Post #18 – How Do I Treat My Characters?

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4/26/18

The title of this post could be: Who Controls the Characters? Do writers always know what their characters will say and how they will act? Or do writers let the characters dictate their dialog and actions?

This may be a debate between plotters and pantsers (for the uninitiated, authors who write by the seat of their pants). Are plotters more likely to keep their characters on tight leashes, not letting them stray too far from the outline? Are pantsers more likely to let their characters run free to see where they take the story?

Sci-fi author Mike Resnick, in The Science Fiction Professional, is adamant he is the writer, they’re his characters, so he controls them. He also generally puts together a 5000 word outline for a novel and works from that. I consider that a detailed outline, so let’s call him a plotter.

On the other hand, Stephen King, in On Writing, says he likes to see where his characters take him. He never mentions outlining his novels before writing, so let’s call him a pantser.

I fall more on the plotter side of the spectrum. I like to work out the major plot points in my head before starting on a story. This means I mostly control my characters because they need to get me to each of the plot points. I don’t necessarily know exactly what they will say, unless a good piece of dialog comes to mind that I’m able to write down in advance.

Rarely will I start writing and see where my characters take me. Sometimes I’ll work up to as far in a story as I’ve plotted and then stop until I figure out what happens next. More often than not, writing up to that point helps me figure that out, which could be considered letting the characters control the story.

Recently, I was working on a sequel to my first story. The file contained detailed notes on the plot points I’d jotted down over several months as I developed the story in my head. However, while putting the story on the screen, I realized one of the characters would never let the story end how I plotted it. This character altered my story’s ending and in a very dramatic way. Is that me losing control of one of my characters? Maybe, but I liked where this character took the story. And, once again, it reinforced my intrigue about the writing process. It also reconfirmed how fun the writing process can be. Even as a plotter, my own story still can surprise me.

Let me know in the comments how you treat your characters or how they treat you.

Post #16 – How Much Do I Write?

4/12/18

Given my limited amount of writing time, I’m obsessed with productivity. I’m not alone. Most writers I’ve read, who talked about the craft of writing, discuss either how they track their output or their productivity goals.

Mike Resnick in The Science Fiction Professional states each night (remember he writes between 10p and 2a) he writes one chapter in a novel or one entire short story.

Stephen King in On Writing starts at 9a and keeps writing until he reaches 2000 words. Sometimes he is done by lunch; sometimes it takes him until dinner or longer.

Leah Cutter, author of The Healthy Professional Writer, says she tries to write 1000 words hour. She claims to be able to write 2000 words in an hour when the words are flowing.

M.L. Humphrey (Excel for Writers and Excel for Self-Publishers) advocates tracking productivity for each writing session using Excel, noting the time spent and word count. For me, comparing year-to-year writing metrics or shorter periods is a fun exercise. Humphrey believes it is a useful tool for the professional writer because it allows the writer to calculate potential writing income. In other words, if the writer knows s/he can write this many words in this amount of time and sell it for this amount, then their income will be this.

Aeryn Rudel, a fellow short story author and blogger, lately has tracked his weekly word count towards a novel in progress, as well as the number of his short story submissions, acceptances, and rejections both weekly and monthly.

I’ve only tracked two time periods of my productivity, last year’s and last quarter’s.  Last year, starting in June, I wrote 42-43,000 words with a goal of 50,000 words. I have the same goal this year. I have no official short term goals, though I wouldn’t be upset if I hit 12,500 words each quarter just to stay on track.

If the story is flowing, I usually get about 800 words an hour. I often hit 1000 words in one sitting when I have a little longer.  Problem is I’m not writing something new every sitting.  Most sittings are devoted to editing and submitting. I’ve complained about that before in Post #15, but it must be done. The alternative of only finishing rough drafts and never submitting is not attractive to me.

Since seeing Aeryn track his submissions, I included that tally in my 1Q18 update and plan to continue to do so in future updates. I can’t reach my ultimate goal of three short stories published in SFWA-qualifying markets if I don’t submit. And you can see how quickly I’ve had to accept rejection.

