How I Plot My Novels

A few weeks ago, I started a series of articles on how I write my novels. If you missed the first two parts of the series, you can find them here.

1. Drafting
2. Outlining

Today, I’m going to talk about the third stage of production: plotting. And I’ll add that my primary writing software of choice is Scrivener, but there may be ways to adapt these ideas to other processing programs or organization tools.

Plots in Review

There are two kinds of plots. The most popular type is conflict resolution, but there is also such a thing as a no-conflict plot. A conflict-resolution plot is one in which the characters face a problem they have to solve. This can be a quest to find a stolen or lost item, saving the world from destruction, saving a character from harm, or helping a character overcome his or her own personal challenges. Non-conflict plots are more common in Eastern literature, but Western literature has them, too. The Winnie-the-Pooh Storybook is my favourite example of a well-known, non-conflict book. There is no world to save, no item to find, no threat to overcome, no social issue that needs changing over the course of the story before it ends. The characters just live their lives, playing Pooh Sticks or whatever, and we observe the ups and downs of their existence and experiences. All of my novels so far are conflict-resolution plots, but someday I would like to try my hand at crafting a non-conflict plot. Maybe something similar to the Japanese anime Mushi-shi.

Working with conflict-resolution plots, there are only three kinds of conflict: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Everything ever written is one or more of those conflicts. There truly is nothing new under the sun, so I don’t worry about trying to create an original plot as much as I worry about whether I can create an original blend of details from the standard literary elements. In other words, it’s the minor, personalized stuff that makes each book unique.

To develop a conflict-resolution plot, there must be at least one conflict for the characters to resolve; but the more conflicts present (the more subplots and obstacles), the more complex the story. Number of conflicts also determines how long the story will be. Short stories are allowed only one conflict because you have to get in and out quickly. Novels generally try to tackle at least one of each type of conflict for one main plot and perhaps two subplots. (For example, Character A doesn’t get along with Character B, but a “natural” catastrophe challenges them to work together to find something that will restore order.) Epic novels layer multiple conflicts like an onion. Peeling back one plot reveals another.

My novels are epic fantasy, so there’s a lot of conflict. I have characters that don’t trust their own allies and multiple antagonists that must be defeated (man vs. man). I have natural disasters, bad luck, consequences of past behavior, and curses (man vs. nature). And I have characters that have issues with their own demons: temperaments, fears, addictions, bad habits, too little or too much confidence (man vs. self). To avoid making these plots too contrived, I keep my plot planning to a minimum. Then when conflict arises during the writing of dialog or something, I let it happen. I let the conflict write itself as much as possible by going with the flow of inspiration, even if I have no idea where an unexpected challenge or twist will lead me. That’s when writing is the most fun and surprising, even for the author. I can always trim it later if it feels like it’s too much.

The only time I shut down inspired conflict is if it’s illogical in terms of serving the rest of the story, or if I’m near the end of the book. I don’t like unresolved, cliff-hanger endings, so I try not to end books that way. I resolve the main plot of each volume. And I inch closer to resolving the overall series arc by hinting at what’s coming in the next volume. The final book in the series should leave no unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts. Books should leave the reader feeling like she’s just eaten a very satisfying meal.

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Image Source: Clip Art Pal

Skeletons

Outlines are the skeletons of plots. Plots are the fleshed-out versions of outlines. They’re often interchangeable concepts because they accomplish the same goal: they are a series of events that take a story from beginning actions to end consequences. The difference is that the outline is for seeing the big picture at a distance, while plots are the nuts and bolts holding the bones together.

By the time I reach this stage of writing, I usually have a skeletal time line of what I generally want from the book, along with several scenes already fleshed out due to detailed notes, spontaneous inspiration, and deconstruction. I say “nuts and bolts” rather than “sinew” because it’s a Frankenstein’s monster. I still have a lot of gaps to flesh out.

From this point on, creating the first draft is like a connect-the-dots puzzle. You remember those from childhood, right? Part of the drawing was shown, like an eye or a bee buzzing around something. But the rest of the drawing was only numbered or lettered dots. It’s up to the child to follow the logical sequence, drawing lines between the dots to finish the picture. This is what plotting will do for your outlines.

Something that can help when plotting, either from leftovers or from scratch are the six basic questions of journalism: what, who, where, when, why, and how. These questions can serve as guidelines as to which plot points are missing. Or, one thing I like to do is simply ask “Why?” And when I can answer my own question, I ask it again. “But why?” It makes me dig deeper for the cause and effect between a character’s background and his current actions, which can help immensely when fleshing out his story, past or present.

Flesh

Plot points are the “dots” that flow in a logical sequence to produce the final picture. But plot points are also the lines between the dots. They are the transition events as much as they are the events themselves. Too few dots often resulted in blocky pictures, so I sometimes took the liberty of adding more dots to round out the lines more nicely. I also often coloured outside the lines to add my own details to the finished art. This is what fleshing out the plot can do for the flow of the story. If I feel something is missing, or I need to hop from one point to another, there are several ways I can go about creating events and transitions.

1. Time Line — The most glaring gaps will be the most visible on the time lines. If my characters need to travel from the southeast to the northwest over a great distance, how are they going to get there? The only transportation available is horses, but they don’t have any. I can insert an asterisk “bullet” and note that travel scenes should mention how they got horses since they couldn’t pack them in their bags and don’t have the appropriate currency. Or I can insert a scene summary where they attempt to buy the horses. Just a sentence or two will do. Since I don’t use numbers, I can cut and paste my little insert wherever necessary. Now my readers won’t be wondering how they whipped a bunch of horses out of their hats.

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When plotting in a time line, use asterisks instead of numbers. That way, you can insert new events or cut and paste to rearrange them as much as you wish to get a good sequence flow.

If I then realize language differences, as well as currency differences, would be an obstacle to buying horses, I can insert another asterisk between searching for horses and getting to Point B. I can call this one “Horse Heist”. Now I have them starting in the Southeast, but realizing they can’t buy a horse because they don’t have the right money or language skills for the transaction; so they steal them and leave an offering of reasonable value in exchange. I can now logically have them ride to the Northwest. But since they’re unfamiliar with their setting, why not have a little adventure along the way and make the most of being a stranger in a strange land? Aija has been telling her fae companions all about how horrible the Roman legions are, and they’ve been trying to avoid running into any Roman soldiers or allies. What if they run into a deployed regiment along the way and some of the soldiers witness fae magic? I can insert another asterisk note or scene summarizing the idea and rearrange events for a good flow as needed. As long as each insert advances the story in some way, I can keep inserting events and transitions like this to smooth out blocky main ideas until my characters reach their goal, which is arriving safely in the Northwest.

2. Index Cards — Since I don’t divide any scenes into chapters until after the first or second draft of the story is done, I can study the entire arrangement of my index cards to see the overall flow of events. If something seems missing or needs a transition here, I can insert a new scene by inserting a new index card.

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If your time line event has already been partially turned into a scene, you can still easily insert and rearrange index cards to create or improve the flow of events in the plot.

For example, I originally planned for my characters to get a horse and ride to the northwest, but then realized someone in their party would probably question why they couldn’t use one of the elf gates to just teleport there, since they know of at least one gate in the region where they’re headed. Rather than having the reader be the one to say, “Why didn’t they just take the gate?” I decided it would be better to openly raise and answer that question among the characters. It needed to be done before they attempted the horse heist. But I had an index card with a scene discussing how the gates work planned for later. I decided it might save word count to combine the new question and the old discussion, and move that card to before the horse theft. Now that scene has a “Why can’t we use it?” and “Because of how it works” dialog inserted into the topics Trizryn needs to explain regarding the gates. Obviously the gates are not an option, so they must try to get the horses.

This is one of the reasons I love Scrivener. At a glance, I can literally move a whole, already-written scene by moving one index card. And I can do this as many times as I want until I have every scene exactly where I want it in the flow of events. Or I can split index cards or merge index cards, if necessary. I don’t worry about transition sentences between scenes at this stage. What’s important is that my scenes flow in a logical order.

