Book Publicity, part 1

Publicity is a perennial problem for writers – what to do, how to do it, what works, what doesn’t. I’ve had several queries on the subject in the past few weeks, so despite the fact that publicity is NOT one of my strong suits, I’m going to talk about it for a couple of posts.

A lot of what I know about doing book publicity comes from watching other people who are better than I am do it. And the first thing I’ve learned is that if you are going to publicize a book, you need to have a clear idea who you are trying to publicize it to, as well as realistic expectations about what you can achieve by doing it.

For example, I’ve been to a number of book launch parties, and I’ve talked to a bunch of the authors afterwards. A significant percentage of the authors were very unhappy with the results of their party, another batch were more or less neutral, and the rest were extremely pleased. Invariably, the most unhappy writers have been the ones who went into the evening expecting the party to result in big sales or an enormous rise in readership. They were deeply disappointed when the party didn’t catapult them straight to fame and fortune.

Both the unhappy and the neutral writers saw the book launch party as a publicity event, with the goal of increasing sales (or at the very least buzz) about the book. The neutral writers tend to be more logical and realistic about the effects of a party – most of the people there are usually friends who would be buying the book anyway, so even if there is champagne and caviar and free books, the party is unlikely to cause a visible blip in sales (unless it’s a publisher-sponsored event taking place at a major trade show or industry convention, in which case most of the attendees are there for the giveaways and free drinks and probably won’t end up reading the book anyway).

The writers who are happiest with their book launch parties are the ones for whom having a book launch is a great excuse to throw a big party for their friends. They go and have a great time, and if the party generates some good publicity, that’s gravy. Not only are their expectations more realistic than those of the unhappy and neutral writers, they don’t have the same goal.

The second thing I’ve learned about doing publicity is that, like writing, what works for one author will not necessarily work for all authors. In fact, if every new author you know is creating special logo mugs or T-shirts or key chains, or working the same round of “blog tours,” that particular publicity trick is probably well past its sell-by date. It may still be worth doing, but it’s just not going to have the same impact that it did when the first writer thought it up. Too many people have seen it too often by now.

There are also things that are only a good idea to do if you are good at them. Back before the collapse and consolidation of the independent book distributor network, one of the common recommendations was for writers of original mass market paperbacks to go out and talk to the truck drivers at the indie book distribution centers, because the truck drivers were the ones who stocked the revolving racks in the drug stores and airports and grocery stories, and if they liked you, they’d put your book on display in more places, which meant getting more sales. Trouble was, if they didn’t like you, they wouldn’t put your book up anywhere…and some writers just weren’t good at socializing with truck drivers.

The third thing is that it takes a lot of time and effort and energy to do publicity, and if you don’t keep an eye on yourself, you can torpedo your writing career even as you push your first novel to higher levels of sales. There has to be a balance between doing publicity and producing the next novel (unless you intend to be a one-book wonder). There are various ways of achieving a balance, from rationing the time spent doing publicity, to keeping to a production quota, to allocating a certain number of weeks or months around the launch date to pure publicity and then returning to all-writing-all-the-time. What works for you and your book will depend on your energy level, your writing process, what you are trying to achieve with your publicity campaign, the amount of time and money you have to put into publicity, and the amount of time and money your publisher, if any, is willing to put into publicity.

Finally, what constitutes “the things to do for publicity” can vary quite a bit, depending on whether the writer is publishing through a traditional publisher, through an e-book publisher, self-publishing, or putting their work up for free on the Internet. For instance, there is no point in taking out an ad in a trade journal that’s only read by bookstore buyers if your book is only available as an e-book.

Which brings me to push-marketing and pull-marketing. Push-marketing tries to get the book out to as many places as possible, so that it will be easy for potential readers to come across. This is what traditional publishers are doing when they try to get as many bookstores as possible to carry the book. Pull-marketing works the other way: the idea is to create demand from readers, who will then order copies from stores, which will (theoretically) realize there is demand for the book and start stocking it. This distinction gets pretty blurry when you start talking about e-books, but it’s still worth being aware of.

In the next couple of posts, I’m going to go through some of the things I know about doing publicity for different kinds of books (traditional, ebooks, etc.).

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From the Mailbag #8

How many stories have you written?

22 novels, one nonfiction book on writing, and a bunch of short stories (I lose track of the short fiction very easily).

What was your first story written? Published?

