Tag Archives: writing advice

Writing: How Many Drafts Is Enough?

The most recent controversy I’ve been seeing in my twitter feed is a lot of people complaining that other writers don’t go through enough drafts. It makes me ask questions, though, because I’m not sure I understand the problem. Is there a numerical requirement on the number of drafts you should have? Is there a limit? There’s a danger of applying a uniform writing process to everybody because it doesn’t always fit everybody. It’s like saying you have to outline, or outlining is a waste of time, or you have to write everyday. It also creates a false us vs. them paradigm that as aspiring writers or indie writers, we really don’t need to have to each other.

(Several traditionally published writers I’ve talked to like this war and already feel that way with them versus indie, on top of being a wee bit pretentious, so I have washed my hands of them. But the rest of us should make an effort!)

When it comes to the minimum of drafts, I always say at least two drafts are needed. Your first draft, you are just getting everything laid out that’s been up in your head. The second time, you need to look at it like a reader who doesn’t have the knowledge you do up in your brain. Do you explain everything, do you have a glaring hole in logic? Also, are you characters consistent, is your world explained enough? Your second draft can let you fill all that in, plus start on copy-edits. (No, I don’t count the various integrations of copy-editing as drafts.)

I do at least two drafts, though Sun’s Guard: Ten went through a handful as first I struggled with opening in the right place, then I cut out a subplot to save it for a later book than crowd the first book with characters who weren’t entirely needed yet. First draft I’m not worried about structure, I’m not worried overly much about descriptions for old characters or places, I’m not paying attention to my logic. I’m following the character and her goals, I’m following my villain and their goals, and the resulting conflict. That’s what I want written down. Then on my next read-through, I check for those things–descriptions, tags, logic–this one mostly summed up in making sure the reader is aware of Caley’s goals and also on Caley’s emotional positions in key scenes, which sometimes require some elaboration–that all the places are described in ways that invoke more than the visual senses if I can.

One person even asked a question (that I answered, though I suspect it was rhetorical) about why people do detailed outlines. Well, this is a form of drafting! I can use it as a sort of preliminary draft, to block out my character’s actions and know who goes where, or notice if we haven’t seen a side character in a while and I need to fix that. Remember, I’m holding two opposite goals in mind that I have to dovetail together–that requires planning, whether you do it in the moment or before you get started. By doing some very rough outlining, and then filling in more details with each “act” as I go, I can keep pace of myself as well as spot good places for emotional gut-punches. It also lets me treat my first draft as getting the story out, and then the second draft as adjusting the fit of the story over the outline. This keeps me from, to paraphrase another writer I heard speak in grad school, from having to change all the bones and organs under the same skin.

I don’t expect everyone to outline though. For some people, they can’t do it–I had grad school fellows who just couldn’t do it and that’s why they didn’t go with the advisor I did. Some have to outline more deeply than I do. I’m sort of a joint pantser-plotter (referred to as a plantser) at this stage in my writing career. I start with a paragraph of rambling that I know happens in the book, roughly. And then I plot each “act,” from Act I to Act II Part 1 to Act II Part 2 (which are divided by the midpoint where my protagonist’s goal has to change or their path to it alter) to Act III, one at a time, write it out, then plot the next while consulting my rambling paragraph and how the structure of the plot is working out. But that’s my approach. I’m not going to force it on someone else.

Much like I’m not going to tell someone they have to have at least four or five drafts of their book. They may not need it. I say at least two so you can at least objectively review what you have and see what needs changed (something always needs changed, whether that’s more description added or a plot hole that needs filled or a conversation that has to be restructured), but otherwise… It’s going to depend on you and your story. Ten took easily six or seven drafts by the time it was all said and done with all the restarting I did and an experiment to add length that ended up failing. Sun’s Guard: Page…doesn’t look like it’s going to have that problem, so I’ll probably just have my outline-draft and then the two normal ones. Some of my other stories I also don’t think will have that many drafts.