3. Binder — Scrivener’s binder is a strip down the left side of the screen that behaves like a notebook binder in how it sections off folders with files, but it lines everything up neatly like an outline. Scrivener has default color coding to get an overview of chapters and scenes just by glancing at the binder. Since I don’t set up chapters while plotting, I’ll come back to this when discussing revisions. But I’m including it here because it’s another way of getting an overview of the flow of your story from start to finish. It condenses the index cards like an outline, and sometimes seeing the story through multiple filters helps double-check the logic of the flow throughout the creation process.

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Scrivener’s binder window is the strip on the far left. Compare it to the outline mode in viewing options. There are default settings to colour-code chapter folders green and scene files blue, but I don’t usually do this until the final draft. This is Dragonling’s final draft, and any time I needed a quick overview of the story’s flow, it was easier for me to just glance at the binder than to pull down the outline window. They do the same thing.

4. Collections — Above the binder, Scrivener gives you an option to create collections: multiple files from different folders that share a main idea. Collections can be saved from searches or manually grouped from index cards. I often use this feature to streamline my subplots and make sure everything is in order for them by themselves.

For example, in book 6 there is a subplot where Reznetha’ir sends Eisiden and Alderan back into Brinnan’s undercity to collect information on the city’s defenses, Erys’s return, and news of whether or not Shei’s parents managed to escape before the dragon siege. Every scene that shows Eisiden and Alderan achieving that objective is dragged into a collection. It begins with Eisiden’s departure from Castle Bloodstone and will end when he and his companions rejoin Rezentha’ir, having succeeded or failed at their missions. In the books, lots of other people are doing lots of other things with their own plots in between the check-ins with Eisiden. But collecting all the scenes from this subplot ONLY into one place allows me to read and write that thread uninterrupted, as if it was its own little story. Because it is. Every subplot should be treated as if it’s its own short story. Every secondary character should be treated like he’s the protagonist of that tale.

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The collections tab is located above the binder. Think of this as an index for scenes that have something in common. I have a collection folder labeled and coded orange for all the scenes in which Eisiden is hunting down information about Erys and Brinnan in the undercity. I open my cork board view with the index card scene that I want and drag it into a lineup in the collection. (I’ve matched the collection colour to Eisiden’s pov scenes, so they’re very easy to spot at a glance.) Clicking on the note card opens it to the scene, which has already been written. Notice there are no other orange cards for Eisiden in the cork board window. They’re either way before or way after that one. But thanks to the collections folder, I have all of his scenes lined up in order in one place. I can read his scenes back-to-back without to make sure his subplot has a good flow and is consistent in content and details, without getting distracted or having to hunt through other scenes. The collections tab is your friend. 🙂

In another example, I can do a search for all my previous references in the past four books for “Edenites”. They will automatically be in order of publication, so I can re-read and refresh my memory on what I’ve already said about that topic. Then I can build a new conversation between Aija and Gaellyna about them for the next book and add those scenes to the previous collection.

If you have a lot of complex subplots, organizing them into one solitary, streamlined collection is a good way to block out everything else and focus on resolving them before fitting them into the overall story arc of the book or series.

5. Reconstruction — Finally, since I spoke earlier of what a huge role deconstruction played in the composition of this series, now it’s time to talk about reconstruction. After gutting five books and keeping only what I felt strongly about recycling alongside the new material, eventually I had to be able to pull it all back together. Honestly, it’s a bit like staring at a DIY furniture assembly sheet written in a foreign language. But all of the original manuscript’s leftover scraps should have been organized during the previous pre-writing stages. All that’s left is to acknowledge this will be a messy challenge, take a deep breath, and work on one remnant or concept at a time.

Let me return to the example I mentioned while discussing deconstruction of the scenes with Kethrei and Ellen. As I said before, originally Kethrei was jailed and Ellen was not. She was the one who tried to break him out. Draughbanir’s role in that version of the story was completely different, so he wasn’t involved in their dilemma at all. By the time I finished scrapping what I felt wasn’t worth keeping, all I had left was the general idea of them being held for a witchcraft trial in the 1500’s, where Kethrei would have been regarded as a demon, and Ellen would have been accused of consorting with the Devil. I couldn’t salvage anything else, and what survived was dumped into a mess of chopped up text with gaping holes and side notes on a card labeled, “Kethrei Jailed.” I knew I wanted Trizryn to end up jailed in a similar manner … to be walking in the footsteps of his past life, teetering on that fine line between destiny and free will, but everything else had to be rebuilt from scratch around that.

First, I had to show what happened with Kethrei. I used most of my scrap material for the setting (where) and the escape itself (how) to rebuild the original events with Kethrei and Ellen (who), but I twisted it to jail Ellen for witchcraft first, then added Kethrei’s pact with Draughbanir as a means to help her escape. (Why did they do this?) Next, the question of how to go back in time and see it was solved by having Aija and Trizryn enter a dream walk. The dream walk had to be introduced beforehand, as did the clues leading up to Trizryn’s discovery of his past life, so that this subplot wasn’t being dropped into the book out of the blue. I had to start weaving this thread as early as the first book in the series. Since I spent so much time deconstructing my original scripts, I had the advantage of hindsight, but outlines, time lines, and other pre-writing steps serve the same purpose.

The Dragonling further cements the connection between Kethrei’s past and Trizryn’s present, but it’s the following book in the series, The Teufling, that will challenge it. What I want is to hold up a mirror between Trizryn and Kethrei. But this time, I want Trizryn jailed and Aija on the outside — a return to the original plan for Kethrei and Ellen. See what I did there? I took what was originally one chapter with only two people and divided it into two chapters mirrored against each other between four people.

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Reconstruction is a messy process, no matter how you do it. Here’s a sample of my notes reconstructing Trizryn’s jail scene in book 6 after splitting and reconstructing Kethrei’s jail scene for book 4. The main idea and important notes were salvaged, everything else was scrapped, and now I get to take what’s left and rearrange it into a logical flow and write it into a scene.

So for Teufling, first I need a reason to have Trizryn jailed. I inserted an index card called “Trizryn Jailed”. How Kethrei was jailed was never really explained, but when Aija arrived, she witnessed him putting up a fight while being cuffed and taken to the dungeon. So, how about baiting Trizryn into a fight? A public brawl in which he gets carried away and uses magic would be a sure-fire way of throwing his “demonic” butt in jail. And 16th century English people would eyeball anyone associated with him as a witch. (*cough* Aija *cough*) I already had an index card with the notes and scraps leftover from the originally gutted Kethrei and Ellen scene for after Trizryn arrives in jail and Aija tries to visit him. But whether or not he does actually follow in Kethrei’s footsteps by trying to escape and seek revenge against the village will have to be written from scratch, using the revised scene with Kethrei and Ellen from Trizryn’s dreamwalk. Therefore, the scene transitioning him into the jail will also have to be completely new. I inserted an index card before the “Trizryn Jailed” card and called it, “Fight with Ilisram”. Ta-da~! I just created a plot point that will pull two similar events from two different books together as one vastly different reconstruction for contrast and comparison.

Now, that I have my “what”, I need a “why” … an excuse for Trizryn to pick a fight with Ilisram. (Heh. As if he needed any excuses …) I can arrange for Trizryn to catch up to Ilisram in the village. Upon seeing him, Trizryn would immediately launch into “I’ll kill you, you bastard!” mode, especially if Ilisram eggs him on by saying something snarky about K’tía’s murder. But it’s too early to actually resolve Trizryn’s conflict with Ilisram, so the necromancer has to be free to escape this particular encounter, but Trizryn will be cuffed and thrown in jail as Kethrei once was. Aija and the rest of Trizryn’s companions would be left to angst over ways to get him out of prison without risking a repeat of what happened in the past with Kethrei and Ellen. Ja-jaa~! The other half of the reconstructed plot takes form. I can open the “Fight with Ilisram” index card, use asterisks to create a loose time line summarizing these events and add any other ideas as notes about what I want to continue fleshing out the scene. I’m done. If there are any remaining old notes that I won’t be using, I can trash them.

You may have to put on your thinking cap or pull out your idea generator to get the creative juices flowing for fleshing out a reconstruction, but keep asking yourself what, who, how, why, and where this event happens. Keep coming back to “why” and “how” in particular. Eventually you can create enough new dots to connect and smooth out old plot threads for a new story.

