Just a bit of an update today. When I sent Discovered out for Alpha Readers, I started on revisions to 1,200. The book really seems to be shaping up in a good way, but they are going slowly. There are two reasons for this.
First, I was a much less mature writer when I wrote 1,200 originally. There are things the book needs just to give it the depth it deserves. That means some additional chapters and a bit more development and (a lot more) description.
That leads to the next issue. Back when I wrote this, I hadn’t started generating character sheets like I do now. So what I’m doing is generating a character sheet each time I encounter a character. That’s really what’s taking so much time. I keep having to stop. But this is worth it. Back in those days, I really leaned into my discovery writing tendencies, which made it easy to type, but don’t help very much when I’m trying to be consistent with (or have any) description. Once I get the bulk of these character sheets generated, the revisions will go by much more quickly.
I’m still a little more than a week out from when I asked Alphas to get Discovered back to me, but I’m nowhere near done with 1,200 yet. I do plan to finish this set of revisions before doing the Alpha Draft of Discovered.
I haven’t heard any good or bad news about Discovered, and that’s fine. I only mention it because I would give you updates if I had any. I tend to leave my Alphas and Betas alone. They don’t get paid or anything, so the least I can do is leave them be. I don’t know that I’ve ever had any be late, so it’s worked.
Once I get through revisions on 1,200, I’ll get back at Discovered, and get that over to my editor for a developmental edit.
I just wanted to give you all an update. I’m working as hard as I can given circumstances, and I will keep you up to date on my progress.
As always, I thank you for your support. It means a lot to me.
So I read a blog from Quintessential Editor a few days ago in which we discussed character or conflict. He and I may (I’m actually not sure) disagree on what makes a book great. I’ll vote character every time, and I have my reasons, but the blog inspired me to offer my view on what turns out to be how I evaluate characters.
I love Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast, and they did a podcast a few years ago (back when I had the luxury of listening every week) that helped me understand why I like books. I’ve said it a few times. I like sympathetic, proactive characters. The podcast to which I’m referring is the one on character sliders. In it, they discuss how to evaluate characters by Sympathy, Competency, and Proactivity.
I’ll let you listen to the podcast for the explanation because they’re awesome, hugely successful authors, and I’m an Indie guy trying to find my way in the world. I will make one argument.
Sanderson explains that Sympathy is the “how likable a character is.” He’s my Yoda in every regard, but I don’t know that’s true. I think Sympathy (at least to me) is how strongly I feel about the character. Whatever the emotion, if I feel it strongly, I’m drawn to the character. The formula works regardless, but I see sympathy as “strength of emotional reaction” and not strictly “likable.”
What I thought I could add or build from this wonderful tool was how to use it when writing a book. I don’t see this as a character development tool myself. Rather, I try to anticipate how readers will see the character. I’m editing Caught still, so I’d like to use Sal. In the previous draft, he was proactive and sympathetic.
My editor and I disagreed on his arc. What I wish I’d argued then is that he wasn’t actually very competent. He tried several times and several ways to do something before he gained more power. His argument, in the interest of being fair, was that Sal struggled and failed so many times, and never reacted to those failures.
I kept this in mind while revising. I kept in in mind while writing for the other characters as well. I want my readers to say two things when they read my books. “I (feel strongly) about his characters” and “they’re always moving.” I hope they hate the characters I want them to hate, and I hope they love the characters I mean for them to love, but as long as they feel strongly, I feel I’ve succeeded.
So how do you do this? Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but this is my own spin. At each major plot point (for me, this is when I check my outline), look at your character and see how the plot point might have effected each of these traits. Every time a character fails, he or she seems less competent. Some fans hate incompetent characters. I’m actually not one of them.
Case study: Naruto is a moron. He’s a goof, who’s just winging it. He can’t do a single normal jutsu and really only has the one major trick. But look at how hard he works! Look at how much he cares about his comrades? Look at how he struggles to maintain his bonds. In fact, each time he wins, it’s usually DESPITE his competence. Still, if he NEVER learned anything, he’d eventually get boring. So at certain points, he becomes ever so much less stupid. This is how we see his progression as a character. Don’t mistake progression as moving forward.
Case study: Rand al’Thor is one of my favorite characters ever. In fact, I’d like to compare him to Ichigo from Bleach. I feel Rand works more because there’s more progression. Ichigo gets more powerful. He’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, and he never really changes. Rand becomes all the more compelling because as he becomes more powerful (and we’ll have to discuss something soon), he becomes more isolated and less sympathetic. So you see, he devolves in sympathy as he evolves in power.
