Viewpoint switching, part 2

So, you have a story in which you have two characters in a scene, and each of them has information that you want your reader to know, and which you think (at least initially) that you can only let the reader know by being in that character’s viewpoint, which would mean switching viewpoint character in mid-scene. You don’t want to do this for various reasons mentioned in the previous post. What are your options?

The first, and simplest, is to decide that upon reflection, the reader really doesn’t need both bits of information right here, right now. You then write the scene in tight-third-person with your primary POV character as the viewpoint. This works far more often than you might think, for one simple reason: your readers do not actually need to know everything you know about why a scene is playing out the way it is, not right then, anyway. It works just fine for George and Bill to have an oddly tense conversation on page 30, and for the reader to find out on page 60 or 90 that at the time Bill had just come from the doctor’s office, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In fact, it often works exceptionally well, because it means that if and when the reader re-reads the story, knowing that piece of information will make that scene play differently. This makes the story more re-readable, and also makes the writer look clever.

A somewhat trickier option is to find a way to convey the non-viewpoint-character’s thoughts and reactions without dipping into their head. Usually, this means using Bill’s body language and/or the POV character’s knowledge of Bill (or just George’s assumptions about what is going on in Bill’s head). A writer who wants the reader to know everything right now will probably be unhappy with this, because one cannot usually (for instance) convey that Bill has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer without Bill actually mentioning the fact. One can, however, mention that Bill looks a bit pale, or show that Bill is not really paying attention to George’s rant about the lousy fast food from the corner deli, or give other indications that Bill has something important on his mind. There are very few scenes that actually need the reader to know more than that in order to comprehend the scene well enough to go on with.

Probably the simplest alternative is to abandon the notion of tight-third-person and write your entire story in omniscient viewpoint. “Simple,” however, is not the same as “easy.” Omniscient is difficult for most writers to handle well. It is also out of fashion and not as well understood as it ought to be, which means that your will almost certainly still get plenty of annoying comments from readers, critics, editors, and agents about how you really shouldn’t head-hop. (A really amazing number of people mis-identify omniscient viewpoint as either head-hopping tight-third or else as multiple viewpoint. It is neither, but if you have any doubts about your own ability to correctly identify omniscient viewpoint, don’t try it.) In addition, the usual reason for wanting to do mid-scene viewpoint switching is that the writer wants to get across the emotions of both characters, and omniscient viewpoint is almost always more emotionally distancing than tight-third-person.

If you are writing multiple viewpoint and have already established both characters as viewpoint characters, you may be able to write the scene twice, once from each point of view. This really only works when there is a truly major discrepancy between the way the two characters understand what is happening, because you are making the reader wade through the exact same events twice, and unless each of them knows something really significant that affects the scene and the reader’s interpretation of their personalities, it is very likely to bore the reader silly. It isn’t enough to just let the reader know that Bill is really upset by what George is saying, but is carefully not showing it.

More often, in a multiple viewpoint story, it works if the writer can provide two not-quite-identical scenes: the one from George’s viewpoint, where we get the oddly uncomfortable conversation, and another one from Bill’s viewpoint an hour or two later, when Bill is pondering whether he should have told George about the diagnosis during that previous conversation and/or worrying about how to break the news now that that opportunity is gone.

The key to making any of these alternatives work, though, is to begin by figuring out exactly what it is that want the reader to know – the thing that makes your first reaction be “The only way I can tell the reader this is to show what the non-viewpoint is thinking/feeling.” Once you have that nailed down, you have to decide whether the reader actually needs to know that piece of information here and now, or whether hinting at it will be enough. (Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, hinting is not only enough for the scene, it is actually more effective than laying out the information, because it gives the reader something to wonder about and thus keeps them involved in the story.)

Sometimes, the thing you want to let the reader know is not something major, like “Bill has cancer” or “Sue is in love with George.” Instead, it’s something like “Sue is tall and has dark, curly hair” or “Bill is wearing cowboy boots, grubby jeans, and a Rolex watch.” The problem isn’t that the information involves the non-viewpoint-character’s innermost, unrevealed feelings or knowledge; it’s that the viewpoint character wouldn’t spend time thinking about what she looks like or what he’s wearing. (Or that thinking about it makes them sound unpleasantly self-obsessed.) The writer’s initial reaction is that it’ll be much easier to just switch to somebody else’s head and describe the viewpoint character that way.

This really doesn’t work very often. If you’re going to break viewpoint, you want to have a really good reason to do it, and there are oodles of other ways to work in descriptions of the POV character without breaking viewpoint. These range from having a non-viewpoint character comment on it (“A Rolex, Bill? Since when do you wear a Rolex to muck out the barn?”) to having the POV worry about whether he/she is making the right impression, to doing description-by-implication (“George was not a short man, but Sue towered over him. She sat down quickly, wishing she hadn’t worn heels.”)

If the information is a chunk of backstory, it is, once again, seldom necessary to actually explain it in the scene, even if that seems like the logical place for it. If George doesn’t know the backstory, it is easy enough to have him ask Sue a scene or two later “What’s up with Bill?” The reader can then find out when George does.

Ultimately, that’s the real key to revealing information in tight-third-person: the reader almost never needs to know something until the viewpoint character finds it out. So the writer doesn’t have to jump into Bill’s head to reveal the cancer diagnosis; they just need to write Bill as oddly distracted or tense or however he would behave if he’d just gotten that news, and the reader can find out a scene or a chapter or a section later, when Bill finally tells him.

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Mid-scene viewpoint switching

This week I got an email question about switching point of view within a scene. It’s one of the hardy perennial questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it directly in this blog. First, an example:

Jennifer paced the room, wondering where George was. It’s three in the morning! He should have been back hours ago! Maybe she should –

There was a scratching noise, and Jennifer froze. The doorknob turned, and the door swung open to reveal a sheepish-looking George.

The minute he saw Jennifer’s worried face, George knew he was in trouble. God, all I want is to forget this night, he thought. I don’t need another fight. Hoping to head off an explosion, he said in his meekest and most apologetic voice, “I got lost.”