It’s Alive!

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Image Source: Happy Halloween Day 2017 pumpkin carving templates.

When most of the story has taken shape via plotting, it will probably still look like Frankenstein’s monster. It will still be a blend of notes, time lines, scenes, and deconstructed mess. But now it will be a well-organized, smooth-flowing mess! It will be a very ugly, almost-first draft. And the plot of this new book will breathe from one event to the next through a logical sequence of action and consequence, from beginning to end, no matter how sketchy that end may still be.

If my book was a connect-the-dots puzzle, the lines between the dots are now vivid and rounded. If my book was a road map, I would now have my trip planned with all the important pit stops and tourist attractions along the way. It doesn’t mean stuff won’t happen I didn’t plan on. I might get lost at a wrong turn, or maybe I won’t have time to see everything I wanted. But that’s exactly the kind of stuff that pops up writing the scenes, which can make composition an adventure.

So, next comes the fun part: writing the scenes based on everything you’ve drafted, outlined, and plotted so far! Further fleshing out the events with details, dialog, and atmosphere is what will make the story really come alive. We’ll talk about writing the first draft in part four of this series.

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Image Source: Connect the Dots for Kids. (Because you know you totally want to print this out right now and do it.) 😉
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How I Outline My Novels

In my last post, I shared how I draft my novel ideas in terms of notes, research, and other inspiration. If you missed that post, you can find it here. But this week, I’d like to share part 2 of this series on how I craft my books: outlining.

I use Scrivener as my writing software of choice because I love its flexibility when it comes to organizing and keeping everything in one place. This is especially important for me as a writer of serial novels. But some of these ideas may be adaptable to other software or organization methods.

Let me start by saying Scrivener has an outline mode. It works just like the other modes in the sense that you create index cards with topics, arrange them in the order of plot flow, and then break the topics down into subtopics either on the index cards themselves or by creating new index cards and grouping them within or under the folder of the topic. But it lines everything up in tiers so you can view it like an outline.

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Scrivener’s outline mode can arrange your scenes and chapters in a linear fashion to outline by topics. You simply click on the file or folder you’ve created, and the page/ text mode can show further content. However, compare it to the binder mode on the far right. The binder can also line up your chapters and scenes as a list of topics. (The green indicates folders, or “topics”. The blue indicates scenes, or “sub-topics”. I could use other colours or number them 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 if I wished.)

To be honest, I don’t use outline mode much. I’ve tried, and it only confirms that my creative process is not linear enough to outline a book from a list of topics from start to finish before I start writing. But I’m mentioning it in case someone else can use it. I sometimes use outlines for non-fiction writing, but for novels, I have to start in right brain mode with free-flowing inspiration and imagination, without worrying too much about structure or how it’s going to end. However, all books do eventually need structure, so I’ll show you how I move from one style of writing to the other with something similar to outlines.

The Beginning

When I start a new writing project, I go into Scrivener’s binder (which is like a regular notebook binder with folders and files). The binder itself can be set up a bit like an outline, so I usually look to it if I need a quick visual of topic flow.

I usually work in a split screen, but it can do one full-screen, too. I click on corkboard mode for one of the windows and create index cards based on my notes. I love the corkboard and index cards because it mimics how I learned to write in the first place, using idea cards that could be freely arranged and rearranged as much as needed during the pre-writing stage.

I open the other screen to the page or text mode so I can open my loose notes for reading and start by grouping them into folders created for similar ideas. For example, I have a folder named “Civil War” for all of the notes dealing with the elven civil war topics that need to be resolved in book 6. If a note is about Erys fighting Trizryn, it goes into that folder. If a note is about Trizryn meeting Aija’s parents, it goes into the “Aija Home” folder.

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I prefer organizing my pre-writing using the cork board mode and index cards to create time lines and a sequence of events. My real time lines are already ditched, but here’s a sample of how I did them. After dropping notes on similar topics into one folder, I created a time line card. Yellow makes it stand out, and keeping it in the front makes it easy to find. (Any other colour indicates some writing and a pov have already been chosen for that scene. White means nothing has been plotted for those notes yet.) Then I open a note card and summarize the content in the time line card’s text mode. If the content is brief, I transfer it completely, then trash the card. If the content is extensive, I save it. I arrange both the time line notes and the note cards kept as a sequence of events as I go along.

Inside each folder, I create an index card for collecting most of those notes into a sequence of events or time line. A time line is similar to an outline, but is based on a sequence of events rather than point “I” having sub-points “A” and “B”. I open the index card in text mode and cut and paste my notes into a list. Sometimes it helps to arrange the note cards into a flow of events before transferring them to the list. I go through all of my loose notes grouping similar ideas like this. But I don’t number anything. I use bullets or asterisks and spaces to separate notes because I cut and paste frequently to rearrange a better flow of events, and it’s a waste of time renumbering everything. At this stage, it doesn’t matter how I get from one event to the next, or even how it ends. I can figure that out as I go along. What’s important is that the story flows toward something — a chain of events that steadily progress toward an objective. I colour-code my time lines yellow and place them in front of everything else in the folders, so I can find them easily.

I delete some of my note cards after transferring them into the time line. However, for some I copy and keep the originals because they may contain more details than I care to copy on the time line. This is often the case with scenes from the old manuscript that I deconstructed, which I mentioned in the last article on drafting. If I have a large scene that has been butchered for reconstruction, I have to summarize its main ideas for the time line, rather than transferring the entire thing.

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I mentioned deconstruction playing a major role in rebuilding the manuscripts for these series. Here is an example of a note card from a deconstructed scene. I’ve blacked out most of it, but you can see from that first paragraph that this old scene is WAY off from the current revision of the work. For one thing, Trizryn doesn’t summon dragons. For another, the entire thing has double-spaces between sentences, which tells you how old the original script is. But you can see which objectives I decided to keep because this is still a good dragon fight scene that can still be used against the green dragon of Min. It just needs a LOT of reconstruction, so I kept this note card and simply said something like “Fight the green dragon at Min,” in my time line, then moved it into the flow of events where I think it should be done. But that could change. :3

When the time line is done, I create a new index card and put the main idea on the face of the card. Then I open it as a text file and transfer any notes from the time line that pertain to that main idea so it can be developed into a scene. If I see no obvious sequence of events yet, it’s enough to have the notes for one scene together on one card. For note cards kept from deconstructed scenes, keeping them close to their corresponding main idea cards helps me find them easily when plotting or writing. Or a lot of times, I just go ahead and combine them. Eventually, they’re going to have to be combined anyway.

Sometimes I pause on an idea because I’m inspired to start writing the scene, or bits of the scene. If that’s the case, I take it as far as I can on its own. It’s a “strike while the iron is hot” move to get my ideas down while they’re tangible. When the creative fuel starts to sputter, I don’t force it. I go back to organizing, knowing I can come back to crafting that scene at any time. In other words, writing does not have to happen in a linear fashion. For first drafts in particular, it’s more important to have good ideas than good structure. It’s good to have structure early on, or it can be one hell of a headache to correct later. But structure doesn’t have to be done before you start creative composition.

For me, “pantsing” the beginning of a new story typically plays out to about three scenes or chapters before it sputters. That’s enough to introduce and get a feel for the main characters, the setting, the atmosphere, and at least one point of conflict or problem that will need resolving. When I can’t push the initial drive much further, I look back at what I’ve done and go back to organization. This back and forth movement between writing and organizing avoids wasting time on writer’s block and enables me to “learn” from what I’ve previously written so that I can keep building on it.

If I have a scene in progress, I colour code which character pov is relating it, so I can tell at a glance whose narrative I should be locked into. If necessary, I can change pov later, but colours remind me to stay in one character’s head at a time. I might also include a note on time or place on the card’s face, if I already know those details.

If I have a main objective in mind, I’ll note that, too. A main objective is different from a main idea. The main idea might be “Kai’s Tears” to let me know that’s what the scene is about. But the main objective is an action, such as the steps Aija and Gaellyna would take to collect Kai’s tears. This is a subtle, but important difference because, in the end, all stories are about characters doing something to affect their circumstances, whether it’s creating a change or responding to it. Objectives will eventually become plot points.

