Setting and Other Drastic Lessons From SiWC 2016

Lots of amazing speakers came together at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference this year to throw down advice of the frank and emotional varieties.

One of the most powerful topics—which caught me by surprise, as important learning moments do—was from Robert Dugoni on settings.  It wasn’t very long ago that I was writing specifically about settings as the starting point for my own writing, a method that seemed if not underrepresented at SiWC then at least less common than starting with character or plot.

Being the type to use setting as a starting point, one might expect that I already try quite hard to bring the setting to life through the viewpoint character’s gleaming eyes.  And yet somehow, as I look back over the work I’ve done, I feel that I’ve really failed to do it in the most effective way.

Attacking a scene with a sentence charged with a few good words before moving on is a failure to let the setting contribute back to the scene and to the characters.  Not every setting needs to be the center of attention, but when you start a story, when you put characters in a place on purpose, the setting deserves more justice than an off-handed description.  From the perspective of setting as character, that setting needs to carry its weight in this scene.  If a story begins and the setting is dead on arrival, then it’s just as useless as a dialogue character chiming in with unnecessary lines.

We’re not all out to write To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, but setting is magnificent when it performs for the reader, a component that shouldn’t be glossed over (or made “interesting” only because of unusual contents, then promptly neglected).

Make descriptions do more than one thing

This is the second, more meaningful layer of the “show don’t tell” rule.  You don’t want to go purple trying to explain every detail with a new adjective.  Instead, follow the set pieces, enumerating the ones that say something about mood, theme, or foreshadowing.

In its raw form, description tells us the obvious and nothing more.  It’s no way to knock the ball out of the park in a first page because it’s just a list of facts organized in an intuitive way.  This is the contact point between your concept and a reader that knows literally nothing about the plot, its tone, or its contents.

But what more can we make the people and things in the setting do?  What are they experiencing which might foreshadow something about the story itself?  Describe exactly as many things that is required to make the point—no more than that.  The scene suffers from being bloated as much as it does from being too lean, so strive to get just the right the selection of descriptions narrowed down and then form language around those details to draw the reader in.

Don’t just take the reader to the setting—take them to the story.

Objective description

One of the phrases falling from the mouths of agents when attacking a stack of first pages is that a passage’s opening description is too objective.

I’m using a new “A.I. Test” on my own work: if even an A.I. would have more giveaways  in its description about its bias than the way I wrote it, then my description is merely objective.

If the description is doing literally nothing to suggest who’s head we’re in, then it’s wrong for the first page, and probably wrong for a lot more of the book than just that.

Internalize that.  No matter your novel’s viewpoint—first-person, third, or I’ll even argue third omniscient—the description is colored by something that communicates something about the current point-of-view character (even if it’s the narrator).

Description can fall into objectivity when things get going, but it should almost certainly not appear anywhere in your first line, paragraph, page, or chapter.  It wreaks of sterile nothingness.

Everything is subjective in terms of the character’s view.  It cannot be otherwise.  If your point of view is in that character’s head, you should make sure that we’re very conditioned to think as the character would before you start going back to objectivity.  Early on, when subjectivity matters the most, you must choose how to deliver that subjectivity to tell us more than just the obvious.

Don’t just take the reader to the setting—let the character take us there.

Writing An Experience Worth Having

In the past I simply framed discussions of show vs tell as a way to make my writing “better”.  On the surface, it’s easy to understand why showing is often superior to telling—showing is more engaging and it often just plain reads better.  There.  My writing is better when I show.

But there’s more to it than the prosaic choice to show.  Showing is your opportunity to give the reader the chance to experience a satisfying chemical reward in their brain.  The mind absolutely lives to correlate information, and by allowing the reader to have moments that do this, they grow engaged.  If you tell them instead of show them, you’ve made them skip the whole subconscious process of discovery, and they don’t even know what they just missed out on until they’re feeling generally unsatisfied with the story’s ability to engage them.

The experience the reader is having is fundamentally different than yours.  You’re building every word with some notion of the word or sentence that comes next, but the reader is being pulled through the dark maze without that insight.

It is your job as the writer to build an experience worth having, not just to write one that was worth it to you personally to write.

Nobody should tell you to stop writing for yourself if that’s what you do, but consider what it looks like to transform your writing into a higher form of art: go from writing and hoping others like it to designing experiences from page one.

Put what the reader needs in front of them, then help them see what it is you intend for them to see.  You’ll have to judge where the line for just being obtuse is, but if you can play on the side of the line that feels rewarding, your reader will be made more willing to follow you deeper into your book.

Make me fall in love with Good Gal if that’s what you’re going to claim happens for Good Guy.  Let me see the details of how she behaves even when she doesn’t know he can see.  You should strive to do more than report to us that Good Guy think’s she possesses this or that trait.  Color his view of what she does in a way that makes us think for ourselves that he must really like her.

If a scene description ends with the author’s declaration that “Something was wrong”, take away that declaration and see if the description manages to convey that all by itself.  If it doesn’t, get to the bottom of why.  Is it because we haven’t seen enough of how things look normally to judge for ourselves when they look wrong?  Is it because you’re not getting specific enough with the details of what makes things look wrong?  It may be incorrect to withhold the declaration, but don’t rely on it to carry the whole of the nuance.  That’s telling, not showing.  Design an experience for the reader to have.