The first story I tried to write was a novel I started in seventh grade; I think I got about thirty or forty pages into it. I had some articles published in my high school’s annual magazine, but my first professional sale was Shadow Magic in 1980.

Who did you look up to as writers when you were young? Who were your favorite authors?

Until I was almost out of college, I didn’t pay much attention to who had written the book; what I was interested in was the story. So I can’t really say that I looked up to particular writers or had favorite authors. What I had were favorite books, and many of them were series. The two that come instantly to mind were the Oz books and the Narnia chronicles, both of which still have pride of place on my bookshelves. I was also inordinately fond of collections of myths, legends, and fairy tales, the majority of which were written by that prolific author “Anonymous.”

How long does it take to properly finish a story? To go through the whole process?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The writing part, from the first idea spark to the final manuscript (which I am assuming is what is meant by “properly finishing a story”) takes as long as it takes, and will vary depending on the author, the author’s process, and the story.

Every writer has a lower limit to their production speed, a point at which, if they slow down any further, they start getting rusty and have a harder and harder time picking up the pace, or they start losing track of the story (and eventually may stop wanting to write at all), or they start getting twitchier and twitchier because they haven’t been writing enough. Every writer has an upper limit to their production speed, the point at which, if they push to get stuff written faster, the quality of what they write suffers. Somewhere between those two points is the writer’s normal cruising speed for normal stories.

The trouble is that the limits and the cruising speed vary wildly from writer to writer. I know writers for whom “writing too fast” means taking less than two weeks to write a novel (demonstrably, as the one that got written in less than 14 days was sub-standard, but the one that took two weeks was fine) and writers for whom “writing too fast” means taking less than a year to write a novel. I know writers who get twitchy if they don’t produce 1000 words per day, each and every day, and writers who can go for long stretches averaging a sentence or two per week with no appreciable problem.

The second thing that affects writing speed is the author’s process. Some writers prefer to handwrite their first draft in a notebook; some prefer working on a computer but are hunt-and-peck typists, or just not that fast with their touch-typing. Some writers use dictation software. Each of these methods affects the amount of time it takes to get a novel’s-worth of words on paper. This is further affected by things like how much pre-writing the author does, whether they start at the beginning and write straight through or skip around and piece the manuscript together later, and how many drafts they normally go through.

The third factor that affects writing speed is the story itself. Some stories are straightforward and linear; others are sprawling, complicated spiderwebs. Some require a single viewpoint; others use multiple viewpoint characters. Some stories are well within the author’s current capacity and skill level; others are stretchy. Some of simple structures; others have complex ones. And while it is possible to say that most writers will write a straightforward, single-viewpoint, simple, non-stretchy story faster than they would a sprawling multiple-viewpoint stretchy complex epic, it isn’t at all clear how a straightforward but stretchy multiple-viewpoint simple-structure story would compare to a non-stretchy complex single-viewpoint non-linear story.

Or to put it in more personal terms: the fastest I ever wrote a novel from scratch was ten months (I’m not counting the movie novelizations); the longest it took me to write a novel was around two and a half years, not counting breaks to work on other projects. So basically…it depends.

How do you limit or direct or harvest the hundreds of ideas and directions that go off in your brain when trying to write a short story?

I don’t; that’s why I’m a novelist.

That isn’t as flippant as it sounds. It took me years to figure out how to write short stories instead of novels, and the answer was simple: focus. It’s like taking close-up photographs of flowers or spiderwebs hung with dewdrops – the rest of the world is there, but it’s so blurred that you can’t see it because the camera is focused on this one tiny patch of the world. As soon as you decide that you want to get the mountain range into the picture, you lose the spiderweb, because the scale is too different.

Focus is simple, but it is far from easy, especially if you are, as I am, naturally inclined to the novel length. Therefore my usual advice to people is that if they have tried multiple times to write short stories, and keep having “hundreds of ideas and directions that go off in their brains,” they should try writing novels instead and see how that goes. There is no point in making writing any more difficult than it already is by trying to write to a length that doesn’t come naturally.

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The Characters’ stories

Every character in every book has their own story, and each character is the hero of his or her own story. This piece of writing wisdom has been around for at least as long as the novel has, but too often, writers don’t think about the implications with regard to whatever story they are writing.

