Category Archives: writing advice

Outlines – When it’s time to throw the map out of the window.

Roadmap

So remember when I talked about the importance of outlines and that having a roadmap will help you get to your destination faster while writing the first draft… Yeah, well somethings things happen that throw a wrench into the well-made plan and you are left scrambling to put pieces back together. And they usually form different pattern in the end.

 

It’s like when you plan out a route to get somewhere only to get halfway and discover that the bridge is out. Now you are left trying to negotiate a myriad of backroads to get to your destination, and your GPS is out. Scary right? But admit that it’s also a bit exciting. Because just like driving, spending several months simply following along a rigid outline can become boring.

 

I know I was getting a bit tired of my well-planned out story when I finished Part 2 of Shadow Hunters and started on Part 3. And that’s when the writing gods threw a wrench in my plans and made my writing time exciting again.

 

It all started when a character whom I didn’t have any big plans for decided to not only appear early, but also to take an active role in the story.

 

When he showed up, I said, “Well hello there! What am I supposed to do with you?”

 

He smiled and blew up my carefully constructed bridge leading to the final destination.

 

So now I and the rest of the characters are stuck on the backroads of the story. We see the destination, but what stretches between us and shining light called THE END is terra incognita.

 

But you know what? I’m looking forward to my writing time again now. I know that I can still use some of the plot points and scenes I had outlined, but they will have to be arranged differently and probably have an unexpected outcome. But a lot of this Part 3 will be totally new. Who will live? Who will die? How will the situation be resolved? Shit, I have no idea now! How cool is that?

 Terra-Incognita

So this is my long-winding way of saying that while having an outline is important because it lets you really think your story through to the ending, sticking to it like glue can be a bad thing. Use it as a guideline, but never be afraid to step off the beaten path.

 

When a character starts doing something unexpected? By all means, let him! And cheer him on too, because chances are, he is giving you narrative gold. When a carefully planned scene suddenly reaches an unplanned outcome, don’t delete it and try to rewrite so that it fits your outline. Let it run its course and see where it leads. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense at the time, even if that means you will have to rewrite parts of the story you have already written down afterwards. Let it flow, because this is your story telling you how it wants to be written.

 

So throw away the map and jump into the unknown with a smile on your face, just don’t lose sight of the end game! You might meander a little and take a detour or two, but you will certainly find some hidden gems along the way.

 

Write on, my friends, write on.

WordCount

Evolution of a character or not all princes are jerks.

Paiting a new world, what's more exciting then that?
Paiting a new world, what’s more exciting then that?

Last week I talked about the importance of listening to your characters and letting them evolve. Today I thought that I would give you an example of that, since I had to let the characters take the reins in my current WIP – Shadow Hunters.

 

When I was outlining and plotting Shadow Hunters, I knew that my protagonist would be a prince. Not only that, but that he would also be a jerk. After all, this kingdom lives under absolute monarchy, which means the king and the royal family have a heck of a lot of power. On top of that, there is a rather rigid caste system with the royal family on the very top of the food chain.

 

So it made sense that a guy who was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and had servants cater to his every whim would grow up to be a self-absorbed and entitled jerk. So his initial character journey was to meet a girl from a very different environment, fall in love and slowly become a decent human being through a series of more and more staggering trials and obstacles.

 

With that plan in hand, I started writing my first draft and my protagonist immediately rebelled against me. He absolutely didn’t want to be a jerk. After fighting with him for the first three scenes of the first chapter, I threw the towel and let him drive the narrative. And I discovered some very interesting facts about my prince.

keep-calm-and-start-the-rebellion-2

Yes, Akemi’s family is all powerful and his father rules the kingdom with a firm hand, but Akemi himself is the youngest of five children. As such, he is so far down the inheritance line that nobody even considers him a contender. His eldest brother is the Heir in waiting destined to succeed to their father and has been trained as such. His sister is the perfect lady destined to be married off to form an alliance with one of the neighboring kingdoms. He could go into the military, but his second brother already beat him to it and he is, by all accounts, an exceptional warrior. And even the scientific field is covered with his last brother the genius inventor.

