Tag Archives: planning

Thinking is writing

I think it was Michaelbrent Collings who once said that he doesn’t get writers block because so many things count as writing, such as going to see a movie or taking a walk in the park. Anything that “primes the pump”, so to speak, is writing.

I think there’s something to that. Most of the time we writers feel guilty if we’re not writing. But, truth be told, some of my best ideas or breakthroughs come when I’m somewhere else: in the shower, driving to work, walking the dog. Anytime I have time to just think can be productive time if I think about what I’m writing. And sometimes letting my mind wander is even better.

Recently I was thinking about the main characters is my current project, trying to decide the best way for them to meet. My mind began wandering, and suddenly I was envisioning a scene in which one character walks in on another character during a touching and revealing moment. I suddenly had new insight on one of my characters–and it may not even make it into the novel! I still have no idea where that idea came from. It was completely unrelated to any previous thoughts I’ve had about my characters, and yet it felt so right that I knew it was a piece of the puzzle.

It can be a good idea to step away from the keyboard from time to time and just think. Generate new ideas, no matter how crazy. Spend time interacting with the world. Think about how your characters would interact in normal, everyday situations, like ordering at McDonalds or picking up their dry-cleaning. Let your mind wander.

Our brains are marvelous and unpredictable, able to make intuitive and creative leaps beyond anything even the most powerful computers can achieve. It would take WETA’s entire rendering farm days to weeks to fully render the imagery our brains generate just imagining a half-hour dream about going back to high school wearing our pajamas.

If we’re lucky those epiphanies come while we’re at the keyboard. But as often as not the most startling ideas come out of nowhere when our brains are engaged on something entirely unrelated. We need to leave ourselves time to think in order to tap that creative power.

So get out there and put your mental Author’s Think Tank to work!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Organizing your MICE

Hopefully by now you’ve heard of Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient. If not, here’s a good summary, but it essentially spells out the four factors that determine what kind of story you’re trying to tell. These factors are Milieu (focus on an interesting setting), Idea (focus on key information), Character (exploring the focus character), and Event (the story centers on a key event). The number of these factors that can be used in a story is largely determined by the size of the story you intend to write. A short story, for example, really only has room to explore one or two factors, while novels should be able to work in three or all four.

It occurred to me recently that these can also be useful tools for developing your story. For example, I usually start my stories with an event or character in mind, and then structure at least a thin outline around those key points. Sometimes I start with a setting.  But often I’ll end up doing most of my planning in one of these factors and neglect some of the others. That usually doesn’t end well.

But lately I’ve been preparing for a new project. It’s actually a second attempt at this particular project; the first one seriously neglected the MICE Quotient, and died an early death. When I came back to it this time, however, I accidentally stumbled across a different approach.

All I knew to begin with was that I wanted this story to be a YA paranormal-ish modern fantasy. I had my setting: Modern earth. I had my character: a teenage girl. And I knew something about the plot: she goes up against a secret society. But that’s all. It’s pretty sketchy stuff.

Often the characters are among the last things I figure out, but this time it was different. I decided I really need to know who my protagonist was, and her relationship to this world. I started with her and began working outward, but instead of moving straight to the plot like I often do, I decided I needed more characters.

I began creating characters focusing on the relationships and conflicts between them. It was a blast! Each new character uncovered some new piece of information about the world, and how all the characters look at that world. I’ve already got a lot of built-in conflict to explore. But no plot.

Rather than pausing at that point to develop the plot I decide to continue with my focus on characters. My plot, whatever it might be, needed a villain, so I started creating one. Since I knew this person was to be the antagonist I immediately started looking for points of conflict: what does this person want that puts them in opposition to my protagonist and the other characters that populate her world?

In answering those questions I suddenly realized I had my plot. And what’s more, in holding that up against my setting I realized that there were built in plot-twists that could potentially change up the relationships between characters should I pursue that plot.

It was an unexpected revelation: work out the characters and the novel writes itself.

I suspect this works with any of the four MICE factors. No matter how you prefer to start planning a new project, if you’re having trouble the usual way, try starting with a different one of the four. There’s a good chance that by the time you have two or three of the four factors fleshed out the rest of it will naturally follow.

In my case it was helpful to just create the world and characters without having to worry about the plot right away. As a result I believe the story will feel more natural and the conflicts will feel less forced. I’ve had successful stories before where I had several events in mind, but had to work out the setting and characters to match up.

But if nothing else, applying the MICE Quotient to pre-writing provides a good measuring stick to gauge how close to being ready to story is. Once you’ve fleshed out all four factors, even if not to equal degrees, you should be ready to start writing.

I’ve also seen how difficult it is to write a good story if you haven’t adequately addressed at least some of these factors. In developing the MICE Quotient, Card has provided a powerful framework for helping writers focus on what drives their story. Why not try starting from that framework in your pre-writing?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Working backwards

I ran across this fun video the other day, which got me thinking about writing. No really! I suspect most of us, whether we’re outliners or “pantsers” still prefer to let our stories evolve sequentially. But do we really need to work that way? Could there be advantages to working backwards?