You know what my biggest piece of evidence for only two drafts being required is? None of my professors ever expected more than that in grad school. You’d submit the original story, get feedback, edit/adjust, and submit the second draft for your grade. Oh sure, you may still get notes back, and that’s not to say you didn’t do six or seven or twelve drafts on the side (…my horror short story and I were not friends…), but all you had to do was two, because my professors knew what I know now–you miss things in the first draft, so you got to do a second to fix them. Even the English professor I hate to this day only made two drafts a requirement…and then screwed your grade over so you had to do the third draft, but my point is made.

So how about we lay off of each other? So I only do two drafts and an outline, and someone else does eleven. This doesn’t mean there book is necessarily better than mine, or mine would be better if I worked at it more, or anything like that. All it says is we had a different experience writing our books, neither positive or negative unless we chose to view it that way.


On Writing Dumb Characters Who Aren’t Actually Dumb

(The title is weird, work with me here.)

So one of the “flaws” I’ve given my main character is that she’s a C student. She’s not in any honors classes, so I knew right away that half of the problem is effort since I didn’t give her a learning disability. Considering her defensively prickly personality, I knew it was a matter of whether she cared about who she was with or not. Most of the time, she doesn’t, so her grades are just enough to keep her out of trouble and then the rest of her time she can do what she wants. But I also knew even if she did try… That would get her to B with the occasional A territory, not Honors or AP courses. Just because she likes Shakespeare doesn’t mean she likes analyzing it or higher sciences/mathematics.

As a writer, I like this. Things like having your protagonist be a Dumb Jock (TM) so their Smart Friend (TM) can do their homework and you don’t have to think about it DRIVES ME NUTS. It also means you have to keep the action moving because those aren’t characters that sit and think about what to do, usually. Ginny loves action movies and their plots. I find them good brain relaxers, but they aren’t what I want to write. I want to write about characters who are balanced and like real people we see in reality, which means while some tropes are welcome, some aren’t. So even though I have a core trio (or two, depending on how how you count Moonshine), they all have to pull their thinking weight in different ways.

So for me this is a lot of balancing with my writing. If I make something pretty darn obvious, like it might be with one of my plot points for Page, I have to show that Caley is distracted is all to hell by something else because she has enough intelligence to add two and two and get four. She’s aware of human nature–she knows when someone feels wrong, and she’s good at figuring out what sort of awful things people will do to meet their goals because she’s seen a lot (she calls it having a doctorate in life). So sometimes, she’s more than smart enough to figure something out…she’s just distracted by someone being up to something that threatens her own choices in some way.

When I was building my trio (because YA series having a trio is a staple that I can respect and I’m not tossing out), I decided each character was going to have a different type of intelligence. All three have a heavy dose of common sense, though each can be distracted from it. One character is more emotionally intelligence, one is more book smart, and the other has social smarts. That isn’t to say the others don’t have the other types of intelligence, it just isn’t as strong with them or it’s in specific areas. Quiz Caley on types of dance and famous ballets, you’ll get a wildly different set of answers than you would out of the other two.

What I’m saying I guess is that I don’t like writing a character who is a smarty pants who has all the answers, because then it makes it hard to surprise them, but I don’t want to write the dumb jock who just punches his way through the plot. I think there should be balance, and sometimes that gets tricky to write. It’s hard, but I find it rewarding because I’m not just sticking to tropes or continuing to produce the same story that someone else has already done. (No shade meant.)

This probably comes from my own teen years. While I was in Honors classes, I didn’t always feel like I should be outside of the English or History classes. And while I have writer brain and know how a lot of things are going to end when I watch them, that only applies to genres I’ve analyzed. So when I’d go to a movie with friends and I’d get “caught,” by the ending…I’d feel really dumb when they’d tell me it was super obvious so they didn’t like the whole movie. Because they were used to consuming those types of movies, and they wanted the tropes they were highly familiar with to be subverted or changed. As someone who didn’t, the tropes played straight got me.

