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What do you do if your computer crashes and you lose your entire novel?

That would be bad.

That would be horrible. 

That should never happen, but it does happen to some writers every year. And once a novel is lost, it’s lost.

The only solution is to travel back in time and backup your computer before your machine crashes. 

There may well be a computer crash coming in your future. It happens to most people at some point, if they live long enough. It’s not fun, but there are two levels of not-being-fun:

  • If your machine was backed up, you buy a new computer or get the old one repaired, and then you restore the machine from your backups, and you’re good to go. This will waste a day or two of your life and cause you some stress and cost you some money. But you won’t lose your novel.
  • If your machine was not backed up, you buy a new computer or get the old one repaired, and then you have to rewrite your novel from scratch, because you can’t restore it.

Does your future self have a backup system in place?

If the answer is yes, then you’re good. No need to read the rest of this article.

If the answer is no, then let’s pretend your future self has traveled back in time to right now, and let’s change your future. Let’s get you set up with an automatic backup system to protect your precious novel.

You have three main options for backing up your system:

  • An external hard drive that sits on your desk.
  • An online backup system that lives in “the cloud”.
  • An online syncing system that lives in “the cloud.”

All three of these are good options. I use all three, because they all have pluses and minuses. Your novel is important. Keep it safe every way you can.

Backing Up To An External Hard Drive

An external hard drive is a small box that sits on your desk. You connect it to your computer with a cable. Any modern computer comes installed with backup software that will constantly keep your backups up to date. Whenever you make changes on your computer, the software will save the new copy to your backup hard drive. And it will keep the old copy, so you can get back to the way it was before. 

These days, external hard drives are cheap and hold a lot of data. I recommend you get one that holds at least 1 TB (that’s a thousand gigabytes). It’s not much more money to get 2 TB or more. You can get a very good external hard drive with loads of memory in the $100 to $200 range. You can get a decent one for under $100. 

That’s not pocket change, of course. The question to ask is how much you’d be willing to pay to get back your novel if you suddenly lost it. If you’d be willing to pay more than the cost of an external hard drive, then get it. 

You can order a good external hard drive online. Once it comes, power it up and connect it to your computer. Generally, you can connect with a simple USB cable, but there are other options. Check to make sure you buy one that connects to your machine.

If you’re using a Mac, your computer will ask you if you want to use your new hard drive to backup your system using “Time Machine.” What is Time Machine? It’s Apple’s free built-in software to backup your machine. Click on Yes and your system will walk you through the setup process. Then it’ll start backing up your machine. Probably in less than an hour, it’ll be done and you’ll be all backed up.

After that, as long as your external hard drive is connected to your computer, Time Machine will backup any changes you make. So you’ll always be up to date, or very close.

If you’re running a Windows machine, you can learn exactly how to do backups by doing an online search for “how to backup to an external hard drive using windows.” Follow the instructions and you’ll soon be all backed up.

If the world were perfect, that would be all you need. The external hard drive would be always there with a backup of your entire sytem. 

But the world is not perfect. Your house could be destroyed by a fire, a tornado, a flood, an earthquake, or some other horrible disaster. That would destroy your computer and your external hard drive. A burglar could break in and steal them both.

So you need a second backup system. You want a backup that doesn’t live in your house on the same desk as your computer. 

Backing  Up to an Online Backup System

An online backup system lives somewhere else, in a secure place connected to the internet. It’s run by people who live and breathe security. Their job is to sell you a service—backing up the data on your computer to their secure computers. Using encryption and a password, so only you can read that data.

You just need to log in to their website, buy the service, and tell it what files to backup.

You’ll need to pay a monthly fee or an annual fee for this service, and that buys you some extra peace of mind. 

What online backup service should you use? That’s up to you. There are a number of good ones, but they change from time to time. I’d like this blog post to be relevant five years from now, so I recommend that you do an online search for “best online backup services.” Your search will probably show you several articles in computer magazines that compare the various services. PC Magazine usually runs an article once a year that compares the best current services. Read that article or a similar one and make your choice.

The advantage of an online backup service is that it’s very secure. It’s much less likely to be destroyed than your external hard drive.

The disadvantage of an online backup service is that it is usually much slower than an external hard drive. If you have lots of data on your system and if your internet service is typical in speed, it might take days or weeks for your system to get fully backed up. And it would probably take a few days to fully restore your system if you ever need to. 

So that’s why I recommend using both an external hard drive (Plan A) and an online storage service (Plan B). That way, you get high speed and high security.

And because I’m cautious, I also recommend Plan C, which is to sync your computer online.

Syncing Your Computer Online

Many people these days have more than one computer. They might have a machine at the office and a machine at home and maybe a light travel laptop. 

And it’s handy to have those machines all able to see the same data. An online syncing system lets you do that. Then you can work on your novel at work, at home, on the road, or wherever. As you make changes on one machine, your changes get stored online and then they get updated to your other machines. Again, this is secure, so only you can see your data.

If one of your computers has to go to the shop for repairs, you can continue working on your novel from any of your other machines. Very handy when you need it.

If you have a Mac, Apple has made it very simple to sync everything in your Documents folder and Desktop folder using their iCloud service. To learn how, do an online search for “how to use icloud for documents and desktop” and follow the directions. 

There are other online syncing services that are popular for both Windows and Macs: DropBox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, etc. Do an online search and choose the one you like best.

You might ask how an online syncing service is different from an online backup service.

An online syncing service is geared towards syncing the current version of your data between several machines. It may also keep older versions of your files, but that’s not the main focus.

An online backup service is geared towards backing up the data of a single machine, along with previous versions of the data on that machine, in a way that makes it easy to restore files that have been lost. (Of course, you should verify that your online backup service actually saves all the previous versions back to the beginning. If a service doesn’t do that, I wouldn’t want to use it.)

So there you have it. Plan A is an external hard drive. Plan B is an online backup service. Plan C is an online syncing service. I use all three because my data is valuable to me. You get to decide which you’ll use, based on your own needs.