The most obvious case where this might be an advantage is for mystery writers. While I’m sure you can write a mystery sequentially as well, there could be some clear advantages to, having figured out what the crime is, working backward from the moment the protagonist figures it all out to decide what clues need to be revealed at which point in the story for maximum effect. No, you probably don’t need to write the story backward, but it could certainly be mapped out that way.

But could this be applied in other ways?

What if, in planning your characters, you start at the end of their arch: what do you want them to be by the end of the story? How do you want them to have changed? Knowing where you want to end up, how can you bring this change about? What events need to happen in the story? Boom! Reverse outlining!

But what about “pantsers?” Can they do this too? Granted it’s not as easy–how do you figure out how to get somewhere if you don’t know where you want to go? Rather, I suspect this approach might be most useful in revision. If you’re satisfied with where the story went–or if you feel you need to make significant changes–you can look backward to see how you got there. Are the key turning points sufficiently dramatic or invoke the right amount of tension? If not, by looking backward you can identify key points where your editing can deliver the most bang for the buck.

This clearly isn’t going to work for everyone. Rather, this is merely a suggestion of yet another tool a writer could try to help with the messy process of writing. Starting with the end in mind and working backward could help write a more cohesive story that holds together better than it might have otherwise. At the very least this can be a useful technique for a single editing pass just to make sure everything in your story connects right.

Just a little food for thought.

And if you’re interested in knowing how the video above was made, here’s the corresponding “how we did it” video.  Or maybe I should have started with this and shown the finished video here…?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Ask the next question

In William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition” he created a character whose occupation is to find the “next big trend” and help companies capitalize on it. This “cool hunter”, Cayce Pollard, doesn’t consider herself overly lucky or clever. She’s just mastered the art of asking the next question.

I more I study writing and try to improve my own writing the more I’m coming to believe that an important element in writing well is to emulate Cayce Pollard and learn to ask that next question.

Let’s take an example from a novel I’ve been reading. Suppose we have a character we want to send to study with a weapons master who also happens to be a powerful ally of the local leader. Suppose we don’t want to just tell some important facts about this weapons master, but would prefer to show. So what “next questions” might we ask?

Q. Why is this weapons master so important to the duke?

A. They’ve been through a lot of battles together.

 

Q. What might our character see on his way to the training space that could communicate that?

A. Souvenirs of the battles he and the duke both fought in?

 

Q. Souvenirs?! Like thimbles or teaspoons or penants–or those oval acronym car stickers?

A. Uh…no. Something they could gather after a battle from the battlefield, preferably.

 

Q. What would be on a battlefield that would interest someone of such high rank? He wouldn’t be a common looter.

A. How about the banners of the defeated companies/armies?

 

Q. Great! What more could we discern from those banners that would help paint the picture?

A. The different wars themselves? We need to indicate they’ve seen a LOT of battles together.

 

Q. Okay. What might we name some of these battles or wars?

 

You get the idea. I think it’s usually easy to stop after one or two levels of depth, but if we can train ourselves to keep asking the next question we increase our chances of hitting on something really awesome in our descriptions, characterization, plotting, etc. Consider the following passage from “The Lies of Locke Lamora”, by Scott Lynch:

They wound their way up past three floors of glittering glass and ancient stone, decorated with thick red carpets and innumerable stained tapestries that Jean recognized as battle flags. Don Maranzalla had served as the duke’s personal swordmaster and the commander of his blackjackets for a quarter of a century. These bloody scraps of cloth were all that remained of the countless companies of men fate had thrown against Nicovante and Maranzella in fights that were now legend: the Iron Sea Wars, the Mad Count’s Rebellion, the Thousand-Day War against Tal verrar.

I don’t know about you, but I got a lot more out of that description than perhaps Lynch even intended. The fact that it’s banners, for example, and not, say, swords, or heads makes a difference. I picture this display as both indicating just how incredible a warrior this man is as well as his attitude toward his enemies. Displaying their company banners suggests to me that he respected his enemies, even while destroying them, and not just their officers, but the fighting men.

Did Lynch intend that interpretation? Perhaps not. But that’s what good description does–it encourages the reader to put something of themselves into it, to fill in the details, so to speak.

We get even more detailed imagery when we actually meet the weapons master a few paragraphs later, and before long we have a very thorough image of a rather minor character who, as far as I know at the moment, never appears again in the novel. But the effort was far from wasted. We learn a lot about the setting from such passages as well, not to mention the caliber of people our characters have access to. Such deep descriptions can serve multiple uses at once.

But most of us likely skip past such opportunities, opting to take the quickest route to our destination. That’s not necessarily wrong. There are several chances in the completion of a novel for “asking the next question,” including in later drafts. It may very well be that having the entire novel undery our belt may help you ask better “next questions.” But training yourself to even go one level deeper even on the first draft will likely yield profound results.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Update on outlining

Last April I wrote a report on David Farland’s “Million Dollar Outlines” and how I intended to apply it my own writing. Well, here I am, ten months later, to tell you how it went.  You may recall that I came up with a spreadsheet to help me track all my plot-lines and the relevant points and events in each. So, how did it go?