All of us were smart, my intelligence and consumption of media just shaped me differently. I shouldn’t have been made to feel stupid because I didn’t always follow the math or science that was math pretending to not be math, or because I didn’t track a twist to the story because it wasn’t my type of media. And I didn’t see this being portrayed in many YA books. So many just lump all the intelligence types together, so either your character is a genius and you’re beating emotional sense into them (which gets old fast), or while some characters do try and deal with the fact they aren’t considered bright, they don’t address a character who is smart in some ways and isn’t in others.

So even though it makes writing an absolute chore because I know I can only distract/drag out mysteries so long before getting Caley wise to them but I also have to give the right kind of clues or she won’t figure it out…I think it’s important to remember no character is truly dumb. Even the Dumb Jock (TM) knows things and skills that the Smart Friend (TM) doesn’t, and should be given the chance to show that instead of being spoon fed the answers.


Writing: On Historical Fighting with a Pole Arm… (Part 2–Staff Tactics)

I had to scratch my head over the holiday to figure out the best way to write about fighting with/against someone wielding a pole arm, and I finally went with blocking it out. And then it went long so ha, more posts about me babbling about this. So there’s three parts, two blocks to each part and then an example paragraph. Hopefully it’ll make sense why I did it that way.

Part One: Plain staffs/balanced pole arm
Block 1: Fighting with
Otherwise known as fighting tactics, I know, but here we go. As previously discussed in the previous post, a plain staff, or even one with metal caps, is a primarily defensive weapon. So when you are swinging it around, you are trying to a) not tangle yourself up in it and b) tangle your opponent up in it instead so you can disarm them, smack them around, and then run away.

So about not tangling yourself in your own staff. Staff work relies a lot on aligning the weapon with your body. As an example, if you are striking at someone’s right shoulder with your left, the staff should be across your body to keep them from stabbing you in the meantime, your left hand and therefore the left part of the staff extended up and forward, and the right end of the staff and your corresponding limb, in this case your right leg, back and down. With a balanced weapon, it’s important to keep it in between your body and your opponent for defense because typically it’s the only thing you got–I’ve never seen one wielded with even a buckler shield. Separating from your body is also the fastest way for a disarm (see Part 2 below).

While occasionally you may see a pole arm with both ends capped with bladed heads, they aren’t common like at all and come with a new rush of difficulties. There’s no natural “resting” point because neither tip is blunt, so the only way to set it down is to lay the whole thing down, which means it takes more effort to pick up and move into a fight. You also lose some of your reach–you can’t swing these sorts of weapons into your own space like you do a blunt end because there’s a chance you’ll hurt yourself more than you’ll hurt your opponent. As a rule, I advice against trying to pull a medieval Darth Maul unless magic is involved as a result, and even then, it’s just more hassle than it is use. (This does not apply to two-bladed swords…but that’s a later post.)

Block 2: Fighting against
This time, the scenario is fighting against someone with a balanced staff or pole arm. There are two tactics to this fight that are simplest and don’t turn into a game of chess. They aren’t the only way, but they are the way to be quick and brutal about this and move on to the next. One is the rusher and the other is the leverage.

The rusher works best if you yourself are shorter than the person wielding the staff. The key to this one is that you are wielding a weapon that is proportionate to your own size and not a reach weapon, such as a sword, daggers, axe, etc. Shields help, but aren’t required. The rusher tactic uses the reach of the pole arm against their opponent, getting in close as fast and as often as possible so they have little room to maneuver. It also means that as fast as the pole arm wielder is, there’s chances to get a blow in because you are in their way of moving to the defense in time.

As you probably expect, the leverage is the exact opposite of the rusher. This works better if you are the same height or taller than the person wielding the staff, but bonus that it can work if you are wielding almost any type of weapon. Basically, by using the leverage of binding the staff with your own weapon, because of your height (or angle if you are having to do some extra manipulating), you’ll be able to “pop” the staff free and out of your opponent’s grip. I’ve even done a fancy pop that slide the opponent’s staff down mine so I could catch it and there was no chance of recovery. By applying either upward, downward, or diagonal pressure, you compromise your opponent’s grip. But you have to be fast and you have to be sneaky about it, or else they’ll realize what you are doing and get the heck out of the way.

