Tag Archives: writing process

A Day in the Life of a Writer

Disclaimer: I can’t speak for ALL writers, so this is really just a day in MY life as a writer.

I don’t write or do business on Sunday, and Saturday tends to be erratic, so this is for weekdays.

I wake up early enough to make me wish I was still asleep, but not really that early. (Sometimes it’s before the sun in winter, but the sun beats me in summer.) I shower, dress, eat breakfast, and read my scriptures. Ideally, by 8 am, I’ll be at my desk.

For those of you who are interested in office spaces, I use the family computer and my desk is currently in the living room, though I hope to get an office one of these years. When I get my own office, I’ll add white boards and bulletin boards and a filing cabinet and a bookcase and a cheap timer and a door to keep people out… Right now, I get a water bottle, a pair of headphones, and an assortment of pens and pencils.

I try to write new stuff until noon, though sometimes “write” means “outline” or “brainstorm” or “research” or “pick names” or “world build” or any of the other author-y tasks that sometimes have to come before actual writing. I also resort to side tasks when writer’s block is being stubborn. I’m not particularly fast, but I try to get 2000 words in that time. My goal is to one day get 1000 words an hour and be able to purposefully leave time for outlining/brainstorming.

I’m sure you’ve heard of writers who can write 10,000 words/day (good for them!), but I used to get about 5000 per MONTH, tops, so I’m still faster than I used to be. (By the way, don’t compare yourself to others. Nothing good comes of it.)

On my critique-group day, my group takes the place of my morning writing. I also have a Friday obligation that cuts my writing time in half.

After lunch, I take a break and do more-brainless activities, like house cleaning, reading, errands, or social media. Sometimes I give up and take a nap.

Around 1:30 or 2 pm, I get back to work. After a quick spin through my email, I spend some time editing my own work and/or beta reading/critiquing other people’s stuff. I also use this time to go over my own beta feedback. I love my beta readers. 🙂 I love finding out what’s working in my stories and what needs to be fixed. (If you’d like to be a beta reader, let me know…)

Most of the time, beta reading for others is also fun, since I tend not to accept beta reads that bore me to death. Reading other writers’ works-in-progress is actually a good way to learn more about your own writing, by the way.

In a couple of hours, I switch to business things like marketing, budgeting, or formatting. This is not the funnest part of my day, but it needs to be done. Always keep track of the business stuff, guys, or you’ll be sorry later.

If the weather is nice, I take a break to walk and meet my sweetie on the way home from work. In winter, I just keep working until supper.

I try to reserve the evening for my family, but occasionally I either NEED to catch up on something or WANT to avoid what they are doing (zombie movies, for instance…) In that case, I’ll work on whatever is farthest behind my goals.

After I turn off my computer, I spend some time reading and relaxing before bed. If I’m smart, I don’t let myself get so carried away with the reading that I don’t get to bed at a decent time. *clears throat*

It’s pretty boring, actually. A lot more goes on INSIDE my head than outside. My family assures me that I am not at all interesting to watch when I’m writing. 🙂 That’s okay. I’m happy if my books are interesting, instead.

Happy writing,
Marty C. Lee

Writer’s Block

If you write, whether for entertainment or school/work, you probably hate writer’s block as much as I do. So, what do we do about it?

I’ve discovered it depends on the cause. Yes, as if writer’s block isn’t bad enough, it can come from a bunch of different sources. Here’s what I do, both for short- and long-term solutions.

Physical Reasons

I’m tired, cold, hot, hungry, in pain, restless, thirsty, whatever.

Short term: Fix the problem! Sleep, eat, drink, move, etc.

Medium term: Try to anticipate the problem and be prepared for it. If possible, stop it before it begins. (Hello, water bottle on my desk!)

Long term: Set up good health habits. Go to sleep on time, eat well, exercise regularly, treat health problems. Get an ergonomic chair/desk.

Mental Reasons

I’m worried, stressed, preoccupied, lonely, depressed…

Short term: Write down what is distracting me and promise to deal with it later. (This does not work for depression…) Play music. Talk briefly to a friend. Write in my journal. Don’t distract myself with things that can be done later. (Email, I’m looking at you!)

Medium term: Schedule time to deal with things, even before deadlines. Plan ahead so I’m not running against the wire all the time. Improve my physical habits. Figure out what time of day I usually write better and try to take advantage of that time.

Long term: Try different stress-busting techniques so I know what works best for me. Get serious problems solved/treated (this includes depression). Improve my valuable social relationships and eliminate things that don’t matter. (Don’t eliminate valuable relationships!)

I don’t know what I’m doing

I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know what to do with the characters. The story (or scene) is broken, and I know it.

Short term: Work on something else. Pick a different project or a different section. Do a brainless physical task while I ponder (perfect time to wash dishes or fold laundry).

Medium term: Do some plotting or talk to a rubber ducky. Look at my goals for the story/scene. Brainstorm. Figure out the last time I knew what I was doing and work from there. Fix a story question in my brain right before bed and hope to wake up with an answer.

