What comes first? Plot or character?

My head is dripping with story ideas. Overflowing with them. Exploding with them. I’ve never once thought “I have no idea what I’ll write after this book.” It’s always more like “New idea! New idea! Let’s quit the current WIP and start on this one.” (If you only knew how many first drafts I’ve abandoned around the 50,000 word mark.)

And if I ever get to a point in my writing where I wonder where to go next, it’s not because I’m out of ideas. No, it’s because I have an endless supply of possible paths for my character and I’m always desperately trying to make ALL THE IDEAS work. Even when they clearly don’t.

My friend China, on the other hand, has a nonstop list of characters running through her head and speaking to her throughout the day. She sees them, hears them, knows them … just not what they’re going to do yet.

When I get an idea for a book, 99 percent of the time it’s a plot idea. When China gets a book idea, it’s usually a character idea. It’s not so much that she writes character-driven stories or I write plot-driven ones. It’s just that there’s a big difference in how our stories come together. So today we thought we’d share with you the pros and cons of both.

When the plot comes first (Me)

I get story ideas everywhere: interactions I witness, things I see on TV, interesting articles I come across at work, stuff that’s happened to me in the past, etc. If it’s a good idea, but not an OMG-this-is-all-I-can-think-about idea, it goes into my file. If it’s the latter, I just have to accept the fact that I really will be thinking of nothing else for the next few weeks.

My current book was inspired by an image I saw on the Web while researching an article. I was mesmerized by this image. I saw it and suddenly my head was filled with endless “What If’s.” What if someone lived there? What if she were trapped there? What if the one thing she wanted was impossible to attain?

Who is this “she”? I don’t know. And at this point I don’t care. I’m too interested in the fact that she’s going to be solving mysteries, taking names and kicking ass. I can figure out her name, her past and her demons later. Right now, I have a story taking shape.

When I’m at this point in my mental plotting, there’s no structure to it. I don’t think in terms of inciting incidents, plot points and pinch points. I usually don’t even write the ideas down for quite some time. I just let the ideas percolate, multiply and take on a life of their own — and sometimes it rather feels like they’re taking over my life.

Showers, commutes and that hour I lie in bed before finally falling asleep are all dedicated to these events unfolding in my head. (A story-inspired soundtrack is a must for the commutes. Water Lily was a whole lot of Chuck Ragan and Brandi Carlile mixed in with some City & Colour and a little JamisonParker.) My every thought is so devoted to what’s going to happen next that it’s honestly amazing that I haven’t walked into oncoming traffic yet.

This time where the ideas flow is nothing short of amazing. I love it. I live for it. But sometimes there’s a downside to too many plot ideas. Take WL for example, I had so many plot points and twists in my head, and in my first draft I threw them ALL in there. Then I come back a month later and realize I had a confusing jumbled mess. It’s like I’d tried to write a song, but there were too many musicians and too many instruments. I had a killer drum solo queued to come in at the exact time I’d scheduled the didgeridoo, the xylophone and the sitar. Separately, they might sound pretty awesome. But all together? Your brain is confused. And your head starts to hurt. A lot.

At this point I have to replot and start cutting. I realize I can’t have this character or that subplot, and it hurts — it hurts so bad — but it has to be done. When I started revising WL, I realized that I had to cut a whole lot of stuff, including several subplots and about seven characters. It felt so wrong to be taking all these wonderful things out of my story. After all, I’d been thinking of this story for months and all of these things were a part of it. I didn’t want to kill my plot darlings!  But I did. And my story is now stronger because of it.

But just because I didn’t get to use those ideas, doesn’t mean they’re dead and gone. I can keep them in my file and use them in the next story. Perhaps they’ll sound and feel just right in that new book.

Great, now I’m thinking of the new book again. Hopefully I remember to pay attention to the crosswalks.

When the character comes first (China)

I have a large cast of characters roaming around in my head. In fact, there are so many that I keep several documents on my computer that contain character ideas. One is simply a list of names that I like. Another is names plus a few characteristics (eye color, a hobby, etc.).

But, more often than not, a character will leap from my head fully formed, like Athene springing forth from Zeus. This typically happens when my mind is relaxed and not focused on writing, i.e. when I’m driving, taking a bath, watching TV, etc.

Once a character appears in my head, I immediately grab my notebook or computer and write down everything I know: name, hair/eye color, age, hobbies/interests, dreams, goals, sexuality, job and any unusual facts (Is she being haunted? Does she have a superpower?). As I jot down facts about my MC, I start to learn things about other characters as they relate to her: family members, best friend, love interest, rival, etc., and I start making notes about those characters as well. I try to devote at least one page to every important character.

