Thanksgiving Break

Hi all,

I’ve decided to take a short break this Thanksgiving week. I’ll be back next Monday–in December! I can’t believe how fast this year has gone.

To those of you working on NaNoWriMo–you’re almost there! Just writing at all is an accomplishment, so be proud of yourselves no matter what. :)

And to those who are inclined to celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you have a happy one.

–J

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Staring into the Abyss: Finding the Characters

Usually, my ideas start with a world. Then I try to find the conflict, the story, and maybe some of the plot. This involves finding the protagonist, the antagonist, maybe a few other key players.

But at some point, the massive crowd of “others” in the story needs to become somebodies.

And here I find yet another abyss waiting for me. It’s easy enough to say on an outline that the main character stays with “a family,” or goes to a party with her “friends,” or any number of other vague groups of people that may actually be a huge part of the story. But how do you actually go about developing those characters?

If they’re not in the habit of just coming to you, then you have to go looking for them with some of the same haphazard techniques that I suggested in Monday’s post.

First, determine the general groups or roles of these characters. If your character is journeying with a team, figure out the basic functions for each character—why are they on this “team”? If your character is attending a school, you know you’ll need other students (friends and bullies), teachers, maybe a bus driver, etc.

Second, look for any interesting relationships. If you can’t think of individuals for your vague “team,” consider couples or siblings or rivals who might flesh out the team with life and conflict and backstory. Start with your main character and branch outward—what kind of character might they befriend? Who might they clash with? You can start with love interest, best friend, bully or rival, but try to think outside the box, too. Challenge stereotypes or obvious dynamics; think of how relationships might start out one way and grow into something else.

Third and finally, just start thinking up random characters who might be interesting. Challenge yourself to consider diversity in race, sexuality, and background (and species, if applicable). Consider different occupations and what personality types they might attract—and who might be an unusual, and thus more interesting, fit. Use the roles you determined in the first step to consider what personality type might be the expected, the cliché, as well as the original or strange. Always question what might be interesting, what might lead to conflict, and where characters can interact.

One cautionary point: don’t feel like you have to represent every single type of character or personality in a single story. This is a trap I often fall into, when a few interesting characters is a vast improvement over a muddled and crowded cast. Also, don’t sweat too much about repetition of personality traits, especially for minor characters—if you have a grasp of their personality, a minor role that gets one line will shine better, and as long as there are a few key differences in overall traits, the reader won’t notice the similarity.

Lastly, it’s always just a first draft. Names can change, characters can change, everything can change. Do what you can in the development stage to challenge yourself, but don’t get too caught up in perfection. Your characters will come to life as you write them, and they’ll live forever as you revise them.

So have fun! The abyss can be as much an opportunity as a challenge.

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Dealing with Rejection

Getting rejected sucks. There’s no denying it—and it’s perfectly okay to feel sad when that rejection letter (or more commonly now, e-mail) rolls in. Feel the pain; have a cry if you need to; comfort yourself in whatever way you need. Confidence and determination doesn’t mean you can’t feel when you get rejected.

But you have to balance those feelings with a few things:

First, the agent or publisher is not rejecting you personally. They are not even rejecting your book or idea personally. The fact is that agents and publishers are bombarded by thousands of queries every year, and no matter how good they may be, they simply cannot represent thousands of authors. So imagine how hard it must be for them to turn down ideas that might be really interesting or unique or amazing… but just not quite right.

Maybe they recently picked up a project with the same concept. Maybe their client list is already full of the genre you’re writing, and an idea has to be SPECTACULAR to get their interest. Maybe the market just recently shifted, in ways the public doesn’t even know yet, and your idea is on the way out. Maybe they like your idea—but don’t love it.

Or, yes, maybe your idea or book just isn’t quite good enough. It’s okay to accept that idea; it doesn’t mean you’ve given up or have no confidence. And one agent’s “not good enough” may be another agent’s “amazing.”