Long term: Study story/scene structure. Develop a plotting method that works for me. (This is a very personal and varied thing. Don’t assume your method will look like someone else’s. This is mine.)

I don’t know–I’m just stuck!

I have a plot (of whatever sort works for me). I’ve been writing, but it just fizzled out. I shouldn’t be stuck, and it’s very annoying!

Short term: Eliminate other causes. Mark it [insert argument/fight/discussion/whatever] and work on something else for now.

Medium term: I’ve been learning that when I’m just mysteriously stuck, it’s sometimes my subconscious objecting to a story problem my conscious brain hasn’t noticed yet. If I suspect that might be the case, I’ll try talking to a rubber ducky, reverse-plotting my story, or skipping to another spot. If I keep working on other projects or other sections or hacking away at the stuck spot one sentence at a time, sooner or later, my brain will admit what the problem is, and then I can work on fixing it.

Long term: Write every day (or almost). Study story structure. Read a lot. Learn to meditate or ponder.

What did I miss? What else causes writer’s block for you, and how do you fix it?

Wishing you smooth writing,
M. C. Lee

Turning a Beat Sheet into an Outline

(This post originally appeared as a guest spot on Jami Gold’s site. For her introduction or her many plotting resources, please visit her website.)

I’ll start with a brief history of my plotting evolution, so you can understand why I do what I do.

When I started writing, I thought I was a plotter.

I mean, I had a one-to-three sentence note for all six chapters of the short story I had in mind. Isn’t that an outline? (Those of you who actually outline can stop laughing now.)

But as I wrote and the middle of the story expanded, I had to keep bumping plot notes from one chapter to the next. By the time I finished my “short story,” I had a novel of 104,000 words that included all my original notes, plus a lot, lot more.

Does Our Story Have Structure?

Then I heard about plot beats and story structure. No worries. A story is structured however it is made, isn’t it? And I had beats. I could prove it…

I took several different story-structuring methods that mostly made sense to my warped brain and smooshed them together into my own little chart (which I will discuss later). Then I reverse-outlined every chapter of my book and marked every plot beat.

That proved something all right, but not that I had proper beats. So I revised the entire book.

Are Goals Pulling Our Story Forward?

Then I learned about chapter goals for characters and chapter page-turners. Did I even have those? So I created a second chart for my little reverse-outline.

It became very obvious why my story slowed down in the middle. I had four chapters that had the same (boring!) chapter goal.

Oh, sure, there was important stuff in the chapters. There was funny stuff. There was… too much stuff without something happening to make the reader care. After deleting half of those chapters and rewriting the rest, I had to redo my reverse-outline.

By the time I revised that book enough to be good (and 15,000 words shorter), I had outlined it so many times. Outlining up front—once—was becoming a more attractive option.

Next time, I could do better, right?

We Learn What Doesn’t Work

For my second book, I planned the beats in the handy chart I invented for reverse-outlining the first book. Then I got the book half-written (in random chunks), realized I was trying to stretch too little story over too much book, and had to redo half the organization.

What had been the midpoint moved to the first quarter, and a whole new event landed in the middle. And, thankfully, my plotting chart let me realize I had problems before I wrote the entire book wrong. Yay!

Discovering the best writing process for us often means figuring out what *doesn’t* work. I also noticed that one of the things that made me write more slowly for the first two books was trying to figure out the “steps” of a chapter as I was writing. Sure, I knew where I was going, but how do I get there?

So for book three, after completing my charts, I also tried outlining a little more detail for each chapter. After a little experimentation, I aimed for about 10% of the anticipated finished words for each chapter. (Your mileage may vary.)

Now it’s time to discuss my actual method…

How to Turn a Beat Sheet into a Chapter-by-Chapter Outline

As I describe it, I want you to keep one thing in mind: You can stop after any step that makes you feel ready to write.

Maybe you’ll make it all the way to the end. Maybe you won’t. You won’t hurt my feelings. *smile* Use what works for you.

Step #1: Define the Story Concept and Beats

First, I write down my concept. What’s the one or two sentences that tell me what my story is about? That goes below my Beat Sheet chart for reference.

Screen Shot of Marty C. Lee's Beat Sheet Chart

Next, who are my point-of-view (POV) characters? I write with four POVs in my YA fantasy series, but this still works with only one POV. Each POV character gets a vertical column (and I add a column for anything special, like a romance subplot), while each beat point gets a horizontal row. (Stay with me, I’ll get to the beats.)

Now, looking at my concept sentence(s), how does each character end in the book? That goes in the last beat slot for “resolution.”

What is their opposite starting point (in some way)? That goes next to their name in the top row. The differences between the two rows are the character arcs.

Between the beginning and the resolution, I have seven beats. I have to hit:

  • the Hook (10%)
  • the Point of No Return (25%)
  • the Midpoint (50%)
  • the Crisis (75%)
  • the Climax (90%)

Optionally, I can add Pinch Points at 37 and 62%. When I’m writing, those percentages are just estimates, and I might hit the beats early or late depending on the needs of the exact story.

