The first week of Nanowrimo is finished and I’m 25,000 words in. This is the first time I’ve been writing fiction consistently, and I’m learning so much about the process.
But there’s one thing I’m really having fun with, that feels like an epiphany to me, and I wanted to share it. It might be common for you already. Or maybe it hasn’t really been talked about before. I wish I had a clever name for this process, but I can’t think of one.
But the thing I’ve been doing (and loving) is planting imaginary (untrue) images in my books, to characterize the setting and mood of a chapter. This has probably been done mostly via metaphor or analogy. You can sneak them in to theme your chapters. For example…
“She said, swaying like a serpent before it eats its prey”
… would work in a chapter that’s dangerous or scary or violent. But it would be a really bad analogy in a normal, non threatening chapter.
I’ve been going much further, however. Since my novels are all first person, and my main character is telling the story, I can just describe everything through the imaginative lens of the narrator.
For example, I’m writing a scene where the protagonist goes to a Halloween party. She has a mask, but is wearing plain, boring clothes (because it doesn’t make sense for her to have a fancy dress). But I want readers to see her a certain way, even though I can’t actually put her in a ball gown, so I do this:
My dark hair is tied up with this bird’s nest of a bun that holds the mask onto the top of my head, with tangles and spikes and long feathers jutting out to the sides. I wished I had an amazing black cocktail dress like I’ve seen in fashion magazines, with sequins that glittered in the moonlight. I imagined the long tails floating silently behind me, hovering just above the cold November dirt, as I drifted, like death, among the gravestones.
That’s a half accurate depiction. Many parts of the setting, and her clothing, aren’t actually in that scene, but I can serve them up anyway and put them in reader’s minds. They will see her in that dress that she’s not even wearing. They will see fog and moonlight even though there isn’t any. But that’s good: I want them to feel that chilly gothic atmosphere.
If you’re writing in first person, try it out: interpret the world through the mood of the scene through the eyes of the protagonist. The logs look like dead bodies. The clouds look like fluffy white bunnies. The limbs of the trees are reaching out to strangle me. If you’re writing in third person, you can still do a lot of this, but you become more obvious, the more you try to manipulate reader emotions with calculated use of metaphor and analogy.
Did I mention I was a professional book editor for many years?
Here’s the important thing I learned: you don’t have to be a good writer, to be a professional author. That’s what’s so interesting about the whole “#AskELJames” thing on Twitter. A lot of people are pissed because they think she can’t write.
A lot of people think it’s stupid that she’ll be offering a writing class or book about writing. What can she teach us about writing, people ask, if her prose and dialogue and plotting is terrible?
Here’s the thing though; she’s sold 70million books.
That means, even if people hate them, a lot of people secretly loved them. Even if they aren’t “good“, they are still satisfying.
The worst thing you can give an editor is a book full of amazing writing, where nothing interesting happens. I can’t fix anything that can be fixed. The writing is great, I’ll say. I can’t help you. But you’ll never sell more than 100 copies.
The second worst thing you can give to a book editor is a poorly written book full of grammar and spelling mistakes with stunted dialogue and terrible pacing and a twisted plot that doesn’t end well, and flat, unsympathetic characters who shriek and run around doing stupid things all the time for no reason.
But at least that one will keep me busy. I can do something. I can rewrite and fix everything and make it so much better. But you’ll still probably not sell more than 100 copies – if the story isn’t satisfying.
And actually, even if you have that same terribly written book, but it has a really good, satisfying story, it’s going to do better – even without an editor.
My point is that having a satisfying story matters more than “good writing”. Editors can improve writing. We can’t really fix story, and story is all that matters. (Yes, you can spend thousands of dollars on a developmental editor to help you fix story and teach you the basics of plotting… but why do that when you can buy a few books and actually learn to write?).
And personally, I want to sell a ton of books. I want to sell at least a million. I don’t give a shit if I’m not technically a “good writer” or if people make fun of me. If I can sell a million books, it means my stories were good enough to keep people buying and talking about them.
Literary fiction? Who needs it. I’d be happy writing and selling a million time-travel sexbot erotica books (which I’m actually writing, under a pseudonym). You’ve got to make a choice: do you want to improve your writing, until you can actually make beautifully meaningful sentences, and publish one, amazing, literary novel that sells a thousand copies but gets great reviews?
Or do you want to publish 5 different trilogies in popular genres and make a good living from your writing – enough money so that you never have to do anything for anybody else, ever again.
