Submitting Things

Query letters and story synopses are part of most writing careers at some point, unless one starts off self-publishing and sticks to it relentlessly. For the rest of us, querying agents and editors is part of the business, and so is preparing various sorts of submission packages. Consequently, it behooves anyone hoping for a professional writing career to be familiar with the various aspects of the process.

There are three important things to understand about the submission process:

  1. What the editor/agent says, goes.

Editors and agents, especially those with a lot of experience, usually have a good idea of what they want to see from an author. Sometimes, what they want to see is a bit idiosyncratic. Sometimes, what they ask for seems downright odd, particularly if one is talking about an experienced editor making a request from an established author whose work they are already familiar with…or from a newer author whom the editor has noticed without said author being aware of it.

Trust that they know how to do their job. If you have read two trillion web sites and a library’s worth of how-to-write books that all agree that a portion-and-outline should consist of a synopsis and first three chapters, but Ms. Professional Editor asks you to send a log line and the first and last chapters, send her what she says she wants. If Mr. Professional Agent states explicitly that he wants to see ten pages of storyboard instead of the regulation plot-outline, send him that.

But… do not send those things to anyone else, unless they, too, explicitly ask for them. “Explicitly ask for them” means that either a) they have written submission guidelines that say “Send me a ten-page storyboard,” or b) they have made this request directly to you, either face to face at a convention (and if it was 3 a.m. in the bar, it would be wise to politely confirm next day that this is really what they want to see) or in an email or letter addressed to you. Note that a) implies that you always, always, always check the publisher or agency submission guidelines. Because even if what the publisher wants to see is fairly standard, there’s a lot of leeway in “fairly standard” – some places want a one-page query letter, some want the initial contact to be a portion-and-outline, some want a query-and-outline, etc. Check.

Also note that this is the first point for a reason. If the editor or agent to whom you are submitting asks for something that goes totally against all the advice in this blog, ignore the advice and give them what they’re asking for (assuming that it’s legal and morally acceptable to you).

  1. Submitting a story for publication is a professional move, regardless of who, what, or where you are submitting it.

Query letters and partial submissions are professional documents. They should look and sound like it, even if the editor in question is your high school BFF. Small presses and micro-circulation magazines are often put out by people who work for the love of it; they deserve to be treated at least as professionally as editors at the big houses. Professional documents are not cutesy; they are not covered in My Little Pony stickers or delivered in pizza boxes; they do not attempt to attract attention by using exploding glitter or other cheap tricks that every editor in the business has seen a zillion times before.

Professional documents are, well, professional: they get the job done clearly and concisely, wasting as little of the recipient’s time and energy as possible. Yes, this means that you give the editor/agent enough information to decide quickly that this story is not right for their line/magazine, and to reject it. If that’s what they’re going to do anyway, it’s better for both of you to get it over with fast. This also means that you do not submit your grim and bloody horror novel to a line of police procedural mysteries on the extremely thin ground that yours has a policeman in it and he follows procedures for the first ten chapters until the zombies eat him. And it means that no matter how emotionally invested you are in making this sale, you neither explode in angry death threats nor blubber and beg if/when an editor or agent rejects the story. You chalk it up as another $%#^ learning experience, and move on without further comment.

  1. A query letter is not a back blurb, and a cover letter is not a query.

A back blurb is a marketing teaser aimed at a lone reader who will be risking $10 and a couple of hours of time on buying one copy; a query letter is a professional sales document aimed at an editor who represents a publishing house and who will be risking a sizeable chunk of his/her employer’s money (and in some cases, his/her job) on producing, publicizing, and distributing thousands of copies in hopes of ending up in the black. These situations are not comparable.

Queries are almost an art form in themselves. A query needs to be clear and concise and accurate, and as objective as possible. You know that “show, don’t tell” advice that gets hammered at on every how-to-write website and in every writing book ever written? This is where you apply it.

The difference between a cover letter and a query is that a query gets sent off all by itself; a cover letter accompanies a portion-and-outline, a partial, or a complete draft of a manuscript. Consequently, a cover letter doesn’t need to include a synopsis of the story – that’s in the accompanying material. All a cover letter really needs to say is “Dear Editor: Here is my book. I hope you buy it. If not, please dispose of the ms./return the ms. in the enclosed SASE. Sincerely, The Author.” There is no point in getting creative with a cover letter, because a lot of editors don’t even read them until after they have read the portion or the manuscript or whatever came with.

All of these points can be summed up by saying that the purpose of a submission packet, whether it is a one-page query letter, a portion-and-outline, or a 500-page finished manuscript with extensive notes on the next six books in a proposed series, is to persuade an editor or agent to move to the next stage in the process. “The next stage” after a query letter may be a request for a portion-and-outline, for a partial manuscript, or for the completed draft. “The next stage” after submitting a completed ms. may be a request for revisions and resubmission or the offer of a contract. It doesn’t matter; the above principles still apply.

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Multiple viewpoint, part 2

As I said last week, multiple viewpoint is most commonly used these days for writing ensemble cast or braided plot novels, and for these, one usually ends up with a more-or-less balanced word count for each POV character. The most obvious case of this is the alternating-viewpoint novel, where there are two viewpoint characters who alternate scenes or chapters. If the chapters are roughly the same length, the viewpoints will obviously be balanced in terms of word count.

Chronology is the biggest peril of the alternating-viewpoint or balanced-braid story. It is extremely easy to find oneself in a situation where one of the viewpoints has more important stuff happening today than will fit into their allotted chapter, while the other viewpoint character is supposed to spend a week traveling to somewhere else with not much happening. The author is then faced with the choice of either figuring out something interesting to happen to Character B (which frequently comes across feeling like unnecessary padding), or else dropping the alternating-viewpoint structure and letting Character A have two or three chapters (which nearly always ends up making the book into Character A’s story, rather than the dual-plotline the author started off envisioning).

The second biggest peril of alternating-viewpoints is that it isn’t enough to balance the word-count or scene count; the plot interest and contribution of each character has to be equally interesting to the reader. Too often, a writer starts with two interesting characters, but one of them develops more and/or in a more interesting direction than the other. Or one ends up with a lot more invested in the outcome than the other. By mid-book, the reader is skimming A’s chapters and devouring B’s, which usually does not end well for the author.