We can never truly know why an agent rejected us—was it the idea? The POV? The pacing? The turn of phrase in your pitch paragraph? The length? The genre? The author bio (or lack thereof)? Did they just happen to get a flurry of amazing queries recently?

Whatever the reason, know that it just wasn’t meant to be. And that’s okay.

The second thing to do is keep writing—if you haven’t already, start focusing on another project. For me, this does several things. It helps to distract me from obsessing over the querying (and rejection) process, at least a little. It also helps me feel like this book I’m querying isn’t the entire sum of what I can do, or what I can be. And it creates a situation in which I feel like I have a back-up on the way should querying for this book fail entirely; I’ll just start querying the next one when it’s ready. It helps me feel like rejection is not the end.

The third potential thing is to remember all the successful books which were rejected… a lot. Harry Potter got nine rejections before making OVER A BILLION DOLLARS (and counting). The Help got, I believe, forty nine rejections before becoming a book club bestseller and a movie. So just because your baby got rejected doesn’t mean it can’t go on to rule the world…

But this way of thinking is ultimately a defense mechanism, a way of feeling like you can still be a breakout phenomenon even after your imagined story of instant success disappears. The reality is that for every one in a million story of success, there are 999,999 stories of… not success. I refuse to say “failure,” because the only failure is not trying at all.

Today’s world is friendlier to the random writer—self-publishing can surpass the gatekeepers and even lead to success (though with the same cautious caveats of exception vs. rule as above). And you never know what might happen…

So take in the rejection, feel what you need to feel, and get back out there. Be proud of yourself for writing a book at all—and even more so, for being brave enough to send it out there. No matter what happens, that is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Patience. Acceptance. Cautious confidence. Hold these three qualities in your mind, and you will survive the querying process. And you just might be starting a whole new life.

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Staring into the Abyss: Finding the Plot

So you have an idea. Maybe it’s a character, maybe it’s a world, maybe it’s just a genre—or maybe you’re lucky and it’s a conflict. If you’re anything like me, ideas are everywhere.

But stories are harder to come by. How do you get from the vague concept of an idea to a story?

I’ve talked before about some tricks, about finding themes and the protagonist’s goal and basic plot structure, but none of these helped me recently as I’ve been working on my next project. I had a good idea of the beginning, and a faint idea of the end, but the middle was a swampy abyss of nothing. And it made me feel like I was not meant to write this story, or any story.

Trying to clarify the protagonist’s goal was a start, but it didn’t give me anything specific. Working on clarifying the ending gave me a better idea of the arc of the story, but for an arc to span an entire novel, it has to be large and detailed enough (without being too meandering). I can get to the point where I know the story is “investigation” or “journey” or “survival”… but what does that mean?

I tried to give up. Again and again, I told myself this story was just not meant to be, or that another version would be better. But there was something about this story, this world, this version that would not let me go.

So I tried something… random. And (so far) it has worked.

The trick I found is to just start throwing out random ideas for things that could happen in the story. Don’t try to go in order, at least until you lock onto a cause and effect pathway that makes sense to you. And don’t censor about what might work—something might seem like a tangent, or not great plotting, but just list as many different things as you can think of. List fun things, interesting things, things that make you want to write. Character relationships, places to go, mini-conflicts that complicate things, potential side effects of the choices you already know your protagonist makes, etc.

And something might start peeking through the mess, a single thread that you can start tugging until an entire plotline emerges.

Ideas inspire more ideas, and even though parts of the story are still a murky mess to me, I have a stronger grasp on the story than I did before. And that means it’s even harder for me to let it go, something that will serve me well when the next round of doubt hits.

Stare into the abyss long enough, and it stares back into you.

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Protagonists and Their Authors

There’s a snide little comment that pops up in reviews and online criticism of novels now and again, about how the protagonist is “just a self-insert for the author.” It’s meant as a flaw, even grounds for dismissal. I remember a comment in a college English class in which a protagonist whose name started with the same letter and who was also in a band like the author was dismissed as “too much like the author.”

