What I learned by going round in circles

roundabout_signEver feel like you are going in circles? Sure you do. Everyone does, right?

I'm the type of writer known as an outliner, which means I like to plan my whole story in advance and make detailed notes on every scene and every step of the plot, start to finish. It's the engineer in me. It gives me a framework. Like a building is designed by an architect long before construction.

The worst feeling in the world is when you are halfway through writing your book and it all starts unravelling. You find flaws in the plot. It's just not working the way you intended. It doesn't sound believable. I'm on my third book now, so I'm no stranger to this mid-book gloom. It's probably not possible to plan something as complicated as a novel with multiple plotlines and numerous characters, each with goals and emotions, without missing something. I had this happen on both my other books and worked through the problems to "fix" my "broken" book. I hear similar stories from a lot of authors.

Something is very different on this new book. Three or four times I hit the wall, back-pedaled and rethought the plot, before going back and rewriting the first half of the story. Each time it ground to a screeching halt.

What's going on? Why is this book different? Why can't I get it right? Shouldn't it get easier with every book I write?

I believe this is what happens when you break new ground. I'm so far out of my comfort zone that I'm not even on Earth, let alone Kansas! 

After writing two fantasy novels and a few short stories, this book is different. Way different. This is a romance. Well… sort of. Technically it's a romantic fantasy rather than a hardcore no-holds-barred romance. Worldbuilding I can do, description I can do, tension, conflict, yep. Romantic and sexual tension and emotion? Not so much!

As I wrap up re-writing the first half for the fourth… or fifth time (who's counting?) I think I've got it right this time. I hope I've got it right. So what did I do wrong?

I've always believed that storytelling is organic, that the plot and events should come from the characters themselves, rather than the author coming up with some scenes and then cramming characters into little pidgeon holes. The secret to organic storytelling is what's known as Goals and Motivations (or some variation on those terms). Characters must logically perform an action to move the plot forward, not act just because that's what the plot requires. See the distinction? Ever read a bad book or watched a cheesy movie and you scream out loud that "she would never do that," or "it makes so sense that he wouldn't have gone to the police long ago?" That's forcing a character's actions to make the plot work.

Usually after coming up with a rough storyline of what I want to happen in the book, I go through every single scene and analyze it from the perspective of each character. What does he want? What is she hoping will happen? What would they logically do here? Goals and motivations, remember? The best, most memorable stories are when the antagonist's motivations are directly entangled with the protagonist's, such that they must outwit each other again and again, with the actions of each directly affecting the life and emotions of the other.

So what am I learning from the frustrations of my romance? In a hurry to get writing, I didn't pay enough attention to those goals and motivations. I analyzed the surface layer and believed I had captured their true desires, the essence of what they sought in life. But I hadn't dug deep enough. I should have known when Leo, one of the wise members of my writer group challenged me by asking direct questions about my heroine's needs and desires. My answers were weak. I told him that I knew enough to write, and that the details would come out as I became familiar with the character.

There's my mistake right there. That assumption is the inciting incident that led to so many rewrites.

Now I get it. I'm not sure why it took me so many rewrites, but finally I'd had enough and really delved deep into the psyche of my characters. What did they really want? Not what I thought they wanted. Not the shallow surface needs, but the deep emotional ones, which seem to play a much larger role in this story because it is a romance, because love and the betrayal of love are powerful emotions. Only then did it become clear to me why my plot had gone off the rails. Even better, I can now redesign the second half of the book with this deeper understanding to make it considerably stronger.

Many authors talk of their characters taking over, that the book writes itself through them. This is their own method for tapping in to the true goals and motivations, and listening to their characters real needs. I'd never understood what they meant until now. I've never had that happen to me. Perhaps because I'm an outliner and more rigid in my planning. I find it difficult to freeform write like that. On this book, I believe my characters were doing just that, but I wasn't listening. I knew best. I'd already figured out what they wanted earlier, hadn't I?

This might be the toughest, most frustrating book of my career, but I firmly believe I have moved forward as a writer. I have learned something fundamental. I hope that I will never make this mistake on any book in the future.

