Christopher Swiedler

the charactery

Author: Christopher (page 2 of 3)

Reading your own writing, for fun and profit

Reading your own writing is a strange experience. It’s kind of like listening to your own voice while you’re singing: it feels like such a part of you that it’s hard to know what it really sounds like.

With your voice, it’s easy to record yourself and then play it back. Instantly, you get the same experience as a listener. It’s much harder with your writing, because your brain is very good at short-circuiting the reading process. It’s seen those words on your screen a thousand times, and so it doesn’t route them through the same neurons that get used when you read someone else’s work.

There’s also a subtle psychological ‘packaging effect’ when you read an unpublished manuscript. Because it’s not bound, justified, and paginated the way a book from the bookstore would be, manuscripts feel like they’re not books. Printing and binding a book says “this is a real book.” Printing a manuscript on an inkjet printer says “this is a work-in-progress.” Worse, it’s your work-in-progress, and it’s easy to believe that those Times New Roman words aren’t worth the copier paper you just printed them on.

So how do you trick your brain into reading your own work in the same way that you read a book you would buy from a bookstore? Well, short of wiping your memory clean, you can’t do it. But there are two techniques that can help.

The first is a bit of advice that probably dates back to Homer: put the manuscript away and work on something else. Let your brain process some other words of yours. When you come back to the first piece, a lot of the baggage will have been wiped clean, and you’ll see your story in a new light.

The second technique is to read your book in the most book-like format you can. Up until recently that was almost impossible, short of sending your rough drafts off to a vanity press for a one-copy print run. But with e-books, it’s a cinch to take your manuscript, format it for a Kindle or Kobo reader, and put it on your device.

(It’s a cinch, anyway, if you use Scrivener. If you don’t use Scrivener, well, this alone might be a good enough reason to switch.)

It’s amazing how different your own story feels when you put it on an e-reader. It’s like taking a painting, framing it, and putting it up on the wall of a gallery. Almost immediately, certain sections feel like they belong. Your brain says, “sure, this is a real book.” And some sections feel wrong, like they’re typewritten rough drafts that got pasted in. If you’d read those same sections on your screen or on printed paper, you might have passed by them without a second thought. But now that they’re part of a real book, they stand out as the stinkers they are.

So take some time away from your latest draft and work on something else. When you’re ready to come back to it, put your manuscript on your e-reader and read it in bed, or on the train, or wherever you read other people’s novels. Don’t worry about line-editing; just look for sections that feel unnatural. Mark them with the highlighting function on your e-reader and move on. When you’re finished, rewrite those sections and make them as fresh as you can.

Reading your work like this won’t replace beta readers, or developmental editors, or line-editing. But it will give you a good feel for which parts of your story are off-key, and give you confidence in the parts that do work well.

filed under electronic-words-are-people-too

How to deal with Type 2 writer’s block

As a writer, you’re going to run into times when you don’t have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. This isn’t full-on, Type 1, staring-at-a-blank-screen writer’s block, and it isn’t a mild case of Type 3, I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today doldrums. This is the in-between variety, the Type 2 writer’s block, where you know you could write a scene, but you don’t feel ready to write it yet.

For me, the problem is usually that I don’t have the right concrete details. I think there are two basic types of “what should happen” questions: high-level structural stuff and low-level details. You need both to make it through a draft (or at least, I do).

The first question is pretty simple: where is the scene/chapter/novel going? At a high level, what is it trying to achieve, and how do the pieces fit together to achieve it? For me, by the time I get to a scene or chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to do. In the story as a whole, the plot goes like this, the characters develop like that. For a particular scene, this is the state going in, and this is the state coming out.

The second (and in my opinion, more important) question is: what are the key details? You need more than big-picture ideas before you can start writing. Every generality in your story is going to be supported by specific details. Readers don’t read about the duality of self; they read about how a particular self is torn in two by a specific set of events. They don’t read about obsession; they read about how a certain person becomes obsessed with a particular thing. This applies to a scene just as much as to a novel. Readers don’t read about a conflict between two opposing goals; they read specific dialogue between two characters who have those goals.

