There’s a semi-serious post planned for tomorrow, so I figured I would fill up today with some writing about, well, writing. It’s one of the main reasons I started Word Whiskey (the others being sharing my writing and babbling about bullshit regarding my personal life), so I figured six posts in, I might as well offer a little advice. Or pointers. Or, you know what, I’ll just tell you the steps that work for me and why I believe in them and maybe you’ll find a nugget of help somewhere there in the ashes.
I’m not a traditionally published author. I’m not a raging success story in the self-published arena. I released Waypoint, the first book in the Convergence trilogy, a few years ago. The second book (Death Worth Living For) was split into two halves and released, and the first half of the third book (As the Earth Trembles) was put on sale January of this year. They’ve won no awards.
However, they’ve sold several hundred copies and a couple thousand copies more were downloaded during a promotion. They’ve received several four and five star reviews and are regarded well enough that I’ve been asked to write a pioneer novel for a tabletop company’s potential new campaign setting. I’ve been asked to write flash fiction for author’s blogs and to help iron out screenplays.
Does that mean I’m an incredible weaver of words? A supernova of storytelling? The Don Juan of denouements? HAHAHA not hardly. I don’t pretend to be anything other than an amateur author trying to tell the best story possible and share that story with as many people as possible. I’ve been very fortunate to have received the reaction I have so far, and while I have no illusions that I will someday find people who loathe everything I write with the core of their being, I will follow the method that has worked for me until that day comes.
You may have heard that there are two types of writers: planners and pantsers. Pantsers tend to just write. They have a general idea of the characters and the plot but they more or less just see where the story takes them as they write, letting inspiration flow through them and even surprising themselves often with the twists and turns and conundrums that pop up during the process. I think I read somewhere that George R. R. Martin is more or less a pantser. He knows the big plot beats and character moments and he just lets the rest come to him.
I could never do that. I would blow my fucking brains out if I had to improvise a novel like that. I need direction. I need a plan. I outline pretty heavily.
Now, I did write an outline for Waypoint that ended up being wildly different from the final product. I had never written a book before. I didn’t know how much I was going to need to expand characters and relationships and landscapes. Characters lived longer than I had initially planned, or died sooner. New characters popped up as needed that became incredibly important to the narrative.
I also had pneumonia-level bronchitis, so I was high as shit on codeine cough syrup for fully half of the time it took me to write the book. There’s that.
Once I finished the first novel and started getting reactions, I realized I would definitely need to do the second and third books. When I sat down to plot them, I found I had created a set of rules for myself to follow. The things that, at my books’ fundamental levels, needed to be present.
These are my three and a half magical rules that seem to have done well for me so far:
1. Make your audience care about the characters. Fuck your plot. Seriously, just for a second, take your plot and lock it in a kennel. If it’s a big plot, put it in the yard or some shit. Take a break from it. Ignore it. Focus on your characters. If you can’t make them nuanced, full of flaws and personality quirks and hobbies and fears and hopes and dramas and vendettas, nobody’s going to give a shit about the rest of the story.
That’s why major popcorn flicks are so forgettable. The spectacle is interesting, even awesome, but there’s no investment in the characters. Take a look at Michael Bay. The first Bad Boys movie was so much better than 90 percent of his career because the two protagonists were completely different. One was invested in his family, the other in himself. One wanted to exercise more caution, the other is a hothead. They both become attached to different people and different things. At the end of the day, they buckle down and have each other’s backs because they’re best friends.
Now look at Transformers. Your main protagonists are a clumsy kid who bumbles his way through fucking everything and whose main character development is to go from feeling out of place to more confidently expressing he is completely out of place, and giant alien robots whose relationship with each other is boiled down to a handful of descriptive lines about what they do.
Now look at Mad Men. I bought the first season when it came out and I recall thinking, “Jesus, when is something going to fucking HAPPEN?” But suddenly I was six hours in and it was after midnight and I hadn’t eaten because even though the show is about a bunch of alcoholic misogynist advertising men in the 1950s, every character was so fleshed out and varyingly fucked up that I couldn’t help but be hooked.
If your readers don’t care about your characters, whether they love them or hate them, whether they want them to succeed or salivate for their fiery failure…if the characters aren’t worth feeling SOMETHING for, the plot is just set dressing. It’s a body with no pulse.
2. Keep your audience guessing, if only a little bit. To bring GRRM back up, he has said that the first thing he realized he had to do was kill Ned Stark, because everyone would expect that hero to save the day. Then, when he realized everyone expected the prodigal son to rally the banners and win the victory in his father’s name, the son had to die, too.
If that’s a spoiler for you, well, the books have been out twenty years and that pivotal season of television for a year. Darth Vader is Luke’s dad. There’s no fucking Tooth Fairy.
But what if there was! What if your father, after confessing there was no such dental-loving sprite, was revealed in the darkest of nights to himself be a horrible, crooked monster using teeth to perform dark magic?
Subvert expectations. Take your characters down different routes. Cripple them. Drive them mad. Make your cold-hearted, stoic assassin a secret lover of poetry. Surprise your audience, in big ways but also in small. Little reveals can evoke just as much emotion as world-shattering twists.
Ready for my half-rule?
2a. If you can’t surprise them, make the journey worth it.
Have you seen Carlito’s Way? Go see it, if not. Watch it again, if you have. The first five minutes of that movie, Carlito – played by Al Pacino – is bleeding out on a gurney from a gunshot wound. Then it cuts back to days before and you get so drawn into the film that you begin to dread the story’s inevitable closing of its circle.
Let’s face it: some twists need to reveal themselves before the full impact is felt. Some have enough clues that the twist is spoiled by the attentive. Some readers are so used to twists that they have already guessed where you’re going to take it.
So make them dread it. Make them want the story to slow down, to turn back just so we don’t have to reach it quite yet. Alternately, make them want so bad to see the payoff when the reveal is exposed to the other characters. When two characters finally meet and it’s everything you hoped for once you realized a confrontation was inevitable.
To recap: 1. Know your characters, make them real. 2. Know your story and have the characters drive your now-hooked readers through the twists and turns to a fiery climax of bad-assery that they either haven’t seen coming or are completely invested in one way or another.
Finally, speaking of bad-assery:
3. Fill your story with “holy shit” moments.
You know what these are. These are the moments when your audience reads/watches it and audibly says, “Holy shit…” or “HOLY SHIT!” or “Holy…shit.” They’re the moments that make them slap their friends on the shoulder in excitement as they’re explaining why they should check it out.
Even slow stories have these moments. Romantic comedies have these moments. Historical dramas have these moments. Fucking Mad Men has these moments and, I can’t stress this enough, that show is about a bunch of unlikeable drunks in the most boring fucking profession ever.
Put these three together and I think you’ll do just fine.