I’m happy to report that I’ve finished the outline for Discovered, the conclusion of the Oneiros Log and the story which began in Caught.
COVID has caused me to have to adjust how I operate. I was counting on conventions to earn the money I needed to get Betrayed a developmental edit, but no conventions in my life (at least so far) means no sales. The good news is the finances are (apparently) back on track for my normal budgeting. That means I can resume saving for edits. That will happen in time, but it will take time (about five months at most). That’s not the timeline I wanted to work with, but we live in the world we live in.
Rather than freeze completely, I’m able to work on other projects that I can have ready for when the world (God willing) gets back to normal. I typically bounce from one project to another. In a perfect world, I would have had Betrayed edited by now, so I would do the next draft on that while I let Discovered simmer. Since that isn’t an option, I’ve decided to get caught up in other projects, namely, Images of Truth. I was working on this discovery draft and set it aside to work on Sojourn in Captivity, which is essentially a prequel to Images. It really bugged me to have a draft 118,000 words written but not finished. So I’m going to take the chance to get that draft done.
Now, Images of Truth is huge! So I might not finish that draft before I start working on Discovered’s discover draft. I promised that I’d get Oneiros done, and I mean to do it. I’ll work on Images until June 1, then get cranking on Discovered.
The moment I save or earn enough to get Betrayed to Sara for a developmental edit, I will, and I will let you know. Maybe what I get out of this is getting Images closer to ready as well. If (and it’s a big if) I get that discovery draft of Images done, I’ll do another pass on The 1,200, which is scheduled to be the book I release after I’m done with Oneiros.
I wanted to post this to show you all that I am working hard to get this saga done and into your (very patient) hands. I’m also doing my best to keep the creative projects going so there I don’t get stuck in the midst of this trial.
I’m glad I hit this benchmark, and I appreciate all the support you’ve shown from the beginning to now and, hopefully, the future.
Something that slows down or even completely stops an aspiring writer is the idea that the book is finished when he or she completes the draft. I see it with my students. They spend far too much time trying to make the first draft their last draft.
That’s an unfortunate misconception that only serves to devastate someone. I’m not saying it never happened to me. The first thing I ever wrote, I proudly presented it to a few friend’s and even a published author. I wanted them to lavish me with praise and compliments. That’s just not how it went.
My friend pointed out all of these plot holes, and the author I showed it to just told me why it didn’t work. I was absolutely devastated. I had just spent about a month typing some thousands of words, and the story wasn’t any good.
What saved me in that moment was my sheer stubborn nature. All my youth spent having to do something over and over again until it was right instilled in me the determination to keep at something until it’s done. I’ll admit, that same youth put me in a mindset to completely hate having to do something again. I still do. The thing I learned, and the thing I want others to know, is that the first draft is only a draft.
If your stuck because, “I just can’t get this chapter right,” rewrite your definition of “right.” A first draft should have the general plot and major character events in an order that makes a pretty good amount of sense. I overemphasize this statement. JUST. KEEP. WRITING. First of all, there is no such thing as a perfect story. Someone is going to find a plot hole you didn’t think of. Someone is going to find some copyediting error you didn’t even know existed. For the first draft, don’t even worry about it. Write to get the story out. Hunger for people to point out the holes. Crave criticism.
Now those are things that are still against my nature. “I love this story! I couldn’t bear it if someone didn’t like it!” Do yourself a favor: Never publish that book or show it to anyone. Someone is going to hate your book. It’s the world, and the people in the world will find things they don’t like. Use that feedback to make the book better. By all means, stand behind decisions you make, but do so knowing what some readers might think of those decisions.
The Journals of Bob Drifter was my first book. I have six reviews that are two stars or lower between Amazon and Goodreads. That mans six people just flat didn’t like my book. It hurts to think that. I really want people to enjoy my book. However, if I really did let that stop me from publishing, I would have missed out on the 50 four-star-or-higher reviews. At least 50 people loved the book! That’s the nature of entertainment. (I have 63 reviews for Bob between its two editions and the review from Amazon and Goodreads.) However, the final draft of that book looks very different from what I originally wrote. The order of the book was very different. Some of the decisions were different (particularly with Richard). The criticism from editors and beta readers truly helped shape the novel into what it became, and I still love it.
Every single one of my titles has the same story from that point of view. Sure, when I get criticism, I feel defensive. Who wouldn’t? But a published author has to push through the fear of criticism and see it for what it is, a valuable tool to get better.
When I sit down to write my discovery draft, I have zero regard for anything. I just pound the story out. Sometimes I leave little letters to myself. However, nothing keeps me from finishing the draft. Nothing stops me from getting the story out.
You can’t revise an incomplete story. Anyone who tells you otherwise has figured out something I’ve personally never seen. I’ve heard the same from Brandon Sanderson and James Patterson. I do know that Sanderson had written about 13 books before an agent he’d been soliciting flat told him, “I’m trying to get this book where it needs to be,” or something to that effect. Sanderson said he didn’t want to revise and that he’d prefer to just move on to another book. He eventually came to understand the value of revision.
I type this bit of advice to convince aspiring authors to forget about what people may think or say about your first draft. Just get it written. Embrace the feedback. Don’t ever stop drafting until you’re done with that draft. Then, and only then, you can revise, and revise, and revise.
