Monday, 28 March 2011

Fearless first drafts

I’m an advocate for fast first drafts. Plot all you like, but when you get started on the writing part, build momentum and don’t stop until you’re done. I know people who keep going back to revise what they’ve already written and never actually finish the manuscript.

If you’re one of those people who can’t bear the thought of writing a first draft without stopping, but you've yet to finished a manuscript, maybe it’s time to write fearlessly.


You can change anything in later drafts.

I’m serious. I’ve proved over the years that every single aspect of a novel can be changed. Setting all wrong? Antagonist too corny? Plot looking wonky? Not a problem. But fix it later.

If you think something needs changing, make a note of it in a separate document then plough ahead. There are writing articles and books out there that will tell you that it’s impossible to change POV once you’ve written it.

This is a lie.

I can say this to you confidently, because I’ve changed the POV in a story before. Hell, I’ve even changed the protagonist before. And I’m not talking about changing my main gal from one character to another pre-existing character. I mean I’ve changed her personality to fit a completely different person. It took work, yes, but it’s definitely possible.

If you never get it done, you’ll never get it published.

Obvious, isn't it?

Even if your goal isn’t to get published, if you’re forever writing and never finishing anything, you’ll never feel that moment of satisfaction when you complete your first draft. Trust me, it’s a phenomenal feeling. Yes, the manuscript won’t be perfect. But at least you’ll have the foundation to build on.

Posting daily word counts is a great way to force yourself onwards. Be a cheerleader for others, so you have plenty of people cheering you in return. Wow them with your ability to stick with it, and your pure grit. It’s all about the act. Tell everyone you can do a certain amount of words a day, and you’ll have no choice but to prove it. The act becomes reality.

If you’re still revising your first draft without no real end in sight, make a vow to yourself now. How many NEW (not revised) words a day will you write until you’re finished? (A thousand is a good way to go – not as tricky as NaNoWriMo, but enough to make solid progress.) Need a cheerleader? I'm happy to help!

If you’ve completed a first draft already, what did you do to celebrate?

PS Please note I'm not telling you to change your writing habits. If editing as you go works for you, great! I'm merely suggesting an alternative if it's not working.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The darkest hour

When the hero has lost everything. When the villain has temporarily triumphed, with nothing left to stop him. When the apocalypse has arrived. Most stories have that moment. That darkest hour.

Does yours?

The importance of losing everything

Think of any action television show – as the season comes to a close, the hero is often close to losing everything. The end of the second season of Buffy is a great example – she’s been kicked out of home, kicked out of school, and the love of her life, Angel, is evil and has begun to unleash hell on earth.

When the climax of your story draws nearer, it’s time for your hero to fail. He needs to lose, at least for part of the story. He needs to know the depths of his darkest hour.


1. The hero’s darkest hour allows time for reflection, for both the hero, and the reader

If you watch the audio commentary for How to Train Your Dragon, the creators admit that they had skipped that darkest hour, where Hiccup mourns Toothless after he's captured and taken away. Instead, they had Hiccup immediately jumping up, ready to get back into fight. The creators realised this was a mistake – that moment of reflection was needed. They let Hiccup experience the impact of his loss, let him feel hopeless. It’s a time all of us go through in life, and it’s an important progression in the story.

When the hero endures the worst of the worst, readers learn from his strength. They follow him to his darkest hour, and celebrate his glory when he finds his way back. If you’re looking for a reader who will truly love rereading your book, give them inspiration by slamming your hero to rock bottom and let him climb back up again.

2. The harder you fall, the higher you climb

You only need to watch J.K. Rowling’s speech on failure to understand that. When you strip a character down to the barest essentials, you’re left with his true nature. When your hero has nothing left, it’s this moment that defines him. It gives readers an insight into his spirit, his strength, and his endurance. Kill his family, turn his friends against him, let his arch nemesis triumph, and see what he does. Give him the greatest obstacles of all to overcome, and show your readers why he is the hero.

Rising from the ashes

Getting your hero out of his darkest hour is not easy. Usually he’s caught in a moment of self-doubt, and it’s not believable for him to just flick a mental switch and come at the problem again with newfound determination.

Sometimes a secondary character needs to come in and slap some sense into him. Choose that secondary character wisely. Who would be the most surprising character to help your hero in a time of need? Could it be someone who’s been a pain for the protagonist in the past? Could it be someone who used to be a threat, but has decided to work together with the protagonist against a common enemy? Could it be someone the hero had previously written off as useless?

