writing coach

More Middle Muddle (aka What’s this? A writing post?)

You would think this was a cooking channel for how little writing I’ve been doing, but I actually finished a major rewrite to a book that I’m sending off to Loose Id and I have writerly thoughts again.

In one of my subreddits I like, middles were discussed. It’s impossible to talk about everything, but I think he missed a major point. Middles fail not because the character isn’t allowed to fail, though that is a common beginner’s mistake. I think in all the books I’ve critiqued, middles fail far more often because the character arrives into the world with the plot having already happened, and all that changes from the beginning to the end is their completed knowledge of the problem.

This leads to the walking and talking plot, where all the characters do is walk (fly, swim, drive) from point to point, talking to people who have just survived the thing they’re chasing, and then go off in that direction. There may be a couple scenes where the character lands in the thick of it and some scenes where the antagonist shows up and stops them, temporarily from getting the info, but for the most part it’s walking and talking.

And if you ask the writer, they’ll tell you the book is about what the character’s talk about not what actually is happening on the page. And for some writers, that can really work. Illegal Alien by Robert J. Sawyer is predominately about two “people” talking (until the car chase scene). But what Rob can pull off in the middle of his stellar career is at a completely different plane than what most people starting out can pull off. It doesn’t prove it can be done, it sets the bar as to what has to happen for someone else to do the same.

Show don’t tell is one of those rules that writers somehow know or understand early on. Shifting what is being told from the author’s voice to dialogue doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the information is being told to the reader. Thinking about the story as the first half establishing the plot as the characters hard-win or have an impact on every bit of knowledge that they would have just been told and the second half as tying up all the loose strings of the first half.

In debate, there’s a point at which you are not allowed to introduce any new information. I think book endings are basically the same thing. I say basically because the end is where you introduce the strings that will tie the sequel together to the first book, but for the most part, everything in the second half of the story should be introduced, no matter how fleetingly, in the first half. The reader shouldn’t have to depend on the author to tell them how bad the consequences are going to be. By the time the character and the reader get to the second half things-fall-apart, at least the reader should know why everything is terrible.

Middles are usually the worst part to any book, but they don’t have to be. Your character should be introduced to the plot at a point in which they think that they can change the outcome. If the entire plot is out of the story in the first chapter, a sane character will look at the enormous problem and think this is the job for gods and kings. The plot could be just as huge, but by the time the reader realizes that, they should be at a position where they can’t quit, even if they want to. Any rule can be broken, but it is hard enough to show a story as it is happening on the page in an engaging fashion. Trying to tell a story that has already happened and the only change the character has is how much they know about it is multiple times harder.

I used to be a firm believer that what happened in the story has happened and is immutable. Even if the book isn’t written yet, I can’t change the story as it occurred. And that’s utter nonsense. Timelines can be condensed. Deadlines can be given. Anything that is important to the story should happen on the page. And if you look at the middle with that in mind, getting everything that has to happen in within the 100k deadline is far more work than just filling up the pages between the pre-planned beginning and end.

How to pants a novel part two: the pantsing part

So, you have your two ideas. The high concept, and the aspect of the story that is going to make the first reader sit up from her usual slush reader slump and actually start caring about what’s going on the page. You don’t need to know the exact beginning until you get to the end and rewrite it, but as far as you know the story as it is, you start at the Carmichael startling point.

Leslie Carmichael was a writer friend, lost to cancer, and an amazing person, if you pardoned the dreadful puns. But calling the beginning of the story the startling point was brilliant. It’s the moment before your character’s path changes dramatically and your character who was going about on their daily life suddenly can do something much bigger. When I get to this point, I usually have no frelling idea as to what the “thing” is, but I lay the pipework in the story for there to be the thing in the story that is worth your character pushing on so that they will continue with the problem longer than anyone who is just being paid, or coerced or just going along for the lulz would pull up their stakes and go home.