You need (at least, I need) a few of those specifics in mind before you start writing: a line of dialogue, a particular action, even a certain description. I can go from “this scene is a muddled blank mess” to “I have a clear picture of what this scene is going to be” just by thinking of one detail or one good line of dialogue from the most important part of the scene (usually something near the end). Once I have that specific bit, I can hang the rest of the scene around it. Other parts all fall into place as either leading up to that detail, or following from it.

It’s like trying to find your way through a wilderness: when every direction seems just as valid as every other direction, it’s hard to make any progress at all. But if someone were to whisper in your ear, hey, at some point you’re going to pass by an oak tree with a big black lightning scar on its trunk, in the middle of a field with nothing else around, then suddenly you’ve got a much better sense of where you’re headed.

For me, the best way to come up with these details is to take a walk. Walking is a wonderful distraction for your body. It’s physical enough that it gets your blood flowing, but not so much that your brain has to concentrate on what it’s doing. I think the simple repetition of putting one foot in front of the other has the same drone-like cadence of a meditative chant. It takes over part of your brain, and lets the rest of it wander.

Often I find that when I start walking, it’s hard to concentrate on what I want to think about—the next section of my manuscript—and that’s okay. I try to nudge my brain there, but I give it a little time to settle in. Then, about ten minutes into the walk, my mind gets into a focused zone. I can bring up questions like “okay, brain, what should happen next?” and quite often, I’ll get good answers.

Walking may not be your cup of tea. Your cup of tea might be an actual cup of tea, just under the point of scalding, sipped on your back porch. Or a hot bath, or a ride on a unicycle. Whatever floats your boat—including, I suppose, floating boats.

The key, I think, is to get yourself away from your writing, and to get yourself into a zone where bright little bits of creativity can emerge from the dark crevices of your mind. Big-picture things like plot or structure can be chewed-over by your logical mind. But the sharp little details that make a scene work have to come out of your creative side. You can’t force them into existence; you can only put yourself into a place where they can spring into existence.

When they do appear, it’s important to get them recorded quickly. Don’t trust yourself to remember them later! For me, the best way to save ideas while on a walk is to use the voice memo feature on my phone. Then later, when I get back to my desk, I transcribe them. Since walking-and-thinking usually takes long enough that I don’t have time to write as soon as I get back (real life, unfortunately, is waiting for me), I end up transcribing the voice notes at the start of my next writing session. Hearing my own ideas about the upcoming scene, and typing them out, is a great way to ease my mind into a writing state.

Whatever your specific method is, I’ll bet twopence to a pound that there’s something you can do to move your story along that isn’t chaining yourself to a desk (and isn’t playing hooky either). If you can figure out what you have to do to get your muse to whisper some details in your ear, you’ll spend less time in a literary wasteland, trying to figure out which way you should go next.

filed under walking-your-way-to-better-writing

Listening to books

Jason Hough recently brought up something that I’ve been noticing a lot myself lately: that listening to audiobooks can improve your writing. A few months ago I started listening to audiobooks on my morning and evening commutes (since if you’re going to be stuck in Bay Area traffic for 45 minutes, you may as well listen to a good book).

What I’ve found is that my “writer’s mind” is much more active while listening to books than it is when I read them as text. Sometimes I try hard to analyze a particular writer’s technique when I’m reading, but it’s always a struggle, because I’ll get caught up in the story itself and stop paying attention to what the author is doing.

Listening to a book, though, is completely different. For whatever reason, I can immerse myself in the story while at the same time thinking about whether it works, how it works, and why it works. My mind will regularly ‘ding’ with thoughts along the lines of “ooh, that was well-done” or “meh, that could be better.” I’ve started to feel like I’m learning much more about the technique of the writers I’m reading.

And now that I think of it, that’s usually how my brain works when I’m watching a TV show or movie–a fact that my wife absolutely loves. Because walking out of a good movie, it’s perfectly normal and lovable to spend the next half-hour dissecting everything about it, right?

Maybe it’s a good thing there’s nobody in the car with me listening to my audiobooks…

filed under there’s-no-such-thing-as-over-analysis

Best middle-grade book you’ve never heard of: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Latham, won the Newbery Medal in 1956, but since then it seems to have slipped into obscurity. An aunt gave it to me for my eleventh birthday, and while it didn’t seem terribly interesting based on the cover, I was fortunately at an age where I would read just about anything, so I lay down on my bed, set the book on my chest, and cracked it open.

