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Is your current novel in a quagmire? Are you wondering if maybe it’s hopeless? Do you think it might be time to move on? How do know when you should drop your story?

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

How do you know when to drop/kill a project/book/story?

I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel and I’ve been realizing there’s a lot of problems with the plot. For instance, I don’t quite have a clearly defined second or even third disaster (maybe, I have ideas for them in my first snowflake of the story but that was a year ago and I’ve long since tossed it into storage), and my subplots are all hopelessly tangled with the main thread and need some untangling/focus. It doesn’t help that I’m probably being way too ambitious with this by making it the first book in a series despite it being my first original writing project.

I’m very much a seat-of-the-pants writer (seeing as how snowflake didn’t really help identify any of my problems specifically, only highlighted how overall unprepared I was to actually make a snowflake), and more of the story is unfolding as I force myself to progress and come up with new scenes/plotpoints/what-have-you. I’ve been working on this (mostly inconsistently, to be honest) for three years now so this project is pretty close to my heart. However, I’m wondering if I should change gears, drop this project for now, and move on to a less ambitious, more “traditionally designed” (but less thought about) project (ex. a techno-magic fantasy tragedy of Little Red and/or a slower, character-driven, semi-post-apocalyptic fantasy).

(The series I’m working on now is an action/adventure (hopefully, I’m working on adding more action) character-driven fantasy with an overarching theme of pain/suffering leading to hope. The setting and target audience is admittedly less defined, but I’m hoping it all works out as I go.)

Since I rambled on A LOT, I’ll reiterate: How do you know when to stop working on a story? (And some guidelines on why you should?)

Randy sez: OK, that’s a lot of question there. The core issue is how you know when you should drop your story. That’s an issue every writer has faced.

Reframing the Question

First let me point out that dropping a story isn’t necessarily permanent. You can set it aside on your “Someday Maybe” list and come back to it later.

But let me turn things around a bit, Elin. It sounds to me like you’ve lost enthusiasm for this story, at least for right now. It’s a big ambitious project. This may be a case of trying to do calculus when you haven’t learned algebra yet.

So let’s reframe the question this way: How do you know when you should keep working on a story?

I can think of several reasons you might want to forge ahead with a story, even if it’s causing you some pain:

  • This story is burning a hole in your gut. If you don’t finish this story, you’ll be thinking about it all the time and wishing you were working on it. (This is an emotive reason to keep working.)
  • This story is going slow right now, and it feels like you’re in the swamp, up to your ears in alligators, but you know perfectly well that this is the usual slog-through-the-middle that happens with every story that was ever written. You have good reason to think that with a bit more slogging, you’ll come to dry land and produce a story you can be proud of. (This is an intellectual reason to keep working.)
  • This story is one you already sold or know you can sell, and it really is a doable project, even if you’re not in love with it. But it will bring you money, and you need money. (This is a financial reason to keep working.)
  • This story is ___________________. (Fill in the blank with any other reason you can think of that would make it a good sound decision to push ahead to the finish line right now.)
Why Continue on This Project?

Now the issue I see for you, Elin, is that it looks like your heart’s not really in this story right now. Maybe at some point in the future, your heart will be back in it, but at the moment, it looks like you don’t have an emotive reason to keep going.

You also appear to have some doubts about whether you currently have the skills to finish it. You’re thinking that you might build those skills by working on a less ambitious project. And I would bet you will.

And also, it sounds like you haven’t sold this project, so there’s no major financial incentive to carry on.

So the question I’d ask is whether you can think of any other compelling reason for keeping on working on this project.

A Break is Not Forever

If you can’t think of a good strong reason to keep going, then I think it makes sense to write some notes to yourself about the project so you can pick it up a year from now, or five years, or even twenty.

It’s OK to put it on the shelf for a while. (I set aside a big project back in the mid 90s. It’s still not time to pick that project up again, but someday I’d like to. In the meantime, I’ve finished a number of other novels and published them and my skill set is quite a lot bigger now.)

Then go work on something else. Work on less ambitious novels that will help you learn the craft better. (Nobody ever masters the craft of writing, but at a certain point, you can say, “I’m good enough to tackle this particular project.”)

It’s good to be ambitious and work on hard projects. But one thing at a time. Everest should not be the first mountain you try to climb.

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 When Should You Drop Your Story? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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What if the main character in your novel has a secret you don’t want your reader to know? How do you handle that? Is it cheating to keep secrets from your reader?

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

I’m 70,000 words into my first novel. The main character is written in first person, other characters are in third person. The main character has murdered someone and the novel opens with him going to the funeral, but I don’t want to reveal he’s the killer until near the end. How do I conceal this as the main character will have been thinking about this murder from, literally, the first chapter.

Randy sez: That’s a tough one.

