Novels to Video Games: Taking the Leap

This post was originally published over at Abyssal Arts, where I am collaborating on world and story design for an upcoming game. If you haven’t yet done so, I encourage you to head on over HERE and sign up for updates – more story pieces will be released as our release date nears later this year!

-M

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Pick up a book on writing novels, and a significant number of chapters will be devoted to writing the character arc and pairing it with your world. Protagonist and world (or plot) will in a sense be foils, both uniquely suited to the other and diametrically opposed. The world and the protagonist play off of one another, leading the protagonist to struggle, fail, learn, and ultimately conquer. However clinical it may sound, I can assure you that as one gets down into the guts of the story, working out this interplay can be exquisitely frustrating,

Still, when Keaton White approached me about writing the story for Shroud, I felt confident. I had written characters from bored noblewomen to scientific researchers to trainee assassins—and I love video games. I began building a story with, in retrospect, a comical level of naiveté.

One of the first unexpected emotions to hit was guilt. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman once described visiting the set of the movie Stardust, and seeing the set crew building a flying pirate ship:

“I felt so guilty. I wasn’t saying how great it was; I was going, “I am so sorry I made it up!” Because it didn’t cost me anything, just the price of whatever tea I was drinking and some ink. And now 70 people have spent two months working to build this thing and you can dance on the deck. It was very, very strange.

I first read this quote years and years go, and thought it was amusing, but it really was very strange to dream up cities and settings, and watch artists spend hours upon hours creating sketches, coming humbly back to me to ask if this was what I had envisioned for the characters and the world. No matter how much they enjoyed their work or how much time they expected to spend working on a world, the experience was a wakeup call: I was no longer chewing on the end of a pen, sitting alone at my desk and dreaming up things I could change at a moment’s notice. Other people’s livelihoods hinged on me not only getting this right and creating an engaging world, but being respectful of their time meant that I must do so quickly and surely, with a minimum of rework. I went back to dreaming, but more seriously.

As I started to write the character, issues became plain: not only did I need to make a character arc largely without internal dialogue, but I needed to show the character in juxtaposition to the world without a great deal of external dialogue, either. This was an idea I had simply never faced before. The world would be shown as it was, not as my character perceived it, and my character’s main actions would need to be comprehensible, while allowing for the characters to feel they had an influence on the story. Oh, crap, would be a good assessment—if not quite a verbatim transcript—of my internal dialogue at this juncture.

And this was before we added in the game mechanics, cut scene limitations, and the opinions of the other game designers. Necessary changes began to accrue, shifting the storyline subtly in an increasing number of ways. I gave up and went to play Dragon Age, which only served to unnerve me even more. Dialogue wheels! Extensive character lists! Multiple writers!

It took a few weeks to click, but when it did we went full steam ahead…in the other direction. In retrospect, maybe this approach should have been obvious from the start: with one writer, there was no way we could recreate the vastness of a AAA game like Mass Effect, using dialogue options and motion-capture. Although it was obvious, as well, that we should not have thought of that as a failure: after all, Thatgamecompany had shown with Journey that it was entirely possible to create an outstanding game and a rich story by working within limitations instead of pushing for things that were not possible.

We considered what we had, and what we could do. Limited dialogue? Well, how about almost none at all? After all, video games are fundamentally directed by actions. Characters could mostly silent and still reflect the feelings of the player, if they were allowed outlets to choose their antagonists in quests, switch alliances, and suggest new ones. Our protagonist, being an outsider to the complex and vicious politics of Iskendrun, would naturally take time to become vocal, with much of their character shown in their choice of allies.

Just like structuring character development along the lines of action was an obvious choice in retrospect, writing these choices is infinitely easier in concept than it is in practice. As a novelist, there is the expectation that as soon as the work is out of one’s hands, readers will bring their own perspective to it. It is a new perspective entirely to plan for the engagement of the players to be ongoing, and to prepare for the possibility that it could shift the story in directions I had not originally planned—because once Season 1 begins, the players themselves will be the voice of Iskendrun’s politics. And that means setting them loose in the world our development team has brought to life…and letting the mechanics I set in advance play out.