A full explanation of the story wouldn’t have gotten me much more interested, either: a historical novel about a mathematician from the eighteenth century? Meh. But Latham does a fabulous job of endearing the reader to young Nat Bowditch, who was born near Boston just before the start of the Revolutionary War. His mother and  grandmother die at the start of the story, and a sister and brother not long after–if there’s one thing this book teaches you, it’s how fragile life was before modern medicine–and Nat is left with his father and older sister. Nat demonstrates a knack for mathematics, to the point where he’s punished by a schoolteacher who doesn’t believe he’s actually solving arithmetic problems on his own.

Nat dreams of going to Harvard, but is forced to quit school to help his father with the bookkeeping at their cooperage. When the business is sold–“lock, stock, and bookkeeper,” as the new owner jokes, Nat becomes an indentured servant, meaning he won’t be free to go to Harvard (or anywhere else) for nine long years.

This is where the main theme of the book starts to show through: when life throws up obstacles, the only thing you can do is just find your way around them. A fellow bookkeeper complains that he and Nat are ‘becalmed,’ but Sam, an older captain, tells Nat that when the wind dies, a ship has to ‘sail by ash breeze:’

Nat asked, “How do you sail by ash breeze?”

Sam grinned. “When a ship is becalmed, the wind died down, she can’t move, sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her. Or they’ll carry out anchors and heave them over, and the crew will lean on the capstan bars and drag the ship up to where the anchors are heaved over. Oars are made of ash–white ash. So when you get ahead by your own get up and get, that’s when you sail by ash breeze.”

Nat takes Sam’s advice to heart and sets about learning Latin, French, and Portuguese with the help of people he meets around Boston. He gets access to a local library and teaches himself mathematics.

When he’s finally releases from his indentured servitude, he goes to sea as a “supercargo,” a term for anyone who isn’t able to directly help with the mechanics of sailing. He’s tasked with keeping the books for the ship’s trade, but he develops an interest in the mathematics of celestial navigation. Many sailors of the time prefer traditional dead-reckoning because they don’t understand or trust the newer mathematical techniques. Nat tries to reassure them that math can be trusted, but he has a hard time winning anyone over.

One night, while reviewing the primary navigation text of the day, The New Practical Navigator by John Moore of the English Royal Navy, Nat finds an error in one of its tables. He bursts into his captain’s stateroom:

Captain Prince jumped to his feet. “What’s happened?

“I found an error in one of Moore’s tables!”

Prince looked at him in utter disgust. “Is that what you came slamming in here about? An error in which table?”

Nat told him.

Prince gave a short laugh. “My dear Mr. Bowditch, Moore didn’t compute that table. Do you know who did? Nevil Maskelyne, the royal astronomer of England!”

“I can’t help who computed it!” Nat barked. “There’s an error!” He showed Prince his page of figures. “There! I checked it! See? Why didn’t Moore check those figures before he accepted them?”

Prince looked at the paper covered with Nat’s tiny figures. “All that, to find one error? And there are probably two hundred thousand figures in those tables. Maybe that’s why he didn’t check every figure, Mr. Bowditch.”

“But he should have! Mathematics is nothing if it isn’t accurate! Men’s lives depend on the accuracy of those tables! It’s, it’s, criminal to have a mistake in a book like this! Do you hear me! It’s criminal! Men’s lives depend on these figures!”

Nat invents a new way of calculating a ship’s position by sighting the moon and eventually decides to write his own navigation text, and spends years of his life making sure that it is accurate enough for sailors to rely on. He becomes a captain of his own ship, and demonstrates the usefulness of mathematical navigation by sailing to trading ports around the world.

This book was engrossing enough that I’m pretty sure I read it five or six times as a teenager. I suppose I knew that it was more-or-less historically accurate, but I didn’t realize at the time how important Nat Bowditch was to sailing and navigation. The book he published in 1802, The American Practical Navigator, is still carried on every commissioned US Navy vessel. When doing research on celestial navigation for a science-fiction novel, I read through online forums which referred to Bowditch’s book. I felt proud, as if I’d just heard about the triumphant success of an old grade-school friend. These sailors and navigators might know everything about Nathanial Bowditch’s navigation text, but they didn’t know Nat Bowditch like I did.

filed under newbery-gets-it-right

Legal semantics

I swim a few times a week, and so I see this sign a lot. Apparently a few years ago California legislators (god bless ’em) passed a law saying this text needs to be displayed near all public pools:


Persons having currently active diarrhea, or who have had active diarrhea within the last 14 days, shall not be allowed to enter the water.