Coloring the world through the character’s eyes is perhaps the most potent tool for showing aspects of their personality, background, temperament, state of mind, etc.  Even transient details of the character’s state of mind are often more powerfully represented in colored perception than just reporting to the reader that Good Gal is getting generically nervous.  It’s so easy to rattle off description of setting or of other characters without giving appropriate weight to the character’s voice, but we can almost always do better than that.  You can conceivably go too far with character voice, but I would rather work at toning down a voice than to amplify one that doesn’t really exist due to a lack of care on my part.

So there.  Show, don’t always just tell.  The advice is the same old advice we always hear, but really internalize what it means to build an experience for a reader with whom you want to share a story.


Planning a Character Arc

When speaking of fantasy and science fiction,  I feel that I would be doing a disservice to approach a story without some notion of a character arc.  Some authors don’t try at all to build one in advance—they let the character arc come out as part of the theme of the finished product.  To me, planning one adds a dimension to the overall progress of the story while I’m still in the early stages of conceptualizing the book.

Choosing who needs an arc

Let’s quickly clarify that of course not every single character and side character deserves an arc.  Some characters might have long ago experienced their arc and they’re not going to have a new one just because the camera is turned on and following the heroes with them in the background.

Side characters only get them from me when I find believable ways to alter their relationship with the main characters or the plot.  A side character might only have a single line in the book that proves that they experienced an arc that I wrote into them, and it might not have been planned for them from the beginning.

The first-come first-serve of arcs are the main characters.  These people are why the story exists in the form it does, and I want the reader to spend time with them and their motivations, and then watch how they change.

Character development in baby steps

Before there is anything said about sweeping character transformations, remember that not everything needs to be turned up to 11.  If you break the illusion of plausibility in the reader’s eyes, then the jig is up.

Small changes have the potential to be very powerful.  Characters that have behaved a certain way for decades might see or learn something profound, and yet the only change we see from our place holding the book might be that they say “thank you” a little more than usual.

Alternatively, this character might have a desire to change something about themselves.  By the end they might have finally found a reason to take a real step towards trying.

Emotional transformation

This is other end of the spectrum, and it’s often where I go first for ideas.  As the story develops around the character, I periodically go back and see how my plan for them is going to pan out.  Sometimes the answer is that it won’t, and the arc should be toned down or changed altogether.

I select an adjective to describe the character in their beginning state.  I will often take a few minutes to wordsmith just the right term because I am about to imbue this character with a nuance that I will have to work to capture.  I’m adding a dimension to them beyond their identity, and I want it to feel right.

Even though I have no idea where my story might be going yet, I try to pick a destination state and assign that an adjective too.

This pair of single words is concise, easy to remember, and hopefully evokes the same mental imagery every time I look at them.

The words don’t have to be opposites!  Why should they be?  Maybe there’s a leap which begs the question of how the person might be pushed into that change—in fact these kinds of changes can be quite interesting due to the reader’s difficulty to foresee the arc long in advance.

Some examples:

  • vengeful → protective
  • outsider → influential
  • beholden → accomplished
  • bridled → uncontrolled
  • follower → converted

These are often just statements about what the character should accomplish during their time in the spotlight, but because I don’t yet know what the story will have in store, it’s a brainstorming exercise.

The adjective you choose might turn out a little melodramatic once you see the story unfolding.  Try to envision where this character is headed, and pick a better adjective to describe some aspect of it.

Now you just have to figure out how to get your character from point A to point B.

The Wonder of Scale in Fantasy and Sci-fi

Making things or settings really big is a sure way to capture my interest.  There’s a marvel that comes built-in to such an imagined accomplishment.  For example, the mental woah from seeing the two giant stone statues at the gates of Argonath in Lord of the Rings.

A big part of my own reaction to things of such scale is the incredulity that the culture actually accomplished it.  Either I was prepared to think the culture was too primitive, or I respect the culture’s capabilities but underestimated their ambition.

In either case, we’re talking about the gap between what we expect and what we see.  Stories like Ringworld essentially start by proving to you that you have absolutely no ability to comprehend how big this thing unless it is explained in its components, working the scale in or out, depending.

You can evoke this sense of wonder in your own work by making sure you recognize what sorts of things are actually at the core of the spectacle.

Artistic accomplishment

At a golden age, a civilization might have very little else to do but chase the extravagant.  This could mean anything from fussy architecture to continent-sized cultivations.  What would the culture in your story do if all external conflict was essentially stomped out?

Now ask yourself a few questions about the time before and after that golden age.

  • What were the early signs that civilization was heading toward such feats of art?
  • Were there “failed” prior attempts at such large designs?
  • What strata of the public began to harbor a distain for the perceived waste of that failure (you know there’s always someone)?
  • When the golden age begins to wane and all attention slides back toward conflict, how are these creations repurposed or leveraged?  Could monstrously oversized art halls be reclaimed to house refugees?
  • Does the architecture push through a stale period of self-parody before returning to something simpler?
  • What natural difficulties are overcome (risk of natural disaster, for example) to bring such a creation to the world?

Despite the civilization seeming unified in such a period, remember that it is not.  What picky offshoots of the artistic themes arise?  What obligations do the people feel they have to one-up their last creation?

Growth born of war and conflict

War creates an imperative for protection.  What happens when civilization invests heavily in offense versus defense?