You may know these beats by other names or use other percentages. That’s okay. I have seen beat sheets with many more beats. (Jami has some great examples.) They tend to make my brain explode, so I stick with this list.

Step #2: Get Creative with Brainstorming

Now is crazy brainstorming time. What are some things that could happen in this story to my characters?

I make a list of as many ideas as I can think up, without discarding anything yet. Once I have a long list, I go through and mark events that could force my characters through their arcs, or that could turn the story in interesting ways, or that will just plain be exciting.

Next to the ideas I want to include, I write the name of the character most affected by that event. Then I play around with the events to see how they would work in different beats.

  • The Climax should be the most exciting, physically and/or emotionally. (Emotionally is harder to write, but I prefer it.)
  • The next most exciting beats should be the Hook and the Midpoint.
  • Sometimes I just go with Pixar’s strategy: Everything gets worse until the end.
  • Whether or not I include Pinch Points depends on how many great ideas make the cut.

By this point, the story is starting to come alive in my mind.

Step #3: Adjust If Multi-POV (Skip Step for Single POV)

Because I write multi-POV, I have another step that I started with book three.

  • First, I highlight each character’s column in a different color and number the beats in order.
  • Then I cut the chart into little pieces (one box per piece).
  • I place the colored boxes in a rough sort of order, making characters take turns somehow.

I keep early beats before later beats for each character, but one character’s Midpoint might come before another’s Pinch Point, for instance. Whoever is the main POV for the book gets roughly half the chapters, and the rest are more or less evenly divided among the other three. (That is just my style for this particular series and might change in the future.)

I make sure the major beats are POV-centric, but some of the minor beats for one character might be seen through the eyes of another character if space requires. This part of my process tends to take a while as I arrange and rearrange. If you have a headache right about now, I unfortunately empathize.

Step #4: Add More Definition to Story Ideas

Once I have the order of events and POV settled, I start my Summary Sheet chart. (Remember, you can stop anywhere in the process you like.) The second chart contains a horizontal row for every chapter, and several vertical columns.

Marty C. Lee's Summary Chart

  • Section Goal gets one entry per book quarter.
  • The plot/character beats go in the Summary column, though sometimes they copy to the Question/Surprise column later.
  • The Summary and POV columns are the ones I always fill out before I write, based on my first chart.
  • Other than the chapter number, the Chapter/Timeline column stays blank for now.
  • The other columns might not get filled out until I write, for story analysis as needed.
  • Chapter Goal is for character goals, not author goals. What are the characters trying to accomplish in that chapter?
  • Success means “did they get what they want?” and answers might include “yes” (rarely until the end), “yes, but (made it worse),” “no” (semi-rarely), and “no, and (made it worse).”
  • The Question/Surprise column is where I look if my chapter endings are boring, and frequently derives from either the Summary or Success columns.

Step 4: Outline

Now I start my actual in-text outline. For each chapter in my new book file, I type whose POV it is in and the Summary/Beat info from the second chart.

Then I go back and brainstorm each chapter. “If this is the beat/chapter goal for the chapter, where does the chapter start? What are the characters trying to accomplish? What’s the setting? What happens first? Next? After that? What clues need to be in the chapter? Etc.”

I work in random order, with lots of bouncing around, until I have about 10% of my finished words in rough summary. (I’ve been known to write things like “they argue,” or “add emotion,” or “drama llama, struggle and smash” for a fight scene.)

What If This Isn’t For You?

Some of you pantsers might be cringing about now. That’s okay, you keep pantsing. I admire your crazy brain. I started doing this because wandering was too time-consuming for me. You might have a better sense of direction than I do.

Even with this outline, I still have enough wiggle room to make my pantsing brain happy. Sometimes my 10% outline ends up wrong and I wing the chapter anyway, but I know the most important parts to include. Sometimes a little planned part expands unexpectedly. (“Oh, one of the diplomats is his cousin? He has a cousin? And she’s going to show up in the story again? Cool!”)

Some of you plotters might also be cringing. “My outline is half the length of my book,” you cry. “I hit twenty-five beats!” That’s okay. You keep plotting like a maniac. I admire your crazy brain, too. I wish I were as organized as you. As for me, my crazy brain finds this mishmash of a method to be just about right.. *smile*

Whether you plot or pants, I wish you happy writing and a perfect amount of “outline.”
Marty C. Lee

Writing Conference 2020–Business

I hope you will forgive me for postponing this post while I talked about other things. 🙂 I didn’t drop it entirely, and here it is!

From my writing conference notes, there were way too many classes to include all of them in one post, so I separated out the business ones. If you’re not interested in the business side of being an author, I recommend you skip this one. For the rest of you, here you go, in rough notes. Disclaimer: NOT LEGAL ADVICE. If you need legal advice, get a lawyer! Or maybe an accountant, if more applicable.