Are there ways an autobiographical protagonist can go wrong? The term “self-insert” comes from fanfiction, in which authors literally insert themselves into a story to interact with the characters. Overall, autobiographical protagonists can run the risk of being portrayed as some perfect wish fulfillment fantasy for the author.

But there’s a problem with the way I’ve seen this criticism used… It’s almost always directed as a critique at female authors. The above comment in my class? Female author. And when I was doing a bit of research for this post? The commenter listed several male authors as examples of autobiographical protagonists that were okay, and then sneered, “Just don’t be like Stephenie Meyer.”

The fact is that there are lots of autobiographical protagonists written by male authors that seem to get a free pass, even praise. Jonathan Safran Foer, Richard Powers, and Charlie Kaufman wrote themselves into their stories by giving their main characters their own name. James Joyce and Jack Kerouac both wrote novels about their own experiences (Portrait of an Artist as Young Man and On the Road, respectively). Stephen King almost always writes about writers, and Neil Gaiman used events from his own life to develop the unnamed protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And John Green used his high school experiences to write Looking for Alaska—and I once saw a speech of his where he talked about his own existential crisis about being remembered in college, and who does that sound like?

I’m sure there are female authors who have written autobiographical material that’s respected (probably because it’s literary, but that’s a whole other post)—but my point is that all of the examples above, as far as I can tell, never receive that same dismissive sneer.

When I wrote my project, I made a deliberate choice to write a protagonist who was very different from me (other than her name starting with the same letter as mine, truly a coincidence in that I liked the sound of it). And I had a lot of fun writing the parts of her personality that are so opposite of my own. It was a chance to live vicariously in a different life, rather than just replaying more of mine.

But as I work to develop my next project, I find myself automatically dismissing protagonists who are too close to me. Not because they wouldn’t be interesting to write about, or because they wouldn’t have a story to tell, but because I hear that snide comment in the ghostly voice of the internet—“too much like you.” Did the authors I listed above, whose works are praised and lauded, hear that voice?

Perhaps it’s telling that “self-insert” comes from fanfiction, which is primarily written by women. Perhaps it’s just yet another way of criticizing and limiting women’s actions. Perhaps it’s a legitimate critique of lazy writing that just happens to be more common among female authors.

Whatever the reason, I’m tired of letting imagined future criticism (especially sexist criticism) stop me from writing. I’m not necessarily going to go out and write an autobiography, which would probably be the most boring thing ever written, but I’m not going to cringe away from a protagonist who might share qualities with me (like the same number of siblings, or liking certain foods, or personality traits).

It’s fun to be someone else in my writing. But if it’s what I want to write, it’s okay to be myself, too.

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Story vs. Tropes

In a lot of circles of discussion, reviews and writing advice, there’s an intense awareness of tropes. Hardly a story goes by without some accusation of a trope being thrown at it: “Mary Sue,” “fridging,” “the chosen one,” etc.

Tropes are generally an indication that a story element or character has been used before, frequently enough to have been codified into a common set of signals. Whether by coincidence or deliberately drawing on archetypes of other stories, tropes are carried from story to story until they become trite and overused into cliché.

But if you set out to write a story without any tropes, you’ll find your path much harder than you might expect.

I’m not saying there isn’t an original story out there to be found, and plenty of writers able to find it. But I am not one of them; at least, not enough to avoid all tropes.

As you’re developing your story, pulling on the depths of your own subconscious to create a new thing from scratch, you might realize that the new thought you just had for your character’s backstory… is a trope. Or that the plot point you need to maneuver them to the climax… is a trope. And pretty soon everywhere you turn, no matter how hard you look, is either a trope—or not a good story.

There is a reason that tropes are so common. I’ve struggled with trying to develop protagonist backstories without falling into tropes of the “tragic backstory”—but there is a reason that’s a trope. A tragic backstory provides depth and motivation and emotional weight to a character, where a simple happy backstory provides no conflict, no motivation. Is it cliché to fridge the parents so that your tragic orphan can rise to the challenge? Yes, and if you can think of a new story, you should.