 

Akemi couldn’t even enter the clergy because there is no clergy per se in this world. And it’s not like he has a particular talent for anything. So in the eyes of his family, he is useless. He grew up seeing indifference in his parent’s eyes and annoyance from his eldest siblings.

 

On top of that, he learned at a very young age that no friendship is free. All the kids that wanted to be his friends in the past and even now that he is studying at the Royal College want something in exchange for that friendship. It’s either status, influence, money, or a way to get closer to his more influential siblings, and once they get what they want, they will jump ship in a heartbeat.

 

So Akemi learned to wear a mask of indifference and condescending aloofness and not let anyone close enough to see his real face. Heck, he doesn’t bother to learn the names and faces of most of his followers because they change from week to week. He remembers 3-4 that stayed longer than most and even gets attached to them more than he should, despite knowing that it’s a bad idea that would only lead to heartbreak.

Guidelines

So instead of a self-absorbed jerk, I discovered a decent and even rather kind guy who is just so lost and disillusioned about his place in this world that he hides behind a mask. His family thinks he is useless, so he ends up believing the same, and just kinda floats with the current, not making much effort to find a road to follow in life.

 

So his journey through the book transformed as well. Instead of being just a plain love story where guy meets girl and she makes a human being out of him, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Throughout the events of this story, Akemi discovers where his allegiances lies, what his dreams are, and how far he is willing to go to protect those he loves.

 

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of story a lot more interesting than the one I had planed to write in the beginning.

 

Let your characters grow and evolve.

WordCount

For me, the two key ingredients of a good book is an interesting plot and engaging characters that I want to follow through the highs and lows and growing pains until the end of the book.

I must admit that characters come before plot for me. I am willing to follow well-made characters through even the most boring plot if I like them enough, because they become like friends to me to the point when I’m sad to say goodbye when the book ends. I think that’s part of the appeal of fanfiction – we readers love the characters so much that they loathe to let them go after the official story ended and invent new stories for them. Or explore side characters that the author didn’t have time or book space to delve into.

But I’m getting side-tracked here. I read a lot. A lot lot. And I’ve noticed that there is one thing that will make me drop a book like a hot potato EVERY SINGLE TIME – when I can’t find a single character, even a side character, to like.

I’ve also identified several reasons for that. I think that keeping them in mind while writing my books will make me a better writer, and reading about them might make you guys think about it as well.

 

  1. Characters never evolve past static cardboard cutouts.

We’ve all picked up a book where the characters have no personality, no life. They are just a bag of walking clichés, or they were created to fulfill predetermined roles – the brooding hero, his love interest who is sometimes a damsel in distress and sometimes a badass girl who nevertheless needs rescuing, the super bad who is bad because of reasons, etc. Or sometimes they are just bland and blah. When I read a book and can’t even picture what the protagonist looks like in my head and how he / she behaves, I’m not going to stick with the story.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr
  1. Characters are well-developed but they don’t evolve.

This one leave a bitter taste in my mouth every time because the stories begin with great characters that I usually get invested into, but by the time I reach about halfway into the book, I suddenly realize that they hadn’t grown up at all. That despite all the adventures, the difficulties, and the heartbreak they go through during the story, they stay exactly the same. There is no emotional growth. Worst case would be when they never learn from their own mistakes and continue doing dumb things over and over again.

By the time you realize that there is no forward momentum in the character’s evolution, you’ve already invested several hours into the book, so sometimes you feel compelled to power through to the end, often wishing you could get those hour back and spend them on something more productive.

 

  1. Characters that behave out of character because the author tries to fit them into a story they’ve outgrown.

When we set off to write a book, we usually have at least a vague idea of where this story is supposed to go and how we would like it to end. Problems arise when our characters take a life of their own and start telling their own story that sometimes clashes with what we had initially in mind.

What I’m about to say is my personal opinion only, but I think it would be a mistake to try and herd them back into the fold and bend them backwards in order to fit the story we had created. It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Even if you hammer it in there, it still won’t feel right.

That’s when otherwise very logical and well-written characters start behaving in such a manner that makes you scratch your head and wonder what they or the author was smoking. When a heroine how was known to use her head and analyze everything carefully and formulate a plan suddenly rushes into the enemy lair without even a weapon. Or when a cold-hearted jerk suddenly turns into a puddle of goo and declares his never dying love for the heroine WITHOUT any buildup to that change of feelings.