Z is for Zealous

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Rounding out the blogging challenge this month with Z for Zealous – or in other words, about as good a description of authors as I’ve ever met. No matter how difficult, authors continue on their course with joy and, well, zeal. Today, I want to celebrate a few things about you all, because I’ve never met one of you that didn’t impress the hell out of me. So let’s talk! Let’s talk about your:

  • Energy: human limits? What human limits? The sheer amount that any author handles on a daily basis is pretty incredible. I’m seeing authors writing on lunch breaks, on buses, while waiting to pick their kids up from school. I’m seeing people get up early to respond to fans on twitter, staying up late to incorporate editor feedback, ,and reading extensively to tweak listings. Always improving, always producing. Where the energy comes from, I don’t know.
  • Perseverance: Writing is hard. Authors try to turn a mirror on the core of the soul, and even the happy parts of that lie deep below the skin, difficult to see and difficult to bare to the world. Even were we to strip away the emotions, the craft itself is difficult. How long have we stared at manuscripts, searching for a word or wondering why no words seemed adequate? Writing is hard. But authors persevere.
  • Generosity: I have never met a single author who didn’t try to help me out if I asked – and sometimes even if I didn’t! I have seen people be snide with one another, it’s true, and go head to head about everything from book pricing to editing – but every author I’ve met has also been generous with their time, wisdom, and moral support.
  • Creativity: a no-brainer, right? And yet, it remains truly inspiring to watch. Authors spin tales out of memories and air, and let’s be honest, we could read them all day and still look for more books. Where it comes from, I don’t know, but these people are pretty cool. (See also: musicians, painters, sculptors, teachers, and so many more!)

So give yourself a pat on the back today, authors – and fans, go track down one of your faves and give a Like on Facebook, or a shout-out on Twitter (since authors are usually fans, this one applies to you all, too). Remember just how cool it is that storytelling is a thing, and that we get to take part in it. Remember how important it is, and how deep an impact writing and reading have had on your life – and be proud that you are part of a tradition that goes back so far into our history. Z is for Zealous, fellow authors, and you are nothing if not that.

Cheers!

-M

Y is for Yarrrrr …

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Yarrrrr, piracy! Okay, to be serious for just a moment here, today’s topic is something that gets a lot of authors hopping mad (or sad), so I’m going to try to approach it with some gentleness as well as my usual…whatever it is. However, and I’ll be up front about this, my goal for today is to get you to take DRM off your books, and then deal with piracy the same way you deal with bad reviews: maybe have a good cry, cool down with some tea, go running or knit a bit or whatever it is you do to decompress, and move on with your life.

The thing about piracy, unfortunately, is that you have zero ways to prevent it beyond not writing and distributing books. However, fortunately, you have many options for how to feel about it. Because let’s be honest, initially it feels pretty terrible to see your work on pirating sites. And, yes, the internet does make it easier to pirate books, in connectivity and in bulk. It’s not like you’d have much luck leaving a note on a street corner saying, “if you have a copy of X…” It’s indubitably easier now to get copies of books you didn’t pay for. And so we look at internet piracy and we think, “I’m going to put that DRM stuff on my books because I don’t want people to steal them.”

But there’s a few problems with this. First, putting DRM on your books means you’re really treating everyone who buys them like they might be criminals, which is just rude, and it also creates some snags for people who want to shop on one site but read on a different e-reader, etc. Also, and this is important, the internet didn’t invent piracy, and the internet isn’t responsible for making it possible. If piracy means, “reading books without paying for them,” or, “buying books without giving the author a cut,” then libraries and used bookstores invented piracy. And librarians and bookstore owners both make a living from this, but we don’t call it piracy, and we don’t get angry about it.

Why not? Three reasons: first of all, we believe that (used) bookstores and libraries serve a greater public good; second, both libraries and used bookstores were part of the implicit contract when the author got published; and third, neither of these things makes use of a new technology. The first reason is, in my opinion, indubitably true, the second is something we should use to ground our reactions against piracy instead of inflate them, and the third is an unfortunate truth about how our minds work, wherein we get upset about new technology doing the same things humans always do.