They aren’t really the same skillset. You can do both, probably, but you have to decide what to focus on.
“Good writing” isn’t really a money maker; which means it isn’t really a valuable skillset.
“Story telling” however, done well, can make great money.
So if you have to choose which skill to invest your time and energy developing, always go for the second.
Also, story telling is pretty easy to learn, and it can be taught. Learn it FIRST. Good writing is mostly a matter of practice. You might figure it out on your own after writing for a decade. But writing for a decade may not teach you anything about telling a great story. You need to learn that. There are rules involved.
People will continue to argue about what it means to be a “good writer” or what’s considered “good writing” – but I think the sales numbers are the greatest definitive proof we have for what kind of writing is valuable/valued.
Shades of Gray has had almost as much cultural impact as Harry Potter.
Name any literary fiction in the last 20 years that can say the same.
PS) We put a little guide together of self-editing tips for indie authors/common writing mistakes indie authors make over at www.BookButchers.com, it’ll save you some money if you check it out and go through the list, before you think about hiring an editor.
For many genres, it’s important to hook readers’ attentions in the beginning.
A lot of authors will do this with action, violence, sex and gore. Visceral, tactile experiences communicating horror and mayhem for shock value. This can be effective, in theory.
The problem is: where does it go from here?
Firstly, nobody gives a shit about your characters in the beginning. You have to make readers like them first, and that takes time. But you can’t take too much time; you have to hint that something exciting is coming, and that the stakes will be high.
So starting with a death in the preface/first chapter is generally a good idea.
But then you need to slow way the fuck down. Your beginning needs to contrast with the ending. You need a nice, stable ordinary world – the pot of water has to be cold. The characters relaxed.
Then you can turn on the heat. Add some salt and spice.
Bring it to a simmer.
Now your characters are freaking out a bit. They know what the stakes are. They know what’s expected of them.
But they probably resist. They shouldn’t want the violence that’s coming. They should try to avoid it. They also don’t want to become badass ninja fighters who slaughter hordes of faceless bad guys.
They should resist being special, being chosen.
A lot of indie authors screw this up, by starting off with a special, powerful, magic supersexy protagonist who can smote the shit out of everyone. But remember, even when the protagonist finally commits to her path, when she accidentally or is forced to make her first kill (or metaphorical kill – the first conscious and deliberate action that moves the plot forward, which she’s been resisting until now) she’s still going to fail.
She needs to fail, again and again. Especially right before the beginning of Act III.
Very probably, somebody she cares about dies, too. But it matters much more than the meaningless death(s) in the beginning; because it’s her fault somehow.
In the beginning, a few people died – or just one – probably a necessary evil and the beginning of the antagonist’s evil machinations. So she got involved; resisted at first, but then committed.
And now, because of her actions, more people are dead. So she questions herself. She feels responsible. And if feels terrible.
So she’s probably going to give up, until an ally talks her into getting back on her feet, even though hope seems lost.
Then, finally, you unleash all of her most amazing, super effective, incredible baddass ninja-warlock-fae powers.
The point is, don’t use up all your tricks
If you start in the beginning with rape, murder, dungeons and blood, bones breaking, pregnancies, vampires and werewolves and lost princess descendants (I just sampled an indie book that started just this way; prompting me to write this post) you won’t have hooked readers, you’ll have bored them. OK, now we’ve seen everything and know what to expect. Why keep reading?
You need to hint. You need to show some blood and gore (and/or sex), but not why it matters, who caused it, or how it relates to the main character. Not yet. Your hook has to leave the reader with questions, and make him care about the answers.
I’ve never really had to deal with writer’s block before now. I’ve written a lot of non-fiction. I’ve had challenges and struggles with organization. The most frustrating thing in the world is trying to take a bunch of material and rework it all to make sense again. It takes dozens of rewrites and drafts.
Even worse than that, is when you’ve written a chapter of something and it gets deleted somehow, and you know you’ll never be able to write it again the exact same way, and the book feels ruined to you. That’s a setback that’s destroyed a few projects.
But classic writer’s block is, I think something else. It’s when you don’t know what happens next. For non-fiction, you really just have a motivation problem. You research, you organize, you map out your content, but then you just go through writing each sections. It’s hard to be blocked if you’ve started it the right way.
But for fiction… even with a good idea, even if you’ve made a good map and kind of know what happens, you’re going to face problems. Insurmountable problems.
if character X does Y, then how will she D when Henry…
In other words, you have to make choices about how much each character knows at each moment of time; and that knowledge must spur them to take actions which direct influence the plot (without it all being over too quickly).