Fortunately, the multiple-viewpoint technique does not actually require that the word-count be balanced among POV characters. Not all stories are true ensemble cast stories, or balanced braided storylines.

Strongly plot-centered stories can use viewpoint changes to keep events driving forward regardless of who is present. The narrative starts with the mad scientist dropping the beaker of zombie virus, cuts to the cheerleader who’s the first victim, then to her waiting father, then the beat cop who finds the body. Eventually we get to the medical researcher who’s the main character hunting for a cure, and the viewpoint will keep coming back to her, but it’ll still cut away to the truck driver who’s trying to get through to her with the crucial supplies, the panicked general who wants to call in a nuclear strike, or anybody else who will keep events moving and tension escalating. Many of the “viewpoint characters” have only one or two scenes; the crucial factor in deciding who has the next viewpoint is “What is the next dramatic thing that happens, anywhere, that moves the plot forward?”

On the other hand, additional viewpoints can be added as embellishments to a story that is strongly centered on one character and/or limited to one place. Most of the scenes are from the main character’s viewpoint, but much shorter secondary viewpoint scenes are used from time to time to provide an outside or alternative view of the main character, to move the plot forward when the main character is mentally or emotionally stuck, or to expand the scope of the story by letting the reader glimpse how events are affecting people/places that are far away from and/or unconnected to the central story.

Multi-century or multiple-generation sagas pretty much require the viewpoint to change as the original characters die off, and the word count for these new characters often increases as the story builds to its eventual climax. These stories sometimes divide the main story into sections, with the first section from one viewpoint, the second from the viewpoint of that character’s children or grandchildren, the third section from the viewpoint(s) of great-grandchildren, and so on. Or, one can tell the first part from the POV of Character A, the second from the POV of the child of Character A’s arch-enemy/rival, etc.

All of the above methods allow the author to sidestep the problem of keeping the time line in step. If the main character has a lot going on Tuesday, the author can spend most of a chapter on those scenes, nip off for a one-page summary of the one important thing that’s happened to Character B, and then go back to finish up A’s day. If C is traveling for a week, the rest of the POV characters get scenes but C doesn’t…or if the writer needs a little break, C gets a two-paragraph scene describing how he/she is sitting in the dining car of the train enjoying a prime rib and a fine Merlot while wondering what everyone else is up to.

Another possibility is a “chunk” structure, in which the story is divided into several multi-chapter sections, each from a different viewpoint. This, too, avoids the problem of keeping the viewpoints’ chronologically synchronized, but it requires a storyline that’s strong enough to carry the reader through the change in viewpoint. The problem is that if the reader gets deeply invested in POV character A, and then the story switches to POV B without resolving A’s part of the story, it can throw the reader out of the book…but if character A’s story is resolved too completely before switching to B’s viewpoint, the “novel” quickly starts feeling like a fix-up composed of related short stories or novellas.

And, of course, there are stories that assign each subplot to a different viewpoint character, allowing readers and writers to keep track of Subplot Y by reading all of Character E’s viewpoint scenes. In fact, there are whole writing systems based on variations of this idea. Most usually, they start by allocating the majority of the word count and scene count to the main POV and central plot, then they assign a lesser percentage to minor viewpoint characters, depending on the intended length of the book and the role of the minor POV (romantic interest, sidekick, minor opposition, main villain, etc.). Alternatively, some systems assign wordcount/number of scenes to each subplot and only then assign POV characters to each of the differing plotlines. I don’t have a lot of use for these systems as a way of constructing and planning a novel, but occasionally this kind of formula can help when one has gotten totally tangled up in possible viewpoints and potential subplots.

Because “multiple viewpoint” can be used in so many different ways, it is usually a good idea to do some up-front thinking about why one is using it, which way one intends to use it, and how one expects it to contribute to the excellence of the story. Sometimes “I want to see if I can write an alternating-viewpoint story” is a good enough reason, but if that’s the goal, then one has to be willing to shuffle story elements and events around until both viewpoints are balanced (otherwise, readers are likely to get more interested in one character than the other, and start skipping every other chapter). “I love both these characters and want to write both of them” may mean that you need two different books, not two viewpoints in this book – or that it’ll work better if A is your main, central viewpoint and B is a secondary/subplot viewpoint, instead of trying to keep them equally balanced. It’s a lot harder to change this kind of thing when you have 20,000 words of strict (and unnecessary) alteration under your belt.

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Multiple viewpoint, part 1

Let me start by defining “multiple viewpoint.” A multiple-viewpoint story is one in which the scenes, chapters, or sections are written either from the point of view of different characters, or using different types of viewpoint (e.g. first person for the first scene/section/chapter, tight-third for the second), or both.

Allow me to say that again: In a multiple-viewpoint story, the viewpoint character changes, or the type of viewpoint changes, or both things change, from one part of the story to another.

This means that “multiple viewpoint” is not a type of viewpoint like first-person, omniscient, etc. I’ve referred to it before as a structure, but really it’s more of an extremely flexible structural technique, one that can be used with any viewpoint type and with many, if not all, different story structures. It has become more and more popular as writers who’ve grown up with TV and movies tackle sprawling epics (like The Game of Thrones) with ensemble casts, but the form itself has been around for a long, long time.

Currently, the most common use of multiple viewpoint is to present the reader with an ensemble cast who have overlapping stories. Each major character has scenes or chapters for which they are the viewpoint; most of these are written in tight third-person (though if one or more of the characters is a bad guy, their scenes are often done in camera-eye to keep from giving away too much too soon). The central plot goal is something that is vitally important to all the characters, like “how are we going to survive this hurricane/earthquake/shipwreck/exploding volcano?”, but since each character has a different idea of what the best thing to do is, their stories are all different. As a result, they lead each character to a different ending. Since they’re all aiming for the same goal, each character’s efforts also tend to help or hinder the efforts of other characters (whether on purpose or accidentally), which tangles all the individual plotlines into one giant plot web.

