesn’t do that, by the way. Thank goodness!). In fiction, as in real life, contracts can be broken – just make sure you break them in a way that makes the new contract better for the reader than the original contract. (Spoiler follows: in the original Matrix, nothing prepares us for that moment at the end when Neo actually comes back from the dead. However, we’re so pleased that he does that we let him, and the writers, get away with it. That’s the kind of contract breaking that works.) This is one technique that I use that some people love and some people hate in The Night Angel trilogy: one of the characters lies about the magic he’s capable of, repeatedly. So we, along with Kylar, believe things about magic that aren’t true. Even though I establish, carefully, that Durzo lies about the extent of his abilities in the first book of the Night Angel trilogy, some people were mad at me when it turns out he lied again about the extent of his abilities in the third book. Oh well. And yes, Durzo lies, again, in Perfect Shadow. Anyone sensing a trend here? Beuhler? Beuhler? Never mind. 😉
Magic is a huge topic, so I could ramble on for ages. And already have. But my most concise advice would be: if you want to write a fantasy story in which magic is very important, think of something that you’ve just always thought would be really cool. (On a par with wouldn’t it be cool if I could fly? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could be invisible? Wouldn’t it be cool if I was super strong? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could read people’s minds? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make my older brother do anything I wanted? Wait, is that last one just me?) If you’ve dreamed these things, probably other people have too. That doesn’t make your idea bad; it makes it good!
So you think it’d be cool if you could make anyone think anything you wanted them to? How do you do it? Do you learn a spell? Do you have to talk to a Saan mystic? Do you have to get into a secret government program? Or is that power granted through Uncle Don’s surfboard? Then, what does it cost? How many other people can do it? How does everybody else feel about the people who have this power? Do they know about it? How is it kept secret, if it is? Personally, if I knew you could make me think anything you wanted to, I would be deathly terrified of you. Do people with this power abuse it? What’s to stop them from abusing it? Does anybody else have any powers that interact with this power in a cool way? Maybe you can only use it for one minute every day. Maybe you can use it as much as you want, except when you’re asleep. Or maybe, after you’ve used it, everybody knows that you’ve used it, and maybe resents you
Just have fun with this. Because all of this is just furniture. This is the big bouncy bed in your parents’ bedroom that you get to go jump on. This is the magic. The story is something else completely. But of course, that’s a topic for another post.
*I’m teasing about the LoTR. They are my favorite works of fantasy, and do many, many things well. That much of modern fantasy treats magic differently does not mean that LoTR does it poorly. I treat languages skimpily, LoTR treats language to huge depth. I treat magic to huge depth, LoTR treats magic skimpily. These are choices that may appeal to different people, or to the same person at different times, not necessarily flaws.
(Andrius asks: What importance do you give your characters names? How do you find/figure them out? This might sound ridiculous, but even thought I nearly have everything figured out for my own story, as soon as I try jumping in, the names get me; my characters have importance and value in my eyes and I can’t bring myself to say, “You are Mr. Secretive/Caring who has a dark and haunting past and does his best to care for others but occasionally mixes work with home and makes his loved ones pay for it. You are morally ambiguous but all you really want is the best for your adopted son who happens to be your best friend’s child. You have an enormous responsibility resting on your shoulders that was put there against your will but you do your best with what you have… I think I’ll call you Jim.”)
First, Andrius, if your entire novel is as amusing as your question – I think you are well on your way! Secondly, if the broader question is, as Brandon asks, “Right now I’m curious how authors come up with a lot of different names and they still feel natural to the story and world…” — Congratulations! You have just parted the skin, and you are now looking at the sinews and the viscera of fantasy novels. The truth is: We Just Make Stuff Up.
Part of the magic of storytelling is that your audience co-creates the world with you. That is, if the name “Jim” has a slightly dissonant note for your artsy-fartsy man with a history who has a dysfunctional relationship with his stepson, your readers are going to help you out. They’ll think, “Jim. That’s such a prosaic, pedestrian name. I bet he’s undercutting his own thesis by having such a unique character having such a boring name. How postmodern! Clearly Andrius is a genius!!” On the other hand, if Jim is named Wyatt, they’ll say, “Clearly, Wyatt is named Wyatt because he has a sort of old-West, roguish character, who is however, constrained by rules and reality of the Law, like an Old West Marshall. Indeed, like Wyatt Earp!” Or if your character’s name is Stoner, your readers will see how this man is reacting against his hippy parents lax standards of raising a child and is trying to forge his own way, trying to find his own touchstone of truth, even as his stepson falls under the sway of chemical dependency (irony! Double bonus points!).
Ok, Brent, you might be saying. That was really amusing, but I really can’t come up with names.
Oh! So you want me to be all practical. Fair enough, I can do that too. If you have a culture in your world that echoes an Earth culture of a particular time, you can help yourself out a lot by simply Googling 15th century Andalusian names. For the Night Angel Trilogy, I mostly made up names out of whole cloth. Although some, I definitely tried to give a certain flavor. In some cases, this flavor might run away with you. So again, Google is your friend. In my case, I wanted to give a slightly Japanese flavor to some of the terms in my novel, including the Sa’Kage, which I conceived of as meaning the “Lords of Shadow”. Later, someone refers to Kylar as simply “Kage” – shadow. So, perfect, right? Sounds shadowy, sounds – oh wait! “Kage” in Japanese actually means shadow. I don’t speak Japanese, so I have no idea how this happened, but if I had known that it was a literally one-to-one reproduction, I probably would have changed the name at least a little bit so that it echoed a meaning in many reader’s heads without directly being that thing. So again, take into account carefully how similar your fantasy culture is to the Earth culture you’re trying to evoke.
For the Lightbringer Trilogy, I have made up far fewer names and am instead using far more real-world, 16th-century Mediterranean names. Because those Mediterranean, Renaissance cultures are less familiar to readers, I feel like I can more directly invoke some of those names. So I use a lot of Spanish names, and Berber names, and Arabic names. But within those lists of names that I’m able to find in my research, I generally steer clear of those that have religious connotations in our world – huge sources of inspiration for Spanish names in the period were Catholic saints and huge numbers of the Arabic names were based on Islamic teachings, and neither of those have a place in this world. So I screened out the Marias and the Abdullahs, while still choosing names that have real meanings that will be fun discoveries for those readers who already know those languages, or who bother to look them up.
I also bring a certain set of aesthetic and practical principals to how I choose names. I let my intuition, as much as my brain, guide me when I’m looking over vast lists. What sounds good to me when I say it in my mind? What looks good on the page? As an aesthetic, social – and therefore, commercial – consideration, think twice about having a character named “Aesculapius”. Even though it may be really clever to invoke the Greek god of physicians, and that funny Socratic dialogue – you know, the one where Socrates dies? – if readers get together and they want to talk about your book and they all feel embarrassed about how uneducated they are when they mispronounce Aesculapius, do you know what will happen instead of them sitting around and talking about your cool character Aesculapius? Yes, as a matter of fact: they will talk about whether they’re on Team Edward or on Team Jacob, both of which are much, much, easier to pronounce. And they won’t feel stupid even if they are being stupid.
I also apply my brain to the names as well. Do four major characters already have names that start with “A”? Well, no matter how beautiful those names are, probably that’s too many. Readers often read quickly or transpose characters. So even though Artaxerxes and Ataraxes are TOTALLY different characters and duh, how could anyone POSSIBLY mistake the two… hey, throw your readers a frickin’ bone. They’re reading this for FUN. After they worked 14 hours today. Is this name really long, and does it have weird letter combinations that most English monoglots are going to struggle with? Is this name so brilliant and so perfect that it must stay the way it is? If so, absolutely, 100%, leave it. But building a story is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. Do not make the blueprint confusing if it doesn’t absolutely need to be confusing. If it must be confusing, if you need the reader to grapple with this ambiguity, leave it. If it’s just ambiguous because you have a fondness for names that begin with the letter “A”, dig deeper. You’re the pro around here. Work harder.
Also, even though I am guilty of this, and may have to be guilty of this again in the future when I return to Midcyru, I really, really try to avoid names with apostrophes. In fact, I’ve considered issuing a manifesto, a treaty among authors, a ceasefire in the war of apostrophes, titled: “How Do We Pronounce ‘Apostrophe’?” The apostrophe has done hard work in the service of fantasy. Maybe it’s time to let that poor, overstressed punctuation mark resign.
Tyler Hodson asked, “I love your descriptions of Kylar’s fights … how you go about writing your action scenes?”
