Brainstorming

Brainstorming is my favorite part of story writing. I think it’s possible, if you are the outlining kind of writer, to create a pretty strong story before you start writing by simply asking the right questions.

You know when you go see a big sci fi or fantasy epic at the movie theater and (occasionally) you spend the whole time punching holes in the plot? “Why didn’t they just call the eagles to take them to the Lonely Mountain?” “If she can blast people with her magic, why did she spend so long running away from the other witch?” So when you’re brainstorming ask yourself thorough questions. Rather than impeding creativity, I find it boosts mine because problem solving is a creative exercise. ‘What if’ is fun, and a great place to begin brainstorming, but don’t neglect ‘why,’ and ‘how.’

what-if-by-fly-you-fools-gandalf-was-really-telling-them-to-use-eagles-to-fly-to-mordor

What if, indeed.

Another brainstorming method I’ve used effectively is to take a notebook (the catnip of writers), open it to a blank page, and do a free write where you list every cool or inspiring thing that comes to you. Sometimes by combining story elements you think are awesome, you arrive at new ideas and characters and plots.

favorite

List a few of your favorite things until you come up with a story about a whiskered unicorn who can blast snowflakes from its eyes.

If you use this method, I’d suggest you spend some time towards the end using with the first method I discussed. Ask yourself as many questions as possible. Explore all possible ramifications of the story you’ve come up with. Or don’t. Maybe you’ve written enough to realize that you like exploring your plot tangles while writing the first draft, i.e., a gardener or discovery writer. That’s cool too.

Advertisements

On Editing

(Sorry, friends! I’ve just moved to a new place, and things have been crazy. But here is the post you were supposed to receive on Monday.)

Several months ago I had a conversation with an editor who had set up her own e-publishing company. As a freelancing editor, I inquired about the company to see if it might be a good place to offer my freelancing services. But the email conversation I ended up having with this editor made it perfectly clear that we would not be a good fit together. Our ideas differed greatly in how we approach a manuscript.

She said that she didn’t like to break up the editing process in rounds. Rather than do a development edit, substantive edit, and then copy edit in individual rounds, their company liked to take care of all the editing in one large “comprehensive” edit, she call it.

And I asked her why she thought it was a good idea to do a copy edit at the same time as a development edit. Wouldn’t many of the words change once the author started putting in the big picture revisions from the development edit?

Her response was something like this: I don’t understand why so many people ask me this. Not much should change throughout the editing process. Unless the editor is rewriting the author’s story, most of it should be the same. It’s the author’s work, and I can’t stand it when editors try to change so much of it. Then it’s not the author’s work anymore. It’s the editor’s.

Now I’ve heard statements like this before from self-published authors. In fact, I have had many self-published authors tell me this is the very reason why they don’t want to be traditionally published—because the work won’t be theirs anymore.

And now I’m going to tell you all the same thing I told that editor and those self-published authors.

Editing is not a bad thing. Lots of edits are not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that the author is a bad writer. Authors are too close to their work to notice even obvious mistakes at times, and all authors need an editor to point those out to them. I’ve been hired to do copy edits on manuscripts that needed serious “big picture” edits, but I wasn’t allowed to say a word because I’d been hired specifically for a copy edit

And it was painful.

As an author providing a product to your reading audience, wouldn’t you want to give them the best product possible?

What happens when one of your character’s personalities changes throughout the book for no reason, and you don’t have an editor there to tell you? What happens when your climax shouldn’t actually be possible because you forgot to foreshadow some important details? Or what if you forgot to resolve one of your minor conflicts?

Editors are there to make your work solid. They’re there to get rid of all the plot holes, character inconsistencies, and other errors. There are so many things to keep straight in a story. A book has LOTS of words in it. Odds are, you will need to change many of them, and that’s okay. Because you should want to strengthen your story. You should want to make it the best it can be, and it’s okay that you can’t do that on your own.

I believe that editing should be done in rounds, working from the big stuff, to the little stuff. Lots of people should read a manuscript and offer feedback, and authors should not be insulted by such critique. Serious writers should want to learn from their mistakes. They should want to become better. They should want to give their audience the best book possible.

I don’t understand why authors would feel like the book isn’t theirs anymore after doing edits. Once an editor or writing group points out those big errors to the author, it’s up to THEM to figure out how to fix it. Essentially, those edits become the author’s edits. The work still ultimately becomes what the author makes it to be.

I don’t know where I would be without my writing group and other readers. They point out embarrassing mistakes that I’m not able to notice for myself. Like not having a plot 30,000 words into my story. Big problem, yes? Needed to change quite a bit of words, yes? Yes. And I did. That was four books ago for me. I’ve since then discovered that I am a plotter. I need to plan out my books before I write them. These days, I start with a plot when I write my stories, and they’re so much better off for it.

Don’t be scared of critique. Be excited to make your book better. Be excited to become a better writer.

On Hooks and Promises

We hear the term hook thrown around a lot. Your story needs a good hook. No one will read past the first page if you don’t have a good hook. What’s your hook? And so on and so forth. But what exactly do we mean by this?