When you put your reader inside the head of a character, you’re obligated to tell the truth. And what do we mean by the truth?

You Owe Your Reader the Whole Truth

Witnesses in court are required to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Readers expect no less when they get inside the head of a character in a novel.

A little terminology before we go on: In most scenes, the author chooses one character as the “viewpoint character” (also called the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character.”) We’ll use “POV character” here.

The key point is that for the whole scene, the reader experiences life from inside the head of the POV character.

  • The reader sees what the POV character sees.
  • The reader hears what the POV character hears.
  • The reader knows what the POV character knows.
  • Most importantly for our purposes here, the reader thinks what the POV character thinks.

Your reader has paid for you to put her inside the head of your POV characters. You owe it to your reader to do that. If you don’t do your job, your reader can vote with her feet—she can walk away from your story. If she does, then it’s probably the last time she’ll pay you. That’s why you owe your reader the truth—because she paid for it.

Personally, I hate it when I read a novel and learn that the author has withheld essential information that the POV character knows. I still remember the rage I felt when I was reading a World War II novel once and discovered right near the end that one of the main characters, an American commando, was actually a Nazi sleeper agent. And he never once thought about this during scenes when he was the POV character.

When it’s natural for a character to be thinking about some thing (“Oh, by the way, I killed that guy in the casket.”), then it just seems wrong for the character to not think about it.

Are there any ways out of this?

Yes, there are a few, but they’re not easy and they normally don’t last very long. Here are a few ways it can be done:

  • Befuddle the POV character
  • Distract the POV character
  • Interrupt the POV character
How to Befuddle a POV Character

Your POV character may not be a very bright cookie. Or he may be drunk. Or he may heavily medicated. Or he may be suffering from the effects of a whack to the head. Or he may be reeling from some emotional trauma. Or he may be, in some other way, an unreliable narrator.

In any of these cases, it’s plausible that he might not be capable of thinking the thought you don’t want your reader to hear. But you have to work hard for him to be incapable for a long time.

How to Distract a POV Character

Your POV character may be fighting for his life. Or he may be obsessed with some other thought. Or he may be responding to a series of intellectual challenges that are maxing out his brain. If your POV character is able to compartmentalize his mind enough that he can fully focus on something else, and there’s a very good reason to focus on that something else, then he’ll do it.

These are possible ways he might not get around to thinking the thought you don’t want your reader to hear.

Interrupt the POV Character

Your POV character may be just on the verge of thinking the thought you don’t want your reader to hear when there’s an interruption of some kind. Maybe an explosion draws everyone’s attention over there. Or maybe some other character interrupts to say something important.

This can work, although an interruption generally doesn’t last very long, so you need to be near the end of the scene when you play this trick.

Don’t Cheat the Reader

These tricks work, but they’re tricks. It’s very possible the reader will resent them. You don’t want your reader to resent you. She paid for an honest story to be told. Tell an honest story. If you need to have a POV character withhold the truth from your reader, you’d better have a very good reason—a reason your reader will agree to. And you’d better come clean at the first opportunity.

If you fool your reader once, shame on you.

You won’t get a second chance.

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 Keep Secrets From Your Reader? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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What if some scenes in your novel are long and some are short? What do you do about that? Is there some standard scene length or chapter length for your novel? How do you control the chapter lengths in your novel?

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

Hey Randy! My problem is consistency in chapter length. Some of my chapters are long, and some are very short. Sometimes I merge a few chapters together, but I feel like this isn’t the best way to improve. I’ve been working on adding more subtle detains about the surroundings of my characters in hopes of making those short chapters longer, but other than that I’m not sure what else to do.

Randy sez: Your question is about chapters but the underlying question is about scenes.

Let’s remember that there’s nothing fundamental about a chapter. Chapters just provide convenient mental milestones that let the reader know she’s making progress through your story.

Think Scenes, Not Chapters

The scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. (For more info on writing scenes, see my article Writing the Perfect Scene.)

A chapter is just a bag of scenes. So your scenes control your chapters. If your chapters are variable in length, it’s because your scenes are variable in length.

And there’s nothing wrong with scenes varying in length. That’s just normal. You can write a scene in a hundred words, sometimes. Or you can write a scene that goes on for three or four thousand words, sometimes.

My personal average is about a thousand words per scene, but that’s just me. Other authors write shorter or longer, on average.

You get to decide the typical length of your scene. A lot depends on the pace of your story and on its complexity. So your story and your personal storytelling style will control the length of your scene.

Creating Chapters From Scenes

You also get to decide the typical length of a chapter, but that decision is much more arbitrary. Every chapter has to contain at least one scene, but aside from that, your chapters can be whatever length you feel like.