This is what makes me throw a book away in frustration or want to strangle the characters for suddenly becoming mere shadows of themselves. That’s where I feel most betrayed because I loved them how they were and all of a sudden I feel like they had been replaced by a doppelganger.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

 

I think that characters have to come before the story. If they are fleshed out enough, they will tell their own  story that will probably be even more interesting than what you initially set off to write. So let your characters speak. Let them grow and evolve. And when they suddenly decide to step off the road you had outlined before them, let them do that and follow them down that rabbit hole.  That’s where the most interesting conflicts lie.

NaNoWriMo is a battle of endurance.

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-Square (1)

Well, we have survived the first week of NaNo. How about a big cheer? If you are like me, you spent these 8 days riding the excitement and doubling if not tripling your word count. As of today, my WIP stands 500 words shy of 20k.

Even if your word count is less than that or if you are behind the curve a little, don’t get discouraged. Remember that every words you write this month is one more word you didn’t have before that. Anything is better than zero.

But as we are entering the second week of this challenge, you have probably started noticing that your enthusiasm is waning. You might have hit a road block, or your story turned down a totally unexpected road, or you might just have gotten tired of writing it.  After all writing 1667 new words a day every day is hard and sometimes soul wrenching work. Especially if you also work full time, have a family that wants to be fed every day, and a house chores that won’t get done by themselves.

So now that the first rush is gone, it gets harder and harder to force yourself to sit down and write. If you’re like me, the sight of an empty page scares you when you stare at it first thing in the morning and the prospect to have to fill it with another 1.6k can seem daunting. That’s why I say that NaNoWriMo is a battle of endurance.

Don’t give up now. It doesn’t matter is you are ahead or behind on the word count, keep on writing. The only way you will win and, more importantly, get that novel written down, is if you work through the slump, and through the fatigue, and through the discouragement. All writers go through that stage at least once per first draft (and sometimes more than once) and the only way to get across the wall is to grit your teeth and keep climbing.

write

But I have a few pieces of advice to help you win this battle. They worked for me, so hopefully they will work for you as well.

  1. Pace yourself.

Don’t try to do all of your daily word count in one session, and don’t postpone that session until last thing in the evening before bed. You will be tired then and the amount of words you’d have to produce would seem more daunting than ever. Break your day into several smaller sessions instead: 400 words with your morning coffee, 300 more during your coffee or cigarette break at work, 600-700 at lunch, and all of a sudden the amount you need to do in the evening would shrink to almost nothing at all.

  1. Write down what you want to work on the next day.

Even if you’re pantsing your NaNo, I found that it helps to jot down a few thoughts before going to bed. Write down the next scene you need to work on, or just an inkling of who where and what will happen. That why the next morning you won’t have to frantically rake your brain about where your story is going. You would have a departure point to start on your writing.

  1. When you hit a roadblock, throw a wrench at it.

If you’re stuck in your story and have no idea what to do next, make something bad happen to your characters. Then buckle up for the ride and watch them scramble to overcome this new crisis. You might get so excited about this new turn of events that you wouldn’t even notice that you hit your word count for the day.

Lost

  1. Don’t give up.

Seriously, don’t. Nope! Forbidden! It’s your story. Nobody will be able to write it if you give up. So fight on, get to the end of it one word at a time.

 

Write on wrimos!

Is Writing an extensive Outline a Waste of Time?

nanowrimo1

I had a conversation today on Facebook with fellow writer about NaNoWriMo and different methods of preparing for it. Plotting or pantsing it? If plotting, then how much to prepare in advance? Stuff like that. She is the ultimate pantser who doesn’t even have the vaguest idea of what her story will be about. She said she will just sit down on November 1st and write whatever pops into her head.

I must admit that I am envious of people who can pull that off. I can’t. I tried a few times and failed miserably. Those unfinished stories still gather virtual dust somewhere on my computer…

Anyway, I admitted that I need a detailed outline  as well as extensive character and world-building research in order to make the most of my NaNo writing time.

She asked me just how detailed my outline for Shadow Hunters was, and I told her that it was 20k words long.

You know what her answer was? “What a waste of time.”