The Middle

This is how the bulk of my story crafting is done. I collect notes into time lines, arrange them for optimal flow, then transfer the arranged flow of events onto main idea cards. If I’m inspired to pause and actually write the scene or bits of the scene then and there, I do it. If not, that’s fine. I keep organizing, a bit of pantsing with a bit of structure, back and forth, back and forth … I do this until I run out of notes.

As I divide events into main idea cards, I delete them from the time line. I don’t worry about how I will reach the end of the story. I may not even know how the story ends yet. I’m just giving myself a trail of bread crumbs to follow based on what inspired me to write the story in the first place and any research I may have picked up along the way.

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Here you can see how the main idea and objective are two different things noted on the face of the note card. You can see the notes collected and arranged into a flow of events in the note card’s file or text page. This scene has gaps moving from one event to another, so it’s not ready to be written out as a scene yet. But it’s close. I have to plot how I’m going to close those gaps first.

The End

When I reach the end of my notes, I will have reached the end of my “outline”; the result is a blank time line card that can be trashed, a few scenes or chapters already in first draft format, and the remainder of my notes will have been sorted and arranged into a plot-like flow onto individual index cards ready to be turned into scenes. I say “plot-like” because there’s probably gaps between events and there may be no end in sight yet.

That is where actual plotting comes in. Outlines are nothing but skeletons, so it’s okay if something feels missing. Plotting can flesh-out the rest, bridging the gaps between time line events or disposing of material that doesn’t serve the story. At this stage, I have enough of a structure to act as a road map for the story’s journey, but I’ve also allowed inspiration to have a hand in the process, rather than saving the fun for last. And structure developed hand-in-hand with inspiration is not so rigid as to be inflexible.

Plotting can now fortify this basic foundation as the project evolves toward composition. I’ll cover that next time in part three of this series.

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If my creative brain worked based on lists of topics, perhaps my outline would look something like these numbered folders and files. But I can’t work like that on creative projects, so if you feel you have to start writing to get into a project before you line things up, don’t feel bad. Writing doesn’t have to happen in a linear format. These folders contain files that were written based on collected notes and inspired scribbles arranged into a sequence of events. No numbers, no chapters, no outcome yet. But this story is already well on its way to writing itself now that my skeletal foundation is in place.

How I Draft My Novels

As I near the end of final revisions in The Dragonling, I’ve decided it might be fun to share a few thoughts about the process of how I write my novels.

I rely heavily on Scrivener software for all of my writing projects. I’m not offering a tutorial on how to use Scrivener. There are already loads of blogs out there that do that, and the software comes with tutorials. Instead, I’m offering a little insight on my organization and creative progress.

If you’re a fan of the Elf Gate books, you might be curious to see how they are shaped. If you found this article because you’re looking for new ways to organize your own work in Scrivener, maybe some of my ideas can help. If you’re trying to decide what software to write with, or have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t normally do promotions for products, but I’ll make an exception in this case.

You can find Scrivener here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php at the Literature and Latte website. I like Scrivener because it makes compiling chapters into one script very easy. It has index cards I can physically rearrange. And it’s very flexible, meaning it’s easy to personalize according to my own organizational style. (Which I have come to realize changes from book to book!)

I’m going to offer this article in seven parts:
1. Drafting
2. Outlining
3. Plotting
4. Writing
5. Illustrating
6. Revising
7. Publishing

So, let’s get to it, shall we? 🙂 Drafting …

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Scrivener: 1) Index card text files for notes without scenes. 2) Notepad for already-written scenes. 3) Research folders for every book in the series.

Notes

Writing a novel is a lengthy process. Keyword there: process. I hear back from people who have read one of my books in a few days, or who have polished off the entire series so far in a couple of weeks. To me, that’s quite a compliment, considering how lengthy each book is. But it’s also quite shocking, considering each book in my series has taken a year or more to craft! The series itself has taken, literally, decades to develop.

But all books have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the extremely simple act of observing, imagining, and then taking notes on my ideas. Inspiration strikes everywhere for me, so I try to keep my phone handy for jotting notes in Evernote. Or, if I’m reading, I’ll mark up my Kindle book with highlights and notes. Or, sometimes it’s just good old pen and paper. Ideas fly away quickly, so whether it’s a song, camping trip, reading history, watching movies, playing games, or real life conversations, I am in the habit of writing down ideas as soon as they hit me. I don’t have a “writer’s notebook” per se as some authors and teachers recommend. So, admittedly, my notes are scattered. But so are my thoughts and observations. So, at least I’m consistent in that sense. 🙂

Notes happen when I’m cutting the grass and suddenly I can envision how Sáskýa-Ól hits Reznetha’ir where it hurts in the elven civil war. I repeat the idea to myself over and over, sometimes aloud, in a bizarre attempt to keep it from escaping as I march to my phone and pound it into Evernote as a jumble of key words. After I shower, I will open that file and decode my previous thought into coherent English as clearly as I can in Scrivener. Because if the note isn’t coherent, when I come back to read it later, I might not understand what I meant. My notes are always as fleshed out as I can possibly make them, even though they’re just notes.

If the note is related to my current project, I transfer it to one of three places.

1. An idea folder, colour-coded yellow, is placed at the end of my current script to catch miscellaneous ideas by topic. Each sub-folder topic carries index cards that are colour-coded orange. These colours are bright to warn me they are not part of the story, but a temporary reference. I use a few keywords on the index card to let me know the resource or subject matter. Then I flesh out the full idea in the text file of the index card. The idea folder notes are for scenes that have yet to be written, so I don’t know where else to collect them. I just know it needs to be part of the current project.

2. The notepad is a window where I cut and paste anything of immediate reference to an otherwise already written scene. I’ll come back to the notepad when discussing revisions.

3. The research menu is where I store all notes that blossom into research for the entire series.

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Research Menu … a.k.a. Elf Gate Wiki … is where I keep detailed notes on every book in an effort to keep each book in the series consistent with the others. The research files are massive and take a lot of time to update, but they are well worth the effort come writing time.

Research

Research notes are more detailed than idea notes. Research is needed when I need a castle layout before I can storm it. I’m not a castle architect. But Google can point me toward people who are, or at least people who appreciate Medieval architecture topic enough to share diagrams to inspire my own castle layout with names for things I otherwise might not be familiar with. Research for one book might be useful again in another book, so I hang onto all research unless I’m absolutely positive I will no longer need it.

Therefore, the research menu section of Scrivener is reserved for notes that apply to the entire series. And this is extremely important if you are writing a series! Your books must be consistent enough to be credible. So, my collection of notes from every book in the series ends up looking like an encyclopedia for quick re-referencing previous information. You could say it’s the Elf Gate Wiki!

I have folders for books, beasts, characters, history, culture, languages, places, and magic … among other topics that need to be consistent from book to book. It takes a lot of time to maintain an encyclopedic collection of information on an entire series, but it is SO WORTH IT! I do not skip this stage of the writing process, although I do tend to wait until a book is finished to transfer the information. Otherwise, the link may change with revisions, or the information may change with edits.

I use the Scrivener link to connect research topics to chapters relevant to the them. I use external links to connect research I might need to check again.

There is one final place for taking notes in Scrivener, and that is the scratch pad. It’s a separate window all by itself, as opposed to being part of this set-up. You can move it all over the scene and keep it open independently, rather than having to switch between tabs in designated windows. It’s just a yellow notepad. Nothing special. But it’s fantastic for jotting down ideas that I can’t file yet because my mind is currently working on something else. So, if I’m revising chapter 1, scene 1 about Brinnan burning to the ground, but something suddenly reminds me of a correction I need to make regarding Aija’s discovery of the gate in chapter 49, I pull down scratch pad and write, “Remember to correct what Aija sees about the gate in the dive scene.”) And then the pad stays open until I can either transfer that note into chapter 49’s notepad, or until I make the actual revision before closing up shop for the night.

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Orange index cards are nothing but research notes collected from various references, which are linked through the “references” window/tab. I often keep note cards within the folders of my first draft and shift them along as a write. Their colour alerts me to the fact they are not part of the story. When I’m done with them, I store them in the appropriate folder in the research menu.