This kind of story allows a writer to take a single event – the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, for instance – and examine the reasons why some of the citizens of Pompeii left early enough to escape, while others did not. Instead of following only one main character, who can perforce make only one set of decisions, the writer gets to show several possibilities: the character who hides inside a building in hopes of waiting out the eruption, the one who decides to take the chance of heading to the harbor or down the coastal road, the thief who returns in search of loot, the son who returns in search of his elderly mother. Viewpoint characters can die. They don’t all have to be sympathetic or admirable. In essence, the writer gets to pick several different branches of the decision tree, instead of having to stick to only one.

Juggling all these different, intertwined stories is seldom easy, and the more of them there are, the harder it gets. Unfortunately, quite a few writers don’t realize this in time. Multiple viewpoint is a bit like omniscient in that the writer has to decide where the limits are; one can use any character as a viewpoint, but one cannot use every character. The writers have to make decisions…and stick to them when they reach a point in the story where some crucial event is taking place and none of their current viewpoint characters happens to be there to see it. The temptation in this situation is to slip in a brand-new viewpoint who is present, but this frequently causes more problems than it solves.

First among those problems is that using Character G as the POV for one and only one scene frequently looks and feels a little … off. It’s too convenient; it makes the author look lazy and sloppy, and the author knows it. So the author goes back and plants a couple of earlier scenes to establish G as a POV, so that G isn’t popping up quite so obviously as a way of showing that one crucial event. And the minute the author does this, G starts to develop his/her own story. Characters do this all the time anyway, but giving a character the viewpoint increases the likelihood of it happening by about 1000%.

Second, having invented Character G in order to show one offstage crucial event makes it easier for the writer to invent Characters H, I, and J to use as viewpoints for much less crucial events, things that the writer wants to show because he/she has this super-cool mental image of the scene, but that don’t actually need to be shown. When viewpoint characters start multiplying like this, one of two things happens: either each viewpoint character develops a storyline and the word-count begins to bloat, or the writer cuts back on the development of most of the storylines and the reader has less and less of each POV character’s story to sympathize with.

It’s simple mathematics: with four POV characters and 100,000 words, each character can have roughly 25,000 words worth of their story and their viewpoint if the writer wants to keep the viewpoints balanced, which is already only a short novella per character. Add one more POV, and everybody is down to 20,000 words. At six POVs, you’re down to a novelette per character…or you can stick with 25,000 words per character and end up with 150,000 words in the manuscript. And frankly, very few novelists stick to 25,000 words for a major character, even in a multiple-viewpoint novel. It’s usually more like forty to sixty thousand or more words each, which means 160,000 words (for a minimum-word count four-viewpoint story) to 360,000 words (for maximum word counts at six viewpoint characters).

Of course, one doesn’t have to keep the viewpoints balanced. That, however, is a different way of using multiple viewpoint (remember, I said it was flexible?), and I’m going to talk more about it next week, because this is already getting long.

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Who sees?

Picking a viewpoint character seems to be one of those things that writers either have no trouble with at all, or else struggle with for weeks and/or multiple drafts. It seems to be a particular problem for people who are writing multiple-viewpoint structures, where there are several POV characters, each of whom has his/her own storyline, but there are other types of writers who have considerable trouble with it, too.

There are three questions that are good to ask when one finds oneself dithering about which character should be the main viewpoint in a novel:

  1. Whose story is it?

That is, which character do these events matter most to? Which one changes (or has his/her life changed) the most due to what is happening here? Note that the change can be mental, emotional, or circumstantial – in most “lost heir” plots, the poor child who is eventually revealed to be the True King or the heir to the fortune is the main character, not because they learn lessons or undergo great emotional growth and change, but because their physical circumstances change from poverty to riches.

If you’re starting with a plot idea and having trouble picking a POV character, this is usually a good first question to ask. Identifying the main/central character does not necessarily make that person the right viewpoint, but it is a good place to start, because if the main character does not end up being the viewpoint character, the viewpoint character will pretty much have to be someone who spends most of the story near to the main character, and who has good reason to see and understand what’s going on and why the main character is the main character.

  1. Who do you want to write about?

Whose eyes do you want to see the story through? The main character in the Lost Heir plotline is usually the formerly missing heir, but maybe you, as a writer, are more interested in seeing the story from a different angle. You want to explore the way the Lost Heir’s adoptive mother feels as she watches the kid she raised cope with all this new responsibility, or the way the resentful, entitled former heir-presumptive slowly comes around to accept the new situation. Making the mother or the former heir the viewpoint character allows the writer to dig much more deeply into that character’s emotions. It also usually shifts the focus of the story, so that Mom or the heir are now the main character, and the whole “lost heir” plot is less the central plotline and more of the situation/secondary plot (while the real new central plotline is a Man Learns Lesson plot).

Or the writer may simply find one of the “secondary” characters more interesting than the putative main character. Or the writer may want to see the main character from outside without making him/her any less the main character, so they go with a viewpoint character who is a sidekick, or the main character’s personal maid.

This is a question that a lot of folks who have trouble picking a POV character either skip entirely, or else try to talk themselves out of. (“I really want to make the valet the POV, but he’s not the main character, so I can’t.”) If you know which character’s viewpoint you really, really want to write from, you can make it work. It may not be quite the story you set out to write to begin with, though, which leads me to…

  1. Which character’s viewpoint is going to be most effective for the kind of story you want to tell?

A writer who wants to focus on a character’s emotions, personal growth, and spiritual journey is quite often going to use that character as a sole, or at least major, viewpoint. A writer who focuses mainly on plot development has somewhat more leeway – it’s usually still most effective to pick the main character, but there are lots of potential reasons why one might want someone else to be the primary viewpoint.

If you want a new, fresh take on “Sleeping Beauty,” picking an unusual viewpoint (a castle guard, a local seamstress, the nanny) can give you that. If your main character is terribly complex or terribly unsympathetic or obnoxious, or is someone who isn’t going to be personally affected much (i.e., grow and change) because of the events of the story, showing him through someone else’s eyes can make the story work better (as with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – the one story Conan Doyle wrote that’s from Holmes’ viewpoint really doesn’t work at all well). If your main character is a lot smarter than you are, or incredibly charming, it is often more effective (and easier!) to show these traits from the outside. If you want to show the emotional and mental changes that occur when a pauper becomes king, it’ll probably be most effective if the pauper-king is the primary or sole viewpoint. Murder mysteries are almost always told from the viewpoint of the detective or the detective’s sidekick (if the detective is too smart and using his/her viewpoint would give the solution away too soon).