Is power a slider? For me it is. Because competence, to me, is the character’s success rate. But there are several characters who win a lot, but still don’t feel very powerful. The first that comes to mind is Ender Wiggin. He’s incredibly sympathetic, competent, and proactive. But none of that matters because he’s supposed to fight an alien race that the human race has feared for generations. Power is a factor in a lot of things, and conflict can be the gauge by which you measure it. So why do I consider it a slider? Because it can be used as a source of conflict in itself, not just a resolution to conflict.
Now that I’ve done a few case studies, let’s turn that microscope on myself. While writing Bob, I was very concerned about the first act because the conflict is subtle. Most reviews regard the first act as the best, which makes me feel good I didn’t cut it from the book. In the first act, Bob is sympathetic and proactive. His proactivity is what causes the conflict. Police notice him, and now he has to evade them. He’s not very competent. He doesn’t know anything about his job. He doesn’t know how to avoid police. He’s not even very good at covering his tracks. This leads to the climax of part one.
When I got to Part 2, I checked up on Bob’s sliders. Sympathy 100% Proactivity 100% Competence: 30% (I’m probably being nice). Power 50%. This might surprise people. While Bob talks about how “useless” his powers are, he’s still comparatively more powerful than most of the characters in Part 1. In Part 2, I introduce Grimm. Now he’s very competent, very proactive. How sympathetic is he? I HOPE readers say they hate him, but I can’t pretend to know. There’s hardly any feedback on him though, so that leads me to believe I miscalculated here. So he’s not sympathetic at all. (otherwise, readers would have said something about him by now). I can learn from this. But what he DOES do, is make Bob seem LESS powerful. That also makes him seem LESS competent. So the progress for Bob is actually devolving and not evolving.
In Part 3, I make Bob more competent. I do this by showing him learn. I had to bring in the “mentor” archetype. I had to give Bob a few wins. This made it so when he got to the final conflict, he looked like he stood a chance.
That’s how I use the sliders. If I ever felt like my sympathy or proactivity values were slipping, I adjusted for it. I encourage authors to do these checks. When you hand the book to beta readers, ask them to send a chapter by chapter evaluation using whatever sliders you use to evaluate the character, then compare those to your own assessment. If they’re the same, I’d say you’re doing it right. If they’re different, that’s when it’s time to find out what you’re missing.
I’ve never really cared much for competent characters. They bore me. Oh there are a lot of characters that I love that are ALSO competent, but for my money, if a character doesn’t make me feel and isn’t doing anything, I hate the story. That doesn’t mean EVERYONE will. Know your genre.
That leads me to my last point. The Mary Sue character. Corey would be awesome and tell you where that term came from, I just learned it an moved on. (The difference between a gardner and an architect if I’ve ever seen one). A Mary Sue is a character that is the most compelling, most powerful, most proactive, most competent character ever. Dear God, do I hate those characters. I argue that if a character is too powerful and too competent, the sympathy bar naturally slides down for me. It’s a risk writers take. But here’s my twist:
Mary Sues don’t happen when all the bars are maxed; they happen when all the bars are equal.
I get this from photography. I picked up that wonderful skill in the Navy, and I’ll love it for the rest of my life. In terms of light, if you have equal values of red, blue, and green, you get gray. You can have 20% of each, or 100% of each. (Zero..well..then you don’t have any color, so that’s black, which, according to Batman is a very, very, very, dark gray). I find characters feel like Mary Sues when all values are equal, no matter those values.
Character study: Rey. She’s not that sympathetic. Really. She’s just out there in the desert chilling. You LEARN to care for her, but that’s not the first hour of the movie I saw. She’s competent, but everyone but me remembers how she got captured (like a chump) and messed up the doors (like a fool) when they were first aboard the Falcon. If I evaluate Rey right after meeting Han, I’d say she’d measure out at: Sympathy 10% Competence 10% Power 10% and Proactivity 10%. Remember, Finn is the one who gets her to move. She wanted to go home through the first half of the movie.
Her arc SEEMS Suish (trademark M.L.S. Weech) because she processes equally across all sliders throughout the movie. She gains more power and competence. This makes her more proactive and sympathetic. I love the movie. I don’t mind Rey, but I don’t love her either, because she essentially sat around the desert until someone forced her to move, and even then she didn’t do much until she got captured. Watch the movie, let me know if you think I’m wrong.
So that’s it. Try it on your book. Toss me a few character studies. Let’s make a game of it. Until then, thanks for reading.