Let me know in the comments how much you write and how you track productivity.

Post #14 – When Do I Write?

3/29/18

I feel like I’m having a hard time finding opportunities to write. My productivity numbers for the first quarter of 2018, which I’ll review next week, say otherwise.

Before I get to when I typically write, let’s look at the writing habits of a couple profession authors. Stephen King states in On Writing that he starts writing each day at 9am and continues until he reaches his goal for the day, breaking of course for biological necessities. He appears to treat it like a job, which makes sense because it is his job.

Mike Resnick in The Science Fiction Professional states he is a night owl and does his writing from 10pm–2am. Last year after the birth of my second daughter, I saw those hours more than I cared too. Now I avoid being awake during that time at all costs.

King further relates the story of Anthony Trollope (an English Victorian writer) whose day job was as a clerk in the British Postal Department. He got up early each morning and wrote for 2.5 hours before leaving for work. It didn’t matter if he was in the middle of a sentence. He stopped and didn’t pick up writing again until the next day.

My ideal would be similar to King’s.  Get the kids off to daycare and start writing by 9am. In other words, treat it like a job. The problem is I have a day job, a good one that pays the bills, so my writing time is more like Trollope’s. I used to get about an hour or less each night. Then my oldest daughter started fighting bedtime, hard. My wife and I are early risers. This shortens the night, so my daughter’s late bedtime in conjunction with my early bedtime means writing in the evenings now is difficult.

I also used to have an opportunity to write during the girls’ nap time on the weekends.  Now that my oldest doesn’t take naps most days, my wife and I take turns entertaining her one afternoon each weekend. So my weekend writing time has been cut in half.

I typically get up early to exercise, before the kids awake. It’s the only time I have for that. If I wanted, I could sacrifice the work outs and use that time to write. However, those workouts are important to me. It’s also when I catch up on my Hulu and Netflix watching.

I’m trying a new approach. Two mornings a week I try to get up at the same time and write. I’ve followed this approach for several weeks, and it has worked well so far. I’m sacrificing my few sleep-in days, but it’s worth it. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when I’m able to get 1000 words to start the day.

The only issue I’ve encountered is when a rejection comes in over night. When I see that, I end up spending my morning writing time submitting the rejected story to the next market instead of putting new words on the screen. But there’s a simple fix. I stop checking my email when I get up.

Let me know in the comments when you write.

Post # 10 – Inspiration

3/1/18

I’ve read several professional authors (Mike Resnick, for example) state they often are asked at conventions and other forums, where do you get your ideas? Indeed, these authors say it’s a tiresome question because someone in the audience asks it every time. I’ve never been asked that, so I don’t find it tiresome, yet. Maybe in a few years after I’m a famous author.

Sources of inspiration for my stories never cease to amaze me. The first story I ever started was inspired by, what I believe is, a great first line: “The naked man ran screaming from the room.”

Years ago I read a column by the then editor of either Analog Science Fiction and Fact or Asimov’s Science Fiction (I can’t remember which) about catching an editor’s (and reader’s) attention with a great first line. Shortly after, I came up with the above line. I kicked that line around in my head for years until I finally figured out why the man ran screaming from the room and just as importantly, why he was naked. Figuring that out really was the start of my writing adventure.

Since then, I’ve taken inspiration from such unlikely sources as a handwritten sign on an out of order elevator and the nickname some friends use for their daughter. Also, a couple time now while writing a story, I’ve developed sequel ideas. That seems to happen frequently.  Between that and understanding it’s always easier to sell a product with an existing audience, I finally understand why there are so many series out there.

Twice now after reading the submission guidelines for a publication, inspiration hit me for a story matching those guidelines. Oddly, both were calls for humorous speculative fiction. When I read the first set of guidelines, I decided to take on the challenge. I’d never tried writing a funny story before. I had a title for a story in my To Be Written list but no plot yet. And then inspiration hit for how I could turn this random title into a humorous story.