And if the writer deliberately wants to distance the reader from the story, it can work to pick a viewpoint character who isn’t there for most major events and has to be told about them later. Especially if the writer is trying for a Rashomon-like piece in which four or five people give significantly different accounts of a particular incident and the readers have to decide for themselves which one (if any) is true, or in a multiple-viewpoint story where each new POV character provides new information that completely changes the way the readers think about what they just saw happen from some other viewpoint.

Multiple-viewpoint structure lends itself to a lot of viewpoint razzle-dazzle, but I think that’s a post for another time.

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Guesstimating length

A lot of writers I follow blithely spout how this story is going to run 70 thousand words, or 100 or 120, as if they can somehow see the eventual number of pages laid out before them in a crystal ball or something. Me, I have no idea how long a given work is going to be until I’ve finished the last edit. (For that matter, I don’t know at the beginning whether I’m writing flash fiction, a short-short, novella, or multi-book series.)

 I’d like to see a post addressing how one decides–if that’s the right word–how long a piece is going to be—other than having a contract that specifies length.

 This is a very good question. The problem is that the word-count of a given piece depends on multiple variables, including the author’s style, the type of story he/she intends to write, the genre and subgenre the author intends for said story, and a bunch of other things…none of which includes the characters or actual plotline, which is what most writers are thinking about when they ask this kind of question.

(OK, if you have a set of twenty characters, all of whom are exceedingly talkative, you probably aren’t writing a 3,000 word short story. Ditto if your story involves a quest for fifteen different magical gizmos, each of which is located in a different country and guarded by different magical traps. But really, that ought to be obvious, and most of the time, even those sorts of ideas can work quite well over a surprisingly large spread of word counts.)

Basically, how one predicts the length of a manuscript ends up being a matter of experience and instinct. Some writers are good at it; others are very bad at it. That said, it helps to be looking at the right factors. Most of the people I know who have trouble guesstimating the length of their mss. seem to focus on plot elements rather than things like writing style. The hero’s fencing lesson will, they think, take one scene and be about three pages; finding the rightful heir to the throne will be about a novel’s worth of plot. And for some writers, they’d be correct; the trouble is, they aren’t one of those writers.

These folks often know the plot elements that come next: Our Hero has a fencing lesson, beats the instructor, and as a result is given a rapier that will be of great plot importance later. What they don’t think so much about is the way they write – usually with lots of in-depth characterization, setting details, conversation, and implied backstory. The little three-page fencing lesson becomes a twenty-page chapter that includes a detailed description of the architecture of the building where the fencing salon is located, along with several salient points about the reasons behind certain features; Our Hero’s emotional reaction to a vase in the entry hall that reminds him of his deceased brother (and which distracts him enough that he nearly loses his first match); descriptions of the instructor and other students and the Hero’s reaction to each of them, whether that’s mistrust based on previous interactions or curiosity/interest because this is their first meeting, along with little details that convey things about each person’s background, status, experience, and skill at fencing; probably a sidebar about the clothes people are wearing, whether they are appropriate to a fencing lesson and why, and how they reflect different personalities, status, etc; descriptions of the different styles of fencing each participant favors (and somewhere along the way, the fencing lesson has morphed into an end-of-class elimination tournament, so different bouts have to be at least summarized, and some will have to be described in exacting detail); and the description of the rapier that’s the prize, along with something about its history and maybe some details about the importance of forging swords and the symbolism of different types of swords in this culture. And of course the final bout in which Our Hero wins the sword needs to be described in detail, both the physical moves and Our Hero’s emotions and reactions, along with a few memories of prior lessons, his relationship with the instructor, and why he thinks winning the sword will be so important (some of which may become whole flashback scenes of their own, if they are important enough).

Actually, that might very well end up taking two chapters instead of just one.

The plot elements haven’t changed much: Our Hero still goes to his last fencing lesson, wins the tournament by beating the instructor, and gets a rapier as his prize. It’s all the other stuff the writer puts in – the emotions, reactions, background, backstory, description, history, culture – that a) make the scene much, much richer, and b) add a lot of unanticipated word count. And this is true at multiple levels – how many sentences it takes to describe a room, how many words or pages in a scene, how many words or pages or scenes in a chapter.

It isn’t a property of the story. Plots can be told in multiple different ways that result in multiple different possible lengths; see Cinderella at the Rock ConcertIt depends on how the writer writes. Some, like Hemingway, write spare prose with only a few very specific details; others, like Faulkner, write lush prose with nearly overwhelming amounts of background and detail. If you want to improve your guesses about your manuscript length, it helps to be aware of your writing and of what is actually taking up space/word count.

If you notice that you always provide a six-page infodump about every detail of your imaginary spaceflight technology, right down to where they got the dilithium crystals and the imaginary company that mined them, then you have to allow for that when you are estimating. If you tend to skate by most action with “It took him ten minutes to fight his way past the city guards and escape out the postern gate,” you have to allow for that, too – obviously, your action plot just won’t take up the space it would if you were a writer who adores writing six-page set pieces.

And really, being able to estimate the length of your ms. in advance is more a convenience than a necessity, most of the time. It is almost always possible to adjust word count during revision – in fact, a change is nearly inevitable at that stage, even if one isn’t deliberately trying to increase or decrease it. If it helps to have something to aim at, set yourself something arbitrary and aim at it. If it gets in the way, ignore it and just write.

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Messing Around with Post-Its

As I mentioned last post, I’m three chapters into the WIP with a not-too-urgent but nonetheless looming deadline and have discovered a need for some more development before I continue. There are two sorts of work I need to do: macro-level and micro-level.