Don’t be afraid. Some people might not like your story. There might be many more times the number of people who love it. Sure, there is a universe where everyone who reads your work hates it, but it’s statistically unlikely. But in my days of doing conventions and talking to aspiring writers, I continue to hear the same set-back. I just keep going back to rewrite it. Sure, rewrite it after it’s complete. But if you never finish the book because you’re revising it, realize that you’ll never finish your book because you’ll never be done revising it.
I’m making my way through my TBR pile, and I noticed something in a book that drew my attention. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s probably not a good thing. I’ll keep things vague because there’s enough bad pub out there regarding books, and I’m not in any way trying to bash anyone. However, we can look at what some people do and make notes.
We have a main character who has a sidekick. This sidekick is loyal and steadfast. My argument is this character might have reached the point to where that steadfastness is not only hard to believe, but has become boring because no matter what the main character puts that sidekick through, the character simply keeps being this amazingly helpful, understanding person.
While I’ve recently come to believe that conflict in stories is a must, and I think authors should find as many opportunities for conflict as possible, I’m not in any way saying there needs to be some sort of fight scene or argument in every scene. Sometimes you need tension. Sometimes you need support. The thing is though, no one can be stalwart and reliable 100 percent of the time.
From a human perspective, even lifelong friends get frustrated with one another. My brother-and-I are such close friends and so well regarded, that family members have on occasion asked one of us what we wanted and then bought it for the other. When I go shopping, I just buy something I really want and give it to him. That doesn’t mean we’ve never fought. From that same perspective, friendships are tested through adversity. The point in live isn’t to always agree and support each other. Support is a thing, but support doesn’t always imply, helping or (more importantly) rolling with whatever the MC wants.
From a writer’s perspective, any author should be seriously worried when character reactions or actions become predictable. Predictable characters are boring, and boring characters lead to unread books.
Disagree? Let’s take a look at some of the most famous “friends” in fiction or entertainment:
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Didn’t we all see Civil War? I mean, the movie made metaphorical-astro-bucks in theaters. Wasn’t that story (in movies and comics) all about putting allies at odds? That sort of conflict takes this analogy a little farther than I want though. What about the most loyal sidekick ever?
Samwise Gamgee: The guy tagged along with Frodo through everything. Some may Sam is the actual protagonist of the story. while I think he was the hero, he wasn’t the protagonist. The protagonist in any story is the one who has a clear goal and encounters obstacles. The main goal of Lord of the Rings? Destroy the ring. Yes, Sam just wanted to protect his friend, but it’s not as neat as those wearing fond remembrance glasses think. For starters, Sam didn’t hear about the tale and shout, “Frodo can’t go unless I do!” In fact, he was caught eavesdropping and ordered to follow Frodo. The very beginning of their journey wasn’t based on friendship and support; it was based on Sam being yanked into this mess because of being nosey.
Yes, Sam was stalwart through perhaps 95% of the whole story, but there was rising conflict and an eventual clash of wills and break-up. Sure it was short lived, but Sam and Frodo argued about Gollum, which ended in Sam saying he can’t support this path. Yes, he returned, but that return as all the more heroic because the audience understood and believed how frustrating it would be.
So writers, I’m not saying the friends or sidekicks of the story need to argue at every page or end up on opposite sides of the conflict, but no one real or fictitious, can walk in the shadow of an MC and not encore some of the emotional strain, turmoil, and resentment the MC encounters.
Writers should be aware of what the MC is putting that sidekick through, and respect that those challenges have a toll on that friend. Every Robin ever has had some major conflict with Batman. Sometimes it was a conflict to earn a place beside him, and sometimes it was a more literal conflict. No one liked Jason Todd until he came back and tried took on Batman.
There’s another side. There are characters who get boring for the opposite reason. They almost never seem willing to support or help out that MC. Mat Cauthon was a very hot and cold character for me. I frankly resented him sometimes for how quickly he was ready to abandon Rand and how stubborn he was about pretty much doing anything. I understand part of this was an aspect of his arc and his fatal flaw, but he infuriated me, and there were times when I just wasn’t interested in him because I didn’t want to read another ten pages about how he wanted to avoid the situation. That said, I absolutely bawled when he mentioned a certain prank from way back in Eye of the World (I’d really appreciate anyone who remembers what that animal was by the way. I can’t seem to recall it. Might be time to read that series again.) Mat ended up working for me because he inevitably was loyal. He fought it every step of the way, but he did come through in the end.
Consider this as you write. Tension and conflict, even between the closest characters, can make that relationship stronger.
I’m writing this post on my phone because for some reason, my computer has decided it hates WordPress. I’d rather post something as opposed to not. I think it’s important I post on schedule, so here I am, but I do ask for some leinency for lack of pictures and any other errors.
A while back, I posted about chracter sliders. I mentioned that characters need to grow, but today I want to warn against characters who only have a high value in one category.
I don’t think charaters like this work. If you have a character who is amazingly competent, it won’t matter if he’s unsympathetic or not proactive.
Some may argue characters have to be symoasympat, and I like those characters, but sympathy alone isn’t enough.
I wanted to try and explain this with a character study, but I simply can’t think of a character who only has one high-value characteristic. I’m honestly atill thinking, and I can’t name one.
So let’s assume you all agree with me that characters need to be sympathetic; what else should they be? Well, that’s the luxury of choice.
A proactive character would, I think, inspire characters and motivate readers to keep trying. This would be a character like Naruto.