Now, emphatically, my point today is not to defend piracy. Authors need to eat, too, and so do musicians and editors and cover artists and…and when you say Stephen King doesn’t need any more money, well, while he indisputably makes a handsome chunk of it, some of that money also goes to pay the rest of the people working on his books. Absolutely make use of your public libraries and your bookstores. Support your libraries! They provide a truly incalculable public service, and our society is far better for having them. I read voraciously as a child, and that is something my parents could afford because we had libraries and used bookstores in the mix. However, if you have the funds and you enjoy an author’s work, please consider buying copies. If you have the funds, please buy new, not used, copies of books and kick some royalties back to the authors. Thus ends my plea to give money to people who produce the things you love.

So, no, my point here is not that piracy is great. My point is that authors have a choice:

  • You can look at piracy, gnash your teeth, and then throw your hands up in the air and say, “sweet mother of krakens, I wish people wouldn’t do that, I spent a CRAPLOAD of time on that book,” and then go take a run or watch a movie or something, OR
  • You can look at piracy, gnash your teeth, put DRM on your books, and drive your blood pressure through the roof as you research ways to get your content taken down off of piracy sites, and otherwise spend time obsessing over it

Now, just to get the straw man arguments out of the way …

  • Stealing someone’s book and putting it back up for sale on a website as your own is NOT piracy, it is copyright infringement. Also bad, but a different problem
  • If you’re thinking, “but DRM seems reasonable,” please remember that DRM slows down the piracy effort by around a half an hour tops, and then read this comic

Yes, piracy sucks. No, I can’t make it any better that people read your book and then return it on ebook sites, or that they download it without paying you. I know that feels just terrible and unfair. What I will say, however, is that you can choose how to feel about it – mostly, you can choose whether you think about it or not. Almost anything under the sun that’s made, people will steal. This is not your target market. Your target market is the vast bulk of people who will pay for books in the genres they love, from authors who do good work. Aim for them, and for the sake of your blood pressure, let the rest go.

-M

X is for X Factor

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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You know, the X factor. The thing that makes you different from all other authors. …X is really difficult, okay?

Because, you see, you are in many ways a special snowflake. There neither is nor ever will be another person on earth who has seen what you have seen, interpreted it as you have interpreted it, and had your exact view on the Nature of All Things. Which is pretty cool, because it gives you an automatic niche as an author. Your X factor, however, is a double-edged sword that can be used not only to propel you to the bestseller lists, but can also (when handled clumsily) put you in the ebook equivalent of the bargain bin.

So today it’s time for the tough talk, my dears. But let’s start with the good stuff, shall we? Your status as the one and only you gives you the opportunity to…

  • …create gorgeous metaphors
  • …build characters who will live in readers’ heads for decades
  • …make relevant, necessary, and apt analogies to the world in which we find ourselves
  • …bring hope

And, if you work very hard at your writing, seek feedback and listen to criticism (even if you don’t always make the suggested edits), revise drafts, and otherwise strive for perfection, these are things that are within your reach. I do want to warn you that even in the face of eventual success, it will be a path that contains plenty of disappointment. Your first drafts will not be what you want them to be. Your third drafts, polished to within an inch of their little wordy lives, will have areas that your beta readers (or editors) do not understand. Suggestions will be made. You will have to tear your beloved book apart at the seams and stitch it back together.

It is going to be the literary equivalent of training for a marathon, or studying for the bar. It is not going to be easy, but you can absolutely do it, and furthermore, it is worth it. Authors have a sort of literary echolocation, telling them whether they’re getting closer to correct, or further. Maddening as it can be, when you listen to it and keep trying until you stumble onto the Right Words, it is as if the heavens open and the angels sing. And only you, only you, can produce that draft. Pretty cool, huh? There isn’t anyone else in the world who can do it.