The macro-level stuff is the sort of thing I was talking about last week – looking at what I’ve written to see what’s there and what isn’t and where it’s all leading, and then projecting it out to see what I still need to make up or figure out for the overall story and plot arc. In this case, I had three overlapping plotlines: an emotional/character-growth plotline, a comedic plotline, and a more serious central-problem plotline. Unfortunately, the first and last were seriously under-developed, and that’s what I’ve been working on. I didn’t have a villain, or even a good candidate for one, and a good hard look at the much-too-fuzzy idea for the plot revealed that I had far too much ground to cover – I was trying to get my characters from A to Q, when one book would cover A to C, maybe D or E if I could condense things enough.

So the plot needed major surgery and revamping at the macro level. That meant redefining the end point for this book, so that my main character wasn’t trying to sort out her personal life, straighten out the immediate mess she’d been handed, build an Empire, deal with diplomatic overtures and/or war, and Save The World, all at the same time and in the same book. Straightening out the immediate mess and Saving The Village is probably quite enough for her to be going on with.

Having pared the main plot down to something more achievable in 100,000 words, I am still left looking at Chapter 3. Knowing where my heroine is going to get to eventually does not actually tell me what she is going to do tomorrow morning.

I do, however, have a pile of things that need to happen early on, like introducing a boatload more characters and setting up some more background. I also have a number of different ways those things can happen. So I start a shorthand list of the scenes/incidents/events I have in my head:

  • -find “How to be a Dark Lord” book in library
  • -meet castle maids
  • -realize everyone expects to follow Tradition
  • -decide not to follow Tradition
  • -first challenger arrives
  • -defeat first challenger
  • -discover secret passage
  • -meet half-sister, librarian, steward, cousin
  • -hold first council meeting
  • -consult with family about next step
  • -tour of castle

I put each of those on a Post-It Note, and I sort them. First I look at which things must happen before something else. Right now, there are really only two: She has to realize that everyone expects her to follow Tradition first, and then decide not to (because if she doesn’t know, it’s not a decision worth mentioning), and the first challenger has to arrive before she can defeat him. I stick those pairs of Post-Its together in the order they have to happen and continue.

Next, I look at where things happen, or could happen. If I start with the heroine waking up in her bedroom, I’ve got Bedroom, Library, Council Room, and Castle Courtyard (for the challenger) for sure, plus a variety of possible locations around the castle (the tour). Some things are obvious: “Find how-to book in library” happens in the library…or maybe not. She could find it in the bedroom, or a storage room somewhere during her castle tour. I cross out “in library” on that Post-It note. “Meet maids” could go under Bedroom, or happen in Other Random Castle Locations as she takes the tour. “Realize expectations” could happen over breakfast, or at the council meeting, or while reading the how-to-book in the Library. I add a Post-it for “have breakfast?” and put “Dining Room” on my list of possible locations.

Then I start looking at the order things could happen, kind of walking my main character through her day. She wakes up in a strange room and has her first encounter with one of the maids; that makes sense. She sends the maid to find the rest of the family; they have a consultation about next step. They go to breakfast where she meets the cousin and half-sister, then start the castle tour, meet the librarian and more maids, find the book in the library, meet the steward who mentions the council meeting. They go to the council meeting and she realizes they expect Tradition, but she tells them no. The challenger arrives and she defeats him. There’s no room for “discover secret passage,” so I put that Post-It aside for now.

I find this order deeply unsatisfying. Yes, it covers the bases and gets everything in, but it’s too straightforward and boring. It has no general tension building. How do I move things around to fix that?

The first thing I do is move finding the book from the library to the bedroom. So she finds the book and gets a chance to look at it a little before her family arrives; that will give them more to discuss. The only thing that happens at breakfast is meeting the cousin and half-sister; that can happen later. I take those Post-Its out. The castle tour is also not that important; I move that Post-It aside, too. Now I have finding the book, consulting the family, council meeting where she has the realization about Tradition and rejects it, challenger’s arrival and defeat.

That’s better, but still not what I want. I stare for a while and realize part of the problem: defeating a challenger is part of the Tradition that she just said she wasn’t going to follow. I swap the Post-It pairs. Now I’m going from action to council scene explaining the action. That’s backwards…but if I split the council scene…that works much better. Now I have “Realize expectations during first half of council scene,” “Arrival of Challenger interrupts Council,” followed by “defeat of Challenger” and then “Resumes Council and tells them No More Tradition.” Much better.

Now events are developing so that by the end of this sequence, my heroine is rejecting the Tradition. So I want to build that up even more. How? It’ll have to be in the early part of the day, between getting up and holding the council meeting. I can put a little into the family consultation, but they’re really going to be focused on other things. I look over at my discarded Post-Its and spot two possibilities: Breakfast, where they can meet the cousin and half-sister and get more hints about what is expected (before it really becomes clear at the council meeting), or the library, where they could head after breakfast in order to find out more about the book. I probably don’t need both; that will slow things down too much.

After thinking for a while, I decide that I can’t pick one or the other until I’ve written the early scene with the family, but that’s OK – I have a series of definite events that are leading up to a clear decision point for my heroine, and a definite place to start next. Which is all I need to do the next couple of chapters.

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Later developments

The ideas I was talking about in the last post are seldom ready-to-write when they arrive. Even the ones that look ready to go often turn out not to be when one gets right down to it. I’ve talked before about the pre-writing story development, so this time I thought I’d talk about the other sort. Especially as I am currently at exactly that stage in the WIP – I have been stuck three chapters in for a couple of months now, because things need more development than they got at the pre-writing stage.

Some of the reason I’ve been stuck has been exogenous and environmental – taxes due, a series of trips and workshops and other obligations – so it’s been easy to ignore the manuscript, despite the looming deadline. I knew that it was going to take some serious skull-work to straighten it out, and the first three chapters weren’t entirely satisfactory anyway, so I poked at them and made some progress and poked at them and didn’t push much more than that for lack of time. But really, what I was sure I needed was to sit down and figure out in more detail how to get from where I am to where I thought I was going, and that sort of figuring out takes a chunk of time I didn’t have.

I was right about the sit down and think part.

