My Character Took a Turn

While it isn’t my main character, a major character in the book revealed that he had something to do with one of the Bad Events. He seemed neutral at the beginning, a necessary bridge between protagonist and antagonist and someone who worked with both.

I suppose it all started when a different character – who was supposed to remain in the backstory – left traces of herself from the first page and arrived front and center when my protagonist needed an ally.

So much for my outline- except I’m still following the outline. I don’t believe in cornering myself with the details. I discover it as I write it, with the outline more like a street map. And just like my GPS system, every now and then it tells me to take a u-turn at 70 mph through a four-foot concrete barrier. I always choose not to follow that advice. I’m nearly at the destination now, and I know if I keep writing I’ll find my way.

I’m always amazed by well-meaning other writers who don’t know me well. They say “save it for later.” I’m not going to fix this guy. Except to make this reveal seem planned after the rewrite, of course.

Then, I thought, Man, your wife is way too cool for you. But maybe she also knew. I guess I’d better check in with her and see.

I hear it’s good for characters to get lives of their own, but they definitely make my book interesting. I also can’t wait to see how it turns out – even though I am following an outline. I’m not sure I could write this book without some kind of guide. I think I’m 125k words in, and I’m not sure where it will end.

Digging into Chapters

Today I started wondering what makes up a chapter. I’m working on my current project (because I still pretend I’m going to finish it by the end of the month), and I read through comments from a friend about how my chapters are short. That was the beginning chapter, then a few segments in (realizing all of the “chapters” are short) the comments were only on the ‘super short’ chapters.

How do we know how to say ‘end of chapter’? It’s not something that occupies me for the most part. I like to leave a cliffhanger ending if I can. There’s something about the pacing of the novel that just says where the ends ought to be. Or so I’ve always managed in the past.

But the comments started making me wonder about that. This particular project is young adult aimed at reluctant readers. When I put that into my thoughts, mostly the way I’ve done the chapters really fits the pace of the book.

Now I can put my chapters into all kinds of perspective. I can count them by number of words and decide that the math will tell me everything – in which case I have a few that are way too short. Average, minimum, maximum, and standard deviation all come into play. Interpretation is anybody’s game, though, so it only gives me more questions.

A good reminder to all the writers out there: fiction is not a game of numbers. 

Even more that is true if I think about all the books I’ve read: Which Twilight book was it that had four pages marked for the months like chapters and absolutely nothing written in them? The effect was clear about the passing of time where Bella had no recollection of events. Not that things didn’t happen, but she had completely withdrawn from life.

If a chapter can be as short as one sentence or as long as necessary, then why do we focus on such things as a magic number of words per chapter? It might be more effective to think about what a chapter needs to do. The chapter needs to make a point. The story needs to go forward.

Chapters have specific duties within a book. Start with breaking up the narrative. It’s hard to take an entire book in one sitting for most of us, and a chapter ending will be a place where a reader stops if possible. [And this is the best place to throw in cliffhangers!] In some third limited viewpoint books, a chapter break might herald another character viewpoint. Some give gaps for the passage of time or to change location.

It’s never perfect, and it never will be. Analysis only leads me to improve my work as long as I don’t get too far into the details. I’m sure I could eventually tweak all the chapters to be the exact same number of words, but that wouldn’t suit the project. It would be great to say they all need to be X number of words on average within .5 standard deviations. Yet that isn’t the part that really makes it something worth reading.

Each chapter I put down follows some inner voice in my head that this is where it needs to end. All of it is something that follows each different project to be a new whole. I wish I could quantify it more than that, but the answer is elusive. I can tell I’m not the only one – check  this article and the discussion here and here.

I have a rough draft of another book that I haven’t finished putting the chapter breaks into yet. The first piece turned out a longer than I originally intended, but that doesn’t mean I need to chop it into pieces. I’m still grappling with the entirety of it, and I’m sure it will come to me. 

How do you deal with chapters as writers and readers? 

Character Introductions

How do you introduce characters? What is the important part about the introduction of a character, and what do you decide to say when to bring them in?

It’s always difficult to know. You want to introduce your protagonist among the very first, many times the very first character to show to your reader. Readers like to know what’s going on and care about someone who comes up. [Yes, there are several people who get away with doing it another way, but we're going to stick with the mainstream for the moment. Pretend I'm not George R.R. Martin, ok?]

