I write what I know and what I’m good at. A look at my collegiate and personal studies, books read, movies and shows watched and video games played, it would come to no surprise that my writings usually have a military theme. Don’t expect horror or romance novels with my name on them anytime soon. I think most writers are the same: they write what they know and are good at.
Recently, while planning ahead for a project, I had to admit that the big bad guy organization was not working. It was too clunky. I had put a lot of work into it, so I wanted it to work as it was, but it didn’t. I started working out an alternative, and throw out all I had done before.
Now I’ve have problems with stories I’ve written. I’ve wondered if I could rewrite this scene, reword that response. That’s normal, a part of every writer’s concern over his or her work. This is more about that gut feeling that something about your story is just wrong.
When you write what you know, you feel comfortable with it. So those strong feelings that something is wrong shouldn’t get ignored. Some of your readers will also have experience with your genre, and they’ll probably notice it too. So pay attention, and when necessary, be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get back to work.
I’ve been researching serialization, the idea of taking a story and cutting it into episodes released in sequence instead of one giant book. This idea appeals to me, at least for my large project that may be too big to be a first book. While I haven’t decided on a course of action, the research has gotten me thinking about how my stories should end.
This is a rather new concentration for me, as I can start a story at the drop of a hat, but I have only finished one, and that one is the start of a series. For only one of my projects, a fantasy trilogy, have I outlined the story from beginning to end, and that one is proceeding at a nice pace. The rest I haven’t figured out an ending to.
So, I have spent some time thinking about my projects and how they might end.
For many projects, the answer is ‘I don’t know’. I have an idea or a start, but no real story. But for a couple of the projects, this exercise has paid great rewards.
For example, take the large book I mentioned earlier. I have many stories I want to tell in that world, but not all of them revolve around the main character. So I asked myself ‘What if I limited myself to five or six books centering on her?’ I always had an idea of how I would remover her from the story if I had to, so I made that the ending to her story.
The result on the story is favorable. By having an end in mind, I can plan out the events and their consequences, and begin building towards the decisions that end her saga. (Spoiler: she doesn’t die, and will still be a character in other stories set in that world). The ending also acts as a goal: instead of feeling pressured to write as many stories as I can, I have a finish line I need to get to. The difference is surprisingly important.
Another example is a Sci-Fi story I recently started. The main character has been asked to go and stop a war from starting, a task made so difficult by the forces arrayed against him that it would take at least two books, if not more, to tell. In addition, the goal of stopping a war means that the conditions currently exist for a war to occur, and that the character must keep a war from starting long enough for the situation to change. As I contemplated the ending, I had to decide how to finish the story, and chose to give the story a Five-year arc. However many books it’ll take, the character now has a deadline.
The lesson I’ve learned from this? Knowing how to end your story is as important as how you start it, especially for projects that are expected to run over several books. It provides a goal, some guidelines for how the story can and should progress. Something I really need to think about when working on my projects.
Nothing sucks more than remembering that you had a great idea, but not remembering the idea.
Several years ago, I started to combat that problem by opening an Orphan file. It’s nothing more complex than a folder where I store flashes of inspiration. A line of dialogue, a scene, the basic concept for a story, it goes in the folder. An outline that I’m slowly working out? Saved.
It’s nice to know that I have all these ideas saved, and I have raided it a few times to get ideas enough to get around Writer’s Block. I doubt I will actually get to use all of them, but I’m okay with being more creative than productive. It means I’ll never run out of things to work on.
With all the options available to writers for publishing, it is not all that difficult to ask myself: why am I unpublished? I could be published, if all I wanted to do was publish something and be done with it. But I do not want to just be done with it. I want to make something of it, something more than a hobby. That means I have two questions to consider: what to publish and now? This post is about the what.
The first book you publish is important. I have done a lot of research on this topic, and the lessons I’ve learned are that the first book should be one that follows all the rules. Use this to generate some name recognition before the books get large. The Harry Potter series is an example of starting small and getting larger as the series progressed, when people wanted the next book regardless of the length.
I have a book that is written. I am revising the second draft. But it is almost 160,000 words, which is very long. I could split it in two, or cut out everything not from the main character’s view point, or I could try to publish it as it is. But editing a book that long is an immense and expensive undertaking. I am mostly tempted to hold on and publish it later, if and when I have a following of readers.
So what else would I publish?
I have a fantasy book I’m writing that I could wrap up pretty quickly. I have a historical fiction book that will probably be a series, but I have not started writing it. I’ve got a number of ideas, prologues, scenes written out or planned, but nothing that is really ready now.