Unrelated Notes

If an idea is not bound for my current project, I keep a desktop writing file, divided into folders for my blog, other stories, other people’s stories I’ve helped with, etc. Typically the blog or “other stories” folders catch the miscellaneous ideas for other projects. However, I do have one folder strictly for writing advice.

If an idea is not used, I keep it until it is used. Ideas are usually very recyclable for other projects. Is this hoarding? Probably. But at least it’s gigs instead of shelf space!

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I reserve the notepad for notes related to scenes already written. I’ll have more to say about this in the outlining, writing, and revising parts of this series. Right now, it’s just storage for an idea I’ll come back to that should be in this particular scene, or one close to the beginning with this character.

Deconstruction

The final stage of my pre-writing process is actually disconnected from it. Deconstruction isn’t really a pre-writing process; it’s more of a reconstruction or revision process. But since my Elf Gate books are reworked versions of previous scripts, I’m including those stages of the process here. I had to be able to deconstruct my old manuscript before I could create a new one.

The seed for the core plot in the Elf Gate series came to me in high school. I wrote it during study hall, journalism class, and after school for my friend, who insisted on seeing a new chapter every day. I continued writing it through college and kept revising it multiple times after my children were born, so that I was spending nights, weekends, and holidays determined to get this thing suitable for publication. Finally, after blowing through three computers one muggy August in Japan, I had something I felt confident enough to submit, only to find out that my three months of re-formatting to fit the publisher’s submission guidelines was worthless because they changed their submission guidelines! UGH!

That was it! I had had it! The manuscript was shelved indefinitely, and I gave up on being a published writer. But most writers know that a writer can’t just STOP being a writer. It’s not so much what we do as who we are. So, I started writing for role-playing games, forums, and fan fictions. Then I met a friend who (GASP!) was also interested in writing. I’d never been friends with another writer before. This was interesting. And inspiring.

I opened my abandoned manuscript to look at it again for the first time in years. It was crap. I will not lie. It was bury-my-face-in-shame awful! But was it salvageable? Maybe.

For the past five years I have been salvaging. And the changes I’ve made are so drastic in some cases that they’ve changed the course of the story or characters. I started with five books. I now have six or seven, depending on what kind of word count I end up with in drawing it to its conclusion. So, I’m grateful those first attempts to publish didn’t work out. The story is better now because my experiences in writing increased and my technical skills improved. Now I have the series this idea was always meant to be. But it’s thanks to a LOT of deconstruction.

Basically, I had to read through each book, chapter by chapter, beginning to end. In the process, I would start rewriting, but then delete entire passages, cut and paste passages onto index cards noting the main topic, and then loosely group pasted passages together by plot events.

Sometimes the only thing I liked about a page was one funny quote. So, I would save it in my research menu under a more general ideas folder labeled as “camping” or “Shei on Trizryn’s handwriting”.

Other times I couldn’t save the scene itself, but I liked the idea behind the scene. This is how most of the scenes with Kethrei and Ellen were scrapped, saved, and rewritten. Originally, Kethrei was jailed and Ellen was not, so she’s the one who tried to break him out. When I changed Draughbanir’s role in the story, I decided he needed to make a pact with Kethrei to free Ellen, instead. I wanted to keep the general idea of them being held for a witchcraft trial. I wanted to keep the atmosphere of how Englishmen in the late 1500’s would have regarded Kethrei as a demon, and how Ellen would have been accused of consorting with the Devil. But that was it. I couldn’t salvage anything else. So, I did huge block cuts on what I knew I didn’t want to keep, but saved the rest of the page and all of its gaping holes on an index card labeled, “Kethrei Jailed”.

Multiple cards with related topics got grouped in folders. Folders were arranged according to some semblance of a plot flow. (He has to be jailed before he can escape. That much at least is obvious.) But it was all “research” as far as I was concerned because it was too butchered to be of any use as-is. And I had no idea what book these events would show up in because the story had changed so much. Originally, Aija returned home in the second book, I think. Hard to believe now. During reconstruction, stuff shifted. So, if I had not been thoroughly organized, I don’t think I could have pulled the story back together as well as I did — certainly not as quickly … if you want to call five years “quick”. But five novels of 150-250K words in five years isn’t bad considering the extra work of deconstruction that went into it.

Bottom line, there are MANY ways to take notes and organize them in Scrivener. But however you do it, stay on top of it for drafting. Have a system and maintain it religiously, and the rest of your writing processes will be so much easier.

I’ll discuss reconstruction in the article on revisions. But up next: outlines! 🙂

The Worry About Word Count

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“Bad Cat Sleepy Books” by Melody Daggerhart Medium: digital art, Corel software Hours: 7 All copyrights reserved.

I’m still cleaning out my old blog, and today an old article I wrote about word count caught my eye, so I’m revising it. At the time, I was writing the third revision of The Atheling. My first reconstructed draft was about 200K. The second finished at 180K. And at the time I was writing the article, I had brought the count down to around 179K. (179,856 to be exact, but that wasn’t the final number.) The book was still a monster, partly because it’s a middle section in an epic-length tale. But figuring out a good way to destroy word count was a major victory for me.

Today I was attempting to destroy word count in the fifth revision of The Dragonling. My first draft word count for this book was around 165K, but that was taken without even being close to finishing that draft. Second word check came in around 175K for the second draft. But that included a lot of unfinished scenes that I knew I would have to return to … and probably drastically rearrange. Third draft went up to 208K, and I started cutting scenes because of my panic that the numbers might be getting too high. But it was starting to look more coherent, at least. The fourth draft peaked at 239K. Jeeze! How much higher could this go? … The first fifth draft (a.k.a. the second fourth draft, weirdly named because of drastic revisions that ended up changing major sections of the book, but wasn’t necessarily a true revision with me scrutinizing every line from beginning to end) cranked it up to a tune of 250,537. 😦 … Obviously, it was time to start murdering my darlings, as Arthur Quiller-Crouch once famously suggested. (Cambridge lectures, “On the Art of Writing”, 1914.)

Before I go any further, though, let me throw out a reminder I’m talking about epic fantasy series. And the word epic means … well, BIG! This genre is known for its length and attention to detail. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is actually one long story divided into three volumes. And perhaps you don’t need to know the exact words of the poems spoken or the definitions of translated Elvish or what someone’s lineage looks like down through the ages, but those kinds of “ornamentation” are exactly the kinds of details that give these imaginary worlds realistic depth. Also, middle and end books of epic series tend to be uber thick compared to first books or stand-alone books because it’s their job to bring all of those plot threads together toward an end. If the story is complex, it takes a lot of pages to follow each twist, complication, and obstacle encountered before that end is in sight. The alternative is to cut out scenes that could leave the reader thinking, “But what about this thing mentioned back in book 2? Whatever happened about that?” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an example of how heavily loaded plot closures can be toward the middle and end of a series. The last two books in that series were written as one ending, but divided in half for practical handling and purchase. (Something I might have to do for my own series if my next book’s word count becomes completely unreasonable.) If it’s a choice between thinner, quicker, cheaper books and a quality closure, most fans invested in a series would rather have a quality closure, I think.

But my first article on the worry over word count prompted me to do a little research back then. How big is too big when it comes to novels? When I first started writing, the standard word count for fantasy novels was 50-100K, which is bigger than most fiction genres because it takes into account that the author must use more words to build imaginary worlds. The average first novel published by an new author shouldn’t be more than 50K because big paper books cost more to produce than little paper books, and that cost is passed along to the consumer. Cost of digital production shouldn’t be as high, but word count still affects editorial fees, since they charge by the hour or word/page count, and marketing. Readers are also less likely to invest money or time in long, expensive books by authors they’ve never heard of.

And yet, when I voiced concern in the past about word count, the majority of responses from readers and writers alike was along the lines of, “whatever is needed to tell the story.” Though some people prefer short stories, nobody likes stories that feel rushed. So, while I’m still frustrated at how each book in my series gets progressively bigger, I have to remind myself that butchering scenes for the sake of word count simply is not the right approach for this particular series. The Hobbit is 95,022 words. Fellowship of the Ring is 177,227 words. But The Order of the Phoenix (from the Harry Potter series) was 257,045 words! And The Gold Finch was high on the charts during my first publishing of this article, making good sales in spite of having a whopping 296,586 words from a relatively new author! On the down-side, it’s also been rated as one of the least-finished books because people don’t have the time or attention to devote to it, for whatever reasons. I realize I might lose some readers if my books are too long, especially if bad editing or boring content comprises some of that wordiness. But I love long books, so I write what I would enjoy reading. And I take heart that I’m not the only reader who loves epic tales that continue bringing me back to familiar worlds and intimate characters. I’m not the only reader who loves stories so complex they simply take longer to unravel and play out.