What it means is that every story is composed of multiple, overlapping stories, not all of which can (or should) be told in full. Sometimes, this is because the main plotline is important enough and strong enough that it will still be the “main story” for most of the other characters during that time period. If you have six central characters who are members of a bomb squad, and the main story revolves around locating and destroying a bomb before the World Series starts, they may each have a slightly different view of what is going on and why they are doing it, but the central story, for those six hours, is going to be that they have a bomb to locate and disarm. There’s so much overlap that giving each of the six a viewpoint and a storyline is going to be redundant (unless the author finds some other aspect of their personal story to focus on, which I’ll get to in a minute).

Other times, though, the individual character’s story doesn’t have enough overlap with the central plotline. The cab driver who brings Greg to the stadium to hook up with the rest of the bomb squad has a story…but the cabbie’s story revolves around trying to get his sister (who has cancer) into an experimental treatment program. It could be an intensely emotional and moving story, but it has virtually zero overlap with the bomb story that the author is telling. It’s pretty easy to see that it doesn’t belong in the book.

Or at least, it’s easy from my description. For the author writing the story, it sometimes isn’t so easy. What usually happens is, the author needs or wants an outside view of Greg, so he throws in the cab ride scene from the cabbie’s viewpoint. But once the author is looking through the cabbie’s eyes, the story looks different. First off, the cabbie is usually a lot more interesting from the inside. Second, his story feels suddenly much more important (because, to him, it is). The author’s natural instinct is to do more with both these things, and from there, one of three things tends to happen: First, the author gets totally distracted and goes haring off after the cabbie’s story, forgetting entirely about the bomb story; second, the author has gotten so interested in (and put so much effort into) the cabbie’s story that he/she can’t bear to just let it go, so the cabbie’s story becomes a subplot; or third, the author starts looking for ways to link the cabbie more directly into the bomb story.

Each of these alternatives can work brilliantly, and each can fail miserably. An author who starts off writing an action-adventure bomb novel but who ends up with a moving story about the cabbie and his family is fine; an author who starts with the bomb story, then writes about the cabbie for a while, then gets distracted by the ER tech who shows up when the sister collapses, then gets interested in the ER tech’s brother who teaches school in Boston and is just heading home after a visit, then jumps to the flight attendant on the brother’s plane back to Boston…well, it may be possible for somebody to come up with a coherent novel out of all that, but it’s more likely that the author will end up with a bunch of incidents, fragments, or not-really-related short stories. Making the cabbie’s story a subplot can also work, if there are thematic ties to the bomb story, or it can be really awkward and self-indulgent. Linking the cabbie into the bomb plot can feel too artificial and/or coincidental, or it can become a brilliant plot twist. It’s all in the execution.

Between the extremes – the main characters whose stories are currently too close to the central plotline and the bit players whose stories have almost nothing to do with the central plotline – are the characters whose stories overlap the central bomb plotline, but from a totally different angle: the stadium manager who is responsible for the safety of the fans, the police chief who has to make the decision whether to call off the game, the mercenary who helped set up the bomb but who is having second thoughts, the players and team managers, various ordinary people who have tickets to the game and who the reader knows are potential victims. For each of these people, their personal main story may be “about” something entirely different (a lost love, a chance for a comeback, making up for some previous mistake or righting some major wrong that’s irrelevant to the bomb threat), but for these few hours, the bomb story is a minor thread in their story – a subplot – which makes them possible subplots for the bomb story.

Choosing among all these possible story threads and subplots requires one of two things: either a clear focus and commitment that one can use to decide, or a highly active intuition that allows one to make those choices on pure faith. Focus and commitment can be to a central plot thread, a theme, a structure – anything that the writer is clear on that allows them to say “I will include the hot-dog vendor, because his story ties into or reflects X, but I won’t include the bat boy, because his story doesn’t.”

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Some thoughts on symbolism

I’m spending the weekend at the Sirens conference in Washington state. The best part about such conferences tends to be meeting other book people – writers, editors, agents, fans, booksellers. The second best part is talking books with book people, because there are always people with a different angle on things to poke you into thinking harder about writing and the things one can do with it.

One of the topics that nearly always comes up when you get a bunch of serious non-writer book people and a bunch of intent writers and would-be writers together is that of symbolism and, by extension, process. I pair them because my experience has been that the discussion starts with someone asking “Do you decide on your symbolism before your start writing, or do things come up as you write and you make them symbols?”