When I finally got around to one of my standard let’s-have-dinner-and-plot-noodle sessions with one of my writer friends, what she said (after half an hour of me rehearsing where the plot was and where I thought it was going) was “You have three plotlines here, and I think you need to start by untangling them so you can see what each of them needs.”

She was absolutely right, and it was clear in not-very-much time that two of my three plotlines – including the primary action plot – were seriously under-developed. This is the sort of thing a really good plot-noodler does: They give you a lot more work to do.

The thing is, I thought I was in good shape. I had a plot outline; it filled a reasonable number of pages. I’d done my usual pre-writing work. By three chapters in, things should have either begun coming together, or else stalled in that peculiar way that every manuscript seems to stall somewhere between Chapter Three and Chapter Ten (which is both annoying and promising, because after thirty years at this, I am confident that when I hit that first veil, it will eventually break loose in extremely useful and more interesting ways).

This story, though, turns out to be the sort that needs additional development once I have enough of it down to get a sense of the thing. It’s not the same kind of developing I do during the prewriting stage. When I’m going from idea to story-developed-enough-to-start-writing, I’m adding things: characters, background, plot twists, all manner of incidents and dialog and other bits and pieces that could happen on the road from Chapter The First to Chapter The Last. I know they won’t all make it into the finished book – lots of them don’t even make it into the plot outline – but at that stage, almost anything is possible. The process is one of collecting the odds and ends that are floating around and checking various bits against my fuzzy overall vision of the story, to see what fits and what doesn’t, what makes the vision sharper and what muddies it up.

When I’m three chapters in, and it becomes obvious that the story needs more development, I don’t start by looking outward at the idea-stew, or forward toward the ending I’m expecting. I look at what I have.

By three chapters in, I have generally introduced several of the main characters and at least a few of the secondary ones. I’ve established the time and place and described them to a certain extent. I may not have laid out the central story-problem just yet, but if I haven’t, I’ve at least pointed in its general direction and set up enough minor problems to keep the reader interested and lead in the direction of the main one. Unless the first three chapters are totally throw-them-away impossible, looking at them will therefore tell me one of the following things:

1) Something critical is missing. The main character has no stake in the story, no reason to head off to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom. Or there’s a character hole – I forgot to give the Hero a needed Sidekick, or the Villain a Minion. Or the murder-mystery can’t get started because the Murderer seems to have no inclination to actually murder anyone. Or the story doesn’t seem to be set in any particular place or time – it could be Victorian England or Tang Dynasty China, for all the description and cultural background that’s there. Or the main character has no past (and I’m not doing a Clint Eastwood Man With No Name).

2) The fuzzy story vision is still way too fuzzy. “The Heroine has some adventures and then succeeds in her Quest” is not enough if I don’t know whether the Quest is to find a magical doohicky, rescue a dragon, graduate from college, or steal the plans for the atom bomb. The plot outline, when examined, has lots of great incidents – that bit where she argues with the vampire about the best way to diagnose anemia, for instance – but they don’t connect to the three chapters I have written. The story doesn’t know whether it’s trying to get to San Francisco or New York, much less what route to take.

3) There is too much story. The plot outline takes our Main Character not just to San Francisco, but all the way to Beijing, with stops in Anchorage, Hawaii, and Sydney. And it’s supposed to be a road trip.

4) I’m writing a completely different story than I intended. The first three chapters are clearly leading up to everybody going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but the plot outline says it’s supposed to be July and they’re supposed to be planning to spend August at Disneyland.

5) I’ve mis-identified the main story. I thought it was going to be a dramatic action-adventure, but the characters want it to be comedy-of-manners. Or I have a great romantic comedy plot outline, but the story wants to focus on an angsty man-learns-lesson near-tragedy.

For me, in almost every one of these cases, fixing the problem means tossing out my original plot outline (and often the specifics of the plot-idea that started it) in order to let the story go in the direction that the actual first-three-chapters are taking it. Once I have my head pointed south instead of west, then I can dig through all my possible plot-twists and incidents for the right ones to make the story work. Sometimes, I can salvage bits of my original plot outline, but more often not. Whether I can or no, it won’t start happening until I let go of all my original plans and just look at what I have written – what is there and what isn’t, what it implies about the characters and their problems and their future. Because my backbrain is much smarter than I am, and whatever it has stuck into those first few actual chapters is almost certain to take me to much more interesting places than my plans and outlines.

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Meeting the Muse

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer I know is sick of being asked this question. Many writers have developed snappy non-answers: from a post office box in Schenectady, from a secret subscription service, from an idea-fairy who leaves them on the desk whenever I leave out a saucer of whiskey. Others struggle to explain that ideas are the easy part, that they are all over, that it’s a matter of how you look at and think about everyday stuff, that it’s about stopping and paying attention.

People keep on asking, though. Obviously, this is an aspect of writing that a lot of people want to know about. Equally obviously, people aren’t satisfied with the (entirely true) answers that ideas are the easy part, they’re all over, etc. So I thought I’d take a crack at it from a different angle.

“Getting ideas” is a fuzzy, changeable concept. Every writer gets ideas in a different way; most of us seldom “get an idea” in the same way, or from the same kind of source for two stories in a row. Nevertheless, if one looks long enough, one can spot patterns in the ways different people come up with ideas for their books.

One of the most common beginning points is other stories, especially other stories that the writer loves. A lot of highly imitative books that get sneered at as rip-offs were actually not written as money-makers; they’re a labor of love on the part of the author that’s a bit too obvious about the source material. (A lot of others are, quite obviously, fan fiction.) Whole genres have developed because multiple authors read and were sufficiently inspired by a particular book (the modern category fantasy is a direct descendent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as Westerns developed from The Great Train Robbery.)

Often, the writer is attracted to a specific aspect of the story. It is very common for a writer to be very taken with a character (usually a secondary or even a minor one) who, in the writer’s opinion, merits more attention than the existing story gives him/her. These characters often end up being nearly unrecognizable by the time the new writer has changed the setting and given them their own story to be hero of. Other times the writer can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if the main character had done something different, like waiting for the city guards instead of charging off after the villain alone (or vice versa). Sometimes, the existing story has a throwaway line that catches the writer’s interest – they want to know just what the Incendiary Cat Plot was and whether it worked, and the existing story doesn’t say. At least two writers of my acquaintance have gotten acclaimed trilogies out of wondering about specific backstory incidents mentioned as throwaways in Lord of the Rings…and by the time they were finished with their own versions, almost nobody recognized the source material unless they were told.