How to self-publish
Read contracts carefully.
Don’t spend more than you expect to make.
First-free doesn’t work. (If you query this, you’ll see a huge controversy.)

Amazon SEO
Cover images might be searchable in the future.
Covers will be more important.
To profit on Amazon ads, must have 1000 keywords.

Covers
Check best-selling in category
Keep cover promises
Make sure element that defines your book the best is visible on thumbnail
Use a release for copyright / contract
Pay artists to have legal standing to their work
If you can’t judge book by cover, time is wasted
Covers need to intrigue readers
Purpose of book cover is to attract matching reader
Amazon is changing rules: must be able to read title in thumbnail
Covers are identifiers.
Pay for a professional
Need to have contrast, boldness to draw eyes
Put tropes on cover to convey story
What gives zing factor?
Update every 5-10 years to stay current
To see what people are buying, go to www.yasiv.com (Visual map, compare to comp titles)
Does your cover convey tone, etc of story?
Sometimes cover doesn’t convey scene, but something else.
Cover should change for foreign countries
Pay attention to composition
Give 6 examples of covers you like to designer

How to avoid rookie mistakes
Get an editor
Learn from your mistakes
Go 3 days without responding to flames
Don’t mortgage your house
Remember your family
Backup your work
Ask dumb questions
You have never “arrived”
Marketing can’t copy word of mouth
Keep improving craft
You are your agent’s boss
Fight for your work /dream /etc
Take ownership of your business
Don’t say yes to the first opportunity unless it is right for you
Take advice with a grain of salt
Accept that you are a creative being and will be better when you are creating

Taxes for Authors
Writers will be audited by 2 types of auditors: those who want to be writers, and those who want to catch you red-handed.
Several gray areas: income from books is passive income, so some auditors want you to account for it as rent/royalties up to $65K (no SE tax).
Hire an accountant.
Be aware of state taxes & regulations.
Book advance is same as rent/royalties.
You will receive 1099s for each short story published and from each distributor.
PayPal is not rent/royalty. It’s regular royalty on schedule C, including teaching/presenting.
Offset income with expenses.
Tax deductions: Conference fees, mileage, meals at certain percentages, hotel, computer & software (if you replace regularly, takes 3 years to deduct), office space outside home or part of home used exclusively for work (percentage), phone (get separate phone/plan), internet, research (books, movies, travel, Netflix).
You are a professional writer if you can show you’re actively writing & working toward pro.
Use one credit card for business only. Keep receipts (or make own).
Itemize expenses & income.
Make sure to overpay taxes by few hundred dollars to prevent audit of prior years.
If auditor says you can only have loss for 3 years, ask them to show you the law (no federal law).
Take trip to do research but be careful it’s applicable.
Get an LLC to protect copyrights.
LLC can hire spouse in business (give 1099).
If you get income from other countries, you might have to pay tax there.
Quarterly taxes: don’t worry about <$10K? (Disagreement–some say worry about anything.) Always estimate your best.

Embracing imperfections
Be flawsome
Write it first, fix it later.
Like reality
Be consistent

Business Writing
Treat it like a job, not a hobby
Trad pub: 99.9% rejection rate
Indie: you vs 100K authors. How do you get audience?
Use your business background in your business.
Be prolific: the more you do, the better you get; the better you get, the more people will like you.
Always create more products.
You make money off your backlist. Longer is better. New books remind people to look up other books & keep you on the lists. Need 10 books for backlist to be productive.
Agents take 15% of what you make. Don’t need one.
Always review contracts with contract attorney, $2-300.
Contracts: read & understand! A lot of publishers are predators. What rights are they getting, for how long, non-compete clauses & right of first refusal.
Sublets: to publish in other languages (do not sell UNLESS they specialize in other language)
Dramatic rights: movies, tv, etc. (do not sell without good reason)
Audio: don’t sell rights unless publisher does it well (research on Audible)
How long will they hold rights? Maker sure rights will revert. If publisher goes out of business, you lose the right to publish.
Ebooks: rights might never revert.
Taxes: pay! Talk to attorney re: S-corp or LLC. In Utah, most writers are S-corps.
Deduct reasonable business item.
Pay quarterly taxes once you start making good amounts of money. Work with CPA.
Work out schedule for new books. Schedule your time appropriately for you.
When you lose money by going to work instead of writing, it’s time to quit your day job.
Branding: create one for yourself so fans will follow you. Be yourself.
Marketing: What’s your product for? Success breeds success.
Advances: come from future royalties, paid in thirds.
1 book out is okay, 5 is good, 10+ is really good.
Should family member be employee? Probably not.
Quarterly reporting: min $600 income
Backlist sales: series vs stand alone: make sure 1st book has solid happy ending
Series is where the money is. Give 1st book satisfying conclusion.
Epic fantasy series: people won’t start until it’s finished. Do in timely manner for next book.
Business taxes change all the time.
Indie cover sells the book. Spend $300-500.
Go to bookstores to promote yourself. Be positive! Promote other writers books, too
Ancillary products: related to business & brand: games, comic books, kickstarters

If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Writing Process, Book 3 (Part 2)

I just realized I haven’t given you any updates on my writing for a while. Hmm. Well, a lot has happened since… *checking post* … last year. Wow, that has been a while. Shame on me.