Homework
  • If your computer crashed today and you lost all your data, how much would you pay to get it back? (If it was possible to get it back.)
  • Do you have an external hard drive for backups?
  • Do you have an online backup system?
  • Do you have an online syncing system?
  • What actions will you take to keep your data safe?
One Last Thought

I’ve been writing a column in my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine about once a year for the last several years on the subject of setting up automated backups. I know this gets repetitive, and it’s also scary to think about.

But every single year, I hear from a few people who email me to say that they took my advice, and then a few months later their computer crashed, and then they restored everything.

And they write to thank me for saving their data.

I hope very much your machine won’t crash, but I hope even more that you’ll be prepared. It takes a little effort today, but it’ll pay off for the rest of your life. And you’ll sleep better knowing your data is secure.

The post Crash-Proofing Your Novel appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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From time to time, my author friends get tired of the endless treadmill of marketing their work on social media and start asking if it’s worth doing. 

I wrote an article on this very subject awhile back. The title was “What’s Social Media Good For?” and I published it in the November 2016 issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. This blog post is a light revision of the article I wrote then. 

Let’s start by defining the problem we’re trying to solve.

The problem is to figure out whether it’s worth putting time, money, and energy into marketing on social media.

Remember that social media is widely alleged to be a powerful marketing tool for novelists. (Some even claim it’s THE most powerful marketing tool.)

But is this claim true? How would you know if social media is a powerful marketing tool? What does it mean to say that something is a powerful marketing tool?

Let’s take these questions in reverse order.

What is a Powerful Marketing Tool?

Marketing is about selling your books. If social media is a powerful marketing tool, then using social media in the right way would get you lots of sales.

This isn’t complicated. Marketing leads to sales. A powerful marketing tool leads to strong sales.

How Do You Recognize a Powerful Marketing Tool?

You know you have a powerful marketing tool when you can trace the connection from your marketing to the sales numbers it generates.

So if you can’t trace the connection, then your marketing is not very powerful. And if you can trace the connection, it is. Simple as that.

Whenever I put things this way, I quickly hear from people claiming that the world doesn’t work that way, because you can’t trace the connections between marketing and sales, because things are complicated, because … um, because.

My response is that if you step on the gas pedal and you don’t feel the car accelerate even a little, that wasn’t the gas pedal you stepped on. 

Which sounds like I’m raining on the parade. But I don’t think it’s raining on the parade to say that a parade is not a parade if nobody can detect it.

How Powerful is Social Media?

Let’s look at a case study done several years ago by Darren Rowse at ProBlogger.com. Darren is one of the best bloggers in the world and he had a new product to launch. He used several different marketing tools and standard tracking methods to trace the connection between his marketing and his sales. You can read his article here.

Darren found that only 3% of his sales came from all his combined social media marketing efforts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google Plus. That is not a typo. 3%. Three percent. You may be wondering how it could only be three percent? Where did all the rest of his sales come from? Here’s where:

  • 3% came from Darren’s affiliates—people who actively promoted his products in exchange for a percentage of sales.
  • 7% came from Darren’s blog posts. That is shockingly low, considering that Darren is one of the most famous and successful bloggers in the world.
  • 87% of Darren’s sales came from email Darren sent out. 

That’s right. Darren made the overwhelming majority of his money from email, even though email was just a small part of his marketing efforts.

In Darren’s blog post where he reported these results, he faced up to the obvious question: If social media doesn’t generate sales, then what’s it good for?

You can read his article to see what he thinks on the matter. I have an opinion which I’ll give you a bit further down in this article.

But first a little marketing theory so we have the vocabulary we need.

Basic Marketing Theory

Any working marketing strategy needs to achieve three things. If you do all three of these things well, you succeed. If you fail on any one of these three things, you fail. Here are the three phases of marketing:

  1. Attract
  2. Engage
  3. Convert

“Attract” means that you find a way to make people learn that you exist. There are 7 billion people on the planet. Most of them have never heard of you.

“Engage” means that you provide enough information to the people you attracted so that they know you’re a person worth listening to.

“Convert” means that you motivate somebody you have attracted and engaged to finally pull out their credit card and buy your stuff.

You can’t convert people you haven’t engaged.

You can’t engage people you haven’t attracted.

Attraction, engagement, and conversion can happen very quickly. It’s possible to take somebody through all three of these phases in 5 minutes, as long as you do them in the right order and do them well.

What Social Media is For

Now let’s look at what Darren measured in his experiment. Darren was exclusively measuring conversion. He emailed, blogged, tweeted, FaceBooked, and more—all in an attempt to get people to pull out their credit cards and buy his product. He found that email worked best for conversion, by a huge margin.

And if you look at Darren’s explanation of what he thinks social media is for, it all comes down to attracting and engaging. Darren is a smart guy. I think he’s right.

So if you’re going to use social media, then focus your efforts on those two things.

  1. Attract people to your website, where they can sign up for your email list.
  2. Engage them so they know you’re a person worth listening to.

That’s what social media is for.

And by the way, you can measure attraction. You can measure engagement. You can measure conversion.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that these three things don’t ADD.

They multiply, because they happen in sequence:

Marketing Success = Attraction x Engagement x Conversion.

So if any of these is zero, then your marketing amounts to zero.

And if all of them are maxed out, then your marketing efforts are maxed out.

Homework
  1. What’s your marketing strategy? What do you do to attract? What do you do to engage? What do you do to convert?
  2. How are you measuring your attraction? How are you measuring your engagement? How are you measuring your conversions?
  3. Which of these phases is working well for you and which isn’t?

The post Social Media Marketing and Your Novel appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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So you’re planning your first novel, and suddenly it seems like you’ve chewed all the sugar out of the gum. You felt so excited about this novel, but after taking several shots at the opening scenes, the whole thing seems to have run out of steam. What do you do?