Both of these tactics can also work if you aren’t the best case scenario, btw, but I’m just writing about what works best when because it takes less monkeying around.

Examples
The best example I have of the rusher is my scripted fight with one of my friends from medfair. (Or fights, plural.) She is much shorter than me, though of course I’m pushing the tall thing to freakish levels, so there is a marked difference in our statures from the get-go. She is very much a rusher in general–her primary fight tactic is to get in close, fast, and hard, since her opponent isn’t going to expect it. Most of our fights she was supposed to win, but it was easy to block those fights because her natural fighting style was an answer to my own.

She would get in close and tight, switching from one side to the other very quickly and not really going for over the head strikes much because they left her in a position of vulnerability more than they did me. She did however aim closer to the core and ground, because there was a lot more harm that she could do there. My defense was limited to trying to force distance between us by binding weapons over her head and then pushing her back with my own attacks, or trying to get her weapon tangled with mine to disarm here–harder to do because again, the weapon is proportionate to her size and not something I can get a grip on easily.

The other side of the coin was when I applied leverage to some of my staff fights. I’m almost always taller, so this is really my go-to strategy (when I’m not taking advantage of a ridiculous level of reach). I tend to aim high, going for the head or even above the head because I know they are going to have to bring their weapon or extend it up and further away from them. This gives you the opportunity to get either your body or your weapon in between your opponent’s weapon and body so you can pull it away from them. (Like that pop I mentioned above.)

If you want something visual to reference for your fighting scenes, I recommend either looking up martial artists (because a staff is a staff is a staff) or flag work with a color or winter guard if you want something with flourishes.


When Your Characters Rebel…

(I’m not saying this is Season 3 Miraculous Ladybug salt… But I am saying it is probably flavored liberally with it. I will avoid spoilers to the best of my abilities in terms of naming characters, but you know, you might get the gists of it anyway.)

So you have been working on this long running series–whether it’s for TV or a book series, comic run or insert other media here–and you have always had a couple in mind for your endgame. This is the pairing everyone needs to love, this is one that they need to get behind and want to be together. You have distractions and miscommunications in mind, whether you have an outline or just a vague concept in your head, but you also have key moments where they are meant to come together and prove that they can work.

So what do you do when they don’t do it organically, and worse yet, your audience soundly rejects it?

I’m not talking about the background characters that everyone is shipping together, cracky or not, or if the fans have decided your platonic best friends who are your main duo are meant to be, and I’m not talking about if you are dealing with a story that has no or only a very small romance plot and you can change the love interest without it changing the story one gram. This is a love-centric relationship that you, the writer, has built into the very premise, and the fans know this from day one. You may have even made the poor decision to use social media to assure everyone that yes, you know what you are doing, and yes, no matter what, the pairing will be endgame.

But remember those distractions I mentioned before? This is where things as a writer can get really gnarly. If I’ve spent time breaking my main pairing apart for the sake of time management, so they can get together in the final one or two chapters/episodes/issues/what-have-you and I have too much time to fill in between them, well… This pokes holes in why my audience is going to believe that this couple is going to work together in the end. (I am not touching my salty examples treatment and twisting of characters to make this possible.) If they fall out of love with this relationship as the characters question their feelings for each other, then when I provide a distraction in the form of new, alternative pairings… I’ve just split my fanbase.

Now, for some marketing people, they think this is a brilliant idea. Ever since Team Edward/Team Jacob, they have been gung-ho about love triangles, since marketing took what was previously a well known if slightly tired trope and fanned it into a fandom war that sold a ton of merchandise and kept people talking about a franchise that honestly didn’t deserve the level of hype and devotion it ended up spawning. See, once a fandom war starts, if you feed the fires right, fans will entrench themselves in their camp and will go out of their way to not prove the other side wrong, but spend a ton of money to show their support of their camp.