The first point is that this question only ever really comes up in regard to third person. If you’re writing in first person, it would obviously be intensely confusing to have “I” be Jennifer in the first two paragraphs and switch to George in the third, and the same is true for “you.”

Third person is more ambiguous. This makes it more flexible and allows for a greater range, but it also means that there aren’t nice clean lines between what you can and can’t do in various types of third person. In first person, it’s usually fairly easy to tell a letter from a diary, a memoir, stream-of-consciousness, or the more common riding-along-in-the-head variety of first person. In third person, tight-third-person shades into camera eye and omniscient very gradually, leaving large gray areas that aren’t quite one thing or the other.

This means that there are a lot more opinions about what is and isn’t “allowed” in various forms of third person. Some of this is because different people define the various forms slightly differently – in essence, they draw the line between “tight-third-person” and “camera eye” in a different place, or they break the continuum of third person down into more categories (filtered tight-third-person, unfiltered tight-third-person, limited omniscient, observer-in-the-corner, camera-on-the-shoulder…there are dozens of possibilities). There is even more confusion because different genres often have different conventions regarding what is acceptable and what is not. “Head-hopping” is, in many genres, considered a sign of bad writing. In Romance novels, however, it is far more acceptable – you do hear occasional complaints, but a look at what actually gets published will tell you that switching viewpoints within a scene is extremely common in that genre.

Furthermore, there are some types of third-person that aren’t well-suited to particular genres. The vast majority of murder-mystery novels I’ve read are written in first-person or tight-third-person; very few are in omniscient, because a truly omniscient viewpoint means that the narrator knew whodunnit and was just refusing to tell the reader, which is difficult to make work. Multiple-viewpoint mysteries are rare, but not as rare as omniscient, because if the writer chooses the viewpoint characters carefully, it doesn’t give the murderer away.

Not giving the murderer away is a major convention in murder mysteries. In thrillers, the central problem is not “who did it?” it’s “will they catch him?” (frequently “will they catch him in time?”); in these stories, multiple-viewpoint gets used a lot because part of the point is for the reader to know what the villain is doing and how far the heroes are from stopping him/her.

Which brings me back to mid-scene viewpoint switching, and the two basic Real Rules of Writing:

  1. You have to write.
  2. What you write has to work on the page.

Switching viewpoints in mid-scene is problematic because it is difficult to do smoothly in a tight-third-person scene without jarring the reader out of the story, confusing the reader, and/or breaking the reader’s identification with the main character. Note that “difficult to do” does not mean “impossible.” If you can make it work in your story, then you get to do it.

For most writers, however, mid-scene viewpoint switches (aka head-hopping) are not a good idea, for three reasons. The first is the one I cited just above: it’s extremely difficulty to make work smoothly. The second is that even head-hopping that works is a bit like exclamation points: the more often you use it, the less well it works and the more obvious and annoying it becomes. And the third is that, in my experience, at least 90% of the time the writer who wants to head-hop wants to do so because it looks like a quick and easy way of getting some important piece of information across to the reader that Character B knows, but Character A (who is the viewpoint) doesn’t know. Frequently, the important information has to do with Character B’s emotions or reaction to what is going on in the scene, but sometimes it has to do with some knowledge that B has and why B chooses not to mention it just now, even though it looks like a logical time to do so.

In other words, 90% of the time, the writer is trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the ability to dip into any character’s thoughts and feelings at any time, as in omniscient viewpoint, without sacrificing the identification and intimacy that comes with having a specific tight-third-person viewpoint. They don’t want to do the work of figuring out how to write an emotionally intense omniscient that will lead the reader to identify with their characters (very hard to do), nor do they want to do the work of figuring out a way to convey to the reader what B is feeling, how B is reacting, the fact that B is hiding something, etc. in a tight-third-person viewpoint when A is the viewpoint (also hard to do, especially the first couple of times).

Which means that 90% of the time, mid-scene viewpoint switching doesn’t work. It also means that the writer isn’t learning any of the techniques that do work in tight-third person, many of which will be far more useful in the long run. And since even the best and smoothest viewpoint-switching is a technique that only remains effective when it is used rarely, it is a really good idea for writers to know those other techniques. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more options you have.

Next time, I’m going to talk more specifically about some of those options.

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Scrivener and process

Scrivener is currently one of the best-known pieces of writing software out there. People who use it tend to love it and go all evangelical about it (as a number of commenters noted two posts ago). It occurred to me while reading all those comments that talking a bit about what it is, what it does, and how different people do and don’t find it useful might be interesting from a process standpoint, as compared to a use-this-tool standpoint.

Let’s start with this: I’ve tried to use Scrivener as my primary word processor, and after two years I gave up. Here is why:

Scrivener was designed, as near as I can tell, for writers who are fiddlers – the folks who think of a few lines of dialog that are just exactly how those two characters would discuss petunias, but who don’t currently have a scene in which the characters could or would talk about petunias. Or they’re in the middle of an action scene and suddenly realize something important about the angsty background of a character who isn’t even present. It’s for the writers who assemble their writing from pieces that move in and out of their drafts as the story changes and they get new and better ideas during the writing process, some of which turn out not to be better. And it’s for the writers who simply can’t stand the possibility that they’ll cut a line, a page, or a paragraph and then, weeks or months later, discover that they want it after all.

Scrivener is not my primary word processor because I don’t work this way. I don’t really like having my manuscript lying around in little pieces, no matter that they can be reassembled at the touch of a button. One of the joys of my first word processor was that I had a whole chapter available all at the same time, rather than five separate pieces of paper. I was delighted when storage capacity got large enough for me to have the whole manuscript available in one file. Scrivener, which has the bits-and-pieces model of writing built right into its interface and processes, is never going to be my first choice for writing.

But.

But I do use Scrivener. I use it when I have a lot of notes and reference materials to organize. I really like being able to have my character notes and plot idea notes and the text of a fairy tale and various pertinent quotations and the text of my query letter and both drafts of the outline from the portion-and-outline, all available in the same place, indexed and easy to find. This turns out to be where I use the bits-and-pieces method: when I’m figuring out the characters, plot, background, backstory, and all the other ancillary material that I come up with as part of my novel-writing process.

