I did a signing Thursday at Westwood Library, which is featured in Sneak Thief. Cover-beagle Julia’s pawtographs were a big hit. I had to go sit next to her just to get my picture taken. You can see her to the left, mugging for the pup-erazzi. You’d never know it was her debut, she was such a diva.
Claudia, who is currently co-writing her first novel, asked me what the hardest thing was about writing. I said, “Plotting. Knowing what happens next.” I gave a little advice, signed some books, and went out for fish and shrimp tacos, satisfied with a job well done.
I woke up in the middle of the night with one thought in my head: “I left stuff out of my answer to Claudia.” I know Claudia’s book will be great without my help, but I feel compelled to flesh out my advice anyway.
This advice is not for outliners. Outliners are an alien life form, and nothing I say has any relevance for them, just like oxygen has no relevance to the natives of the methane planet Golgaranth. I’m what you call a semi-pantser. I start with a few key concepts and toss them like salad to see what happens. I have a couple of scenes that I know will take place. I keep a vague idea of the next few chapters and the end game in mind, then I dive in.
I discover the story through writing it.
It Starts With Concept:
Write the Book You Want to Read Think of all the books you love, then think of everything that’s wrong with each one of them. If you’re a true writer you love books, but always leave them with a “yeah, but . . .” or “If I wrote that I would’ve . . .” (Except Harper Lee. There is nothing you can do to improve To Kill A Mockingbird. The book lives to taunt the rest of us.) Take all your “would’ves” and “yeah buts” and “I wish someone woulds” and toss them together. What do you come up with?
Trash Your First Idea It’s almost always the most obvious one. If you thought of it so easily, then so did your readers. So twist it, make it do back flips, turn it inside out. Know your genre well enough that you can make your reader think you are being obvious, and use that to lead them merrily down a garden path. Deliver the goods when they are most complacent.
Do What Doesn’t Bore You If you’re not having fun, it’s likely that your readers won’t, either. Have a love/hate relationship with Mr. Darcy? Spice it up. Toss in zombies. Yes, That’s a real thing. Look it up. While you’re at it, look up Dinosaur Porn. One caveat: while having fun is essential, never do so in a way that demeans your readers.
When You Don’t Know What Happens Next:
Take Role Call Check in with all of your characters. What do they know and how are they reacting to events and revelations? Usually this is enough to shake things loose. Great books are character driven. While we want events to surprise our readers, they must make sense in relation to our characters.
Just Start Writing Some of us channel our stories more than invent them. The right brain (where all your great ideas hide) doesn’t communicate directly with the left brain, but it sometimes comes out of your fingers as you are typing. Start with what you know and keep going. See what happens. I discover some of my best plot twists this way.
Amp It Up If the logical course of events is falling flat for you, consider exaggerating the situation to make it funnier, scarier, sexier. A monkey scratching his butt at the local convenience store is enough to make you laugh IRL, but on paper it’s pretty ho-hum. What if it’s eight monkeys loose in a bridal shop? Take your experiences and juice them till they grab you.
Don’t Know What Happens Next? Write What You DO Know Skip ahead to that scene that you haven’t written because the story isn’t there yet. The one that’s half-fleshed out and teasing you with ideas. Go ahead. Just keep moving. You can always come back later.
If You Don’t Know How to Write it, Write it However You Can You know what happens, but you can’t get a handle on how to write it. Just get it down any way you can, and move on. This is where you give yourself permission to write badly. Let it go. The back of your brain will work on the issue with out you banging your head against the wall. Inspiration will occur when you least expect it and you can rewrite it.
Take A Break This one is dangerous, but sometimes necessary. I find that ideas flow more readily the more I write, and other authors I know feel the same way. Stopping when you are frustrated can lead to procrastination. So, take a break, but Make Sure You Come Back.
Must You Torture Your Characters? That’s the current advice. Torture them, then torture them more. Never give them a break. “Readers LOVE it.” This one doesn’t.
It might work for one novel, but today the market is in series and character identification. If you never give your characters a break, if they never have any fun times, then what’s the point?
I gave up one best-selling author last year. Every time his MC talked to someone, they died. After the fifth body, I was done. I gave up another the year before. In twenty books, you never saw her MC having a pleasant, loving, fun time with those closest to her. Instead, she opens book 21 with a rant about her main supporting character. Really? In twenty years, you haven’t figured out how to get along with this guy? You keep him around and bitch about him? Shoot me, NOW. Halfway through the second page, I was out of there.
If All Else Fails:
Ask Your Sister Or someone you love and trust like a sister. Bounce your ideas off someone who’s smart. They don’t have to be a writer. They just have to enjoy a good story.