Sometimes, however, the hero is alone in this moment of need. He must find an inner strength, but it takes a motivating factor to get him to move. Perhaps he solves a riddle or figures out a weak point that will help take down the villain. Perhaps he realises what more he might lose if he lets the villain win. Perhaps he needs that moment when he can choose to give up and die, but instead hauls himself to his feet.

Let’s go back to the scenario in Buffy. She’s lost almost everything. Angel is about to kill her, and asks (more or less) what she has left. He tries to impale her with his sword, and at the last second, she slams her hands together to stop the blade, and answers, “Me.” Who wouldn’t root for a character like that?

What are some of your favourite stories with a darkest hour? Did you find yourself rooting for the protagonist more because they struggled up from rock bottom?

How would your story differ if the villain took control, and the protagonist experienced that darkest hour?

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Twitter Query

There are plenty of great articles out there on writing a pitch, but in this article I’m talking about pitching Twitter-style.

The set-up

Agent Jennifer Laughran (@literatictat on Twitter) hosted a challenge asking followers to tweet their query. It turned out to be ridiculously difficult. And with my alarm clock still buzzing in my ears, my groggy brain came up with slop instead of a real pitch. First lesson: have your 140-character queries written and ready, in case you need to tweet it!

Laughran retweeted queries she liked, for example this one by Jo Hart (@gracefuldoe): Geek girl moves school, changes image & becomes popular. Only problem: at this school popular kids are turning up dead. YA.

Breaking it down

What works about this? Let’s look at each part.

We have the character: Geek girl.

We have the setting: New school

We have her initial goal: To be popular. (And I know it’s her goal, rather than something that just happened to her, because she changed her image. It was a deliberate action. This tells us popularity was something she aimed for.)

So far, the story’s looking pretty cliché – a riches to rags kind of tale that’s been retold a thousand times.

But here comes the catch: At this school popular kids are turning up dead. The stakes are implied – the protagonist’s life is at risk. Following on from this, the protagonist’s new goal is also implied – she will have to find out why the popular kids are turning up dead. Implied motivation? So she doesn’t die herself.

Try it out

With tweeted queries, it’s impossible to give a good idea of your character or plot, and you’ll have to use short, descriptive words. Pare the story down to its core. What is the main objective of your protagonist? What are the stakes? (And whatever you do, don’t use words like “to protect” or “to survive”, because they’re not solid goals).

I’ll use my current WiP as an example:

My protagonist: Teenage girl

The setting: Heart of Shadowglen city

Her initial goal: Find her runaway sister

Catch: Cursed by princess who wants her to kill a beast, and says doing so will lead her to her sister

New goal: Kill a beast

So: A teenage girl is cursed by a mysterious princess, who claims she must use the curse to kill a beast and find her runaway sister.

Right length, but the set up looks awkward, and it probably still has too many elements. It’s no good trying to explain how the curse can help the protagonist kill a beast (or how killing the beast will lead her to her sister) in 140 characters. I could expand more on the mood, go into less description about her sister, and get rid of the princess altogether.

To save her runaway sister, a teenage girl must kill the beast that lurks in the dark streets of Shadowglen city.

Checklist: Character, setting (not always necessary), stakes, goals.

Much, much harder than it sounds! Have a go in the comments, and make sure it can fit into a tweet!

Jo Hart doesn’t just write a great Twitter-Pitch, she also has a fabulous website, which can be found here. Make sure you drop by!

The follow up article on the Tweet-a-Query challenge by Jennifer Laughran can be found here.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

On discovering your characters

While working on a WiP, most authors wait for that “it” moment. That eureka. That exact point in time when finally, finally, she discovers her protagonist.

Some authors discover their characters as soon as they see them in their heads. For me, it took many drafts, character bio pages, and daydreams to discover my protagonist for my earlier work, BLAZE. And when I say “discover”, I mean knowing her so intimately and precisely that she finally became a real person in my head; someone I knew as well as I know myself.

For anyone working with original characters, this normally doesn’t happen in the first draft. The first draft is more about plot and events and just figuring out what the darn story’s supposed to be about. It’s only during later drafts that you’re really trying to feel out your characters, and it’s very important to reach that stage, because determining your protagonist determines your story’s voice.