And for that you need a reason as to why this character is the one who is called. They have to want something more than anything else. In the beginning of the book, what the character thinks they want doesn’t have to be what they will want at the end, and actually it’s better if it isn’t. There are going to be barriers to the character getting that thing (and at least one of them has to be internal) and the first half of the novel is your character finding out what the problem and the need is.

The worst thing you can do is have the big problem happen before the book even begins and have your character as a clean up crew going along and sweeping up what has already happened. I know it can feel like it’s impossible to change the timeline in your story even before you write a word. What happens just seems to need to have happened. But if the most important thing happened before the book you want to write is going on, you’ve probably got the wrong startling point.

In media res is like Odysseus’s sirens, seductive but will kill your momentum, and you have to strap yourself to the mast to avoid it when you’re pantsing.  The forward motion of your plot is what pushes the story forward. If you start in the middle you have to tell what’s happened before, and you can kiss away any of the tension or momentum you’ve built up. It can be done, but if you take that moment that makes or breaks the character that most people start their book with and plant it at the end of chapter three when your character and your reader get to the moment where everything falls apart but this time the audience is up to speed as to what is at stake, what’s happening, why it’s happening, what’s going to happen if everything goes wrong, who are these people, and why should they be cared about will all have been answered if instead of starting with the ah, shit explosion, the book starts with the first warning tremor.

Done right, it sets up the rest of the story for success. Now that everything has gone wrong (but in a way the main character can feel as though they can make it right) it’s just a dance of successes and failures to the two thirds point, where everything goes wrong in a way the character doesn’t feel it can be made right. That’s about it for today. Writing is all about controlling disasters no matter what your genre in a way that airplanes descending down to the runway is just a controlled fall.


My recipe for pantsing novels part 1

How to set out to pants a novel for a newbie pantser came up as a forum question I frequent. I would have answered there, but it felt like more of a blog post-length problem. I do a lot of reality checks with first draft/first novel wannabe self-published authors, I don’t want to link my username with this blog.

Pantsing a novel without an outline gets easier with practice, and any of the complications that you add that do not go anywhere will get caught in the rewrite (and there MUST be a rewrite with this method.) First tip: Do not release your first draft of a pantsed novel to anyone who doesn’t love you for you.

Imagine plot as an iceberg. If your main character is given a small enough tip of the iceberg and a blowtorch and told to go melt that thing down, the problem of your novel should seem doable to an intelligent main character. If you pull your whole plot problem out of the water and tell your main character to melt it with the tiny blowtorch, a smart character would realize that was waaaaay out of their pay grade and wisely leave it to the works of kings and gods.

What, your character is a king or a god? Well, that’s a problem. A king or a god has a lot more resources than the average character so the problem has to be so epic that even they would wish for a bigger king, or a bigger god will swoop down and fix it. If the problem is something money, men, or king/god-like powers can be thrown at it to fix it, you got yourself a (boring) short story there. Not a novel.

So, your character only needs to be interesting. They should have an interesting problem in an interesting world. Your first reader later on up the chain will have seen every version of every typical subgenre out there, so you want something in that first page that screams “this one is different”. But where do you get such a rare thing?

You wait for it. All plots come in two parts. The first one is the really cool what if a main character turns into a painted cat every second day and it accidentally eats a fairie. Now, everyone and their dog can come up with most plot ideas. They’re all reading the same books, watching the same TV shows, and live in the same society. Most ideas that you can think of will have enough books like it out there to make you never want to write again.

So what does a good pantser do? You wait with that half-idea. Write it down if you’re a lot older than you were and someone somehow drilled holes in your skull pan without you knowing and now suddenly all your ideas drain out of your head. Wait for the idea from that idea that only you can write. A twist that is not the exact opposite of what most people would write (the fairie family will come and wage war on the poor cat/main character) or the opposite of what most people will write, because you want to be smarter than the people who are a little smarter than most people. So the cat and the fairie can’t get along famously, either. You want what’s behind door #3.