Remember those old melodramas that would say, “The last time we saw our hero, he was…” and review all the suspense before moving on with the current drama? Let’s do that. 😉

“The last time we saw our author, she was” finished with the first draft of book 3, Wave of Dreams, minus chapter headings and swear words. (Author’s  note: they aren’t real swear words. Honestly. Nia says things like “shipwreck” and “sparkling jellyfish.” Ludik says things like “furball.” It takes me a long time to write Nia’s because she keeps using new ones, the rascal!) Anyway, I had the first draft done.

Since then, I ran the book through two writing groups, fixing problems as I went. (If you know an author who says they never have problems, there are a few possibilities. They might have written fifty or a hundred books. They might be lying. Or they might be very mistaken.) I just admit it and then try to fix everything.

I went through several major drafts and too many minor tweaks. I rewrote the first chapter (more than once) based on feedback. I enhanced the romance and the character arcs. I filled in plot holes and smoothed dialogue. Yeah, all that boring stuff. You might not appreciate the process, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate the result. 😉

Fortunately for my peace of mind, I didn’t have to redo my plot outline this time around. It seems my new outlining process has been moderately effective. Yay! I also had several beta readers tell me how cruel I am, which is another good sign. Before you raise your eyebrow at me, let me explain. If I make you love the characters enough that it bothers you when bad things happen to them, then I’ve done my job right. And, before you ask, yes, I have to do bad things to them, because everybody being happy all the time is great to live but boring to read about. Before you throw tomatoes at me, I’d like to point out that I believe in happy endings, so just keep reading…

At some point in the process, I finished the chapter headings. If you don’t read those kinds of things in other books, I suggest you try a few of mine. I try to include information that isn’t absolutely necessary to reading the book, but many times, it is stuff that enhances the story. And they’re short…

I also spent a lot of time working on artwork with my graphic designer before she left the country for a while. She doesn’t do my front covers, but she does all my chapter pictures and digitizes the maps and stuff like that. Usually, we work on things a bit at a time, but since she was going to be out of reach, we had to do quite a bit at once, for both book 3 and book 4. (BTW, if you haven’t noticed the maps in the front of the books, you should look. They’re pretty cool! So are all my lovely little chapter pics!)

Anyway, at the time of this writing, I’m waiting for the last round of beta readers to tell me if I fixed the last problem. By the time you read this, the book should be in final edits and formatting. Oooh, I’m so excited! I’ll be sure to let you know when the book comes out. Hint: it’s Nia’s story, with romance and pirates (but not romance WITH pirates, because that’s just gross).

Do you have any questions you want to ask me about my writing process that I haven’t answered?

Happy anticipating,
Marty C. Lee

Writing Conference Report 2020–Character & Setting

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.

Poison 101
Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).

Oaths & honor
Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.

Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc)
Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.

Lost Technologies
Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.

Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough
What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?

When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?

Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.

Casual Violence
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues

Horses
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Programmable.
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.

Dragons
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.

I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!

Happy writing,
M.C. Lee

Writing Conference Report 2020–Structure

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This post covers structure/plot topics. There will be another next month on character & setting, and one after that on business topics. Whew!

Firming Up a Sagging Middle
Use cliffhangers every chapter, such as physical danger, new characters, bad news, epiphanies, messages, romance, what’s behind the door, something to cheer about, decision to make, foreshadowing, awe, death, blow up something.

Everything about writing in 3 minutes
Stories are ripples in status quo.
Hero has problem. Acts. Makes problem worse! Deal with worse problem. Hero solves problem or problem solves hero. Can’t return to prior status quo.
To help your subconscious, clearly state the problem, then give it 1-2 days to work.
Write down the ideas.
Feed your subconscious with books, movies, walk, zoo, etc.

Story Mapping
Plotting or outline 3 ways:
1) Intuitive (pantser)
2) Plotters (story map), sometimes start at end & work backwards
3) Hybrids
Character-driven stories lend themselves to intuitive writing.
Plot-driven stories (mystery, thriller, sci-fi) have to know outline.
Historical & fantasy can go either way.
Why create story map in advance? Shorter writing time, place clues/red herrings, force reader to turn page by placing & answering questions, avoid dreaded blinking cursor, easier revisions, most publishers require story map in advance, helps with unexpected problems like ghostwriters/dead authors.
Proposal for trad pub is first three chapters + outline.
Does plotting story in advance stifle creativity? Depends.
Story mapping process.
1) Start with really cool idea.
2) Let idea marinate.
3) Record ideas.
4) Timing.
5) Write synopsis.
6) List of scenes.
7) Write book.
Some people like to color-code by POV or character.

