Unpacking the Defensive Reaction to Feedback

I wanted to explore some thoughts on the kinds of feedback traps fallen into by me or others I critique for.  Throughout my attendance of multiple writing groups these last few years, both casual and “serious” (read: looking to get published sooner than later), many times there are reactions to critiquer feedback that produce the following sorts of defensive responses from the author:

  • Oh, you’ll find that out later
  • Well, see, the backstory is…
  • No, I’ve actually seen this really happen before (or, Actually, I based this character on someone I know)
  • But that’s the mystery!
  • That’s just how the character/story/villain/culture is!

Barring abuse on the part of the critiquer, and if the critique is coming from someone who really is in your target audience, a defensive response selected from a list like this is missing the purpose of the feedback: My words were read, processed, and then the reader was confused or unsatisfied.  I can choose to ignore an unwanted reader reaction, but I need to be careful if I’m the only person I’ve ever found who reacts positively instead of negatively.

Many of these responses show us that the reader isn’t happy with the product, and while we write for ourselves and our target audience, we do sell fiction that we expect others to enjoy as well.  What they don’t enjoy, for example, is buying a 1000-piece puzzle only to open up the box to find all the pieces already glued in their proper places, nor do they enjoy opening it up to find a picture in the puzzle wholly unlike the what was suggested by the box’s outer art, nor a puzzle whose picture is incomprehensible even when completed.

Taking the puzzle analogy about as far I know how, I can’t simply appease my reader concerning the inclusion a plot point just by pointing out that it actually exists way off over in unrelated corner of the puzzle.  When the puzzle I designed for them implied that the pieces would be closer to each other than that, I likely have a potential problem.

It’s the way the puzzle pieces of fiction fit together that can make or break the reader experience, not just the presence of individually cool pieces.

Oh, you’ll find that out later

Think long and hard if you’re saying this.  This could be fine, but just because someone will find something out later if they stick with it doesn’t mean that the scene which raised the concern is off scot free.  The reader should not be genuinely worried or unsatisfied about a point like this, because either I did my job and imbued the scene with the appropriate questions from characters, or I didn’t do my job and the characters went through a scene without them or the narrative acknowledging at all that the concerning piece of information is coming later.


If my reader goes through my book and reads a scene about a private eye sitting down with a presumable suspect but only reciprocates meaningless talk of baseball, then leaves without much introspection, we get zero sense that the private eye was doing their job, or was concerned the same way the reader was about how the conversation stuck to baseball, or anything else.

If I write the private eye as feeling frustrated, that gives the reader permission to be frustrated as well.  The frustration becomes an asset, and the reader no longer asks “Well, why on earth did that guy just ramble about baseball?  Why didn’t the private eye just nudge the conversation back to where it ought to be?  Do they even care about solving this mystery?  What was the point.  This person seems lazy.  I don’t like them.  They’re not interesting.”

My reader shouldn’t have a reason to ask a plot-breaking question, even if I really did plant an answer later in the book.  Period.  That does not mean that there can be no questions, only that I need the reader to be asking the right questions.

And of course, there is nobody more in control of the text than me, the author.

I need to transmute bad reader questions into curious observations that build their investment in the story.  For example, the question “Why didn’t the private eye just nudge the conversation?” means that the scene needs to be adjusted so that the reader instead might say to themself, “Huh, when the private eye tried to put the conversation back on track, this suspect let himself get deliberately distracted by anything at all.”

It can yield mostly the same result—our private eye leave the office not having received the information they wanted, yet this time we feel like our response is mirrored in the characters.  The piece of info the reader finds out later should be why this happened, not why the private eye let it happen.  The execution is crucial—I don’t get to claim the benefits of the best possible reaction when I wrote something that provokes only frustrated questions.

Well, see, the backstory is…

If I have to tell you contextual details that make the text work, then either those expository details need to be in the text so I don’t have to have this talk with my readers, or, more effectively, the scene needs to not rely on prior exposition of that backstory for it to make sense.