So how do you go about deciding what your chapter length should be? I do it by deciding how many chapters I want in my novel. Typically, I have four Parts in my novel, and I’m looking to write about ten chapters in each Part. That works out to about forty chapters for the entire novel, plus or minus.

Doing the math, that means that if I write a novel with 100,000 words, then each chapter will have about 2500 words, which works out to two and a half scenes.

Of course, you can’t have two and a half scenes in a chapter. A scene is fundamental. Scenes are the atoms of fiction.

So how do I assign scenes to chapters? I just glop together enough scenes to get a total close to 2500 words, and I call that a chapter. If I go under by 1000 words, that’s OK. Some chapters are short. If I go over by 500 words, that’s OK too.

I prefer to go under, rather than over, because the end of the chapter is a milestone for my reader, and I want my readers to feel like they’re burning through the chapters.

More Thoughts on Chapters

I prefer to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, which can be either a setback or a decision. Either way, it keeps the reader hungry, and a hungry reader is a reader who wants to read one more chapter, even if it’s 3 AM.

Maddie, you suggested that you can try to fill out a chapter by adding more description to your scenes. That will certainly make your chapters longer, but it doesn’t add more story, and readers are reading for story, not for description.

So if you’ve got a short chapter, either add in another scene, or just live with the short chapter. It’s not a crime to have a short chapter. James Patterson writes nothing but short chapters, and he seems to be selling okay.

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 Controlling Chapter Lengths in Your Novel appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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How do you write a flashback without confusing your reader? Aren’t flashbacks bad? Don’t they screw up your story? Or can they make your story better?

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

How can I write a flashback scene of my protagonist without the reader getting lost?Thanks in advance

Randy sez: Knowing how to write a flashback is crucial for every novelist. But knowing why to write a flashback may be even more important.

Aren’t Flashbacks Bad?

Some people say that flashbacks are bad and you shouldn’t write them. It’s worth asking why anyone would say that.

A flashback is a scene that you show in your story in real-time, but which happened in the past. The fact that it’s shown in real-time is good. You’re not showing it in narrative summary or exposition. You’re playing it out like a movie in your reader’s head.

So where’s the harm? Why would anyone complain about that?

The only real issue is that a flashback is part of the back-story of your novel. So you’re stopping your front-story cold so you can tell some other story that happened in the past.

That’s a problem if your reader doesn’t yet care about the front-story. Then you run the risk of boring your reader. She might close your book. She might never pick it up again. Then she loses out on finishing your story. And you lose out on a reader.

But if your reader does care about the front-story, it’s a whole different game. When your reader cares about the front-story, she’s willing to stay with you through a bit of back-story, as long as it’s directly relevant to the front-story.

And back-story is often very relevant to your front-story. Your characters don’t just plop into the world on page 1 without any history. They’ve spent their whole lives preparing to live this story you’re telling. They’ve learned things. They’ve built up a personality. And they’ve been damaged by other people.

Any of those could be relevant to your front-story.

A flashback gives you, the author, the opportunity to let your reader experience that back-story in the same way that your character can experience it at any time—as a memory.

So a flashback is good, and it’s often the very best way to inject that back-story into your reader’s brain.

But you just want to be careful to make sure your reader is truly hooked on the front-story before you spring a flashback on her. A common rule of thumb is to not show any backstory in the first fifty pages of your novel, although you can violate that rule if you’re good enough.

So How Do You Write That Flashback?

A flashback has three parts:

  • The segue out of the present and into the past
  • The backstory scene itself
  • The segue out of the backstory and into the present

Those two segues are the key to solving the problem Alexa asked about. You’ll confuse your reader for sure if you just switch straight to the backstory with no explanation.

You have a lot of options on how to do that segue. In the Harry Potter books, for example, Harry experiences a number of flashbacks involving other characters when he looks into the Pensieve, a magical device that holds people’s memories. The Pensieve is the link on the way into the flashback and on the way back out. That was a very effective way to do it.

The more usual way to do it is to have the character begin remembering something. Then have a scene break and switch to showing the memory as a flashback. At the end of the flashback, have another scene break and return to the character.

As an example, here’s how Ken Follett starts a flashback in The Man From St. Petersburg, a historical suspense novel about a Russian anarchist in the summer of 1914 who’s been sent to London to kill a Russian envoy. He knows that the envoy is negotiating an alliance between England and Russia that will drag Mother Russia into the coming war, and he wants to prevent it.

Our hero is Feliks, and we meet him about twenty pages into the novel. He’s on a train to London, admiring the view. Feliks has loads of attitude, and we pick up that attitude quickly. And then we segue smoothly into a flashback from a few weeks earlier:

And in Geneva, he had made the decision which brought him to England. He recalled the meeting. He had almost missed it…

There’s a scene break, and then the flashback begins with the phrase: He almost missed the meeting.