So it can be done. You can do it. Or, and I am being quite serious here, you can fall into a trap that will rob your writing of its power and make little use of your talent: confronted with negative feedback (invariably on your favorite scene, by the way), you can believe that your special-snowflake-ness is so special that readers simply cannot comprehend its wondrous qualities. You can, unless you are very careful, believe that the words you used are more important than the concept you meant to convey – and that your beta readers’ incomprehension of those themes is their fault and not yours. You can tell yourself that it isn’t for those people. You can tell yourself that you poured so much effort into this that it can’t possibly be crap.

Now, let’s take a short sanity break. The things in the above paragraph are all ideas that you will entertain at one point or another in the face of criticism. They will show up in your head, and that’s not a sign that you’re a Crazy Author. It really isn’t! We all get those thoughts. When we get them after the book is published, we call them reviews, and it’s no easier then, either. You will rage internally.

And then, my fellow authors, please remember what is important, and unique, and wonderful:  your vision, your take on the world, your story. Go back to your manuscript, and make it what it can be. That is your X factor, not any of the arrangements of words you have chosen so far.

Good luck.

W is for Winging It

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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There are some people in this world who can write a perfectly paced masterpiece with elegant characterization and believable dialogue, and they can turn it out by instinct in 1-2 drafts. Statistically speaking, you’re not one of them (and neither am I). There are also some people who possess the ability to plot out, scene by scene, a masterpiece they have not yet started to write, and follow their outline from start to finish without the need to change anything. Statistically speaking, you are also not one of those people, and frankly, I think they may have made bargains with occult powers to be able to do that. It seems like legitimate magic. The rest of us muddle along somewhere in between, either writing a bit and then planning a bit and then writing a bit, or planning things really loosely and letting things get from A to B on their own, or (my personal favorite) making a fairly detailed outline and then hucking it out the window 20,000 words in when it no longer works.

 There’s a lot to be said for planning things out in advance, but there’s also a lot to be said for today’s topic: winging it. Because it’s almost inevitable that at some point, you’re going to have to, and I’m going to tell you honestly that some of my best writing has come from the days when I felt like I had been thrown into a pool, not knowing how to swim, not knowing where the edges were, and simply trying not to drown (by which I mean, hurl my laptop out into the street).

But winging it is also what happens when your fingers are flying over the keys and you’re too caught up in the scene to care about typos. Winging it is what happens when you need a solution and you write down the first thing that comes to mind (that flying pirate ship in Stardust? Yep). Winging it is what happens when, in despair, you write down the only thing you can think of to get from A to B because what you had on your outline isn’t working, and go wallow in your incompetence over a cup of tea, only to come back and find out that the scene was pretty good.

Is this post a call for writers to throw away their outlines and frolic along without guide or plan? Oh, heavens, no. Is winging it going to produce flawless works of fiction that need no edits? Nope, any more than plotted other writing is. But there are just some things you cannot plan, and when your spidey sense goes all tingly, telling you that the scene you outlined is wrong somehow, well … sometimes you just have to follow that spidey sense into the morass of your subconscious and hope you emerge with something good, rather than clinging to the wrong scene out of intellectual stubbornness. Don’t waste hours trying to talk yourself into liking that wrong plot point – wing it and see what happens. Remember: no time spent writing is wasted.

Happy winging it, fellow authors!

V is for Villain

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Lisa Corn, of “Wired for Story,” is of the (well backed up) opinion that we identify with the protagonist because stories show us how we would survive if the events at hand played out in our lives. She suggests that we should play up the same qualities in protagonists that hold us back in our own lives – resistance to change, a tendency to hold secrets, the desire to get something for nothing. In “Writing the Breakout Novel,” meanwhile, Don Maass reminds us that part of why we read is to identify with people who do the things we cannot or will not do (not entirely a distinct point from Cron’s), and that our protagonist should not be afraid to say that witty comeback or sneak out with their parents’ car.

(I recommend both books, by the way.)

What Maass and Cron are identifying is that our protagonists have the opportunity to hook into the reader’s unknown desires, being both a character to relate to (“I tried to pass World History without studying, too!”) and look up to (“I always wished I could tell off that snooty English teacher, but I never had the guts”). However, what we often do is strip our protagonist down the person we wish we wanted to be.