So if you have your protagonist firmly in mind, you want to introduce her to your reader. You choose something that shows who this is and why she is different and important and worthy of the reader’s time and attention.

Then you start the trouble and change things up for the poor protagonist until she can’t help but follow along with the plot.

But what about the others? How do you decide to put the other characters in? What about people who walk in and out for a little bit? It’s always good to think about that a while. Sometimes there’s an organic way to do it. A way to sprinkle the other characters in while the protagonist goes along with her story.

I have two characters that are giving me a little trouble. I introduce them early because they’re important. However, one of my critiquers thought I shouldn’t introduce one so early, and then another thought I should introduce the other earlier to show her importance.

I end up chewing over that kind of advance planning for the beginning. It seemed to make sense how I introduced them, but it’s possible it’s not quite in order. So I’m curious how other writers do it – do you decide to introduce them in a certain order or just when they come up? How do you decide in the rewrite if you’ve done it well enough? And does it matter if it’s a thousand words here or there to keep them flowing through?

Next time I might look closer at how they come through the story. This one is set in a fairly good order except for the two I mentioned. The two characters are important, though neither is the most important throughout the plot. It can all be put together in good time and I’ll have it figured out within the week.

It does give me a great deal to think about. There might be a million ways to introduce a few characters and I’m not sure I always give it as much thought as i could to make sure it’s done the right way and for the right reasons in the plot.

This kind of thought process has slowed my editing progress. I need to jump into a different chapter and stop worrying about those introductions for a little bit. How do you deal with it?

Are You Ready To Write That Novel Yet?

There are a lot of ways to ask and answer this question – but the one I mean today is “How do you know you’re ready for that idea that won’t leave you alone?”

It’s not something we’re ready for at all times. The idea hits me and I want to run with it. The problem comes along later, when I realize the idea was not fully formed and is in dire need of tweaks and research and who knows what else… And when I run into that wall I end up with a partial draft of something that I’m not sure what to do with, because the idea takes a turn every time I actually finish the front end stuff.

Somehow that leads me to the idea I wasn’t quite ready to write it when I started setting fingers to keyboard. Later, when the ideas mature, I can put them in different combinations and make something better.

Example: I just pulled two ideas from my snippets and merged them with another idea I came up with more recently. While they were not related at first, this time they seem more suited to weaving together. Once I started down that path, a torrent of words spewed forth. Then I read my old notes and found nuances I had forgotten. I’m still trying to pin them together.

I’m not sure if it’s enough to write that novel yet. I have a couple different viewpoints I want to show in this world I’m creating, but I haven’t figured that all out yet. So it might be a few novellas woven together into a book. It might also be a series. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how much I have to say before it begins.

Other times I am not sure if I’m ready to say exactly what needs to be said. At least I have time to manage to think about it. I am focusing on editing my last manuscript (still working due to moving and having a baby and everything else that gets in the way of pure writing pursuits), yet in the meantime I still doodle and dream up this alternate place that sings to me when my creative side takes hold.

I’m not sure I’m ready to write it yet. The two year old and the two week old are definitely taking most of my waking hours and will continue to do that for some time. I’m also not sure what my message is, but somehow the idea won’t leave me alone for the moment.

It’s a little like when the unicorn kept telling me he was the one who wanted to skewer my last protagonist. Silly unicorn, she’s got her own magic to protect her. Now if only she could control it… But that’s another story that hasn’t quite been finished yet. I promise I will when I’m ready. The question of how to know when I’m ready troubles me, but I write hundreds of thousands of words in a year (250k+ last year). I have time to figure out drafts and redraft them later.

I’ll admit it would be seriously more efficient if I could figure that all out before I start drafting, but so far I haven’t been able to help myself. What do you do when that idea takes hold of your brain and won’t let go? Do you write it? Do you start building the world? Do you outline (or whatever other plot devices you use to figure it out before you write)? Or do you take a little snippet and let it simmer for later?

There Is Beauty in Words

Except, sometimes, when you get caught up in the doubts that follow during the project. Yes, all writers go through it. Some of us hit it early on and can’t get past the first word to put down on paper. Others get it mid-project. Once I even experienced it as soon as I finished the rough draft. [If you don't know what happened that that project - it's now The Art of Science.] 