The things you should know in order to discover your characters:


Put your characters in all kinds of crazy scenarios and see how they react. What kind of people push their buttons? Who are they infatuated with? What are their favourite pastimes?

If you’re writing literary fiction, fantasise about your story in terms of your original plot then throw a dragon in and see what happens. If you’re writing a high fantasy, imagine your characters in our world and watch how they react to everyday things.

Throw them in the past. Pitch them forward into the future. Have your protagonist fatally ill and see what the other characters do. Give another one of your characters time in the spotlight and see how they fare as the protagonist. How does your protagonist react when she isn’t in the main role?


Get the details right. I mean exactly right. About a decade ago, I used to find images in magazines, but obviously the web offers so much more. If you have an image in your head but can’t find one online that matches it, try a character generator.

Don’t just tell the reader your character’s hair and eye colour. Give us those subtle details – a crooked front tooth, a dimpled chin, high eyebrows. Do something special. Unique. In GONE WITH THE WIND, Mitchell introduces Rhett Butler with this charming description: There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humour in his mouth as he smiled at her… It’s different, it’s imaginative, and it tells us as much about him as it does about Scarlett, whose eyes we see him through.

Sometimes finding images gives you ideas for quirks you’d never imagined for your character before. And once you have that character image in your head, moving on to personality profiles will be a lot easier…


Your protagonist can’t be a coward if the plot calls for someone to march forth and slay a monster. Or, better yet, they can be, but they need a secondary character to push/encourage/trick them into it. This is always a good tactic when you want to show character growth over the story.

Think about your plot. What kind of character does your protagonist have to be to make it through to the climax? What kind of characters does she need to bounce off in order to move the story forward? Can a well-developed secondary character help you with a certain trait in your protagonist? What message do you want to send to your readers?

For example, if the love interest in your story is a strong, capable male, do you want your protagonist to match him in strength and capabilities? It could lend to some decent conflict in the story. On the other hand, if you decide to make your protagonist timid, it gives her the chance to grow throughout the story and find her own self-worth before getting together with the love interest. Maybe it takes her until the end of the book to see what the love interest has seen all along. Again, it depends on what the plot needs at the beginning to move the story forward.

So where can you get personality types from? Well…


No, you don’t need to start following the stars or visiting Tarot readers. Marissa Meyer mentioned in a blog post that “choosing astrological signs for my characters helps to pinpoint their general personality archetype”, and that’s always a great start. But if you need some extra help, why not keep going?

If you’re having trouble giving your character real depth and precision, work out their numerology and check the personality description for that number. There are plenty of websites out there to give you ideas, but I found a book a while back that had ultra-detailed descriptions for every single birthday in the year. It could have been a great character profile resource if it had occurred to me at the time.

Birth trees, the Chinese zodiac, and online personality tests are also good tools for getting personality descriptions and temperaments, but basic personality profiles are just the beginning…


Don’t just jot down the likes, dislikes, and family status of your character. Write up a proper bio – parents, childhood, most influential moments, most painful memories – be as thorough as a psychiatrist. You can work backwards, too. If your character needs to be scared of water for some reason, delve into their past and find out why that fear is there. It adds an extra dimension that, while may not be explicitly written into your story, will still help you as the author understand your character on a deeper level.

The detail is where you discover the motives behind your character’s actions and attitudes during the story. I can’t stress this part enough. The detail is where I had my “ah ha” moment with my protagonist from BLAZE, and it was such a relief when she finally revealed her true nature to me. I knew she had parental issues that were the root of her main motivations, but it was her attitude towards school that I’d forgotten to take into account. The story starts with her adjusting to a big school, when originally she’d come from a little country town school with a graduating class of seven students. I was so busy with her parent-saga, I hadn’t factored in her feelings of being overwhelmed and crowded and claustrophobic after the move. Once this sunk in for me, I discovered my character.

Don’t panic if your characters don’t reveal themselves to you straight away. It’s a slow, ongoing process. Let them come to you gradually, and before you know it, you’ll be experiencing that “ah ha” moment for yourself.

What experiences have you had with original characters? Can you "discover" your protagonist immediately, or does it take work? How do your characters become living, breathing people on the page?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Character quirks

Yes, it's great to give your characters quirks, but don't go too far. Sometimes the quirks are so obvious and strange that it's clear the author's putting the quirk in for the sake of giving a character a quirk, and it's painful to read. Really.