Then it happened again. The second set of submission guidelines requested sword and sorceress fantasy works, meaning fantasy with a strong woman protagonist. While I enjoy reading some fantasy (Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire), I lean more towards science fiction. I’ve never written it and didn’t intend to any time soon. But at the very end of these guidelines, the editor said they end the anthology with a short, funny story. For some reason that’s when inspiration hit. I had an idea for a short, funny fantasy story starring a female character. I was so inspired I stopped writing the story I was working on then and finished this new story in about three sittings.

I haven’t even discussed the inspiration for my novel. In a prior post, I mentioned one of my critique group members is working on her first novel. I had the privilege to read the first chapter. I thought the premise of the story was excellent, and I wanted to read more. Alas, that literally was all she wrote at that time. In addition to compiling a few notes for her, I also wrote down a couple directions I thought the story could go to see if I could guess what she had in mind. None of my guesses were correct. She knows where it’s going, and I can’t wait for her to take it there. Later, I realized I liked one of my guesses. I liked it so much I decided to use it as the plot of my own novel. Of course, the plot of my novel is nothing like my friend’s, but I’m fascinated by how simply trying to guess her novel’s plot lead to finding my own.

Post #5 – Resources Part 1 – Books

1/24/18

Besides being a big reader of speculative fiction, especially science fiction, I have no writing credentials.  I didn’t study creative writing in college.  I haven’t attended any writing workshops, though I may.

I repeatedly hear two pieces of advice on how to improve my writing.  The first way to become a better writer is to be an avid reader.  Check.  Of course, the second thing they say is to write.  However, I feel simply writing alone cannot make me a better writer.  How do I avoid repeating the same mistakes?  If I do not know how to develop characters, or plot, or theme, can I grasp those concepts intuitively just from reading other fiction?  I doubt it.  So instead of simply reading genre fiction, I also have read books recently on the art or how-to of writing speculative fiction.  Below are some of my favorites so far.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories by Orson Scott Card

On Writing by Stephen King

King’s is more high level and much more personal.  For example, he discusses where he writes and when he writes and how much he writes each day.  The first part of the book is a true memoir and discusses his childhood and his early writing while addicted to drugs and alcohol.  I found that all fascinating but not very helpful in developing my writing skills.  Unfortunately, I do not plan to become addicted to drugs or alcohol any  time soon.

The other two books listed above are more about the nuts and bolts of writing speculative fiction.  I found Worlds of Wonder especially practical.  For example, Gerrold devotes one chapter to the questions an author should ask when developing an alien race.  He devotes another chapter to the questions an author should ask when developing a new world.  While an author is not expected to include the answers to all these questions in a work, it seems logical that an author can only fulfill the old adage of writing what you know if you’ve developed the alien race or world to the point where you truly know it.

I don’t plan to stop with the books above.  I have a list.  I always have a list… for everything.  Below are a couple on my To Read list.

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula Le Guin (RIP, 1929-2018)

Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card

In addition to the craft of writing, I’ve read a couple books on the business of writing.  Writing will not be my career any time soon, but I found the following two books to be immensely helpful in understanding the ins and outs of writing as a business.

The Magic Bakery: Copyright in the Modern World of Fiction Publishing (A WMG Writer’s Guide) by Dean Wesley Smith

Q&A for Science Fiction Writers by Mike Resnick

I bought both of these as part of Story Bundle’s 2017 NaNoWriMo bundle.  I’m still working my way through the remaining titles in that bundle.  Resnick’s take is a little dated since it mostly was written in the early 2000s with the occasional update in 2008 and again in 2012.  Much has changed since the early 2000s and even in last five years, especially with electronic publishing.  Regardless, many of Resnick’s points remain applicable.  Smith’s take is more current, and he does not come off nearly as arrogant as Resnick.  (I’m not saying that arrogance wasn’t earned, but it’s there.)  That said, I felt I benefited from the two contrasting viewpoints.  Now I just need to learn about writing viewpoints.