It’s basically a swimming pool equivalent of the ubiquitous this facility has chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer. But what I find funny about it is the distinction between “currently active diarrhea” and “active diarrhea within the last 14 days.”

If there’s a semantic (and apparently, legal) difference between those two cases, then what, exactly, is “currently active diarrhea?” Any normal definition of currently active would mean people who have recently experienced digestive indistress–but that’s a case covered by “within the last 14 days.” Meaning the only remaining definition of currently active diarrhea would be people whose gastric misery is, in the most literal sense, currently active.

filed under eww-gross

The OTHER form of grammar to watch out for in your writing

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear as a writer is to avoid using adverbs. To some writers, the adverb is the spawn of the grammar devil. “Search your manuscript for any words ending in -ly,” they’ll say, “and kill them with fire.”

It’s sound advice to watch out for your quicklies and loudlies and antidisestablieshmentarilies and make sure that they’re really necessary. But there’s another form of grammar which gets overused by beginning writers: the participle phrase.

In case it’s been a while since you took English 101, a participle phrase is a verb phrase that serves as an adjective or adverb:

Strutting up to the car, Mary held out her hands.

The running back charged through the defenders, leaving linebackers scattered in his wake.

Strutting up to them is a participle phrase which modifies the noun ‘Mary,’ and leaving linebackers scattered in his wake is a participle phrase which modifies the verb ‘charged.’ Note that participle phrases are different from gerunds, which are verb phrases which serve as nouns:

Skiing through trees is my favorite pastime.

He wasn’t quite used to the process of transforming himself into a unicorn.

Like the passive voice (another form of grammar that you’ve surely been warned about), participle phrases are weak and indirect. They decorate a clause with an additional, “this-is-happening-too” verb, instead of being broken out into their own clause. Participle phrases are like the sprig of parsley that garnishes your soup: they look pretty and smell nice, but don’t mistake them for the main course.

Writers sometimes use participle phrases as a way of ‘adding an extra verb’ to a sentence. But if the action described by the phrase is an important one, it’s probably better off as its own clause or sentence. For example:

Swinging the sword with all of his might, the knight chopped off the dragon’s head.

The knight’s mighty swing is important enough to be treated as an actual verb clause, instead of a tacked-on phrase:

The knight swung his sword with all of his might and chopped off the dragon’s head.

The participle phrase can seem even more tacked-on when it doesn’t make sense when combined with the main verb of the sentence. People can certainly look around while walking into a room, or pick up an object while speaking. But what about this?

“You are finished,” the knight said, swinging his sword and chopping off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.

Wowsers, that’s quite the participle: two verbs and a prepositional phrase, all glued to a line of dialogue. Even if you assume that it’s possible to say that while actually chopping off a dragon’s head, it makes the swinging and chopping seem like a casual, tacked-on action. That might work for chopping a head of lettuce, but probably not for the head of dragon. Compare it with this:

“You are finished,” the knight said. He swung his sword and chopped off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.

So what should you use instead of participle phrases? Your best bet is the good ol’ subject-verb-object. Compare these passages:

Sliding down the bannister, Joey hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He skidded across the floor in his socks, flailing his arms wildly. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, leaping down the stairs after him. Turning the corner into the living room, Joey braked to a halt in front of their mother.

Four participle phrases in four sentences—a bit of an extreme example, but I’ve seen passages that were almost as bad. Compare it with this version:

Joey slid down the bannister and hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He flailed his arms wildly as he skidded across the floor in his socks. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, and leaped down the stairs after him. Joey turned the corner into the living room and braked to a halt in front of their mother.

Breaking the actions into separate clauses gives a much more immediate feeling to the action. It’s probably not necessary to eliminate every participle phrase from this passage: flailing his arms wildly is a good description of what he’s doing while he skids across the room in his socks. Whether you keep that phrase or not depends on what sort of effect and style you’re going for.