There is one great thing above all about writing fiction that people consistently forget: you get to lie. The writer is the ultimate dilettante. We need be masters of nothing except writing. (Though there is a long tradition of us pretending to be masters of all sorts of other things too, going back at least to the Platonic dialogue – I think it’s the Ion – in which a poet swears he is the master of many things, and Socrates makes him look like an idiot, as usual.) If people want to read a master of fighting, they can read Bruce Lee or Miyamoto Musashi, or more helpfully, I think, Sgt. Rory Miller. As desk jockeys, let’s be honest: most of us are never going to know as much about horse riding as real jockeys do, and most of us are never going to be tough as prison guards or Navy SEALS. That doesn’t mean, however, that anything goes.
What we’re looking for in writing is verisimilitude. That is, enough reality to evoke reality, while still serving the purpose of the narrative. And I should note that we do this in almost every part of a novel. If the writer has any skill or discernment, the characters in a novel do not speak the way real people speak: they’re far more eloquent, witty, and concise than people are in real life. If you ever see a transcript of real speech, you’ll be shocked at how many “ums” there are, how much time is spent on pointless introductions, and how many wandering tangents are taken and then abandoned – and never picked up at the end of the scene! Fight scenes are the same. You want to write something that’s cool, and exciting, and fun that’s anchored in reality enough that the reader doesn’t get jolted out of the narrative world. That is, even if it’s surprising, you don’t want your surprises to be such that the reader scoffs or becomes aware that they’re reading a book again. At that moment, you’ve broken your own narrative.
So you don’t need to be the world’s foremost expert, but you do need to be educated. How do you do that? There are two tracks here. I suggest you take both, but your own temperament will probably lead you to take one or the other more. First, read books about fighting men and by fighting men. (Heck, if you can find great books by fighting women, too, go for it!) The psychology of warriors probably hasn’t changed all that much in the last few thousand years, but our modes of fighting have, and those affect people differently. A sniper doesn’t feel as connected to his kill as someone who chokes the life out of a person with their fingers; the detachment of killing from a bomber at 50,000 feet is different than cutting someone open with your scimitar. If you can find books about the warriors in the time frame that you’re setting your novel, or in a culture similar to your novel’s culture, that’s probably best. Expect some of this to be dry and not help you very much. (Sadly, I found Julius Caesar’s volumes on Gaul to be horribly boring–I hope just a bad translation. Winston Churchill on the other hand could write!) Other volumes will be utterly fascinating, like the book Infantryman, which was written by a guy who’d been an American soldier in the last 180 or so days of World War II. And he talks bluntly about his experience in a compelling, honest voice, talking about how no one would ever even try to take snipers alive, and that sort of thing. [I thought this was the name of the book, but I gave it back to the friend who loaned it to me, and now can’t find a book by that title that seems to be the right one anywhere!]
I also like to read some of the U.S. Army psychology reports that they compiled after World War II. You find these frank pamphlets talking to guys about how it isn’t that big of a deal if you lose control of your bowels, and that doesn’t make you a coward, get back in there and you’ll be fine tomorrow. And I’ve also found my own conversations with veterans to be incredibly helpful. Like talking to a Vietnam vet who said that one day you’d be a hero, and you’d pull your buddy out of the line of fire, and you’d risk your life, and the next day you just couldn’t make yourself move. My father’s a doctor, and he works at VA hospitals, and he always asks guys for their stories, and if you ask politely, you may hear some incredible, surprising, and true things from people who’ve really been there. Use the people you know who might have some expertise. Are you a college student? Do you have a professor who has a specialty in military history? Go talk to him. Ask questions. Pretend he’s the most interesting man in the world. Believe me, the adoring fans are why college professors became college professors in the first place. I had a martial arts instructor who was a prison guard–and the guys who have to patrol an exercise yard with only one other guard and hundreds of felons? Tough.
The second track is the straight-up physical track: experience. You’re reading some long writing advice post on some author’s webpage, so I’m going to guess that most of you are going to lean more toward the book side.But in my writing, I take my admittedly small real-world experience, and combine it with my book learning. I had a couple of years of martial arts training–but I’m no real world bad ass. In fact, the martial arts training that was probably most valuable to me was my brother’s: he used that stuff on me. See, I have an older brother. We fought a lot growing up. I know what it feels like to get punched in the face, and be so shocked you don’t do anything for a few seconds because he broke the rules of what I expected. (If he’d been a bad guy, that hesitation would have cost me!) I know what it’s like to get hurt pretty bad, and while your adrenaline’s raging, try to figure out if you’ve just been hurt or if you’re actually wounded. I played football, and I’ve blindsided guys, and I’ve been blindsided in turn, and I’ve absorbed some of the counterintuitive truths of the playing field. Like, the harder you hit the other guy, the less you feel it (where most people will instinctively think that when two bodies in motion collide, the vectors will be additive, and so also will the pain. In truth, if you hit him harder, he absorbs the force, and you don’t. Plus, it looks better on film when that guy falls backwards). Even in a football game, you can get tunnel vision. You can feel time dilation. And after doing it for a while, you can see how guys, their first time out, do everything wrong. And you can extrapolate from all these little things to what fighting might be like in real life, using your experience, the words of those who’ve actually been there, and what you can learn from medical textbooks and history textbooks. You can get somewhere in the neighborhood. Will a former soldier or an MMA fighter or a martial arts instructor know better than you? Yes. Will they spot little errors–quite likely. Heck, don’t YOU notice errors in movies and books All The Time? (My favorite, watch any pirate movie–when the ships are really far apart and they see the other ship fire on them: the sound and the sight are always synchronized by Hollywood, where in truth, you see the guns fire first, then hear them a bit later. Like with fireworks. But Hollywood is convinced that people think they’re simultaneous, so they’re always dubbed to be simultaneous.)
The good thing is, you’re not competing against MMA fighters. You’re not in a real fight. You’re writing a fight for a book! So do it as well as you can, and then have people read it, and if they tell you it’s ridiculous, well, maybe it is. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn, and make it better. And note that the action in your book isn’t divorced from all the other parts of your book. If in your world people can jump 50 feet in the air and survive gunshots and have buildings fall on them without breaking a bone, your fighting will be similarly amped up and unrealistic. Believe me, plenty of real fighters still like comic books. Similarly, if your main POV character is autistic, he’s going to notice different things about a battle than your neighbor Joe, who’s just going to be holding his head and looking at dirt for the next two hours, hoping somebody saves him. Make the action or the fighting in your novels awesome, make it fun, make it fit, and you’ll be fine.
What do you think about ebooks? Do you think it’s better for a starting writer to go the self-publishing route or to go with a publisher? What do publishers offer that makes them worthwhile, especially in the digital world? — paraphrased from an email by Ryan D.
Wow, big topic, and I’m putting a date on my answer because the field is changing so rapidly that my answer will probably be out of date in a year.
I love ebooks. I see this time of upheaval as a good time for creators and consumers both. There is going to be weirdness. Think of it like this: when motor cars first came out, NYC had a law that if you operated one, you needed to have someone carrying a red flag walk in front of you to warn pedestrians. (Apocryphal? Maybe, but horses + cars = weirdness. Doubtless those who loved horses hated the motor carriages, and those who loved motor carriages wished the horses would get out of the way.)
Ebooks, however, are the new gold rush. Among the miners who went to California and the Yukon were doubtless a lot of good miners, but there were also a huge number of people who thought that just by showing up they would get rich.
Those people didn’t get rich.
In my opinion, ebook publishing can be a great venue for you… IF. If you write fast, if you write the right kind of story, if you can master the various e-tailers’ formatting schemes, if you are comfortable contracting good cover art, and if you’re willing to relentlessly promote.
1) Write fast: depending on the genre, short might be fine, but a huge number of your sales are going to be repeat customers. If they’re not giving you much each time, you want them to have a lot of products so that you can make a living.
2) Write the right kind of story: Any kind of commercial fiction. Do you write the kind of stuff people like to read, or the kind of stuff people like to be seen reading? Pretentious lit that can’t get the official stamp from New York? Probably not going to do well on Kindle. Fun vamp comedies with lots of sex? Well…
3) The ebook formats don’t always play nice together. It’s changing, but you need to edit and do layout well enough that your book looks professional. If you’re a bad speller, hire someone. It’s easy, even if you’re a good speller like I am, to know what you mean and read right past your errors. Reading one typo in a book is forgivable. Five, six? Infuriating.
4) Your cover art makes a HUGE difference. Especially if you’re one of the horde of self-published folks. Find good artists and design people. Find something that gives you a template so that each of your books looks like one of your books. People will forget your name, but remember the cover. It happens. Make it easy for them to find the next one.
5) Promote. You’re going to have to go to others for pointers on this. It’s different for self-published writers.
If you self-publish digitally through Amazon (and charge at least $3), you get 70% of the profit. So, sell 10,000 copies and you get $21,000. If you publish through New York, you get 25%–of their profit. So Amazon takes its 30%, and you get 25% of the 2.10 (actually almost surely less), $5,250. $21k sounds better than $5k, right?