Before I get to answering that, let me pause for a brief definition: for purposes of this post, symbolism refers to some sort of larger meaning that can be applied to things in a story. Under the right circumstances, anything in a story, from character death to goldfish can “mean something” – that is, it can represent something more than the obvious literal object or event itself.

Most of us have been trained by years of English Lit classes to look for symbolism in stories. Some English teachers appear to think that all stories are written in a kind of secret code deliberately invented by the author, which must be deciphered in order to properly enjoy the story.

This is nonsense, but it is particularly pernicious nonsense because in promoting this view of books and stories, these folks not only ruin the simple enjoyment of books for many students, but also often convince would-be writers that the only “right” way to write is to first sit down and invent that secret code that future graduate students and English teachers will have to teach their students to understand.

Coming up with suitably deep, significant, and interconnected symbolism becomes a burden…and if (as often happens) the story starts to veer from the planned symbolic underpinning, the would-be writer faces a decision crisis: should she force the story to follow the original (and now less satisfying) plan, or should she ditch the plan and the laboriously-worked-out symbolism, and let the story go where it wants? And if she lets the story go, will she have to come up with a new set of symbols?

Several things get forgotten in all this. First, every writer has a different process. That means that some writers will make up symbols in advance, some will latch on as the story grows, some will add them or poke up their significance during the rewrite, and some will ignore them altogether, letting the story or their subconscious handle that aspect.

Second, in order to come up with a suitably coherent, deep, etc. set of symbols in advance, a writer has to have some idea of what they want to say. While many writers will tell you that knowing what you want to say before you begin is a necessity, this is obviously not the case, or there would not be so many “blank page” writers whose preferred writing method is to sit down in front of a blank page/screen and surprise themselves. A writer who is at the extreme end of the seat-of-the-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go scale is unlikely to find much utility in making up symbols in advance, as it is quite possible that the symbolic items won’t end up in the story at all.

Third, even if you do make up a secret symbol code, there are going to be symbols in your story that you didn’t deliberately and consciously put there. Because in addition to whatever you do deliberately, there are going to be things that become symbolic because of the way they occur in the story that you didn’t notice. There are also going to be things that are symbolic to you personally, most of which you probably don’t consciously realize unless you have had years of therapy to uncover the fact that you have always associated the fishpond in your grandmother’s yard with her death from choking on a fishbone, so you always unconsciously use water as a symbol for death. There are things that people already think are symbolic of something, even if you decided that particular thing ought to mean something else in your story. Finally, there are going to be things that are personally symbolic to each of your readers, which you won’t know about and can’t control and which mess up your deliberate or unconscious symbols (like the reader for whom water is a symbol of life, or fish are a symbol of fertilizer).

The vast majority of the writers I know do not bother much about the symbolism of their stories. They let the symbolism, if any, grow out of the development of the story itself. There are a few who can figure out what they have done after the first draft is finished, and go back and tweak it during revision to make it stronger and more consistent.

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Research and Imagination

Years ago, I heard a story about — I think it was Lester Del Rey, but it may have been somebody else of that era of SF writers. He wanted to set a story in Africa, which he had never visited. So he researched it — watched documentaries, read National Geographic, read biographies and histories and memoirs of the place. And wrote the story.

Two years after it was published, a woman came up to him at a convention and said, “Sir, I grew up in Africa and it was so nice to finally see a story written by somebody who’d been there and who knows what it’s really like!” She proceeded to go on about the smells and the sunsets and the sound of the wind. And he could only smile, because he still hadn’t ever been to Africa.

I’ve thought about this story every so often for years. The obvious moral is that one doesn’t have to have been somewhere in order to write about it, as long as one does sufficiently careful research. Too often, that last part gets overlooked – I’ve seen more than one story set somewhere that the author all-too-obviously hadn’t bothered to find out about…or in a place that the author knew only from TV or movies. Is it really so hard to call up a map and look up where JFK International Airport is in relation to Brooklyn or Queens?

There are, certainly, some people for whom “research” necessarily means actually, physically walking around a particular place. For a writer who is strongly kinesthetic, it may be the only way they can get a sufficient feel for the setting to write about it. For most writers, though, reading enough about a place is more than enough to provide them with all the material they need to evoke it (and to be certain that they won’t make errors that will instantly betray their lack of familiarity to anyone who does know the particular place well).