The flashback tells about a meeting of anarchists who’ve learned that Prince Orlov has been sent to England to negotiate an alliance that will get millions of Russian peasants killed in a stupid and senseless war. The meeting goes on for quite a while, with all sorts of suggestions. At the end of it, Feliks tells the group he knows how to prevent the war. He’s going to London and he’s going to kill Orlov.

The scene ends, and in the next chapter, Feliks is in London. Ken Follett doesn’t even need to segue back to the present, because the end of the chapter signals the end of the flashback. There’s no confusion.

The key phrase is the two-sentence transition just before the flashback: He recalled the meeting. He had almost missed it…

Those two sentences, plus the scene break, tell the reader to expect a flashback.

This flashback is very recent and it’s critical to the story. It explains why Feliks has come to London. And it radically reorients the story…

The first twenty pages of the novel have introduced us to Lord Walden, the Englishman who will be hosting Prince Orlov and negotiating for the English. So up till the point where we meet Feliks, we’ve had a rather conventional story about a dull political negotiation. Once we meet Feliks and see his flashback, we have a much more interesting story, because we see that this dull political negotiation is about to get millions of innocent people killed. And the only man who can stop it is a Russian anarchist. That’s a nice twist and it makes a great story. It becomes an even better story when you learn that Feliks knows the wife of Lord Walden. Or rather, he knew her when she was a young and wild Russian aristocrat growing up in St. Petersburg. He knew her very, very well, until the night he was arrested and she was married off to an Englishman. All of which the reader will learn through a series of vivid flashbacks.

So if you need a flashback, it’s simple: Write a sentence or two of transition, then do a scene break, then write the flashback, and then do another scene break. If you need another short transition to get back into the present, write one.

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 to Write a Flashback appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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Ever wondered if you’ve got any talent for writing fiction? Do you angst on that so much, it prevents you from writing? Is there a way to decide once and for all whether you have talent?

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

Who decides if you have talent?

I’m an avid reader and love to write, but I that means nothing if the people who are reading my short stories are just stroking my ego just so I’ll stroke theirs. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” I have read so many very bad to mediocre, and only a few truly talented, self-published authors. It causes me to wonder where do I fit inside the scale I mentioned above, and am I one of those who only thinkd they can write because their peers and critics are telling them they can. I’m quite serious, it’s not like I have no confidence, it’s more like… understanding there is a possibility I’m also egotistical to think I’m all that and a bag of chips, and should self-publish. Which now days seems to be the norm, and is fast becoming a trend, for anyone thinking they have something everyone has a need to hear. Thank you for your time.

Randy sez: This is a tough question and it’s one most writers deal with at some point in their lives. Early on in my writing career, I had a lot of angst over whether I was any good at writing fiction. That’s normal.

Does Talent Exist?

Some authors believe there’s no such thing as talent; they think all that exists is skill. For them, everybody starts out not knowing how to write. Then as a writer learns the craft, eventually she has enough skills to get published.

My own thinking is that talent seems to exist in every other field I can think of, so it probably exists in writing. There are people who have great genes for long-distance running, and people who don’t. There are people who have great genes for math, and people who don’t. Pick just about anything that requires skill and you’ll find that some people are genetically gifted to learn that skill, and some people aren’t.

I suspect that part of the genetic gift of writing fiction is having the desire to write. So if you want to write fiction, that’s some sort of evidence that you might have a talent for it. (It’s not proof, but it does carry some weight.)

Talent is Not Skill

But nobody, no matter how talented, is born skilled. They’re born with the ability to become skilled. They don’t actually become skilled until they work at it, and that takes time.

Even if you’re not amazingly talented, you can still develop skills by working at your writing.

So if you want my advice, I’d say to do the things you love doing. If you love writing, then write. If you love playing the guitar, play the guitar. If you love playing basketball, play basketball. You may or may not get obscenely rich from any of these things. The odds are long on that, but it can happen, and you might as well take a shot.

In any event, money isn’t everything, so if writing fiction makes you happy, then why wouldn’t you want to write fiction?

And anyway, writing talent might not actually be measurable.

But writing skill is.

Who Can Tell If You Have Writing Skill?

If you want to get your level of writing skill evaluated, that’s easy. Go to a writing conference and get your work critiqued by a few writers. Many conferences give you a chance to meet one-on-one with a professional writer for fifteen minutes or so. You may think fifteen minutes isn’t enough time for someone to judge your writing. Sure it is, if you don’t spend the whole time talking. If you just give the writer a few pages of your work.

Most professional writers (or editors or agents) can tell in about three paragraphs what your level of skill is. They may, out of politeness, keep reading for a whole five pages, but they know pretty quickly. Even if they don’t read your category of fiction or understand your category, they can still tell good writing from bad. And they can tell great writing from good.