Light in Darkness: Horror Stories
Horror is 7% words, 55% body language, and the rest is voice.
Subtlety/description is better than all dialogue/narration.
Horror as genre is a myth, created by booksellers to sort books, first invented for Frankenstein.
Hollywood can’t replicate the feelings in books, so they use gore and shock. Books can convey feelings.
Uniquely moral setting genre–good vs evil.
Two kinds of horror: hostile (not good) and redemptive (you can climb out of dark pit of soul).
Bible is godly horror (redemptive story).

Future of Fantasy
RPG is going into fantasy & ebooks, like Choose Your Own Adventure.
Noblebright is next trend, trying to do good & right.
Need motivation that makes sense. Need to elicit emotional reaction from reader. Does character impact reader?
Covers for youth are different than covers for adults.
Jen Lyons uses footnotes in ebooks to do worldbuilding. (Big debate: distracting vs expansive. Runs risk of breaking narrative.)
If you rely on a map, rewrite it to let readers know where characters are.
Mental health stories (heroes & villains) are upcoming trend. Makes them more relatable.
Second-world fantasy will always have place but needs to be relatable to humanity.

Lines Between Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Sci-fi: technology
Fantasy: magic, nature
Marketing might be only difference. Genre exists for shelving purposes. Trappings determine how book is classified & need to be at beginning of story.
Star Trek is soft sci-fi (about people). Inception is hard sci-fi, then fantasy in dream machine.
Tailor presentation to audience.
Gandalf is soft magic system. Hard magic system/science needs same tone throughout book.
Don’t spend too much time worldbuilding. You can get away with anything if it’s entertaining.

Structure vs Character-Led Stories
Rules base vs follow heart type
Writer needs to know ending of plot-based story or will have issues.
Review structure & character journey
If you paint yourself in a corner, is that the story?
Needs to be a set up and pay off
Need red herrings
Get readers involved by the how (thought & motivation)
Character & world building is the what
Types of structure:
Heroes Journey
Broadway
3-act Hollywood
Shakespeare
Aristotolian structure: boom, everything goes
Characters: What do they want? Include foreshadowing/hints.
Sometimes you pants it, then go back & structure
Don’t write directly to story beats
Look at ending, promises you made.
Need a good motivation for characters.
Understand difference between plot (logical sequence of evens to reactions) & conflict (creates plot)
Characters in relationship & environment create conflict
Character vulnerabilities: why?
Character needs to CHOOSE, not be blown in wind.
Anything that makes you want to write is good for you.
Goal, motivation, conflicts (relationships), should be felt.
Need smarts & hearts.

Stereotypes & Tropes
Stereotype: usually demanded by fashion
Cliche: overused ideas, becomes tiresome
Trope: literary shorthand to achieve emotional effect. Can’t be the rule & the journey.
2nd world fantasy: have stereotype, then break it.
Stereotype reveals a lot about a character. They exist for reason–why? It’s reasonable to expect certain things, cultural expectations.
Make your villain somewhat identifiable.
Characters are more compelling when there are dynamic aspects.
Zombie: no reasoning, no race, an elemental force.
Write a story from the POV of an orc.
Tropes: when to avoid? When used wrong. What does it accomplish? Use for emotional response. Reflect reader’s expectations in your genre. Do not use trope to replace plot.
TVTropes.org
Examples:
Romance: happy ending
Horror: evil villain
Thriller: master mind
Action: needs romp at start
Sci-fi: tech, sounds futuristic
Fantasy: discover, sense of wonder
Western: watch Silverado
Things not to do:
Romantic comedy: She’s been terrible to him & he still kisses her. Or honorable the whole time & then turns bad.
Don’t use stereotype to avoid character development.
Read short stories to learn tropes.
Read reviews on genres you want to write, pos or neg.

If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Writing Process, Book 2 (Part 3)

So I ran book 2 through two separate writing groups, trying to make sure I fixed all the problems. And it got a lot better! I mean, so much better. I love my writing groups. When I thought I had the book polished all shiny, I rounded up a few beta readers and turned them loose on it. Some pointed out a few little problems. Some loved everything except the cliffhangers and mean-author moments (which I promise I used for very specific reasons and not because I’m sadistic).

Then, after I thought all I had left was a little editing for grammar and so forth, my last, lagging beta reader turned in a blistering critique. Okay, I’m exaggerating. She was actually extremely polite, but she did point out what she thought were two *major* problems throughout the story. After licking my wounds, I asked a couple of trusted people which parts were true and which I could ignore. After some discussion, I decided that one problem could basically be ignored. She was judging it by a different ruler than I use. I did add a sprinkle of “fix it” for that problem, but mostly I crossed it off my list. The second one–well, unfortunately for me, she was mostly right. Sigh. I hate finding out that I did things wrong, especially when I think I’m done.

Anyway, I made a plan for fixing the problem that didn’t require me to rewrite the entire book (though it did stick its grubby fingers into almost every chapter and several chapter headings, and some chapters did get bigger rewrites). It took me two weeks to do the edits, and when I ran them by people, one of them pointed out another problem that my fixes had created. *bang head on desk* So I fixed that one next.