A curious symptom of this actually presents itself with the parts of the scenario flipped around: because of a reveal later (Bonnie gets redemption in killing her gang boss), the narrative positions the character early so that the reveal can happen (Bonnie is on a warpath to slaughter gang bosses).

If a reader sees hypothetical Bonnie here on a warpath, they’re forced to ask “Well, why?  What was so bad that happened to her?”

If the story is based on that mystery, you might be fine, but the authorial answer must not be “Well, see, the backstory is…” or, relatedly, a bad deflection of “You’ll find out later.”

Bonnie needs to show us now the clues we need to understand the shape of what happened in the past that the story will actually pay off.  Merely seeing that she is ruthless isn’t engaging all by itself, because it’s the connected details that intrigue us: maybe the reader should sense an obvious pattern in the crimes of those she’s killing, or readers can tell by the way she talks to her victims what kind of trauma she suffered before the story began, or anything at all.

Unless the plot arc of the novel is a mystery to that very question, we need to be given the tools to understand our characters to the depth required by the plot, whether or not they are written as point-of-view characters.

No, I’ve actually seen this really happen before

My opinion is that this is entirely a motivational issue for a character or plot.  I often have no doubt that this true when someone says it, but if it’s the end-all-be-all defense of a scene or character, then this seems a deflection of an underlying challenge to the motivational problem observed by the reader.

The majority of readers can’t possible have empathy for a character basely purely on the fact that this or that aspect of the character is from the author’s real experience.  If the readers don’t understand this unbelievable character or why they’re doing any of what they do, and if even the other characters don’t bat an eye about it either, then the readers are almost forced to conclude that it is the author’s narrative that is out of touch with reality.

These sorts of characters and scenarios are often included for the “cool” factor in the author’s mind, but there’s often very little automatically intriguing about the character to the reader just by virtue of the fact that the character exists.  We see weird things all the time.  They’re a novel commodity at best.  My role while including such a component in my book should be to connect the reader to the reaction I want them to have to that component, which may indeed require one of my characters wrinkling up their nose at it, refusing to be in the same room, or similar hints that the reader is allowed to have that same reaction.  I should see something of why it fits the story, either thematically, as a foil to some other character, as foreshadowing—anything.

We shouldn’t mistake the role of fiction to simply reinforce what the majority believes, but this need not be in service of majorities; perhaps my character explicitly shouldn’t react to the oddball in my story, but in that case, the readers need the tools to understand who this character is and something of why they are the way they are.

But that’s the mystery!

If I catch myself defending my work with this, then I need to dig deeper into the reason for the unsynchronized understanding of the story that I’m having with my readers.  Is it that the reader cares way more about this other sub-plot?  Is there an sympathy/empathy problem with my characters?  Did the reader actually just miss key plot info from earlier, or misattribute it in an undesirable way?

If I fix those problems instead, then the only people I should expect to be upset with the core motivation for my story are those that don’t enjoy that core motivation as a storytelling device.  If they’re not my target audience, I may be in the clear, but I need to make sure that’s true before I dismiss anyone who doesn’t connect to my story’s core components.

That’s just how the character/story/villain/culture is!

This one is a lot like the above two—I’m stuck defending the existence of a thing merely because it is the way it is.

Sometimes this can indicate a problem, sometimes not.  However, if this is the only defense I have, then my character/plot/villain/culture may not be strongly enough integrated with the rest of the story.

My reader shouldn’t have a reason to genuinely ask me this question if my only response is “but I think it’s cool.”  Instead, my reader needs to witness that a serial face slapper of a character is consciously choosing, regardless of consequences, to slap faces, even if the logic is demented and not at all relatable.

