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Posts Tagged ‘how i do it’

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.


The weight of tiny details

A sentence I revised tonight got me reflecting on one of the tiny, subtle things about writing that’s really difficult to teach — mostly because it requires spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about something microscopic, and unpacking it with twenty or a hundred times the number of words involved. I almost never delve into this when I teach creative writing, just because it burns out my energy so fast.

Consider this line:

“I wouldn’t have invited you if all I wanted was a distraction.”

This is a completely ordinary sentence. Not super-memorable, but it’s doing what it needs to, and that’s fine. What I revised it to was this:

“If all I wanted was a distraction, I wouldn’t have invited you.”

Essentially the same sentence; I just swapped the order of the clauses.

Why? Because the important thing in that sentence is the implication that the invitation was issued for more than one reason. Putting the hypothetical after that dilutes the effect. So I rearranged the sentence to make the punch arrive at the end of the sentence.

Now, in reality a person might well choose the first phrasing. We often talk that way. But the job of dialogue is to create an effect, and while sometimes the desired effect is “the casual structures that mimic real speech,” in this case, that wasn’t the goal. There isn’t a clear-cut rule, though, that says “always put the most important thing at the end of the sentence” — sometimes you want it at the front instead. The actual rule is “pay attention to the rhythm of what you write, not just in aural terms, but in terms of where you’re placing the key elements, and make sure the arrangement directs the reader’s attention toward them, without less-critical elements getting in the way.”

Which is a lot more complicated and subjective. In fact, some of you may question the superiority of my second example over my first. Because it’s not just about the one sentence; it’s about the flow of the overall text. (Unfortunately, I can’t quote the surrounding material to you because SPOILERS AHOY.) And even when the whole is available, there can be disagreements over what works best. But when I read a story that’s competent but never quite comes to life, the problem is often (at least in part) at this level: the material is all there, but the sequencing undercuts its effect. Teaching that to someone, however, requires breaking out the red pen and rewriting sentence after sentence, with explanations for why. It’s a huge investment of time and effort, and in the end, the writer needs to develop their own instinct for how these rhythms work.

If You Ain’t Got That Zing

There are a lot of TV shows I try and just sort of drift away from, because they aren’t doing enough to hold my attention. The latest in this series is Black Lightning, which surprised me, because there are a number of things I like about its characters and its story. But in the end, its dialogue doesn’t have much of a particular element for which I can find no better term than “zing.”

Thanks, brain. “Zing.” That’s a real helpful way of describing it. >_<

Zing is not the same thing as witty banter — though many shows have mistaken the one for the other, and fill their scripts with dialogue that’s absolutely leaden in its attempt to be light. You can have zing in a deadly serious conversation (as Game of Thrones has proved). It’s a cousin, I think, of Mark Twain’s comment about the difference between the right word and the almost-right word being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug: it’s the lightning lines, the ones that leap off the page or the screen, the ones that don’t just get you from Narrative Point A to Narrative Point B but make the journey between them memorable. You see it in The Lion in Winter, which along with Twelve Angry Men made me wonder if this is a quality especially possessed by older stage plays — I haven’t seen enough older stage plays to be sure. At its apex, it’s the feeling that no line has been wasted or allowed to do the bare minimum of work. Think of The Princess Bride, and how many lines from that movie are quotable. It isn’t just because the lines themselves are good; it’s because there’s almost no flab in the script, every word simultaneously developing character and furthering the plot while also being entertaining.

Zing gets my attention, in a TV show or a movie or a book. Without it, my attention wanders a bit; I scrape a general sense of the story out of the mass of words used to tell it, but don’t engage on a moment-to-moment level. With it, I lose track of the world around me because I don’t want to miss anything in the tale. Zing makes me decide, before I’m two scenes into the first episode of a show, that I’ll give the second one a shot. Zing is what makes me plow through thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson making an utter hash of his plot, because he can describe a room in above a tavern on the seventeenth-century London Bridge in such riveting terms that I wind up reading it out loud twice, once to my husband and once to my sister.

I think this is what some people, when teaching the craft of writing, describe as “voice.” I’ve been known to rant about how I find that term completely unhelpful . . . but, well, here I am talking about “zing,” because my alternative is to wave my hands around in the air and make inarticulate noises. That thing. Over there. Do you see?

These days I’m reaching for it more in my own work, especially in one of the things I’m noodling around with right now. A character is hiding in a palace full of baroque decorations and complaining about the discomfort. There’s something jabbing into my back. No. There’s a carving jabbing into my back. No. There’s a gilded carving grinding into my kidney. Better. There’s a gilded figure of the South Wind imprinting itself on my left kidney. Better still.

Doing that for every sentence is exhausting. I have no idea how Stephenson keeps it up, especially while writing books that could double as foundation stones. But I suspect that, like many things in writing, after you’ve pushed at it for a while some parts of it just settle in as habit. I hope so, anyway, because I’m going to keep trying.