A competent character would challenge the reader. He would force the reader to keep up while simultaneously frustrating readers with his tendency to not act. Doctor Strange is a good example here. He’s totally motivated by selfish reasons. By choosing to take action and help defend Earth, the reader is satisfied and excited by his involvement in the fight.
Why are two mandatory?
Well, let’s again assume most feeling characters just be proactive.
If he doesn’t do anything, the reader will lose interest, feeling as though the character won’t ever answer the call to action
If the reader is also incompetent, the reader will put the story down because even if that character decided to take action, he’d probably fail.
My point is a character can’t just be sympathetic, proactive, OR competent. There needs to be a second element to create tension during the rising action and satisfaction during the climax.
What are your thoughts? Can you name any one-dimensional characters?
The main reason I wanted to do a 2nd edition was to gain more control over the price and make it easier for people to purchase. I also wanted to be able to have electronic e-sales. Making this decision allowed me to do another editorial pass. In truth, I did three.
By my count, that means I’ve done about 41 total passes on this book. This isn’t to say I’ve rewritten it, I’m proud to say I only did about three “full” revisions. These were drafts where I changed or rearranged content. The rest were proofreading drafts, and that’s where I want to focus my attention.
There’s this term, minimum viable product. I’ll be honest, I hate that term. To me, it connotes, “get it printed as quickly as possible, and don’t worry about the quality.” Perhaps I take that term too far, but I’ve read work completed under that banner, and to be frank, it never works out well. The typos and issues pull me out of the story and away from the plot.
However, the other side of that coin is even worse. You see, at some point, you have to let it go. This is why I hold so firmly to my process. It’s the balance I’ve found between ensuring the best product I can get to my readers while ensuring I actually release something.
Too many people ever finish a book or never publish it because they want it to be perfect. Here’s the brutal truth: You’ll never be perfect. Of the 41 times I’ve read Bob Drifter, I’ve never failed to find a rather significant number of issues. It’s simply going to happen when one writes 133,000 words. Now, this version is FAR cleaner than the last, and it should be. I’ve been told that the industry standard for “number of errors” in a book is 3% (author and editor friends, I’d appreciate confirmation of this). That means I could theoretically have more than 3,900 typos in Bob drifter, and I’d still be “within standard.”
I never counted, but even after paying my editor to do a pass on the book, I found an embarrassing number of grammar errors and typos. I even noticed a minor continuity issue. (It appears Richard used to own a house that changed color. I fixed that.) I assure you, my editor did a fine job. I promise I gave my best effort the other 40 times I went over the book. The simple fact of the matter is the book will never be “perfect.” I have to give you readers the best, high-quality product I can in a timely manner. That means taking a breath, and letting the story get out into the world at some point.
I don’t in any way agree with the philosophy of “just get the product out.” Those who disagree with me are welcome to, and you can even comment if you wish. This is simply my opinion on a common topic of discussion in the industry.
What I do support is the idea that you have to, at some point, release a book.
What I recommend:
Develop a plan, and hold to it. I’ve mentioned my plan a few times in a few different blogs, but because I can’t think of any one to refer you to, I’ll just go over it.
Discovery draft: get the story written.
First draft: Fill in holes. Flesh out the plot. Read out loud until you don’t catch any errors. (This usually takes me between 3-7 “passes.”)
Alpha draft: Get alpha readers’ feedback. Take information under advisement and address concerns. Read out loud until you don’t catch any errors. (This time it usually takes me 2-5 “passes.”)
Editorial draft: Sara gets her hands on the product and provides her developmental edits. I take those recommendations into consideration and make appropriate changes. Read out loud until you don’t catch any errors. (The remainder of these “read-throughs” usually take between 1-3 passes.)
Beta draft: Send the draft out to the target audience. Apply their feedback. Read out loud until you don’t catch any errors.
Copyediting draft: This one goes back to Sara. She looks at the structure and grammar. Read out loud until you don’t catch any errors.
Proofreading draft: The last draft before I send it to publish. Simply read out loud until I can’t find an error.
Proof draft: When I get my proof (digital or physical), I read it out loud, making any changes I catch. I don’t repeat the process, I simply correct what I catch.
Is this too much for you? That’s OK, you can’t minimize. I wouldn’t be angry at someone who doesn’t do “read out loud” passes until the copyediting draft.
Arguments against my way: “What do you pay an editor for?”
I’m glad you ask. I pay Sara to catch what I miss. The more errors I blatantly ignore or don’t bother to look for, the more likely she is to miss something. I’m sure Sara would much rather I send her my best than if I send her a group of random fragments for her to polish into a book. If I did that to her, I may as well give her credit as a co-author. She’s the editor, but I’m the writer. It’s my job to give her my best product, and her job to make it better.
However, once I finish my process, I let the book go. I haven’t even looked at Sojourn, even though it’s not even scheduled to be turned in until later this winter. I followed my process, and I trust it. I’m sure people will note errors, and I’ll note them and offer my thanks to any who tell me about them, but I did my best with the time I gave myself to develop the story.
This is the process that works for me. You can use it, use your own, or use mine to develop something new. The point is, give your best effort. Don’t expect your editors to take your “least” efforts and make it stand out, but don’t edit a 30,000-word story 30,000 times and take years to release what should come out in a matter of months. (I’m delaying my releases because of a marketing and momentum plan, but those products will be finished well before my “deadlines.”)