I read this book once where the protagonist's shoes always squeaked. Always. It didn't matter what shoes he was wearing, or what floor he was walking across. They squeaked. Okay, hands up, who can make sense of that? Yes, it's mildly amusing. But it annoyed me, because it was ridiculous! It wasn't quirky. It was against the laws of physics, and I got annoyed, because the author had tried too hard to follow some good advice and it was obvious that's what he was doing.
Quirks can be great. Just don't defy the laws of physics for them.

On killing your characters (and scaring your readers)

I've just finished reading the Rondo series by Emily Rodda, and while I loved the books, I finally picked up on something that I never realised before.

I was never scared for the characters' lives.

Yes, obviously, it's a middle grade series, but there's always the chance an author's going to do something extreme. In the last book, there were plenty of omens in the way Rodda was writing that made me think maybe...

And then one of the characters was put in mortal peril. It was only a secondary character, and I thought, good god, she's actually going to do it, but after a few pages the character was okay again, and that was that.

So I stopped worrying. A character gets abducted? Fine. A character looks weak and sickly? No problem.

I wasn't worried, because Rodda didn't follow through with that initial threat, and I knew after that that there would be no deaths. That's fine, of course, for the story in question, but when it comes to my own stories, I need to do more.

In one of my stories there will be a major death, as well as a moment where the reader will think all is lost for every good character in the story, and I want the reader to feel scared. I'd already planned a secondary character death earlier, and it's only now I realise why.

Subconsciously, I think I knew that I had to lead up to the major death by killing off this secondary character. To take that secondary character's life is to make the reader truly fear for the main characters. To make them believe that there is a real, honest-to-god possibility that the characters they love will die as well. After all, if the author can kill of one of her characters, who's to say she won't do it agan?

It will certainly have readers gripping the pages and reading to the end.

Plot and Character

So I've read statements saying that character *is* plot. The people who make these statements often go on to say that the characters "tell them" what to do in the story.

And then I've read some statements who claim that this is complete and utter drivel. They add that you have to think about plot structure, and how your story needs to follow certain guidelines, not go on some subconscious whim that writers claim are characters "speaking" to them.

Okay, so that's a valid point, but I'm still going to argue the case that character is plot. I fall under the category of the first lot of writers, rather than the second.


Because, well, character IS plot. We no longer read stories where stuff happens to the character and they just react instead of act (did we ever?). Stuff will happen to the character at first, sure, but what the character then chooses to do is based purely on who the character is. Say a plague hits your fictional town. Depending on your protagonist, your book could go any way. For example, the story could start off with the protagonist's reaction to the plague, where he or she could -

1. Run for the hills and try to hide
2. Set out on an adventure to discover what caused the plague
3. Do scientific research to discover what caused the plague.
4. Tend to the sick

So right there, your plot is decided for you by who your character is.

Now. I am definitely, definitely an advocate of knowing plot structure. You can't just meander around the pages with nothing happening for the majority of the book while your character chooses their own adventure. A writer needs to know the bones of the plot. But the meaty part, the ups and downs of the story, are up to the characters.

How I figure out the beginnings of my stories, step-by-step, looks like this:

1. Create main characters and antagonists - this means giving them histories, desires, motivations, etc.
2. Figure out the story goal and ending (1 and 2 are interchangable, but I usually do them in this order).
3. Start the story off with an inciting incident, and while I'm doing that...
4. Work out the first doorway (see James Scott Bell's proper explanation for this phrase in Plot and Structure). I need to know what's going to force my protagonist into the story and give them no way to turn back.
5. Lead my character to the first doorway, so they can begin the story goal.

Now, from here on in is the tricky part, and this is where character really becomes the plot. What happens next is a choice depending on who the character is. Your character(s) will decide how to overcome this no-turning-back thing (usually it's with resistance at first), and take certain steps to try and get where they want to be (usually the status quo - back to how they were at the beginning of the story, although they never get there).

Do they try to eliminate the threat on their own? Do they enlist help? Does the antagonist have a certain style while trying to keep the protagonist from reaching his/her goal? Because, yes, the antagonist is also the plot. And all these plot choices rely on character.

Of course, while planning all this, I know that I need to lead my characters through doorway two and reach the climax, so I know the basic direction, but how the story gets there is up to the characters.

And that's what we authors mean when we say our characters "tell us" what to do.