Another place that writers get ideas is from stories that are based on a great idea that is handled clumsily or that just doesn’t reach its full potential. Almost nobody besides scholars remembers who Shakespeare’s sources were, because Shakespeare did far better things with their ideas and plots and characters than they did. Watching someone else butcher a great idea can incite other writers to spend many hours at their computers, demonstrating how they think it should have been done.

Which brings me to Really Bad Fiction. B movies, hackwriting, old pulp fiction, soap operas, second-rate cartoons and TV series…all have been catalysts for writers who have looked at them and said to themselves, “Well, I can certainly write something better than that.”

Writers get ideas more directly from each other. We talk about writing and our works-in-progress; sometimes, that means that Writer A takes a suggestion made by Writer B, while other times, it means that Writer A says “No, that idea won’t work” and Writer B then says, “Well, if you aren’t going to use it, can I have it?” Sometimes writers throw off comments in conversation that kickstart someone’s backbrain. Talking to Dragons started because of a discussion about book titles at a party, for instance.

Real-life events provide ideas, too, but usually not in the way most non-writers think they do. OK, some writers do go trolling for ideas in “News of the Weird,” but more often a writer hears about some perfectly ordinary event – the kid from down the block having a bad allergy attack, or the grocery store running out of peanuts – and they think “Nobody in fantasy fiction ever has allergies” or “Lots of people are allergic to peanuts; I wonder if somebody bought out the store in order to murder a bunch of people?” and they’re off. Or they catch a glimpse of a person and think “They would be a great character.”

Writers who are very visual frequently get ideas from pictures – photographs, paintings, particular stills or scenes from movies – or from places or objects they see in person, like a silver teapot or a car with a dented fender. And there are the writers who make stories out of the way they felt watching a lightning storm or a sunset – not trying to recreate the images in words (though that may happen), but maneuvering their characters into situations where the characters will feel like that.

Ideas also show up nearly every time a writer asks someone in exasperation, “Why would anybody do that?” It doesn’t matter whether “that” is spending time solving Sudoku puzzles, running marathons, or robbing banks; what matters is the follow up internal dialog that goes something like, “Yeah, why would somebody do that? I wonder if I could come up with a satisfactory explanation…”

And then there is the idea-trigger that is possibly the most common of all: the moment when the writer looks at his/her bookshelf and says, “I really, really want to read another novel like X, but there aren’t any more! I’m going to have to write one myself.

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Conferences and conventions

Writing conferences are something that I think deserve their own post. There are quite a lot of them, and they are sufficiently dissimilar that one really shouldn’t just pick one at random to attend. Like everything else, each type works well for some things (and writers) and poorly for other things (and writers), so before you decide whether to spring for a membership, you really ought to do some homework and some thinking.

The first and most fundamental question you need to think about is “What do I need, want, or hope to accomplish by attending this conference or workshop?” Are you hoping to do some networking? Make some new friends? Get yourself and/or your work out in front of professionals in the field? Sharpen your writing skills? Have a lot of fun? Master some specific techniques? Promote your current novel? Learn production skills so you can self-publish? Get some tips on marketing and/or professional submission etiquette? Meet your favorite writing idol who is the keynote speaker? Tick off the “Goes to conferences” box on your “Things Professional Writers Do” list?

(Hint: if that last one is all you are trying to do, save your time and money. Or rent a cheap hotel room for a weekend and spend three days holed up there writing. It’ll do you a lot more good than ticking off the checkbox, trust me.)

If you can’t quite figure out what you want to get out of going to a conference or workshop, but you also still have the nagging feeling that you really want to, if only to see what they’re like and find out if they might be useful, that’s OK. Just be open to the possibility of changing your mind in either direction.

The next step is to look at what kinds of conferences and workshops are out there, what they do, and what the goal of the conference is. Also the cost, which includes travel expenses and hotel, as well as the actual membership fee, and the amount of time they take up.

What most people mean when they talk about “writing conferences” range from targeted one- or two-day workshops, to weekend conventions (which can last up to four or five days, if they are scheduled over a holiday weekend), to intensive courses that run full-time for up to three months straight. Some are professionally managed; some are put on by colleges, universities, or other educational institutions; some are provided by writer’s organizations like the Romance Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators; and some are organized by a dedicated group of independent volunteers.

Assuming you have some idea of why you want to go to a conference (and there are usually multiple reasons), and that you know what your budget, time constraints, and other resources are, you then have to pick the conference that fits what you want. A large part of choosing is asking around. Bigger is not always better; professionally managed or college-run does not necessarily mean higher quality than the ones put on by amateurs. In the SF field, for instance, of the top workshops/conferences put on specifically for writers, only one is affiliated with a university; the others are all run by independent non-profit groups of dedicated volunteers, some of whom are themselves established writers and/or editors doing this in their spare time.

Pretty much any convention, conference, or workshop that is aimed directly at writers (as opposed to teachers, librarians, booksellers, or other members of the literary community) will give you the opportunity to meet and talk to other writers, simply because that’s who else is attending.

If one of your goals is to do networking, keep this in mind: Some of the clueless newbies will turn out, in five or ten years, to be award-winning bestsellers or senior editors. Some of the rising stars that everyone crowds around in adulation will be a flash in the pan. Nobody knows which is which (if they did, there would be crowds around the nervous young woman in the corner who will, eight years in the future, have her small-press novel go viral and become a bestseller in twenty countries). Also, one of the best ways of networking is to volunteer to help put on a conference or convention. Again, you may not meet the Big Names this way, but you will meet and work with people, some of whom will be Big Names by the time you need them. It doesn’t do you any good to suck up to Super Big Name Editor and then find out that he retired the year before you finished your manuscript.

Skill-building workshops can be useful for nearly any writer at any level, as long as one is careful to choose a workshop that isn’t too far ahead of one’s current abilities. If a writer is still struggling with basic grammar and clarity, they may want to wait a few years before signing up for a workshop on managing subtext and subverting expectations in multi-genre-crossovers intended for a “high literary” audience.