For now, I’ll just keep writing until I have something. 🙂
I recently started attending a Saturday morning writing group. I wasn’t sure what I would run into when I first started, but I was looking to meet more people and have new experiences, so I showed up.
The format is pretty simple. The person leading the round asks for a time (between one and ten minutes). They select a topic, usually a sentence or phrase, from a reserve of topics brought by the host. And for the given amount of time, you write. You don’t have to write about the topic if you don’t want to. Finally, once the round is up, a microphone gets passed around the circle, each person having the choice to read their blurb out loud. The box gets passed to the next leader, and we continue.
I’ve found these to be great fun. Not only am I meeting new people, but I’m having to stretch my creative muscles by planning a very short story based around an idea I didn’t come up with. To further exercise my mind, I’ve largely avoided doing the Science Fiction or Fantasy writing I normally do. I usually go for funny or thought provoking, though sometimes it is just words.
A few people who are there tell a story through all of the rounds, using the phrases chosen to direct the plot, but keeping the same characters and flow from beginning to end. I might end up trying that sometime.
Recently I’ve been working on a fantasy story. I’ve got it outlined pretty well, and I’ve planned ahead so the writing itself is going well, but the problem I’ve been running into most often has been naming the places and characters.
I’ve always paused when I’m thinking of a name, since I feel that the name is an important descriptor.
If it is a person, I want the name to be representative of the character in some way. That’s easy enough in languages I’m familiar with, but when the character is from another culture, that means surfing the internet, looking up the meanings of names and finding one that matches the character. Even my gaming characters have carefully considered names.
The same holds true for locations. The name has to feel right or it distracts me from the story. I try to take into account geography, the culture and history of the people, and what I want or need the location to be in the story. Again, I can turn to online databases for inspiration, but it is not as easy as just adding syllables together.
All these choices can be more difficult with science fiction or fantasy stories. Aliens and non-humans aren’t generally going to be called ‘Bob’ or ‘Helen’, from the planet ‘the Green One’, at least not without some back story, and having the names seem at least remotely related can be a chore.
Multicultural historical or modern stories have this problem, though a concentrated internet search can bring up enough information to get past them.
I try to figure out a lot of this information before hand, to avoid pausing as I write. But I cannot anticipate every need, so I often use placeholders, typing in something in brackets (i.e. [Green Valley]) so that I can come back later and fix it. I found this works better than typing in something sloppy and getting attached to a sloppy name.
Names are important, and should take a least a moment to consider before deciding on one. If you have any exercises on naming characters and places I’d be happy to learn about them.
During November, my friends and I held a number of writing nights. Some of the participants are creative writers, some were participating in NANOWRIMO, and some had personal or professional projects that they wanted to focus on. All of us had something to write. And I found that they totally work!
The first hour looks less than productive. We often make it a pot luck night, spending that first hour eating, talking, blowing off some of the steam that everyone accumulates during their work day. Not a lot of writing. But enjoyable nonetheless.
After the food and wine, we set out to writing. There is some talking during the writing, but that doesn’t seem to distract anyone too much. In the four writing group nights I participated in (further events cancelled due to snow), I managed at least a thousand words each night. Others finished their projects or reported hundreds of words written in the time we allowed. I wonder if the drive to write is spurned by the fear that at any moment, another member of the group could ask how many words you’ve written.
So you have finished your rough draft. You get some congratulations from family and friends, treat yourself to a nice meal, and stand at the top of the world. But you know you aren’t done. If you are anything like me, reading your rough draft will run to both extremes of the spectrum, from ‘Pulitzer Prize, here I come!’ to ‘I need to delete this sentence, format the hard drive and burn the computer so no one knows I did this.’ There’s still work to be done.
Revisions can be overwhelming to contemplate. It was hard enough finding works and breaking through writers block the first time, and now you have to question everything you’ve written? But it is something every writer has to learn to do.
The first time I had a rough draft to revise, I printed it out and decided to read right on through. I did not want to stop and start and work through every problem until I know how many problems I had. I puzzled out a system to identify what revisions I need to make, once which works surprisingly well. Read on and tell me what you think.
What you need:
A printed copy of your draft.
Pens: Red and Black is a must; other colors handy
Highlighters: At least three colors.
Ideally you want to have the post-it notes and highlighters be of similar colors, but it’s not necessary. Keep these things nearby when you are rereading your work.
How it Works:
It’s pretty simple. When you read through your draft, you will use the color coded pens, highlighters and post-its to color code the errors, corrections and ideas you come across.