A note: Please don’t feel insulted. Perhaps you have a different definition of “minimum viable product.” I’m happy to hear it, though I’ll probably still disagree, it doesn’t make you wrong any more than it makes me right. Like I said, find what works for you. The point is, give your products the love you want your readers to give those products, but remember they can’t love the books at all if you never publish.
What I hope is this post motivates you to publish that book you’ve edited 40 times. Get that story out in the world because you worked hard on it. If you’ve just finished the first draft of a product, do the story a favor and give it a few passes to make sure it’s the best it can be. Perhaps if they called it “most timely viable product,” I’d be more willing to accept it, but that’s not the case.
I hope this motivates you either way. I’m very eager to hear editors’ and authors’ opinions on this matter.
I want to touch on two things that really stood out to me. There’s really a lot to glean from that book, and I honestly recommend it, especially for those working on improving their outlining skills.
Write first. Explain later: I’m a fan of long fiction, and, to be honest, I don’t know how many people abide by this rule AFTER they’re established. But it’s still a valid point. Writers feel like they have to really get their readers to connect with those characters, so they tend to want to draw out a moment or give back story. What that usually ends up becoming is a bunch of exposition that just bogs the story down. I saw this in practice with my Beta Readers for Sojourn in Captivity. Most of them liked the story (I may even go so far as to say loved it), but to an email they all said the beginning was too much. I wanted to establish Elele’s relationship with her family, her spoiled upbringing, and her skill with math. I also wanted to do some world building. This only served to give my readers a large terminology lesson before the book started moving. I tell my students this many times: The delete key is almost always the answer to your problems. What’s now the first segment, dives right in. I take the time to explain a few things here or there, but I start the story with the tension and let it build to her confrontation with the recognized god of her alien race. My editor liked it much better.
That brings me to the second point of discussion I appreciated in Bell’s book.
Happy people in Happy land: That’s what he calls an overdone part of a book. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that segment. What it gave me was food for thought. The entire book is essentially about keeping the tension and conflict going. With no tension or conflict in the beginning (i.e. happy people in happy land), what concern should the reader have for the characters? Why should they keep reading.
Here’s my example: Do you go for walks? I do. Do you stop randomly and stare at the window of a quite home? I don’t. But what do you tend to do if you hear screaming and shouting? See where I’m going?
I thought about that segment of the book and felt the desire to argue. What I ended up doing was changing my inference. I wouldn’t say Bell goes so far as to tell you to start off with miserable people in miserable land. Instead, show the scene that’s true to the arc of the character, but make sure you give the readers that insight as to the conflict that represents the burning embers of the inciting incident. If there is tension in the characters’ minds or hearts, make sure the reader can see it.
Let’s go back to those houses. Maybe they aren’t screaming. But maybe you hear a door slam? Maybe, through the window, you catch a glimpse of a woman and a man sitting apart. (I promise I don’t just randomly walk by house windows and peek in. This really is just a hypothetical example.) The point is you need some sort of disturbance to draw the reader in.
This book has a ton of helpful hints, a few case studies and even an example outline. It’s a great tool to help readers identify how to bring each scene to it’s highest intensity. I recommend this book to new writers looking to understand what keeps readers turning pages. It’s also good for people trying to figure out outlines.
I’m taking the chance to work on Images of Truth since I’m waiting for the editor to get back to me with Sojourn and Bob. This project is so much bigger than either of those. How much bigger? Well, I’m at 107,000 words, and I’m not even halfway done (though I’m at 47 percent based on my math). Using POV writing as opposed to first person narrative is much easier to do though now that I’ve written a complete story with both techniques.
That gave me an idea on what I could share with people in today’s blog. Last week, I talked to you about Adverbs. Today, I’d like to go over something I saw a lot of in my fourth set of revisions of Sojourn.
When I first wrote about first person narrative, I spoke about the pros and cons. What it let me do was limit the scope of the story and focus on the character I wanted everyone to connect with most (in this case, Elele). I stand behind the idea that it was the right call. Now, this may backfire on me for a few reasons I won’t get into in this blog, but I made a decision based on what I felt was best for the story, which is all any writer can do. That said, one consequence I didn’t think about what how many times a writer would be tempted to write “I.”
The first was easy to fix because of my experience as a journalist. I teach my students that observation is the most powerful tool they have, but a lot of my students feel the need to tell me they saw something. “I watched,” “I heard,” and “I felt” are attributive clauses that aren’t necessary. Want to see what I mean?
Here’s a paragraph from the third draft of Sojourn:
I watch as they fuss over their pod mother. She touches them and embraces them.
Dozens of Seferam each check on the oldest member of their family as I observe, breathing in moist air.
So here’s a question to ask yourself. Isn’t this story in first person? So of course she’s watching and listening. I don’t need to tell the reader that because the narrator is the character doing the watching and listening. Now, I’ll be honest. Even though I looked out for it in my last draft, I still have those types of clauses in there. I’ll have to do a search and get rid of it. It’s wordy and unnecessary.
Here’s what that segment looks like in the fourth draft:
They fuss over their pod mother, and she touches and embraces them.
Dozens of Seferam each check on the oldest member of their family as I observe, breathing in moist air.
Yeah, I still have her “observing,” but I felt I needed that to show her position in relation to the other group, not to prove she saw it. One could argue I don’t even need that bit in there, but it’s a step up from the last draft.
So when I sit down to do my final draft, you can bet I’m going to search for the clauses “I watch,” “I see,” “I hear,” and “I feel.” I’ll delete that, and watch my story’s word count shrink. This will make my prose cleaner, more readable, and more active.