The big trade shows – the ALA, the ABA, the NCTE, the IRA (and if you don’t know what the acronyms mean, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about going anyway*) – are mostly not things you can go to if you aren’t a member, unless you can get onto one of their panels. This requires you to either be an expert on something, or to have a book out that the group wants you to talk about (which means you have a publisher and/or publicist behind you). Regional and local conferences are often a little looser about their requirements for panelists, but they’re still not going to be terribly interested if you haven’t got an actual book actually available.

Writers’ professional organizations, like the Author’s Guild, RWA, SFFWA, MWA, and SCBWI, have their own conferences**. They are, again, usually limited to members, which for the SFWA and MWA means that you have to meet a minimum requirement of professional sales. The RWA and SCBWI both, to the best of my knowledge, allow unpublished writers to join.

The science fiction and fantasy field is kind of a special case when it comes to conventions. There is a whole community of people out there putting on fan-run conventions, many of which have a track of programming for would-be writers or which hold workshops or professional critique sessions in conjunction with the con. You could go to one of these every weekend, if you had the time, money, and stamina. They are a lot of fun, and they are a good way to meet and get to know local professional writers (and often a few out-of-towners). And there is almost certain to be one somewhere near wherever you live. [I spent last weekend at 4th Street Fantasy Convention 2015 and it was great…]

I do want to conclude by reiterating that none of this stuff is required. Different writers manage their careers in different ways. And this is especially not required if you haven’t finished a book yet. (In fact, there is a thing in the trade referred to as “workshop burn” – the manuscript that some nervous new writer has taken to 46 different workshops and re-polished every single time, until it’s been polished down to the dull steel under the copper and silver plate and every bit of shine and sparkle is long gone. Do not do this…)

* American Library Association, the American Bookseller’s Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association.

**Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Pre-promotion or not?

I was at a book signing recently and admitted to the person in line behind me that I was about a quarter of the way through writing my book. I should note here, she is also a writer. She immediately asked me what writing conferences I had attended, if I was on Facebook, if I had a blog, etc., and began overwhelming me with all the things I was not doing to sell myself that I ‘should be doing’ in her opinion….

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of pre-promoting yourself in the manner this person suggested?

First off, let me point out that when I was getting started, computers were room-sized boxes of blinking lights that required lots of esoteric knowledge before you could persuade them to add two numbers together. The Internet didn’t exist at all. I wrote my first novel on a typewriter. Consequently, I don’t exactly have much experience in “pre-promotion” of the sort you describe.

This does not, however, stop me from having opinions. Quite strong opinions, in fact.

I will begin with a question: What, exactly, is it that you hope to sell? Yourself? Or your books?

While you think about that, I will point out that every writing career is different. Not only that, but the way into a writing career is different for every writer. If you want some control over it (you will never have total control, but you can have some), it is worth thinking about different possibilities. You can then decide what you want to do, what you don’t want to do but are willing to put up with, and what you will never do under any circumstances whatsoever. This large-picture thinking gives you a framework for making specific small-picture decisions, like whether and when to start a blog or attend a conference.

But fundamentally, the only thing that every writer has to do is write.

There is no one best route to the top. Furthermore, “the top” has almost as many definitions as there are writers, and every definition has a multitude of different ways to reach it. The successful writers I know are successful by their own definitions, not someone else’s, and have gotten to that success by routes that suit them, not somebody else.

Back to that first question. I can name several writers for whom their writing is in large degree secondary; what they are selling is themselves. They make as much (and in some cases a lot more) money from their blogs, courses, speeches, workshops, movie rights, radio programs, podcasts, and so on, as they do from their actual writing. There is nothing wrong with this. They are all having a blast doing stuff they love doing. Most of them took to social media like dolphins take to water. They are in their element. Their definition of “the top” has to do with personal appearances and being out there in public and well-known and respected, whether or not their books are bestsellers (some are; others have only modest sales).

For this sort of writer, diving into social media straight off is very likely to be important and useful. Someone who can develop a strong following, whether on Twitter, a blog, Facebook, or any of the other outlets, will theoretically have a ready-made audience when they finally finish a book, and they can use those initial sales as a stepping stone to all the appearances and so on that they love doing so much.

There may also be some use to “pre-promoting” yourself if you are planning to skip the world of traditional publishing and go straight to self-published ebooks. To make this worth doing, though, you have to catch a large audience and maintain it until you finish your book. Given how quickly Internet buzz comes and goes, this is often best left until a week before the book goes live, even if one is planning to self-publish.

In both cases, far too many would-be writers end up promising far more than they can deliver. I know a couple of folks who have been writing about their writing for a couple of decades now, without ever producing an actual story. Their social media accounts don’t attract as much attention as they expected, because they don’t have anything to talk about but themselves (and frankly, they aren’t all that interesting). And their desperate struggles to “build an audience” soak up whatever time and energy they might have used to actually write fiction.

If what you want is to write and/or to sell your books rather than yourself, then there’s not a lot of point in doing social media until you have something to sell. There may be some value in playing around with some outlets enough to get comfortable with them, so you don’t have a learning curve when the time comes that you want to use them professionally. One does not have to do this sort of experimentation by promoting oneself as a writer, however. There are plenty of forums where you can go and just talk about your favorite books as part of the crowd. Ditto sites (and blogs like this one) where you can talk writing techniques and problems with other people. Better yet, find some groups that talk about your mutual passion for gardening, or chess, or your favorite TV show.

Publishers these days do expect writers to have some web presence, and to do some web-based promotion of their books. However, they are deeply unlikely to be impressed by empty posturing. If you have a popular web site and a lot of Twitter followers, it may be a plus for some publishers, but it won’t sell your book to them or even move it up the slush pile. Unless, that is, your popular web site and Twitter feed have multiple hundreds of thousands of hits or followers, which is essentially saying “unless you have made yourself a nationally recognized Internet celebrity.”

Conferences…well, that’s kind of a different question. I’ll talk more on that next week, since this is getting kind of long already.

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