But for me that incident about the story set in Africa isn’t just about researching places. In the past thirty years, I’ve seen a growing tendency to criticize people for writing about anything they haven’t personally experienced, from extremely personal things like having a disability or giving birth to more general experiences of social class or culture. Informed imagination is apparently not enough; the only legitimate credential for some people is actually having been there, done that, and if you haven’t, they think you shouldn’t write about it.

The minute one examines this theory at all logically, it falls apart. Science fiction writers cannot, at present, be required to have talked to aliens or been to Mars; fantasy writers cannot have personally ridden a dragon or unicorn or cast a spell. Writers of historical fiction cannot see a gladiatorial contest at the Coliseum in Rome or walk through the Forum in all its glory – the most they can manage is a visit to the present-day ruins, supplemented by, you guessed it, reading accounts written at the time and a liberal dose of imagination.

We don’t expect the writers of murder mysteries, thrillers, and horror novels to be murderers, spies, or serial killers. We don’t even expect them to be policemen or to have experience as secret agents, soldiers, or profilers. We do expect them to be storytellers, and to give us a reasonably plausible and believable portrait of whatever characters they put in their novels.

At least, that’s what some of us expect, and I think it’s a reasonable expectation. The trouble is that there are too many people around who talk about the power of the imagination, but who don’t really believe in it in their heart of hearts.

The corollary to “if you haven’t done it or been it, you can’t write about it well” is obviously “if you wrote about it well, you must have done it.” People are grudgingly willing to admit that one doesn’t have to have fallen into a duck pond or had a life insurance salesman freak out in the living room ten minutes before a dinner party in order to write a funny story about one, but the minute you write about something like abuse, harassment, a bad marriage, an alcoholic parent, or a character on drugs, an enormous wad of people will assume you couldn’t have done it out of your imagination; it has to have come out of your personal experience. (Murder mystery writers remain exempt, though writers of erotica are not. Evidently, nobody ever imagines or would ever write about any sexual practice, positive or negative, unless they’ve experienced it personally. It makes one wonder why writers of erotica are not more in demand socially.)

This is why you see disclaimers in the Afterwards of books that say things like “Although the characters in this book have a really rough time, I was never abused/a drug addict/an alcoholic in real life. I made it up.” And people still don’t believe it.

Making things up is our job. Imagining what it’s like to be the operator of a meth lab in rural Texas, or the star of a Bollywood movie, or a child being smuggled out of North Korea or South America is all part of the job, as much as figuring out how to evoke what it’s like to watch a sunset over the Sahara desert or haul a sledge across the Antarctic wilderness. Or what it’s like to be an elf, or the first person on Mars, or the last one on Earth.

Research gives the imagination material to work on. Personal experience is one kind of research, and as I said, it’s vital for some writers; it’s just not the only kind of research, nor is it vital for every sort of writer. Reading diaries and memoirs, watching documentaries, and studying textbooks are also research, and are just as valuable as experience to most writers (and more valuable to some who are really low-kinesthetic).

Material, however, is only half the equation. Imagination is what turns material into stories…and sometimes, it starts with the most unlikely material one could possibly think of. This is what those people who demand that writers have “been there, done that” don’t get. Possibly because they’re short on imagination themselves.

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Metaphorical maps

One of the fairly common writing metaphors draws a connection between writing a novel and taking a road trip. You see a lot of comments like “You don’t need to see the entire highway that leads from Chicago to Denver in order to drive to Denver; you only have to see as far as your headlights light up ahead of you” and “You don’t have to take Interstate 80 all the way from Chicago across Nebraska; you can get off and take back roads if you want.”

Generally, at some point in this metaphor, maps will come into it. Usually this is in regard to planning your metaphorical writing-road-tip or as a way of finding alternate routes when your plan breaks down because of road construction or a washed-out bridge or something. It’s used as an argument for everything from the wisdom of pre-planning your story to the idea that you don’t have to stick to the plan.

It is a good and useful metaphor, and I’ve used it many times myself. But a couple of weeks ago, I was looking at hydrology maps for Minnesota in an attempt to help my father figure out what river he wants to go kayaking on next time he comes to visit (he tried kayaking for the first time on a recent trip to Texas, and loved it) and it occurred to me that I could push the metaphor a whole lot farther than I ever had. So naturally, I am going to.