Which brings us to the most important point of all—just like the passive voice and adverbs, participle phrases are not evil. It’s not necessary to purge your writing of all -ly and -ing suffixes, but make sure you know when (and why) they work and don’t work. If you want to write bam-bam, bare-bones action like Elmore Leonard, you’re going to develop stylistic rules that are very different than if you want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. So re-read your favorite authors and try to figure out what makes their style work. Do this for as many authors as you can, and then you can develop your own style, picking the choices and styles that you like best.

To (mis-)quote Arthur C. Clarke: All these forms of grammar are yours. Use them wisely. Use them in peace.

filed under spawn-of-the-grammar-devil

Scrivener for non-scriveners

I suppose writers had it pretty bad three or four thousand years ago, when chisels and stone tablets were the only writing implements to be had. We must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when parchment and ink came around, and then (for the handwriting-impaired among us) the mechanical typewriter. And for the last thirty years or so, we’ve been able to write and revise on-screen with word processors, instead of having to retype everything anew with each draft. “Progress,” wrote Robert Heinlein, “isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”

Then God bless the lazy men and women at Literature and Latte, the makers of Scriviner. They’ve spent the last several years trying to perfect the task of writing, and they’ve come damn close. At this point, you may as well go dip your quill in ink and grab a length of foolscap as use something as antiquated as Microsoft Word. Word is fine for shorter-length stuff (anything up to ten thousand words or so). It’s got a great revision-tracking system, and since it’s the standard format for editors and agents, you’re going to be using it to share revisions at some point. But I shudder at the thought of trying to use it to actually write a full-length novel.

Folders and Sub-documents

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One of the things that Scrivener does an amazing job of is letting you break your manuscript up into folders and sub-documents. With Word, you either put everything into a single file (which makes navigating difficult) or you break each chapter or scene up into a separate document (which makes it hard to join it all together again).

With Scrivener, you create a ‘project’ for each manuscript. The project is like a miniature, self-contained file system. You can create folders and subfolders to organize all your various scenes, chapters, and notes, which means that you don’t have to wrangle the herd of separate-but-related Word documents that make up your manuscript. I like to have a folder for each major draft of a novel, with each chapter in a draft broken out into a separate document. That makes it easy for me to navigate between chapters in my current draft and see the word count for the chapter I’m working on. I can also easily find a particular chapter in an older draft if I want to resurrect some bit of description or dialog. Some people break their manuscripts down even further, with a folder per chapter and a document for each scene in the chapter. Scrivener will let you do things like search and replace or word counts across an entire draft, so it never feels like breaking your manuscript up into sub-documents ever becomes ‘too much.’ It’s really just about whatever is most convenient for you.


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Snapshots are a way of keeping older versions of a particular document around in case you want to go back to them. Snapshots are astonishingly, wonderfully, awe-inspiringly amazing, and once you get used to them, you won’t be able to write without them. I create a snapshot of whatever I’m working on at the end of each writing session. That gives me the freedom to hack apart a chapter and put it back together again without worrying about losing my work. You can restore a document back to a particular snapshot if you want, or you can view the differences between an older snapshot and the current version to see what’s changed. Some people even use snapshots as a way to work with writing partners or editors, by taking a snapshot of their original version and then comparing with the new version.


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Compiling is at the heart of what makes the project-based, folder-and-document structure of Scrivener work. You can keep your manuscript broken up into whatever chunks make the most sense to you when you’re writing—scenes, chapters, sections—and when you’re ready, you compile them all back together again for output to a printer, exporting to a Word doc, or even generating a ready-to-read Kindle ebook. Scrivener can automatically add chapter headings, page breaks, and title pages to make the output look exactly the way you want.

There’s another great benefit to compiling. After my years of using Microsoft Word, I’ve gotten used to good old Times New Roman. More editors are accepting drafts in roman type, but some still require fixed-width fonts like Courier. I like 1.5 line spacing with a little extra between paragraphs, but submission formats often ask for double-spacing. In a regular word processor, you’d have to constantly change back and forth between different options in order to generate a printed or digital copy with particular formatting.