I know that thinking about a project midway through definitely brings out the doubts more than the merits. At least when you’re finished you can pass it off to a trusted associate (or even your best friend) and say, hey, should I keep working on this? The problem with a midway project is sometimes they try to give advice about how it ought to go – whether that is the end in mind or not it can become a stumbling block. 

It’s not like i don’t have ten million other things I could be working on – believe me, I do. I’m the soon-to-be mother of two, naptime novelist, and I always think I can manage more than can be done in a day. So just one more thing never scares me, and the really important stuff does get done in time. Or it doesn’t – that happens often enough. 

Current mid-draft novel is sitting at 36k. It lacks direction and I’m not sure how my protagonist is going to get to the desired end. I’m still attacking it here and there. I mix it up with other projects so I don’t get too burnt on one thing – the holidays are near and there’s supposed to be a lot to do. Yesterday I wrapped gifts, which inspired my two year old to have fits. Today I’m hoping to mail the package, but we’ll see how the time runs with the little girl. 

I’m sure it doesn’t help that I keep thinking this novel might be better than the last one – which is currently sitting in the middle of a rewrite of the teen romance subplot. I don’t think I’m good at writing romance, but I know that’s what the protagonist needs right now. More tension! More drama! So I got to break him up with his girlfriend and let him focus on trying to ask out the new girl. 

The more I torture my characters, the more they know I love them, right? At least, that’s the fun of being the author. Then I can enjoy the drama-free parts of my days when the toddler isn’t being stubborn (like now when she’s not napping). Better luck tomorrow. 

Noveling

I like to have it as an official rule that I only work on one novel at a time, but it doesn’t seem to be working for me. I’m revising Don’t Tell Your Mother with some success, but … but … but … !

So, of course, when I’m trying to focus on one, ideas start pouring out of my head. What’s the deal? Why can’t they just wait until I get to that lull where the current project made it through the big rewrite and needs less attention?

It seems to happen each time I get to about this point. I don’t want to abandon the current project and leave it in a randomly drafted state. It’s less random than most of my rough drafts, but it still leaves a lot that needs to be fixed, tweaked, whatever you want to call it.

Instead of completing denying the other one, I’ve begun plotting it. I am trying to hold it off so I can focus on it. I’m not one of those people who gets enough writing time to write until I’m blocked, which means I don’t need four works-in-progress at any given time.

Not that I don’t have those, but most of them are short stories that need revision, rather than novels that are begging me to write them.

I wish I knew a faster way to revise, but my rough drafts come out fast because of my focus. I think rewriting takes more of my thoughts to get the manuscript where I want it, and that makes it slow.

Any other thoughts on that? Do you work on one major project at a time, or dabble in several at once? At what point is it okay to start on that new project? How do you know you’re done with the last one?

Are you ever done with the last one?

Doubt

I read in a book, I think it was by Orson Scott Card, that at some point in every novel he’d call his agent and say he was quitting his novel project and he had something else he’d rather work on.

Sometimes I wonder how common that is among writers, and if we hit that wall of doubt in similar places. I suspect we don’t.

I’m finding my doubts coming through lately, slowing my pace considerably. Rough drafts I can knock out without much trouble, and I always tell myself it doesn’t matter what kind of shape it’s in, I can fix it later.

It’s after that when the doubts settle in. When I’m trying to change those stubborn passages until they work within the greater whole. When I’m working on the subplots that just popped up and took too much out of the main story. When the thing stares at me and just won’t do what I want it to do.

A couple of my short stories are similarly stalled at the moment. I’m at a loss how to pick up and go from here. I’d rather not start something new, but I don’t want to be doing nothing, either, when I’m so stuck on the current chapter of my book.

These niggling doubts hold me back, but I can’t just dismiss them. Well, I’d like to, but they won’t go away. It probably doesn’t help when I read about how tough it is to break into the publishing markets (nevermind that I’m already published, I still worry).

How do you deal with doubts?

Self-Imposed Deadlines

Is it really June 1 already? Remind me not to give myself deadlines over holiday weekends, especially when there are party plans in progress.

