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Posts Tagged ‘how i do it’

leverage the tricks you have

I’ve spent the past several days (and have several more to come) gear-shifting between three radically different writing projects. On the one hand, I’m taking this approach because I know my brain can’t just buckle down and slam all the way through one of them in a concentrated go; eventually it starts emitting steam and high-pitched whistles, and then I have to stop or switch to something else. On the other hand, that means I’m putting a different sort of strain on it, by asking it to get into a totally different mode on very short notice.

Thank god for the tactics I developed years ago.

It started out as a way to get myself into the headspace of a novel on days when I didn’t want to write. Well, no, that’s a lie; it started out as an accident: me being obsessed with a ten-minute trance remix of a particular song and listening to it on loop while I happened to be writing what eventually turned into Lies and Prophecy. But it became that thing I just said, and so I got in the habit of associating particular music with particular books. These days it’s more often whole playlists rather than single songs; the former is slightly less insanity-inducing than the latter, but also (if we’re being honest) a bit less effective.

This helps SO MUCH when I have to do this kind of gear-shifting. Even though two of the projects are new enough and small enough that they don’t actually have associated music, I picked out an album in one case, a genre playlist in the other, and when I’m done with A and it’s time for B, I change the music. And it helps. My brain goes, “Oh, techno? I absolutely cannot think about Previous Project with that going on. What else is on offer?” And then I open up the file for Next Project and we’re off.

I’m not claiming it’s foolproof. Also, not everyone can write to music (it’s worth noting that the vast majority of what I listen to is either instrumental or in languages I don’t speak well enough to be distracted by), so it’s not a tactic that can work for everybody. Possibly you could sub in things other than music, like beverages or sitting in different parts of the house, though I think those would be weaker insofar as they’re less likely to evoke particular genres, settings, and moods. But if you can do this: hoo boy does it help.

How to make your CE’s job, and your own, easier

This is as much for my own records as anything else, but it might be useful to others, so I’m posting it here.

When preparing a list of names and terms to send your copy-editor, it helps a lot to do the following.

  • Open the file in a different word processor from the one you normally use. Doesn’t matter which one; it just needs to be a program that will flag every word it doesn’t recognize. (If you aren’t the sort of person who normally teaches your usual program all the major names, you can skip this step.)
  • Start skimming, looking for those flags. When you find a name or term specific to your novel, check the spelling, put it in a list for the CE (helps to sort by characters, locations, world terms, etc.), then add that word to the program’s dictionary so the flags go away. Note that you’ll probably have to add it again for the possessive, though the CE list won’t need that specified. (Plurals, however, might need to be mentioned on the CE list.)
  • If that word shows up again, it might be misspelled, or your program might do things like say “ACK THERE’S PUNCTUATION AFTER IT NOW IS THAT A NEW WORD???” If it’s spelled correctly, add it to the dictionary again so the program will stop yelling at you. Over time, this will mean that the number of flags you have to scan for goes way down.
  • When you encounter things that aren’t novel-specific terms, like compound words or variant spellings, add them to the CE list if you definitely want them a certain way (you’ll change my strong preterites over my dead body); otherwise, add them to the program’s dictionary so you won’t have to look at them again, and leave finessing things like hyphens to the CE and their style guide.
  • By the way, you’ll also catch a lot of typos.
  • Finish going through the manuscript. Hey presto, you have now — probably — found all the words you need to list for your CE.
  • Might also do your CE a favor by adding notes about who people are, what they look like, where in the city certain buildings are located, and other basic details of continuity. This doubles as a favor to yourself later on, if you’re writing a series!

If you are writing a series:

  • For book two, open your CE list from book one. Add a 1 in front of every term, then search on the non-obvious ones to see if they’re used again in book two. If so, add a 2 as well, so you get things like “1,2 Ren — half-Vraszenian con artist” (etc).
  • Save this as your master CE list for the series.
  • Repeat the above process for adding to the program dictionary and CE list. Anything new goes in with a 2 in front of it, e.g. “2 Mede Galbiondi — suitor with a strong arm.”
  • Save a new copy as your CE list for book two. Then delete every item that has only a 1, i.e. doesn’t appear in book two.
  • Delete the numbers from in front of your remaining items so your CE doesn’t wonder what the heck those are for.
  • Rinse and repeat for book 3 et sequelae, starting with the master list and searching to see which existing names and terms show up again.

I learned at the CE stage of The Liar’s Knot to create the master list. I learned at the CE stage of Labyrinth’s Heart that I should have been numbering all the items so I’d know whether a lack of numbers meant that it showed up in both of the first two books, or that it got introduced for the first time in book two. (That part probably isn’t necessary, but my brain wants it.)

