“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”—W. Somerset Maugham
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
One thing I like about this quote is how it challenges both the character and the reader to discover “what they are made of.” That “they” can work on multiple levels—making this quote both straightforward and yet layered.
Interestingly enough, this is just one of Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing (number six, specifically.) He’s not the only writer to dish out eight tips—seems like a comfortable number for a lot of us. You can read all of Vonnegut’s eight and the eight tips from other great authors over at this post.
Dun dun dunnnnn… it’s Friday the 13th. While you’re avoiding mirrors, ladders, and black cats why not spend a few moments and browse a few links I’ve found over the last several days. Some of these I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! All right, let’s get to it…
When To Stop Polishing A Manuscript
Hemingway was trolling you.
“Sponsored” By My Husband: Why It’s A Problem That Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From
It’s a few weeks old now, but I found this article from Ann Bauer poignant. Many creatives often hide the fact they are supported by someone or have been given a leg up. That dishonesty doesn’t help the other artists who might not be so advantaged and struggle to maintain lifestyles that are unreachable.
The latest series from my wife, oil painter Kari-Lise Alexander. I highly recommend checking this out and seeing her latest work. It’s quiet, serene, and beautiful. I couldn’t be prouder. Show opens tomorrow at Distinction Gallery in Escondido, California. Stop by if you’re in the San Diego area!
Detailed Close Ups Star Wars Spaceships
I considered throwing this in Random, but the artistry involved in these original models cannot be denied. It’s beautiful and detailed work.
The 10 Scariest Monsters From Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos
Den of Geek attempts to answer the question: which of the elder gods was the most terrifying? Not sure I agree with the outcome but it’s an interesting list and it features some obscure monsters. (Okay, it’s killing me! You had one job! ONE JOB! YIG!? Come on! The right answer was Nyarlathotep!)
Someone Flew A Drone Through Chernobyl And The Result Is Haunting
This short film from British filmmaker Danny Cooke blew me away. I had seen images of Chernobyl before, but moving through the landscape opens it up even further. There’s something so melancholy about the slow flyovers of Pripyat that I kept thinking about this video for days.
Scientists Plan To Resurrect The Woolly Mammoth, Jurassic Park-Style
Upside: as far as we know mammoths ate plants are are relatives to elephants. Downside: as far as we know… this is Friday the 13th after all.
[NEW!] Random Wikipedia Article of the Week:
Wherein I got to Wikipedia and hit Random Article until I find something good/weird/offensive/hilarious/interesting/etc. This weeks entry:
Fart Proudly, A Letter To A Royal Academy
“A Letter To A Royal Academy” was composed by Benjamin Franklin in response to a call for scientific papers from the Royal Academy of Brussels. Franklin believed that the various academic societies in Europe were increasingly pretentious and concerned with the impractical. Revealing his “bawdy, scurrilous side,” Franklin responded with an essay suggesting that research and practical reasoning be undertaken into methods of improving the odor of human flatulence.
Well… there you go.
Lovecraft Story of the Week:
Discarded Draft Of The Shadow over Innsmouth
I featured The Shadow over Innsmouth in the 10/11/13 Link Pack but since it’s Kari-Lise’s favorite Lovecraft story and her show opens this week I figured I’d feature it again. But! Instead of the original, why not read through the discarded draft. Dun dun dunnnnnn…!
Gif of the Week:
So, we’re well into the second weekend of September. Which means NaNoWriMo draws near. I know it still feels early, but if you’re planning to participate now is the perfect time to start thinking about your project! Below you’ll find a list of four things I do before I dive into my writing. Addressing these early can help you spend more time on prose and racking up those daily word counts.
1. Start outlining.
If you’re the type of writer who doesn’t work from an outline—George R. R. Martin calls you gardeners—then you can ignore this step. However, for the rest of us, now is the perfect time to get an outline complete. They don’t have to be long, nor are they some hard-and-fast document you need to follow to the letter. Instead, it’s a good way to get yourself thinking about the project as a whole and get your thoughts down on paper. It’ll give you a feel of your plot, your characters, and make the other three steps easier. Personally, I found outlining critical in finishing manuscripts. Consider reading my post on my own planning, I go into details on how I outline, how I use my outline when I write, and I even share an excerpt from the outline for The Stars Were Right.
