writing advice

Why I stopped outlining.

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In the plotter vs. “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of their pants) debate, I used to be firmly on the plotter side. I’m generally a structured person, or at least more structured than a lot of creative types. I’m an Electrical Engineering student in addition to being a writer, so I use a lot of my left brain.

Because of that, I always thought I should outline my books. At times, this has worked for me, but I’ve discovered more and more that I get my best ideas as I’m in the flow of the story. Outlining is an entirely different process. I don’t quite feel the story the same way, and my ideas are less inventive.

This becomes especially clear when I write series. The farther I get into writing a series, the more likely I am to deviate from my original outline. I got to the point where I was doing this so much that I decided I should just throw out the outline altogether.

However, that might be too extreme of a response. I don’t quite make up everything as I go. I form a mental outline. I know where I want to get, but if I discover something more interesting along the way, I’m perfectly happy to alter my mental plans.

This can lead to some inconsistencies between books, and that’s part of the reason I’ve decided that I will generally write an entire series before publishing any of it. That way, if I introduce something important in book 3 or 4, I can go back and throw in some hints toward it in book 1. A lot of planners are able to do this kind of thing because they outline the entire series in advance. I’ve tried, and it simply doesn’t work like that for me.

When I was considering trade publishing, I always had issues with throwing away the outline because trade publishing tends to work differently. You rarely write the entire series before publishing any of it. I know Michael J. Sullivan (author of the very good Riyria Revelations, Riyria Chronicles, and Legends of the First Empire series) does this. But he did start out self-publishing.

Now that I’ve decided to go with self-publishing, I can write my series however I want, and writing them this way helps me to give you a plot with a lot more interesting twists and turns.

That’s not to say I throw away the outline completely. I’ve been known to outline a few chapters ahead of where I am. That can help me write more quickly during my writing sessions because I’m not figuring out what’s going to happen next. More often, my mental outline is good enough to carry me through, and I’m able to figure out the details as I write.

The key thing as a writer is finding a process that works for you. This process works for me right now. In the future, I may decide to go back to outlining. I don’t think you should ever get stuck thinking there’s only one way to write that works for you. Writing is a continual process of experimentation, and every story is going to have different needs.

Fantasy Video Games: Distraction or Inspiration

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As a fantasy writer, I am naturally a fan of the genre in all its forms. Books, movies, video games–basically, if it’s fantasy, I’ll probably be a fan of it. But that raises an important question. As a fantasy writer, should you focus on books alone, or should you branch out into other areas for inspiration?

Personally, I think there’s a lot to be gained from fantasy video games. But I could be biased in that. Part of the reason I got into writing fantasy was from playing some of my favorite Square RPGs as a kid on the Super Nintendo. Those games helped me fall in love with the genre (and then I read Harry Potter, and I was doomed to be a fantasy fan and writer for the rest of my life).

One of the biggest places where video games help me is in crafting my settings. The best video games these days, in all their beautiful graphical glory, depict some absolutely stunning settings. I’m a pretty visual person, but I would have trouble coming up with some of these settings on my own. However, now that I’ve seen these beautiful images, I can use them as inspiration and make them into something that’s all my own.

Some of the best story-driven games also feature characters you fall in love with. The great thing about these games is that they are usually forced to show instead of tell. Generally, in a video game, you do not see a character’s internal thoughts. Everything must be conveyed through dialogue and visuals. And some games do this quite well. For example, I recently played the remastered version of Final Fantasy X. I felt such a strong connection to the characters in this one, and the story had me in tears a few times.

When it comes to stories, though, you have to be careful about how much inspiration you take from video games. In an RPG, you face a lot of minor battles, which are interesting in that format. In a novel, however, you cannot have your characters fighting Slimes every two pages. That’s going to get old very quickly. If you’re going to have battles, you have to be careful about which ones you show, or you’ll risk making your story repetitive.

Then we come to the all-important question. How much time should you spend playing fantasy video games? These games can use up a lot of your time, and if you’re not careful, you’ll spend your time playing games instead of writing.