So when you have that, you begin your pantsing novel. Unlike this blog post, which has gotten too long to continue. You knew from the beginning thanks to the title that this is going to be in two parts, but I just figured that out. See you tomorrow!


Quality vs. Quantity

I got into an argument today over how much a writer *should* write in a day.

The idea that there is any set amount a writer should write is just ridiculous. I’ve read so many books by newbie authors where it was obvious that they had religiously wrote every. Single. Day. whether they felt like it or not.

Writing isn’t like walking to the next town over. When you walk, every step counts. When you write, every word doesn’t. If you write 2000 words every day, you’ll have a book finished in a month and a half. If you haven’t given those words enough thought, there’s a big risk that of those 100,000 words, only 25,000 of them count as steps towards your goal.

When I read unpublished fiction, there is nothing worse than words that don’t have a point. I would take an interesting story that has been put through Google Translate to and from Armenian than a story that is not bad. Bad writing has a charm to it as you are left wondering what ridiculous analogy or purple phrase the writer is going to write next. I’ve scanned books looking forward to see what word the author will use instead of “said”.

But writing that looks polished but says absolutely nothing? I’d rather shoot myself in the foot. There’s such a huge difference between not bad and good. Writing that isn’t bad has a long, long way to go before it ever hits good, and good writing has a long way to go before it hits great.

Just because you’ve written a 100,000 words, doesn’t mean you’ve written a novel yet. I once cut 40,000 words of a novel because I’d written myself into a corner and couldn’t get myself out. It was like cutting off my foot. And as much as I liked the final product, it still was just a practice novel.

Having a short story stretched out to a novel still isn’t the kiss of death. The second draft is where you take all the problems of the first draft and smooth them out. When I was first starting out I thought that writers who rewrote drafts without referring back to their original drafts were mad, but after I tried it a few times, I really saw how useful the technique is.

There are a lot of changes you can make in the original draft. You can edit characters in and out, you can add a significant event or cut it out, but one of the things you can’t change once the story is on the page is your point of view character’s motives. Anything that is tangible can be cut out or sewn in, but intangible things, like a character’s motive or what’s at stake is going to affect every single sentence.

There are a million writers out there writing in your genre, but the only competition out there is yourself. Writing isn’t a lottery that you win by getting your book selected, it’s the culmination of all your hard work. If one publishing house doesn’t recognize the value of your work, another one will. Good story telling only competes with itself.

And if you’re not willing to put in the work, up to and including rewriting the whole story or abandoning the whole project as time well spent, but not worth the time and effort to fix all that is wrong with it, the next person will. Nothing is more heartbreaking than watching a writer write their first book and then throw a decade behind trying to get that book published instead of accepting it as what it is and going on with the next story in their heads.

Writing needs craft as much, if not more, than it needs talent. Whether a first draft takes you ten years or two weeks, it’s going to need to be tightened. The old saying, you have good, fast and lots, pick two is only half right. You only get two, but even if you’re cursed like I was at having lots and fast, you can still make it good, it just takes more time.

And time, as an unpublished writer, is the one thing you have lots at. The only person standing in the way between you and publication is you, and not as your evil twin

Though if you do have an evil twin, that’s awesome.

“The City”

I grew up in a small town called Slave Lake. On the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, not Great Slave Lake, where by great fluke, I was born and spent my first five years. The point of the story is Edmonton was “the city”. It was a mythical, magical place. As any small towner could tell you going into “the city” was reason enough to skip school for the day. Hell, sometimes it was reason enough to skip several school days, and no teacher questioned it.

And now I live in Lethbridge. It’s a much bigger city when compared to Slave Lake, which didn’t get a traffic light until I was in grade 10. The traffic light made the front page. But it was a weekly paper, so it made the front page 8 days after the traffic light had actually gone up. Another triumph in investigative journalism, let me tell you. And “the city” is now Calgary, not Edmonton, and it’s only two hours away not three.