Of course it does, but on the other hand, would you rather have 70% of $100 or 25% of a $1,000? Assuming you can sell as many e-books on your own, yes, OF COURSE you should self-publish.
I don’t assume that.
What does a publisher do for me?
Let’s be honest, there’s still a stigma against self-published writers. Why? Because they deserve it. Because most of them are crap. (That’s okay, most of everything is crap.) Most stories published by the Big Six aren’t much better, but at least you know that they’ve gone through two rounds of gatekeepers (agents, and then editors). So even though the average may only be lifted ten percent, by moving the entire bell curve up ten points, you’ve made the likelihood of finding a great story much, much more likely.
Put it this way: where are the Robert Jordans or George R. R. Martins who are self-published? The truth is, once even self-published writers find big success, many of them jump over to New York publishers–for the credibility if nothing else. (See Amanda Hocking and Michael Sullivan).
What else do publishers do? Editing, copy editing, layout, maps, cover design, cover art, distribution, other markets (like paperbacks, hard covers, omnibuses, trade paperback, book club, large print editions, etc), promotion, organizing book tours, and buying you nice meals when you visit New York. They make it many times easier to sell foreign rights. They make it many times easier to sell (or will sell themselves) audio rights. Now, any particular publisher may not do all of those things uniformly well, but it is their job to squeeze every possible cent out of your one story. They are very good at this. (Of course, because THEY do the work to make the pie bigger, you have to accept a smaller slice of the pie.)
So is it worth it? That’s up to you. Do realize that thinking because there’s one Amanda Hocking, that YOU will be the next one is like thinking because there’s one JK Rowling that I will be the next one. If you want to be a writer, you’re already basing your business “plan” on falling in the .01%. It’s already wildly optimistic. But don’t “plan” on falling into the .0000001%. What’s a few zeroes between friends? Well… c’mon.
Ebooks are going to be an increasingly large piece of the pie, but they’re only going to be a piece. If you enjoy promoting and contracting and fiddling with software and putting together a book that is all yours, where every decision is in your hands–self-publish. But if you love just the writing? Well, guess what, you’re still going to have to do a lot of the business side these days, but by having team members who are doing a lot of the other stuff for you, you will have to do less.
Do I need to get a real job while I’m trying to be a writer?
Ugh, I hate to be the cold voice of reality. But probably. Almost certainly, as a matter of fact. One agent I know says you need to have five or six books published before you quit your day job. Published. Now, if your books do well, you might make it less than that. But probably it’s going to take you what, a year, two years to write the first book? Eleven years, like Pat Rothfuss? In that year, or two, or eleven, you need to eat. So do what you have to. Count the cost. If you’re investing your youth in this, be aware that your friends may all be owning houses and driving SUVs while you’re still struggling to get published. Be aware that if you’re washing windows for 30 hours a week rather than working 80 hours a week as a scrub at a law firm because you want the time to write, you are making a trade for something that’s unlikely. Most people don’t get published. Honestly, I’m not trying to throw despair your way. If you could do another job, but your soul would die, then write. Be aware you’ll probably be poor forever, but if that doesn’t dissuade you, more power to you. It’s a beautiful life, fighting with the blank page every day. Welcome to the revolution, comrade.
Are there any great books on writing you’d recommend?
There are about a million books out there full of advice. The ones I found that were helpful to me were Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (my favorite writing book) and then in third On Writing by Stephen King (which is half autobiography and half writing book). Those are where I started.
What are some helpful books about the publishing business?
i. This is going to be a little counter-intuitive. My advice is not to worry about the publishing side of things until you’re finished writing your book. The publishing side of things is incredibly hard to learn from the outside–and most of us are on the outside. You can read tons of webpages full of total crap about the publishing industry–and it will get you twisted in knots. The people who are actually IN publishing and know what they’re talking about are generally too busy with, ya know, publishing: reading, editing, networking, selling, and soothing the artistes who work for them to be posting accurate information on the web. Not that good information isn’t out there, but it’s hard to sift that good from the bad if you’re just an author in Des Moines and two different, seemingly reputable websites say diametrically opposed things.
ii. SO, my advice is for you to do the one thing that no one else can do: write that great book that is inside you. The whole industry chugs along on books, and you make them. You are the fuel. So make that book as high of an octane as you can, because no one else can do that for you. Don’t understand foreign rights? Someone will explain it to you. Don’t understand conventions? Someone will explain them to you. Don’t know what you’re supposed to do on book tour? Someone will explain it to you. 1. Write a great book 2. Get a great agent 3. Ask questions. If you write books that connect with people, and have an honest, intelligent agent (if she’s experienced, that’s a big plus), no one is going to look down on you because you don’t understand P&L’s. I promise. (Well, if they have to explain it to you twelve times… but hey, if you’re bright enough to write an amazing book, you’re probably bright enough to understand a P&L… by the eleventh time anyway)
i. The best way I know to find an agent is to find authors whose books are similar to yours and look in the acknowledgements. Authors will almost always acknowledge their agents. Then go to those agents’ sites on the web and follow the instructions they have exactly. In your query letter, say something like, “I’ve loved the work of your client, writer X, and think you’ll find MY BOOK TITLE to have similar A, B, and C.” This sounds cookie-cutter, but really, it works best if you can honestly say how your book IS like those books. Also, get ready for rejection. If you mail some rockstar agents, they may never respond to you. The ones who DO may take months. Welcome to the business. Take your rejections as evidence that you’re in the game. If you weren’t playing, you couldn’t strike out. And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to be in the stands drinking beer and critiquing the guy who’s swinging for the fences and whiffing than it is to stare down a 100 mph fastball.
My own agent is Donald Maass. He understands Story, and is blunt and honest. He’s written the best books on writing that I know: check out The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, and The Fire in Fiction. He has The Career Novelist as a free pdf download on his website. Free. It’s worth more than that, honest.
ii. Also, I’m probably not the best resource for this, given that I tried 33 times to get an agent and was only successful once. However, the first thing you need to do is write a really great book. No really, a really, really great book. (You can dispute whether The Way of Shadows is such a book, but my agent thought so. So there.) Then the best thing to do, in my humble opinion, is to look for books that are similar to your own book, look in the acknowledgements, and figure out who that person’s agent is because they probably thanked them there. And if they didn’t thank their agent, you probably don’t want her to be your agent anyway. 😉
You might as well cross out all the absolute top-tier agents while you’re doing this step, because they’ll be too busy to take on people who’ve never published anything and haven’t proved that they can make them money. When I solicited agents, half of them never wrote back to me, not even a form rejection. Then look on their website, follow all their directions, exactly how they said it, and write them a great query letter. Mention that you loved that author X (the guy who they also represent) and tell them how your work is similar, or why you think they’d be interested. Read some books from Amazon about this whole querying process, it is a little more in-depth than that. Secondly, and at the same time, go to some writing conventions. They cost money, but you’re going to learn a lot of stuff in the time you spend there. And you may even meet these people in person. Next, you’re going to have to wait. It always takes a couple of months to hear back from any of these people. My agent gets 300 queries a week. And quite honestly, reading your query is the lowest on their list of priorities each week. Not because they hate you, but because they have people who are making them money who want them to do things all the time. Once you get an agent, if you’ve gotten a good agent, they will handle selling it to the right people. Quite honestly, you will not have much choice. If a publisher says yes to you, that’s a yes. Be excited. Be aware that the whole process after you’ve finished your book can easily take from 1 to 2 years. If you’re a writer, you have to be in this for the long haul. Took me 2 years to get my eventual New York Times Bestseller sold. And another year for it to get published. So in this industry, sometimes good things come to those who wait.
So, you’ve finished your novel. Then you went back and actually finished it, right? You’ve been through every word to the point where you’re changing things back to the way they were before your last editing pass? Your manuscript sparkles? The first sentence demands you read the second? The first paragraph demands you read the next? The first page demands you read on? Every chapter begs you to go on to the next? The climax shatters expectations, breaks hearts, moves mountains?
Sweet. Let’s go sell that thing.
Did you skim that paragraph? Don’t. You feel a little iffy about your novel’s beginning (or middle, or end)? Okay, read the rest of this post for general enlightenment, but I can’t stress this enough: your book will sell your book. Even if your amazing personality and stunning good looks get the book past some editors and you actually get published, once that book is out there in the big bad world, it’s your words that sell it. No, not your relentless self-promotion–the words between the covers. Your book will sell your book. Or it won’t.
Got ya, totally agree, Brent. I’ve done all that. Can we get on to pitching?
Okay. So who am I to tell you about pitching? Well, I’ve done it wrong, and I’ve done it right. I got an agent who gets 300-400 queries per week to represent me, and I pitched badly to him the first time.