Of course we could expect there to be some compromise of the two, but we’re looking at taking the base case to the extreme:

  • Mountain chains converted to militarized perimeters
  • Sprawling construction facilities
  • Star ships the size of solar systems
  • Military swarms with units numbering in the millions
  • Weapons the size of a world (that’s no moon)
  • Defenses the size of a nebula

I’m leaning toward sci-fi on this one because the potential for scale is so staggering, but anything that could be seen as disproportionate to the expected will have the same effect.

External pressures

Without assuming that only apocalypse scenarios send humanity to the stars in ark ships, what does civilization look like once it is free of a planetary ball and chain?  Do civilian ships go it alone in the universe, bastions of culture and peace, or do they enlist the protection of a military unit?  Is the city in the stars itself a combination civilian-military operation?  Is the space habitat actually equipped to defend itself at the first sign of trouble, despite mundane appearances?

I like to examine what risks the civilization might feel the need to address.  Losing a habitat to external aggression ought to be devastating.  It should be inconceivable that a culture would ignore the defense of such things unless the threats to them are equally inconceivable.

  • In the scope of just one world, what does the rapid expansion of a civilization do to the political map?
  • Without dipping back into war, what measures do the more desperate nations take to expand their livable capacity?
  • Build up?
  • Build atop the ocean?
  • Marry their royal family into an alliance that allows such things?
  • Do they face dissolution of their political system to merge with another?
  • Do they expand castles to fit thousands in a flourishing royal family?
  • Could there be cities dedicated to housing certain work forces or family lines?

Conceptualization of such things has to start with a base case: civilization builds a space habitat.  Now increment the population by adding a zero to the end of the number.  Now bump up the quality of living.  Introduce a technology that is so demanding on contemporary power that expansion begins to feel the strain to keep up with everyone’s idea of the status quo.  Look thousands of years down the timeline and consider just how much the world can change in a fraction of that time.

Interacting with creation

Now that you have staggering creations, they should be a part of the history and identity of your story.  It’s no good to have a continent set aside as a peace garden unless you can get some reference of it across.

Your story doesn’t have to make these things integral to the plot, however.  Simple mentions are sometimes just as effective.  None of the characters talk about the bulldozer in Avatar the size of a downtown block of skyscrapers—it’s part of the set and although we see it there, it’s not in an of itself the point of the story.  Its presence creates a sense of extreme investment in the planetary settlement.

  • What do your world’s creations contribute to the mentality of the characters?
  • How do these creations set a backdrop for civilians?
  • How do visitors react to the feats themselves, and to the blasé attitude of the locals?
  • Is there confusion on the part of the civilization itself for the utility of these massive creations?


I avoided speaking of the use of resources until the end, because it’s a world-building topic  pervasive enough to touch all varieties of grand accomplishment.

Consider all types of resources, not just raw materials:

  • talent
  • labor
  • disposable wealth
  • alliances that yield materials or political protection

You might not be writing an economic exposé of your fantasy or sci-fi culture, but you should make an attempt to consider where all of the raw materials come from.

  • What kind of system would have to be in place to procure so many resources?
  • Who is making so much money from it that their family won’t miss a meal for the next 400 years even if it were to all collapse tomorrow?
  • What technology could develop to facilitate the growing need for more?
  • What kind of maintenance cost is there?
  • Does that cost lead to changes in the kind of expansion witnessed by the civilization?
  • How do they cope with half of their grand creations being behind the now-modern curve?


Using and Configuring Scrivener

Scrivener caught my eye years ago because of the flexibility it offered.  I didn’t need the kitchen sink of features (although Scrivener is that), we’re talking about my ability to configure it to bring forward what I care about the most.

Coming from a much simpler editor, Scrivener was a little overwhelming, but these changes helped me feel like I was in control.

What I need

When I’m pre-writing, outlining, or in the throws of storytelling, I need some basic information handy at any time:

  • Document words counts
  • Total word count for everything inside a folder
  • A running word counter for my work that day
  • Separate space for notes that doesn’t require me to leave the document I’m writing
  • Easy navigation between my book’s parts (my notepad-era writing is over, I can’t be bothered to scroll around or use Find for the exact wording of a chapter name)


This is where you could star in an episode of LOST if you start looking through them all, but let me point you at a few that I find helpful, relative to the bullet points above.

Document coloring

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-12-55-17-pmThis won’t matter unless/until you add Labels to your project, but this is inevitably an early part of how I set up a story with multiple viewpoints.  I make project labels for characters, assign a color, and then match that label to any document from the viewpoint of that character.  The coloration from the Icons setting becomes a quick way for me to see the texture of the story from the document list.

Default font and formatting

Before you go through the headache of changing the formatting on a real document, visit the main settings and see if you can’t get a sane default.  You can actually interact with the toolstrip buttons above the sample text, the first button being the font changer.  I like to make sure I have a proper indent set up.  The other notable setting here is line spacing, the last item on the toolstrip.


If you want, you can play with all of these same settings in a real document to try them out, and then come to the program settings and the Use Formatting in Current Editor will be enabled for you to import as the new global default.

Scrivener will never retroactively apply your global default to existing documents, however, so don’t spawn a lot of documents if you’re not ready to commit to the defaults you’ve got set up.

Page settings

I hate losing my cursor, so I drop in to the Editor settings and select Highlight current line, and I set the typewriter scroll style to Middle of screen.  I hate losing my cursor.