In Scrivener, the font, spacing, and styling that you use in the editor have nothing at all to do with how it gets compiled. If I need traditional typewriter-style printouts, I can choose that option when I compile for printing, and the editor never needs to know that I’d been working in mushy old Times New Roman the entire time. You can set up headers, page numbers, fonts, and spacings to exactly the format that a picky journal or magazine asks for, and then re-use those settings whenever you’re ready to submit.

Scrivener can also compile your project to the Kindle ebook format. I’ve written before about how useful it is to read your own work in a ‘realistic’ setting. With Scrivener, it’s easy to take the latest draft of your manuscript and export it to your Kindle (or the Kindle app on iOS/Android) and read it over. While I don’t suggest that you use its output format for actual self-publishing—you’ll want an app that’s designed specifically for that—the Kindle output is a great way to share with friends, family, and beta readers.

The details

Scrivener does a lot of little things well, too—it has an excellent tool for setting word count goals, which I use for making sure that I’m on track to get to a particular manuscript length by a certain date. It has a solid ‘distraction-free’ composition mode, and great tools for outlining, cork-board-style organization, and note-taking. It can back up your entire project to a timestamped zip file, which you can easily back up to an external drive or cloud file service so that you can go back to older versions even if you really cock things up.

There are probably a dozen other great Scrivener features that I hardly use but other people will swear by. It does a good enough job at everything so that I’ve never felt like I was leaving anything behind by abandoning Microsoft Word. I even have a Scrivener project for blog posts, so that I don’t have to worry about the internet eating my latest draft. I still have to do a little formatting once it gets into WordPress, but all of the basics like bolding/italicizing work properly with a simple copy-paste.

Best of all, Scrivener is reasonably-priced: $40 for either Mac or Windows, and you can sometimes grab it on sale for half that. Do yourself a favor and check it out. I’ll bet that after a week or two using Scrivener, you’ll look back at the bad old days of regular ‘word processors’ and wonder how you ever got anything done.

from the I-made-my-word-count-for-the-week-dept.

SpaceX sticks the landing, again

Okay, so you can’t really see all that much in this video, except for a big white flash and then suddenly there’s a rocket ship sitting there on the landing pad. But holy crap this is cool. For the second time, SpaceX has landed a first-stage rocket on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

I don’t like to be too fanboyish, but it’s hard not to be when it comes to Elon Musk. Between SpaceX, Tesla, and stuff like the HyperLoop, the guy is larger-than-life in all the right ways. I remember reading about Edison and Tesla when I was a kid. I’ll bet if there are still anything resembling ‘books’ when my grandkids grow up, they’ll be reading about Elon Musk.

filed under robert-heinlein-would-be-proud

The eyes have it

For me it’s all about the eyes. Specifically, where they’re pointing. In any scene I write that has more than two characters, I end up with at least three or four ‘looks.’ She looked at him oddly. He turned to look at her. I looked up from what I was doing. You can’t pull a fast one on any of my characters, because whatever is happening, they’re looking at it.

Their conversations, though, are full of momentary pauses. Someone will often refuse to answer someone else for a moment. Or they’ll be silent for a moment. Or they’ll do anything except speak—but always only for a moment.

As soon as they get outside, though, it’s the sun and the horizon, preferably combined. Suns really like to ‘hang low on the horizon’ in my stories; apparently my characters live in a world where it’s always late afternoon. If the sun does happen to end up in a different part of the sky, I’ll definitely let you know about it. The sunlight will filter through leaves, gleam on the hood of a car, or shine in someone’s eyes.

I’m guessing you have them too—words or phrases that you overuse. They’re like your own special spice: whenever you’re making dinner, you pull them out and sprinkle them on. You know what this casserole needs? A sun hanging low on the horizon.

The number one rule of drafting is don’t stop, so if you’re in the flow and the time seems right for a character to look oddly at someone or refuse to answer for a moment, then let it flow. Who knows? Maybe this will be the one spot in your story where you let that phrase shine. Maybe all of those other uses are the extraneous ones, and this one right here is the whopper that you let ride.