You could probably just inflict the whole master list on your copy-editor each time around, but given how much these names and terms pile up, I feel like it’s better to give them only the relevant selection, without cruft leftover from previous books.

Or, I mean — you don’t even have to make a list. I didn’t for my first I don’t know how many novels, until I heard this was a helpful thing to do. It’s especially useful to you as a writer when you’re writing more than one book, because of how it can double as a minimalist series bible. And if you’re going to make such a list, this workflow minimizes the amount of mental effort that goes into finding all the names and terms. It’s still time-consuming, but it isn’t hard.

picking a series type and laying a foundation

Having made a general typology of series (with a lot of good comments on the DW version of that post in particular, unpacking the various gradations between what I called the Setting Series and the Cast Series — I’ll include those when I make a more polished version of these posts), I want to start chewing on “so how does one write one of these things, anyway?”

I mean, you can just start typing and not stop until you have lots of books. But I don’t recommend just charging in blindfolded like that. 😛

Obligatory Disclaimer: prescriptive writing advice is a mug’s game, since somebody will always come along with an example of people not doing it that way and ending up fine. This is me talking about what I suspect may be helpful, not what is required. It’s what I would say to somebody who feels adrift and needs some direction. And in that vein, I welcome comments about how other people view this process.


towards some thoughts on series

I’ve had discussions with other writers about how there’s tons of advice out there on writing novels, but very little on writing series.

File this one under “stuff I know how to do, but don’t know how to articulate or explain.” But this one will be less polished than the pieces I wrote on the structure of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, because I’m really thinking out loud as I go here.

Step one, I think, is to take a look at what a series is. A set of interconnected books, okay. But there are ways and ways of connecting things, and they’re not all going to operate the same. After chewing on this for a while, I’ve decided that you can very roughly sort different types of series into a spectrum from discrete to linked (with two semi-outliers that I’ll note as we pass them.) So:


Novella thoughts

I’m noodling around with an idea that I think will be a novella, and part of that noodling involves thinking about novellas in general.

I don’t have the world’s best grasp on how to pace a story of this size. I’ve written five of them, but two weren’t planned that way — both Deeds of Men and Dancing the Warrior were me saying “well, let’s write this idea and see how many words I end up with” — and really, five isn’t all that many in general. Nor do I think I’m alone in being uncertain about how best to structure such things: a lot of the novellas I’ve read feel like they aren’t paced quite right, going too slow in some places, too fast in others. I speculated to a writer-friend on a forum that it’s because novellas were kind of a dead zone in SF/F for a long time (few good ways to publish them, so very few people writing them), and we can’t look to the novellas of the more distant past for much guidance, because our expectations of storytelling have changed. We’re sort of reinventing the wheel, now with suspension and treads and spinning rims.

Whether I’m right about that or not, the fact remains that novellas feel like terra barely cognita to me. Plus I’m not the kind of writer with much in the way of overt understanding of pacing anyway; what I do, I tend to do on instinct. I know plenty of writers who love making use of beat sheets and the like, which map out what kinds of events should happen when in a novel, but those are deadly to my process. So even if you had a beat sheet for a novella, I wouldn’t get much use out of it.

But the other day I realized that I do have one useful framework for thinking about this. I need to ask myself: is what I’m writing more like a short story, or more like a novel?

With a novel, I usually have a couple of set points I vaguely map out ahead of time, pegging them to what feels like the right moment in the story — most often either the 1/3 and 2/3 marks, or 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4. The Night Parade of 100 Demons is a thirds novel; The Mask of Mirrors is a quarters novel. Sometimes I can tell you why; In Ashes Lie is done in quarters because the Great Fire of London burned for four days, and I knew I wanted to interleave two timelines (the fire and what led up to it), so that meant breaking the preceding history into four chunks. Sometimes I have no idea. Any novel I break into an odd number of segments often winds up with a midpoint marker as well; that’s true of both Night Parade and Midnight Never Come (which is in five parts because I wanted to echo the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play). I don’t push too hard for them to wind up exactly on their marks, but since I have a general sense of how long I want the book to be, I use the set points to gauge how much complication and side plot should develop on the way to the next milestone.

That is not at all how I approach a short story. With those, it’s never a matter of me wanting to place narrative turning-points at certain percentages of the way through the total. My short stories are usually built as a sequence of scenes: whether they get scene breaks between them or not, I know we need X to set things up, Y to develop them, and Z to conclude them. For highly variable quantities of X, Y, and Z, of course, and sometimes the structure is non-linear or whatever — but it doesn’t change the essential point that I know what needs to happen, and the quantity of words needed to do that properly determines how long the story is. Which nearly the opposite of the novels, where I’ve got a ballpark target for length and a few key fragments of what’s going to happen, with the bricks being filled in as I feel my way through the story.