It may be a bit of a trick to get them to tell you the unvarnished truth. Anyone who’s ever worked at a critique table knows how easily crushed a writer is, so they may be hesitant to say, “This piece of writing is awful.”

They will not be hesitant at all to say, “This piece of writing is amazing,” if it really is amazing.

Most writing is neither dreadful nor amazing. I’ve looked at hundreds of writing samples at conferences over the years, and most of it has been pretty average. (It would be kind of strange if most of it was far above average, right?)

How To Get a Truthful Evaluation

It might help to read my article on this web site titled, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” which talks about the journey all published authors go through. Everyone starts out as a “freshman,” with lots of enthusiam but no real skill. Writers who persist will eventually move up to being “sophomores,” and then after more work, they’ll become “juniors,” and if they continue learning the craft, eventually they’ll become “seniors.” And then, when they least expect it, they graduate. I don’t know of any exceptions to this writer’s journey.

So if you ask a professional writer or an agent or an editor for a critique, you might also ask them to tell you if they think you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior. Even if they haven’t read my article, they’ll instantly get what you’re asking. And when you phrase the question that way, it takes the pressure off them.

It’s easy for them to say, “You’re a freshman, but here are three things you could do to become a sophomore.” That’s way less painful than saying, “Your writing is terrible.” And it’s much more helpful to you.

Writing conferences cost money, and you don’t absolutely have to go to one to find somebody who can give you a critique. Conferences are the easiest place to do that, and they’ll typically have dozens of competent people who could tell you where you stand. And conferences are geared to doing that, so it’s an easy environment to ask. (Most writers and agents and editors are busy and can’t simply do evaluations on demand—otherwise, they’d never get anything done. But at conferences, that’s the reason they came—to spend a few days doing nothing but helping writers.)

In the meantime, focus on learning the skills of fiction writing, and don’t sweat too much the question of talent. If you look at my Randy Recommends page on this site, you’ll find links to a number of books that I believe are helpful to writers in learning the skill of fiction writing.

Have fun!

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 Who Decides if a Writer has Talent? appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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Today I’ll answer two different readers who’ve asked questions on writing a novel in first person.

Crystal’s Question

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

Hi, I am currently trying to write a first person chapter book and it’s going well, but I feel like I’m using “I” too much when I’m writing. Is it okay to use “I” over and over again?

Randy sez: Yes, that’s pretty much your only option.

Read a good novel written in first person. For example, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. The protagonist uses “I” all over the place. Did you notice? Neither did I. The pronoun “I” is pretty much invisible. Use it whenever you need it. If you don’t need it, don’t use it.

Deb’s Question

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

If I am writing in 1st person for my main protagonist, what do I do when that person isn’t in a particular chapter. Thank you.

Randy sez: That’s a problem, but only if it you let it be a problem. In scenes where your protagonist is missing, you’ll have to choose a different character to be your point-of-view character. (Because every scene needs a POV character.) The question is really how you handle those other POV characters—should you write them in first-person or third-person? You don’t want to confuse your reader.

Most novels are written in third person. Most of them have multiple characters who serve as POV characters in different scenes. Nobody gets confused by this.

So what prevents you from having more than one first-person POV character in different scenes of your novel?

Nothing.

If you do this, you need some way to let the reader know who the POV character is for each scene. An easy way to do that is to make a subtitle for each scene showing the name of the POV character. For example, “Luke” or “Leia” or “Darth Vader.” Center this in its own line and italicize it if that looks better to you. Then the reader knows who “I” is for every scene.

Or you can write in first-person in scenes where your protagonist is the POV character, and you can switch to third-person in scenes having other POV characters. Diana Gabaldon did that in her novel Dragonfly in Amber, and nobody got confused.

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 Writing a Novel in First Person appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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How do you write a novel when you feel like you have too many options and you don’t know which direction to take?

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

Hey Randy, thanks a lot for the Snowflake Method, you are an angel sent from above! I have finally understood the importance of story structure and am eager to apply it to my WIP. However, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with stage 2 because to sumarize the main events in 5 sentences I first need to know what those events are. And unfortunally I suffer from a terrible issue called too many options. I think I might have writer’s commitment issues. I found this is a common trait in my writing, even my undergraduate thesis suffered from it (thankfully I managed to finish that!). Have you got any advice for that? It would save my life.

Randy sez: Thanks, Julia, I’m not often called an angel, and have sometimes been called the opposite, so I appreciate that.

The problem you’re having is a good problem to have—too many options. It means you’ve got a lot of creativity going, and now you’re having trouble settling down and making a decision.

A Review of Three-Act Structure

And you’re stuck on Step 2 of the Snowflake Method. Let’s review that step, just to bring all my blog readers onto the same page. The Snowflake Method is a 10-step method for getting your first draft down on paper. Step 1 is to write a single sentence that summarizes your story.