Two words: Over. Kill.

Let me make it clear this is in no way a reflection on David Farland’s book. My implementation of it, however, was just too much. I spent so much time fiddling with the plot lines that I really didn’t devote attention where it might have been better spent.

What’s more, I may have encountered what one of the speakers at LTUE warned against: If you put too much detail into your outline you may find when you go to write your novel that your subconscious tells you “Hey, I’ve already written this! What gives?!” I’ve certainly struggled more with staying enthusiastic about this book than any other I’ve written or re-written.

To be fair, there were more problems with the novel than just my outlining approach, and I refuse to blame my difficulties entirely on my approach. But I do believe I have now found the other end of the spectrum. For my own writing process I need to find somewhere in the middle between outlining and free-writing.  Planning too little isn’t good for me, but planning too much is no better.

There is no question, however, that I benefited from Farland’s book. Though I perhaps went too far with my outlining, I have a stronger understanding of my plot, and I have several sub-plots that will add depth to the novel. Farland’s book was a significant help in showing me how to fill in the gaps with which I had previously struggled. I still recommend it.

The key take-away here is that writing is an individual effort. There is no right or wrong way to write, just your way. Others can help you identify areas of improvement and give you ideas on how to shore up your weak spots, but you still have to find a way to make it work for you.

For me the answer is…well, I’m still finding out. But I will be creating less robust (ie. exhaustive) outlines in the future. It may take a little while to find the right balance between planning and improv in my writing but, like Edison, I have now successfully identified one more approach that doesn’t work.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Think a little deeper

Deep in thoughtI recently finished reading “Imager”, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. I was impressed by just how much thought he put into his setting. Granted, Mr. Modesitt is an economist, but it’s clear he took the time to really think through the implications of his magic system in the book. Imagers, his version of wizards, are able to create items merely by picturing them in their minds, but the materials to create that item have to come from somewhere.

This detail is important to the story, but not only does Modesitt adequately establish this “rule”, he takes it a step or two further. We have people who can create complex substances, and with no more energy than solving a particularly difficult Sudoku.

What does this mean for his society? He takes the time to think it through and to educate us in the process. For one, Imagers are able to supplement the government’s coffers with the occasional small batch of metals difficult to make, for only the cost of the raw materials. But for another, if they use this ability too far it will actually ruin the country’s economy, draw undue attention to the imagers’ powers, and possibly turn the population against them. Modesitt thinks through the implications, going just another level or two deeper, and the story becomes stronger for it.

The idea of extrapolating just a level or two deeper applies to more than fantasy, of course. Some of the best moments in any genre come from taking an idea, exploring it superficially–to the level your audience is likely to–but thinking it through a little farther. You can uncover ramifications that, when your audience finally is led to make the same connection, can lead them into a genuine “Oh…crap” moment, one of the experiences we all long to provide our readers.

Take for example the movie “Sneakers”. Robert Redford’s character leads a team of rogue specialists who test companies’ security by attempting to break into it. It’s fun to watch them use their various methods to pull off the perfect heist, and we can feel good about their being the “good guys.”

And sure enough, before long the government shows up asking for their help. A brilliant mathematician has been hired by a foreign power to create the ultimate decryption system, and our lovable team of misfits needs to steal it from him before he can hand it over to America’s enemies. They go to work, and soon they’ve got the device, ready to hand it over to the NSA.
Sneakers
Then suddenly the mathematician winds up dead. Before long it’s become all to clear–it wasn’t the government that hired them. It was an unknown power trying to get the device from the real U.S. Government, and our heroes walked right it. The rest of the movie is all about getting themselves out of the mess they’ve made.

It’s a lot of fun, but I especially love the “Oh…crap” moment. It never occurred to me–just like it never occurred to them–that someone would use them and set them up like that. And yet it makes perfect sense, once we think to think about it. The scriptwriters took the time to think about it, and the result is one of the most fun heist movies I’ve ever seen.

Many of the coolest ideas in novels or film come from taking a cool idea and thinking a few more levels deep. Yes, we could have a good novel from the initial idea alone, but when you extrapolate a step or two farther that’s when the fun really begins and you have a great chance of surprising your reader. Whether it’s an “Oh…crap” moment, a plot twist, or just adding another layer of depth or realism to to your setting or situation, your readers will appreciate it.

You’re always bound to have a few readers who do take your ideas and extrapolate. If you show them that you already did that, too, they’ll respect you more as an author. If you can show them you not only thought that far,  but actually took it farther, you’ll keep them coming back for more.

So take the time to think things through. Play with the “what-ifs”. You may already have a good story idea, but taking it just a few steps farther could be what it takes to turn it into a great idea.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…