Hooks are, simply put, the interesting bit in the beginning of your story or your novel or your screenplay that…well, that hooks the reader into the story. I think, however, that we get used to talking about hooks in terms of “what’s the new exciting thing that will engage the reader” and less in terms of “what does this hook say about my story,” and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to be talking about that.

Because while a hook is certainly grabbing and engaging and interesting, it also makes a lot of promises to your reader—promises that they’re going to expect you to uphold and fulfill. So let’s talk about the larger scope of hooks. Not the opening line or even the opening paragraph—but the opening scene (or scenes) that set the tone for your work and tells the reader exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

image from rebeccaberto.com

The bulk of my formal writing education was taught by people who write different sorts of books than I do. While I write fantasy and have had the privilege to learn at the feet of some of the great fantasy writers of our time, a lot of the writers I’ve looked up to in the recent years write action-packed fantasy, full of rule-based magic systems and grand adventures. I enjoy reading those books, of course, but I tend to write…quieter stories. Fantasy that is focused on clashing cultures and social structures and political strife—and while there’s still plenty of action and adventure that happens in my books, the climaxes of my stories are more likely to happen in a single room than on a grand battle front.

Neither of these types of stories are better than the other and there’s an audience for both, but the sort of hooks that work in big action-packed epic fantasy aren’t going to work as well for the sort of things I write—and it took me longer than it should have to realize that.

First of all, hooks don’t have to be action sequences. I realized that I kept trying to start off my books with explosions and chase scenes when my books weren’t really about explosions and chase scenes, and by trying to set my books up with those as opening scenes, I was making a promise to my readers that I had no intention of fulfilling. When a book opens with a fast-paced fight scene, that’s what the reader is going to expect throughout the rest of the story. Almost every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with a scene of Buffy taking out some big bad demon and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. It says, “Hello, viewer, in this show, you are going to get cool fighting choreography and witty banter.” But if you take the opening scene of Buffy and attach it to, say, an episode of Gilmore Girls, the people who tuned in for the cool fighting choreography are going to be disappointed (though the people watching for witty banter will probably be pleased).

A hook needs to set the tone for what you’re writing. That’s its main job. Pride and Prejudice opens with the arrival of Mr. Bingley at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennett’s assertions that he will make a fine husband for one of her daughters. That hook promises romance and some fun commentary of class and social mores of the time. One of the first scenes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix involves Harry and the Dursleys being swarmed with owls from everyone from Albus Dumbledore to the Ministry of Magic, all carrying conflicting messages, which makes the promise that while Voldemort is certainly a problem in that book, the Ministry of Magic is going to be an even bigger and more immediate problem. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with Captain America and Black Widow embarking on a mission for SHIELD. The scene makes the promise that this movie will have lots of cool fight scenes, that it will focus on Captain America and Black Widow and SHIELD, and that Captain America’s ability to trust the people he’s working with will be a major plot point.

Which brings me to the next point: your hook should do more than one thing. It does more than set the tone, it also introduces characters and plot points and setting—and The Avengers: Age of Ultron did a remarkable job of that. (Warnings for mild spoilers of AoU. I know it only came out over the weekend, but the opening did too good of a job to pass up.) The movie starts in media res as the Avengers storm a Hydra Research Facility in Sokovia, a country in Eastern Europe, where they hope to reclaim Loki’s Scepter. The whole gang is there, but the characters who seemed to get more screen time than the rest were Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye. Later, we’ll find out that each of these characters have personal issues that will become substantial plot points. (Which is especially nice because the other characters get entire movies to themselves to sort out their personal issues.) By focusing on those three characters in the beginning, the movie promises that these three will be big players throughout the rest of the film.

And that’s not all the intro did. It introduced us to Sokovia. Which happens to be where the final battle takes place, and which happens to be where Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are from—and oh yeah, Pietro and Wanda are also going to be big players in this film and they also get screen time in the opening fight scene. In the opening scene, we see Iron Man’s preoccupation with protecting innocent civilians through the use of his Iron Legion program and that particular preoccupation is what launches the whole story forward. The intro also focused on Loki’s Scepter, although at risk of unleashing major spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why this is important to the rest of the film. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

In the opening sequence, they set the tone for the movie (lots of action! Captain America and Iron Man bickering! More fighting!), they showed us which characters were going to be important (Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Hulk, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff), they introduced us to an important location (Sokovia!), and they hinted at important plot points (Loki’s Scepter, Iron Man’s Iron Legion program)—and all of that was done in about fifteen minutes of a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long.

When you sit down to write or revise the beginning of your story, look at what parts of the story you’re focusing on and think ahead to what sort of promises those are making. If in your first draft, you opened with a light-hearted romance scene and then the book ends up being about a woman dealing with a mental illness…well, then you need to revise your hook. Readers who are hooked by the light-hearted romance might not be looking for a book about mental illness, and the people who do want that book might be turned off by the opening romance. As a writer, it’s your job to make sure the beginning of the book sets the tone and makes the sort of promises that are necessary to tell the story you want to tell.