2. You should be researching.
In my early attempts at writing this is often one of the biggest slowdowns. I will be working along and come to a part in my story where I need to spend a little time learning. This would lead from article to article, from book to book, and I’d end up spending more time distracted by the research instead of writing.
To avert this I have begun noting things I should research in advance within my outline. That way I have a nice list of subjects before I go into the library or start looking for books on Amazon. If you’re someone who doesn’t outline, consider the themes/genre/style of what you want to write. I bet you could come up with a list of topics to research in no time.
It’s never too early to start researching and I know you’ll find it exceptionally helpful for tackling a challenge like NaNoWriMo. Removing that extra distraction of having to look something up can mean a world of difference on those tough days.
3. Get to know your characters.
Now is the perfect time for you to start getting to know your characters. There’s a million and one ways to do this. Some folks have worksheets, others have systems, some writers create D&D characters and use those as a base. There’s no right or wrong way. Just find a way that you’re comfortable with and allow yourself to explore those characters.
Think of this preparation as sketching. You really just exploring an idea. Nothing you come up with will be permanent. I often find that I want to write a character a certain way, but when I start telling their story they take me in a completely different direction. That’s okay (and part of what makes writing fun!) What’s important is being comfortable with your characters so when you’re telling their story you can do it to the best of your abilities.
4. Work out those ancillaries ahead of time.
Finally, think about anything else you need to include, especially those things that might get in the way with your writing. Often, especially for genre writers, these are things like maps, lists of slang-terms, glossaries, location lists/descriptions.
I cannot tell you how many times I had distracted myself from writing to go draw a map or design a logo for a faction or write a timeline of history. I once spent half a day coming up with the ranking system for a military that I never once used in my story. (I wrote a post about that as well.)
When you’re trying to hit 40k words in a month you need to keep focused on your words. 1400 words a day isn’t insurmountable but it can be overwhelming. Any extra distractions you can remove will help you focus on hitting those numbers.
* * *
I love NaNoWriMo. I am a big supporter of its mission, and it’s what got me interested in writing in the first place. It’s a great experience for any writer, aspiring or otherwise, but it can also be a little daunting. I think you’ll find—as with most things in life—some early preparation will make the whole experience better. Good luck!
So a few folks have asked about my process, and I figured – why not write a series of blog posts on the subject? Now I realize I’m not the first person to do this, and there are plenty of books on the subject of how to write. I am sure all of them have great advice. I’m not going to give advice. I just want to share how I personally work. Before I get started one thing I really want to stress: no one’s process will be perfect for someone else. Everyone writes differently. Just because it works for Stephen King doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. That’s okay. You won’t find your stride except through trial and error. Glean what sounds interesting and ignore what doesn’t. Try lots of different approaches and find your own rhythm. Above all, keep writing.
In this first post I am going to talk about my first step: The Planning.
If you have listened to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures he classifies writers into one of two groups: Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners work best without a lot of structure, they have ideas which grow and develop as they write. Gardeners don’t like to be tied down. If they are forced to plan, they often get bored as all the mystery and excitement in storytelling is lost to them. I am jealous of those people. I can’t do that. I tried. I am awful at it. My first few failed attempts at writing were born of me trying to write without an outline. Big mistake. Me without a plan is like a ship without a rudder: I go all over the place, I write sloppy, I confuse myself. My attempts at being a Gardener are the reason that I have a great many unfinished manuscripts sitting on various harddrives scattered around my office. I like big complex plots with lots of moving parts and I found out it’s difficult (read: impossible) for me to see all the details of the plot in action when I don’t have a pretty solid outline to follow. When I finished my first outline for “Coal Belly” it was like a light went off in my head. It worked. Things clicked and I was able to get my project finished—it actually came together and made sense. I didn’t get lost in the weeds. It’s important to realize this about me because everything in my process is built off my planning. Without a solid plan I am worthless as a writer.
2. My Outline
I want to be really open here, so I am going to show you what a part of my outline looks like. It’ll be raw and rough and full of errors, but that doesn’t matter. Usually only I see it. (Except today.)
My outline is pretty basic: it’s a list of items I want to include in various chapters. I’ll call out particular details I want to focus on and sometimes I make notes of elements I want to remain mysterious. I might even throw in a rough bit of dialog that I think would work. Sometimes I describe to myself what I want the tone of my particular chapter to feel like or what music I hear playing. The more complex the plot, the more notes I might have. The length and depths of my notes vary depending on the project and the chapters.