I hate losing my cursor.


The color of the line highlight can be changed over on the Appearance tab of the settings, at the bottom:


Window layout

This might seem like a picky time to talk about layouts, but I’ve found that I keep coming back to the same system:  Outline sidebar on the left, a second faux-sidebar just beside that locked into the Research folder, then the editor itself.  I also like using the info sidebar for scene-specific notes, and often I throw the Project Notes off to the side so I can track problems I find with the larger story.


Now, for someone that came from using a glorified Notepad editor, this looks like a lot.  It is.  I’m getting comfortable with my workflow, however, and so I’ve gotten particular about it.

You can set something like this up by splitting the layout vertically, drill the left panel down to your Research folder, and then locking it into place so that clicking on scenes causes the right-hand editor to change (left click on the Research icon in the banner next to the back/forward arrows).


To get the most of the Research sidebar, I turn off all of the column headers except for the title and synopsis.  The synopsis is easily edited directly from the list view!


I saved my layout so that I can bring new projects into the same layout very quickly.


I tend not to open documents in the Research sidebar for editing, but by right-clicking one that I need to investigate or change, I can choose to view it in a floating Quick Reference window.  The documents in Research tend to represent notes, so I’m not usually using the real Notes section on such a document, and Quick Reference fits that use case pretty well.

Project structure

I personally like starting from the blank template.  Once I’ve set up stuff like my default font and paragraph spacing (blah blah), the blank template is all I want.

We have Draft and Research, and my first order of business is to add a document in Research that I call Concept.  I start unloading my overarching ideas into that document.  I may never really look at it again, but it helps me solidify the tone that got me excited in the first place.

I make a folder in Research called Characters, too.  This starts off as a loose collection of sub-folders titled after character names, but often I don’t even have that much, so I name them after the occupation.  Not much else has to go here just yet.


At this point, I open my Meta-Data Settings and throw down some labels named after my characters.  Again, because I might not have settled on the character’s final name, often the colors are all that matter right now.


For a big story like the one I’m using in these screenshots, I’ll add labels for storylines, too.  I apply those to whole chapters (except for chapters that have things from across both storylines—I leave those alone).  This helps me see in the outline view how much time I’m spending on one world versus another, and I can plan more effectively how to weave the two storylines.

For Draft, where the actual story goes, I make folders for the various parts, then documents for chapters.  I’m rarely putting anything in the chapter document itself, but I put scenes inside named after the location where the scene is taking place.


These scene names aren’t something that will ever be seen in the final export, but they help me see into what I’m doing, and it definitely helps me navigate when I’m looking for that one scene.

The icons get colored based on the viewpoint label assigned to it, and as you can see, I allow for scene breaks even if the viewpoint isn’t changing.


Gee, Brain, what do we want to do tonight?

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-2-16-47-pmThe same thing we do every night—we write!

To keep track of how I’m doing, I make sure the outline view has the Total Words column turned on.  This will show me sums for any sub-documents, which is actually what I care about so that I can check on chapter lengths when I have a group of scenes.
screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-2-24-22-pmFinally, if you need to see how much you’re
writing in a sitting, turn on the Project Targets overlay.  I like to set the word tracker to only reset manually (rather than at midnight, etc).

There’s a lot more that you can mess around with, but this setup goes a pretty long way for my productivity.

Ideas for NaNoWriMo

The big month is days away, or maybe it’s already started and you trashed your previous story idea.

Let’s remember one very important thing about writing:

NaNoWriMo is about forming a habit.  You’ll probably want to be invested in the story you’re explore, but don’t worry if the idea itself isn’t turning into the greatest story this side of the Mississippi.

Look for Action

Action doesn’t have to mean car chases, explosions, or squirt gun fights.

Action could be almost anything, framed in the right way.  Some examples:

  • excitement (fantastical places, anticipation)
  • hard work (I have to get this done before Z comes home!)
  • failure
  • argument
  • making plans
  • emotion

Action can be centered on a person, a place, or simply an idea.

Combine the unexpected

Take a really good adjective like controversial, and apply it something that isn’t normally described that way.  What on earth would make a mountain deserve that description?  What does that even mean?  You tell me.

If you’re looking for a magical angle on your story, connect the magic to something in the world, not just the characters’ mystical inner strength.

Do any of the following spark some interesting what-if scenarios?

  • Magic that only nature can use, like animals or plant life
  • A skill or magic that fades with age (a mid-life crisis could have a whole different meaning if your only redeeming magical talent fades beyond your ability to use it)
  • Food that grows naturally to the size of a house (your main character is probably mighty tired of eating the same thing every day, but there’s just so darn much of it)
  • Miniature planets
  • A castle under the ocean
  • A pet made of enchanted sand
  • 200 people living in the same house
  • Space orphans (??)

Don’t worry if you’ve seen your idea somewhere before.  You’re allowed to tell the story that’s in your head.  NaNo is for forming the writing habit.

Where to start

Your first scene should show us a character that we need to meet, and do it in a place that suggests the kind of tone for the story you want to tell.  If you know your story is going to be about a band of friends, you probably shouldn’t be giving us a James Bond-style opening scene.

Ideally you’re going to write your opening scene in a way that gives us a sense of character, of place, and of conflict.  Conflict is a vague term here—see the Action section above.