Then, as I’m running through “one last edit” to make sure I didn’t create more problems while I was fixing everything else, I ran into a couple more things that could be improved. Lucky me, they were pretty minor, but all this meant that I had to do another round, so I finished “final edits” a month later than I anticipated, and ending up working a lot of extra hours for weeks and getting to bed very, very late on the last day I had available. *no, don’t bother me, it can’t be morning yet*

Blech. There are some days I wonder why I write. Then my characters start talking in my head again and telling me how cool this next scene would be. (Come on! Shapeshifting spies! Pirates! Ooh, and…) And my small batch of fans ask for their next fix and tell me how my first book made it into their small collection of owned books. And I hover my fingers over the keyboard and take a deep breath.

Anyway, by the time this article posts, SEED OF WAR should be live in e-retailers all over the world, and available to e-libraries, too. As for me, I will be sitting at home steadfastly eating ice cream and telling myself that it will be fine. Really, it will be fine. I need another spoon…

Be kind to my baby,
Marty C. Lee

P.S. I don’t have an eating disorder. Really. But ice cream makes an excellent *occasional* stress reliever, and it tastes yummy. And I eat it out of a bowl, not the carton. With only one spoon, because I only have one mouth. 🙂

Forbidden Words

If you’re a writer, or a prospective one, you might hear a lot about “rules” of writing. What you don’t always hear is a good explanation of when to follow the “rules” and when to break them, or even an explanation behind the “rules.” Unfortunately, I’ve seen that lead to some really bad writing. I’ll work my way gradually through some of these rules, but the one I want to address today is “forbidden words.” (Did you hear the spooky theme music? No? Let’s try again… “FORBIDDEN WORDS…”)

You might think these are the kinds of words you disguise by typing on the top row of your keyboard, but that’s not what I mean. (Although you might want to watch those, too.) No, I’m talking about when other well-meaning people tell you to never use an adverb. Or an -ing word. Or was or were. Or “just,” or any other particular word. Don’t take their advice.

I’m not saying to ignore the advice, either. I’m saying you should understand it so you know when to take it and when to ignore it. I think it’s time for some examples. (Cue suspenseful music…)

If you search the internet, you can find lots of lists of “words to avoid in writing.” Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to look. Done now? They usually list words that are overused or nearly meaningless, like really, just, or completely. What’s the difference between beautiful and really beautiful? Maybe nothing, or maybe you want to use gorgeous as a stronger word choice for the second example. But sometimes you do need those nearly meaningless words. (They were invented for a reason.) For instance, “he slid into his seat just before the bell rang” is considerably more urgent than “he slid into his seat before the bell rang.”

Let’s look at adverbs for a minute. When shouldn’t you use them? When they merely reinforce a word that doesn’t need reinforcing. He whispered quietly. she smiled cheerfully, the bell dinged musically. Yup, we got the idea with the verb, thanks. When should you use adverbs? When it either clarifies something the verb can’t do alone (she painted frantically) or turns the verb on its head (“Death kindly stopped for me.”–Emily Dickinson).

In other words, if you CAN cut an adverb or a “meaningless” word, do, but if cutting it changes the sentence, keep it for the sake of the poor reader and your dear story.

Now let’s talk about verbs. You might have heard about “passive writing” and the horrible use of “was, were, and -ing.” Take a deep breath while I tell you the rumors of their demise ought to be greatly exaggerated. “If you can finish the sentence with ‘by zombies,’ then it’s passive writing and ought to be destroyed” (by zombies) is one I frequently hear. Okay, fine, I added the second “by zombies” because I wanted to make a point.

There are reasons to use passive sentences. Here’s one: you don’t know the acting subject. “She was murdered!” but we don’t know by whom. Here’s another: you don’t want the emphasis on the acting subject. “She was murdered!” and until we get over the shock, we don’t care who did it. Does that mean its okay to blithely sprinkle passive sentences all over your writing? No, I didn’t say that, either. Use them when you need to use them, and for the sake of your action, don’t use them when you don’t need them. (Which, really, is the basic rule for all writing techniques.)

One more point about was, were, and -ing. It might shock you to know that sometimes they are ACTIVE verbs, not passive! “The apple was red” is an active sentence. (Not a very interesting one, granted, but still active.) When you usually start getting in trouble is when you combine was/were/are and -ing verbs, because even if the verb is active, the sentence might not be as strong as it could be. “The robot’s eyes were glowing” is weak, while “the robot’s eyes glowed” is strong. But if you try to cut every being-verb in your story, you’ll end up with monstrosities like “She seemed a pretty girl, despite her plain brown hair.” She SEEMED pretty, or she WAS pretty? Don’t laugh; I didn’t quote, but I’ve seen sentences that were even worse, that didn’t make any grammatical sense at all because the author “heard WAS is bad” and cut them all without regard to necessary sentence structure. (Read the “pretty girl” sentence without either *seemed* or *was* to see what I mean.)