As a writer, you should always focus on your writing. Whatever your writing goals are, it’s important that you hit them with consistency, and if playing video games is using up too much of your time, you’ll have to cut back.

Consistency is Key

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When it comes to writing, I’ve heard from many writers that the biggest thing you need for productivity and longevity as a writer is the ability to write consistently. You don’t write only when you’re inspired. Even when you don’t feel like it, you sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard (or typewriter or longhand, if you’re so inclined). It doesn’t matter how you get those words down. Just get them down.

I recently wrote about setting word count goals. I’m not sure I’ll make my 50,000 words a month goal, but that’s okay. I’m writing consistently and productively. I’ve hit at least 1,000 words 10 of the last 11 days. Over that time, I’ve written over 18,000 words. Per day, it doesn’t seem like a lot of words, but those words add up. At this write, I should manage three books in a year without too much of a problem. Of course, there’s also the revision process, which I need to get better about.

Word Count Goals

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For those of us who are writers, word count goals are a love them/hate them kind of thing. We love them when they remind us to keep our butts in the chair and our fingers on the keyboard. We hate them when we feel like we can’t ever reach them.

There are many benefits to word count goals. You see this from something like National Novel Writing Month (or as it’s more commonly known, NaNoWriMo). A lot of writers take advantage of this month to actually finish their stories.

However, it has its drawbacks. Some writers cannot write at the 1,667 words per day required to hit that goal and do so while writing something that isn’t complete crap.

Thankfully, I’ve never had that problem. I believe I’ve finished early every time I’ve ever done NaNoWriMo. But it is a problem for a lot of people, and what’s the point of writing a novel if it’s so bad you’re just going to scrap it? You have to find some middle ground.

And that means you have to set some kind of goal. It could be a daily word count goal or perhaps a monthly word count goal. That’s what I’m leaning toward at the moment. Due to an unpredictable work schedule and varying amounts of schoolwork, it is difficult for me to set aside the same amount of time every day for writing.

That means that there may be days where I write nothing or crank out just a few words to keep the creative juices flowing. On the other hand, there may be also days when I hit 5000 or more words. In fact, I wrote over 12,000 in one day when I was finishing up my World in Chains series.

The point I’m trying to make is this. Come up with a word count goal you can actually stick to. In some ways, it’s like dieting. Most diets don’t last because people take on more than they can handle. That’s not the way to do it with word counts either. You’re just going to end up resenting the time you spend writing, and if you aren’t enjoying yourself, what’s the point?

So that’s the key. Find out what word count goal you’re comfortable hitting (whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly). Then hold yourself accountable to that goal. It sounds simple stated like that, but it isn’t always easy to put into practice.

Let’s hope I can do so myself because I need to get better about writing consistently.

Writing Advice: Sensitivity in Writing

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I had a recent Twitter debate that started with the idea of authors using racial slurs in their books and how POC (People of Color) don’t want to see any of this, even if the writer is well-intentioned. At first, I didn’t understand, and I thought it was an attempt to censor other writers. But as I continued on in the debate, I came to understand that it’s not about censorship. It’s about respect. It’s about listening. It’s about understanding that POC have experienced life in a very different way.

This conversation was the first time it dawned on me just how different life can be based simply on the color of your skin and where you live. I’ve always felt a little angry at the idea of White Privilege. I’ve never been all that well-off. I’ve felt I’ve earned everything I’ve fought for in life. But that’s because there are many forms of privilege (and lack thereof), and it’s not always easy to see the way you benefit from privilege if you’re struggling through life in general.

Privilege is about the idea of “all else equal.” All else equal, a black person will face many more disadvantages in life than a white person simply because of the color of their skin. It’s an entirely different experience. Sure, there are racial slurs against whites, but whites have always been in power in this country. It’s easy to laugh that off. When there’s such a long history of outright hatred and systematic discrimination tied to racial slurs that describe POC, it’s an entirely different experience.