Bailee posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I think I have a story that I want to write. This would be my first time writing a book, and I’m at a pretty big loss for words. I find myself wrestling with multiple opening chapters and losing steam when trying to plan it out. It’s unbelievably frustrating to me. Would you say its best to dive right into a novel or should I have a solid outline before beginning?

Randy sez: There are a couple of possible reasons that I can think of for why your novel is losing steam, Bailee. I can’t tell which is the reason, so I’ll cover them both and hope that one of them rings a bell for you.

You might be losing steam because:

  • You’ve gotten stuck on rewriting the first few scenes over and over again. 
  • You’ve tried to plan out your whole novel, when your brain isn’t wired that way.

Let’s look at those two possibilities in more depth.

Revision Hell

Writer sometimes talk about “revision hell”—a bad place where you can get stuck forever.

Note that there is also a “revision heaven” where you put the pot on simmer for a good long time and keep doing revisions over and over while the story turns into soup. I’ve done that for a project that needed it, and I didn’t mind it a bit, because I thought it made the story better.

You can tell whether you’re in revision heaven or revision hell by asking whether the story is getting better. (And also, whether you’re enjoying it.)

Bailee, it’s possible you’re in revision hell. New writers often get caught in revision hell by writing a few scenes, then getting them critiqued, then rewriting the scenes, then getting them critiqued again, and doing that over and over forever. 

That way lies eternal torment. That road guarantees to make your novel lose steam.

If you’re in revision hell, then here’s how to escape. Write your scenes and take them in for critique, but then leave the scenes alone while you write the next scenes in your novel, applying what you just learned from the critique to the new scenes. Promise yourself not to revise any scenes until you finish the first draft of the novel.

When you do this, you make forward progress in your story, and you become a better writer, both at the same time. And your novel doesn’t lose steam.

Planning for Pantsers

Some writers just naturally write by the seat of their pants, without any kind of outline or character preparation. We call these writers “seat-of-the-pants” writers (SOTPs for short), or sometimes just “pantsers.” Their brains are wired to write without planning. Many, many great novelists write this way. If that’s the way your brain is wired, then write that way.

Other writers just naturally need to plan out the story before they write it. Knowing where they’re going gives them the feeling of security they need in order to write the next scene, and the next, and the next. Many, many great novelists write this way. If that’s the way your brain is wired, then write that way. My wildly popular Snowflake Method is one variation on this theme, but there are others.

But what happens if a pantser tries to plan their novel?

Bad things happen. I’ve seen it numerous times. 

The pantser will quickly get bored trying to plan their novel. They feel like the story isn’t fun anymore. And they’re right. Planning isn’t fun for pantsers. Planning is loads of fun for planners. 

Bailee, it’s possible you’re a pantser trying to be a planner. That will take the steam out of your novel every time.

If that’s the case, then the solution is simple. Stop planning and just type the novel. 

Here’s one indicator that can help you decide if you’re a planner or a pantser. Imagine that some authority figure tells you: “Throw away all your plans and just type the novel.” 

How do you feel when you hear those words?

  • If that feels liberating to you, then you’re probably a pantser.
  • If that feels terrifying to you, then you’re probably a planner.
Other Possible Causes

There are probably other possible reasons why Bailee might be losing steam. I can’t think of any right now, but I’m sure my Loyal Blog Readers can. If you’ve got some ideas on what’s causing Bailee’s problem, leave a comment here. 

Writing fiction should be fun. If it’s not fun, then something’s wrong. 

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post What If Your Novel is Losing Steam? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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What if you don’t know how to plot fiction? Is that a skill you’re just born with? Are you doomed if you don’t have it? Or can you learn?

Francisca posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, thank you for helping aspiring writers. I decided to try to write short stories and I realized I had original ideas and a nice writing style, but my problem is I am not good at telling stories (never have been). So, I can imagine and describe atmosphere, dialogues, characters and all, but I do not know how to develop a plot as a sequence of events, twists, good endings and the like. My question: am I doomed or this is something that can be learned at a creative writing course?

Thank you in advance for your reply!

Best wishes!

Randy sez: I’ll keep this short. You’re not doomed, Francisca. You can learn how to plot fiction.

When I started writing fiction, I wasn’t good at any of those things you mentioned—atmosphere, dialogue, characters, or how to plot fiction. But I learned. You can too. All you need is a good book, and I can point you in the right direction. I’ll do that at the bottom of this post.

But first, a short digression.

One Book That Changed My Life

When I was in seventh grade, right near the end of spring semester, I wandered into a bookstore, planning to buy a book on how to be a better debater. But I came out with a book on chess. Don’t ask how that happened. An impulse decision. 

That book changed my life.

At the time, I knew the rules of chess, more or less. But I had no idea how to play well. 

However, the book I bought was an absolute masterpiece. The title was Winning Chess: How to See Three Moves Ahead, by Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld. 

I took that book home and worked through it—21 chapters that explained each of the most common tactics in chess—the pin, the knight fork, the double attack, discovered attack, discovered check, etc. And each chapter had a number of example problems to solve.

It took me most of the summer after seventh grade to work through that book. By the time I finished it, I could beat all my friends. When I went back to school in the fall, I could beat everyone I played. Every time. 

I had no delusions of being a grandmaster. But that one book made me a much much much stronger player. 

The Power of How-To Books

That’s the power of the right book in the right hands at the right time. I still have that book. It’s in the bookcase right above my chair. I still think it’s an amazing book.

But it wasn’t just the book. I’ll bet most people who’ve read that book didn’t get the results I did. Because I put a whole summer into mastering the book. I worked really hard. And in short order, I learned a new skill. 

The right book plus some concentrated hard work can do wonders for you. That’s the larger lesson I learned. That’s why I say the book changed my life. It showed me that skill is not something you’re born with.

Skill is something you can learn. 

All you need is the right book, and the work ethic to master that book.

How I Learned How to Plot Fiction

When I started writing fiction, I knew the rules of spelling and grammar and punctuation. But I had no idea how to write fiction well.