You’re looking for a way to tell us the one thing about a character that I need to know, as the reader.  The same goes for setting and conflict.  Don’t kill us with all the nitty-gritty details just yet, but focus on a few really potent characteristics of the people or plot so that we can settle into the story you’re about to tell us.

What do the following scenes suggest to you in terms of the style of story they’re going to tell you?

  • A heist
  • A star blowing up
  • Rationing supplies on a damaged ship
  • Looking wildly around at all of the new sights
  • A streetside violinist
  • Exploring abandoned wreckage

Who knows?  Maybe you’ll finish your story and realize you’ve got the wrong beginning for the ending your made.  That’s fine!

How to start

It was a dark and stormy night…

Don’t worry about a zinger of a first line.  The first line in your story doesn’t have to be the first line you write.  I can only write a great first line once I’ve written all the way to the end.

Avoid descriptions that don’t touch relevant story points.  This isn’t to say that you should ignore the big bright world around the characters, but you don’t want to kick this story off with a pretty mundane description of the sort of mountains we’ve all seen before.

On the other hand, if this character has never seen mountains before, well now it’s important!  Describe those mountains in the way your character would react to them, not how you as the author see them.

If this story is about a starship battle, I definitely don’t need to be reading about what color hair this man has.

On the other hand…

If the setting for your story is a starship battle, but the main character is an entertainment companion to keep stress down on the battlefront, maybe this man or woman cares a lot about the texture of their hair before going out into the wartime banquet dinner.  Maybe it really does merit a description.

Just be sure to get to character action ASAP.  You can’t string me along for 1000 words without giving me something engaging to think about.

Don’t give up

If your story really loses its momentum after a little while, it’s not a statement about your ability to tell a story.  It’s very likely that the story just isn’t interesting enough to merit being told.

Even if might mess up some earlier part of your story, adding twists in the name of keeping the story going is always worth it.  When you read back over this bad boy, maybe you’ll notice that the twist wasn’t all that great, but if it kept you going, then it worked.

Here are a few bandaids for your story if you sense it losing the momentum it once had:

  • What if that guy last chapter was lying?
  • Is she agreeing to go along with this plan, but privately disagrees?  What does that lead her to do when she exits the stage and goes about her day?
  • Horrific weather stops your characters from moving ahead as planned.  How do they cope with the frustration?  Maybe one of the group is relieved.  What does spending a night together in a stressed atmosphere do to your characters?
  • She just really really needs to bring the instrument with her, okay?  Maybe she’ll tell you why if she trusts you a little more.
  • Someone dies, but not at the hand of anyone the characters expected.

Good luck and write every day!



NaNoWriMo 2016

With NaNo just a few weeks away, I decided to start thinking about what new thing I wanted to tackle.  I like 50,000 words as a target for the month, but most of the projects I’ve planned don’t fit that goal.  My current plan for The Fifth Norai will take it only to 10,000, and a project still in the planning stages called Unanimous 20 will be just 20,000.

So let’s add another!

As I continue with the revisions for Holder of Ash, I’ll let November be dedicated to an in-world novella following the character Fuaennashe Kojt during the climax in Holder of Ash.  We don’t see much of her while once main characters kick it into Hero gear, but she does offer an interesting little side story nonetheless.

It’s a horrible name for a book, but I’ll call it Fuaennashe for now, and I expect I’ll have a few things to write about the process once November begins.

Characters Learning Things Isn’t the Same As Character Development

When I’m wandering my way through a plot, I’ve written a few characters for whom the arc is just them learning a series of secrets that eventually leads them to foil the baddies.  It’s pretty much just a plot-driven conflict disguised as a mystery, and it’s not doing either one of those things very well.


The best insight I’ve had into solving this problem came when I looked at the villains first.  What I had was Bad Guy trying to get away with something delicately couched as a secret plan.  If it wasn’t a secret, the heroes and the entire world itself would have no trouble eyeballing that plan and raising a stink about it.

My villains were weaksauce.  What they were doing relied entirely on the rest of the human race just not noticing the heist.  Sometimes the vehicle for this was that my villain was actually pretty influential, but was tackling this one alone for the glory.  Other times it was the opposite—Bad Guy is essentially just a nobody with a secret to turn the world on its head.

Consider a different look at the problem of the villainous trail.  When my hero, we shall call her Good Gal, is finding clues laying around, it calls into question what kind of operation Bad Guy is running here.  If Good Gal finds this garbage, why not someone else?  The answer might help you weave the details in your own trail mystery in a believable way, but you can’t get very far by ignoring the question.  Like if this is Bad Guy’s master plan and life’s work, what in the world would possess him to be this careless about the trail?

The issue as it relates to Good Gal is that the plot for this story can be summarized by “someone gets information that Bad Guy wishes they hadn’t”.  Not super compelling, and worse, Good Gal could literally be anyone.  She could be the least engaging character in the Milky Way and a the story would be fundamentally unchanged.


It was now time to look back at Good Gal.  I was addressing some of the believability issues I had about this villain of mine, but Good Gal was still lacking.  In a disgusting case of her being possessed by the plot itself, she was doing whatever had to be done to make sure Bad Guy got caught.  She was moving from one thing to the next, the clues themselves nominally markers for progress, but without any development on her end.  She perhaps had a moment of change when she encountered the first clue and the story begins, but after that, she was not forced to cross thresholds that committed her to seeing it through.