So, next time you see a writing rule, figure out the reason behind the rule before you start applying it wildly across your writing. Your readers will thank you.

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Author Goals vs Character Goals

This morning, I woke up realizing what problem was behind certain recurring issues in the books of a friend of mine. With her permission, I’m going to use her work to explain the difference between author goals and character goals, why they SHOULDN’T be the same, and how the conflict between them makes a better story.

Let’s start with a basic definition of character and author goals. Characters want “something” that will make their life better. The lover, the job, the house, the winning goal. Whatever it is, they think it will make them happy. Authors, on the other hand, want their characters to be unhappy. Temporarily! Because good stories are made of conflict against desires. It is the tug of war between what a character wants and what they get that leads us down story lane. Will they succeed or will life/villain/better team defeat them??

Now, on to the examples.

Example #1: Author “Jane” (name has been changed) has the goal of a big reveal at a dance. The reader knows earlier that character “Hero” is turning his life around and coming back to church, but the other characters don’t yet know that. Because Jane wants a dramatic scene at the dance, she decides that Hero must also wish to save the reveal until then. He feels nervous and secretive and unready to tell anyone about the changes in his life, but thinks unveiling the surprise at the big dance will be exciting. That’s great writing, right?

Well, no. There are a few problems. First, Hero is hiding things from people he’s close to, which is odd for his character. Second, Hero is hiding things from his desired “Heroine” which would knock down some of the barriers between them, AS HE HAS BEEN WISHING. Third, most people who are coming back to church are relieved and happy and want to share the good news with their family and friends. (There are exceptions, but those haven’t been set up in this story.) Fourth, if he doesn’t want to reveal it now, privately, why would he want to save it for a public event? So all this means that his idea of hiding everything until the dance feels very unrealistic.

Does that mean Jane’s hope for a dramatic reveal is sunk? Not at all! In fact, by acknowledging Hero’s desires, yet making his life detour according the author’s wishes, we can make an even more dramatic reveal. Let me illustrate how it COULD happen, with “old” and “new” examples from the story.

Old #1: The desire. Hero doesn’t want to tell his family, friends, or wannabe girlfriend because… they will tease him? They won’t be happy for him? He wants to shock them? This scenario, besides being poorly explained, makes him seem selfish and weak and makes his loved ones seem like jerks.

New #1: The frustration. Hero wants to tell everyone (notice the change in character goal and how it opposes that of the author). He decides to do so in person, as such good news deserves. Hero calls, gets a busy signal or answering machine, and doesn’t want to leave a message. He goes by in person, but people are gone or busy with the doctor (in the case of the friend in the hospital). Hero tries composing an email, but it just doesn’t feel personal enough. He will have to try later. This scenario has us rooting for Hero, who is trying to do the right thing and keeps hitting obstacles. When is the poor guy going to get a break? Now when Jane does the big reveal at the dance, we cheer that Hero finally gets to tell his family, and the author’s goal conflicting with the character’s goal has made a better story.

Old #2: The weekend. Hero attends a different church to avoid seeing his friends and family. Ouch! Again with the selfish and weak…

New #2: The unavoidable weekend. Hero is sent out-of-town for his job. Obviously, he won’t be attending church with his family, but it’s not his fault. Again, we get to root for Hero.

Example #2. In this case, Hero has been trying to find “Lady” who saved his life and then disappeared. Author goal: Keep the characters from realizing the other’s “secret identities” until the big reveal. Character goal: Find each other! Remember, the way we’re going to get the two goals to meet is not by aligning the character goals with the author’s or by letting them give up, but by yanking our poor characters off their chosen path and ramming them into obstacles until the only way left is the author’s way.

Old #3: The picture. Hero, who is a reporter, sees a picture on Heroine’s laptop that makes him realize she is probably Lady. When he says he wants to ask about “some picture,” (without mentioning Lady or the rescue), she tells him to go away, and he does. He’ll ask later. Wow, a reporter who gives up when his source isn’t cooperative? Since when? He gave up much too easily. Author goal has taken over at the expense of the story, and we no longer believe his goal is important.

New #3: The investigator. In this scenario, our intrepid reporter wants to actually tell Heroine which picture he’s talking about and ask if she is Lady. Remember, we’re going to FORCE Hero into the author’s path, despite his desire to follow his own goal. So, some ways to do this would be to have Heroine cut him off mid-sentence and walk away or tell him to mind his own business (she’s mad at him), or to have someone else interrupt with something that can’t wait, or to have his boss suddenly call with an urgent message, or… You get the idea. Keep the goal, create an obstacle! Now Hero can say to himself, “Well, if I can’t find out that way, I’ll put my reporter skills to work on the problem.” Jane will string Hero along for a while longer with more obstacles, while the reader chews on his/her fingernails. By the time we get an answer to the dilemma, we’ll be excited for it.

What examples (good or bad) have you found (or written)?

Happy writing,

M. C. Lee