1) Find what agents you’d love to have represent you.
You write Urban Fantasy with a romantic twist? Epic Fantasy with a post-structuralist bent? Who’s the best in the world at writing something close to what you write? (Yeah, you have your own special sauce that makes your book different, right, I get ya. But someone out there is writing something kinda-sorta like your book. And selling a few copies, right?) Well, that writer has an agent. Find out who it is. You can check the SFFWA website or the writer’s own website or the writer’s acknowledgments pages (“Thanks, Jennifer Jackson for being the greatest agent ever!”), or find the agents’ own pages, where they will happily brag that they represent that successful writer whose work resembles yours (except yours is better, of course).
Come up with a list of 20, 30, 50. Whatever. Some of these agents are going to be so big their intern’s intern probably won’t hear of you. Tough. This whole business is tough. Put on those big girl pants. Rejection is the only certainty down this road.
Oh, but you’re a precious flower? Good. That natural sensitivity will serve you well… when writing. This is not writing time. Or take this rejection and turn it into fuel. Whatever you need to do. You can’t win if you don’t play. You can’t play without getting some bruises. Bruises are proof you’re playing.
Many writers are too scared to play. Once you get a rejection letter, you have earned the right to look down on those writers. Forever. (You shouldn’t, but if it makes you feel better, do what you must.)
I came up with a list of 33 agents that I thought I would be happy to have represent me. Some were longshots that I knew were too big for me. I tried anyway.
2) See if any of those agents are coming to any writers’ conferences close to you.
3) Budget it out. Figure what going will cost. Can you bunk with anyone? Can you drive with someone? Then figure out what NOT going will cost. If you don’t do anything different in your life, nothing different will happen. This may just give you the odds of buying a lottery ticket, but if you don’t enter, you can’t win.
In 2004, I saw that two agents on my list were coming to the Willamette Writers’ Conference–and they both were accepting pitches! Honestly, I almost didn’t go. It cost $400 to go to the conference, and that was a huge stretch for me and my wife. We just didn’t have that money. I went anyway.
4) In order to make that cost be as little of a gamble as possible, I recommend preparing the following BEFORE you go. (I didn’t know this before going, and subsequently, didn’t do as well as I could have.)
one paragraph pitch
two minute pitch
My list looked like this:
great novel (I thought so, but really, it was a couple of rewrites away yet)
one paragraph pitch–huh?
two minute pitch–huh?
Let me stress something here: I learned more at a four-day conference than I’d learned in a year of reading tons of books about writing. There were things I learned at the conference that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
For instance, I met both of the agents whom I knew I wanted to represent me. One that looked great for me on paper was just… weird. She’s successful; she sells lots of books, and she wasn’t for me. Not even close. I took her off the list.
Then–not particularly helpful to you, but this is what happened to me–because I was going to all of the talks that both of these agents were presenting, the other agent gave a talk that blew my mind. He asked, “What is the one thing your main character would never do?” Go ahead and think about this for yourself and your own book. This is free. In business-speak, this is value-add just for reading my anecdote. So I thought about it, and I actually came up with two things: Kylar would never hurt Doll Girl, and he would never betray his new master, the man who had practically become his father, who had saved his life, Durzo Blint.
Then he said, “What happens to your novel if your main character does that?”
And I said, Ah shit. (Not in quotes because I didn’t actually say it aloud.) But definitely with the profanity, because I saw that if Kylar did one or both of those things, the book would be twice as good.
Which was a huge bummer, because I came in thinking that I had a marketable manuscript, and now I saw that I had a lot of re-writing to do. (Nine months worth, as it turned out.)
No, really, it was a HUGE bummer. We were poor, like barely paying the rent poor, and I didn’t know that I had nine more months in me before I had to get a real job. But you do what you must to make the work excellent. If you let your work out the door before it’s as good as you can make it, you’ve violated your own artistic gift; you’ll never not regret it.
So then, knowing that my novel needed a major re-write, I had to pitch it. Ouch.
I think my pitch to Don Maass went something like this: “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Pulp Fiction meets Batman.” He gave me a very puzzled look, like he was really trying to track with me and just had no idea where I was going, and I knew I’d blown it.
There’s a silver lining here, though. Simply by having gone to the conference, Don Maass knew that the people with whom he met were serious about writing as a profession. So he told us to say that we’d met him in our query letter.
I didn’t send him a query letter for nine months. This actually worked in my advantage when I did. It showed that I was serious about the craft of writing. I was able to say, “I heard your talk, and it’s taken me all this time to work in what I learned from you and make my novel better.” This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s work. It’s being willing to look at what you thought was ingenious, and trash it, and do better. I sent my query, eventually got asked for more, then for the whole manuscript, and then got an agency deal–9 months after I sent that first query, 18 months after I’d met Don first.
Along the way, I queried 33 agents. Fifteen never wrote back to me, ever. Fifteen rejected me. (I particularly enjoyed the ones who simply rubber-stamped my SASE with “No Thanks.” and sent it back.) Three were interested enough to ask to see more. Two dropped out after seeing the whole ms.
After two years and 32 agents, I somehow landed my first choice agent. It took him two more years to sell that book. It became a New York Times best seller, and continues to sell well to this day.
This is not all to brag. It’s to tell you that you may not be crazy when you think, “I think this book is really good. I think it could sell well.” Everyone in publishing is looking for books that sell. There’s no cabal out there to hold you down. But they aren’t all always right about what will sell. An assassin novel where the most important relationship is between two men, master and apprentice? Everyone knows boys don’t read anymore. Huh.
BUT… this all is not about my path. When YOU go to the conference, you want to be better prepared than I was.
So: 1) Logline. This may be the hardest thing to come up with of all of them. But coming up with this sentence or two may actually tell you all the problems your novel has. A logline is just the story in one or two sentences:
A motley band of deep core oil miners must fly into space to place a nuke in a planet-killing asteroid.
Oh, you don’t write 90 minute movies? Yours is more complicated? Yeah, mine too:
“A street rat must apprentice with a legendary assassin in order to save his friend. Years later, when she’s grown up and sees a murder, the boy must decide whether to kill the woman he loves, or the master who’s raised him as a son.”
See the impossible problem there? The stakes? Make it easy. Don’t load up your logline with gibberish words. People are already bad at processing auditory stimuli when all the words are in a language they know. Tell them about the sharakzahn of Ugbulae’s twelve plinths of power, and… their eyes will glaze over.
Your logline should be brief, and focus on the core dilemma of the book.
But, wait, you say. My book is about more than that! Yes, yes, it is. Fine. But if the core of the story doesn’t appeal to me, it just doesn’t appeal to me: “An angst-ridden vampire teenager must decide…” I’m already gone. No, no, don’t tell me how beautifully written it is. Don’t want to hear about the symbolism of innocence and experience. No interest.
Miners who fly to space? Strains my credulity here, but at least something’s going to happen in that story!
The one- or two-paragraph pitch is really just an expansion of the logline. The agent or editor is trying to figure out where this fits. “The Way of Shadows is an epic fantasy of 150k words. It’s the first novel in the Night Angel trilogy. It’s set in a corrupt medieval city where the organized crime is more powerful than the king. Azoth is the poorest of the poor. He’s a street kid with a problem: he mouthed off to his gang’s enforcer, and now the older boy wants to make an example out of him. Azoth’s only way to get out and to protect his friend, a mute little girl, is to apprentice with a legendary assassin: Durzo Blint. But Durzo doesn’t take apprentices, and the price he asks may be too high to pay.
Years later, when Durzo is doing a job to forestall an invasion, the same young woman witnesses him murdering someone, and Durzo orders Azoth to kill her. Azoth is forced to choose between killing the girl he now loves, and the master who’s raised him as a son. The fate of two kingdoms rests on his choice.”
Your purpose here is to give the agent or editor enough detail to know if this is even the kind of book they handle: is it the genre they do, is it a length they do (epic fantasy of 65k words?, a YA of 250k words?), and then you want to intrigue them. You’re not able to tell the whole story, so don’t try. Make them want to READ the whole story.
I had some editors say no because 150k was long for a first novel. It was also how long this book needed to be. There wasn’t fluff. Fine, they don’t get the novel. Now, they wish they had.
Now, if you have something like the above, read it out loud. Practice pitching it to someone who loves you. Do you have some sentence that is just awkward, and always makes you stumble? Change it. Is any of it confusing to a person hearing it for the first time? Make it simpler. (Even if you have to fudge a bit. In my books Azoth in latter half isn’t called Azoth any more–but it’s too complicated to go into why in the pitch. Just call him Azoth.)
Read it until you’re comfortable with it. Are you enunciating clearly? Are you loud enough? Are you too loud? Read it until you can put some of the passion you feel for this story into your words.
Then have someone throw a question or two at you: are there any zombies in this? Is this set in North Africa?