While I’m still struggling with my outline of Don’t Tell Your Mother with all the new changes, I had two straggling ideas come to be much clearer through the process. Why does it always happen that way?

And I keep scratching out lines for the outline I’m supposed to be finishing. If it would just play nicely – but no amount of arm-twisting will put it in line. Probably because I don’t think of my novels having arms.

Fifteen to twenty words for an outline was the challenge. So I have two that might work, though one doesn’t have an actual name for the main character. She’s there, though, somewhere. Just waiting to reveal herself when I’m halfway into another project, I’m sure.

Characters can be so difficult that way. They require constant vigilance to keep them in line. Even if you let them run free you have to make certain they don’t start going in circles. Some of them will do nothing but chase their tails. Humans and characters both need a lot of motivation to keep moving.

I have motivation – I just have too much to do.

It doesn’t explain why all the ideas start popping in my head at once, but I believe it’s just another quirk of being a writer. Ideas swarm the skull as soon as I choose one to focus on. That’s what a slush pile is for. It holds the extras until I’m ready to develop them.

Or until they take over my thoughts completely. One way or another, the stories that really want to get written, get written. Eventually I have no choice!

Not that I mind much. I love writing and developing stories, worlds, and characters. I don’t know what I’d do with myself if they were gone.

I’ll keep working to revise the outline for my current project, though. The worst that can happen is developing the other two into series… Wait- that already looks like a possibility.

Maybe I’ll just retreat into a corner with my notebook and pen and start chanting in Sanskrit.

Ideas on the Periphery

One line of plot does not always get you from beginning to end of book. It’s one of those things that adds to length, either a sub plot or a plot layer. Neither is totally unrelated to the main line, but each adds different elements.

Mom delivered an idea that a friend of hers believes is underdeveloped in books. Oh, it’ll require research for me  because I’m not familiar with it. It will have good conflict opportunities for characters. The more I think about it, though, I’m not sure it will make a good central plot line for a book.

And of course, during a rewrite phase my brain starts bursting with new ideas to take off and write with! So I take a deep breath and take notes for when I’m finished. How irritating. Would that I had more hours in a day to write.

Like ten.

But I wouldn’t give up the evening I spent with my daughter outside. I wonder if I could manage without sleep… but that way lies madness. And not the kind that will get my written words more creative!

So I’ll add it to my notes and see what comes out of this when the current project is done. Because I am determined to get Don’t Tell Your Mother into great shape.

Maybe it will be ready to send out by the end off the year, but only if I get cracking on that rough manuscript. Yes, I think that would be a good goal. Let’s see if I can manage it. I like where chapter 1 is, and I have the rest of the rough draft in various stages. (Someone called it draft-and-a-half. That amuses me.) I also have notes on where the outline needs to change.

That should account for enough for me to keep rewriting. I think I have one more issue to tie up at the end.

New deadline: Revise ending in outline form by 1 June. Whee!

Thorny Pitches

Do you call it a logline or a premise or a one-sentence pitch? And by whatever name you call it, is it really that much different?

The logline’s history starts with scriptwriting, so if I have a novel, do I want to call it a logline?

The premise is a one-sentence summary of a novel, which may or may not be nearly the same as the one-sentence pitch.

Whichever one you think you’re writing, it has to be catchy. Ever feel sorry for all the industry professionals who have these short pithy sayings aimed at them all the time? From Oh, I’m in the elevator with an editor, time to spout out my pitch, to Bathroom break, I think someone’s in the stall next to mine – it’s an agent, I can tell by the shoes! It’s enough to make me glad I’m not one of them.

Well, almost. I think it’d be really cool to discover books, but from the things I read on Twitter via #pubtips, well, wow, there are some bad queries out there. There must also be some great ones, because books keep getting published.

The trick of all those one-sentence dealies in the beginning is word choice. It takes them forever to be crafted, but once they exist in a pretty form they’re helpful. Remember Mark Twain’s words, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I mean, what if the first Percy Jackson book was called The Lightning Bug Thief? That just gives an entirely different picture of the book.

The same concept works for pitches, or anything else in a very short form that must get people excited about the project. We’re writers – we need to use our words. There are so many of them out there just waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

It also means we need to stop thinking the first draft of a premise is the correct one. The first draft of anything usually needs a lot of coaxing to shine.

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