One thing I want to stress is that my outline is fluid. It’s a living document. It changes and gets updated as I write. It’s not sacred. When I make adjustments to plot in my prose I go back and make quick adjustments in the outline. Nothing crazy, just small notes—that way it doesn’t consume time I could be spending on writing.
I recently released the prologue for “The Stars Were Right” to the public, you can read it here (and I’d recommend it before continuing on – spoilers follow). The outline entry for the Prologue looks exactly like this:
⁃ We witness the murder of an eyeglass dealer.
⁃ this chapter is told from thaddeus russel’s perspective. (third)
– Talk about Bell’s visit
– start showing the city
– keep the killer mysteruous
⁃ Mention Hagen Dubois’ new shop “up the street.”
That’s it (errors included!) It’s pretty straightforward, and I let the rest come to me naturally. Those points are the details I wanted to hit in the prologue when I actually sat down to write. (I’ll dive into this further in Part Two, “The Writing” and go into details about how I keep track of the little things that show up as I work.)
I will spend a great deal of time upfront making sure the plots work well together and the story has a good pace to it. It cuts down on my writing later on. A solid outline is why I was able to finish “Old Broken Road” in 4 months. I knew where it was going and I was able to write to that. On my current project—Deep, which is going to be pretty complex—my outline is about 3/4th done and is over 5k words. My outline is my treasure map. It leads me to the finished story.
3. Character Planning (or Lack Thereof)
This is where I am going to deviate a bit from my Architect analogy. It’s true I do plan a lot when it comes to plot but I tend to leave my character planning in a more malleable place. I have ideas, often times a name, but frequently I find those ideas are easier for me to work out in the prose rather than to set up ahead of time.
When I first envisioned Waldo Bell, the main character in “The Stars Were Right” I knew only a few things about him. He was a blue-collar everyman who worked as a caravan master, and he was a foodie. A lot of his personality, his quirks, and his faults didn’t show up until I started writing. When I did try to lock myself down, I found that I had to go back and change the notes around my planned-Waldo to fit the actual-Waldo.
Same goes for the shopkeep who is mentioned in the Prologue. I knew he was an anur—a race of amphibian/human hybrids—and that was about it! I didn’t know about his family, or the history of the shop, or his fondness for browline glasses. All of that came as I wrote.
Yep, sometimes this causes problems. Characters can deviate from what I had plotted out in my outline. That is fine: remember what I said about my outline being a living document. If a character moves in a completely different direction than I planned, I adjust the outline and keep moving.
4. Maps and Visual Inspiration
I love maps. I love them a lot. I even wrote a whole blog post about them. Maps help me visualize the city, nation, or land I am moving my characters through at any given point in the story. Often times I work on these during my outline. That way I don’t spend too much time revising borders, city names, etc. Sometimes I find it easy to draw them up to help set a scene. Even when I am not writing I often sketch maps. I have a whole sketchbook full of rough maps dedicated to imaginary places I might someday visit, from the fantastic to the mundane.
I’m a user experience designer by day and a pretty visual person. Along with my own maps I keep a collection of inspiring imagery that I find fuels my creativity around a particular story. Anything I stumble across in my browsing that sparks something in my imagination used to go in a folder on my harddrive. Now they get added to a secret Pinterest board, until I am ready to show ’em off. When I sit down to write I’ll often skim my collections as they help me get into the right mood to write.
See my Pinterest collections:
A Final Note:
There is such a thing as over planning. I have learned this. I would use my planning as a distraction from what I should be doing: writing. Instead of working on prose I was sketching a logo I was describing, or instead of streamlining a chapter I was checking the spelling on my outline. The whole focus on planning is to assist the writer in the work, not to overwhelm the writer. If planning starts to get in the way I stop. Then I get back to my writing.
So that’s my planning process. It’s pretty straightforward. I build my stories like an architect, have a fluid outline that I work off, I let my characters be themselves, and often keep stacks of random images and maps around to keep track of my world. Next up I’ll go into the actual writing, and explain how I actually get that outline into a format that people would enjoy reading as opposed to a grocery list of plot points.
Have any questions on how I go about my planning? Feel free to leave a comment below! I promise to do my best to respond to any question asked.