Growing up, the books I read all took place somewhere else. And I don’t just mean the fantasy novels. New York, Los Angeles, London. The British countryside. The British countryside a thousand years ago. Even small town America. It would have been easy to internalize the message that stories happened somewhere else, and writers came from anywhere but here.

When I started to get published, my vampire novels took place in New York. Some of my short stories happened in no town in particular, or a vaguely New York-ish metropolis. (I always got confused when I was younger. A metropolis was any large city. But then there was the Metropolis of Daily Planet and Superman fame…)

Somewhere along the way, I started setting my contemporary stories in Canada. Downtown Calgary, in and around Victoria, small town BC (with a trip to Edmonton at Christmas), along the highway outside of Canmore. I blame Rob Sawyer for the impetus, who is proudly unapologetic and vocal about telling Canadian stories. (You can read more about his thoughts on Canadian settings for SF in his advice for beginning writers.)

(You know what else is cool? Shaun Haunter’s The City We See blog, posting  book excerpts about Calgary through the eyes of writers.)

I could say it’s about writing what you know. And there’s no denying that knowing a place in person can affect how you write about it. But that’s not it–or at least not all of it. You don’t need to be in New York for your story to matter.  I think there’s room for so many voices out there that don’t always get heard. Tell the stories about where you’re from, and where you are, and where you want to be.

Marvellous mundanity

TheHeroWithAThousandFacesI was watching Extra Credits, because everything they say about the narrative of a story translates almost perfectly into writing, when a Joseph Campbell quote summed up perfectly a problem I’ve been having with most first drafts of most of the books I read. The mundane is too boring in what should be an exciting world.

Books in the speculative realm all too often focus on the boring mundane moments in the story. The bathing, the eating, the walking…even if it’s the person’s job to kill other people, quite often they are bored with it in the wrong way. Apathy is a hard emotion to write in a way that is engaging because if the character does not care, it is very hard to get the reader to care, either. Visual media is slightly different, but that too cool for school character that just cannot be assed has been used to the point where they’re a paper-thin representation of what the character could have been.

I think this can be fixed by starting at that moment where the story is new to the character and you see that wondrous world emerging from what the character has known all their life, and watching *other people* be blase about the magic or technology allows the reader to have that bridge between the readers who have never seen it before and the world where the tools are common.

Balancing awe vs. mundane is not a first draft issue though. Too many students have sat in too many classes talking about in media res that now we have a flood of stories that are starting after the character has already rubbed off all the awe, and they’re now just plodding along.

I don’t want to read characters plodding. I want them to bring me into their world with them. If scenes can be summed up in a few lines as to what happened but doesn’t change the plot itself, it should be nothing more than a bridging scene. No more chapters of characters doing everyday things unless that every day thing is a break from their new reality and even then, be brief.

Charting emotional highs and lows in writing

Donald Maass says there should be tension on every page. You should print the book out, scramble the pages so that you’re not reading in sequence, and then make sure that every page has some bit of tension on it. I don’t do the scrambling or printing out bit, but I’m always trying to twist the screwdriver embedded in the characters’ backs just a little more.

I found though that my writing picked up when I realized that beyond tension on the page, every scene had to have one moment with an emotional high or low point. I found that every day, I write at least one scene as a whole unit, with one point at which the characters have that moment of climax (sometimes literally, though sex is hard because it releases tension and the whole boint of writing is bottling it up, so writing sex *and* mantaining tension is a bit of a foxtrot).

I don’t diagram my stories, but This person did. I work on a “if they have time to lean, they have time to scream” plotting structure where if I notice the characters have been sitting around talking, I throw a grenade into the mix and let them scramble. The biggest problem I have with most stories is the fact that so little happens over so many words, and making sure there is always something happening can help keep the story going. Being aware of how the emotional flow of the story is the first step having that be just part of your natural writing flow.