These are the characters who make it into my books (the other, half-formed ones languish in computer documents in perpetuity). And while I know, logically, that I’m creating them, that isn’t how it feels. These are fully-realized people who are telling me their stories. I don’t name them; they come to me named. They tell me what they look like, what their jobs are, what their dreams are, and it’s my responsibility to carry that to the page.

Which is, in many ways, fantastic. It’s a bit like meeting new people without ever having to leave the house, and it’s exciting to get to be the person who tells their tales. HOWEVER, there is a slight problem with this method. Because my stories develop around characters, not plot, I often have no idea what these people are DOING. Yes, I know who they are and what they want, but not what their paths are.

I have no idea of the drama, conflict or tension that they will have to tackle in order to achieve their dreams. This has always been an issue for me: I have all these people who are demanding that their stories be told, but I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE STORIES ARE. I have no plots to go along with these people.

And to make matters a tad more challenging, I’m an unrepentant pantser. I love the idea of plotting the entire story before I write, but unfortunately, that’s not how I work. These characters live in my head like real people, and it’s only by observing them that I learn their stories. So that means plotting can be tricky, but I work around that the best I can.

Once I have all the “whos” sketched out, I try to tackle the “whats”: What does the MC want? What is standing in her way? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? I work out as many of these answers as I can and try to outline the book as much as possible, in terms of hook, plot points, pinch points, conflict and resolution. Since I’m a pantser, this is generally not as detailed as I would like, but it does at least provide a framework.

Once I have all of that outlined, I dive in and see where the characters lead me! Naturally, they change and evolve as I go, and I find myself discovering new things about the characters with each chapter and each revision.

So for me, this is the process: I have to think about these people, what their lives are like, and then come up with a plot that both suits their circumstances and will hook a reader. And that can be tremendously hard to do. Unfortunately, I don’t have book ideas floating around in my head. I don’t see pictures on the Internet that inspire fanciful plots. All I have are these fascinating characters, and I have to create my stories around them. I think (I hope anyway!) that this results in interesting, quirky characters with strong voices. I have to work really hard to come up with believable challenges for these people, which can often mean seemingly-endless revisions. But when it works, it’s magical.

Thanks for sharing, China!

So I’m curious. What comes first for you? Plot or character? Or are you…divergent?

Photo: qisur/flickr

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A love list for my novel

My friend and crit partner China recently sent me the visual love list she created for her WIP, and it got me thinking about what I would include on my own love list for Water Lily. What’s a love list, you ask?

In Stephanie Perkins‘ own words: “Whenever I begin a new project, I also begin a list called ‘What I Love About This Story.’ I start by writing down those first ideas that sparked the fires of my mind, and then I add more ideas to it as I discover them during my push through early drafts.” Read the full post here.

Fun, right? I just couldn’t resist writing my own — especially since I needed to fall in love with the WIP again after re-plotting the entire second half (see above.)

WATER LILY

  • paper puzzles and cryptic clues
  • the scent of licorice on fingertips
  • a scruffy boy with long hair and quick wit
  • moonflowers
  • poetry
  • longing for the past
  • the taste of the ocean on your hair
  • unlikely friendships
  • redemption
  • first kisses
  • shattered porcelain and polyester snow
  • bluebird feathers
  • whispered conversations
  • fading photographs
  • the smell of damp earth

I could go on and on, but then I wouldn’t actually be writing the book. So I’m off to revise!

Have you written a love list for your WIP? If so I’d love to read it. Link me!

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Have you seen this writer?

I’m alive! It’s been a while, I know. But I’m still here, breathing and writing.

<——– Here’s some photographic evidence. Yes, that’s me dressed as Tonks posing with a man in a Sirius Black costume at DragonCon.

I wish I could say that while I’ve been absent I’ve done something amazing like started my first term at Hogwarts or finished revising my novel, but those would be lies. However, I do finally have a solid first few chapters, which means I’ll be sending agents requested materials soon! *cue nausea*

The revision process is going well; however, I’m rewriting a lot more than I’d planned. But this experience has taught me the importance of doing a little plotting before starting the frenzied first draft. (More on that in another post)

Speaking of first drafts, I’m ridiculously excited for NaNoWriMo this year. I have a wonderfully shiny new idea rattling around in my brain. It’s all mental sunshine and brain glitter in my head right now, but while I’d like to bask in new WIP awesomeness, the cloud of revisions is still hovering over me… Must. Finish. Water Lily. First.