Comfortable? Good. There’s good news. When you go to pitch to that agent or editor, the ladies (or guys) you’re pitching against aren’t sales pros. They aren’t sales people at all. They’re writers! Hahahahahaha. They’re all introverts! They’re people who stay at home and stare at a computer screen rather than talk to people! You can take these guys. After all, you’re…
Probably just like that.
I’m teasing, but I’m serious, too. If you’re nervous pitching to an agent, don’t worry. She’s dealt with getting pitches from nervous introverts a thousand times before. If your material is good, that’s all that matters to that agent. Now, of course, if you’re a beautiful person who can sell sand to a Bedouin, that’s not going to hurt, and agents are happy to sell things that look easy to sell. But we sell books, people, and what matters isn’t your dazzling pearly whites. What matters is the book. If you’re gorgeous and your book is terrible, it’s not going to mean anything. (Unless you’re a bona fide celebrity, in which case… well, that’s just too depressing, don’t think about it.)
What your (prospective) agent wants out of this meeting is 1) to hear some pitches that actually might help her pay her mortgage someday, and 2) to get good clients. If your pitch is great, but you seem like an a-hole, the agent may pass. They have to work with you, you know. And while your book selling is the number 1 thing for them, it isn’t the only thing. So a nervous guy who seems really nice and has a great book pitch is probably better than a jerk with the same pitch.
You’re going to be scared. Your fear is understandable and for good reason. But don’t let it make you a jerk to hide that you’re scared.
The truth is, even if you blow it, the agent will probably tell you to send sample pages to her. (They know the pitch is one thing, and the book is often something totally different.) I blew my chances at pitches… and still got a deal.
“I was reading your post about how to get an agent, well I was wondering: would an agent be more interested in someone who is already published online?” – Jodie
Depends on where you published online. If you’re publishing stories with SFWA-listed sites, absolutely. (If you publish three stories in those markets, you can get full membership in the SFWA.) However, being able to write a short story and being able to write a novel are overlapping but not identical skills. It’s cabinetmaking to house framing. I’ve seen writers amazingly good at one who are pretty mediocre at the other.
What your membership to SFWA, or your online publishing with accredited markets does is… move your query letter up the stack a little. Maybe it skips you past the query letter stage to the query-letter-with-writing-sample stage.
Agents look for writers in all sorts of ways. Scott Lynch did not get picked up by publishing in an accredited market–he just wrote his first book and released his chapters as he finished them, and built up an audience. An agent stumbled across it, liked it a lot, and bam. Jim Butcher submitted through the normal channels, got rejected, went to a Con and met the agent who’d rejected him, and was professional and cool, and she told him to submit again. She accepted his manuscript, and now he’s Jim Butcher.
Agents are interested in writers who look like they will 1) make them money, 2) be reasonable to work with. In that order. If you have self-pubbed Kindle books and sold a million copies, an agent is going to see #1 all over that. Is there still snobbery in this industry? Yep. Enough for people turn away big paychecks? Nope.
What are some things I should do to get published?
At some point, go to a writing conference. Look for one with lots of classes on things you need to work on. Generally, I avoid talks at conferences given by writers. (Sorry, other writer folks, this is solely my own and limited experience, but I’m trying to be honest here.) No matter how good the writer is, those talks have sucked–because, my guess is, writers make so many of their decisions intuitively and those talks can become love-fests. Cool if you love the writer, not that cool if you’re trying to learn. Agents, editors, book doctors–these people think analytically. They can tell you why things work or don’t. It’s going to cost money to go to a conference. My first was local and still cost me $450 (a huge, nearly prohibitive sum to me at the time), but I learned more in three days than I learned in the previous year of just reading books on writing. Plus, I met my now-agent, the aforementioned Donald Maass.
I went to that conference thinking my book was finished, and that I was going to pitch it. Well, I did pitch it–not very well. But from a talk by Don, I realized that I wasn’t finished with the book, either. Agents at these things tend to be very open to taking lots of mss. They figure if you’re professional enough to have paid money to come to a conference, your book will be a cut above the usual dreck. Well, it was 9 months after the conference that I sent my query to Don, but being able to say, “I talked with you at Conference X, and you asked me to send you the first five pages of my novel Y…” at least bumps you up in the pile.
Of course, sometimes lightning strikes and a guy like Jim Butcher gets his ms rejected at some agency, and then meets and hits it off with an agent, who THEN decides to rep him. Don’t bet on this or worry about it, though. Mostly, conferences are good for learning and for meeting some folks. Put on your extrovert hat and do your best. Don’t worry, there are lots of other introverts at these things.
Again, the biggest thing to worry about is the thing that you actually have control over: the book. If it’s awesome, and I mean AWESOME, then eventually you will make it through the gatekeepers. Now, even if it’s AWESOME, it will take more time than it should. That’s the business. I got rejected at six or seven places, despite having a great agent… and all those rejections took up two years of my life. Painful, and brutally difficult. Just have a good idea of what you really want, and if you’re prepared to pay the price for it. It’s hard, it seems random, and there will be published writers who are published despite that your book is clearly better than theirs. Try not to get paranoid, and hold on, by fingernails if necessary. The thickened skin will be helpful when critics start talking crap about your books.
What writer’s conferences should I go to?
This is one answer I can’t answer very well. Things labeled Writers’ Conferences are often good. There are a lot of these. You’re looking for things with seminars or talks by prominent agents or editors about the business of writing–both the writing, and the business. Both the Willamette Writers Convention (Portland, Oregon) and the Surrey International Writers Conference (Surrey, British Columbia) were very helpful to me. If you’ve done you’re homework, you’ll start to see names pop up. If you see one of the agents that reps an author you think is very similar to you is going to a con near you, GO. I met one agent who looked like a great match for me on paper–and in person, I was like, no no no no no. That personal connection is really important–even though when you’re poor and desperate, you feel like you’d take any agent with a pulse. Don’t do that.
What classes should take, or what college degree should I get, to be a writer?
i. My degree didn’t really help. My education was very important. I’d absolutely tell you to study what you love and you can certainly include in there some things that you think would be helpful for future books, but nobody asked me for my GPA or what I got a degree in when I was trying to get published. However, it’s up to you to find the passion and the guts and the dedication to actually write that great book that is worth people buying. No one can do it for you. So pour your heart into it.
ii. As the guy said in Good Will Hunting, all you need is a library card. Though a huge amount of discipline and curiosity helps. All writers are autodidacts. Read everything you can get your hands on, and read the best. And you will learn sub-consciously what works and what doesn’t. Then drag that stuff out into the light:
This book worked. Why? What was good about it? You loved the characters? What made you love them? This book sucked you in from the very first paragraph? Go look at that paragraph and ask yourself what it did and how.
Nobody cares what your credentials are when you try to get published. They care if you can tell a great story. So if you have the right personality to read a lot of books and teach yourself, there’s no reason for a university directly. However, it is also extremely difficult to get published and to make a living writing books. So an education is a helpful thing for getting a real job while you are trying to write. (And you may have the good fortune to meet amazing friends and brilliant people, in addition to wracking up a ton of debt.) There are trade-offs to be made either way, and you have to figure out what is going to work best for you.
What MFA programs should I consider to be a writer?
I think there are a couple MFA programs that study genre writing. But–and you’re talking to a guy here who didn’t go to an MFA program, so I’m a biased, barely informed source–the main good I see from an MFA program is that it gives you a community of writers to be part of, and you get assigned to write a lot of different types of writing. And you get a lot of writing assignments, so it forces you to write lots. The pressure of deadlines IS useful to many, if not most of us. However, an MFA does cost money, and it costs time, and a lot of MFA programs are snotty about genre fiction. So for someone who wants to write genre and wants make a living writing, rather than making a living teaching writing, an MFA can be a huge waste of time and money. Every program is different, so I don’t want to make a blanket statement, but go in with your eyes wide open. A couple of programs might actually help you land a job teaching writing, many won’t. So depending on how the professors at a particular program react to the idea of writing genre (and find out BEFORE you go), and depending on your own feelings, you may be better served by giving your library card a lot of use, and just writing on your own. If you’re looking for genre-focused MFA-type programs, look into Clarion or Clarion West. Good luck on your journey.
1) A happy dance.
2) Buy a lottery ticket, because your juju is that strong today. On any other day, please remember: The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.
3) After your celebrations and gleeful phone calls and triumphant status updates, come back to this page. You are bookmarking it, right?
4) Let the glee run its course. This is a major achievement, and you shouldn’t run right past it. Savor it for a bit. No, really. Yes, there’s work ahead, but there’s time for it.
5) Okay, you’ve taken your deep breaths, and now you’re ready to hit the grindstone.
Industry pros like to laugh when they hear you ask, “Now what?”