Going around in circles is painful. It instills fear, confusion, frustration. It's like circling the event horizon of a black hole, the noose drawing ever tighter. Am I overreacting? Think about times when you've gone round in circles. Hurts doesn't it?

Though my spaceship is veering away from the balack hole, leaving it behind, I must remain vigilant lest the invisible grip of its gravity grabs me again.I must pay careful attention to everything that my characters think about and every action they take. More importantly, why they take that action. I think the book is back on track again but I won't breathe a sigh of relief until it is done.

What horror stories do you have of going round in circles? Feel free to comment below.



What annoys me as a reader

As a writer, I’m fairly forgiving of books that I read; fully appreciative of the long hours, sweat, anguish, mood swings and sheer number of hours required to write a book. I hope that few readers take books for granted. Writing is hard work and takes a lot of time. Knowing this, if I spot flaws in a book, I am lenient and always willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

That said, here are my top 7 peeves as a reader:

  • Plot believability: Readers are smart. They will spot those huge holes in your plot. They will scream at the page “Why would she do that?” or “All he had to do was…”. The classic example of this is demonstrated in Hollywood B-movies where everyone in a haunted house splits up, or the girl walks into the dark cellar by herself without a light. If you can’t make your plot work without making the reader groan, then go and rework the plot. Deus ex Machina is the term that comes to mind here.
  • No info dumps please: Don’t be a lazy author. Please take the time to dribble your backstory and setting details as the book progresses. Work those details in naturally. Let the reader discover them bit by bit at a moment that fits the scene. Don’t vomit all that information at me in a ten page description. I don’t need to know the full history of every character the instant you introduce them. It’s far more interesting to learn about how he/she nearly drowned as a kid, at the point in the book where the adult character has to take a boat somewhere. Now you have tension and emotion. Similarly, just because you did weeks of research on horses, or armor, or the pine forests of Canada, that does not entitle you to info dump all that research: “Lumber mills in Canada began in 1721, when…” Yawn!
  • Don’t slack off in the middle: Most books I read, slump in the middle. Great start, big bang of an ending but yawn-yawn in the middle. Don’t stop the momentum. Don’t pad the middle. Go back and cut the slow stuff and make the middle more exciting. You can’t coast until the climactic ending. Put in more twists and turns, reveals, plot twists, etc. Make it fun.
  • Give me a neat ending: Don’t concentrate so much on the big bang ending that you come to an abrupt “The End”, leaving the reader wondering what happened to that poor guy left in the cell in Chapter 4, or the missing magical goat, or did those two minor characters hook up in the end? There should be an aftermath at the end to wind things down and tidy up some loose ends. You don’t have to answer every single thing, but resolve the major issues. This dovetails with “Deliver on your promise” (below). If you are writing a series then you clearly have more leeway to leave things unanswered. That said, as a reader, I like every book in a series to have a good clean ending just in case I don’t read the next book.
  • Cut the mundane: Every scene should advance the plot, or reveal character or setting. If not – chop it. Some authors put in mundanity for the sake of realism, but no, I don’t want to read about that uneventful ride through three kingdoms to get to the capital city, if nothing relevant happens. Don’t have two characters head-to-head in dialogue about the weather because “that’s what real people would do”. Don’t describe Mary putting on her makeup, having breakfast, getting into and starting her car unless it reveals something about her character. Just start with her racing out of the driveway, late for an important engagement.
  • Deliver on your promise: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” – Anton Chekhov. Don’t trick the reader by introducing the promise of an action or dramatic scene, and then it never happens. Of course red herrings are allowed, and plot twists occur, but they must make sense. If you don’t want the rifle to go off, then fine, but explain why not. (It’s a fake, it isn’t loaded, in the heat of the fight, the old man can’t reach it, etc.) There was a Hollywood movie (that I won’t name) that had a man chased by a stalker throughout the entire movie, finally going man to man at the end in the classic fight. Then, at the last minute, a cop rushes in and shoots the stalker. No! Don’t cheat me of the hero besting the stalker. If the cop is a valid part of the plot, then that’s ok, but foreshadow that, don’t just have the cop come out of nowhere.
  • Show don’t tell: This is one of the commonest author fails. So much so that every single writer has done it, and some continue to, to a greater or lesser degree. Give the reader something dramatic to read. “Mary was sad”. Ok, but such a lost opportunity. “Mary’s shoulders drooped, and she blinked back tears, chewing her lip to prevent it from trembling.” A little flowery, but you get the point.