When this is a problem, I like to believe that the problematic aspect is a self-awareness thing on the part of the character.  If my character slaps faces “because that’s just what they do,” then I haven’t properly provided any depth to this character.  The reader is inspecting what amounts to a cardboard cutout for a sign of life behind its eyes, and they’re not seeing any.  That’s a deeply unsatisfying experience as a reader and can unravel the whole book.

Proving to us that the character has conflict inside them, (for example, either in recognition that slapping a traffic officer is a dumb move or that they know they should stop but can’t) shows us that they’re not just a bad caricature of a gimmick existing purely for the book to use as a pawn.

Don’t mistake this for the reader needing to understand the backstory of the character—the book need not contain the entirety of the character’s life story up to this point, but I should consider ways to make it appear that this character has been alive and shaped by their experiences and reactions, changing over time, cementing them into who they are.  We can begin to understand a serial face slapper if we sense their present motivations, good or bad, whether or not they go through with a given slapping opportunity.


Clichés, Tropes, and Borrowing Key Signatures

I have the weekly opportunity to argue debate and defend various writing strategies with friends, things we find out in the wild, things we incorporate into our own writing or distance ourselves from.  One of my favorite “craft of writing” metaphors comes from the Writing Excuses podcast, wherein the suggestion is made that while anyone can cook, only the chef is skilled enough from potentially years of experience to know what every ingredient does and why.  Swapping things in and out becomes a matter of expertise instead of unguided speculation.

When I introduced this concept to my sparing debate partner, and before I could fully explain the metaphor, they dismissed the idea, claiming that borrowing from other genres or story archetypes only nets the writer “the clichés” of those genres or story types.

In our shared category of speculative fiction, I think this is a very shallow analysis of what it means to borrow.  Tropes and plot devices only become clichés when they are poorly implemented or too transparent, a green bit of garnish on a plate without real understanding of a purpose.

It’s my fear that my nemesis colleague shies so far away from including anything that has been seen before that their work borders on being unrelatable, like a Lego brick house built only out of bricks that don’t normally show up in Lego brick houses.  A curious experiment to be sure, and perhaps a spectacle, but not one that sports a broad enough appeal to properly entertain those in the market for a house.

In a debate like this, the contender interlocutor sitting across from me should understand that anything done well of course deserves to be judged on its own merits.  Just take care not to borrow badly, blend the borrowed concepts crudely, then brush all away in disgust because of the uninspired feedback earned.  Deeply root into the story anything borrowed.  Tie it in from multiple places—environment, plot, worldbuilding, character—so that the element works so naturally that it seems a mistake to remove it rather than to keep it.

It’s okay to write a song using the key of an existing song.  It’s okay to use a note on the keyboard someone else has used.  Your work isn’t being judged for the notes that appear, but the order you put them in and how well you can build up to the combination of notes that makes your arrangement distinct in the minds of those listening.  You can even choose the same climactic note as someone else, just take us there in a heartfelt, convincing way, and we’ll be there with you.

No Excuses

I catch myself (and others) writing phrases like the following:

I pushed on the door.  Luckily it wasn’t locked.

Wary, she settled her weight on the roof tiles.  At least they were dry—it hadn’t rained in weeks.

The first example isn’t very interesting, but because it’s so much simpler to analyze, I included it.  The second example isn’t so bad, but could potentially stand to benefit from subtle changes.

These phrases are sidestepping storytelling issues.  The first one, unless there’s a really believable reason why the character left it to chance if the door would be unlocked or not, it’s a plot device made of pure convenience for the author.

The second is an improvement because we see that the author thought about why walking on a roof might be dangerous, but it raises this risk of danger and then doesn’t deliver.

I think this stems from a thought that comes to the author in the moment of writing up a storm.  The scene has momentum, there are other issues at hand, and so when that character steps onto the roof, she’s already got a job to do, and it isn’t to have a skating scene on a roof.

You can elevate character tension if you deny yourself any cheats.  So long as it seems plausible that the character could deal with the added difficulty (even if it’s by the occasional stroke of dumb luck), and the difficulty isn’t just put there as a meaningless obstacle, you can raise the stakes on safety or reputation or whatever it is your character is risking.