But notice my not so nice dig at the franchise? That’s because love triangles have to be written very carefully. In order to actually make sense as a plot device, there needs to be a very obvious reason why one side is better than the other, and writers usually get lazy with this, making it a matter of the nice guy being secretly violent or just saying that the jerkass was the one who really understood the girls promise (and in my opinion encourages abuse way too much). And that’s when they start at the same time! Many franchises spend whole books or seasons establishing a love interest, and then try to throw in a rival in the new season/sequel book. That only works if it’s quite clear to your fanbase that this isn’t meant to be a new romantic angle, and that the new rival is actually really unsuitable for the character he/she is pursuing. While some fans will hop on to the new camp with this rival (it’s inevitable), the majority will stay where you want it–with the mains.

This is where things can get hairy though. If you don’t make the new character unappealing, you can completely split your fanbase. My salty example here did this in two different ways and both failed. For one, they didn’t portray her personality consistently across her episodes, so despite having more screen time than the rival for the other side of the main pairing, it was so inconsistent that fans were irritable over it. That should have been enough by itself for fans to be split on her and to keep attention on their main couple. Except the boy is an oblivious idiot, no matter what the writers say on Twitter, and he has repeatedly stated that he can’t see the female lead as anything other than a friend, but he can see this new girl as a potential love interest to move on from his celebrity crush. For fans, that was digging a grave and a lot of them jumped ship.

But that left the other half of the pairing in the wind, right? Nope, insert our second rival. He didn’t get nearly the level of screen time, but what there is, it is consistent. Now, it’s also too perfect and two-dimensional, so some fans hate him for just that reason. Again, this should have kept everything split up and the focus on the main pairing. But our female lead is not only in the wind as far as her crush and trying to move past it, she has had so many responsibilities heaped on to her that it’s a miracle she’s still standing. And this boy has said that he loves her for who she is, just her, not her superhero self blinding him so badly he can’t see her, but her. And she doesn’t even have to explain everything to her (as our male lead has thrown a tantrum over in the past).

My friends, they not only dug the grave, they put in the final nails themselves. (Supposedly there are two episodes left that will revive it like a zombie, but I doubt it.)

At this point, if I was in that writing room, I would be looking over fan responses and questions, look at my team, and go, “Ya’ll, we have to either spend an entire season fixing this, which by our premise we can’t do… Or we may have to let go of the love square being endgame.” But of course, these are a bunch of men (and one woman) and I can’t see them doing that. What I can do though is take this as an object lesson myself. If you have a couple, it’s fine for there to be complications towards them ending up together–that’s life. There’s also a line in the sand where if you cross it, you won’t get your fanbase back. This is going to apply to me for Sun’s Guard, so I’m going to take this lesson and run.


Writing: Finding the Time

We’ve all heard the sayings: write everyday, even if it’s just three words. Set aside an hour to write everyday. Do what feels natural, even if it’s cramming everything out in three days (yikes! been there, but yikes!)… There’s a lot of them, and they sometimes seems to conflict with each other. If it just matters to put words to a page, why does it matter when we do it? If the words themselves do matter, then how do you feel productive?

I would love to say there’s a definitive answer on this one, but there really isn’t. You have to figure out your own rhythms, what makes you tick and what gives you the best response for your effort. I will break down some of these common sayings, and their equally common answers, and how I have interpreted these to help me. Some of this may work for you, some of it you may have to do the exact opposite. Do as you will.

The first myth: writing every day. There’s been some people who talk about jotting down a few sentences each days, some talk about waking up early to write first thing in the morning before the rest of the household is up and before work… I had a professor who subscribed that belief too, even had us keep a journal. In theory, I think it’s a great idea. In practice… Ugh. I don’t know about you all, but I’m a single female with two cats and a house to take care of, plus a day job and other responsibilities plus wanting to you know, have fun occasionally. Writing every single day just doesn’t happen.