Then I met a new friend at a writing conference, and he told me about a book he’d been studying, Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. 

So I bought the book and spent months mastering it. 

That book changed my life.

From that book, I learned how to write action, dialogue, and interior monologue, and how to put them together. I learned about scenes and sequels. I learned about beginning, and middle, and end. I learned how to plot fiction and write a compelling story. 

There’s more to fiction than just those things. But action and dialogue and interior monologue are core. Scenes and sequels are core. Beginning, middle, and end are core. Once you know how to do those things, you have a really solid foundation. And there are other books to learn the other aspects of fiction writing. 

Why I Teach Fiction

Not long after I published my first novel, I was asked to teach at a local writing conference. I decided to teach on the core things I learned from Dwight Swain.

I’ve been teaching those core things ever since. And every time I teach, I learn something new. Or I relearn something I’d forgotten. Teaching fiction makes me a better writer. And it’s fun to teach. So that’s why I do it.

I’ve often said that most of what I teach is stuff I first learned from Dwight Swain. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I also teach stuff I learned from other writers—James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks, Orson Scott Card, and plenty of others. And I’ve certainly invented a few things along the way.

But it’s just a fact that nobody has made a bigger impact on me than Dwight Swain. Because Swain taught me the fundamentals of plotting fiction, which is essential. And that’s the very thing Francisca asked about above.

So in my recommendations of books below, Professor Swain comes first, followed by three of my own books that in various ways interpret and expand on Swain’s work.

Four Recommended Books

Here now are four books that will help you in various ways to learn how to plot your fiction:

Dwight Swain’s classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Chapters 3 and 4 will teach you how to write scenes. 

Also my 2009 book, Writing Fiction for Dummies. This is a broad overview of everything I knew about fiction writing when I published the book ten years ago. 

And my 2014 book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. This covers my wildly popular Snowflake Method of designing a novel. If your issues are getting the big picture right for your story, this book will teach you how it’s done.

And my 2018 book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. This focuses on Step 9 of the Snowflake Method, in which you design the structure of your scene. If your problem is that your scenes aren’t working, this is the book for you.

There are of course many books on plotting, but these are the ones I’m most familiar with, so I’m sticking with these.

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post Can You Learn How to Plot Fiction? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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After writing an amazing first chaper in your novel, is it okay to switch gears in chapter two? What’s allowed and what’s not allowed? Will agents freak out, for example, if you switch from present tense to past tense? Or slow the story down with a flashback?

Joe posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Dear Mr. Ingermanson,

I’m writing a novel in first person, present tense. It starts off with a bang, an exciting chapter. That chapter ends with the main character (who is in a terrible spot), hiding in a room, where memories start coming back to him of how he got there. 

For the next two and a half chapters, he recalls the events that led up to that point, but it’s written past tense. Near the end of the fourth chapter his reminiscing ends, with him coming back full circle to where chapter one ended. And the story continues from there, kicking back into present tense for rest of the story.

Can I do this? Is this acceptable? If not, what would you recommend?

It all seems pretty clear when I read through it, but I”m concerned that agents (or readers, for that matter) might have an issue with it. What do you say?

Thanks so much for your help.

Randy sez: My general rule is that you can do anything you want in your novel, as long as it works. 

So the real issue is whether this works, which is hard to answer without actually seeing Joe’s chapters.

Starting Fast Is Good

But I’m going to make a guess, based on the clues in Joe’s question. I may guess wrong, but that’s the nature of the beast when you don’t have complete information.

Joe’s novel starts out with a bang. That’s good, if he’s writing an adventure novel or thriller or something similar. That first chapter is a promise to the reader of what will come in the rest of the novel.

It sounds like the next two and a half chapters are not a bang. It appears that they’re a flashback, and a very long flashback. That can be okay, as long as the flashback is as exciting as the first chapter. 

But it can be a problem if the flashback isn’t exciting.

Why? What’s the problem?

The First Chapter is a Promise

The problem is that a slow flashback wouldn’t be delivering on the promise made in chapter one.

Chapter one of your story tells your reader that your novel is a certain kind of book. It’s a promise that all or most of your chapters are going to be “just like the first one, only different.”

It sounds like Joe’s flashback in chapter two breaks that promise. And so does chapter three and most of chapter four.

But when you break a promise to the reader that early in the book, and for that long, you’re very likely to lose a lot of readers.

Present Tense and Past Tense

Let’s be clear that there’s no real problem with switching from present tense to past tense and back again. Many readers won’t even notice. Readers that notice won’t really care, as long as the story engages them. 

The only problem is in making a radical change in the pace of the story so early in the book, before the reader has committed to the story. (Later in the book, if you want to briefly change the pace to give the reader a breather, you’re probably on safe ground.)

As for how agents will respond to this, they’ll be tuned in to how readers will like it. If agents think this kind of transition is going to lose readers, they’ll probably reject the manuscript, or at least ask the author to fix it.

Of course, if Joe’s chapter two is as exciting as his chapter one, then there’s no problem, and everything’s gravy.

Chapter Two is Crucial

I’ll repeat myself. I don’t know for sure that Joe’s manuscript makes an abrupt change of pace in chapter two. I have only partial information, and that’s what I’m going on. 

There are no rules in fiction, but there are rules of thumb. 

And one of the big rules of thumb is to make a promise in chapter one, and then deliver on that promise throughout the rest of your story.

So chapter two is crucial. And once you get chapter two right, chapter three is crucial. And once you get chapter three right … I think you see the pattern.

Consistency matters. 

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post Getting Chapter Two Right appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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What if you’re too creative? What if you never finish anything because you keep getting new ideas that excite you more than the one you’re working on? What if you’re a good starter, but not a strong finisher? 

Elizabeth posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy! I had a question I hoped you could help me with. I love stories, and I have many ideas that I believe I could write into books. Problem is that I tend to hop back and forth on which one to write. I start on the one I’m interested in, make some progress on character info and the story, then I get interested in another story idea and want to write that. Often I never even start writing the actual book.