…let’s unwind that. I’ll bet that what you wish you wanted to do this weekend is a deep clean of your house. You saw that really pretty picture in a magazine, and you’re thinking if you just throw out, you know, most of what you own, and then scrub the floors as they have never been scrubbed before, your house could be as beautiful as that one. After all, you could learn how to make slip-covers, right? And you could paint the walls. If you really wanted to do that, life would be so much easier. Unfortunately, this weekend any number of things will seem more appealing: pretty weather for a walk, that one book or video game, going out with friends, marathoning a show online.

According to Maass and Cron above, the protagonist should be the person who bunks off of work to play the video games, and maybe has some flippant response to their boss about how there may be Serious Consequences to their actions. Perhaps they then grow up a little by the end of the book, becoming the dependable person that can save the family business, but they sure as heck aren’t going to start that way – they’re going to start as someone we can relate to through and through. Unfortunately, many of us make our protagonist into the person who wants to clean their house and have a light salad for dinner. They probably even have matching socks!

Which leads us to a standard problem: the villain is often more relatable than the protagonist. The villain (in this case, not antagonist) goes for what they want, they sneer and make sarcastic remarks, they hold grudges, they embody the emotions we hook into most deeply but aren’t very proud of: fear, thwarted love, anger. Meanwhile, in many cases, the protagonist has just neatly made their bed and is eating a balanced breakfast, after which they will put the dishes away and drive to work in the car they keep clean. We have cleverly engineered things this way because we wanted the protagonist to be someone our readers would like, and instead we are boring them beyond words.

But all is not lost! Say as a child, the only way your protagonist could get a single scrap of attention was by being the perfect child. They want more than anything to bunk off work and spend tomorrow watching TV and eating ice cream (or leave their desk job at the space station and join a band of charming space pirates), but they’re terrified that if they don’t do all the Right Things, they will never be loved. Now we have something: we have the fear of not being loved, an emotion we’re not proud to have but can relate to in spades. And does your protagonist look bad? Not at all.

In fact, think of the protagonist as your friend, not as an expression of who you hope to want to be someday. Your friends are people you watch go about their daily lives, and you are powerless to force them to take your advice on anything. They may get together with that person who treated them horribly, or have a messy apartment, or keep forgetting to take their medicine. You wish they would just get their lives together and do the things they should, so there’s genuine frustration in your relationship, but you love them to pieces, anyway.

Better yet, think of the protagonist as a villain. They don’t have to tie anyone to train tracks, but they’re going to get the wittiest comebacks (even if they’re only in the protagonist’s head), they’re going to resist change mightily, and they’re going to have grudges and wounds in that heart of theirs. Just like your friends. Just like you. Embrace the inner villain, fellow writers!

U is for Unseen

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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 We’ve all heard show, don’t tell so many times that we nod outwardly, giving it a mental pass because we think we understand: don’t tell me the moon is shining, give me the glint of light on broken glass, yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. Having thus acknowledged that we know what we’re supposed to do, we proceed to wander into the middle of our story and dump a fantastic amount of world-building exposition on our readers, so that they emerge dazed, blinking, and possibly looking back in the book to remember all those words we made up.

While this is clearly a terrible plan, we feel like we’re in a bind – especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction, where it can be absolutely imperative to establish the setting in order for anything to make sense. What would Left Hand of Darkness have been, after all, if Le Guin hadn’t talked about kemmer? What about Dune, and the Bene Gesserit? It was absolutely imperative to know these things, and so we did. World-building, you say. Exposition.

Only, world-building does not necessitate exposition. Instead, it tempts us mightily. We know we wrote this absolutely freaking fantastic political system with seven distinct branches of government, each aligning with a patron saint and championed by masked gangs of … Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty great. You’re all fired up. You want to share. Unfortunately, it comes out sounding something like this:

Jim awoke, and brushed the woven fabric back from his matching sleep clothing. It was time for him to engage in his ritualized face washing before eating the morning sandwich of eggs and preserved meat, because soon the long line of cars would begin to wind its way down the pavement rivers into the cluster of glass-and-steel edifices that…

And really, just…what. What you’re actually going to need to convey that information is something about how Jim related to the morning process. Did he follow it properly because he is a well-mannered gentleman who always eats a balanced breakfast, or is he going to skip breakfast because he just wants to watch the world burn? Is his car different from any of the others? How does he feel about that?