But that’s not the only thing to watch out for with that pesky pronoun. Naturally your character is going to do things, and, since you’re using first person, there will be the temptation to start pretty much every sentence with the pronoun in question. Quintessential Editor (who was so kind to Alpha Read) for me, pointed out how often I did that. What that actually does is dehumanize your character. It buts the character in the way of her own story. So let’s go all the way back to that first draft of Sojourn and see what Corey wanted me to see.
Here’s the Alpha Draft:
I close my eyes an instant before I approach the threshold. I feel something brush over the tip of my nose. The heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something too. I open my wings, and use the force of the air to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.
Notice that three out of four sentences begin with “I.” Notice the word “I” is in that sentence five times. We want to get rid of some of that redundancy and make this a bit more active? How do you do that though without a subject? Well, I choose a different subject. Let’s look at this latest draft.
My eyes clench shut an instant before I approach the threshold. I feel something brush over the tip of my nose. The heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something, too. I use my wings and the force of the air to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.
Now, two out of five sentences begin with “I,” and I only see that pronoun four times. Just look at it though. See that “I feel” there? That’s right. This needs a nice, final once-over for just that problem. Like I said, I know it’s there, but now that I edit for it, I’ll think about it more as I draft. So let’s look at how this paragraph should probably end up:
My eyes clench shut an instant before I approach the threshold. Something brushes the tip of my nose, and the heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something else. My wings open, and the force of the air causes me to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.
Now, I have four sentences, and not a one of them starts with the pronoun “I.” In fact, that pronoun only appears twice. The structure of the sentence is still active, I’ve only changed the subject and the predicate. I noticed it more on this draft, but in the final draft, I’ll look for things like this to tighten up that prose and make life easier on the reader.
I thought you’d all like a glimpse into the editing process and note things to look out for. I’ll be better at it the next time I write in first person, but, at the very least, I know to look out for that before I through one word at a reader a hyperbolic number of times. If you’re writing in first person, try this out. Do a search for the word “I.” If your program is like mine, (I use Pages, but that’s more because it came with my Mac than an endorsement.) the program will highlight all the instances. I did it with my first draft, and suddenly it looked like someone overlaid my document with sheet music. I mean yellow highlights everywhere!
Like adverbs, you can’t eliminate a part of speech entirely, nor can you simply never use that pronoun. The trick is to use it when you need it, and not to let it get out of control. Trust me, I’ve read each of these four drafts about seven times each, and I still see instances where I can revise and tighten the structure of my sentences (sorry Sara!). Like any tool or trick, you want to do everything you do with intent and awareness. I hope this gives you something to work with in your drafts.
Possibly the biggest opponent to fantasy and science fiction is the concept of Deus Ex Machina. literarydevices.net gave a description of the term, but I’d like to add to that. When something arises that the reader isn’t prepared for to resolve the conflict, the reader will be unsatisfied with the ending. Let’s be honest, as readers, we WANT to believe the ending is plausible. We’ll take some pretty hanky explanations as background or foreshadowing.
In The Two Towers, Gandalf basically said, Just hold off for three days and I’ll come kill whatever bad guys are left. They fought for three days. Gandalf saved the day. No one batted an eyelash.
I’ve been speaking with Quintessential Editor about his book, editing mine, and outlining Sojourn in Despair. That means I’ve been talking about magic systems like crazy. Corey and I were talking about it, and I’d mentioned Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. I’m telling you, if you haven’t read these, and you write fantasy, stop writing and read this. It’s a solid group of guidelines. Sanderson’s First Law is, “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
I love fantasy. I love Sanderson’s work in particular. The reason I love it though is because it has a sense of wonder. Bad fantasy destroys that sense of wonder with a sense of impossibility. So when I read that law, I translate that to mean, “The better the reader understands the magic of the world, the more likely he’s going to accept that magic solved the problem.”
In The Journals of Bob Drifter, I took great care easing the reader into the magic system. Some say I took too much care. But I take a great amount of satisfaction from the fact that no one has (as of yet) complained that the ending was too easy. I spent some 110,000 words building up a villain that seemed unstoppable. But as Grimm was doing dastardly things, I was explaining through a few characters how his power worked while also explaining how Bob’s power worked. I feel if I hadn’t have done both, people would have called me out. Actually, I was more concerned the reader would discover the trick too soon. If that’s happened, no one said so yet. If you’ve read the book feel free to comment below regarding your thoughts.
I’m wracking my brain trying to determine a book that really failed at this. I’m sure it’s out there, and I’m sure I’ve read it, but I can’t honestly recall. But how do you prevent it? Should you?
Should you? Well, not necessarily. (OK, you should TOTALLY prevent Deus Ex Machina, but you don’t always need a magic system which requires a degree in physics to understand). Refer to the rule. “An author’s ability to SOLVE conflict….”
What if you wanted to CAUSE it? Children’s, and young reader fantasy stories do this a lot. No one sweeps in and saves the day with magic, but quite often magic is the cause of the problem. I’d argue this is the case with Lord of the Rings. Magic is far more responsible problems than it is solutions (Gandalf’s rescue included). So…if you’re working on a story where magic is getting thrown around like crazy and all it does is make life miserable for the characters, GO FOR IT! I don’t care how the magic system works. It’s magic!
But what if the man is going to rely on magic? Well then, the degree with which that magic is going to be relied upon must be that understood by the reader. Here are a few things I try to do to avoid the problem.