So they have to know just enough to move them to the next step, but not enough to skip ahead to the final step (otherwise you have no book). It has to build, stage by stage.
During all of that, you’ll be inventing new scenes, new allies and antagonists, new plot twists and revelations… it’s easy to get messy. Of course you could skip all the bullshit by cramming it full of ACTION and SEX and leave out complicated stuff like character motivation or plot development. Maybe I should have started with that. In fact I am also working on some simple shorts and erotica for just that reason – you can focus on tension, chemistry, and pacing/excitement without worrying about the big picture messy stuff that’s much harder.
If you do so… you won’t have as much problem with writer’s block.
For me, I think writer’s block is when you don’t know what happens next. It’s a plotting problem. You don’t see how to get from point A to the Grand Finale.
But that’s OK
Sometimes you have to write it out anyway, even if you don’t know where you’re going. Sometime you have to get started on the journey, before you see the path.
For the past few days I’ve been writing 5000+ words a day. That’s been fun. I love seeing things develop. But then I hit a scene where I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I wrote over 10,000 words. Most of it are conversations that gave away too much, too early (and ruin the plotting). So I got stuck. And I watched Tomorrowland. And Terminator Genisys. And discussed Time Travel plots with friends (Time Traveler’s Wife; Back to the Future; About us).
After all of that, I had to go through my plot map again, and seriously revise almost everything that happens. And I’m not quite sure how it ends yet. But now I have enough info to go back and write the next scene, and maybe a few more after that. There will be another point I come to soon, where I get stuck again. And the process will repeat itself.
Writing a novel is a lot like Time Travel, actually… you change something somewhere in the middle, and it ripples throughout the book, then you keep moving forward until you need to fix something else, so you go back to the beginning, fix something, and then need to revise it all again. But eventually if you press through it all, you’ll have a basic rough draft where the core sequence of events is satisfactory and logical.
Then you can finally go back and actually write it well, fleshing out the scenes and characters, improving the word choice and sentence structure, adding description and sensation and emotion.
And finally, when you’re done with all that, you can edit and proofread. That whole process should take about a year. I’m trying to get it all down to a month.
But I’ll allow myself more time for my first few novels (I plan to publish 100 in the next 5 years).
For the last few days I’ve been hitting 5000+ words a day writing fiction. It’s exciting to think what that kind of habit will mean if I keep it up for a few months. But there are times my brain hits a wall and I get stuck. This is probably especially true because the book I’m focusing on right now is about time travel (well, sort of; more like prophecy or seeing the future).
So I got distracted and started watching Tomorrowland, which seemed like a cool sci/fi fantasy with YA dystopian elements. Some friends had warned me off, saying it was a dumb kid’s movie.
But I disagree. There are elements in it that deserve consideration. And I had no idea how much it would help my fiction writing.
Imagine if all the creative, genius, brilliant, artistic people got together and actually decided to CHANGE the world? Where could they even do something like that? They’d need a secret place, free from politics, bureaucracy, greed… a place where they could build anything they were crazy enough to dream up.
That’s the premise behind Tomorrowland.
But they were too brilliant: they built a machine that could tell the future, and it foretold destruction, with 100% probability.
Until a robot programmed to find genius discovers one special girl, who looks at all the proof and decides she doesn’t care.
“If you could know the time of your death, would you want to know?”
“Yes. But… believing in it may cause it to happen…”
So she changes her answer.
“I would want you to tell me, but I wouldn’t believe you.”
“You have to believe me.”
“Why – can’t we change our own destiny and stuff?”
Bam! Probability drops to less than 100%. She has changed the fate of the world – by choosing NOT to believe in the imminent destruction.
Why her? Because she hasn’t given up. So the movie is about hope in the face of impossible odds. And this micro-scene is a mirror for the whole story: the prediction of the apocalypse is actually causing people to give up and lose hope, thus causing it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So they decide to blow up the machine.
But then there’s the bad guy speech.
And he’s not exactly wrong either.
He tried to warn everyone.
The end of the world was coming. Nobody would believe him. So he started broadcasting it, thinking that fear of the end of the world would make people change their ways.
“How do you think they responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up. It could be repackaged and enjoyed as video games or TV shows or books, movies; the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalpyse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Everything is going to shit but you won’t do anything about it; you dwell on this terrible future, you resign yourself to it, for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today.”