So what are you looking for?
General Proof Reading
Don’t hate the red pen. Embrace it. Every spelling error and incorrect word, every grammar mistake and punctuation problem gets marked. Even with today’s computer spell checkers you’d be amazed what can slip by. And the internet is full of help.
Sometimes no amount of red ink can save a paragraph, and the only thing to do is delete and try again. Often I’m violating the KISS Rule, or it just doesn’t sound right. Or (in one instance), I discovered a topographical map of an area that showed my description was incorrect.
Highlight the sentences, paragraphs or pages in a color (I usually use pink) and stick a post-it note out the side so you know where your rewrites are. Don’t worry about rewriting them now.
Not everyone speaks in the same voice. Accents, education, and second languages can impact how a character sounds. Ask yourself if a character’s lines actually sound like that character. If you think they don’t, highlight them.
Any story of length should worry about consistency, and a book is a long story indeed. You will have ideas later on you need to go back and prepare for, or notice details about characters that have changed from one chapter to another. Even if you are one of those writers who writes thousands of words of background information before you write your book, you’re going to run into such issues.
Highlight the passages and mark them with post-its. Once you’ve finished your read-through, make a list of the continuity issues. Spend some time planning what corrections and additions you will need to do. I usually use green to mark these, since I can use a green pen to make the changes necessary.
I’m sure that as I continue writing my revision process I will change it to meet the demands of my writing. I’m already prepared to add a ‘Check Your Science’ color when I first write a Science Fiction story. But it is a solid system. I’m interested to know what systems you use, and how you might personalize this system.
When I write, I create a rich backstory for the world I’m writing in. And while I can remember many details of that world, I can’t remember them all. Trying to keep track of all those details has been a constant pain for me, especially as I replace computers, send documents from work to home, or even just forget where I put the file with all the information.
One day I ventured onto the Internet to look for a database program. I was hoping to find something that would allow me to create a Wikipedia type database, with links between files so I could move from one page to another. I did eventually find one, but first I found yWriter.
yWriter showed up as a writing program designed for writers. In the words of the website:
yWriter is a word processor which breaks your novel into chapters and scenes, helping you keep track of your work while leaving your mind free to create. It will not write your novel for you, suggest plot ideas or perform creative tasks of any kind. yWriter was designed by an author, not a salesman!
I downloaded it and gave it a try…and I am very glad I did.
yWriter most appeals to me because of the organization it applies to the writing project. Before, I would write with either a single file for the whole project or each one file per chapter. I wasn’t really happy with either one. yWriter allows me to add chapters to a project, and add scenes to chapters. The program keeps an automatic word count, and even tracks how many words I add in a given day.
For any scene and chapter I can add notes separate of the words in the actual document. A writer can also keep track of a number of Details for the scene, including Type, Tags, Importance, and various Ratings (I don’t use these, personally, but they’re there to be used).
What I really enjoy is the ability to turn scenes off, so that the program keeps them but they don’t apply to the book as a whole. For example, I recently read a scene that started strong but petered out into a boring exchange. I copied the scene and turned the first one off, so I can access it, but it doesn’t appear in my word count. I deleted most of the copied scene and I can continue writing without losing the first attempt.
yWriter has three different databases: Characters, Locations and Items.
Adding an item is as easy as highlighting a word and right clicking. Once it is added, I can add notes and pictures to the database without changing anything of the scenes. I can get as detailed or as simple as I want.
This is a nice program to keep track of the little things when I add a new character, but it does have a problem. The database will find every instance of the word and track it, even if it isn’t an instance that you want it to track. For example, if I have a character named Mars, the program will highlight the first half of the word Marshall.
Spell Checking and Printing
No program is perfect, and yWriter’s flaws come towards the end of the process.
yWriter has a Spell Checker option, but it is not very good. This would normally be a deal breaker, but the programmer managed to add a way to side step this. You can export chapters to Microsoft Word and spell check your work there, then import back into yWriter (just be careful not to delete the coding that allows yWriter to import to the correct chapters and scenes).
The printing function is okay, but I’ve found it much more useful to import to Microsoft Word and fix the formatting before printing or changing to a PDF. Part of this may stem from so much of my first project in yWriter being imported from Google Docs, Microsoft Word and Open Office. I’m hoping this will improve over subsequent projects.
I have found yWriter to be a very useful program, both as a writing system and as a simple database for notes. And that is fully admitting I don’t use everything this program has to offer. I hope some of you go and try it out.