The first thing I thought about was what you can do with a basic road map. There are five basic things that a standard road map is good for: 1) figuring out where you are now; 2) figuring out where you are going in relation to where you are now; 3) figuring out how to get from 1 to 2; 4) finding an alternate route when the one you picked in #3 turns out to be blocked; and 5) spotting possible interesting side trips that you could take while you’re on your way from 1 to 2 (because if your route happens to take you right past the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge, you might want to stop and take a look at it while you’re in the area).

The writing-as-road-trip metaphor usually focuses on #3 and #4 – figuring out how to get from where you are to where you want to be, and finding alternate routes if your original one is impassable. This is fine as far as it goes – it is, after all, what most people usually use real maps for – but it leaves the people who have other uses for maps floundering.

Writing does not always work in a neat, linear, straightforward fashion. Every so often, it seems as if your characters fall through a hole in space and emerge somewhere entirely different, somewhere that has no resemblance to anything you thought was going to happen or anywhere you expected them to be. At this point, I often find it very useful to have a map – something that tells me the lay of the land overall, that I can use to figure out where the heck in the vastness of possible plot-twists my characters are.

Sometimes, they turn out to be just over the hill from my original plot, and it’s fairly easy to get them back on track. Other times, they’ve jumped over hundreds of miles, in an entirely different direction from the one I thought they were going, or even halfway into what I thought was going to be the sequel. The first step in figuring out what to do from there is to figure out where “there” is in relation to everything else. Only then can I start deciding on the next move: back toward the original main plotline? Off into the unknown? Some combination?

Maps are also useful as a way of evaluating my progress. For that, I need to know where I think I’m going; knowing that, I can keep an eye on how close I am. If I’m 60% of the way through my expected word count (whether that’s 30,000 words or 130,000 words) and only 25% of the way through the plot, I need to make some adjustments somewhere (probably in terms of switching to a destination that I can reach in the remaining number of words I have). And I really do need to check on this periodically, because if I wait until I’m 80% or 90% of the way through my expected word count, I’m probably going to have a lot of trouble picking an alternate destination and making appropriate adjustments, whereas if I discover it at 40% of the way through, I may be able to pick up the pace enough to get where I wanted to go without running too far over.

The side trips, though, are where I really get useful return on the time I spend making up my map (that is, working out some degree of writing plan and backstory in advance). I don’t need a lot of details or an in-depth rundown of every possible tourist trap within a hundred miles of my intended route, but a general idea that there’s some interesting backstory involving the guildmaster’s sister and the missing uncle or the librarian-mentor’s scandalous younger days allows me room to spot interesting possibilities when I’m in that neighborhood.

The first problem with all this is, of course, that the “map” one uses for planning one’s writing journey has to be made up by the writer. For some writers, this is problematic: either they’re the sort who finds making up a plan or road map to be too close to writing the story and being done (i.e., planning in too much detail kills every possibility of actually writing the story), or they have severely limited time and energy to put into writing and can’t bring themselves to put effort into drawing up a road map without some assurance that it will justify using valuable writing time doing it.

Which brings me to the second problem. The writing-as-road-trip metaphor is where all this looking at maps and plans generally starts, and so the kind of map people talk about is a road map. But there are lots of other kinds of maps, and they are useful for different things.

The hydrology map that I was examining for my father, for instance, doesn’t show roads or state boundaries; it just shows rivers and watersheds. As a map for planning a road trip, it’s not much use. As a map for spotting possible destinations that fit certain criteria, it’s just the thing. If I’d been looking for places to go mountain climbing or skiing, a map showing differences in elevation would be more useful than the road map or the hydrology map. And if I’m trying to decide what to plant in my garden, I need the planting zone map that will tell me what is hardy at my latitude.

From a writing standpoint, what this means is that there are a lot more possible ways to look at planning a story than just trying to sort out the plot. What kind of map or prewriting you need to do depends on what you need to know. A road map won’t help you figure out what to plant in the garden or which streams in your area are suitable for a beginning kayaker. A hydrology map won’t tell you where the odd, interesting museums are (though it may give you some idea which areas are prone to having bridges wash out). Possibly what you really need to know is not what the plot is or where it is going, but what sort of fashion statement each of your characters prefers to make and what colors look good or bad on each of them. Maybe you need a street map of the town center, or maybe you need a drawing of the fountain in the palace courtyard.

It doesn’t matter whether the thing you do leads you toward a plot outline or not. Whatever will make this story easier or more interesting for you to write is the sort of prewriting and planning you want to think about doing.

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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 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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