In our second example, the author has demonstrated the value of forethought, but hasn’t raised the stakes.  Sometimes this is fine.  Not everything the character does needs to be the hardest feat the world has ever seen.  But consider not giving your character an excuse for being able to perform the feat.

Maybe you should let it be slick, even unexpectedly so.  Don’t launch into a 1000-word sub-scene of rooftop skating, but let us feel the added danger, even if it’s not the primary conflict.

On the other hand, you could enrich the scene by making it important earlier on that there has been no rain.  It could be the reason why she thinks to try the roof in the first place, because she knows it’s not an insurmountable task.

Of course, if it makes no sense at all that your character just randomly breaks open a locked door with a previously unseen skill with lock picks, you shouldn’t go that route.  Remember plausibility.  Foreshadow.  No miracle excuses to make a scene easier if you haven’t already justified it.

If you find yourself coming up with details and then mentioning them as things that aren’t transpiring, try flipping it on its head sometimes to make sure you’re keeping scenes unpredictable and lifelike.

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.

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!



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.

Being Okay with a Shoddy First Draft

I discovery write with a pretty weak outline at the ready, but it’d be a much bigger lie to say that I’m an outliner than to say that I’m a discovery writer.  The outline is there because I liked thinking about my story so much that I had to jot down the vague aspects of what happens so I don’t forget.  It’s there because I get ahead of myself.  If the story starts to go another direction, the outline gets set on fire because there’s no way that boring outliner guy knew what I now know.

On the other hand, what if a flash of inspiration didn’t transform your story into something amazing?  I might slog through the story exactly as I imagined it, but then sit back and still kind of grimace at it.  This is the scenario I’m learning to salvage.

What are the goals of a first draft if not to write a great story?

You really need to find the voice or the structure of the story in the first draft.  If you can’t manage that, you’re pretty much just doing a lot of pre-writing.  It’s not garbage, but if you take a step back and give it a long look, it’s probably not much in the way of a story (at least, the kind other people want to read).

I strive to build an outline before I start, but invariably it’s not just limp but a little uninspired, too.  A real outliner wouldn’t be happy with the kind of outline I make.  They see the weakness for what they are.

If you’re asking how I could be self-aware enough to know this, and yet begin writing the story without fixing the weaknesses, the answer is that I know that there are weaknesses, but I’m not smart enough at that point to know what is “right”.  Often this paralysis comes from the answer relying on 15 other variables that are still unsolved.  That might be too sterile of an algebra metaphor to resonate with you, but think about it: the best I can do to come up with an ending if I don’t know all of the factors is to paint with really broad strokes.

Of course, I do spend a lot of time squinting at that list of scenes, making sure that I recognize the fact of its weakness.  My reasoning is this: if I can’t recognize the weak spots when I set out to write this thing, I’m not going to be subconsciously alert enough when new ideas graze my ear.  When I’m looking for ways to improve something, I’ll notice those ideas fly past; I reach out and catch them before they’re gone, wrangling them to the page in a flurry of excited backspacing.

There is such a thing as a glorious first draft, but more often than not I’m out there breaking a sweat to build a little box garden frame.  I’m filling it with some soil that I thought looked pretty all right.  I might even know exactly the sorts of things I want to plant and in what shape.

Normally the metaphor above is reserved for people talking about the process of discovery writing, except that they talk about making the garden beautiful as it grows.  For me, it hasn’t even grown yet.  My first draft was just me laying the foundation.

The Will to Revise

“Oh no,” he said in little more than a grunt.

This is where you need to do an inventory on your motivation.  Hopefully you don’t hate the story you wrote, but we’re hoping you know that it’s fundamentally at least mediocre (ALM™).  The garden you planted and tried to raise into its glory isn’t done.  It’s hardly even started, you might think.