One: If Three is Good Enough for Tolkien, it’s good enough for me: I consider this the LEAST an author can do. I use this with foreshadowing and magic plot devices. I make sure to mention the “trick” at least three times. (Free autographed copy of my book if you can name the three instances I did this in The Journals of Bob Drifter.)
Two: The Mentor Magic Learning Montage: I’m less and less a fan of this every time I see it and use it. In 1,200, I took the mentor away JUST to avoid this. Inevitably in most fantasy sagas, there’s the “mentor” who appears JUST as the guy develops his power. How handy he shows up just in time to teach the guy how to become the hero. It’s a common thing and not really a “sin” in writing. I’ve just personally grown tired of it. (Though I did use a mentor archetype in New Utopia. Even then, I added a twist just to be different.) What this mentor can do is teach the user, and through him the reader, how the magic system works. In these types of stories, there’s usually a “hint” (see above) at how something thought impossible could happen. Or at least they do this next trick.
Three: Hang a Lantern: When the character does something impossible, and another character goes, “How could that be!” The reader gets a clue that this is an intentional thing. Then calmly waits for the explanation on how that should happen. If you use this, you NEED to explain that later in the story.
Four: Internal Dialogue: This is the last one I use. I used it most in 1,200, but I like it because it’s different. The author can use conflict and internal dialogue to express learned experiences and ideas. You can use the point of view of another character as well. In New Utopia, one of my upcoming books, the hero, Wilum, does something impressive. His mentor character (mentioned above) notices, then considers how it was done. You actually see this quite a lot in Anime.
How do you avoid Deus Ex Machina? Do you have a trick I don’t know about? Please share it.
Recently I posted a blog about how I develop characters. While doing that, I talked about how in in character files, I outline each character’s progression. This is commonly called plotting. You use structures to develop each character’s through-line. In the post mentioned above, I discussed the need for each character to be their own main character. I also mentioned they need more than one plot.
The bulk of my plotting terms come from Brandon Sanderson’s online lectures. I may have altered some terms because they make more sense for me that way, but those have the bulk of the structures I use.
As I grow, I consider other options, but this is a solid list. Essentially what it boils down to is asking yourself, “How are my readers going to know my character is growing.” Reminder: Regression is a form of growth.
I always knew about the Three Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey. The Journals of Bob Drifter follows a three act cycle. The “Matt breakdown” of this is: Introduce Hero. Make life suck. Resolve issues established in Act Two.
Rather than rehash what is already covered brilliantly in the links above, I thought I’d do what I love best, and provide you with some examples. I call these case studies. I learn best by looking at what others have done and seeing how it applies to what I’m trying to accomplish.
Corey Truax covered the heroes’ journey quite well, and Star Wars is a textbook example. Corey’s breakdown and Episode 4 are more than enough to go on.
Mystery: If your character is trying to learn something, you’re writing a mystery. It could be who killed John Doe or what’s wrong with the water in Ladonis. (I made those up to give you examples, so if you find something I accidentally touched on, I didn’t mean it.) Now, I’ve sung Sanderson’s praises a lot, so I feel talking about Elantris would be a bit unfair here. Let’s give someone else a little credit. Redshirts by John Scalzi is type of mystery. It’s hilarious. It’s obviously a parody (I’ll track down my review and post it on the new blog soon). The point is, the main character is trying to figure out what exactly is going on. I loved this book, but what pushed me through it was each clue the main character had to get him to realize what was happening. One of the main plotlines for my sixth book (New Utopia) is a mystery. Sanderson mentions Big Problem plots. I sort of lump this in with mystery as whatever they’re trying to do, they still have to figure out how to do it.
Try Fail: I tried to make this a sub plot as well because the character is trying to achieve something. The mystery would be how to do it, but what makes this plot stand alone better for me is the fact that you don’t actually need a large objective. I use this more for character than plot. Grimm is essentially a try fail plot in The Journals of Bob Drifter. If Grimm didn’t get closer to his ultimate objective, there’d be no tension, and his conflict with Bob would feel meaningless. My takeaway here is that the more a person fails to do something, the more surprising it is when the character succeeds. Now I’ve peddled my book several times over, so let’s talk about another book. Fade to Black byTim McBain is a more “problem” based thing, but what kept me reading was the fact that I wanted to know if the main character’s new approach was going to work.
Travelog: Sanderson mentions a few in the link I gave you, and I’ll elaborate on one of those. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan does a lot for me as a reader, but it also teaches me a lot. I was 90 pages into it and wanted to shout at my brother for recommending it, but he’d ordered me to read the first 100 pages, and so I did. If I use my analytical eye, I can find out why. Readers want to know the story is moving. The first 100 pages of The Eye of the World is all character introduction. Now, when I read book 13, and Sanderson tied back to that first 100 pages, it brought tears to my eyes (I’ll talk about endings in a future blog). So why was I so frustrated? The Eye of the World is essentially group of people trying to get somewhere. You have a map in the book that tells you where you are as a reader. The destinations change as well, but you always know you’re moving because the characters are striving to get somewhere. The first 100 pages of Eye of the World might frustrate readers because the characters don’t move. That 100 pages sets up the other 14 books (counting the prequel). They’re important and even cherished, but as a stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t have wanted to finish it had I not been ordered too. I’m glad I did. But the book moves much faster as we follow the characters and where they go.