Bottom line … Many writers, editors, and readers will drop a high-word-count script like hot metal. Word count matters because of publishing costs, marketing concerns, and reader preference and attention. But word count should never be the most important aspect by which we judge books. Words are merely the tools we use to ply our trade. “… it is up to the writer to say when the story is done.” [Quindlen, Anna (September 23, 2002), “Writers on Writing: The Eye of the Reporter, the Heart of the Novelist”, New York Times.]

Just for fun, here is a list of some of the longest novels ever written. I was not surprised to see that War and Peace was included. I was, however, surprised to see Les Misérables. And I felt rather pleased and proud to have actually read and enjoyed Varney the Vampire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_novels

Music for My Muse

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Kielanai is a character you’ll meet in The Dragonling. She’s a bard, and like Shei, she is capable of creating visual illusions to accompany her music. Image source: Melody Daggerhart, personalized Oblivion game screenshot.

 

Many things inspire my writing — games, art, film, folklore, real life events, even dreams. In this article I’d like to discuss the various ways music can infiltrate, dramatize, and add dimension to writing. Some people require music in order to visualize what they are writing about because it aids creative flow. Other people need absolute silence because music is a distraction. Then there’s people like me, who are a little bit of both. When I’m drafting something, I usually play music suited to the scene I’m writing. But when I’m editing, I require silence, or I will start singing along with the lyrics or envisioning new scenes! We can’t have that during final edits, now can we? There is no right or wrong here. Do what works for you and your situation.

Music is as much in my blood as writing and art. I’ve played several instruments over the years — none proficiently, but I enjoy trying anyway. I’ve always been a huge fan of several music genres, likely and unlikely. And I have fan-girled a wee bit over a few musicians. (*cough* Bedroom wall plastered from ceiling to floor with posters of various favourite music artists in high school. *cough*) My mother named me Melody because music is a universal language. This is a bone-deep truth for me. Even if I don’t understand the lyrics of a foreign language, I can still admire the sound and the emotion or style that the singer brings to the performance. I can listen to music from one culture and hear similarities to others, which leads me to believe that music isn’t necessarily a culture thing as much as it’s a human thing. Drums, for example, exist in every culture I know of. My Navajo neighbor once told me, concerning traditional sweet grass dances, the drum represents the heartbeat of the earth itself and all of life. And yet I can listen to “Trøllabundin” by Faroese singer Eivør Pálsdóttir and be taken to that same sentiment. If I want my writing to be complete, I try to include words and events relating to sound, not just touch or sight. This becomes even more necessary when writing for a musical character … like a bard.

So, how can music help your writing, both in process and in output?

1. Language.

While writing my invented elven language, I listened to a lot of Faroese and Icelandic music. I don’t speak or understand much of either, but I love how it sounds, and the similarities between Old English and Old Norse fascinate me. Ditto for Scottish and Irish Gaelic. So, when I needed vocabulary for Thályntól, I leaned on these languages, and a few related others, as banks for etymological kinship and sounds. My invented language isn’t meant to be exactly like anything that inspired it. But I wanted a cousin-language feel to it, since elven folklore originated in Scandinavia and traveled down through Germany and the U.K., changing as it went from culture to culture, being reinvented as something unique to each region. This is how all folklore evolves. This is how language evolves. And this is how music and culture evolve, as well. So, when looking for possible linguistic ties while writing fiction, don’t neglect music as a sound source.

2. Atmosphere and Imagery.

Since my elves are based largely on Norse and Celtic mythology, listening to Norse and Celtic music while drafting puts me in the frame of mind to try to paint an ancient, yet timeless, culture in my settings. (Adrian Von Ziegler and Vindsvept have a lot of instrumentals appropriate for this mood.) When I switch to modern Paganfolk or game soundtracks which are influenced by those sources, too, I can get a feel for a more modern, yet still somewhat antiquated, tavern-like atmosphere. (The Witcher 3 soundtrack was worn out during my drafting process.) But I don’t want my elves stuck in the past, so I bring them further forward into an alternate modern time without losing that earthy feel to their magical nature and culture by looking up Victorian music and steampunk music (Steam Powered Giraffe’s “Brass Goggles” was a good airship song. The Sherlock Holmes movie soundtrack and an old music box version of “Luna Waltz” were good “wandering Brinnan” songs, while Johnny Hollow’s “Alchemy” was good for exploring Castle Bloodstone, the undercroft, Ysmé’s lab, and reading her letter.) It’s an odd combination, but it works for me. My goal is not to be “consistent”, but imaginative.

I hunt down tribal drumming, war chants, movie soundtracks, and sometimes even industrial music for writing fight or action scenes. I came up with the fight scene between Trizryn and Kassí in the sacred grove at the Gate of Min (in The Changeling) while listening to a particular “screamo” song that had me thinking in terms of dark green flashes of lightning in some kind of nightmarish blackness with skeletons rising from the ground—like trying to fight the undead under the effects of a strobe light. (Psyclon Nine’s “Parasitic”) Hopefully it translated half-blind and horrific enough for the reader. Dungeons, of course, need to be suspenseful and “off-key” somehow to indicate dark, creepy, abandoned ruins. (Nox Arcana gave me a lot of good dungeon music.) I looked for soft Gothic or emotional music when it comes to sad scenes. (BrunuhVille’s “Celestial Temple” was one of several songs I listened to while writing K’tía’s funeral scene.)

For Trizryn’s vampire-related scenes, I found myself leaning toward soundtracks that have relative themes. (“Das Tir en Mir (Wolfen)” by E Nomine was a favourite, even though it’s about werewolves. So was “The Undertaker” by Pucifer and songs like “Kelling” by Valravn.) For bard songs, I consider the bard’s personality. I like listening to bands like Faun or Irish pub songs when writing for Shei. (Faun’s “Wind und Geige” and “Karuna” inspired a couple of scenes, as well as Gaelic Storm’s “Darcy’s Donkey” and actually looking up You Tube videos of people playing old lute melodies.) But I prefer listening to traditional Asian-inspired music when writing for Kielanai. (Game soundtracks like “Schala’s Theme” from Chrono Trigger and Shenmue’s “Shenhua” were favorites.) When Kielanai dances, however, music box songs inspire light, delicate, flighty words.

Sometimes songs define characters, other times they define events and places. The bonfire scene in The Dragonling was written to repeated replays of “Walpurgisnacht” by Faun, as I sifted through memories of various similar festivals I’ve attended over the years. … The scene where Aija and Trizryn admired the subterranean garden in the overgrown corridor of Absin’navad and had their first real talk on an amicable level near the end of The Changeling was written to “Corridors of Time” … and ONLY “Corridors of Time” from the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. Most of Absin’navad’s other scenes, Trizryn’s and Aija’s escape into the tunnels beneath Brinnan, where they fought the lindworms, and a lot of the Deep Warren’s travel was written to an old download I have from a now-defunct band called Paranoid Space Machines. That CD is synonymous with the Deep Warrens for me.

Other times, I skip the music altogether and listen to atmosphere soundtracks. When I write outdoor hiking through snow scenes, I listen to windy tracks. Camping? Campfire tracks. Are they in the belly of a ship? A creaking ship on the ocean is perfect. What about swimming underwater? Yep, there’s underwater soundtracks, too. I even looked up “mermaid sounds” when trying to pin down how Kai’s speech might sound when he and Gaellyna converse, and the search led to something truly creepy sounding that gave me the idea for … Well, I can’t saying anything more without spoilers, since The Dragonling hasn’t been published yet. :3 … For atmosphere, I will use anything that can help me describe movement or bring the senses to life becomes the aural paint for my keyboard paintbrush.