The most meaningful thing you can make a character suffer as plot progression markers fly by is to come up with reasons why the Good Gal can’t just turn back.  “I’m so close to solving this that I can’t turn back!” is a pretty unconvincing motivation all by itself.

Markers of progress need to cost something, either personally or against the greater debt implied by failure.  This doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just something that stops the character from going back to the way it was before.  Learning something isn’t often a strong enough call to action to do that.  Most of us could learn something awful about the world and retire to an island mansion and never think about the rest of the messed up world ever again.

It could be that all we need is Good Girl in Act II messing up a friendship with someone that she respects.  She could miss her rent in the chaos of the chase, and now she’s got nowhere to crash when she really needs it.  Someone could die, in an extreme case.  Perhaps inaction is to blame, and she loses the one chance she was counting on to have some closure with her past.  Literally anything is going to be better than nothing.

No personal stakes means the story isn’t drawing you forward with each event, and if I’m missing that component, then my engagement with the character is going to grow thin.

Learning things doesn’t automatically make Good Girl a deeper character, but if such a thing transforms her outlook or alters the motivation she has, I’ll have done a much better job writing her character.

Starting With Setting

Settings get me going.  Like, really going.  I see a field of blond grain set alight by a sunset and I’m trying to make scenes out of that color.  I’m driving down a highway with a downward gradient and see clouds on the horizon that frame the blue sky in a way that suggests the horizon is much higher up, the blue sky really a lake I’m looking down into.  That NieR or Xenoblade OST song plays that throws me back into running through huge digital fields of grass that I wish I could capture in a story.

I woke up one morning (the only time it’s ever happened to me) with an idea in my head, with a smell and the gentle sway of a little earthquake.  The atmosphere of the story that got into my head was so potent that I wrote just shy of 50,000 words in six days.  I had no idea where I was going, but man did I love going there.  By coincidence, that story was about grain too, but please, future editor, don’t peg me as a grain fantasy author.  The market really isn’t that big.

I want to be in these places.  I don’t even know what’s there.  That’s why I want to go.

Sooner or later, the honeymoon is over though.  All you’ve really got is a place and a decently purple paragraph of description you wrote to make sure you remember.  It’s not perfect, and so you keep tweaking the paragraph to match what inspired you, but all the while, you know it’s not a story.

When is just setting good enough?

Who is the character in your story?  You don’t know yet, but try to imagine the silhouettes of interesting people moving around.  What are they doing?  Why are they doing it?  Is what they aren’t doing relevant?  What are they worried about?

Even if you can think of a few such nameless actors, what if they’re not the main character?  If you recontextualize the setting itself as the main character, what happens to your story?  Is the story about the place more than the people acting out the events?

If you’re in this situation a lot, consider what the story would look like as a look into environment more than into character.

When you find that you’re not excited about that as a story, you can move on to looking at those silhouettes a little more closely.

People Watching

If you could come up with the perfect characters just by wishing them into existence, you wouldn’t have this problem, so what’s the point?

Dress the characters.  What are they wearing?  Who is looking at them?

Describe the characters.  Forget long faces, brown hair, sapphire eyes, and broad shoulders.  Are they walking along the sky lake because they’re in desperate need of a distraction?  Who do they miss?  Is who they miss not good for them?

Insult the characters.  Do they react at all, or look disgusted at your rude public show of dislike?  Do they grin and go head to head with you to cut you down with a sharper wit?  Do they retreat inward, or get angry?

Dream for the characters.  What are they thinking about?  Is this beautiful place actually very boring?  Is this slum their paradise?  If you made that character rich, what indulgences would they snap up right away?  If you made them poor, what would they do to cope?

Sympathize with the characters.  What does this person look like they’re going to be doing when they go home?  Are they excited for that, or are they full of anxiety?

These are questions to detail who these people are, but we’re still not talking about what they’re doing for your story.

Character and Plot

I tend to pick a viewpoint character way too early in my brainstorming process.  I’m trying to tell someone’s story before that story matters to the book.  It’s a great prewriting exercise, but don’t mistake it for your character’s involvement with the plot just yet.

The plot comes about because of conflict.  Conflict can be just about anything, but not just anything is automatically conflict.  If a warring kingdom completely levels a neighboring province, it might not even be a conflict if the whole world is fine with it. Does that mean you should be telling the story of the woman about to be cut down in the attack?  Or perhaps it really isn’t a conflict, just something that is mentioned in passing while the bigger conflict eclipses it?

I personally don’t worry myself with coming up with a perfect “introduction” conflict.  I’m still looking for a character that is interesting right out of the gate, but that interest might only be coming from the reader being quirked out by what the character is doing.

I won’t bore you with an explanation of why coming up with plot is hard when all you have is a setting.  You might need a solid character to get your mind working on a plot, but try to avoid retrofitting a conflict onto that character if you’re adverse to revising who that character is.

A plot is something that the characters are involve with.  If you took the (viewpoint) characters away, there wouldn’t be a plot to speak of, just a written account of it in a history textbook.  Your characters really need to be involved somehow.

One of the obvious places to inject viewpoints are at the top of the chain of command, but I’m going to suggest that you avoid going for the king, the queen, the military commander, etc.  These people might be ripe for viewpoint, but it’s not always at the exclusion of people caught in the middle of the conflict.  The story of the battle general safe in his war tent while his armies do the fighting might not automatically be interesting.