I can try to understand this intellectually, using the sense of empathy I’ve developed as a reader and writer. But I can never truly understand how it feels emotionally to see these words in print: words that have always been used to dehumanize people who look like you. The closest I could come is society’s attitude toward mental health (since I have bipolar disorder). But even that is not nearly as pervasive. It’s simply the closest I can come to understanding emotionally what POC go through, and that shows just how big a gulf there is between my understanding and the lives POC live every single day.

 

Now you might be asking: But what if it’s true to your characters to use racial slurs?

This is where I ran into trouble in this debate, where I got a little angry and therefore failed to listen as well as I should have. I thought it was stupid to say you couldn’t ever use racial slurs. Now I’ve never had any intention of using them in my own writing. I don’t believe racial slurs have any place in civilized society. Plus, I tend to write in secondary fantasy worlds, which do not have the same racial histories as our own. But I did argue that writers should be free to use whatever words they’d like. In one sense, I still believe this is true. Writers are free to use racial slurs, but readers are also free to denounce them for doing so. Publishers are free to refuse to publish them. That’s the nature of free speech. You’re free to say whatever you want, within reason, but you also have to suffer the consequences for your words.

Now you might be asking: Then how do I portray a racist character?

That’s where it comes back to the old advice: Show/Don’t Tell. Or, more accurately, you could say the difference between lazy characterization and stronger characterization. It’s easy to have a character throw around racial slurs. It’s like a giant signpost saying, “Look! This character is racist!”

Instead of using a slur, you could show how that person treats POC. In the end, this would be richer characterization. It’s harder, yes, but it makes a better story, and it shows more sensitivity to marginalized groups. In my Twitter debate, it became very clear to me that many POC don’t want to see these words. At all.

As writers, we want to bring out emotion in the reader, but it has to be the right kind of emotion. Reminding them of injustice and privilege is not the way to do this. Especially in the fantasy genre, many people read to escape the harsh realities of our world. Or they’d like to see a story in which people who look like them are the heroes. I’ll admit that I haven’t been great on this front. I have a few darker-skinned characters in Empire of Chains. The God War is much better in this regard, as most of the important characters are POC in a secondary world. But I could still stand to do better in this regard.

 

You might also ask: Does this mean I can’t write stories about racism at all?

The short answer is that I wouldn’t recommend it. As I said above, it’s difficult to understand exactly what POC have been through. As a white writer, am I really in the best position to write a story about a black person’s experiences of racism? Even if I do extensive research, even if I consult with all kinds of black beta readers to make sure I get it right, it’s still not the best way to go about tackling the issue of racism.

Instead, what we can do is support POC writers who are writing these experiences. We need to read their books to come closer to understanding the struggles they’ve been through. And even if it’s in a secondary fantasy world, we can still read their fresh perspectives on things.

N.K. Jemisin is a great example of this. I’ve only read three of her novels, but I have really enjoyed the different perspective she’s brought to the genre. The Fifth Season was especially good. Jemisin’s stories don’t explore racism in our real world, but they do depict fantasy worlds in which POC serve very important roles.

There is a lot to be gained from reading more diverse perspectives. It opens our minds to experiences other than our own. Most importantly, if we support POC writers, we will get more of these important stories. And it’s not like supporting POC writers is going to take anything away from other writers. Reading is not a zero sum game. You can still be successful as a white writer even if more POC writers are in the genre.

 

In conclusion, it goes back to the idea of “Write what you know.” When it comes to fantasy, this advice becomes more nebulous. How can I know what it’s like to ride on a dragon? But that’s not really what this advice means. It’s more the idea of “Don’t write things you’d get wrong, things that would actually hurt people when you get them wrong.” It doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or not. Sure, it changes your value as a person, but it doesn’t change the hurt that people experience.

Again, it’s about respect, and it’s about listening. I may not always listen as well as I should, but I’m trying to grow as a person and a writer.

