Category Archives: Planning

When the Going Gets Tough….


It’s hard to write about not following your own advice, isn’t it?

In the last post, I made very true remarks about the importance and necessity of daily writing.  Slogging ahead.  No matter what.  Right?

Well…I got off my routine.  I realized that my July 4 deadline for Lords of Askalon was incompatible with producing a quality product.  Could I get it written?  Yes.  Would it be worth much? Probably not.  Leaving myself no time to work it over, to edit, to mull, to contemplate, to tweak…not good.  I think this really hit me when Brandon Sanderson tweeted that he planned 9 revisions for his new book.  Nine.  And he’s Brandon Sanderson.  And I wasn’t going to give myself time for one?

So there’s the reason for the new release date.  But on to the inevitable, awful consequence of this decision: I stopped writing.  I got caught up in other things.  Meaningful and necessary things, to be sure, but not writing things.  I let myself get caught, too, by the self-criticism monster that paralyzes all it touches.

The horror.

Today, for example, when I opened up my manuscript and got ready to write, I caught sight of the last scene I had written.  I promptly closed the window and wrote a journal entry instead.

One could make the argument that any writing is better than no writing, and I think there’s something to that.  But I don’t particularly have writer’s block…my huge and beautiful butcher-paper outline of this novel is pinned to the wall right beside me.  I know where I need to go, what I need to write.  But that last scene is so…flat.  Ugh.

Having a clear plot outline isn’t the same as having a strong sense of the characters, of their purpose, of the dynamics that guide their interaction.

Before I can come back to the story, I need to establish those things clearly for myself.  And work out nagging details like timeline issues.  For me, simply pushing through won’t do the job.  Will that method get the plot written?  Yes, probably.  But it will be as lifeless and sketchy as the outline on my wall.

So sometimes, when the going gets tough and your narrative feels flat, it pays to take a step back and consider a few things about the deeper structure of your story in general, and the characters inhabiting your world in particular.  Ask yourself:

  • Do you really know your characters?
  • What are their personal conflicts? (A character’s personal conflict is not necessarily the overarching conflict of the book.)
  • What drives your characters in their interactions with other major/minor characters?
  • How do these interactions meaningfully reveal their character arc?
  • How does each character arc intersect with the plot?  What events need to happen for that character to develop?

Once you find the answers to these questions and have a clear sense of each character’s purpose and role, you’ll see the life flowing back into your bloodless plot structure.

So…I’m off to reacquaint myself with my characters.  How will you move your story forward today?

Inspiration…or Insanity?

First of all, it’s been too long.  Life happens…and this time it pretty much swallowed me up.  Well, at least as far as blogging is concerned.  But here I am again…and glad to be back.

I have written before about diversifying your writing portfolio, and I’ve been in the midst of doing just that over the past few months, working to establish myself as a freelance writer.  (Progress report: one article accepted so far and several more out there…waiting…).  It’s a grueling struggle in some respects: doing this right, just like doing a novel right, takes persistence, patience, and a solid knowledge of the craft and business of writing.  It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without a lot of work.

So, with that bit of background out of the way, let me move to my topic for this morning.  In his sonnet, “When I Have Fears”, John Keats beautifully expressed in fourteen lines the fear that must lie in every writer’s heart: that he or she will never be able to write out everything in his or her “teeming brain”.  It’s the “teeming” part that always catches me.  It’s a good word.  It doesn’t presume that all your ideas lie along one trajectory: that, if you write sci-fi/fantasy novels, this is all you think about, or that, if you write historical romance, you don’t dream of freelancing as a food critic.  Teeming is…well, teeming.  Brimming over.  A superabundance.  The difficulty is this: in a culture that specializes in specializing, and where every marketing guru will tell you to make a name for yourself in a particular genre (at least at first), is there a path to success for writers whose teeming brains refuse to be pigeon-holed?

To put it another way, there are two sides to the coin: write what you love and what inspires you, and write what you can sell.  Those two aren’t always compatible, it seems.  So this is the dilemma for all you writerly folk to consider as you build your own careers.  When you are hit with an inspiring idea that seems completely outside your current modus scribendi, do you jump for it?  Or do you dismiss it as practically impossible for platform and identity reasons and therefore toss it in the “insane” bin?