3. Lyrical Attributes

Sometimes it’s not the tunes, but the lyrics that can add something to the story. You can’t copy song lyrics into a story without breaking copyright laws. However, song titles can be referenced, as can published musicians. But even one line of a song lyric can cost you licensing fees because songs are so short. This is why I can mention Aija sings “Puff the Magic Dragon” (by Peter, Paul, and Mary) at the thieves den (much to Shei’s chagrin), but I can’t actually print the lyrics in my book without permission. However, sometimes a song title or a lyric strikes me as being very relative to my story, so I flesh it out and bring it to life. I was listening to Big Bang’s “Beautiful Hangover” when I drafted the scene in which Aija intentionally annoys Trizryn the morning after he got drunk at the pub in Pranýa. I was amused writing the scene because she does sing a little ditty about a sailor very loudly into his ear, line for line, but her lack of sympathy for his hangover sharply contrasts previous scenes where she admires his beauty, both to herself and aloud (accidentally). It kind of summed up that humorous/romantic slip of the tongue for her and served as payback for his egotistical teasing.

Of course you are free to make up your own lyrics when characters sing, as J.R.R. Tolkien often did in his novels. (Good lords, who wasn’t moved during Pippin’s rendition of “Home is Behind” in Return of the King, or the dwarves singing “Misty Mountain” in The Hobbit?) Things like that can lend authenticity to the moment and the characters. But if that’s too distracting and lengthy, you can always do quick summaries by simply using music and sound words to describe the song and reactions. My editor for The Changeling wanted to know the name of the song Shei was singing, so I gave it a title based on the song I listened to for inspiration, which was better than just saying, “He sang a song.” Shei also sometimes sing-songs his words, so I indicate that in the tag words for his dialog. I have a definite tune in my head when I do this, but since there is no way to translate a tune to the reader, I guess the reader will have to create her own on those. 🙂

4. Writer’s Block

Finally, sometimes when I’ve been writing or proofing so much that my mind wanders, I stop everything, close my eyes, and just listen to music, giving it 100% of my attention. It lets my ears take over guiding my thoughts and imagination while my eyes rest. Usually, I eventually hit upon an idea that fits in with what I’m supposed to be working on, so I can return refreshed enough to keep going, or be brave enough to remove what’s been blocking me and start over with a new plan. Sometimes, music inspires me to stop writing one one project and start working on another, but as long as I am writing something, one will usually end up contributing to the other. Either way, time is not wasted on writer’s block.

 

Writing When Life Interrupts

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Yesterday was the two-month mark for having sent out beta manuscripts. You would think I could take a two-month vacation since I’m no longer working on my current script on a daily basis, but indie authors laugh in the face of such wussy pastimes. No. I did attempt to take a week of “down time” that ended up being only a few days of relaxation that included other writing projects. But since then, I have had the “fun” of doing things like weeding the jungle growing on the retainer wall in my back-yard and having to take my pet guinea pig to the vet multiple times because he stopped eating and was (is) starving. (It’s an on-going situation, so he’s back at the vet right now. I won’t know whether we can save him or not until I hear back from them.) An avalanche of personal, family, and life issues also chose “vacation” time to crash down on me in the past two months, so I’m actually grateful I have not been trying to relax and have fun, or I would have also ended up feeling disappointed at having lost something beyond my grasp. However, I’m grateful I haven’t had the added expectations of keeping regular “office hours” during the week. Sometimes, life just sucks. We’re stuck with days where we have to be okay with not being okay. If possible, I think it’s best if we can make space for those days. For writers and other people who work at home, who are responsible for lighting fires under their own butts when it comes to productivity, we have the space, but not the time to stay in bed and hibernate when those days hit. And people with jobs that require creative productivity can suffer greatly when reality sucks the creative energy right out of you.

One of the things I’ve been doing this week is reading articles on work flow and sifting through my notes and quotes on productivity and self-motivation. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. Work and writing are no exception. Sure, you have to work on a schedule to make deadlines, even when working at home and being your own boss. But within that framework, sometimes you can create options better suited to the ebb and flow of your energy to minimize stress. For example, today I scheduled an hour for a scene in book 6; it ended up taking two. I’m grateful the creative flow lasted that long because stress has been killing my creativity lately. So today I stayed with my muse until stomach growls reminded me I had worked through lunch to grab that extra hour of progress. But now I’m drafting this blog article around my Cup Noodles, and I can tell my creative energy is ebbing again. So, I’m looking at my planner and contemplating whether I can alter what’s next. Normally, I would be doing editing tasks after giving my best energy to creative tasks. But only two of my beta readers have returned feedback so far, so I don’t want to start doing sixth-revision edits on Dragonling until I’ve received a “consensus” on the overall content. Then I can get nit-picky about any individual typos or technical concerns they found, one feedback list at a time. So, in lieu of editing, here are some ways I push myself to keep working, even when life sucks and the energy ebb is low.

1. Lower the bar on your expectations. If your to-do list is normally 10 or more items, prioritize what absolutely MUST be done today, then pick one task — only one. Set a timer, and do it for five minutes. If you’re good to go after five minutes, do 10 more minutes. Keep building in small increments of time like that until you have finished the task or at least made reasonable progress. Progress may feel like a snail’s pace, but in tough times doing something is better than doing nothing. As a good friend once told me, “Even the mighty elephant can take only one bite at a time.” No matter how big your project, it still must be broken down into small steps. The smaller the step, the more likely you are to feel you’ve accomplished something and keep going.

2. Pick a task that is mechanical. In other words, it shouldn’t tax your critical thinking skills too much when you’re already not thinking clearly. It should be a task that’s more routine or relaxed. When writing this article’s first draft, I accepted it was just a draft. And all first drafts are usually awful. I knew it had to be revised anyway before publishing, so as long as I had the outline and gist of what I wanted to say, I let go of fretting about trying to make a first draft as perfect as possible. Today I’m able to think more clearly, so you are reading the better-organized, proofed, revised article. 🙂 … Some other examples might include answering email, looking at articles bookmarked for later reading, or researching something relative to a question I noted about the next book’s content.

3. Pick a task that isn’t emotionally taxing. Unfortunately, my to-do list yesterday included preparing some divorce paperwork and force-feeding my piggy again, which he hates, so that’s frustrating for both of us. (No, the guinea pig is not part of my “job”, but since I work at home I have to juggle publishing tasks with taking care of my fur babies just as I did with my human babies when they were young. In the case of a guinea pig who isn’t eating, that means syringe feeding him a crushed-pellet-and-baby-food slush every couple of hours to keep his digestive tract working. Guinea pigs always have to have food going through their gut or they could get very sick and could die. Since we don’t know why he stopped eating in the first place, keeping his gut working full-time is the only thing I can do for him until the vet can sedate him for the full exam, x-rays, and blood work tomorrow to see what’s going on.) Feeding my piggy isn’t optional; his health and possibly his life depends on it. Working on the divorce paperwork, however, could have been subbed for something like cleaning a corner of my office to discard things I won’t be taking with me when I move. If that’s still too emotionally taxing, maybe I could swap “divorce/move” tasks with the art project I need to finish by tomorrow evening, and save the divorce tasking for another day. Since colouring actually soothes anxiety and depression, and since colouring isn’t as taxing as sketching and detailing, finishing the art assignment might be the best choice to keep productivity going in spite of feeling emotionally drained.

4. Meditate or nap for 10-15 minutes. I am a huge advocate of meditation because it has made such a big difference in my life ever since I started doing it on a daily basis. I always start my mornings with meditation now. But as the day progresses, my eyes can start burning staring at the computer screen all day. Or my attention can drift off toward news, social media, You Tube, iTunes …. Or sometimes it’s just receiving bad news that can flip the day upside down so focusing on the task at hand suddenly seems more exhausting than running to the top of Mt. Fuji. When everything comes to a dead stop, it’s time to shut down, set my alarm, and close my eyes for a few minutes of nothing but the breath. Science backs meditation’s ability to lower anxiety, help with depression, increase focus, and improve mood. Worst case scenario, I move to my recliner in the living room, set my alarm, and nap. Research has shown that both meditation and short “power” naps have restorative effects on the body and brain. Naps shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, though, or they end up counter-productive, leaving you sluggish and groggy. The goal is to rest and reset, not enter REM. The recommended amount of time for a mid-day nap when you have to keep going is 10-15 minutes.