At least this new idea gives me something to be excited about — and something to distract me from constantly checking my email for rejections. But it’s not just the new idea that’s keeping me motivated — it’s also my amazing crit partners and beta readers. If it weren’t for them, I’d just be wandering the streets of Atlanta and feeding stray cats or watching k-dramas all day.

I’m blessed to have such talented writers to share my work with, but I consider myself even more lucky because I get to read their writing. I’m completely obsessed with their stories, and I get ridiculously excited whenever the next installment arrives in my inbox. There’s so much romance and mystery and intrigue. There’s an invisible girl, a cyborg, a time traveler, a demon with a conscience, an adorable boy with suspenders who I’m totally fiction-crushing on. My fellow writers keep me motivated, and their talent makes me strive to work harder.

So, Corey, China, Kayla, Liza, Nicole, Lina, Sara, Geoff, Melissa, Deb and Cally: Thank you, thank you for all your help with Water Lily, and thanks for sharing your writing with me as well!

Photo: codywellons.com

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Story structure over k-dramas

I don’t have much of a blog post for you today. Lately whenever I’m not at the office or revising the novel, my life pretty much consists of back-to-back episodes of “Boys Over Flowers.” I’m pretty sure this kdrama stuff is some sort of powerful drug.

If that’s the case, Corey Wright is my dealer, “Shut Up and Let’s Go” was my gateway drug, Lee Hyun Jae is that dream I have when I’ve OD’d, and now I’m a full-fledged addict — but more on that later.*

To make up for the fact that my brain is addled with cute boys and kimchi, I’m going to share Dan Wells‘ awesome video series on story structure. These videos taught me so much, and I hope you take something from them as well.

And don’t worry — while these videos are good, they’re not kdrama addictive, so you’ll be able to move on with writing (and the rest of your life) after watching them. But be warned: The intro music in these is a little painful. I suggest hitting the mute button until you see the talented Dan Wells.

*My kdrama dealer will be helping me out with a fun blog post on Thursday, so please come by and check it out!

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Revisions: Facing my fears…finally

I’m back! (No, not to the blog. It’s Tuesday. I’m supposed to be here.) I’m back to my YA manuscript! Like really back. As in I’m not just opening Scrivener and running spell check while stressing about how I should be halfway through revisions by now.

The co-authored project is ready to be shipped off to those who requested it and I’m almost caught up on all the awesome beta reads I’ve been sent, so there’s really no excuse not to work on my own book.

What’s ironic is that you’d think having agents ask for part of my manuscript would kick me into overdrive in an effort to whip the book into shape, but the opposite happened. Yes, I had the co-authored project and its full request and it took up a lot of my time, but I can’t help but feel like I also threw myself into that book as an excuse not to work on my own story. I can now admit that somewhere deep inside I was paralyzed with fear.

I knew changes had to made, but the task seemed so daunting that I was afraid to even begin it. So I didn’t. Logical move, right? Because the best way to finish editing a book, baking a cake, climbing a mountain or rewatching all three seasons of Veronica Mars is not to even begin, right? (Yes, instead of starting revisions, I rewatched all three seasons of Veronica Mars…yet again.)

Sometimes writing is challenging — there are plot/pacing/voice/you name it issues. Sometimes stress gets in the way or you run into some technical difficulties. Other times, you let yourself be ruled by fear. For me, this fear was twofold:

  1. Fear of the huge task ahead of me (I have to revise a massive novel that requires tons of structural changes and rewrites.)
  2. Fear of failure (What if I work so, so hard on these chapters and still get rejected?)

But you know what? Despite these fears of mine, I had to two choices: revise or not. And it never once occurred to me to not revise. Because I want to write and that’s going to involve hellish revisions and plenty of rejections. That’s just the way writing it is.

This weekend I came to my senses and got started — and got a kitten to help me, as you can see. Now I’m in the groove: shredding backstory, cutting adverbs and persuading my characters to stop repeating each others’ names all the time.

Not revising was never an option. Just as not writing has never been an option.

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The story of my first rejection

I almost didn’t write this post. Can you blame me? Who wants to share their failure with the Internet?

But as a writer who’s querying agents and trying to learn everything she can about the publishing world, I wish there were more posts about authors’ journeys to publication and what to expect when it comes to rejection. Even if it’s just to remind me that I’m not the only one getting rejected. So here’s my story.

Although I mostly write YA, a fellow writer friend and I decided to embark on a silly MG project that would secure our places in history as total nerdgirls. We pitched our book to an agent at a writer’s conference … and she loved the idea. She requested the full manuscript, she started talking to us about marketing and promotion, and she even said she thought it would be an easy sell.