I was hit with an idea this morning, as I’ve been contemplating markets and avenues and audiences, that could certainly qualify as insane for a number of reasons.  But I see a niche, an opportunity, a void to fill, and I am inspired to say, “Why not?  Others have done it…why not I?”  And yet, I hesitate.  Am I losing focus?  I have a novel to write — The Lords of Askalon is still in the works, behind my self-imposed schedule and deadlines.  I’m writing an article under deadline…and am hoping earnestly to have this problem for a long time to come.  I have books to review.  I do not lack for projects…there is plenty to occupy my teeming brain for quite some time.  Writing, I remind myself, is a discipline, and success (which is usually defined by completed projects, not half-baked ideas and half-cooked plots) depends in large part on focused energy.

And yet…

It bears contemplation and reflection.  And perhaps, a few months from now, I’ll have an announcement to make.  But at the moment? I’m off to teach the kids their math lessons, run some errands, hash out the rest of Chapter 10 of The Lords of Askalon, and finish roughing out this article.

What will you do to glean your teeming brain today?


Okay, as we’re getting ready for NaNoWriMo (it’s just days away, folks!), it seems timely to talk about invention for a minute.

What is invention, after all?

Let’s blow the dust off an old Latin text by Horace (from the Ars Poetica):

Either follow tradition or invent what is self-consistent. … If it is an untried theme you entrust to the stage, and if you boldly fashion a fresh character, have it kept to the end even as it came forth at the first, and have it self-consistent. (Horace, Ars Poetica, 119-127, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough)

Let’s consider first why Horace suggests to his readers that they “follow tradition.”  That’s not invention! you say.  For us blessed moderns, we scoff at this notion of invention.  But let’s take a closer look.

We have to recognize that for the classical Latin poets as well as for poets of the Middle Ages, invention largely meant revisiting and refreshing old stories.  Think of the blind bard in the tavern, who spins his lays and amplifies and alters as he travels from town to town.  And think of the bards who succeed him, taking his tales, adding their own spice and flavor.  That, for Horace and the medieval poets, is the very heart of invention.  As Geoffrey Chaucer would put it, it’s tilling old fields and growing new corn.  It’s re-imagining.

And, given that Those Who Know tell us that there are really only like 7 plots in the entire known universe of language and literature, there really may be something to what Horace has to say.

Let’s take an example.

Lady meets Gentleman at a party.  Lady likes Gentleman, but Gentleman scorns her for being a country bumpkin.  Gentleman’s BFF likes Lady’s Sister.  Gentleman thinks Sister isn’t giving BFF the time of day and tells him to find a new love.  Lady is totally enraged, so when Gentleman discovers that, lo and behold, he loves Lady, she rejects him with scorn.  Gentleman sets out to win Lady’s heart by kindnesses, even helping to save Lady’s other sister Floozy from a disgraceful situation.  In the end, Lady is won over and marries Gentleman, Sister marries BFF, and Floozy and Dude move away…far away…much to the relief of all.

It’s Pride and Prejudice, right?

Ye-es…but it doesn’t have to be.  We could take this skeleton of a situation and bones of a plot and write any number of riffs on it.  What if we set the story in the year 2050?  What if we set it in 1920s Boston?  What if the well-beloved forms of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley (not to mention Lydia and Wickham) were replaced with fully modern individuals with similar character traits but different situations and struggles?  In making these changes, do we not have the makings of a new story, which has all the more depth and interest because it hearkens back to the story that gave it its beginning?

It’s a legitimate form of invention, this “following tradition” business.  Don’t sneeze at it too hastily…you may cheat yourself out of a fantastic treasure trove of inspiration.

But what about Horace’s other directive, the one to those who choose to blaze their own literary trail?  He charges said trail-blazers with the responsibility of self-consistency.  What does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that your character cannot have an arc.

Characters who don’t change, adapt, and overcome in relation to their circumstances are paper dolls.  You can change their outfits, but they still have that stupid grin on their flat face no matter what.

Ugh.  No.

It does mean that the arc your character follows needs to be consistent with his nature, personality, and traits with which you endow him at the story’s outset.  It needs to make sense.  J. Leigh alluded to this in her marvelous post on Wrangling Runaway Stories.  To use her example, you can’t have Bob, heretofore an ordinary soul, suddenly have the ability to wield MIGHTY MAGICKS in face of almost certain destruction.  (BTW, if you haven’t read that post, go do it right now and then come back.  It’s hilarious…and very instructive!)  Bob needs to find a way out of the conflict that is consistent with his established character.

Bottom line?  Plot and character are absolutely intertwined.  Underestimate their intimate connection at your own peril!  This also means that whatever character elements you establish on page 1 had better either still be there on page THE END or change in a believable way.  This is what Horace means by self-consistency.