That doesn’t mean I don’t work at writing every day. Here’s what I mean, take right now for an example. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I have rehearsal from 7 to 9. That means my prime writing hours are taken up doing other things, and by the time I’m home, my brain has died and writing just isn’t going to happen, at least in a way that I won’t have to completely do over during the weekend. But you know what I do have enough brain for? Piecing together characters. Fleshing out world-building. Poking at my plots to make sure that no new sub plots have grown when I wasn’t looking. All of this goes into the work of writing, so that when the weekend comes along or I have a day off or–miracle of miracles–my brain hasn’t died after rehearsal yet, I can sit down and push out a couple of pages.

Any words are good words/progress. This one, I get where it’s coming from. Staring at a blank page is not going to help you get unstuck any faster, nor is it getting your book written. Some scenes are just emotionally difficult as a writer, whether it’s because you have something else you want to be working on or the characters are being difficult or you are just plain tired. Getting a few sentences deeper can (and should) feel like a major accomplishment, and each time you do that, you get a little bit further along, a little bit closer to getting to the finish line and the wonderful world of editing.

But where I disagree is the “any” part. This is how hokey scenes happen that somehow make it past your editor/beta reader and the rest of your audience is like, “WTF was that?!” Every time I’ve had to force a scene out, I write once more to get the pain over with and enjoy it again…and then go back and read that struggle-bug scene. What was making it so difficult? Was it because someone was acting out of character? Was it because it was a shoe-horned in subplot that really needs cut out? Is the scene just boring and needs to go away? Sometimes it’s because something REALLY IMPORTANT to the plot was happening there, but I was too vague about it and I really needed to work at fleshing it out in my head during my “working on writing” days and to figure out what it is better so I can fix the awkward scene.

Don’t edit, just write. This was the next logical one to cover, lol. I get the thought behind this one too. Going over the same three scenes to get them perfect isn’t going to help you. You need to keep progressing, keep the story moving. And to be honest, those three scenes are never going to be perfect. You have to keep pushing or else you’ll never get done, you’ll just have thirty odd unfinished drafts (no, I’m not calling out certain best friends, fanfiction doesn’t count and if it did I’d be a hypocrite)! So as bad as your sentence structures are, as many typos as you may see, just ignore them and keep going with the next scene, you can fix those later (hopefully…typos are sneaky).

I actually somewhat agree with this one, aside from what I stated just prior. Short of something being unnecessarily difficult and figuring out why, I am a big proponent of just go, go, go, write till you hit…the mid point. Once you hit the mid-point, of your plot, I advice a pause. Reread. Is your plot doing what you want it to do? THREE TIMES, I looked back at Sun’s Guard: Ten and went, “Nope. This ain’t doing it. Try again.” And each time, it got better, before I finished the book and suddenly had a huge amount of editing to do. It lets me catch big mistakes like wrong subplots or a character not getting enough “screen time” early so I can fix it sooner and then continue what I’m doing. I fix typos if I find them, but I don’t worry about structure or things like that, I’ll do a huge print out later for that.

It takes as long as it takes. This is someone wanting to take the pressure off of how long it can take to write a book, to free up pressure. And there is a point there, because if you rush, the writing isn’t as good and you’ll make more errors. But this one I really want to advice people to throw out. The publishing industry runs on deadlines. Even if you self-publish, you need to build some sort of momentum and can’t be dead silent for five years and only release a book that often. You will struggle with building an audience. So I have created a publishing schedule for Sun’s Guard and Truth in Justice. Sun’s Guard has it by the month, Truth in Justice just has a general year of when I expect to put each of those out and could obviously move around a bit. I now have internal deadlines that I need to meet. I know exactly how long it takes me to edit and to format, and how much space I need to take between edits to insure fresh eyes. This gives me a timeline that I need to adhere too, so I can build my audience at a consistent rate.

These are the most common bits of advice I’ve seen floating around. Anyone else have others you want my two cents on? Want me to collect them and do another post? Let me know!