I personally don’t fiddle with my drafts in a way that would make Scrivener a useful tool for writing them. I do fiddle with my before, during, and after notes in just that way. It’s possible that it would also be extremely useful as a revisions tool, for somebody, but I don’t think I have the patience to take my first draft to pieces just so I could check them all and then reassemble them.

For the current WIP, I started off in Scrivener. (I confess, at that point I was still trying to make it work for me as my main word processor.) I put in what I had: a log line, two versions of the text of the query letter, and a first crack at expanding the query into a proper submission-ready outline. Then I poked around online, and added several lists of possible character names from various sources. I made a list of roles: Mom, Dad, brother, Head Minion, Second Minion, Castle Steward, Evil Aunt, Wannabe Dark Lord. I copied the list to a different segment and started trying to match up roles with suitable names. I started another segment to capture worldbuilding ideas, and one for plot possibilities. I decided to chuck the existing outline, so I started a new section for the new-and-different outline.

I wrote a third, very messy outline intended for myself rather than for an editor, with lots of parenthetical comments (“Tour of castle? Anniversary photos!”) that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I opened another section for the five or six characters who by this time had names, and started fleshing out their roles in the story – what their problems are, how they relate to the other characters and/or my plot, and what they think they want (all of which boils down, one way and another, into what all the subplots are and how they cross and interrelate). At that point, I thought Scrivener was great.

Then I started on Chapter One, and things pretty much fell apart. I made three different runs at writing Chapter One via the bits-and-pieces method, and none of them worked. Part of the problem, of course, had nothing to do with the bits and pieces; it had to do with the location I started in and the resulting character reactions. The thing was, writing it in Scrivener all split up into bits and pieces made it harder for me to see what the real problem was. It wasn’t until I switched to a different word processor and had the whole chapter in one place that I could see and fix what was wrong.

I like having all my notes and character lists and throwaway ideas organized, but I don’t want them right there when I’m writing. I don’t mind having them available – currently I keep my manuscript in one file in the manuscript-only word processor, and leave Scrivener open in the taskbar so I can refer to my notes easily if I need to. For some reason, that works for me, but having them all in the same program with my first draft doesn’t. A writer’s mind is a strange and not-altogether-logical place.

For people who do like to fiddle and who do like having their work pre-split-up into easily rearrangeable chunks, or who perhaps find looking at two paragraphs or a scene or a chapter less intimidating than looking at the entirety of their manuscript thus far, or who want all their notes and reference materials right there in the sidebar all the time while they’re writing, Scrivener is just the thing.

For the curious, my current word processor is yWriter. It’s a lot like Scrivener, and I’d really rather be using the plain vanilla word processor that was my workhorse for a good fifteen years, but it doesn’t run under Windows 7. What I like best about yWriter are the statistics, especially the little box in the taskbar at the bottom that tracks wordcount – total, this chapter, and what I’ve done so far today. (Monday was bad; I clocked -47 words on Monday…) Other than that, it has a lot of bells and whistles that I can and do ignore; the main thing is that it feels comfortable and it thinks the way I do, meaning that when I want to do something a little unusual that I know a word processor ought to be able to do but that I’m not quite sure how to do in this word processor, I can almost always find it easily without looking at the documentation. MSWord thinks like an alien – in MSWord, it takes me at least ten or twelve tries to find anything, even after I’ve looked at the documentation. Scrivener is somewhere in the middle; I’ve done enough with it to be pretty sure that I could make it work for me, but it would take a while and some adjusting. yWriter works for me right now.

As Alicia said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (OK, she said it a lot more elegantly than that.)

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Stress

Stress affects everybody’s writing, one way or another, sooner or later, because stress is part of life. How stress affects people’s writing varies from writer to writers. For some folks, writing is an escape, so the more stressed they are, the more they write (though this isn’t that common among published writers, probably because it’s too hard to balance on the knife-edge of stressed-enough-to-write-but-not-so-stressed-that-there-really-isn’t-time-to-write). Other folks hit a certain level of stress, and find that it’s using every bit of energy they have just to stay alive, and there’s no energy or brain cells left over for writing. (Which can add stress, if writing is one’s main occupation and source of income.) For others, it depends on the kind of stress – if it’s outside stuff like an intense day job or the sewer backing up, they can write straight through it without blinking, but if it’s anything personal or emotional, they might as well forget it. And of course there are the folks who get stressed if they go too long without writing, because it’s a safety valve.

Everybody gets overstressed at some point, and the result can be quite dramatic in terms of productivity (and if it isn’t, you frequently end up paying for it later). And all too often, we make it worse for ourselves. Over and over, I’ve watched otherwise rational professionals fall to pieces because they’re under stress and refuse to admit it or allow for it. Writers who have a major operation or illness and refuse to ask for either help or a deadline extension, and then work themselves right back into the emergency room. Writers who’ve had a string of minor catastrophes, and who beat themselves up for not writing. (Usually, these are the sort who could sail through any one minor catastrophe without pause; it’s dealing with five or six in quick succession that’s too much. So they look at everything one at a time: the car accident that took a week and dozens of phone calls to the insurance company to settle, and the kid who fell out of the tree and broke an arm, and the water pipe that leaked three inches of water into the living room, and the refrigerator pump that failed and unfroze everything inside, and the cat who had to be rushed to the vet in the middle of the night, and the scary letter from the IRS about last year’s taxes, and it doesn’t occur to them that when all that happens in the same week, you are allowed to not get any writing done). Writers who are taking care of a seriously ill family member, and think they should do that, have a day job, and still write full time.

Some of this happens, I think, because those of us who write for a living are so very, very aware of how easy it is to find excuses not to write…and how very dangerous it is to give in to that impulse. Everybody sneers at the wannabes who only ever talk about the great story they are going to write some day…and who’ve been talking about it, and not writing a single word, for the past ten or fifteen years. But part of the reason we sneer is that we know just how little it would take for use to slide back into “some day, sooner or later” land. It took a lot of work and discipline and determination to get to the point where writing happens and pages get produced on a regular basis, and we don’t want to have to climb that hill again.