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr

I was rather speechless at first. Then I started doubting myself. I had been researching this project since the idea popped into my head in July, though I put it aside to do a new round of edits on Mists, but still, I put A LOT of effort into the prep work. Was it really a waste of time?

I guess it depends on your point of view.

Sure, I could have written 2-3 short stories in the time it took me to write that 20k words outline. And by the time I finished it, I also knew that I would change most of Part 1 anyway, because what I had written in the outline simply wasn’t working. And, judging by past experience, I tend to deviate from my outline all the time, sometimes tossing it out of the window altogether.

But you know what? If I hadn’t written such an extensive outline, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem with Part 1 until I was a good ways into my first draft. So I would have had to drudge to the end of the draft knowing that I would need to rewrite at least 1/3 of the story upon editing. When it comes to editing, I am slower than a turtle, so a full rewrite would have cost me countless hours. But since I noticed that problem at the outlining stage, I can rectify it directly in the first draft.

Another advantage of this extensive outline is that now I know exactly where the story goes and what important milestones it must hit along the way for maximum impact. And I have detailed outlines of those crucial scenes. I also know what role most of my characters play in the story and how they will react in different situations.

I know that for some writers, this knowledge will kill the creativity. After, what’s the point writing a story if most of it is already in the outline? Well, the story might be in the outline, but it’s written in a dry plan-like manner. Now I have the exciting task of taking that lifeless outline and instilling it with my character’s voices and breathing life into this world. That’s the most difficult and the most rewarding part of the writing process.

So for me, spending a month to write a 20k word outline is NOT a waste of time, but an integral part of my creative process. If fact, I wouldn’t even call it an outline anymore, but a pre-draft.

Of course, just because this method works well for me, it doesn’t mean that it would work for you as well. There are no absolutes when it comes to writing. The writing process is as unique and deeply personal as each writer’s personality. To me the pre-draft is essential to understand the story I want to tell, but to the person I spoke with, it was a waste of time. That doesn’t mean that my process is better than hers or that her story will be more interesting than mine…

good-luck-road-sign

So what is your writing process? How do you prepare for NaNo? Or what do you do before you start writing a brand new story? Outline or not? How extensive are your outlines?

NaNoWriMo is almost upon us.

nanowrimo1

For most people November means Thanksgiving, College football, Black Friday, and stuffing yourself with so much turkey that we can’t look at it for at least the next six months. But for a select group of crazies out there, November is the month where they throw caution (and sometimes sanity) to the wind and attempt to write 50k words in just 30 days. Which also means starting a brand new story on day 1 and either finishing it on day 30, or in my case, getting a good chunk of the narrative down.

For millions of writers around the world, November is the event they have been waiting for, hoping for or dreading, gearing up for all year long. It’s NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month.

Last year, I did a series of posts about NaNoWrimo that you can find under the On Writing – NaNoWriMo cathegory, so I will try not to repeat myself too much. If you are still not sure if you want to try doing NaNo  or not, I would recommend reading this post – 5 reasons everyone should do NaNoWriMo at least once.

So today, I want to talk a little bit about my reasons for doing NaNoWriMo. This isn’t my first rodeo, so to say. I’ve done (and won) NaNo in 2013 and 2014, and I went on writing afterwards until I finished the novels I’ve been working on. So I am not approaching this year’s NaNo with a need to prove that I can do it. I’ve already shown that I can. But I am just as giddy and excited about November 1st as I was two years ago. And do you know why?

Because NaNoWriMo is a wonderful and unique opportunity to throw your caution to the wind, shut your inner critic in the basement, and just run with the story. There is nothing better to shut down your “Spock Brain” as Kristen Lamb puts it in her excellent article, than having to put out 50k words in only 30 days. That’s roughly 1.7k words a day, which can be a challenge, especially if writing is not your full-time career and you have to carve time for it out of your already busy schedule. My average daily output during the year is about 600 words, sometimes a bit more, but I try to never do less. Well during November, I have to do almost triple to keep with the word count.

write

Let me tell you that when you are pushing yourself to write as fast as you can for as long as you can in the limited time you have (for me it’s early morning before work, during my lunch break, and before bed when the rest of my household is asleep), you don’t have time to second guess yourself or worry about your sentence structure or verb usage or even if that paragraph you just finished makes sense. You have to press on and keep the story moving, no matter what. Even if it seems silly or stupid; even if you feel like your writing is horrible; even if you are certain that you just zipped by a plot hole so big a small truck could fall into it.