I see these errors time and again in books that otherwise are fantastic reads. What are your pet peeves, dear reader?



Does a book need a villain?

Does a plot have to have an antagonist – a villain? Do you enjoy books or movies without a villain?

One of the classic plot lines for a story is a protagonist – the hero – defeating the antagonist. It’s the classic good vs. evil tale, and in most cases the hero is an underdog, someone thrust into the limelight against his or her will, and comes of age or defeats his/her fears or weaknesses during the process. Sometimes this is an iconic clash mano-a-mano, e.g. Superman fighting Zod, or Harry Potter vs. Valdemort, or Ahab vs. Moby Dick. Sometimes it is a series of encounters with minor villains, or henchmen, culminating in the big fight at the end, e.g. Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire, fighting his father, and finally defeating the Emperor, or almost every Bond movie where 007 battles and tricks his way through countless minions to confront the evil mastermind.

So do we need an antagonist? No. That said, without one, we need some other dramatic force for the hero to foil against, but this could be nature, the environment, his own fears, anything that provides tension and interest. Let’s look at some books/movies without an antagonist: 2010Wool (pre the shift trilogy), Gravity, Europa Report, Apollo 13, Deep Impact, Castaway, almost every disaster movie ever made, Flood, Ark (Both by Stephen Baxter), Love in the Time of Cholera, Contagion, Rain Man, Close Encounters. Here’s a post by David Brin.

Then there are those plots that on the face of it have an antagonist, but that isn’t the point of the movie/book. The clue here is that if you removed the villain(s) the plot would be almost entirely intact. 2001 for example: It’s a mission to find an alien artifact, the fact that HAL operates against the cast is incidental. Titanic: The husband is a villain, but the movie is about love found and lost on a sinking ship. Up by Pixar: Yes there’s a madman with an airship, but the movie is about discovering and exploring a lost world. If inclined, you could put many murder mysteries into this category. Certainly the murderer is the villain but is often only the inciting incident, and the plot is about the detective solving the clues.

My 3rd novel, that I am working on right now, falls into this category. Certainly some folks aim to stop my heroes, but the book doesn’t have a central villain. Actually, it sort of does, but you’ll have to read it to realize who it is.

What about you? Do you need a villain to hate?

[A previous post about antagonists]



Independence Day for my book!

Today, on the morning of July 4th, my book had its own Independence Day. My book has been freed. What am I prattling on about? Let me step back a week.

Last week I celebrated the completion of the first draft of my new dark fantasy novel. A major milestone, yay! I started preparing and collating my notes for all the changes and improvements to make in the second draft. The second draft is where the book really comes alive.

And this is where I ran into problems over the weekend. I began to find plot flaws, things I hadn’t noticed when writing it. In some places the reader has to make unreasonable intuitive leaps. I found situations where the hero or antagonist does things to make the plot work but that weren’t sensibly inherent to their character, or vice versa, they don’t do things that they ought to have. This usually comes about when you craft a book by plot points and not organically based upon a deep understanding of the relationships between all the characters, and their goals and motivations, internal and external.

Many authors are no doubt nodding their heads at this point, having gone through the same pains between first and second drafts. It’s typical to find such flaws, particularly in a book with a complex plot, but they’re all fixable. For me, the second draft is the most creative and fun (if frustrating) part of writing a book – this is where you mold 90,000+ words into a dramatic, tense and exciting plot.

But… I had another problem. Three secondary characters play a pivotal role in my story. They’re unusual characters, and I’ll give you a quick teaser by saying that at least one of the three is dead. I adored writing these characters and their inclusion is both fun and essential. What’s the problem? They never became embedded in the story at a fundamental level. I don’t like tenuous links

Back to the present day – morning of July 4th. I sat down and made a complete plot line on index cards and highlighted all my plot flaws and issues. I didn’t want to just shore them up; I wanted an over-arching way to fix them. And I found it. I now have a historical subplot that links my three important secondary characters both in the past and the present of the book. From that I systematically fixed my plot flaws in what I believe (read as hope!) is a consistent, organic way.