Step 2 is to expand that sentence out to a full paragraph with five sentences that sketch out the Three-Act Structure of your story, as follows:

  • Sentence 1 gives a high-level overview of your lead character and your story world.
  • Sentence 2 tells what happens in your first act, ending with a major disaster that will force your lead character to commmit to the story.
  • Sentence 3 tells what happens in the first half of the second act, ending with a second major disaster that forces your lead character to completely rethink their approach.
  • Sentence 4 tells what happens in the second half of the second act, ending with a third major disaster that forces your lead character to commit to ending the story.
  • Sentence 5 tells what happens in the third act—there will be a final showdown and either a victory or a defeat for the lead character.

That’s a lot to expect of one paragraph! It’ll be a long paragraph, for sure, and bristling with ideas.

Breaking The Logjam of Too Many Options

Julia, your problem is that you’ve got too many ideas to get them all into a single paragraph.

That’s OK, really. I generally say that this paragraph should take about one hour to write. So what I’d recommend is that you just write up several paragraphs, each with one possibility for your Three-Act Structure. None of these are etched in stone. They’re just possibilities. You can make up as many as you want. Five or ten, if you’ve got that many possibilities in your head. The first one might take an hour, but after that, the others will probably take ten minutes.

Once you’ve got them all down on paper, let them stew in your mind for a bit. Give yourself a day or two to think about them.

Then choose one to take to the next step in the Snowflake Method. This is not a forever commitment, so choose the one that you think is strongest and run with it for a couple of more steps to see how it flies. If it flies well, then you’re on your way.

If it doesn’t fly so well, you can always come back to Step 2 and pick another path.

The beauty of this approach is that you might waste a few hours going down a wrong path, but you won’t waste five hundred hours writing the full manuscript for a story you’re eventually going to reject.

And also you won’t waste days and days staring at the blank screen, paralyzed by indecision. The Snowflake Method gives you the freedom to try things quickly and fail quickly.

How It Worked Out

I emailed the above suggestion to Julia awhile back. She emailed back not long after to say that she spent a few days and broke the logjam by doing the following:

  • She wrote down a long list of all the events she thought should happen in the story. (This is Step 8 in the Snowflake Method).
  • Then she pulled out the most important of these events (about 20) and wrote them on Post-It notes.
  • Finally, she put the Post-It notes all on a big sheet of paper with three acts marked on it and moved them around until the story seemed right.

That works. And that’s the right way to do it for Julia. Different people have different ways of solving the problem. Whatever works for you is whatever works for you.

As you can see, Julia didn’t actually use my suggestion. She took my core idea (get something down on paper) and riffed in a different direction. And that got her to the solution. Yay!

The important thing is to keep moving forward and to get things down on paper. Once it’s on paper, you have a permanent record. And you can make a copy and revise it. You can do that as many times as you want until you get it the way you want it. That’s what the Snowflake Method is all about.

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 Writing a Novel With Too Many Options appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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As a novelist, it’s hard to be original. How do you learn to be more original, when it feels like your writing is too much like the books you’ve been reading?

H.B. posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve been reading lots of YA recently (hunger games, divergent etc) and recently started writing my own novel. I am only a teenager, but I write in the hopes that I will edit my work and publish it when I’m older. Anyway the book I’m writing at the moment seems too close to other books I’m reading – it has attributes that are very similar to novels in the same genre but I’m not coping on purpose, it just happens as I’m writing! What should I do?

Randy sez: There’s an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I suspect that the problem is that you’re reading books that are too similar to each other. You’ve read the Hunger Games series and the Divergent series, but those are quite similar books. Naturally, when you go to write your own novel, you’re going to produce something like the things you’ve been reading.

Solving the Problem

The solution is pretty simple, but it’s going to take some time.

Read more.

Read widely.

Read stuff you like.

Read stuff you don’t like.

The more you read, the more you’ll expand your horizon on what can be done as a novelist. That will keep you from getting into a rut.