Don’t mistake an important person for an interesting person.  A character might indeed be both, but it’s not by virtue of the size of their hat.  You’re probably looking for someone that has a lot of skin in the game and is consequently proactive about it.  A king might be that, but the kind of proactivity they can engage in is limited to politics or delegation.

Now, if the king is a soldier in his own army, there’s something you can tell me about.  What kind of kingdom sets itself up that way?  This isn’t exactly breaking ground for originality, but can you spin me a compelling story anyway?

There are plenty of political stories you could tell, just be sure you know what about the character is worth being interested.  You can even string me along for forever until you drop the interesting part at the end, but you will have to find ways to convince me that the wait is worth it.

Something I love that Brandon Sanderson has said about his Stormlight Archive books is (paraphrasing, I’ll link the Writing Excuses episode if I ever find it again) that he needed to build his main characters in a way that every single one of them could carry the storyline.  He’s doing massive epics, but in a way, the importance of an interesting character matters that much more as you take us deeper into your story’s plot.

For Brandon, his characters all have pasts that aren’t necessarily mysterious, but are in some way compelling nonetheless.  Kaladin wanted alternately to be a surgeon and a soldier.  It brought out the dichotomy of that character’s larger personal struggle, and it justified why he had it.  Some characters, like Dalinar Kholin, do have mystery as a component of their past, but the character is not written in a way that forces his story arc to be obsessed with it.

The story isn’t about where the character came from, it’s about what they’re doing.  In the case of Dalinar, the story continues with or without his mystery being explained, and so he holds the mystery to himself (presumably to be dropped on us in a later book, when it really does matter).

So… how about that plotting strategy you promised?

If I’m having trouble synthesizing an interesting plot, it’s a sign that I’m not using enough ingredients in the plot soup.  Your world or character might be too complacent for their own storytelling good.  Because I’m often starting with a setting, I really have no choice but to look at what is wrong in the world that someone wants to set right.  Or, from the other direction, there’s someone for whom the status quo doesn’t serve very well and they are shaking things up.  A situation’s complexity won’t automatically be compelling, but in adding it, you should be able to shake loose a few characters for whom the complexity leads to difficult decisions.

For example, I’m a big fan of trying to add motion to the setting.

What if those mountains over there were actually the spine of a starship so big that my eyes are bugging out of my head just thinking about it?  Why is it on the ground instead of flying?

What if this field of grain is extra emotional to a character because just a few months ago, it had been burned to the ground?

What does a natural disaster do to the setting?  The disaster doesn’t have to be your main conflict, but it might expand what you think of when you picture this place.

Who needs what this setting can produce?  Who is jealous of what it produces?  Is it the setting itself (e.g., nature) or the people who simply chose to live here that produce this thing?  Could they go anywhere else?  Why or why not?

If we can make this setting come alive just a little bit more, what does it imply about the people there?  At the end of the day, the story probably doesn’t have legs unless you have some interesting people, and if your setting isn’t providing any of those, the setting needs to have just a little more going on.

If a character is really not coming forward for me, I will resort to pure storytelling tone.  This conjures for me the characters of others—a noir detective, a farmer youth, a lab assistant—and I can try to adopt what I see in my head and make changes until I realize something about them that frames their motivations in an unexpected way.

Of course, it could be that it’s just not time for a setting to blossom into a real story just yet.  File it away, but don’t stop fitting it against unusual conflicts to see if you’ve got something that looks amazing, or perhaps disastrous.

How I Knew I Was a Discovery Writer

I’ve always loved music, writing as much as listening.  It wasn’t great, but I enjoyed it.  Little turns of phrase that fit the beat so well I just couldn’t help but smile when I thought of it.

I hammered on a guitar I never took lessons to play, and I improvised melodies that sometimes wandered from this key to that key.  My tempo was pretty fuzzy too, but it was hard to fix.  The slow part was supposed to be slow like that, and the faster part just didn’t sound right if you slowed it down.  The same was true of the key problem.  I had trouble loving the song the same way when I patched things up.

It was a stupid bias, the same kind that prevented me from revising the hard work I put into writing a 120,000 word story.  I loved it unconditionally.

The rest of this is going to be laden with an analogy to the noveling process that one should go through while weaving a story, but I won’t stop to point it out every few sentences.


This continued for a couple of years.  A baby came along and we moved into an apartment where I couldn’t slam away on a guitar and sing with misplaced confidence.  I got into composing a few songs with digital tools instead.  I had tried that a couple of times, but found that I preferred the strings on the fingers, even if I was bad at them both equally.

This time, I had a rhythm in my head.  It wasn’t even a melody, but I knew it was good.  I kinda sorta got it into the software, but then I had that moment we all have when we stand back and think, “It’s kind of lonely.”

It’s just a single piano note sliding around making a rhythm, not really a song.  It’s missing some kind of bass sound, and I’ve done enough songs without a drum track that I know how empty that can turn out.  (Lucky for me, Apple’s Logic software has a pretty nice drum machine for someone like me to use.  I ain’t no drummer.)

I’ve messed this kind of thing up enough times with the voice and guitar that I know I need some harmony, so, with utmost respect for the key I’m doing all of this in, I get another instrument set up and put in a decent companion line.  Just as quickly as that, this sounds pretty convincing as demo tracks go.  That drum thing I set up isn’t accenting the right notes, so I play with that a little.