But stuff happens, and if you don’t recognize it, admit it, and deal with it, you’ll very likely be much worse off in the long run. It’s a bit like writing, or exercise, or losing weight: other people can tell you that you need to do it, but you are the only one who can actually write the words, do the pushups, lose the weight, or manage your own stress.

There are a bazillion books out there on how to manage stress, and they all say the same things and they’re all right: exercise, eat right, take care of yourself, take a break, take a walk, meditate, talk to people about it, find ways to reduce the stress if possible (move, change jobs, get a massage, change the locks on the house or the phone number, quit listening to the news, etc.), see a professional if it gets to be too much. The one thing none of them advise is ignoring the fact that you are stressed and trying to carry on normally.

The trouble is that the things that are most effective for dealing with stress all work over the long run, and we’re a quick-fix society…and most people don’t start trying to deal with stress until they’re already in over their heads and sinking.

Also, you’re never going to get rid of all the stress in your life. It simply isn’t possible. Sometimes, you can get rid of a particular stressor permanently, sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude and the degree to which you take care of yourself. And one of the important ways of taking care of yourself is to not beat yourself up when you didn’t write as much as you think you should. Much as we all love doing it, writing is not always the most important thing in the world. Not compared to, say, getting your kid to the emergency room after that bicycle accident, or rebuilding the house and community that got smashed by the tornado. As one of my editors says when a writer gets too panicky, “Babies won’t die if you’re late getting your manuscript in.”

When you are under stress, you don’t think straight. It is useful, I find, to check in once in a while and actually listen to what you are telling yourself. If you’re frustrated and cross because you want to write and don’t have time, then writing may be part of your way of coping with stress, and it’s worth making time, even just a few minutes, to do it (along with eating right, sleeping, etc.). If, however, you’re fussing about the deadline and your general lack of productivity and how you can’t possibly be a Real Writer and It Is Your Job/Duty, You Cannot Waste Valuable Writing Time…stuff it. You don’t have to write when your Mom is in the hospital or your kid is running a temperature or you’re worried sick about layoffs or the roof just blew off in a tornado. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.

Also, sometimes when you’ve been under stress for a long time and take it off suddenly, there’s a sort of rebound reaction and everything kind of collapses for a while…which can take a lot longer than you think it ought to, especially if you were holding it together long past the normal burn-out point.

When my mother died after a two-year decline into Alzheimer’s, it took me nearly four years to get back to approaching-normal. I managed to get some writing done during that time, but not nearly as much as I usually do. It taught me that if you’ve keep trying to write during a crisis when you not only don’t feel like it, but really don’t want to and don’t think you can, then a) you probably should take a break, and b) you probably don’t have to worry that you’re one of those pseudo-writers who takes any and every excuse to not-write.

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The Right Tools

Writers have promoted their favorite writing tools – each of which is different – for as long as I’ve been in the business, and probably all the way back to when the writers working on clay tablets sneered at that new-fangled papyrus stuff imported from Egypt. To some extent, it’s purely a status thing. If the guys with the clay tablets can convince people that their way is “better,” then at the least, they get looked up to as “real” writers. At best, their work will sell better or be more admired or last longer, or they’ll have an easier time finding a patron who is impressed with (and willing to fund) their supposedly-more-authentic work.

These days, though, there’s more to it than that. There’s still plenty of snobbery on display, from the folks who swear that nobody could possibly write anything decent without using a fountain pen to those who swear by the latest high-tech writing software that integrates playlists and Pinterest photos to help inspire each chapter, while tracking word count, productivity, and readability levels and generating a storyboard for each viewpoint character. But there are two things that both sides of the argument seem to leave out.

The first is that people are known to have three different modes of receiving and processing information: visual, aural, and kinesthetic. Everybody uses all three modes to some extent, but usually one is primary. For most of us, that’s the visual one. Those computer programs are good at that; they let you see lots of text and integrate photos, or do diagrams and storyboards that help visualize the story in different ways.

Computers also have a lot to offer those who like the aural mode – there are speech-to-text programs (and text-to-speech, if you want a flat computer rendition of your prose), and lots of places that will help you organize a play list of music that “fits” whatever you happen to be writing. If you want something simpler, there are hand-held recorders that you can dictate to, then download and transcribe.

But computers aren’t that great for those who are strongly kinesthetic. Keyboards have moved to a lighter and lighter touch, in the interest of speeding up touch-typing; the carriage return is long gone, along with rolling paper into a typewriter. What’s left is pen and paper, which impart a lot more physicality to the act of writing than any other currently available method.

Most of the paper-and-pen writers I’ve run into don’t think about it this way, but…they wax rhapsodic about the feel of a fountain pen gliding across a sheet of heavy, watermarked paper. They debate the advantages of ball-points compared to roller balls, fountain pens versus dipping pens: is it better to be able to keep going without having to stop when you’re on a roll, or do you get better results when you’re forced to stop every so often to re-ink the pen?

It’s no surprise that different writers have different favorite methods of production. It’s also no surprise that you hear a subset of editors and writers complain that computers have made writing “too easy” – the ability to keep changing and rearranging things with little effort makes for poorer quality work, they claim.

Having done some time teaching writing classes, I can attest to the fact that there are students out there whose stories suffer from “workshop burn” – that is, they’ve been rewritten and revised so many times that they’re like silver plate that’s been polished down to the copper. However, I don’t think that this is an inevitable result of using a word processing program; after all, I had fifteen students in that class, and only one had a story that plainly exhibited workshop burn. I think this problem is a function of a particular type of personality – the people who do this would try to do it even if they were working with chisels and stone tablets. The computer certainly enables them to take things to an extreme, but that’s not really the computer’s fault.

What all this boils down to is that when somebody says they work better with pen in hand, or music playing, or total quiet, it is probably quite true…for them. Persuading them to do something different, just because that’s what works for you, is probably a bad idea (unless what they are doing is manifestly not working for them, in which case “try something else” is the obvious solution).