Clearly you can see that isn’t very productive. I know it, and often those ideas just sit half formed. It’s not that they couldn’t be good stories. I give my characters fears, lies to believe, a dark moment in their past, and have some idea for how the story would go. I just lose interest. Do you have that problem? If so what do you do? 

I’m now trying to write a shorter story around 30 to 50 pages. I think that might help make it easier to finish something. What do you think? Thanks a million! God Bless!

Randy sez: Yes, losing focus on a story is a problem. No, it’s not one I suffer with. (I tend to go the opposite way and hang on to stories for very long times.) We all have our tendencies, and not all of them are productive. So how would I solve Elizabeth’s problem?

I can think of three directions she might go. I don’t know her exact life situation, so I can’t guess which of these might work best. Maybe none of them will work for her. But listing them out here may give her another idea. And I suspect this is an issue that a lot of my Loyal Blog Readers might have.

So for those of you who aren’t strong finishers, here are three suggestions.

Write Shorter

Elizabeth has already suggested the idea of writing shorter, and it’s one I rather like.

If it’s hard to stay focused on a long project of several hundred pages, it might be easier to stay the course on a short project of a few dozen pages.

You might take this even further and work on flash fiction of a few hundred words up to a thousand words or so. You can write a piece of flash fiction, edit it, and polish it to perfection in an hour or two. That’s really not enough time to get bored.

Juggle Your Stories

It might also work to give yourself permission to be working on several stories at once. The idea here is that you always work on the one you have energy for. Then when that starts to feel stale, switch to another for a while.

This works if the problem is boredom, rather than an unwillingness to finish. I have a co-worker who likes to have numerous tasks on his pile. He’s constantly switching from one to another. Wouldn’t work for me, but it works for him.

But if the problem is that you really don’t do well with finishing projects, this isn’t going to work. You’ll just juggle more and more and more, without ever crossing the line on any of them.

Write With a Partner

I’ve worked with a coauthor, and it worked out well for both of us. All authors have strengths and weaknesses. If you can find one with strengths and weaknesses that complement yours, then this might be the ticket.

If you’re a weak finisher, then what you’re looking for here is somebody who is a strong finisher and can drag you across the line, kicking and screaming.

Why would anyone want to team up with you if they’re such a great finisher? Maybe they’re not great at starting. In that case, you’d be good at getting them revved up, and they’d take care of getting you wrapped up.

In Summary

So those are three possible solutions to the problem. There may be more, but let’s summarize the ones we’ve discussed:

  • Try writing shorter. 
  • Try juggling multiple stories. 
  • Try writing with a strong finisher as a partner.

And I suspect my Loyal Blog Readers can think of more ideas. What do you say, readers? Any ideas for Elizabeth? What’s worked for you?

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post What If You’re Not a Strong Finisher? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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What’s the best way to learn the craft of fiction writing? Should you get a book of exercises and work through it? Or should you just start writing?

Scott posted this question on my  “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, freshman writer here. My question is around practicing craft. Do you recommend freshman looking to get started pick up a beginners guide to writing and work through the examples and practice writing prompts or start writing a novel if they have an idea? I have a beginners book that I am working through but I also have some novel ideas I am itching to get started on. Any recommendations would be helpful. Thanks Scott

Randy sez: Good question, Scott. There are any number of ways to learn the craft of fiction writing, but they all boil down to three core elements, which I’ll discuss below.

What’s a Freshman Writer?

But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of words. Scott refers to himself as a “freshman writer.” He doesn’t mean he’s in his first year of high school.

Scott is referring to a classic article on this website, Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! In that article, I explain the four basic phases of getting published. Writers who are just starting out are called “freshman,” and their main goal is to develop their craft.

Why craft? Because that’s the foundation of everything else. If you write well, it’s “easy” to get traditionally published. (Meaning that it’s possible.) If you don’t write well, it’s “hard” to get traditionally published. (Meaning that you need to be a celebrity.)

Of course, you don’t have to publish traditionally. These days, anyone can publish their work independently, whether they have good craft or not. But craft still matters. If you write well, it’s “easy” to earn some money as an indie author. (Meaning that it’s possible.) If you don’t write well, it’s “hard” to earn money as an indie author. (Meaning that you will only make money if you find some way to game the system.)

So then, the big question is this: how does a freshman writer learn the craft of fiction writing?

There are three main ways:

  • Write the kind of book you want to sell.
  • Read books or take courses or otherwise study the craft of writing from experts.
  • Get your work critiqued by someone who understands craft AND knows how to give a critique.

Which of these is most important?

I have no idea. They’re all essential. Which of the four tires on your car is most important?

Let’s look at how each of these works.

Learning Your Craft by Writing

If you want to be a good swimmer, you need to swim. A lot. Reading the theory of swimming will help, yes. Getting a coach will help, yes. But you need to get in the water and do it.

Same with writing. If you want to be a good writer, you need to write. A lot.

You need to write the kind of fiction you want to publish. Every successful writer I know agrees with this. 

Write and write and write.

By writing fiction, you develop the emotional muscles to move your reader emotively. And that’s what fiction is mostly about.

Make a writing schedule and stick to it. If you’re a beginner, this schedule might be: “Spend 10 minutes writing every day immediately after breakfast.” If you’re a professional novelist, your schedule might be: “Write 2000 words of new copy every day before lunch. No lunch until the 2000 words are written. No exceptions.”

You might think 10 minutes is too little. Actually, no, it’s fine for a beginner. The goal here is not to work yourself to exhaustion. The goal is to create a habit that will carry you through days of low motivation. Once you’ve built the habit, you can ramp up the time.

You might think professional writers can’t possibly get by on only 2000 words per day. Actually, they can. Stephen King writes about 2000 words per day, pretty much every day. That works out to over 700,000 words in a year, which is several large novels or a lot of smaller works. 