Some Recommended Books

 I’ve tried to read at least something in practically every major category, even categories that I don’t particularly like. Here is a random collection of books that have helped broaden my horizons. It’s a very small selection from my library, but it cuts across all the main categories:

  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The quintessential fantasy series for adults.
  • The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. The quintessential YA fantasy series.
  • Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. An exciting science fiction novel about an earth-orbiting Battle School where pre-teen military cadets are groomed to save the earth from an alien invasion.
  • The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. A massive historical novel set in 11th century England about the building of a cathedral and the internal politics of a monastery. Most of Ken Follett’s fans think this is his best novel.
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. A long historical novel set in ice-age Europe about a four-year-old human girl adopted by Neanderthals.
  • Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. A time-travel romance novel set in 18th century Scotland about a British nurse in 1945 who falls in love with a Scotsman after finding herself unexpectedly transported to 1743.
  • Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. The quintessential historical romance novel, about a strong-willed self-absorbed young woman growing up during and after the Civil War.
  • The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. A literary novel about a pair of genius Jewish teen-age boys from rival religious communities who start out as enemies and become best friends.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. A dystopian futuristic novel about a young woman being used as a concubine in a world where most people are infertile.
  • The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. The quintessential Mafia novel about an organized crime family fighting for survival in the brutal New York underworld.
  • The Firm, by John Grisham. This was Grisham’s breakout novel about an ambitious young lawyer hired to work in a cushy law firm who discovers that his company is a front for a money laundering operation.
  • The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy. This was Clancy’s first novel about a Soviet sub commander who tries to deliver the latest submarine intact to the Americans at the height of the Cold War, with the entire Soviet navy in hot pursuit.
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John LeCarre. In 1961, a washed up British spy is approached by East German spies hoping to persuade him to defect. In my opinion, the best spy novel ever written.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. The quintessential series of mystery stories and novels.
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. A non-linear story about a man with a genetic defect that yanks him back and forth in time—and the woman who loves him.
  • Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. A classic romance novel about a young English woman who has the audacity to want to marry for love, and the three very different young men who pursue her.
  • Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead. A bestselling YA novel about a group of young vampires in a special academy where they learn how to defend themselves against the evil Strigoi.

I could go on much longer, but this is enough for now. Most of these are classics in their category, and I’ve read almost all of them several times. These cover most of the major categories of fiction. Most of them are not suitable for children, but I will note that most of my writer friends were reading books not suitable for children at a very early age. And so was I. People who are destined to be writers tend to grow up fast and read books that would horrify their parents.

How to Be More Original

My opinion is that every novelist needs to read thrillers. And romance novels. And fantasy. And science fiction. And classics. And dystopic novels. And YA. And horror. And historicals. And mysteries. And religious fiction.

You don’t have to read a lot of books in a category you don’t like. But you should read at least enough to prove that you really don’t like the category. The goal is to learn what’s out there, and what can be done with the written word. My list above is tilted a bit towards thrillers and historicals, because that’s what I like.

Reading in a wide variety of categories is the best inoculation I know against the dread disease of accidentally writing like your favorite author.

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 To Be More Original appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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How do you reach your goals in fiction writing as fast as possible? Is there a shortcut that will get you there quicker? What’s the secret to finding the road to glory for novelists?

This is the time of year when people make those dreaded New Year’s resolutions. Some of them stick, but we all know that most of them don’t. Why?

The problem is that we all want a quick success. We all want a five-day rush to glory.

I want that. You want that. We all want that. It’s not a crime.

It’s just a mistake.

There is a road to glory, but it’s not a five-day trip. It’s not a five-week trip either, and generally not a five-month trip.

But a five-year road to glory is quite possible. If you make a five-year plan right now, and if it’s the right five-year plan for you, then in five years, you will be amazing.

So if you’re going to make a New Year’s resolution, think long-term, not short.

The Five-Year Road to Glory

You should be asking now how anyone could possibly sprint for five years.

Short answer: you can’t.

The road to glory is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

And the road to glory is not paved with good intentions. That would be the road to hell.

The road to glory is paved with good habits. A set of things you do every day, every day, every day for the rest of your life.

And it’s easy to make the mistake of trying to set up all those good habits right now, when the good feelings from New Year’s Eve are still with us. Just set up fifty excellent habits that will put you on the road to glory.

But that’s not going to happen. It’s hard work to build a habit. Extremely hard work. It takes about three weeks of doing the same thing every day before that habit sticks. You can’t possibly build fifty habits all at the same time.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about creating a habit of writing every day. That’s a great habit to have. It’s one of many you’ll need on the road to glory.

And what are the others? What is the list of habits you need in order to ride the road to glory?

I wish I could give you a simple list, but that would be simple-minded.

Every writer is different. Your list is not my list and my list is not yours.

But here’s the thing. You don’t have to know the whole list right now.

All you need to know is the next one on the list.

One at a Time

Start with the writing-every-day habit that I blogged about just lately. If you didn’t start that habit two weeks ago, read that blog post and start now. Do it for a solid month.

And during that month, be thinking about what the next habit should be. Maybe it’ll be daily exercise. Or a daily reading plan. Or daily flossing. Or daily something else. It could be anything that will make you a better, stronger, smarter, more productive, more amazing writer. You have a whole month to figure out that next habit. Pick a dynamite one.