It’s obvious when it relates to our culture, and becomes outstandingly difficult when we’re writing an alternate world. We throw around italicized terms, lobbing them into conversation without giving the slightest thought to conversational cohesiveness – and where this can actually be forgiven by the reader if it imparts information that’s needed in the scene, it’s often an attempt to slip world-building in around the edges, where its information-dump qualities are suddenly glaringly obvious. And how do I know this, you ask? Because I do it all the time. And then I have to try to edit it out, and find some other place for the information, and I lose time in edits that could have been spent finding a better way to word the dramatic speech (my characters are usually more eloquent than I am).

Don’t be me. Learn from my mistakes.

If you want to world-build, that’s great! It’s good for your world to have an internal consistency, so you don’t end up with, as Jacqueline Carey once said, “Faramir, Boromir, and Steve.” Write prayers and map cities if you wish! And if you like to make your world up as you go, rock on and just keep track of what needs to be tied up later or foreshadowed earlier.

But here’s the trick: world-building is better seen than heard, and in general, a piece of world-building information should be shown only in one of three scenarios:

  1. That piece of information is needed to interpret what’s going on. For instance, Steve is kneeling and putting his forehead to the ground because he’s at a religious service, not because he got tired and wanted to take a face-first nap
  2. The piece of information is BOTH going to be needed later (Steve worships in a splinter sect of the main religion and is therefore on a lot of people’s bad side) and is ALSO relevant in the scene at hand (Steve is going to be late for work, but his religion means a lot to him)
  3. This piece of information is either completely new to Steve (his sect was founded by an alien) or something he’s simply never paid much attention to before (he’d have known about the alien if he’d paid attention in his version of Sunday School) – either way, it changes Steve’s outlook on life

And the rest of it, unfortunately, probably needs to be left out. Sad as it is, unless that wonderful seven-branch political system has a bearing on the plot, devoting pages to it is going to, at best, confuse your readers. So remember: U is for all of the Unseen parts of world-building, subtly informing our work as we wind through the plot, but that may or may not need to filter to the surface in any given scene. Steve’s best friend might still be wearing the friendship bracelet she got from Jim eight years ago, but unless it impacts how quickly she and Steve can disarm the bomb, probably best not to dwell on it.

T is for Targets

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Ah, targets. They’re about as insanely difficult to hit in writing as they are in archery. Actually, scratch that, they’re more difficult. What are we even going for? It’s not a nice canvas ensemble with helpful colored circles, it’s some vague notion of a “good book.” Are we even sure what kind of good book we want to write? No. No, we are not. What if we get halfway into our lighthearted romance and there turn out to be Important Themes? What then, brain? Did you think of that?

And then, just as you’re contemplating a career of self-loathing and moroseness, you stumble across a blog article that has Very Specific Guidelines on how to structure your career: identifying your genre, your subgenre, your tone, your themes, your target market, and your social media strategies before you ever set pen to paper. And because you’re feeling particularly vulnerable just then, you start taking notes because no wonder you aren’t J.K.Rowling yet, you’ve clearly been doing everything wrong.

Put the pen down. Take a deep breath. We’re going to go a few steps back today to talk about targets: the targets you have, the targets you’re too afraid to tell yourself. The targets that are just dreams still, because that’s right where you want to be right now. Dreams are great things, right up until you set goals that slowly turn those same dreams into a cage. Dreams must be held loosely, or they will literally eat you alive. And yes, that’s corny, but please learn from my mistakes. It is true. (Also, I feel obliged to point out that if I had courted only what I thought was my target market, I’d actually have missed the bulk of my readership.)