My book has been freed.

And to serve as the finale fireworks, my efforts this morning also built me a richer, deeper, more satisfying plot, one that should make my second draft significantly better than the first.

Happy 4th everyone!


When the World falls apart

Well, all right, not the real world, just the world I am currently writing about in my second book. “Oh,” you say, disregarding the whole thing, but for an author this is a big deal.

When it comes to planning, there are two types of authors: “Pansters”, so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They have a rough idea of their characters and where the plot is heading, but essentially make it up as they go along. Then there are “outliners” – my camp. We plan everything in advance, scene by scene, often in spreadsheets or on index cards. We carefully craft how the plot unfolds, the foreshadowing, who does what, when and to whom. It’s all there before we write, like directions from Google Maps.

Am I painting the impression that outliners are superior? *Laugh* Not at all. There is no correct way, and many authors take a hybrid approach. Actually, I envy the freedom that “pantsers” enjoy, and admire their ability to pull a book together on the fly. I’ve tried their approach and it didn’t work for me. I’m an engineer. I don’t think that way. Oh, all, right, I’m anal. It’s true!

So, here I am, happily half way through writing my current book, and bang! It falls apart. In a moment of total horror, I realize that the whole second half isn’t going to work – it will be confusing, unbelievable and probably very unsatisfying for the reader. Arg!

This happened on my first book, “Ocean of Dust“, too. I suspect that it happens to many authors. That first time, I panicked: “I can’t write!” “This book’s too hard,” “I should just give up and shred it all.” But I persevered, (obviously because my book is published *smile*) and went back to the drawing board. At the forefront of my mind was “what would entertain the reader?” I re-planned half the book, rewriting as little of the first half as possible.

What makes a book go off the rails like that? Many, many things. Plotting an entire book before you write a single word is a challenge, and that is the chief drawback of being an outliner. An outline is just a sequence of scenes with a few paragraphs of notes about each one. Sure, I can imagine the character’s goals and motivations at each stage, consider what they learn, how they adapt; but it’s just not possible to think of every angle.

As I actually write each scene, I’m in the moment with my characters. Suddenly, it might make more sense for them to do this rather than that. As the sentences flow, I consider that another idea is more entertaining that my current one; maybe it would add more tension, more drama. Setting this in an inn is clichéd, how about a street market? That’s silly that my hero could defeat the guards so easily, how about this…? All the time, I am making small deviations from my outline.

These minute deviations act like a Butterfly Effect. Before I know it, the ripples moving through my book have become tidal waves, waves strong enough to break future scenes, to rip a hole in the fabric of space itself! Well, a hole in my outline, anyway.

At the same time, I might be making changes that are more sweeping. There’s a flaw in one of my story-arcs, perhaps because my character did something different than my outline told him too. His act made sense three scenes ago when I was in his head. Sometimes my writing group or beta readers will hate a character or a scene. Maybe it was… shock, horror… boring!

When you think about it, almost nothing in life goes according to plan. It requires constant course changes in light of more recent information. Maybe those pantsers have something after all? Sometimes, you have to head in a different direction entirely. So why should writing a book be any different?

And it isn’t, of course. It just seems like a catastrophe because creative pursuits like writing tap more into the id and superego. An artist in any field will describe similar feelings of baring one’s soul to create their chosen form of art. We are no longer hiding behind our everyday mask, but bringing forth inner imaginations and showing them to the world. When this goes wrong, when my plot falls apart, it is a direct blow to my id.

Such are the challenges of writing a novel. It hurts to have hit one’s writing stride only to come to a screeching halt, and have to rethink everything. But it’s a great excuse for revisiting the plot in light of what has been written, and using all that extra knowledge to build a stronger book, a more exciting book, with a richer, more powerful second half. The caring author thinks not of the extra work, but delivering a better experience for the reader.


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