When next month rolls around, start that new habit. Maintain the old one, but start the new one. And remember, keep it ridiculously easy for the first three weeks. After that, you can ramp it up if you need to. Building a habit is hard, so make the actions of the habit as easy as you can when you’re starting out. Eventually, those actions may get quite demanding, but by then, the habit will be in your blood and in your bones.

A Habit of the Month

One new habit, every month, for the next five years.

Call it the Habit of the Month club.

That’s my prescription for the road to glory. It’s the slow road, yes, but it’s the one most likely to get you there.

If you choose your habits well, build them carefully, and maintain them conscientiously, in five years, you are going to astonish yourself by what you’ve achieved.

My habit this month is to get up every morning at 6:30 AM. I have particular trouble getting out of bed in the morning. It’s not about the earliness of the hour. It’s just as hard to roll out at 6:30 as it is to roll out at 9:00. Once I actually roll out, I don’t have any trouble getting moving. But it’s that three seconds of putting feet on the cold floor and sliding out from under the warm covers. That’s hard. The best solution seems to be to do it fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Sure it’s awful, but do it fast and get it done. So that’s my Habit of the Month, this month.

I’m on Day 3. In a month, I hope to be solid on this, so I can move on to something more fun.

That’s my plan.

What’s yours?

The post The Road to Glory for Novelists appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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What reading level should you shoot for in your novel? Twelfth grade? Second year of college? Fourth year of college?

I am paraphrasing a question that I saw posted recently on a writing site. Never mind where, because I’m sure it’s been asked a million times.

It’s a good question and deserves a good answer.

But First, A Little Story

When I was in high school, I used to read a magazine aimed at high-school students.

I remember one writer in particular who wrote often for this magazine.

This writer never used a short word when a long one would do. Never.

I got the feeling that he wrote his stories first in normal English. Then he hit the thesaurus to “raise the reading level.”

I never could figure out why he chose to inflate his words. It didn’t make the story better. It made it worse.

It was awful. I got to hate that writer’s work.

And I came to believe three things about writing:

  1. Short words are better than long ones.
  2. Short sentences are better than long ones.
  3. Short paragraphs are better than long ones.
Then I Went to Grad School

Eventually I graduated from high school and went to college and majored in math and physics. Then I went to grad school at UC Berkeley and got my PhD in physics. Along the way, I read a ton of journal articles and technical papers.

Here’s what I learned.

Smart people know how to make hard things simple. Part of the genius of Einstein was that he could take a hard problem and make it simple. Same with Richard Feynman, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century. Ditto for Ed Witten, who may be the smartest theoretical physicist of all time. These guys tackled hard problems. Using simple words.

I realized that any fool can solve a hard problem the hard way. It takes a genius to make a hard problem simple.

Your Mission in Writing Fiction

Your mission in writing fiction is to give your reader a powerful emotional experience. Period. If you also want to make your reader think, learn, reason, or fall into a deep pit of existential despair, feel free to try.

You have a better chance of doing that if your reader actually finishes your novel. Which they will do if you give them a powerful emotional experience.

You don’t need big words to be deep. To be deep, all you need is to have deep ideas. Almost always, short words are better than long ones. And short sentences are better than long ones. And short paragraphs are better than long ones.

So What is the Best Reading Level For Your Novel?

Now we can get back to the main question. What reading level should you shoot for in your novel?

The answer is simple: As low as possible, while still being able to tell your story.

I’ve heard that James Patterson writes his novels at the fifth grade level. You may have heard of him. He’s been the best-selling writer of fiction in the English language so far this century.

I’m currently writing a series of novels that my editors tell me is the best stuff I’ve written yet. They say it’s deeper than I’ve gone before. I’m glad they think so, and I hope the books do well in the market.

I got curious yesterday and ran a few of my recent scenes through an online analyzer that tells you what grade level you’re writing at. I was hoping it would say at most grade 6. Even better if  I could get it down to grade 5.

The first scene I tested came in with a grade level of 3.2. I thought that might be just a lucky fluke, so I tried the scene just before it. That had a grade level of 1.7. Then I tried the scene before that. It had a grade level of 3.1.

I wrote another scene yesterday, and I ran that just now. The level was 3.3.

I’m seeing a trend here. My new series looks like it’ll have about a third grade reading level.

Sounds good to me.

Isn’t That Just Dumbing Your Story Down?

You may be thinking that I’m telling you to “dumb things down.”

No, not at all.

There is a huge, huge, HUGE difference between “simple” and “stupid.”

I believe it takes a lot more brains to write “simple” than to write “complicated.” If you don’t believe me, go find one of Albert Einstein’s books and read it. You’ll find it’s clear and simple and definitely not stupid.

I just now ran this blog post through the analyzer. The reading grade level for this post is 3.7. I blame it on the existential despair thing.

The post Your Novel’s Best Reading Level appeared first on Advanced Fiction Writing.

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