What is your writing dream? Just take a second to think about it. It might be bestsellerdom, or you might decide, after some thinking, that you’d love just to have a steady income so you can keep writing and pay all your bills and live in a cottage. Maybe it’s awards you want, or a meaningful connection with fans. Whatever the case, write your dream down on a little scrap of paper and fold it neatly away in a desk drawer. Don’t worry, you won’t forget it.

Now spend a few minutes thinking about what you need to do to make that happen. For a steady income, for instance, you’ll need somewhat of a backlist and a steady output of new books. For fans, a social media platform is key. For awards or sales, it’s difficult to know when genre-conforming and genre-bending will be to your advantage – and while the desire for both speaks to a deep need for understanding and adoration (believe me, I feel it), the best way to get there is to write a really, really good book you’re passionate about, no matter the theme or genre designation. In fact, that’s usually the way towards anything in this business.

Okay, so you have a dream and a rough idea of what you need to do to get there. Now you have a target. Targets are great, nice and loose and adaptable – much more mobile here than in archery. And all you need to do now is take slow, careful steps in that direction, adjusting as necessary (perhaps your dream will shift, or your success will change your opinions on where to go next). No great big lists of Absolutely Necessary. The way to find your path through a career is to write one great book you love, then another and another, all the while being a generally reasonable person to interact with for fans and coworkers. Your target simply shifts this goal a little to one angle or another.

We’re almost done now, but unfortunately, what’s coming up is the most difficult part. Write down one more thing: I will not let my targets become a cage. Targets are there to give you something shimmering off in the distance like a mirage, lovely and mostly unattainable. They are not there to dog your every step, whispering, “you should be writing,” or, “you only get to enjoy your book when you’ve produced a Nobel-worthy chapter.” Targets are there to keep you running, not trap you here and now.

What are your targets, fellow authors?

 

S is for Self-Care

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Ah, you are thinking. A post that is not about writing. I will skip it.

Please don’t! This is most certainly about writing, and about the fact that your writing comes from your health. There’s some sort of romantic allure to the overworked artist, sleep-deprived and substance-abusing, perhaps artfully depressed. Speaking as someone who recently experienced depression, I can tell you for a fact that it will rob you of your ability to write. Sleep-deprivation, substance abuse, mental health issues, and chronic overwork will not help you write. You might be able to carry on for a time, but when it catches up to you, the crash is going to be horrific.

Also, please understand that when I mention self-care, it is not as some superhuman self-care guru. I am a person who almost always remembers to brush my teeth, and on days when the planets align, I also moisturize my face and drink a glass of water before bed. (I once told myself that I would do that every day, because after years of living in this body, I apparently still do not know myself at all. Ah, well.)

Now, I see a lot of articles about self-care in different professions: nursing, veterinary work, psychiatry. The long and short of it appears to be that people in these professions really need self-care, and also are terrible at it, and the truth is that writers are no different in either of those two capacities. Unfortunately, there is one place that we are different: writers are more prone to mental health issues than the general population.

A lot of people pin this on a writer’s lifestyle: a lot of time alone, indoors, often with shaky finances. Personally, I think the root cause goes deeper, to the same talent that helps writers capture the full range of human emotion – but whether I’m right or wrong, the lifestyle I mentioned above doesn’t help much (and I say that as a contented introvert). Thus: self-care for writers. The following are tips and tricks that I have learned the hard way, and have been made as general as I can make them.

  1. Maintain a good sleep schedule. You’re a writer. Your dreams are your bread and butter, so do what you can to get regular sleep. It’s not always possible, certainly, but when you can do it, prioritize it! Try to get away from blue light about a half an hour before bed. And yes. That means stop writing! I encourage you to keep a notebook by your bed so you’ll know you can capture the ideas that crop up on the edge of sleep.
  2. Don’t forget maintenance of health issues. Say it with me: my writing comes from my health. Take medicine, go to physical therapy, see therapists, avoid allergens, whatever it  may be. Don’t let your health issues spiral out of control if you can help it.
  3. Watch for signs of mood disorders, and have your loved ones do the dame. These are endemic in the writing community, and they are truly devastating diseases. They are neither to be romanticized, nor are they a sign of weakness. There are as many optimal treatments as there are people, so if you find yourself in the grip of one, work with your doctors and loved ones to come up with the ideal plan for you.
  4. Do the basic, boring things. Eat fruits and veggies, limit mood-altering chemicals, get sunshine, and get moving. All general, all helpful.
  5. Take time off and cultivate other interests. Things have a way of figuring themselves out in your subconscious while you work on doing something else. So, guilt-free, make sure you set aside time to pick up a book, play a video game, learn to play an instrument, tap dance, or whatever else. Make time to decompress in the ways that are important to you.