I should also point out that many of us use different tools at different points in the process. Some writers handwrite their first draft, then type it into their computer for revision. I compose at the computer, but I frequently use pen-and-paper to diagram my plots and character relationships. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Which brings me to the second thing that gets left out of the argument:

None of the tools of writing will do the writing for you. Not the computer, not the electric typewriter, not the Bic pen, not a quill dipped in ink, not a brush painting on papyrus or silk, not a chisel on a stone slab. All the tools can do is to make the process work a little better, a little more easily, for you.

And while I don’t know even one writer who wouldn’t be exceedingly glad to discover a way of making their personal writing process a little bit easier, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Or no return at all. If you are a strongly kinesthetic writer, you might find writing a bit more fun or productive if you switch from a computer to handwriting with pen and paper. Spending six months testing every brand of fountain pen on the market to find the one with the perfect touch is unlikely to be worth the effort, especially if you are using it as a Writing Avoidance Technique. (If it’s something you’re doing in your spare, non-writing time, for fun, go for it.)

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Edges

Ever since the invention of the assembly line, one of the fundamental assumptions of our culture has been that the most effective way of getting something done is to break the job down into small pieces or steps that get you from where you are to where you want to be. It’s a very effective approach for doing everything from making an omelet to assembling a car or a space station, from planning a wedding to learning to speak a foreign language.

To apply this approach to things that don’t have actual physical pieces that need to be put together, one has to begin by defining and describing the pieces. This can be tricky to do when you can’t see an actual widget in front of you. Nonetheless, the break-it-into-steps approach is basis of nearly every get-organized-and-accomplish-stuff system I have ever seen, from really high-level business models like Gant charts and critical-path models to magazine articles on how to arrange your kitchen.

The models that deal specifically with non-physical things like setting goals or managing business projects or learning a language differ in their details, but they implicitly agree on one thing: the importance of “edges.” By this they mean that when you define and describe the pieces that you are later going to assemble as part of your plan, they need to be clear and crisp and not overlap. It’s like drawing out the shapes of jigsaw puzzle pieces; if they don’t have nice, clean edges that interlock neatly, they won’t fit together later.

We do this with writing, the same as with everything else. English and literature classes teach us to analyze fiction into parts: character, setting, plot; theme, idea, atmosphere. Critique groups and writing blogs encourage it, because you have to break things down into pieces in order to figure out what’s wrong (and often, what to do about it).

The trouble is that the pieces of writing aren’t like the parts of a toaster. They aren’t made of metal or wood that stays in one specific shape and belongs in one specific place. They’re more like bits of wet clay: You can line them up in a row, and each bit is distinctly itself and clearly one particular shape and size, but as soon as you start putting them together, the edges disappear. They become one mass. Not only that, but if you pick up one of the bits and squeeze it or roll it between your fingers, the shape changes. It still has edges, but they’re in a different place.

This is extremely confusing for people who have been raised to break things down into pieces, on the assumption that this will help them put the pieces back together in the right places. With wet clay, there isn’t a “right place” for a particular bit of clay, and the bits of clay are pretty interchangeable because of the way you can reshape them. You have a shape that you are trying to create, and it needs a bit more mass on this side, but it doesn’t matter whether you grab one large bit or three small ones to bulk out that section.

And while some bits of writing can belong very clearly to one category or another, it is far more common for them to do several things at once. For example: “Martha had always hated the heavy bronze statuette of MacBeth’s three witches that stood on the corner of her grandmother’s mantelpiece.” That sentence tells the reader something about both Martha and the grandmother who owns the statuette; it also describes part of the setting (the statuette and the existence of the mantelpiece). So it has both characterization and setting. It could very well be related to theme, plot, or idea, depending on where the story goes (the statue is a murder weapon three chapters later; the witches are a recurring motif; the statuette is actually magical).

That sentence does not have the kinds of edges we’re used to. It’s possible to break it apart somewhat to provide them, but doing isn’t an improvement, to my thinking: “A heavy bronze statuette stood on the corner of the mantelpiece. It depicted the three witches from MacBeth. Martha had always hated that statuette. It belonged to her grandmother.” And even then, there’s really no way to separate the “setting and background description” part from the “plot relevant set-up for murder in Chapter 3” part.

In short, it is highly desirable for fiction to have muddled-together edges. To use another metaphor, writing fiction is like making a cake in this regard – it can be very useful to lay out all the ingredients in advance, all measured and methodical, but if you then dump the flour in a pan, set the two eggs on top, lay half a stick of butter next to the eggs, pour a cup of sugar on top of that, and then shove the pan in the oven without mixing, you aren’t going to get a very good cake.

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Worst and Best Advice

“What are the three worst or best bits of writing advice you’ve ever been given?”

Somebody asked me that a while back, and it took me a while to come up with a reasonable answer, because at least one of them was perfectly horrible advice for me…but it would have been very fine advice for several of my friends. And usually when people ask what the best or worst advice is, it’s because they want to know which bits of common writing advice they can ignore, or which bits they need to pay particular attention to. Unfortunately, a lot of writing doesn’t work like that.

The “first worst” bit of writing advice is one of those “bad for me, but maybe good for you” ones: Write short stories first, and then “move up” to writing a novel. The reasoning behind this piece of advice came in two main parts: 1) Short stories are short, maybe 5-10% as many words as a novel. So going by word count, a novice writer could write ten to twenty short stories in the time it would take him/her to write a novel, which would give said writer lots of practice in all the things one needs to do to complete a story and lots of practice in the submitting/selling side of things. 2) It is a lot easier to sell a novel if you have a track record of finishing and selling other things, which of course writing short stories would allow you to do. (Ha!) There was also 3) Novels are Big Important Literary things, which ought not to be tackled by novices; if you didn’t start with short fiction and Pay Your Dues and Learn Your Craft and Demonstrate Your Worth, the Novel Police would come and haul you off to Alcatraz or Siberia or somewhere similar.

Unfortunately, #1 and #3 are total strike-outs. I have never met a writer who could write twenty 5,000 word short stories or ten 10,000 word short stories in the same amount of time it took them to write a novel. I know very, very few writers who can write a novel in the same amount of time it took them to write their last novel. It just doesn’t work that way. And there aren’t any novel police, however much some folks seem to wish there were. Editors aren’t even Novel Police; they don’t reject novels because You Have Not Demonstrated Your Worth, they reject them because their list is full or they don’t think they can sell enough copies to break even.