How I’m writing more words per writing session (and general updates).

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I’ve had a very productive last two days. I’ve written about 5,000 words each day, and now I think I’m really hitting the good part of book 4 (not that the other parts aren’t good, of course). There have been doubts about my writing plans, but I’m pushing through them for the moment.
 
It’s strange. Usually, the middle of the book is tough to write, but I’m actually having a lot of fun with it.
 
I’ve also adopted a new method. Recently, I’ve been more of a “seat of my pants” kind of writer. However, I read some great writing advice from Rachel Aaron. She was able to write more by outlining a scene shortly before writing it.
 
I always feel stifled by a rigid outline, but this method has worked wonders for me over the last two days. I usually think about my whole chapter in a big picture sense. Then the actual writing is filling in the details and possibly throwing in a few things I didn’t think of while outlining the chapter. This approach gives me both structure and flexibility, and I hope it continues to work so successfully. With the other demands on my time, I will take anything that can make my writing time more productive.

Self-Publishing: Quality vs Quantity

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I know this is one of the biggest debates in the self-publishing industry. Is it better to write and publish 4+ books a year because it creates more opportunities for readers to see your books and buy them? Or is it better to put your focus on 1-2 books a year and make them as good as you can before sending them out there?

I tend to be a fast writer. The 1,667 words needed per day for National Novel Writing Month have never been a problem for me. When I’m really in the zone, I can write 6,000+ words a day. My normal output is probably more in the 1,500 to 4,000 range. Because of this, I could theoretically put out 3-4 books a year.

But I have to ask myself if that’s the right thing to do. I need time to edit my books, and no amount of editing passes ever seems like enough. I always catch something I feel I could improve.

That being said, four months doesn’t seem like it’s too little to write and edit a book. If I’m writing at my general pace, the first draft shouldn’t take more than two months. Then I’ll probably leave that novel sitting for a month or two while I work on something else (either a sequel or another series). I can also edit one book while writing the first draft of another. So it wouldn’t be like my books only take four months. In truth, they take longer, but that includes time for them to sit and for me to look at them with fresh eyes each time I do an editing pass.

Personally, I’d like to find a middle ground in the quality vs. quantity debate. I want my work to be high-quality, but I don’t want to spend too long between books. The self-publishing business is very fickle, and if you drop off the radar, you often have to start all over again with your next book.

Thankfully, I already have a decent catalogue of novels I can publish right out the gates. Empire of Chains is a few editing passes from being ready. Sunweaver, the first book of another epic fantasy series, is in about the same place (though currently it’s on submission in the Angry Robot Open Door, which is why I haven’t talked about it much). I also have a first draft written of a third epic fantasy, tentatively titled A Song of War. It’s only been lightly edited at this point.

In addition to all that, I’ve already drafted books 2 and 3 of Empire of Chains, and I’ve started on book 4. I’ve also started on book 2 of Sunweaver.

Then there are all the ideas floating around in my head.

In truth, the ability to publish multiple books a year is part of what makes self-publishing so attractive to me. I have so many ideas, and I want readers to see them. At the same time, however, I do not want to sacrifice quality.

In the end, I’ll aim to get books out quickly, but not so quickly that I sacrifice quality. They will take however long they take.

But don’t worry. I have no intention of being George RR Martin and taking an eternity to write the next book in a series. Of course, my books aren’t nearly as long as his. Empire of Chains, my longest at 167,000 words, is just over half the length of A Game of Thrones, the shortest novel in Martin’s series.

In the end, it comes down to respecting the reader. This comes in two forms. On the one hand, you respect the reader by writing at a good pace and getting new material out there. On the other, you also respect the reader by giving them a quality product every time.

I’d like to come down somewhere in the same territory as Brandon Sanderson. He writes at a quick rate and publishes multiple books a year (unless he’s working on a Stormlight Archive book). The books, at least in my opinion, are consistently high-quality. That’s what I hope to be.

Thanks for reading this rambling discussion.