Relationship Plot: I was about to sing C.L. Schneider’s praises again, but I feel if I’m too heavy handed, I’m not giving you readers enough material to read. I want to give a lot of books some credit. I haven’t spoken about the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, and this is a good spot to do so. Here, you’d have to read the first three books to analyze the plot I’m talking about, the relationship is between Artemis and the magical creatures. The most used plot is “People meet and don’t like each other; then they get to know each other and fall in love.” There are many types of love, but the story could be about the breakdown in a relationship too. (Remember, where I say progress, change might be a better term).
Time Bomb: This can be quite literal or not. Essentially this device is in effect when you put a limit on something. Murder mysteries do it well. Every time you pick up a murder mystery, you want the hero to find the villain before someone else dies. It’s subtle there. It’s a lot more literal in Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. Thread is going to fall any day now, and Pern doesn’t have enough dragons. The second part of New Utopia (which will become its own book after I revise it) has one of these.
What I wanted to do with this post is show you the types of plots that are out there and give you a few examples to study up with. I hope it helps.
Character development is a fluid process for me. I consistently try new things and keep what I feel worked and get rid of what I don’t like. Sometimes I bring those things I don’t like back because as much as I don’t like them, they help me create more realistic, sympathetic characters.
I put a lot of thought into how to present this because of how fluid my process is. I thought about taking you through how I evolved and what I tried. I can do that if anyone is interested, but what I think anyone would use this for is to put what I know I’m going to do when I start writing my eight book (Sojourn is a short story and Elele is already developed).
Quintessential Editor covered some ground with hisblog about using dice to create characters. This comes in handy mostly because of the character sheets for me. I did this a few times. It worked, but I thought it was too time consuming, so I dropped the sheets. Now I’m brining them back because some books have WAY too much for me to track. I have word processing character sheets, and I may adapt those, but I need something that helps me track my characters, particularly physical attributes.
I also took full advantage of Brandon Sanderson’s online lecture about Character Creation. That helped me mostly as it came to plotting. (Note: Today, I’m talking about development. That way, I can talk about plotting later.) But it does give me a snapshot, and it helped me streamline (in my case too effectively) my character sheets.
My character sheets start as simple pages in a word processing document. They get larger as I start plotting the character.
A note on archetypes. I outlined Caught using archetypes. While I want to know the role my characters play in the book, what I found this ended up doing was make my characters too cookie cutter. They fit their role in the plot, but it made them plot devices and not characters. I think what I’ll do next time is add the archetypes to the character sheet, though this still scares me. (NOTE: As I publish this, I’ve again decided against it.) I’m a very literal, linear thinker, and I don’t want to force my characters in a direction they wouldn’t go just so they fit some standard archetype.
Where my ideas come from: I teach my students about this concept where a writer has an idea for a story. I got it from one of my sources we used to develop the course, Telling True Stories. They call it the glimmer moment. I exist in a constant state of glimmer infinity. I constantly have flashes of imagination or insight that I think would be amazing. I jot them down or commit them to memory (let the debate on memory begin here). When enough of those ideas arrive to formulate one consistent narrative, I know I have a story. The idea for Caught came to me when my mom told me about a nightmare she had had. (Am I a bad son?)
I mention that because sometimes the main character develops clearly in my mind. Sometimes they don’t. What I mean is I have a sense for the emotional description of the character, but not the physical one. When I see the character clearly in my mind, I don’t fight it. When it doesn’t matter, I let chance determine those characteristics. For Perception of War, the flip of a coin determined the gender of my character. A four-sided die determined his ethnicity and color. I’ll probably post a blog about this one day, but I think characters are people.
There are several fantastic stories out there where race, religion, and gender are arcs. When they aren’t I feel silly developing a white male character simply because I’m a white male. Sal, the main character in Caught is a protector and a Soldier. He was always a man in my imagination, but I’ll tell you frankly the majority of the service members I respect most happen to be women. It’s not a knock on one over the other, just a point I’m trying to work to. He was a man, because of the dynamic I wanted to create with a few other characters. He was white because my four-sided die said so. He’s from Philly because that’s where my finger landed on a map. When these traits matter, writers should take great care. They always have significance though because they’re parts of what make a person who he (Sal) is. None of those characteristics affected the plot, so I let chance decide because it’s fast, and in my mind, it’s the best way I have so far to make sure the diversity in my books comes anywhere near the diversity of life.
That brings me to character sheets. Like I said, I’m going to bring more elements in, but here’s Bob’s character sheet.
Bob Drifter : Robert Drifter
Light brown hair
Bob’s exactly what I named him. He’s a drifter. In personality as well as occupation. He’s accepted who and what he is, for now at least, because it’s all he’s known. He’s kind and takes it upon himself to be more of a guide than a conduit. Others in his field don’t take such measures, but a part of who Bob is demands a certain courtesy. He doesn’t remember anything at all about his life before his work. A part of him is curious, but, given his nature, he accepts things without much argument. Things are. Part of this stems from his belief that change isn’t possible for him.
Now take a look at Elele’s. This is her character sheet from Sojourn. Please know I’ve absolutely deleted a few spoilers, and that may cause some confusion, but I’d like people to read the book and be entertained by some of the twists. Note the differences between her character sheet and Bob’s:
(The trouble with Sefaram is that they all look essentially the same. Hair is a thing. But they’re very hard to tell apart unless you look at their Faline. These fractal patterns are the way Sefaram see one another. Where humans look at skin color facial shapes (shapes are a thing for Sefaram too), Sefaram rely most on the inner-most ring of the faline.)