In fact, 2000 words per day is too aggressive for many writers. I know professional writers who do fine with a quota of 1000 words per day. 

Again, doing it every day is the thing that wins you gold medals.

Learning Your Craft From Books and Courses

I learned how to play chess when I was 8 years old. I learned it from a neighbor kid, and he had very little clue on how to play well, which meant that neither did I.

The summer I was 12, I bought a book on chess and worked through it. And that book was dynamite. I learned about a dozen rules of thumb that turned me from a terrible player into a very decent player. When I went back to school in the fall, I could beat every kid in the chess club.

So books have power.

Same thing happened when I started writing fiction. I just started writing without any instruction at all. I had some native talent, but I had no idea what I was doing. Then I bought Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer and worked through it. I applied it to my writing. That book was dynamite too.

In a few months, I began writing much, much better. 

Eventually, I started going to writing conferences and taking courses with published novelists. Every time I did, I learned new stuff. 

Not long after that, I got my first book published.

I continue to study the craft. Because books have power.

That’s one reason I write books on how to write fiction. Because nothing I do in this life will have more influence than the books I write. 

Learning Your Craft by Getting Critiqued

There is nothing harder than getting your writing critiqued. I still remember my terror the first time I went to a critique group. And I still remember how I couldn’t sleep that night after getting critiqued.

Getting critiqued is painful. 

Getting critiqued is necessary. You don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t be objective about your own writing. 

I took a swim class once, many years ago. I had no delusions of grandeur. I just wanted to learn how to swim a bit better. On the first day, the teacher had each person in the class swim once across the pool. In front of a video camera.

The next class, the teacher showed us all every video and did an instant critique on each swimmer. I remember each person saying, “What? I’m doing that? No wonder I’m a lousy swimmer.” 

I couldn’t figure out how they could not know what they were doing wrong.

Then I saw the video of myself swimming, and the teacher explained what I was doing wrong. And I couldn’t believe I was doing that. No wonder I was a lousy swimmer.

An objective critique matters. An objective critique by someone who knows how to critique is pure gold.

Back to Scott’s Question

Now we can get back to Scott’s question. Should he continue working through the book? Or should he start writing one of those ideas burning a hole in his brain?

I hope the answer is now clear. 

Writing is essential, so make it a habit to write every day.

Training is essential, so study good books on craft and master them. 

But there’s one thing Scott didn’t ask about.

Critique is essential, so find someone who can look at your work and give you a little guidance.

A freshman who does those three things will soon move up to being a sophomore. 

And then a junior.

And then a senior.

And then an author.

Most of the authors I know are still doing those three things regularly. 

For extra credit, pass along what you learn to other writers. I’ve discovered that I don’t really know a subject until I’ve tried to teach it. 

Have fun!

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post How Do You Learn the Craft of Writing Fiction? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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Are you writing a novel with multiple protagonists? Have you been told that’s a no-no? Are you worried that it’s not going to work? Is there some rule against multiple protagonists?

Dawn posted this question on my  “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

You’ve mentioned that few stories have more than one protagonist. Are these types of stories not well received? My first novel has two protagonist who unbeknownst to them are each others antagonist and is written in first person from each of them.

In a nutshell it follows the same timeline of two characters who are traveling separately. The chapters switch every 3-5 chapters from one to the other so the reader doesn’t fall behind on what is happening with either. I tested it with a few people as two separate books because of the length (358 pages in 5.5×8) but those who read them felt a strong attachment with the first character they read and immediately saw the second as the antagonist which is not the intent. They said the combined book allowed them to feel for each character in a stronger emotional bond. I was also told that switching characters in shorter time intervals was easier to follow than when I had Part 1 Character 1 with a longer time frame then went to Part 2 Character 2. In that format the readers felt they had to restart the story that they were already emotionally involved in and found themselves again looking for the first character.

The first person narrative as opposed to 3rd person, which I attempted, was intended to focus on the characters internal struggle and I’ve been told feels like you found an old journal and you’re reading their deepest fears, thoughts and needs.

Its been well received so far. I’m actually on my second book that my readers are asking for and looking to publish my first in a POD, but would love some feedback.

Thank you

Randy sez: My first rule of writing is that you can write your novel any way you want, as long as it works. And the novel “works” if it delivers a powerful emotional experience to your reader.

What’s a Protagonist?

I would define a protagonist as the lead character that you want your reader to emotionally bond with and root for. (Other people might define a protagonist differently, but that’s my working definition.) 

By that definition, it sounds to me that you don’t have two protagonists, Dawn, you have none. (If you’re watching the Super Bowl, and you’re rooting for both teams, then you aren’t really rooting for either. Part of the fun of watching a football game is going all in for one team. I can remember a Super Bowl in which my current hometown team played my former hometown team. That was not win-win, it was lose-lose.)

If you connect with a character, you want him or her to succeed. You want to cheer for your character’s victories and moan over their defeats. If you now connect with a second character who wants the first one to lose, then you no longer have a yardstick for what’s good and bad. What’s good for the first is bad for the second, so how are you supposed to feel?

Now I’m sure that a very skilled novelist could write a novel with multiple lead characters and could somehow move the reader to keep switching allegiance from one to the other. But that seems to me to be a lot harder than writing a novel with one clear protagonist. 

That seems to me to be a case of 1 + 1 = 1/2.

Are Multiple Protagonists Well Received?

I don’t know that anyone’s done any kind of study on how well received novels are that have “multiple protagonists” (which, by my definition, are novels without a protagonist.) 

Invariably, when this kind of question comes up, I hear from objectors who say, “But Author X wrote a novel with multiple protagonists and sold millions!” And invariably, counter-objectors respond, “Yes, but you’re not Author X.” (In some cases, Author X actually wrote a novel with multiple viewpoint characters, not multiple protagonists. Some recent blog posts on this are: Multiple Viewpoint Characters  and How Many Viewpoint Characters in Your Novel? and How Do You Decide Who Your Protagonist Is?  