We were insanely happy. Ridiculously happy. Once we were out of her eyesight, there was jumping and squealing. Very professional writing and squealing, of course — this was a writing conference after all.

So my co-author and I spent the next week revising and editing our little MG book and then sent it off to the agent. Exactly nine minutes later — yes, we timed it — she replied, saying it was “wonderful,” but it needed more.

More? We could do more! We do so much more!!

We brainstormed, researched the market, consulted a lawyer on copyright issues, wrote lists, brought in illustrator and designer friends, and we wrote, wrote, wrote. Three weeks later, we had a crazy little masterpiece. So we shipped our baby book off to the agent and a couple weeks later we heard back. She “loved” it. She said we were “very, very close” and that we’d get her final answer within a week.

There was more squealing. Virtual champagne was bought. The promise of dreams fulfilled followed us everywhere. It was all we could talk about. This was it. It was finally happening!

Fast forward a week and the email arrived. THE EMAIL ARRIVED!

And she said she had to pass.

Pass? But…but…but…we were “very, very close.” Weren’t we?

Just not close enough, I guess.

The market wasn’t right for it, she said. If we’d written the book a year ago, it would be an easy sell. Now? Not so much. She encouraged us to self-publish though, and she was confident that we could sell a few thousand copies. Still, it wasn’t what we wanted to hear.

So my co-author and I drowned our sorrows in food-court macaroni and cheese. (It was the middle of the workday and the champagne was virtual — it was the best we could do.)

So close… But so far.

Want to know what stings the most about getting a rejection from that agent? The fact that she’s so awesome. We would’ve loved to work with her! She was passionate about our book, she’s knowledgeable about the industry, she’s skilled at her job, and we just genuinely like her. I honestly think she tried her best to make this project work for her, but the timing was off. As much as it sucks, it just didn’t work out for us. This time.

So while we ate carbs around a small, sticky table at the Peachtree Center food court, we hatched a plan: We’d query some more agents. We’d submit directly to a small publisher that had worked with similar projects. And if it still failed, we would self-publish our book. It’s a good book. People should have the opportunity to read it.

So today we skipped the food court and sent out a few queries instead. Hitting “send” on those emails and opening myself up to further rejection was a terrifying thing, but it’s the next step on my path to publication. It had to be done.

While I wait to hear back from those agents, I’ll be revising my YA book and preparing to send it to the two agents who requested my partial manuscript at that same conference — including the agent who turned down the MG book. Honestly, it’s going to be even scarier to send this book that’s 100 percent my own creation out into the world. It’s strange how I simultaneously can’t wait for agents to read it while also hoping they never ever read it — all because I fear the sting of rejection.

Yes, rejection is scary, but it’s part of the process.

Somehow getting a rejection has made me feel like I’m that much closer to publication, so while it stings, it’s really not that bad.

Photo: Steve Snodgrass/flickr

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Fan fiction: I finally get it

I’ve never read or written fan fiction. It’s just not my thing. But I think I can finally understand the appeal of keeping characters alive in places other than in the pages of a book or your own imagination. Writing those stories and sharing those stories helps bring the characters to life again, and you get to experience your favorite characters’ adventures long after the final page.

With the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” fan fiction has been thrust into the mainstream, and I’ve recently read numerous articles about the appeal of fan fiction and whether it stifles or inspires creativity with its parameters.

Now, to be honest, I’m baffled as to why you’d write fan fiction featuring literature’s most boring protagonist of all time. Although perhaps I’ll write my own fan fiction where Ana Steele Bella Swan puts down the Brit lit, buys herself a modern-day computer and Googles a few things like “feminism”, “how to be interesting” and “why do both book series feature a virgin having violent sex?”

Anyway, I’m not trying to turn this into a debate over whether “50 Shades” is or isn’t great literature or what implications its success has for the publishing world. I also don’t feel strongly about fan fiction one way or the other. If you want to write it or read it, rock on! At least you’re writing and reading. If you hate and think it’s just for dorks, well, you’re entitled to your opinion.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I never really got fan fiction until recently. I came across this Snape comic and it finally hit home for me. (It would be a Harry Potter thing, right?) I believe that this artwork says exactly what people love about fan fiction so much. Their favorite characters live on. They don’t die. They have other lives, dreams and opportunities for happiness. And if any tragic figure in literature deserves that, it’s Severus Snape.

Until recently, I’d always sort of assumed that 90 percent of fan fiction were stories that would disgust me or make me blush 50 shades of red, but surely it can’t be all that bad. This, to me, is fan fiction as art. And it’s beautiful.

Or maybe I’m just a fan fiction dork now too.