Hobby 1) Travel
Hobby 2) mathmatics.
Height: 60.8 inches – 5’1”
Weight: 161 pounds
Build: Sleek. (She’s twiggy even by Seferam standards.)
Hair Color: Black (All Sefaram with hair have this)
Hair Length: Mid-shoulder
Hair Style: Rolled and braided. What would you call cornrowed hair that is braided into multiple braids…then braided again? (I don’t speak hair). (NOTE: I did some research and talked to a friend. The most accurate term I found was braided weave)
Eye Color: Black (All Sefaram)
Eye Shape: large ovals longer than tall. (deer eyes) (All Sefaram)
Face Shape: Round.
Freckles: None (Sefaram have none)
Moles: None (See above)
Scars: None as of Sojourn. (SPOILER DELETED INFORMATION)
Faline: Outter pattern (FAMILY IDENTIFIER): Four tear-drop-shaped loops in which the points meet in the middle. Inner Pattern (INDIVIDUAL IDENTIFIER): A pattern resembling a seven-pedaled flower blossom. (NOTE: Faline are ultraviolet patterns on the mid-section of each Seferam. Think of them as luminescent tribal tattoos that follow fractal patterns).
Clothing: (All Sefaram leave their faline exposed. Men usually go bare chested. Elele wears what are considered prudish clothes. No style or fashion (especially since the bad guy’s arrival). She were’s a simple outfit that ties around the neck. It covers her breasts. Cloth covers her sides and becomes a mid-calf length dress. It’s always a simple color with no ultraviolet patterning (a common fashion trend these days). She wears simple leather shoes. (SPOILER INFO DELETED)
Jewelry: None. Sefaram don’t wear it. Their bio-electro-magnetic power plays hell with metal.
faline: For Seferam, they’re an emotional cue. They pulse in different ways the way humans blush or flush.
You’ll see a lot of elements from the above-mentioned Sanderson Lecture there. Like I said. I can promise you that second hobby gave Elele a dimension I never really expected. Little things like that help me get deeper into her character. I didn’t realize math was going to be such a huge part of her character until I gave her that hobby. It then became her occupation. It’s now one of her key assets to how she sees the world and progresses in her plot.
Not all of this became cannon. (Note the picture, she looks very different now that she’s all fleshed out) I left in some of my self-notes. They’re my musings, motivations or research sites for me to get a better feel. I did delete a bunch of my self notes because they were far too spolierific for me to include.
So my next evolution will blend all of these to help me develop a character in terms of physical attributes, motivations, archetype, and plots. Where Corey uses his D & D sheets, I was always a Rifts man myself. I’ll let those character sheets provide the physical attributes. I’ll let the Sanderson lecture round the character out. Then I’ll let them work together to make the character more realistic. Then I’ll let the plotting provide the finishing touches.
I feel this needs a summary:
1) Identify character. Leave what speaks to you alone and let chance determine all other physical attributes. For Elele, I knew she was female, and I knew what species she was. I also knew what culture I would borrow from most heavily for that species.
2) Name the character. (I’m all over the place here. I do everything from a quick study of names, to popular names of other cultures. Sometimes I look for what a name means in a language I best feel fits the culture of the character. When all else fails, I use arandom name generator. For Elele, I realized I liked the idea of palindrome names. There’s a mathematical significance to that (and also one of the other species in the book) that I felt was appropriate.
3) Fill in physical attributes. This includes race, species and other aspects of the character’s background.
4) Establish occupation, hobbies and goals. (this is where some plotting comes in).
5) Begin plotting. This is the most critical step. Every character is the main character in THAT character’s mind. So I plot as if this character is in her own story. I’m not married to this plotting or outline. Elele’s actual arc has some significant differences from the outline, but not who she is or what she does.
This gives me the freedom to get to know my characters in my own natural way. I’m a discovery writer at heart, and I need some room for that to work. What I don’t ever do is start plotting before I get a sense for the core of my character. When I outline one way, then realize my character wouldn’t do that, I don ’t fight it. Early on in Elele’s arc in Images of Truth, Elele was supposed to act and work in one way. Then I realized she wouldn’t handle that situation in the outlined manner. Her decision was more heroic, and led to better conflict and emotional payoff.
(NOTE: I’m talking about her role in Images of Truth, not Sojourn. Sojourn is a prequel to Images.)
Every character has a core just like every person. I find that core by gifting them traits. I take something from a character I love. I take something from someone I love. I take something from someone I don’t like very much. Then I take something from myself. I blend them together and it makes a new character I understand very well.
Let’s look at Bob: His part-time job and love of reading came from me. His drive to understand came from my mom. His love of quoting things came from Beast of the X-Men. I won’t tell you where his frustrating ability to mope comes from, because I’m not trying to dime out people I’m not actually a big fan of. (Note, I said people I don’t like very much. Me not liking a person in no way makes them bad or even unlikable. I feel naming said individual would borderline on slanderous.)
Doing that is what gives me a picture for how they would handle situations. We writers need to remember though that the horrible things we put our characters through is going to change them. If it doesn’t, it won’t feel realistic. I get a baseline from this, then let their experiences shape how they’ll handle future decisions.
I hope that helps. Honestly, it’s just the way I do it. How do you do it? Was this helpful? Any tricks or resources you like? Feel free to say as much in the comments below.