What I learned about writing time travel books
These are the same problems and frustrations I was dealing with. But actually, it gets more complicated, if you think about it. Why didn’t the characters see themselves destroying the machine? In fact, why did they have to do anything at all – rather than just looking at what they’d already done… and copying their own actions? How could there really be any conflict or plot at all?
Here’s the book I’m working on, Prescient. And I was stuck because, once your characters get to the point where they know the world is ending, how do they respond? Obviously, with doom and gloom, and feelings of hopelessness and loss. But then what?
One: Hope for Change
You need one character who is blissfully irrational, like Casey in Tomorrowland. Who knows the world is ending but chooses to totally suspend reason and decide it isn’t happening. The trick is spinning her as hopeful rather than stupid.
Two: Don’t Give Away Everything
There has to be the possibility to change the future; even if it’s a hail mary. In my story, the problem was – if she went into the future and really looked around (not just flashes or images from a crystal ball, but old newspaper clippings, talking to people about what really happened) then she’d soon discover exactly what went wrong.
And then, the book is kind of over, because she knows exactly what to do or who to kill. So I’m going to have to modify my story, so that she doesn’t have all the answers right away, so that the plot can be extended. The end of the world is coming, but the first step should be trying to figure out how it happens, and how to stop it. There’s a good 5 chapters in there, which can be beefed up with character development, action, relationships, minor high school drama, etc.
A book can’t just start with a vision of the future and the protagonist knowing exactly how to stop it.
Three: The Choice to Believe
Plots go quickly if everybody is smart and rational and they work well together. But that usually doesn’t happen in real life, or in good fiction. So even among friends, there must be division. Just because she can see the future, doesn’t mean anybody believes her. Just because she knows what she needs to do, doesn’t mean everybody agrees with her. Many chapters can be filled with her trying to prove that her visions are real to her friends; and then also with their gang trying to make the rest of the world listen to them.
Even if you know what’s going to happen, how can you stop it if nobody will listen to you? And then what: do you blow something up? Assassinate someone? Try to force answers out of the CEO of a company (when you’re a 16 year old high school kid?) How do you do all of that when you’re juggling homework and volleyball practice?
What if your boyfriend’s dad is the CEO you need to kill? What if killing him means that your best friend will die? You need to tie everything together, and give every action consequences. There can be no easy choices.
Four: The Resolute Antagonist
In the real world, if you could prove the world was going to end because some CEO did something stupid (like genetically modifying human beings to make them resilient to a future calamity) you might think you could just talk him out of it.
But what if he’s seen the future too? What if he needed to do it so that the human race would survive? You corner him and tell him “the truth” – but he won’t change his actions. He knows you’re right; you both have all the information, but you disagree about the moral implications.
You think you should “save the world” now even though it will lead to total annihilation in a few years. He thinks it’s better the majority of the human race become monsters if it means a few survivors will be preserved to continue the human race.
In other words, you need the antagonist to have solid reasons for opposing the protagonist. He has to really believe in what he’s after, not just be a stupid douchebag. So in the final conflict, the fight is real and the stakes are high. It probably won’t end without somebody dying. It’s nothing a conversation or argument will fix; it has to be the clash between competing (but equally valid) worldviews.
Five: Untruths and HalfTruths
The other thing you need to consider, is that not everybody has to tell each other the whole truth all the time. The people the protagonist meets in the future, or in the present, might be lying to her. Maybe they knew she’s come visit and they fed her false information, so she’d go back with the wrong mission (and of course they would!). Maybe she doesn’t tell everything to her friends, wanting to protect them. Maybe she thinks she’s doing it for the right reasons (and maybe her friends pay her back, in the future, but not telling her the truth). Different characters can have different personal motivations for lying to each other, even those they care about. This will stretch the novel out and add intrigue.
Six: A Big Revelation
Sometime toward the end, probably in the final conflict with the antagonist, the protagonist is going to learn something big. That she’s been wrong the whole time; that she isn’t who she thinks she is; what really happened to her missing father or mother. She’s going to be beaten. The antagonist is smarter than she is. He played her. All her friends are dead or captured. There’s no hope in a successful “victory” – at least not that she can see right now. But she sums up the strength to fight anyway. To resist, anyway. Even if it’s futile, pointless, and can’t possibly make a difference… she fights on, even if it’s a marginal symbolic gesture of defiance.
And that’s usually when she gets unlikely help, turns the tables, and wins the day.