“Aha,” they will say. “Now the real work starts.”
Your heart will despair, because you only got here by the skin of your teeth, and your sanity already looks like that ragged bloody clump of fur the cat dropped on your doorstep. Don’t listen to them. That’s fear in their voices. You see, there’s a new kid in town, and by God, you might just be better than they are.
BUT, this is going to be a time of transition. Even good transitions are stressful. Even the best transitions are stressful. Maybe you like the groove you’ve had going, the jokes you’ve made with your buddies about what a big deal you’ll be someday. Maybe the reality of it scares the hell out of you. Even if you haven’t liked where you were, at least you knew how it worked there, right? Well, you’re not alone. Crack your knuckles, stretch your back, and get ready.
First, you need to ask yourself some questions and give yourself some honest answers. Are you with a big publisher, or small, or are you virtually self-publishing? What was your advance? Enough for you to live on for a year, or not?
The vast majority of writers will get an advance that, if they did the math, will prove they were making less than a buck an hour. Maybe you got 5- or 10- or 15,000 dollars–and you spent how many years on that?
Take a deep breath. That’s 15 grand you didn’t have before.
If you’re north of $15,000 by much, there was probably competition for you. You are incredibly lucky (and talented, yes, but luck/fate/the ley lines/God’s mercy/the color of your dapper hat) plays a huge part in all of this. Let’s say you got a three book deal for $25k each.
Do some math. Figure out when you get that money. How you deal with finances will wreck you in this business if you don’t do it right. How much money do you need to make a year to continue with your current standard of living? How much money a year do you need to survive (with still a tiny bit of entertainment to maintain sanity). [Look at Myke Cole’s post HERE for a guy who’s making it on the bare bones and doing it intelligently.] What are your expenses and commitments? You may hate budgeting, but it may–literally–save your sanity later.
What’s your baseline for what you’re going to make? That advance. Do the math figuring you’renever going to make another dollar from that book/those books. This is most common. Even with books that are lavishly praised in all quarters and win awards.
The point of this approach is to plan by what you know. That is, plan conservatively so that you know at least that you’re going to be okay, you’re going to be able to pay your taxes and buy food. Then, if things go well, the extra money is extra. Now you get to go out to eat twice this month, or take a vacation, or–the ultimate goal–quit your day job.
What has to happen for you to quit your day job? My agent recommends at least six books in print, and likely ten years. But let’s say that you’re certain you’re going to be an outlier, and that your books are going to do great. HOW great do they have to do? You still have to make it to the day you get your first royalty payment–and you still have to pay your agent–and your taxes. Figure out: I have to sell X books to earn out my advance, then I’d have to sell Y books past that in order to pay agent and taxes and live for six months. And you only have Z books in print, and you know average sell-through is what? Maybe 60%? Forget “is it probable?”… is it even possible if you don’t go to a second printing?
Other authors and agents talk more about money elsewhere on the web, [Jim Hines has a nice series discussing income from his own experience in 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010] and my take on what is a normal advance assumes that there IS a normal advance, and is also five years out of date. (I got my advance in 2007, got published in 2008.) Go check out what others say.
What I’m saying is that if you plan ahead, you’re going to spare yourself extreme stress. Extreme stress can make you write bad books. Let’s say you’re behind on your mortgage, and you need your delivery payment or you’re going to lose your house. You get finished with the book and you know in your heart it needs another six months of edits–there’s diamonds in there, but man, they’re buried deep. What do you do? You publish the crap book, and surprise! It doesn’t do that great, and you need to finish the next book fast to meet the next crisis. That’s a horrible way to live.
Far better to write great books that will eventually make royalties and keep selling for years and years.
Until you’ve been doing this for a long time, you’re never going to know how big the next royalty check is. I’ve got one coming in October (covering sales from December to June), and it could be anywhere in a range that varies by 300%. And I keep decent tabs on things. (I’m also living quite a bit below my income and have put aside a lot in savings so that I’m not freaking out about money.) Patience and self-control are your friends here. Even if you get a huge $100,000 advance, you can’t go out and buy a $99,000 sports car and save the rest for a great dinner with all your friends. (100k – 15% to agent = 85k, sudden spike in income puts you in the highest tax bracket, so 85k – 40% = $51k.) Still a lot of money, but not nearly as big as you thought. (Oh, and because you had this spike in income, NEXT year the feds will think you’ll again have a huge income, so you’ll have to pay quarterly estimated taxes. If you’ve blown all your money, you simply won’t have it.)
So, measure twice, cut once. If you’re married or in a relationship, make sure your spouse or partner knows that while amazingly good things are possible, for most, it’s a long slow climb. Years. Not months.
All the above prep can be done in the comfort of your stinky basement. But now that you’re a published writer, you have to actually interact with people. (Gasp!)
First, get a bar of soap… I wish I was totally kidding.
Assuming your personal hygiene is up to snuff, now take an accurate snapshot of where you’re at. Your editor makes more money than you do, and she’s got plenty of other authors. She’s probably used to working with difficult personalities, because, hey, authors. It does you zero good to be one of those difficulties. You’re not proving that you’re the talent by being an ass. If something happens that makes you freak out, wait 24 hours before you call. Don’t email for two days at least. Be good to work with. Build up credit so that when you have a big request, they feel you’ve earned it. Most of your requests are going to cost someone else money–money they don’t HAVE to spend. Money they have zero legal obligation to spend. Be aware that until you’re making your publisher a lot of money, every thing you do here is putting them deeper in the hole with you.
If you got a big advance–maybe there was an auction–you’re in a slightly different place with your publisher. Everyone needs your books to do great (and thinks you’re brilliant, of course)! You can expect a little more attention. If you’re at the bottom end, you may have a junior editor who’s had to fight tooth and nail just to get you that tiny advance. If you’re coming in there, there’s nothing wrong with that, and you may find a million other fans out there who are going to love your book as much as that junior editor (who was brilliant enough to see your talent!). BUT, you’re probably not going to get huge favors out of the art and marketing departments yet–who are, after all, trying to meet all the demands of the lady who’s making them a million dollars a year. Most of those demands will be legitimate, too, but the volume of work goes up for everyone. That woman’s twenty-city book tour and radio and tv spots just take a lot more work for the publicity people than your local signings. They have to prioritize, and prioritizing with the person who keeps all of you in business is rational.
Don’t complain about the obvious lack of talent in the person who’s making the money that is putting food on your table. It’s bad form. If they weren’t doing so well, your publisher wouldn’t have been able to take a risk on you.
Realize that every editor has different strengths: maybe yours is a wizard at bringing the best out of a novel and making it come alive, but she’s totally disorganized and often brings things to your attention at the eleventh hour. Take your TUMS and thank God you have a book deal at all. Maybe she’s amazing at juggling the other departments and keeping things on schedule, but you fight over the actual edits and disagree on everything. Take your blood pressure medication and salute your zodiac that you have a book deal at all.
This is real life, kids. It’s a job. Work. Take your lumps and deal. This is what it is to be a pro.
If you get emails asking for something–say a description of your main character for the cover artist, send it in promptly, or if you’re on vacation, say, “Got your note, I’m in Puerta Vallarta with my husband, who will kill me if I spend any more time on the computer. I’ll work on the plane home and get you that description by next Tuesday!” Then do.
If you can’t make a deadline, guess what? You are not the first author in history to miss a deadline. Guess what? That also doesn’t make it okay. Other people in history have cheated on their spouses. Doesn’t make it cool with yours. Here’s what you do instead: tell your editor as soon as you know. Even if you just have a really sick feeling in your stomach like: Everything is going to have to goperfectly for me to get this in in time!
It’s writing, everything goes perfectly precisely never. If you tell your editor early, she can juggle things pretty easily. The longer you wait, the more of a pain it is for everyone. Strive to get things in when you promise. When you can’t, apologize, tell the truth about when you think you can really get it in, and then keep your promise the second time. Don’t build up a history of over-promising.
At some point in the process (early though), you’re going to get an edit letter. For me, it was one letter that covered all three of my fat epic fantasy books. It was almost twenty pages long. Twenty pages, of everything that was wrong.
It was a kick in the guts. Followed by a kick in the guts. Followed by a kick somewhat farther south.
I don’t anger easily, but I was hurt, I was livid, I wondered why they’d even bought my book if they believed all this stuff was true.
Give yourself two days before you respond. Nothing good is going to come out of responding earlier.
For two days, I stomped and snarked. I acted very badly–but privately. Then I went through the letter and marked all the things I definitely agreed with, and then the things that I definitely didn’t agree with. All the stuff in between, I waited on. (I ended up agreeing with most of them.)