(Obligatory disclaimer: writing it out this way makes it all sound much tidier than it is in reality. For example, tons of my short stories start out with me having no idea where I’m going with my shiny new idea. Then they sit around until I’ve figured out enough of the remainder to write the rest. Sometimes this takes years.)

So where do novellas fit into this? As soon as I asked myself “should I approach them like a short story or like a novel,” the answer was obvious. They’re ickle novels, not gigantor short fiction. I’m not going to be able to see the full sequence of scenes ahead of time, no matter how long I let it sit. Which means the thing to do is to find myself a couple of fixed points and then decide where they should go. This feels like a thirds story to me: at roughly the one-third mark, the protagonist will succeed in getting E and G out of the situation they’re in, and then at the two-thirds mark they’ll . . . either get to where she promised to take them (only to find more complications there), if I decide that’s the way the story is headed, or they’ll abandon that goal and do something else. I don’t know which, but I don’t have to. It’s enough for me to say, okay, something like 8-12K of “getting them out of their situation” plot, then another 8-12K of “difficulties and developments along the complete lack of road” plot. Writing the latter will tell me what’s going to happen at the two-thirds mark — or if it doesn’t, then I’ll let it sit for a while. (That happens sometimes with novels, too. A Natural History of Dragons stalled out one-third done for several years.)

I can’t swear this is going to produce good results, because I haven’t tried it yet. But it feels right, y’know? It feels like an approach that will help me thread the Goldilocks needle of too much or too little plot for the space available. I know when the narrative is going to change its trajectory, so now it’s just a matter of feeling my way through the smaller conflicts and alterations before then.

I will report back!


More and more, I feel like what I wrestle with in plotting novels is not figuring out what should happen, but what order it should happen in.

This is almost certainly prominent in my mind right now because of the Rook and Rose books, which, with their multiple points of view and interweaving strands of plot, pose more complex sequencing challenges than a single-pov novel with a more linear narrative. The same is true to a lesser extent, of The Night Parade of 100 Demons, where the two protagonists are pursuing the same main objective, but with side plots lacing through and around it. Even in a straightforward book, though, sequencing can be a question, because I also wrestle with this on the level of an individual scene. When more than one thing needs to happen, which deserves the highlight provided by being positioned at a key spot? Which one leads more naturally into the other? Are things easier or harder for the characters if they go in a certain order? Does that create an echo or a contrast with the way things went elsewhere? Has there been too much of the (metaphorical) color yellow for a while, and we need some blue to break it up before we go back to that?

I’ll use the first Star Wars movie as an example. In the early part of that film, the sequence goes: Luke acquires droids; Luke follows R2-D2 and meets Obi-Wan Kenobi; Obi-Wan invites Luke to go with him and learn to use the Force; Luke declines; Luke goes home and discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed; Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan after all. You could, if you wished, change the sequencing such that the Stormtrooper attack comes earlier and Luke escapes with Threepio and Artoo. Then he goes to Obi-Wan for safety, learns all the stuff about Leia, and accepts Obi-Wan’s offer the first time it’s made, because by then he’s already lost everything at home.

And that would work! It would just work differently. The structure would be less mythic (because Lucas was following Campbell’s model in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, where the Call to Adventure is often refused at first), and it would radically change the tone of Luke’s initial encounter with Obi-Wan, since then he’d be a fugitive grieving the loss of his family. It would also change your perception of Luke as a character: as the story is structured in reality, he dreams of getting off his podunk farm — but when the chance to do that is offered to him on a platter, he turns it down because he’s a good kid who doesn’t want to leave his aunt and uncle in the lurch. If you remove the aunt and uncle before the choice appears, you never see that side of him; indeed, it won’t feel like Luke is making much of a choice, because there’s already no reason for him to refuse (and plenty of reason for him to agree). But that doesn’t mean the other sequence doesn’t work; it all depends on what effect you’re trying to achieve. Not everything is aiming to be mythically structured, nor centered on a good kid with both dreams and a sense of responsibility.

So once you know what’s going to happen in a story, there might still be decisions to make. Some things have to go in a certain order; Luke has no reason to visit Obi-Wan before he acquires the droids, and if they ran into each other for some reason, it would be an empty scene, with much less for them to talk about. (Movies in particular can’t really afford empty scenes, but even novels shouldn’t have them: if the sole reason you’ve got for an encounter is “to establish that this character exists,” ask yourself if you can just wait until there’s something to do with him.) But I think that for all but the most driven thriller plots, there’s often wiggle room. If the blue bit of plot will provide your character with a safety net for the dangerous thing in the yellow bit, is it better to do the blue part first? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s more exciting if they don’t have the safety net, but if the character is someone who simply would not risk doing the yellow thing without a fallback plan in place, then delaying the blue might seem like bad characterization for the sake of drama. Whether you’re looking at the larger narrative arc or the flow of a single scene, it’s all going to depend on the material at hand.