Everyone has their own rhythms. For your sake, and for the sake of your friends, family, and writing, listen to yourself and learn yours. There will be very personal things not listed here, such as having a warm blanket to curl up in or a particular kind of tea. Pay attention to your mind and your body.

Stay healthy.

R is for Rewrites

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Originally, today’s post was R is for Reading List. Then I remembered that so many people have already covering that beautifully. In short: read a lot, read in many genres, and don’t listen to any of that crap about how you should only read Important Serious Things. Read whatever you’d like.

So, that’s reading. On to Rewrites!

Whether by slow, painstaking first drafts, in which you pause to choose the correct word and shift the sentences slightly this way and that, or by wildly different second drafts, tossing out whole paragraphs and snarling in frustration, a great deal of what you write will be, well, rewritten. There are a few reasons for this. When you write the first draft…

  • …there are inevitably some plot surprises waiting for you, so you may have to go back and change the groundwork
  • …there are also inevitably some typos
  • …in fact, there are whole sentences you will look back at and think, “what was I even trying to say?”
  • …you may or may not have found your character’s voice consistently
  • …and many, many other things

As you can see, rewriting does not occur simply because you did anything wrong. It is not something that can be avoided entirely with more forethought and planning. Rewriting is a natural result of the fact that by writing, you discover new parts to your story. You learn more about your characters than you ever could without getting into their skin and writing, and you get so caught up in scenes that you skip letters or words as your pen races over the paper. Rewriting occurs when you return to your manuscript and try to guide it gently closer to the book it was meant to be.

It is very important to remember that rewriting is necessary and expected, because it can feel an awful lot like failure to have to go back to your work and redo it. A manuscript is a labor of love, and after pouring (hopefully metaphorical) blood, sweat, and tears into it, it won’t feel great to realize there’s another whole manuscript’s worth of work to do. Because of this, piling on self-hatred and doubts about your writing talent can make rewriting go from intensive to daunting. You may retreat, or put the manuscript away. And yes, I do this, too – overwhelmed by the amount I needed to change, I set aside my manuscript for Remnant about a month and a half ago, and I’m just now working up the courage to go back!

Yes, rewriting invites a certain amount of, “if I’d only…” Writing your manuscript, however, is quite a lot like gardening. You go out each day, sometimes into beautiful weather and sometimes into blazing sun or sullen clouds, and you try to guide the plants into health. You prune some plants in order to keep them from expending all of their energy on stems and leaves. Others, you check for disease. Some, you harvest. In any case, there is a certain amount of working to control the natural chaos of life: aphids, broken stems, errant branches.

And like a garden, a manuscript is a living thing – it is a repository of thoughts that raced along neurons and made themselves into words on a page. It evokes passion and humor as you read it. It will, inevitably, hold chaos, a force that in itself is neutral, and that in your writing will carry you to both wonderful ideas and non-functional ones. To allow chaos in is to learn to work with ideas and adapt your story to the stellar ones. To deny your writing chaos is to deny it to live.

And can I share a secret with you? To deny your writing chaos, to stick rigidly to pre-appointed plot events and pre-established character arcs, is to invite rewrite after rewrite as you try to infuse your writing with emotion – a thing that is inherently chaotic and disturbing.

So, really, the question isn’t whether or not you’re going to have to rewrite some of your manuscript. It’s how you decide to feel about that. It whether or not you embrace it, and throw yourself into your writing, going fearlessly down side paths to see where they lead. It’s whether or not you let your story grow beyond your outline.

(Re)write on, my dears!