This is the time for you to disentangle your ego and your work a little bit. This is where you show you’re a pro. The whole point of this exercise is not to prove that you aren’t a genius. It’s to make the book better. Edits are a beautiful opportunity not given in many lines of work. In editing, you get a chance to make your book better–just by hard work. Coming up with all that crazy stuff in the first place took some genius, some divine madness, a conjuring ex nihilo. Edits? Just work. And it’s work that could make your books sell twice as many copies. You’re an idiot not to take the chance.
Oh, a beautiful passage that was sooo poetic and did nothing for novel, and three people have already pointed out that it’s pointless? Aren’t you precious. Let’s go enroll you in that MFA program, stat!
Nothing beautiful is lost forever. Cut it. Put it in a special document you’re going to name, “My Unrecognized Genius.” Later when you’re old and out of ideas, you’re going to open that file and steal shamelessly from the younger you. Critics will be astounded at the creative force of your 98 year old mind. Your eventual triumph will be complete.
For now, cut it, wimp.
After my two days of fury, I called my agent. Depending on your relationship and how you process conflict, maybe you want to call your agent immediately. I didn’t know whether, if I said no to some suggestions, they would fire me!
They won’t fire you. Well, not if you’re careful.
Here’s what I did: once I was sure that some of the suggestions weren’t right for the story, and weren’t because I was lazy or because it hurt my feelings that someone thought my baby was ugly–once I was sure, then I knew it was all about what makes the book the best book it can be. Everyone in the conversation wants that. So I wrote copious thanks for the various pieces of advice I was taking, and said why I didn’t think those others could work. I played nice. On most things that I didn’t think mattered, I gave in. On the ones that were legit, I made the changes, no matter how much sleep I missed out on. On the ones that were wrong, I stuck to my guns.
Editor’s response: Oh, okay.
After your big edits, hopefully you’ll be done with your big edits. Some editors will give a second round of edits, depending on deadline and cleanness of what you’ve got. At some point, you will get copy edits.
Aaaaaand, we’ll talk about that next month!
Your copy editor will never read your comments where you quibble with MLA style versus Chicago style. He fixes stuff. If you disagree, you’re the boss. Get familiar with Stet. Stet is your friend. (Don’t know what “stet” means? Go HERE.) But make sure you know what you’re talking about. You broke a grammar rule? Did you do it on purpose? What was that purpose? Can you not tell the difference between what he did and what you did? He’s probably right. A great copy editor can help immeasurably, but you don’t usually get to choose your own. Deal with what you get. If you consistently do some funky things grammatically or with the narrator’s voice or something, you can write a note to the copy editor beforehand to avoid a lot of unnecessary work for both of you.
Dear Copy Editor,
I like to use a single quotation mark when, in dialogue, a character quotes another character. Thus:
Shelly said, “I can’t believe she said ‘butthole’ in front of Mr. Weeks!”
You will often not have nearly as much time as you would like when you get these copy edits. I’ve had t
o do a 215k word book in 7 days. It was miserable, but it’s analytical versus creative work: you can get this done just by putting in the hours.
If you realize that there’s a gaping plot hole while you’re doing these edits–”Why doesn’t Ted just push the launch button before the bad guys get onto the rocket?”–PANIC!
Just kidding. The fact is, most of us could tinker with a manuscript until the end of time. If you find something that you absolutely must change, first, figure out if there’s a brief fix that won’t ruin everyone’s life. Maybe you don’t need to add three pages to fix this. Maybe you can put in:
“Ted pushed the button. Nothing happened.”
then, three pages later, when the bad guys get on rocket and Heather throws the switch
“The button turned green. Ted pushed…” and you’re back where you were.
ANY additions you make now are going to make other people unhappy. If the book needs it, tough. Make the change. Realize the price you may pay for this is extra typos in your book, as making changes can screw up other stuff. So make those changes as small as possible. There is sometimes a letter threatening that they will charge you if you make too many changes. If your changes are making the book better, ignore this letter. Better to be charged 50 bucks than leave in twenty things you knew were wrong. Also, I don’t find it helpful to mix in monetary sticks to a creative endeavor. Like, yo, I am making this book better. Making the book better will make it make more money for all of us. More money will offset more expenses. So thank you, please shut up. [I don’t say this out loud. I owe production a dozen favors: it behooves me to shut up about my little gripes.]
For the record, though I have seen those letters, I have always made lots of changes. I do my absolute best to not have it screw up the line spaces–you’re trying not to add extra words that will push you onto a new page and screw up every page after the one you’re on. I’ve never been charged.
IF the changes can’t be small, call your editor. (Call your agent first, if you need handholding or someone to speak for you. That’s what you pay her for.)
I did this once. I have an important reveal in The Black Prism that I’d been working to get right for almost two years. Got through my edits, and the scene I had did the job, but I wasn’t happy with it. I read it during my copy edits, and hated it. I threw it out and re-wrote the whole chapter from scratch. It came out much better.
I called my editor. Devi, I said, you’re going to hate me. But this has to happen.
She went to bat for me, and I never heard a peep of complaint.
Not recommending that. Not at all. But if you’ve been a dream to work with, when the crap hits the fan, people are more likely to cut you slack. (I sent boxes of chocolate to production afterward.)
After copy edits, at some point, you’ll get what they call the first pass. Really, it’s your last chance. First pass is your last read to make sure that you caught all the typos and misplaced commas. Change whole sentences here, and you get the wrath of the gods. Try to avoid. (Yes, I’ve made changes there. My excuse: publishing three huge books in three months. It was murder. The price I paid: those first editions also had a humiliating number of typos–and I’m a good speller and grammarian.)
Be aware that by this point, if not long before, you will be sick of your book. Disgusted. It may seem like the worst book in the world. At this point, you are a terrible judge of your work’s quality. Really. Don’t trust yourself too much. You’ve been looking at what doesn’t work for six months straight, and not at all at what does work. Trust me, it’s in there. And that bad taste in your mouth will fade.
And now what? You wait, and you prepare.
Depending on your publisher, and how big of a deal you are for them, one or the other of you is going to have to spend some money putting together a professional-looking website for you. Lucky me, Orbit did it for me.
If you write SFF or YA, I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid this expense. Your audience is tech savvy, so you need to get close enough to savvy to fake it. Part of your continued job security relies on turning casual fans into dedicated fans. With people going less to bookstores, you need to use the platforms you have–at the bare minimum to let people know when the next book is coming out.
Again, you have to pick an approach that fits you, your talents, your time, and your budget. Orbit wanted me to blog. I told them no, because I’m too much of a perfectionist to just sit and spew what I’m thinking daily. Eventually, I’d worry, I’d say something really dumb, and it would live on the internet forever, dooming my career.
So instead of a blog, I have a news feed. I only posted stuff there when, well, when there was news. It took me a while to find my online voices. Plural, for me, depending on my mood.
If you’re doing this on your own, you should go look at all the authors’ webpages in your subgenre, and then more broadly. What do you like? What seems cool but also clearly organized? Most webpages will have some ‘created by’ tab at the bottom somewhere. Find someone good, and pay them to make a great website. This is one spot that’s worth it to get the best. LOTS more people will see your webpage than will ever see you at the five conventions that it costs you a $1,000 each time to attend. (I use Clockpunk Studios.)
At first, you may not have all that much content. Don’t worry: like a garage, it’ll fill up.
If you decide to blog, do some personal cost-benefit analysis of what you’re going to blog about. Is your hallmark going to be fiery, opinion-on-everything, but always amusing? Or will you write with such flame that people will come just to see who you’re burning this week? If those things are central to your personality (and persona), go for it. If not, consider what you gain by talking about divisive issues like politics and religion versus what you lose. Some of your readers will have opposite views. They may come to your website, and when they see your stance on [abortion/God/the death penalty] and that you think anyone who believes differently is a moron–well, now you’ve just called one of your fans a moron. Likelihood of that casual fan becoming a committed fan? Less than it was before (i.e. you have accomplished the opposite of what you set up your web site to do).
I’m not advocating you stifle yourself, just that you think about what you’re doing. If dropping f-bombs and making jokes about masturbation is part of your schtick, then make sure it’s good enough that you make up for the people you turn off because of that. Chuck Wendig does this perfectly. He’s so consistently entertaining that I suspect he’s a guilty pleasure for lots of people who would otherwise be turned off by the jokes and the language.
Now is a good time to go to a con. See if your publisher can get you on a panel. Learn what it means and doesn’t mean to ‘write it off’. Think of it as a coupon. Basically, you’re just saving whatever your tax rate is, so it isn’t FREE to you because it’s a business expense, it just costs you maybe 15%-40% less. If you’re on a panel, do a good job, prepare for it. Also prepare for not many people to come. I’ve been on panels with some of the best writers now writing, sure we’d be talking to a packed hall–and had fifteen people in the audience. Ah well.