I don’t think that I’m good enough to write a novel with “multiple protagonists”. I suspect there aren’t many authors who are.

And that’s why writing teachers generally advise writers to stick with one protagonist. 

But I’ll repeat myself: you can write your novel any way you want, as long as it works. Have fun!

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post Can You Have Multiple Protagonists? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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Advanced Fiction Writing by Randy As Admin - 7M ago

If you finished your novel during NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—you may be wondering what comes next. How do you tackle revising your novel?

Amanda posted this question on my  “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

So, NaNoWriMo is done. I won! Yay!

I now have a fairly “complete” story of about 96,000 words that is … a big mess! Where do I start with revisions? And how do I keep from feeling overwhelmed?

Randy sez: First off, Amanda, congratulations on winning NaNoWriMo! And you won very handily. To win, you only had to write 50,000 words and you did almost twice that, 96,000. That’s a very productive month!

Your question is a common one—how to tackle revising your novel. There are several ways to do that, just as there are several ways to generate your first draft. 

First, a quick note on how to revise your novel without feeling overwhelmed. My general strategy is this:

  1. Make a written document that tells what changes I’m going to make without actually making any changes. This gives me a chance to think strategically about my revisions. 
  2. Once I have a written plan for my revisions, I plunge in and actually start making changes. But I do this on a copy of the first draft, so I can always get back to the original if the revisions turn out bad.

Now before we talk about how to revise your novel, let’s review some basics on how we write first drafts, because there are a number of ways to do that. The method you choose will affect how you later tackle revisions.

Quick Review of Creative Paradigms

In my book Writing Fiction for Dummies, I talked about “creative paradigms”—various methods that novelists use to write the first draft of their novel. There are many creative paradigms that work. Here are four common creative paradigms that I identified in my book:

  • Seat Of The Pants—you just sit down and type your first draft without planning your story and without editing anything. You keep pressing forward until the first draft is done.
  • Edit As You Go—you sit down and type your first draft without planning, but you edit each page and/or each scene many times before moving on to the next.
  • The Snowflake Method—you use my wildly popular 10-step Snowflake Method of planning your story before you write it.
  • Outlining—you create a long and detailed synopsis (sometimes up to 100 pages). Then you write the draft following your outline.

There’s no one best method of writing a first draft that works for everybody. I think it’s worth learning how other authors do it, because that can give you ideas on how to do it yourself. But ultimately, you get to choose the method that works best for you. If it works for you, then nobody has the right to tell you you’re “doing it wrong.”

When writing the first draft, you are mainly wearing your creative hat. But once the first draft is done, it’s time to put on your editing hat. So how do you do that?

You Have Options

Just as there’s no one best method of creating your first draft that works for everybody, I suspect there’s no one best method of revising your novel that works for everyone. 

I would bet there are a number of editing paradigms that writers use. I can think of at least two, and I’m sure there are many others.

The two editing paradigms I can think of are closely related to my Snowflake Method creative paradigm:

  • Work through the Snowflake Method in light of everything you learned by writing the first draft. Make a list of revisions you’ll make. I’d use this method to revise a first draft that is “not too messy”—that is, the story structure is pretty clear and the characters are reasonably consistent.
  • Work backwards through the first nine steps of the Snowflake Method, again making a list of revisions you plan to make. I’d use this method to revise a first draft that is “very messy”—this is, the story structure is very unclear and the characters are not yet well fleshed-out.

I’ll say a few words about each of these in the next two sections. 

Revising Your Novel Using the Snowflake Method

If the large-scale structure of your story is pretty clear, then I suspect you’d do well by working through the Snowflake Method, making a list as you go of things you want to change. (If you already used the Snowflake Method earlier to write your first draft, then this should be quick. Just make a copy of the original Snowflake document and keep a running list of the changes you want to make to the story.) I’ve done this myself, and it’s worked well for me. Here’s what I do:

I start with my One-Sentence Summary that I came up with before I wrote the first draft. Can I improve it, now that I’ve written the story? And does my revised One-Sentence Summary suggest ways to improve the story on the next draft? 

Then I look at the One-Paragram Summary. This breaks down into a Three-Act Structure, with three major disasters as turning points. Can I refine my One-Paragraph Summary in light of the actual story I wrote? And after refining my One-Paragraph Sumary, can I see things in my first draft that need to change in the next?

I continue on like this through the first nine steps of the Snowflake Method. At each step, I try to tweak my original Snowflake document in light of the actual first draft that I wrote. And after tweaking the document, I ask if the tweaks I just made suggest any changes that I need to make in the next draft. 

Revising Your Novel Using the Reverse Snowflake Method

If the large-scale structure of your story is not clear at all, then you might do better by figuring out your story structure, working backwards through the steps of the Snowflake. 

Start with the actual manuscript you wrote for your first draft. Analyze each scene using the tools in my book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. Is the scene Proactive or Reactive? What are the main parts of the scene? Does the scene work emotively? Can you summarize this scene in a single sentence? If you do this for every scene of your novel, you will have completed Steps 9 and then 8 of the Snowflake Method. 

Read through the manuscript, taking notes on all your characters. What’s their physical description? What is their age? What do you know about them, their family, their friends, etc? What drives them? You can create a separate dossier for each character in your novel. By the time you finish this read-through, you’ll have a complete “character bible” for all your main characters. This is Step 7 of the Snowflake Method. 

Go back to your list of scenes and construct a long synopsis (4 or 5 pages) in which you cover the high points of all the scenes. When you complete this, you’ll have finished Step 6 of the Snowflake Method. 

Think about each of your characters, focusing on their backstory and how that affects them in your story. Write half a page up to a full page on each of your main characters. Or do an imaginary interview with each main character. When you’ve done all this, you’ll have finished Step 5 of the Snowflake Method. 

Try to trim down your long synopsis into a 1-page synopsis that just covers the high points. It’s OK to not cover every single scene. Try to capture what’s going on in the main groups of scenes. This is Step 4 of the Snowflake Method. 