Hilariously awesome “50 Shades of Grey” reviews:

Photo: lily-fox.deviantart.com

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How I know what to write

I love this quote. I think it’s the true test for all great story ideas.

The only problem is there are endless books I want to read that haven’t been written yet. I really need to put my Story Idea Generator on pause so I can finish my current project!

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Why I think journalists make great fiction writers

I recently read a blog post that made my blood boil. I’d link to it, but I don’t want to be responsible for driving traffic to it — just as I wouldn’t want to be responsible for sending you to Mitt Romney’s website or a Scott Stapp fan page. (You’re welcome.) The post was titled something like “Why journalists don’t make good novelists,” and the author’s arguments were basically that journalists write in a news format and therefor lack creativity.

To some degree, the writer had a point — there is a bit of a “science” or format to news articles. After all, you don’t pick up The New York Times or visit CNN.com and read sentences like, “The councilman’s brow glistened with desperation and his voiced boomed like thunder through the room as he demanded action from the stoic faces that sat before him.” If a journalist were to include a sentence like that in an article, one of two things would happen: The copy desk would rewrite it, or the writer would be called to the editor’s office and likely wouldn’t have a job much longer.

However, you don’t pick up a novel and expect it to be written in inverted pyramid style. Such a novel would be over rather quickly as all the important information would be supplied in the first paragraph. For example, here’s how “The Hunger Games” would unfold on the front page of The Panem Gazette.

Katniss Everdeen, 16, and Peeta Mellark, 16, both of District 12, won the 74th annual Hunger Games in an unprecedented turn of events after the Gamemakers reversed their ruling and allowed a pair of tributes to win the games. Everdeen, known to fans as “the girl on fire,” won the hearts of Panem’s viewers after volunteering as tribute in place of her sister, Primose Everdeen, 12. Everdeen developed a relationship with Mellark while in the arena; however, an anonymous source reports that she has been romantically linked to Gale Hawthorn, 18, a District 12 coal miner.

Not the most fascinating read, is it?

But just because a journalist has mastered news writing doesn’t mean that same journalist can’t master other forms of writing. In fact, I’d venture to say that there are A LOT of advantages to being a journalist who also writes novels. Here are just a few:

  • You learn the importance of deadlines. You may stress about them, but you meet them — or you lose your job. So you learn to meet them.
  • You learn not to get too attached to that lovingly crafted sentence or be offended when someone tells you to “cut the crap from graf 3″ or completely rewrites your lead without consulting you. That’s the business. You grow a thick skin. You learn it’s not personal. Honestly, this has been the greatest advantage for me as a writer. I’ve had crit partners and beta readers who got defensive or burst into tears when someone critiqued their work. I dare you to do that in a newsroom.
  • Speaking of editing and critiquing, journalists and copy editors rule supreme when it comes to brevity and cutting unnecessary fluff. They say what needs to be said in as few words as possible. Plus, journalists are skilled at hooking a reader. The lead sentence needs to convey the necessary information, yes, but it also needs to grab a reader’s attention — in 30 words or fewer.
  • But most importantly, if you’re working as a journalist, you’re likely writing and/or editing at least 40 hours a week. After all, writing is your job. You’re not writing flowery prose or plotting the perfect scene, but you’re practicing your craft every single day — and getting paid for it.

As Daniel Levitin says in Outliers: The Story of Success, “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. ” (Liza Kane wrote a great blog post on this last year.)

Guess how quickly we journalists amass those 10,000 hours.

And although I’ve yet to read any of Jennifer Weiner’s books, I was thrilled when I ran across this amazing post of hers that explains how to become a writer in 8 steps. I’ve included an excerpt from that post below.

I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It’s not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it’s great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don’t grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses.

And writer’s block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn’t done yet because your Muse hasn’t spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer’s block is a luxury no working journalist can afford, which will help you avoid it when you’re a working novelist.

Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates — myself included — could use. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited — of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you’ve written even stronger.

Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines — you’ll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter’s dragging and your title’s ill-conceived — you’ll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Your editor will adore you.

Now, I don’t think journalists make the best novelists or make better creative writers than any other profession. My argument is this: Journalists don’t necessarily make bad fiction writers.

I think I speak for most journalists when I say that we love words and storytelling just as much as any other writer. After all, we are essentially just writers. Believe me when I say that we didn’t get into this career for the high pay. Or the angry emails from readers … or the Chilean ambassador.

Yep, I once got a two-page letter from the ambassador about an article I wrote. I wish all my readers’ criticisms arrived on nice paper with presidential seals. It makes me feel all classy and legit.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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