So what?  Are you going to give up on it?  Are you saying that it’s just not possible to turn it into the thing you envisioned?

If you’re seriously on the fence with your answer, see if you can’t add a little perspective.  Let’s say you walk away.  You don’t even bother to tear it down.  You just leave it.  Some girl comes by and sees the mess.  She starts to clean it up.  There’s a little spark of an idea in her that’s got her hands in the dirt.  She sees where it could go.

You gave up on it because it was hopeless.  Maybe you should go tell her she’s doomed to fail.

Or maybe you shouldn’t.  Was the failure something innate with the story?  I’m going to make a bold suggestion that 90% of the time you find yourself thinking that the story is seriously hopeless, you’re wrong.  Now, you might not be equipped or qualified to fix it (that’s a totally fair analysis), but that burden is on you, not the universe.

You should assume that for any problem you face, there is a solution.  Don’t beat yourself up over not knowing how to synthesize a solution, but never write it off.  This is why authors will tell you not to throw anything away.  Even if you never find the right way to use the story you came up with, it’s not impossible.

Quilting (and then Smoothing)

To get really fired up over the revision process, I’ll admit that I need a spot in the story to find my feet.  For me, that spot is usually not at the beginning.  I’ll know that the beginning needs help, but that is not a ball I’m ready to juggle.  I’m looking instead at the character that looks flat as a bad potato chip, at that council of 4 people who all sound exactly the same (you could rearrange their dialogue attributions and a reader wouldn’t know the difference), or at the weird hitch in Act III where my ending came together but I had to change a character motivation to have it make sense.

With the benefit of hindsight and a view of the whole story as it currently exists, I begin to discovery revise.

Yikes, right?

My goal in the early phases of revision is to identify concrete things that need to be fixed.  If I can’t state it in a single breath, I haven’t distilled the issue down to its core, and thus I’m not qualified yet to fix it.  This is how I avoid making changes I’m not prepared to follow through on.

For example, if you go and add or remove a character just to fix a single scene, you’re going to find that you’ve done it wrong.  On the other hand, if you are fully prepared to make this change, go ahead and start with that scene (rather than at the beginning), and move through the story in whatever order you need until you’re done.

I call this quilting, each scene becoming a pretend square of the larger picture.  I have to isolate the given scene and operate on it, and while I have it bleeding on the table, I have to suspend my own disbelief regarding the fact that the rest of my story hasn’t yet been fixed to match what I’m doing to it.

When it’s time to continue pushing this fix into the rest of the story, it’s not always the very next scene that I’ll jump to next.  If the very next scene needs the same treatment, then I’ll go for it, but I’m not forcing myself to do it that way.

The whole thing is a quilt.  I already sort of created it when I wrote that ALM™ (at least mediocre) first draft, but it’s bland and maybe monochromatic.  During early revision, I’m turning it around and around, building a pattern out from the middle.  I’m quilting the quilt or something.  (Did the metaphor get away from me?)  Because the foundation is already there, I’m finding shapes and patterns on it that just needed to be brought out more, rather than replaced.  I can add detail to those to make them stand out for the happy accident they were, and if I’m really in the zone, I can connect those little details to the world and to the foreshadowing of the ending.

As I work, I still haven’t solved all of my algebraic plot variables, but I’m starting to suspect a range of valid possibilities suggested by the story I wrote.  I’m picking one variable I feel inspired to lock into place, and then start adjusting the rest to fit.

As a discovery writer, there are going to be a host of issues with my first draft that I can’t foresee, even ones as fundamental as character motivation.  Fixing these things in isolation of one another can lead to continuity issues, so I’m always aware that I’ll need a separate smoothing revision.  That’s not something I recommend doing by spot-fixing.  You don’t want to revise your story then give it out for someone to read and never have read it yourself from beginning to end in its “fixed” state.  You’ll be surprised at how many things you didn’t even realize needed fixing.

Go and revise!