Write a short summary of each of your characters, focusing on their role in the story and their story goal, their ambition, and their values. This is a caricature of your characters where you capture only the high points. When you finish, you’ll have done Step 3 of the Snowflake Method. 

Summarize your story in one paragraph. Write a sentence that sets up the background of the story. Then one sentence for each of three main acts in your story. Then one sentence explaining how it ends. This is Step 2 of the Snowflake Method. 

Write a One-Sentence Summary of your story that you can use as your “elevator pitch”—in case you ever find yourself on an elevator with an editor or agent. (This does actually happen sometimes.) When you’ve got a good One-Sentence Summary, you’ve completed Step 1 of the Snowflake Method.

Now that you’ve worked through all the steps backwards, zip through them all again from Step 1 to Step 9, making notes on what changes to make. What should you add to your story? What should you remove? What other revisions should you make?

I’ve never used this Reverse Snowflake Method to revise a novel. But I’ve used essentially this method to take a huge set of research notes and turn it into the storyline for a historical novel. (The problem in writing a historical novel is that history is not structured like a story, so you have to find your plot and your character motivations from a mishmash of dull historical texts. This is extremely hard.)

Actually Editing Your Manuscript

When you’ve made a list of the changes you want to make in revising your novel, make a copy of your first draft and rename it as your second draft. That way you aren’t editing the original, and if you don’t like your edits, you can always get back to the original.

Then get to work putting in the changes you listed. Start with the first scene in your new scene list. If it’s a brand new scene, then write it from scratch. If it’s an old scene that you’ve marked to delete, then delete it. Otherwise, make the changes that you decided to make. 

Keep going from the first scene to the last, following your revision plan. When you finish, you should now have a second draft that’s way better than your first. It may not be perfect, but it’s better. Repeat the process as many times as you need.

Every writer is different, and it may be that the methods I’ve described above don’t click with you. That’s okay. But I hope they give you some ideas so you can invent your own action plan for revising your novel. Good luck, and have fun!

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post Revising Your Novel appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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How many viewpoint characters should you have in your novel?  Is it okay to just have one? Is there such a thing as too many? How do you decide?

Moriah posted this question on my  “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m writing a novel with 6 main characters. I’m having trouble with head hopping and what POV and how many POV’s I should use for the story to work and flow properly. It’s a fantasy book. 3 of the characters are friends in the beginning and are in most science together and it mainly follows them, but the other 3 characters don’t appear till later and aren’t there for every scene but they are still hugely important to the story. There’s one character I could write from first person and make the protagonist but the other characters input are to important. How do you think I should write this without messing it up.

Randy sez: It sounds like you have a choice of anywhere from 1 to 6 viewpoint characters in your novel. I don’t think 1 is too few. I don’t think 6 is too many. I typically have 3 or 4 viewpoint characters in my novels, but I’ve gone up to 5, and my current work in progress has more. 

Review of Viewpoint Characters

It won’t hurt to do a little review here, to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Typically, a novel has one primary character (the protagonist) that the main story is about. (Yes, you can have more than one protagonist, but most novels don’t.)

But your novel is made up of many scenes, and each scene should work as a story in its own right. Therefore, each scene will typically have one main character that the scene is about. And that main character isn’t necessarily the protagonist of the novel. The main character for each scene is usually called the “viewpoint character” (or the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character”).

For more on viewpoint characters and why you need them, see chapter 4 of my book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method

Choosing the Viewpoint Character

So how do you choose the viewpoint character for each scene?

That depends. You may decide that your novel is only going to have one viewpoint character. In that case, there’s no decision to make for the scenes. You’ll use the same one every time. This has some advantages in giving your reader a consistent experience. But the disadvantage is that every scene has to have that viewpoint character, which means he or she really has to get around.

Most novels have multiple viewpoint characters. These will typically include the protagonist, friends of the protagonist, enemies of the protagonist, and possibly others. 

A good rule of thumb for each scene is to choose the viewpoint character to be the person with the most to lose in the scene. This is a rule of thumb. It’s not always the best choice, but it’s often a very good choice. So consider that character first. Then ask if there’s a better choice.

My guiding principle is to try to give the reader a powerful emotional experience in every scene. So the critical issue is which viewpoint character will do that best.

But How Many Viewpoint Characters?

Now we can circle back to Moriah’s question. How many viewpoint characters should you have in your novel?

That’s really up to you. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll give one of your viewpoint characters more air-time than anyone else. (Usually, this is the protagonist, but sometimes the protagonist of a novel isn’t a viewpoint character. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the protagonist is Holmes and the viewpoint character is usually Watson.) Whoever you choose to get the most air-time, they need to have a strong voice.

Usually there will be a couple of other characters who also get a lot of air-time, but less than the leader. If you have three viewpoint characters, for example, you might give one 40% of the scenes and the other two 30%. That’s a nice, balanced split, but there’s nothing magical about it. 

If you have a largish number of viewpoint characters (5 or more), then some of them are not going to get many scenes. At least one of them will get no more than 20% of the scenes. 

And if you have a LOT of viewpoint characters (15 or more), then some of them might be walk-on characters who only star in one scene. That’s okay. That can work. If you need that many to make the novel work, then do it.

My opinion is that the number of viewpoint characters you choose is probably not going to mess up your novel. What makes or breaks your novel is the quality of the viewpoint characters—how well each scene works. If you make sure that every scene has a really solid viewpoint character, and if your main story has a solid protagonist, then the count of viewpoint characters is not a major issue.

Don’t get carried away, of course. If your novel has 100 scenes and 100 viewpoint characters, that’s going to take some extra skill to make sure that the main story hangs together as a story.

But for practical purposes, 1 viewpoint character is as good as 3, which is as good as 6. 

It’s not something to sweat too much over.

Got a Question for My Blog?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

The post How Many Viewpoint Characters in Your Novel? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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