But when the time comes to start revising, you have to be on your guard for your little bon mots. I find it’s handy to build up a list of words that I overuse in general, and then a separate list per manuscript of phrases that I’m pretty sure are popping up too frequently. My first novel is set on Mars, and the color of the sky shows up a lot. It’s an important thing to describe—if you were suddenly transported there, the color of the sky would be one of the most striking and memorable elements—but I have to make sure I don’t describe it the same way each time. So sometimes, when I’m writing a particular bit of description, I think to myself I bet I’ve used this somewhere else and so I jot it down in my note-taking app. Then later I do some project-wide searches to whittle my descriptions down so that each one is as unique as possible.

It’s late afternoon here in Pacifica, and the sun is hanging low on the horizon, so I’m going to look up from what I’m doing here and go see if I can refuse to answer someone’s question. For a moment.

filed under david-bowman’s-retina

Let your characters own your plot

Plot is a tricky thing. It’s like being popular back in high school—the best way to get it is to not care about it too much. If everyone sees you trying too hard, then you’re going to spend your prom night in the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot throwing donuts at passing cars.

What’s so hard about plot? Why it’s it just ‘deciding what happens?’ A follows B follows C, right? So all you have to do is come up with that sequence: A then B then C, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.

That’s what makes plot at tricky thing, because that is absolutely, positively, without a doubt not the way to develop a good plot.

The problem is that by coming up with the sequence of events directly, you, the author, are sticking your big meat-stick of a hand into the story and arranging things how you want them. In order to get your big climax, your hero has to sacrifice herself here, and your antagonist needs to be in position over here, so you just pick them up and move them where they need to be. But people don’t want to read stories where the author is moving characters. People want to read stories where the characters move themselves.

And this is the crux of the problem: as a writer, you obviously need to have some idea of what will happen. If you keep your big sausage-fingers out of the pie, so to speak, won’t that mean anything can happen? Are you going to write your fantasy epic and then find out halfway through that your protagonist just doesn’t want to face the bad guy, and so she just gives up and goes back home? Are you going to write a historical romance where your main characters decide that society is right and they’re not a good match for each other?

Fortunately, no. Even if you stay away from directly manipulating your characters, you have quite a bit of control over the plot, because you get to decide the answers to two key questions: who are the characters, and what are the obstacles? Your answers to these questions produce a plot that is owned by your characters, rather than the other way around.

The reason your fantasy-epic protagonist is going to push all the way to the end to face your bad guy is because she has guts and determination. It’s because she’s highly motivated and because she has the skills and knowledge necessary to make it all the way to the end and save the world. You know that’s what she will do, not because she’s a puppet on a string, but because you know who she is.

Conversely, the reason your fantasy-epic protagonist isn’t going to figure out that the real bad guy is actually the crown prince is because she’s trusting, perhaps to a fault. It’s because her best friend told her an innocuous lie that turned out to hide a critical piece of information. You know she’s not going to short-circuit the whole story and defeat the bad guy in chapter four, not because you manipulate her into taking the long route, but because you manipulate her surroundings.

Imagine a sailboat race around a series of islands. The ships go from point A (the starting line) to point B (the finish line). Each ship is self-motivated—there’s no gigantic hand dragging them every which way across the ocean—and yet the race is ‘determined’ in advance by the quality of each captain and ship, by the weather, and by the obstacles that appear in each ship’s path. Because you, the all-powerful god of sailboat races, control these factors, you don’t need to drag them where you want them to go. They’ll do it because of who they are and because of the external events that happen to them.

It’s certainly possible to go too far with this sort of manipulation, even if you stay away from directly ‘moving’ your characters where you want them to go. A character’s reaction to a particular obstacle might be perfectly natural and believable, but if the appearance of the obstacle is too obviously designed to control the plot, then readers will see your authorial process ‘at work.’ In other words, it’s almost as bad to make an obstacle conveniently appear that makes a character do something as it is to just make them do what you want them to do in the first place. Make sure that when you manipulate the environment, your manipulations are believable and as minimal as possible. It’s not credible to have a freak storm blow out of a clear-blue sky to blow a sailboat far off course. It could be perfectly credible, on the other hand, to have a storm blow up on a dark and blustery day. It won’t be believable if your protagonist’s friend withholds a crucial bit of information for no apparent reason; it might be perfectly believable if the friend was angry or jealous, and didn’t understand how important the information was.

The world of your story is your own. Your characters belong to you. But the plot belongs to the characters. It’s in their hands—let them sail.

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