As for #2 – it is technically true that IF you have a track record of finishing and selling short stories, selling your first novel will probably be easier, but getting that track record depends on actually finishing and selling things. And if you are, as I am, a natural novelist, it will be a whole lot easier to write a passable first novel over the course of five years than it will be to write four or five dreadful and unpublishable “short stories” that are more like novel outlines than short stories. As a result, you will get farther, faster, by following your own inclination than by trying to base your choice of what to write on math, logic, or someone else’s “shoulds.” Yes, that means that if you are a natural short story writer, you can wave this particular bit of writing advice at people who insist that you should write novels (because you can’t make a living any more writing short fiction).

The second worst bit of writing advice I got early on is another one of those “bad for me, maybe not for you” ones: Don’t talk about your stories to anyone until you have written them. The theory behind this one seems to be 1) telling people the story will kill your desire to write it and/or 2) if you talk about it, people will give you advice and you might – oh, horror! – be influenced by them! In this case, #1 is most definitely true for some writers (undoubtedly the ones who made up this advice are among them), and most definitely not true for me and many of my other pro-writer friends, who sit around happily discussing our plots for months while our books are under development. If you are a talking-kills-the-book writer, then don’t talk; if you are a talking-gets-me-excited-and-motivated writer, take your friends out for a gab fest.

#2 places some kind of primacy on the author’s original, pristine vision or inspiration…which frankly does not deserve this kind of veneration. Well, not unless you hang out with a bunch of really stupid people who give you bad advice, but I hang out with smart people who point out my plot holes and throw out tidbits that spark other ideas and generally make my books far better than they would otherwise be. I don’t see how influence that improves my work is a bad thing.

The third worse bit of advice was the classic “Write what you know.” Fortunately for me, I write fantasy, and as it is a) blatantly obvious that neither I nor anyone else can ever know what it is really like to live with a dragon or cast a magic spell, and b) equally obvious that lots of writers produce stacks of fantasy novels and make their livings doing so, I never really took this one seriously. I was, in fact, badly taken aback when a high-school student who had swallowed this advice hook, line, and sinker, asked me, in all seriousness, whether he should ride his bicycle off his parents’ garage in order to “come as close to flying as possible.” I spent considerable time saying “no, certainly not!” in as many ways as I could think of, along with pointing out that people who write murder mysteries are not all murderers.

I am still more than a little bemused by the number of would-be writers who really, really seem to want to follow all this bad advice (sometimes demanding exact details as to how many times they should visit a place before they “know” it well enough to write about it, or precisely how many short stories they have to write before they are “allowed” to write a novel…even after I have said, as plainly as I know how, that these bits of writing advice do not work for every writer, and that they have to discover for themselves whether they are among the folks it works for.

The best advice I ever got, on the other hand, applies to every writer I have ever met: Write. Finish it. If you want to be published, send it out and keep sending it out. This, too, is common knowledge, partly because it is pretty much the first piece of writing advice most published novelists give out when they are asked. Would-be writers keep coming up to me with this same question, though, and I can’t help thinking that it is because they are hoping to get some other answer.

They won’t get it from me.

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Recruiting Extras

I keep running into the problem of “the main characters seem to be the only people in the setting.” Might I beg a post on how to do crowd scenes (or scenes in general) where there are lots of people in the background? –Question from Deep Lurker

First off, the writer has to be aware. If your attention is focused too tightly on your main characters, then it won’t occur to you that there is anyone else present, and if you don’t realize that there are other folks around, you won’t think to mention them. Awareness usually starts with pausing briefly before (or sometimes during) a scene to ask “Who else could be around?”

The answer to this depends on the place, time, and current action of the scene. A public marketplace is likely to be crowded at noon and empty at midnight…but at midnight you could have street sweepers, police or city guards, lamplighters, and even a vendor who’s still packing up. At noon, you could have not only vendors and shoppers, but police, pickpockets, and someone busking for the crowd. And if the action involves the Zombie Apocalypse in progress, then there isn’t likely to be anyone at the market no matter what time of day it is.

You aren’t looking for new characters here. You’re looking for extras – the people walking along a crowded New York City sidewalk, the sightseers at the Eiffel Tower, the fans in town for the World Cup, the 295 other soldiers in the battalion your 5 main characters belong to. Also, at this point you aren’t saying they are present; you are just saying they could be, that this is a place and time and circumstance where you wouldn’t be surprised to run into someone like them.

If you are doing this for the first time, or if you are a very analytical sort, you may want to make an actual list. I usually just think for a minute about what kinds of people might be present, especially the ones who might be a little less obvious (and hence, to me, more interesting). If I come up with someone who is very non-obvious and I am pretty sure I want to use him/her, I might jot that one down somewhere so I don’t forget about them when I’m writing the scene. Because that’s the next step: making some tentative decisions about which of those possible people you actually want to use in the scene (as opposed to having them be present by implication).

(Implication is the second bit that trips up a lot of writers. If they set their scene “in a crowded market” in the first line, they figure the crowd has been established, and is there by implication through the next three to six pages of scene, even if they never mention it again. This happens not to be the case.)

How you use your extras will likely affect which ones you pick from your “possibly on stage” list to actually be on stage, i.e., get mentioned. The following is a non-exhaustive list of ways to think of and use your extras; pick the ones that suit your style and process, try to throw in some of the others once in a while for variety, and then try making up some new ones of your own.

Part of the Background: If your main characters are at a large party, there are other people around. They will be dressed appropriately and doing party things – if it’s a Victorian ball, some will be dancing; if it’s a modern cocktail party, people will be standing around with liquor glasses; if it’s a 1930s card party, everyone will be sitting at little tables with stacks of cards. Periodically, these background people will do something – change partners, refill their glass, shuffle and deal the cards. This is part of the setting, and you work bits into the scene every so often as they impinge on your viewpoint character, because this is nearly always a more effective way of conveying the background than putting everything in one large lump of description at the start of the scene and then ignoring the setting completely for the next three to six pages. If your main characters are walking down the street or moving from room to room, mention the people they pass as well as the furnishings or buildings.

