g. Closing the Gap between Vision and Reality
II. Hating What You’ve Written
a. Tips: Do you have any tips for beginning writers?
i. 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.”
ii. 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.
b. Outlining: Do you write organically, or do you outline? And which do you suggest doing?
i. 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.
i. 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.
ii. 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 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.
d. Editing: (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.
e. Originality (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.
f. Work Schedule & Planning (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.)**
g. Closing the Gap between Vision and Reality
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!”
h. Dialogue (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.
i. Brainstorming: (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.