During NaNoWrimo, I don’t have time to worry about that, and I never go back to re-read / edit what I have written. If I get an idea on how to change something, or if I know there is glaring mistake somewhere, I write it down in my notebook and keep on going. I can address all these issues during revisions, but I need a fully finished draft first.

And I don’t know about you guys, but for me there is something liberating about just rushing ahead and letting the story spill out of you without any restrains. Yes, it might be half-baked and will definitely not win the Nobel prize of literature, but it won’t do that just sitting inside your head either.

Hemingway

So I take a deep breath on October 31st and set off into a mad dash that doesn’t slow down until November 30th. By that time, I usually have over 50k words of my new novel written and the momentum carries me well into December and January when I finally finish the draft, because most of my novels run in the 100k words category. Of course, I usually slow down after NaNo, going back to about 1k words a day, but by that time I’m past the halfway point of my story and I am excited about reaching the end.

So to conclude this rambling post, for me NaNoWriMo is the essential yearly boost of motivation , like a writing vitamin shot, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

Let your ideas rest – don’t rush in.

This blog post is sort of a follow up to last week’s post about my Worldbuilding process, as well as friendly advice to new writers. Since NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about why you shouldn’t rush your inspiration.

 

I think it happens to all of us – we get this shiny new idea, and we get so excited about it that we want to drop everything we’re doing (including current writing projects) to start working on this new gem. BAD IDEA. Let me explain why.

Finish what you start!
Finish what you start!
  1. That the surest way to never finish anything.

 

Writing is hard. Finishing a first draft is a long process. It can take months of slow and painful progress to get to the end of a story, and some days it feels like you are making no progress at all. Some days it feels like you have to fight for every word you put on the page. So it’s normal to get a bit tired of the story you are telling.

 

So when this brand new idea aka plot bunny jumps in to your head, of course you want to drop that burden you’ve been dragging for so long and run with this shiny gem. It’s new. It’s exciting. Surely, the process of writing it would be less tedious?

 

Well, even though it might seems so in the beginning, but once you run long enough with this new idea, it will become hard to write as well. After all, that other idea you abandoned for this one has been bright new and shiny at one point as well.

 

So you’ll end up with two unfinished stories that are equally difficult to write. And then another bright idea pops into your head, so you jump ship again… Well, you get my drift.

 

  1. An idea does not a story make.

 

That new plot bunny that just jumped into your head might look all fluffy and cute, but I suggest that you take a closer look. You might notice that it’s malnourished and rather worse for wear. That’s because, most of the time, it’s just a scene, or a character, or a vague idea. Yes, it makes us stop and think, “Oh, that would be so cool!” but by itself, it’s not enough to make a whole book out of. You need to put it in a nice little cage and feed it lots of carrots and other tasty foods so that it can grow and evolve.

Image courtesy Badgirlzwrite.com
Image courtesy Badgirlzwrite.com

Or, in other words, you need to work on that idea, ask questions, discover your world and your characters and, most importantly, the actual story you want to tell. All this takes time. Sometimes a lot of time and research before you are ready to sit down and write the first sentence of your very first draft.

 

  1. Write it down and put it on the backburner.

 

Oftentimes you can’t see the story clearly enough at first, no matter how much you want to start writing. Maybe you have a hard time seeing the characters, or maybe you have no idea where that shiny scene that came to your mind fits in the story, if it fits at all. And no matter how much you poke at it, you don’t seem to get the answers you need.

 

That’s when stepping away from the idea and putting it on the back burner is a good idea. Let it simmer on low heat. Let it percolate into your brain while you finish that other story, the one you have already invested so much time into. I am willing to bet that when you are finally done with it and go back to your new idea, you will be surprised at how much more information you have about the world, the characters and the story.

The attack of evil plot bunnies.
The attack of evil plot bunnies.

That’s when you can sit down and start writing it. Yes, it might be months between the time you get the idea and the moment you actually start working on it, but you would have a finished story under your belt and solid direction where your new story is going as well.