So, where does this brief consideration of invention leave us as we contemplate our NaNoWriMo paths?

Story material is all around you.  You can make a story from scratch, or you can reimagine a favorite story or myth in a totally new way, making it all your own.  Either way, you’re on your way to NaNoWriMo success!

Happy inventing!

Preparing for NaNoWriMo

Ahhh, it’s that time of year again.

The leaves are beginning to turn, the night air is crisp, stews and hot cocoa are back on the menu, and writers everywhere are gearing up for the plunge we affectionately call NaNoWriMo.

Here at SisterMuses, J. Leigh and I are both preparing for what promises to be a totally awesome NaNoWriMo, and we hope you’ll join us as we blog about the trials and joys of pounding out a novel in a month.  Whether you are a fellow writer or just want to chuckle at us from the sidelines, please sign up to follow us and leave your comments!  There will be some fun giveaways and other exciting stuff coming your way!

So, now that you are signed up and ready to go, let’s get on to the topic of today’s post, which is on preparing for NaNoWriMo.  Over the next couple of weeks, we will have more detailed posts on planning, plotting, and scheduling your NaNoWriMo project.  This general overview is meant to inspire you to start thinking through these things and considering how you will accomplish your NaNoWriMo goals.

Step 1: Get yourself registered!  

No, not just for the SisterMuses blog.  Head over to NaNoWriMo’s official site and register.  Now you’re ready to track your progress and enjoy the company of fellow crazy passionate writers (see Step 5)!

Step 2: Figure out what you’re writing.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo, J. Leigh is working on a fabulous new book called Ethereal.  I’m working on The Lords of Askalon, the sequel to Silesia: The Outwordler.  Our choices were fairly obvious.  Well, except for J. Leigh’s.  (J. Leigh!  Where did that come from?  So exciting!).  Anyway.  If you are new to the whole novel writing thing, or if you haven’t worked on a new project in a while, this is a great time to contemplate the inner chambers of your imagination.  Dust those cobwebs out of the corners.  Open a window and let in the sunshine!

What genre would you like to work in?  Who is your main character?  What’s the conflict?  Do you need to do some research (if you’re writing historical fiction of any kind, you’d better be nodding your head right now!)?

This is probably the hardest part of the process, unless you already have a seedling project in mind.  Mapping out a project takes time. That’s why we’re starting now, when there are still a couple of weeks before the starting pistol fires.

Step 3: Get a basic plot outline together.

If you’re going to write a novel in a month — NaNoWriMo’s official word count is 50,000 (approx. 200 pages) — then you really do need a plan, even if you’re not really a planner.  Your outline doesn’t have to be extensive, but it should include major plot points and perhaps a subplot or two.  If you start visualizing scenes as you work on your outline, then write them out and keep them!  If nothing else, they get your mind onto the right story track and prime those creative juices.

You should also try to pin down your main characters.  Get their physical characteristics straight, figure out who they were before the world of the story happened to them.  A story that moves well through plot points but has dismally shallow characters might get you to the word count, but is that really your only goal here?  (Maybe it is…the thrill of writing 50K words might just be too much to resist).  But for those of you who, like J. Leigh and I, are using NaNoWriMo to improve your craft and make serious progress on some projects, then take your preparatory work seriously.

Step 4: Check your schedule.

50K words doesn’t happen overnight.  Okay.  50K coherent words doesn’t happen overnight.  In order to meet this goal, you’ll need to be deliberate about your writing time.  Take a look at your schedule and find a way to block out some consistent writing time — maybe 20-30 minutes a day.  Figure out what kind of progress you need to make in each writing session, and realize that not every session will be uniform in productivity.  You might sit down one day and write 10 pages before you blink.  Other days, the evil cursor might blink at you from the blank page…for your entire allotted time.  It happens.

Step 5: Find a writing buddy or join the NaNoWriMo community forums.

Having a writing buddy is very encouraging.  I love working with J. Leigh, and we have a great time sharing our ideas, helping each other solve plot problems, or listening with sympathy when characters don’t do what they’re told.  For something as intense as NaNoWriMo, it helps to have encouragement from another writer who is doing the same thing.  And who knows?  You might network with some pretty fantastic fellow authors and build a working relationship that extends beyond this coming month of madness.

There you have it!  A roadmap to November 1, 2011.

Are you ready?

We are!

(P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe!!!)