Which is why my novel-writing process increasingly features index cards with bits of plot scribbled on them. Those are very convenient for shuffling around on the floor, test-driving different sequences to get a feel for what will play best.

Units of Fiction IV: Attention and Focus (Chapters)

(This is the fourth post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part III.)

As I said at the beginning, this whole series of posts sprang out of a conversation I was having with other writers about chapter length, which included some discussion of deciding where to start and end a chapter, i.e. where the breaks should come between them. After three posts mostly about other things, we at last come full circle back to the original question.


Units of Fiction III: Attention and Focus (Scenes)

(This is the third post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part IV.)

The second post of this series looked at the ideas of attention and focus, and how those apply to the structure of a paragraph. Now let’s turn those same lenses onto scenes.

First, the notion that a unit asks you to sustain your attention until its over. Scenes don’t require the same degree of concentration from the reader as a paragraph; if you put a book down in the middle of a scene to go refill your water glass, you probably won’t have to start over at the beginning because you don’t remember where you left off. But ideally, a scene should hold the reader’s attention without pause, and not let them up for air until it’s done.

One of the ways it can do this is through unity. We no longer hold to Aristotle’s classical unities as such, but in some ways the concept is still alive today at the scene level: we do generally expect unity of viewpoint, as I mentioned before, and we have a tendency to default to unity of location and time as well. When the characters shift location or a lot of time passes, we often insert a scene break to signal the transition and skip over the intervening gap.

But that isn’t the only way to handle those shifts. You can also use the narration itself to signal movement or the passage of time. How do you know which approach is better in a given situation?


Units of Fiction II: Attention and Focus (Paragraphs)

(This is the second post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I; Part III; Part IV.)

In the first post of this series, I talked about the mechanics and pacing of where to break between paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. But “you have to start a new one under these conditions” and “merits and demerits of short vs. long” doesn’t get you very far; there are still enormous aesthetic decisions involved in where you choose to place your breaks.

(This is where I start flailing vaguely in the direction of articulating things I know, but have never tried to explain.)

As I said in that first post, I think this is largely a matter of regulating your reader’s attention. Unpacking that more, I think there are (at least) three aspects to this:

  • A unit, be it a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter, asks the reader to sustain their attention until it’s over. The intensity of that attention varies — more for a paragraph; less as you go up the scale — but if they’re going to look away, they should ideally do that when the unit ends, not partway through.
  • A unit is a way of signaling to the reader that there is a relationship between its component parts. Units whose component parts are unrelated are usually less effective — and again, that’s most true at the paragraph level, and less so as you go up the scale.
  • Finally, a unit guides the reader’s attention to particular points of focus. This is primarily true at the beginning or end of the unit.

Because the operation of each of these things differs significantly between sizes of unit, let’s take them one at a time, starting with paragraphs.


Units of Fiction I: Mechanics and Pacing

A discussion among my fellow writers of chapter length and where to break (or not) got me reflecting on how little writing advice there is for thinking about this — and then from there I fell down a rabbit hole of realizing how even less advice there is for the sub-units below the chapter, the scene and the paragraph. (Or the higher-level units, the part or the book in a series . . . but that’s going to have to be a separate bit of pondering.)

This is stuff we’re apparently expected to learn by trial and error. You write stuff, and you notice — somehow — that breaking in certain places works better than others, and so you improve. Nobody ever really taught me how to think about these issues, beyond a few very basic mechanical points, and so as a consequence I’m not even sure how to articulate what it is that I do, even though I’m relatively pleased with how I’m doing it. This is the first in a series of posts that constitute an attempt to figure that out by talking through it out loud (so to speak), and I hope it will be of use to other people.

Note: what I have to say here is geared toward fiction writing, but certain aspects of it would apply to nonfiction as well, whether that be a blog post or an academic article.

Organizing it is a little bit hard, though, because I want to talk about all three of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, and some of the points apply to all of them, but some don’t. Which means it’s not ideal to separate them, but it also isn’t ideal to tackle them all at once. I’m going to do a little from Column A, a little from Column B; I’ll start out with talking about the aspects where they’re the closely related, then break it up for where they diverge. Which also means this is going to be a multi-part discussion — four parts in total, with one being posted each day. (Edit: Part II; Part III; Part IV.)

So with that context out of the way . . . in thinking about this, I’ve come around to the opinion that there are three major factors at play in how we decide to break up the units of our tale. Those are: mechanics, pacing, and attention. And of those three, I think attention is both the most subtle and the most important.