Pacing your characters: Your extras will not be standing around doing nothing, but what they do is not vital to your plot – that is, after all, why they’re extras. However, while your main characters are having their intense, plot-relevant conversation, there will come times when you want a pause in the dialog. One way of doing this is with stage business – having the next character sip her cocktail or fiddle with his car keys – but another way is to have a character (or the narrator) notice what else is going on (the band has switched to a slow dance; the woman arguing about the price of baskets is leaving in a huff). This works especially well when the POV character needs to pause and think for a moment, but you don’t want to actually show every bit of his/her internal monolog because he/she is going to repeat most of it out loud in the next line.

Pacing yourself: Sometimes, you need a break in the conversation or the action because you need to give the reader a moment to absorb all the information you’ve just provided. Sometimes, you get to a point in a conversation where you go completely blank about what gets said next. Having an extra interrupt briefly (“Would you like another cocktail, madame?”) can allow enough of a break in the conversation to let you start over. You don’t want to use this one too often, as it gets a little obvious, but it can get a stuck scene moving again in an emergency.

Characterization: What people notice tells you something about them, whether it’s about who/what they find interesting (Character A always notices the pretty girls; Character B spots every concealed weapon on casual passers-by) or about whether their attention is wandering away from the current conversation. This is mostly useful for the POV, unless she’s B and A is really obvious about checking out the hot chicks.

Worldbuilding: Whatever your extras are doing in the background, it is likely to be whatever typical people of the particular place, time, and culture do in these circumstances. If there are interesting differences – say, whenever a deal is successfully concluded at the market, the seller shoots purple sparks into the air – you can mention your extras doing them, and allow your main characters to notice and react (if they are unfamiliar with the custom, or irritated by it), or ignore it the way people ignore billboards when they’re driving. Either way, you imply something about the culture and your main characters, while mentioning that there are other people around doing things.

Chorus/Reaction: If your main characters are doing something that attracts attention, like a fight or some showy magic or a dangerous public rescue, they are in all likelihood going to end up with a crowd of gawkers, who can be made to gasp, shout encouragement, or heckle, depending on what’s going on. Only rarely do you want everyone in the crowd reacting exactly the same way (you don’t want to create a laugh track for your story), but you can give similar reactions on the same scale (say, the guy edging along the ledge twenty stories up seems to slip; you could have several of the watchers gasp, one give a high-pitched inappropriate laugh, and a woman look away while covering her child’s eyes with her hand. That’s three different specific reactions, but all of them boil down to “OMG, he almost fell!” And it establishes that there are a bunch of people watching).

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Not from Around Here

Lurker, I’ll get to your crowd post next.

Every so often, I am reminded that not everyone lives in Minnesota. I was reminded of this forcibly a few years back at a fabulous Minicon panel at which five editors graciously consented to, in essence, read slush for an audience. The idea was that they would take Page One of various stories that folks had submitted and then each of them would say whether they would read further or reject the story, and why.

It was a really remarkable panel, and I sat there nodding through the first three or four submission-explanations, until they got to the one set on the first day of a summer camp in the north woods, where the head councilor was lecturing campers about not feeding the bears. The editorial feedback began with an editor complaining that the situation was totally unbelievable; nobody would build a summer camp where there were bears, and if they did, nobody would send their children to it.

She was taken aback when almost the entire audience burst into laughter, because if you are going to build a summer camp in the Minnesota woods, you’d have considerable trouble finding a place that doesn’t have any bears around. Heck, the city of Duluth routinely has problems with bears scavenging at the city dump, and at least one got as far south as the Twin Cities in the last twenty years, if I remember the news reports correctly.

This comes to mind because I’ve spent the last week working on the first chapter of The New Thing, and most of that chapter is set at the Minnesota State Fair. (Which cleverly gave me an excuse to visit the fair three times during its twelve-day run, gorging on fried olives-on-a-stick, cheese curds, Sweet Martha’s cookies, and other traditional State Fair foods, as well as spending lots of time in the Creative Arts building and wandering around the Midway…but I digress.)

The Minnesota State Fair is a really big deal around here; everybody knows about it, even those who’ve never been in their lives. It’s on every TV station and radio show (most local stations have a booth at the fair and do at least some of their broadcasts from there while the fair is going on). It’s inescapable.

Most of my readership, however, does not live in Minnesota. They don’t know about the “food on a stick” tradition (which includes everything from common stuff like corn dogs and cotton candy to deep fried pickle, lobster, and fudge), or about numerous other fair traditions like the butter heads and crop art. And as if that were not enough, there is one other important consideration.

Neither my editors nor my agent live in Minnesota.

What all this means is that using the State Fair as a setting for Chapter One is a fairly tricky balancing act. On the one hand, I have oodles of real-life material. On the other hand, some of it is likely to raise questions from my editors if I don’t handle it right (fried crocodile on a stick? Really?). On the third hand, I’m only setting the first chapter at the fair; after that, everybody goes Elsewhere, and I don’t want the fair itself to be so interesting that my readers are disappointed when they get to the other world where they’re going to spend the rest of the book.

And honestly, coming up with an Elsewhere that is weirder and more wonderful than the Minnesota State Fair is hard.

So the task boils down to writing a Chapter One in which I 1) portray the fair’s weirdness accurately, 2) but in a way that is convincing and believable for people who aren’t familiar with it, while 3) not making it too interesting compared to the rest of the book.

This can be harder than it sounds. Several times over the past umpty years, I’ve read books where the writer did a brilliant portrayal of a part of the country they knew well (Georgia, North Dakota, small town Manitoba, south Florida, Arizona), and then veered off into a more-or-less standard Magic World that was much less well-realized…and consequently, much less interesting to me, as a reader. (In most cases, the reviewers agreed with me on that score.)

The problem, I think, was that the writer was so familiar with the place that to them it was not interesting – it was just an ordinary spot that they wanted to escape, preferably as quickly as possible. Whereas for their readers, it was the fantasy world that they’d seen before, and the real-world setting that was new and strange and fascinating.