Try to find a con buddy. That is, another debut author who’s trying to figure all this stuff out, too, or someone also published by the same publisher who will show you the ropes. I got lucky and buddy-ed up with Peter Brett, Myke Cole, and Deanna Hoak on my first con. Peter and I were both just published (Myke would have to wait another agonizing couple of years), and our careers have followed similar trajectories. I have been able to call Peter up and ask about, say, movie stuff or graphic novels, and he’s helped me out.
You may have some inner glee at meeting some of your favorite authors, and that’s great. Everyone likes to be told you love their work. But remember, you’re here as a pro. Saying, “Oh, it’s AMAZING to meet you, I love everything you do!” is actually less flattering than saying, “I love your work, and I find your transitions between points of view to be utterly masterful. When Teddy is dying and you somehow take us through the eyes of every character to show their feelings, it’s seamless. No one writing speculative gothic noir does it even close to as well.”
When you come, come with questions. “Devi shouts at me. Does she shout at you? Does that mean she hates me?”
The wonderful thing about this business is that we all had to learn it the hard way, and because of that, many many people are willing to help you learn.
Just ask nicely, and pay for the booze, and let the nice author escape if they look like they need to escape.
There are a lot of different approaches to what to do at cons, and I’ll leave that to others. Just remember, what you do there needs to fit your personality. If you’re trying to pitch your book to everyone you meet–1) you’re going to be irritating, and 2) if you’re not a natural salesman, you’re going to be really irritating. If you’re going to make friends and meet some people in person with whom you’ve worked on the phone, that may well be enough.
Another thing that happens at cons: authors go to the water cooler and bitch. Because this is their only chance to gossip and bitch, they do A LOT of it. That’s fine. Even hearing some disaster stories from other writers (and maybe sharing one of your own) is fine. Be aware that your gossip may get back to the gossip-ee. It’s a small community. Don’t kill your career for the sake of telling a juicy anecdote. But something happens in the bitching and the gossiping and the talk of brilliant marketing and the talk of marketing disasters that I want to touch on:
Lots of things happen in the career of an author that he or she has no control over, and those things matter. A terrible cover, a book launching the same time a much bigger book with the same idea launches, being shunned by all the blogs for no discernible reason, your editor getting fired and the book being brought to press by an editor who isn’t enthusiastic about your work–whatever it is, it matters, and it’s cool or it sucks depending. BUT. Your book is more than your marketing plan.
What matters most is what’s between the covers. A flashy cover and a good blurb might make you buy one book, but it won’t make you buy Brent Weeks books for the next twenty years.
George R. R. Martin’s first Song of Ice and Fire book didn’t even hit the NY Times list. (Well, not until 15 years later, when the show came out.) Its cover wasn’t that great. But the story was great–and the next book was even better. The story built its own momentum.
All the marketing work you do, all the interviews and blogging, it has some impact, but it might be a small impact. No one really knows. But writing a great book, spending the time to get that one fiddly chapter right, THAT MATTERS. Put the marketing first, and you’ll be on a hamster wheel forever. Put the writing first, and you may only have to jump on the hamster wheel for a couple of months around the release of each book. There are a thousand things you can’t control that affect how well you will do. The writing? You can control that. And it’s the most powerful thing. Covers can be changed, books can be reissued, but your words are forever. Your words are powerful, and you control them absolutely. That you are in control of the most important thing is your best defense against the attacks on your sanity that this business will bring. You are in control of the most important thing.
So write with passion. Write the way only you can write, and about the stuff you love and that terrifies you and where you find meaning and where you find hopelessness and devastation. Write fearlessly, and you will write powerfully. If you can add skillfully into that mix, then you’ll be a force to be feared.
First, and perhaps most obviously:
WHAT DO YOU THINK I’M DOING HERE?!
Seriously, though, these posts are my monthly way of trying to help out those of you who have the same dream that I had: to write, and maybe to make a living doing it. I do feel a huge sense of obligation to my fans, who are after all helping me live my dream. But here the rubber meets the road: people are my fans because of the fiction I write, not because of the wonderful advice I give. So me answering these questions is me doing the best I can to help you out while still doing my own writing. Which, for me, is the Main Thing.
In short, no.
In long, this no is for a number of reasons. Some of them the predictable, and some of them more altruistic. First, as I said above, writing is my Main Thing. That’s what I do, that’s what I love, that’s how I pay my mortgage. There are a lot of writers who enjoy writing a little bit, and enjoy talking about writing a lot. Those writers end up becoming writing teachers, or traveling the book convention circuit. That’s great, and I don’t have any condemnation for them if they’re good at their jobs, but that’s not me.
There are other reasons why I don’t read your writing as well. I am, I hope, a pretty good writer. What I’m not is someone who has ever been paid as a book critic. And in my opinion, these two functions are very, very different. Just look back at the writers that a smart great writer like Edgar Allan Poe championed as fantastic and amazing and genius writers… who weren’t. Now Poe was all those things, but as a critic he was garbage (if I’m remembering correctly. It’s been a while since I’ve studied my Poe-etic literary criticism).
As a writer myself, I have very strong biases about what I like and what I don’t like. Those are very different from having judgments about what works and what doesn’t work. Much of my own literary judgment is intuitive rather than analytical. I think this is true of a lot of creative types. In my own life, I’ve found that other creators are very rarely as helpful to me in making my own work better than the kind of people who have some distance from it. Agents and editors tend to be good at telling you, “X, Y, and Z don’t work. And please cut A, B, and C.” Whereas artists and novelists will say, “I really, really liked it.” Or, “You’re a genius.” Or, “This was terrible.” Agents and editors also don’t have to deal with their own egos getting in the way if what you’ve written is absolutely brilliant. I don’t mean to trash-talk creative types and their input. And obviously every creative person has to bring their own critical faculty to bear, or else they’re never able to edit their own work. (Maybe you’ve seen this a time or two with an author who has become a big bestseller and whose later work sucks.) But all too often I see successful writers saying, “X worked for me, and thus X is the only way to do it.” And that’s simply not true. So maybe your novel is all about Furries who save the world from a secret plot by the Catholic Church. And this point, I’m rolling my eyes. You’ve already lost me. But that’s just my own biases, and maybe you’re going to make Furries the next Sparkly Vampires. (Sparkly Vampires? Whoever thought that would catch on?)
The gist of my help to you is going to be the kind of common sense advice that might hurt your feelings. Like this: writing is an art and a craft. If you can’t be bothered to spend the years – yes, years – learning the craft, I don’t care what kind of genius you are, your books will suck. Maybe you can be a poet, where many of the forms are shorter and more quickly mastered, and where your genius can quickly shine through. (This is why Keats could be remembered as a great poet even though he died at 25. If Shakespeare had died at 25, you’d never have heard his name–and his first play was rubbish.) The writing business is slow. It will most likely take you a couple of years to finish a book. It will then most likely take you a year or two to rewrite your book. It will then probably take you a year or two to get an agent. It then may well take you a year or two to get a book deal. Does that suck? Yes. Is that suckage enough to kill your dream? If so, dream different. There’s nothing morally wrong with dreaming of having a big house and kids who have enough to eat. If writing stories is your dream, and you don’t care how you get to do that, and you want to make a ton of money, go to Hollywood. Writing novels is amazing, and it’s fun, and there’s nothing else like it in the world. But it’s not easy, and it’s not quick. If you can nod your head and say, “I’m willing to pay the price. I’m willing to be patient.” Then keep writing — and I’ll keep writing these posts and trying to help you out.
No. Ideas are the easy part, and I already have a lifetime’s worth of ideas to write about. Especially if you have ideas about more Night Angel plots I could write–your ideas may well be informed by the numerous prophecies I sprinkled throughout the Night Angel trilogy. I did that because I already HAVE ideas. In many cases, more than ideas, I know exactly where I’m going and what’s going to happen. If your “inspiring ideas” happen to line up with what I’ve already planned, you should give me credit, not the other way around. 😉 That’s called foreshadowing.
On another level, I like coming up with my own ideas. It’s a fun part of the process. Don’t try to take that away from me.
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.
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!
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):
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.
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.
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.
I’m not totally sure. My daughters have brought tremendous joy to my life, but they’ve certainly brought some distraction too. I think ultimately they’re going to help the quality of my writing, and my experiences with them 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 one of my daughters is 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 daughters haven’t slowed down my writing. Somehow the work gets done.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s already finished. I’m just not showing it to anyone to punish impertinent questions.
(made famous by Inside the Actors’ Studio)
1. What’s your favorite word?
2. What is your least favorite word?
3. What turns you on?
[This answer omitted because it would be awkward to dictate to my assistant.]
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound do you love?
6. What sound do you hate?
My name repeated over and over and over.
7. What is your favorite curse word?
8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
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, does it 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.
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.
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.