I’d like to start this story out by telling you about my senior year in high school. I promise, this is relevant. I don’t know about you all, but my algebra class had a rubric which accounted for showing your math. This infuriated me. I’d get the answer correct, but lose a point because I didn’t demonstrate how I got there.
I didn’t know it then, but this was an early indication of my writing style. When you get down to it, there are generally two types. There are discovery writers like me, who think, formulas be damned, here’s the book as I made it up.
Then there are outliners. These are the people who toil and stress over each plot line and scene.
A few of those big names out there have different terms, but they all mean the same thing.
But wait! Matt, you said you outline all the time!
Yeah, yeah I did, but that’s because I, like most authors, have found a little bit of both worlds can be helpful.
The first book I ever finished writing was discovery written. I wrote a chapter a day for a few months and finished a book. I made it up as I went. I knew what my ending was, and I had a few general ideas, but I just sat down and typed. I’ve mentioned before that book never worked, but while numerous drafts are a consequence of discovery writing, the technique isn’t a bad one. I was just so inexperienced and raw, I didn’t know what to do.
The first act of The Journals of Bob Drifter was also discovery written. I had to revise that part a few times, but I was also more experienced. I’d been studying and reading. I was practicing my craft. Then I sat down with my brother (primary alpha reader and main supporter). We set out a few plot points, and I had an idea.
I decided to use my discovery writing tendencies to develop an outline. This let me keep the freedom of letting the story take me where I wanted with the ability to make continuity and development adjustments. I could switch things around without having to do a bunch of rewrites. (Don’t let me mislead you, no matter what you do, you’re going to have rewrites. I just mean I didn’t have to do dozens.)
This is what I tend to do now. I develop my characters. I plot their progress. I do this by typing a summary of their through line of the story. If I hit a scene I really like or just want to flesh some things out, I do. If my pace starts to slow down, I just summarize what’s going on and move forward. I’ve written whole chapters that way. Once all my characters are done and their through lines prepped, I tie them together in an overall outline. Again, as I copy and paste these plots together, I let the 17-year-old me come to all the conclusions he wants.
Remember that story I opened with? I did that then too. I’d write down a formula or do a step or two if I was stuck, but once I felt like I was moving, I just kept going. All I cared about then was getting to the correct answer. All I care about now is getting the outline done.
When I finish, I have my outline. BUT, the discovery writer in me isn’t done yet. After my outline is finished, I start what I call my discovery draft. The rules change a bit, but I still have some freedom. The rule change is I have to complete a manuscript. I do this the way any writer of integrity and skill does.
My fingers still fly across the keypad. I don’t stop for anything. Inevitably, I come to a new chapter, a new character, or pretty much anything that needs description. Description is the molasses in my swimming pool. I get better with every book, but inevitably, I get frustrated, or just flat out bored. So what do I do? I use parenthetical symbols.
The good guy kicked in the door, his 9mm Barretta (CHECK SPELLING) held just at eye level. The room was like a nightmare. (BORING, WHAT MADE IT LOOK LIKE A NIGHTMARE).
Inside the parenthetical symbols, I use all caps and write a little message to myself. I’ll do everything from say (DESCRIBE THE ROOM) to (FIND OUT WHAT SORT TACTIC A HACKER WOULD USE TO RESOLVE THIS SITUATION). I’m not a hacker, but I know people who know people. (NOT ACTUAL HACKERS).
So I just motor through my draft. Sometimes I go back and clean things up. But whatever I don’t fix this time around, I don’t worry about. I just get everything on paper. I use my first draft to address all those notes. I find experts who are willing to help me with stuff and get rid of those. Then the dreaded editing starts.
I’ve found that really works for me. It took just about three years to write my second book. (That first book I mentioned, I wrote it 21 times through a 15-year period). This new system allows me to write about one a year. It still takes a hot minute to edit and make them ready to publish, but not nearly as long as Journals took me.
I decided to sit down today and explain this because it helped me. But what if you’re an outliner.
That’s okay. You’ll probably hate yourself less during editing, but if you find yourself stuck, I don’t want you to be afraid to just pound something out. I have a few friends who can’t turn off their internal editors or cure themselves of world-builder’s disease. If you find that you’re stuck, do something different. I found that I hated how many rewrites I had to do, so I decided to outline in a way that still fits the way my mind works.
So what are you? Outliner or discovery writer? Do you have a process you think works for you? Please share it in the comments below so everyone can try to add a new tool to their toolbox.