Writers need to be aware of this on two counts: First, things they take for granted (like bears and fried-crocodile-on-a-stick) may not seem believable to readers who aren’t from around here (wherever “here” is), and therefore, may need more setup and clarity than the writer expects; and second, incorporating some of the ordinary, everyday, uniquely local traditions into one’s fantasy world may make it a lot more interesting to those same readers.

Now all I need is a reason for people in my other world to dress llamas in costumes and eat deep fried Twinkies-on-a-stick…

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Crowd control

There are two basic problems with controlling a mob of characters: juggling all their individual stories throughout a book, and juggling their conversations when all of them are in the same place and trying to talk at the same time.

The simplest solution to both problems is, obviously, to cut some of the characters, either out of a scene or out of the book entirely. Cutting characters out of the story can be hard to reconcile oneself to, but quite often it results in a tighter, more effective story, especially if the writer is not terribly good at juggling multiple backstories and conversations just yet. Surprisingly often, it results in a more interesting story, because cutting one or two characters forces the writer to consider alternate possibilities.

For example, one writer I knew started with an ensemble group of five main characters. Unfortunately, her world-building included a society that mandated early marriage and treating couples as a single unit (i.e., if you hire an engineer for a project, his/her spouse is part of the package). This instantly ballooned the cast to ten characters, and she hadn’t even gotten around to the bad guys yet.

First question was, did she really need all five of the main characters as she had originally conceived them, or could one of them be the spouse of one of the others? That worked, so she was down from ten characters to eight. Next question: could one of the characters be a widow/widower? That also worked, and provided an interesting opportunity to show how the society would deal with the inadvertently single. What about a gay couple? That didn’t work for the story, but she filed it as an interesting idea to explore at some other time. She was left with five main characters, but only two extra spouses, which was a vast improvement.

Cutting out characters can frequently be done by combining roles. For instance, in the current WIP, I started with a Head Minion, Evil Aunt, Evil Uncle, and Sort-of-Evil Cousin, among others. When I decided I needed to pare down the number of people, I looked at that and realized that there was no reason why the Head Minion couldn’t have gotten his position by marrying the Dark Lord’s sister, thus combining the roles of Head Minion and Evil Uncle in one person.

Cutting characters out of a scene is usually a matter of finding them something else to do while the scene is taking place. “I’d love to come to your meeting with the King of Somewhere and provide you with good advice, dear, but there’s a dragon attacking the town just to the west and I have to go sort it out.”

Sooner or later, however, one gets to a scene where everybody has to be present. Often, this is the Big Climax of the novel, and one can sometimes reduce the numbers present by killing off or disabling a couple of folks along the way. Still, there are probably far more people present than can have a reasonable conversation.

So think about a giant dinner party in real life. Four people at one table can all talk to each other at once, taking turns listening and speaking. Six people can do it sometimes, but if the center of the conversation is at one end of the table, the two people at the other end often start their own conversation. So with six people, you sometimes have one large conversation going, and sometimes two small ones. Anything more than six people is almost always split into two or three two-to-four-person individual conversations. It’s what people can hear and participate in over a distance.

This is surprisingly easy to adapt to writing. First, you figure out where everybody is in this giant scene. If it is a battle, and you have seven or more people involved, they will probably end up in different places, which means that instead of juggling seven-plus people in one scene, the writer can write three to seven individual scenes, each focused on just one or two characters and what is happening to them. Juggling then becomes a matter of cutting and pasting them into the most pleasing order.

If you have something like the grand finale of Mairelon the Magician, where I had sixteen characters in a room at once, all with different agendas and different ideas of what it was important to talk about…well, then you have to juggle the presentation of all the conversational bits. This means you have to figure out who is talking to whom (which starts with who is standing close enough to whom to be heard), and what sorts of overlapping conversations they are all likely to have.

You also have to consider your viewpoint. I like first-person and tight-third person, which give me a nice, clear way of organizing and juggling all the various two-to-three-person conversations going on: they are all filtered through what my viewpoint character is paying attention to at any given moment. If she’s talking to someone, all the other conversations are going to be like bits and pieces overheard in a restaurant; if she’s keeping quiet, she’ll pay the most attention to the people she thinks are the biggest threat or the most likely to have important or pertinent information or ideas.

I don’t tend to plan out my crowd scenes in any more detail than I do most of my other scenes, which is to say that if I am not sure who is where or how various moves will work, I sometimes do a sort of football-play-type diagram with letters representing characters and arrows showing how they’d move or respond to someone else’s movement. That works best for fight scenes, though there have occasionally been tea parties where I needed to know who was where and whether they had a clear route to an exit or a hiding place.

More usually, I have a clear idea of what everyone thinks they are about to do (which generally does not include the presence of any of the other characters – most of my crowd scenes are a surprise to the participants, these days), and then I just start with my main character and let her observe as people arrive. Every page or so, I stop to make sure that I haven’t lost track of anyone – even if the villain is in the middle of the traditional monolog, the viewpoint can see other people reacting in fear or loathing or exasperation, or sneaking off to hide behind the arras, or fiddling with their teacups. More usually, I have several two-to-five line excerpts from one two-to-three person conversation, then two-to-five-lines from a different one, as my viewpoint character tries to keep track of what everyone is doing and saying. If it gets too chaotic, I figure one of the characters will get fed up and yell “Silence!” loud enough to make everybody stop for a minute and start over.

It does take a fair amount of rewriting to make the conversation snippets in a mass crowd scene flow well. Sometimes, you can rearrange them; other times, one set has to come in a certain order, so all you can do is spread it out a bit and interpolate bits of other conversations, so that none of the other speakers gets lost. In the rewrite, the thing to keep an eye on is how long it has been since the last time each of the characters was mentioned. They don’t have to have actually said something; they can roll their eyes or scuff their feet or give some physical reaction to what someone else is saying. You just want to remind the readers who all is present, so that nobody will be shocked when someone who hasn’t been mentioned for ten or fifteen pages suddenly says something. (You also want to keep track of anybody who leaves; it is extremely awkward to have somebody deliver several crucial lines of dialog and then discover that they left the room five pages earlier.)

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