Now the trap I fell into on my first go at this electronic music stuff is that you can’t just take a piano, a violin, a bass, a drum, and half a dozen big fuzzy electronic sounds and make them all play the same notes all the way through the “song”.

I don’t mean to knock on North American religious hymns, but let me knock on religious hymns for a minute.  I really don’t like the four-part harmony with zero accompaniment.  It’s soulless and begging for variation.  Compositional complexity isn’t really the point with hymns, so I’m not trying to criticize it out of existence, but it should be plain as a diaper rash that those hymns are built for just voices to sing together in an easy time signature and not much else.  Their only texture comes from what harmonies they can create, and that’s pretty much it.  Sometimes you get those hymns everybody likes but nobody can do justice, with the soprano and alto parts going solo while the tenor and bass wait a few bars to come back in, or that one with the bass clef going on in something like a round.

That’s all just to say that I knew for sure that I wasn’t about to just do an 8-part harmony with every instrument striking its note exactly in time with the others.  It had to be more interesting than that to get an emotional reaction out of me.

So one by one, I add instruments.  I can’t disrespect the way that the instrument is supposed to be played.  You can play an instrument a lot of ways, and sometimes that’s intriguing ( but it’s not what I’m good at.  The violin should sound like a violin if I expect people to see what I see in my mind when its melody plays.  If I’m bending the role a little too much, maybe I should switch to mallets or something, a second piano, who knows.

Every instrument with its melody needs enough personality to stand on its own.  It’s not a song all by itself—it might only be a few bars long before it’s really time for another instrument to come in and take the focus—but if you build the song up to this instrument’s time to shine, and then it’s awkward and perhaps boring… it may as well not be there.  In fact, it probably shouldn’t be there, because that would be better for the listener’s experience.  Maybe it just needs to be moved to a more appropriate part of the song, one where it’s not interrupting the swell of interesting buildup.

These instrument melodies need to let each other breathe, too.  If I make a killer melody for each one individually, then play them all at the same time for three minutes, it’s not really a song.  I’m not guiding the listener, I’m just dumping a lot of stuff I made into their lap and promising them that I worked hard on it.

When I start overlapping these things, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m looking for transitions.  I’m personally not trying for three minutes of song dominated by just two major sections.  If this song wants to transition every few bars in order to stay interesting, then that’s what I’m going to let it do.

These instruments need to carry themselves when they are the focus, and when a previous instrument comes back to reprise its role in a new way, I better listen to that and get the chills every single time (until the 400th time, at which point I give myself permission to grow complacent about what I’ve done—iTunes is helping me keep count).

Finally, there’s the question of discovering variations of the melody.  Some instruments play support for the main characters—oops, I mean instruments.  It’s fine if they repeat and provide a rock solid backing to the changing foreground.  For those that do change, however, I have to consider how and when.  Just kicking it up an octave for the last repeat might not be the right way to cultivate the climax I want.

Despite locking myself into a key, this might be the right time to start straying from it, to become minor or otherwise dissonant, to create a sense in the listener of not knowing just how far this is going to stray before I slam them back into the major key for the finale.


I take a composition like this out into the field.  There’s no beta reader group for it exactly, but I make myself eat, drink, and breathe this thing until I’m all but singing out new parts that aren’t even there.  It’s stirring my imagination into action while I let it carry me into the epicness that I know it deserves.  I couldn’t even tell that this last part was missing the same forceful bass sound that the beginning promised would feature throughout, but now that I’m locked in there with the song on repeat, I can tell that’s what’s missing.

I take it back to the workshop and add to what I’ve done, hopefully in a way that doesn’t undermine what I’ve already built.  I’m not changing the song because I didn’t like what was there, it’s just so that I can make it better.

Another thing that comes up sometimes is that I listen to what I’ve made and then I hear someone else’s music.  The contrast helps me realize that I’m cranking the volume of that piano way louder than it needs to be for the effectiveness I want.  Other times, it’s those pesky drums.  I’m timid with them because I’m not a drum machine, I just use one, but that timidity is making me “hide” them under the rest of the song when really they should really be more assertive.

If I’m embarrassed by elements of my song when I bring them out to the volume they deserve, I have to put a few questions to myself.  Do I dislike this part because it’s bad and I was hoping to cheat a little?  Is it maybe that it doesn’t belong, that I’m trying to force it where it doesn’t belong?


The analogy to the growing of a song can be adapted to the use of an outline, but I might not be the right one to talk on that.  The presence of an outline doesn’t mean that the dominant elements you recognize are boring and formulaic.  Sometimes it seems like every “pop” song (hugely broad here) in existence is just Intro-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus, but some are stunning and others are not.  (Perhaps that more of a story structure analogy than an outlining one, but that’s not for this discussion, so I’ll leave it.)

I’ll drug the analogy here and put it to sleep, but it was during a repeat binge of Writing Excuses that it struck me what I was doing in my music and how I coaxed the songs to life with many of the same techniques that are applied to writing.

Once I saw things this plainly, my confidence in my storytelling went up a notch.  As a discovery writer, I suddenly had a vocabulary I could repurpose that spoke to me a little more intimately than ever before. Harmonies, evolving melody, support instruments, time signature, key, movements… I don’t know what I want to do with them when I sit down, but I know what I like when I start hearing it play in my head.