But if you can’t, or if you love the story in hand even when it’s familiar, then you should write it anyway. I’ve made the mistake many times of letting the “trope police” voice in my head grow too loud—maybe ignoring it might mean I get some snarky reviews (if I get published at all), but listening to it has only meant rejecting story after story, and stifling the ones that survive.

Tropes aren’t inherently bad—they are a part of our culture and our favorite stories for a reason. Don’t let trying to be original force you to be nothing.

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Micro-Editing, or Why Editing on a Computer is Easier

There comes a point, when you’ve read your work several times, and each sentence seems to work—that you feel like you’re done. And maybe you are.

But there’s one other stage of editing that can really only be done on a computer—something I call micro-editing (I’m still not sure on the name).

This is not about characters or plot points; it’s about language. But it’s not about any individual sentences, either—it’s about the language over the entire novel.

Especially in first person, and given a certain casual style, it’s incredibly easy to repeat things over and over and over again. And if there’s just enough space between the repetitions, you may not even realize you’re doing it. At least, not on the scale where it’s a problem.

But with a computer, you can “find” phrases throughout the entire document—and see in an instant just how many times you’ve used a word or phrase, and how frequently.

It’s best to show with some examples of phrases and words that sneak into first person and get overused:

“Found” = such as “I found myself doing this,” when it should just be, “I did this.”

“Saw” = “I saw this happen,” when it could be, “this happened.”

“Heard” = “I heard this happen” -> ”this happened.”

“Seem” = “I seemed to do/be this” -> “I did/was this.” (Also sneaks in with third person.)

“Felt” = “I felt this happening” -> ”this happened.”

It might be helpful to include “I” in searching the phrase, just to get at the more problematic uses.

Now, there are definitely instances where these are perfectly fine. If the feeling/seeing/hearing itself is part of the point, or if it defines a clear starting point for an action or event in relation to another, it can be a useful construction. And, for example, I’ve often used “found myself” or “felt” when I’m describing an unusual (often fantasy) experience where the character would naturally remark upon how different it is, or may not have the correct words for something. “Seem” is also a necessary word in these cases. Also, if they’re feeling a feeling, you probably have to use “felt.” (Changing “I felt angry” to “I was overcome with anger” may not be better—changing it to a ‘showing’ moment like “I clenched my fists” is better, but depending on context, may not be desired or applicable.)

Also, there are certain tics that stick to individual writers but may not be a general problem.

For me, apparently I have a mighty need to describe what everyone is looking at all the damn time. And where they’re stepping—back, beside each other, forward. A little of this is good, necessary even, but it can quickly become a parody of itself.

So I ran a search on words like “look,” “step,” and “mov” (to get “move” and “moving”). The latter I examined to see if I could find a better verb—could “moving back” be “stumbling,” etc. The first is easy to cut out when “I looked at this happening” can become “this happened.” The trick is to ask yourself if you really need to tell readers something is happening; for example, if you cut out the third example of “he said, looking at her” on a single page (to just “he said”), will anything really be lost? Most of the time, no.

Some words I can’t do a search on or I will lose my mind—“was,” for example. A great writer might eliminate “was” and its variants from the text entirely, and it would probably be a better and more active style for the effort. Maybe after a few rejections, I’ll be more willing to tackle this behemoth of an edit.

For now, I’m not demanding I eliminate every usage, or even every repetition. Since I am going for a casual style to suit my teenage main character, I’m not going to “thesaurus” every dull word into confusion and cluttered pretension. And sometimes there’s only so many ways to say things (for example, “look” is in so many phrases—“look up,” “look like,” “Look,…”, etc.).

But it’s a nice place to start when trying to cut out patterns and tics in your writing that don’t make it bad, but could be better.

At least, until you give up hope and throw your manuscript across the room. :)

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