This is how I survive the work day on days when I have trouble pulling it together. I will add that sometimes music can help reset things, as long as it doesn’t interfere with concentration. I realize that right now I am fortunate to be my own boss and work at home so I can have flexible office hours when it comes to bad days. But sometimes that means making up for taking a needed break during the afternoon by working through dinner, skipping Netflix in the evening, or staying up a little later than usual to complete that day’s tasks. However, these principles of productivity can apply to other kinds of work, as well, depending on individual circumstances. What’s nice about being a writer is that even bad events can turn into good plot material, sway the outcomes of certain encounters, or provide character fodder, which not only helps you de-stress, but might improve your story in the long run. (*Ahem* I may or may not be guilty of throwing a frustration or argument or two at my writing projects after a stressful day. Under such circumstances, using bad days as story fodder may or may not be rather cathartic, too.) 😉

What Makes a “Good” Character?

GTO_manga
Great Teacher Onizuka is a Japanese shōnen manga written and illustrated by Tooru Fujisawa.

This is a revision of an article I initially published on my previous blog several years ago, in which I questioned what we mean when we say a character is “good”.

In that article, I introduced everyone to the main character of Great Teacher Onizuka. If you are familiar with Japanese pop culture in any way, you might already be well acquainted. My introduction to this series (which was originally published as manga, but later adapted to anime, TV live-action, and film due to its enormous popularity) was in Sapporo during Yuki Matsuri. We had already seen everything there was to see of the ice sculptures and shows during the day, and we needed to warm up again before hitting the night festivities. While lounging in the hotel room, I was flipping channels to see what Hokkaido TV had to offer, when I found the TV series. I had heard of the manga and anime, but I missed the original airing of the live action TV show, so I was delighted to run into reruns like this.

If you’re not familiar, let me briefly explain this is a high school drama/comedy. Imagine, if you will, a former member of the Japanese mafia (yakuza) wanting to become a teacher. He was a trouble maker in school, has a police record, and took 7 years to complete his education at a not so reputable university. He didn’t pass the teacher’s exam, but a private school is looking to hire. So he goes for the interview and is rejected by the head teacher, but then is hired by the school director after she witnesses how he handles an unexpected disciplinary incident while he’s there. She hires him on one condition: he is to carry his resignation in his coat pocket at all times and be ready to hand it over if he ever hurts one of the students. Then, unknown to him, she gives him the worst class in the school to see if he can straighten them out.

This disciplinary crisis that occurred while he was present involved two expelled students chasing the head teacher with a baseball bat and threats. But he ended up siding with the students after the head teacher called them trash and gave Onizuka permission to rough them up because they would only continue to cause trouble if they were let go. Needless to say, using karate on the head teacher stunned the students, the director, and everyone else witnessing the incident, but his point was clear. It’s because of adults like that, that kids fail. And if that’s the way this school was going to be, he didn’t want any part of it.

Onizuka often resorts to violence like that to solve his problems. He is a pervert, too, always watching adult videos, always trying to get a peek at the girls’ panties beneath their school skirts. He’s a slob. He’s a slacker. He’s reckless and takes unnecessary risks with other people’s lives and his own. To say he is an unconventional teacher is an understatement. At a glance, and even after watching the series, one might come away from this character thinking, “How in the world is this guy regarded as such a hero?”
Many times, people expect characters, protagonists in particular, to be good role models. The thing is, often good role models are not good characters. I forget who said it, but a quote comes to mind. To paraphrase: “A man’s flaws are often the most interesting thing about him.” When we read stories, we expect them to be interesting, not necessarily realistic. Onizuka might be a truly horrible concept for a teacher in real life. But in fiction, he is one hell of an interesting character. Why else would we find ourselves cheering for someone like this while also cringing at his actions?

Here are some thoughts on the matter.

 

1. It’s fiction.
All of fiction is fantasy, even the “slice of life” type, literary genre dramas. Romance is fantasy. Cop shows are fantasy. Even horror and tragedy are fantasy; they just don’t end with happily ever afters. But ALL of fiction has the potential to offer us something that’s unlikely to happen in real life. Moralization is not the point of fiction. Fiction can teach us, but its primary purpose is simply to entertain us while reflecting the best and worst attributes among humanity. Fiction is the study of the human condition, good and bad. So before anyone starts wagging fingers at Onizuka-sensei for being a horrible role model who unrealistically inspires everyone around him to greatness, step back and get a grip on reality. Remember, we’re talking about a fictional fantasy here. For better or worse, the impossible becoming possible touches something in our souls. In fiction, anything is possible … and that is usually why we enjoy reading it.

2. Not all protagonists are meant to save the world.
Think about it. Most protagonists actually do end up as heroes. It’s very stereotypical when you realize just how many times in fiction our world has been saved by good-looking people with positive attitudes, strong morals, and the blessings of the gods. Ironically, many readers relate better with characters who have flaws because perfect people are unrealistic. The reluctant hero, the clutzy hero, and the anti-hero have their stereotypes, too, but sometimes it’s refreshing change of pace to watch the cursed ones struggle with their flaws to find unconventional ways of solving problems. Raising a lowly character to an “I did it in spite of myself!” status usually forces at least some dynamic character growth, but even that isn’t always good. Real humans don’t always have the right answers, either. We disappoint each other quite frequently. But somehow we muddle through, learning from both positive and negative experiences, and life goes on. Fiction is not about creating role models, unless that is the intent of the author. Fiction is about pulling the reader into the lives of the characters so they can tell their tales about what happened to them. Readers may disagree vehemently with the decisions some characters make, but the characters must be allowed to make their own decisions because it’s their story. Readers are not reading about themselves in the protagonist’s role … unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel. So, readers and viewers of fiction should not expect fictional characters to reflect their own personal morality. Onizuka often chooses the wrong methods to solve his problems, and they only create more problems. But presenting himself as the perfect role model is not his goal. Helping his students realize “there is no practice for real life” is what motivates him, and he will do whatever he thinks it takes to save each and every one of his homeroom delinquents, even if that means hanging them from rooftops, forcing them to quit school, and allowing bullies to beat the crap out of them.

3. Redemption is a powerful thing.
For a “bad” character to be redeemed in the eyes of the reader, he has to do something right. He has to want to be good, even if he repeatedly fails. He has to have some likable qualities to make us think he’s worth fighting for. For Onizuka-sensei, he has a big heart. He is friendly, funny, often childish, and in many ways childishly naive. He realizes he screwed up when he was younger, so he sincerely wants to prevent other kids from making the same mistakes he did. Now he wants more than anything to be a teacher. He doesn’t hold grudges or pick on people he considers to be at a disadvantage, but he’s crude and firm in a manner that opens “respectable” people’s eyes to their own despicable behavior. He’s optimistic, even when things have gone horribly wrong for him. And as much as he dwells on sex, he’s still a virgin because he’s saving his first time for someone he loves. He even has a special condom marked for the occasion that he frets over when intrusive people get their hands on it and tease him about it. Though he struggles with exam scores, when pushed he studies hard. When all is said and done, he is literally willing to sacrifice his position, even his life, for his students. He not only ends up inspiring each of his students to greatness, but he ends up teaching their parents and his fellow teachers to value the opportunities they have to enlighten the lives of these kids.

 

As a reader I prefer tragic heroes. I find their stories more interesting. As a writer, I’ve discovered how extremely difficult it is to find the right balance when creating protagonists who are meant to be darker characters. Trizryn, the main male protagonist from my Elf Gate series, is definitely in the anti-hero camp, but I’m always looking for ways to inject a little of this into the other characters, as well. I don’t want to write strictly “good” characters, or strictly “bad” characters; I get bored with the predictability of those archetypes. So, Trizryn is the kind of person who will give his life for someone to protect them if he feels they are worth saving. But if you were to threaten whoever he is protecting, he won’t hesitate to destroy you. Is this kind of protagonist common? Yes, actually. But they are not what usually comes to mind when you think of attributes of a hero. The tragic monster, the sympathetic villain, the dark hero … self-contradictory archetypes are often bad role models, but often make the most interesting, “good” characters in fiction.