Nanowrimo prep: Making characters

We found out this really simple rule… We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked, basically. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’ Right? So what I’m saying is you come up with an idea and it’s like okay ‘this happens, right? … and then, this happens.’ No, no, no! It should be ‘this happens… and therefore, this happens.’ [or] ‘this happens… but this happens.’
Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.

You don’t have a story without character. This sounds obvious, and you might think that what I mean is that a story doesn’t exist without people for the plot to happen to, but that’s backwards. Plot doesn’t happen to characters. Characters create plot.

Certainly it’s possible to write a story where the plot happens independent of the actions of the characters, but that story is going to have a fatal flaw: the characters won’t develop and grow and achieve their character arc, since nothing they do has any effect on what happens to them. Unless the characters can make choices, suffer the consequences, and learn from their mistakes, they’re never going to change. And that, of course, is the point of the story: your protagonist is a different person at the end of the story than she was when the story began.

In other words, if you presented your protagonist with the same choice at the start and end of your novel, she should make a different choice the second time due to the stuff she’s learned over the course of the novel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the character arc, and first you need to come up with your character’s starting position. What does your character want? What is her driving motivation? As the curtain rises, what is your protagonist’s number one desire, and what is she doing to achieve that? Why are we even reading about this character in particular and not about someone else?

And while you’re considering that, what is your antagonist’s desire? The key factor that makes your antagonist an antagonist is that he is going to get in the way of your protagonist achieving her goals.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

— Kurt Vonnegut

1. Your protagonist has a desire, and a specific idea of how to achieve that desire (not necessarily what they’re going to do during the story, but what they THINK they’re going to do during the story).

2. Your antagonist has a desire, and a specific idea of how to achieve that desire, and their actions to achieving their desire are going to block your protagonist from their own goals.

It’s this conflict that’s going to kickstart the plot of your novel. Each subsequent scene is going to lead from the choices your characters make. If your plot requires characters to do things they’d never normally do, the story is going to feel forced and artificial for the reader. Everyone’s seen movies or read books where the characters act exceptionally dumb just so the next plot event can happen. It’s frustrating, and kicks the reader out of the story. Don’t do that. Instead, remember these three questions:

What does your character WANT?
What does she DO to meet those goals?
What do her actions ACHIEVE?

Every scene in your novel is going to answer these three questions, though the answers will change from scene to scene. What’s important is that they have answers, so the scene keeps moving forward. If she doesn’t want anything, then she won’t be taking any actions. If she wants something but doesn’t do anything to get it, that scene has no purpose and shouldn’t be in the story. If she wants something and does something to attain it, there will always be some sort of consequence to her actions, positive or negative.

Before this gets too long, here’s a list of questions you should ask for each main character in your story. I’ve cobbled this together from Chuck Wendig’s post on making characters. Forget the questionnaires that ask your character’s favorite color and most hated band. These are the questions you need to answer before you start your story:

What does the character want?
What does she do to get it?
What consequences happen as a result?
What does the character fear most?
What does she think the solution to her problem will be?
What is her greatest character flaw?
What is her personality, in one sentence?
What is her internal conflict?
What is her external conflict?
How is she connected to the other characters?
What is she good at?
What is she bad at?
How does she change over the course of the story?

If you can answer these questions, you’ll start to have an idea of how the characters are going to interact and what conflicts are going to come up between them. Your plot will develop from there.

Next time: setting


Nanowrimo prep: Outlining your novel


Nanowrimo is a month and a half away, and while technically the rules state that you can only start planning a week in advance, I say fuck the rules. If you want to end November with a novel you can actually do something with, you need a plan.

Nanowrimo calls them planners and pantsers (as in, flying by the seat of your pants), although I’ve heard the latter called “organic” writers too. The idea is that there are two kinds of writers: those who outline, and those who make it up as they go along. There are benefits to both sides. In 2004 I started the month with absolutely no idea of what I was going to write about, and every word I wrote was a surprise to me. Where does the first scene start? Well, let’s pick a random room and say it’s in a bathroom. A bathroom where? In a church. What’s the character doing there? He’s at a funeral. Why isn’t he at the funeral itself? Because he doesn’t want to see his late best friend’s family. And so on. I love discovering the story at the same time the characters do. You don’t know what’s behind a door until you open it and find out what your brain has come up with.

Of course, pantsing means you end up with a massive, meandering novel that takes a lot of false turns before it finds its way, and that means there’s a lot of editing in your future. If you’d rather end up with something more coherent, you should have an outline. This can be anything from a vague series of scenes you know you need, to a specific scene-by-scene analysis. In 2009, I decided to outline my novel to within an inch of its life before I started. Oddly enough, this didn’t work very well. When I actually sat down to write, all the joy had been sucked out of the process. The characters felt wooden. The dialogue seemed unnatural to me because it couldn’t flow naturally when it had to follow a strict route. My novel ended up much, much shorter than it was supposed to, because I’d followed each point in the outline without any improvisation or tangents.

Over the next few years, I figured out how to have a plan that didn’t wring the fun out of writing. Here are a few suggestions for routes you can take. You’ll probably have to try a couple before you see what works for you.

The tentpole method:

You know a few key scenes in advance, and all you have to do is figure out how the characters get from one to the next. At the very least, the scenes you need to know should be the inciting incident (the event that sets the novel in motion) the turning point (what makes the protagonists start acting against the antagonist instead of just reacting) and the resolution (the final showdown or the event that resolves the plot). As you write, you’ll probably figure out more scenes that you need in order to get from A to B to C. I like to keep a running list of what I know I need to include, deleting the ones I’ve done and adding the new ones I’ve realized I now need.

The snowflake method:

This one’s a pretty famous method of outlining. Basically, the idea is that you come up with a short, one sentence summary of your story; then expand that to a paragraph; then expand each sentence of the paragraph to a paragraph of its own; and so on. Follow the link above to read the detailed explanation. If you’re someone who likes really specific outlines, this might work for you.

The story structure method:

Larry Brooks came up with this on I like this one a lot, and I’ve used it a few times. It’s a very formulaic way of plotting your story. Roughly, the scenes you need are:

  • the opening of your story
  • the story hook within the first 20 pages, that makes your reader get invested
  • the first plot point at the 25% mark of the story, where important information is revealed that changes what the hero knows
  • the first pinch point, where the antagonist shows their strength and acts against the hero
  • the mid point at the 50% mark, where the hero changes from reacting to acting
  • the second pinch point, where the antagonist shows that they have learned from their past mistakes and are stronger than ever before
  • the second plot point at the 75% mark where the final information needed to solve the problem is revealed, and the hero finally has everything they need to go against the antagonist
  • the final resolution

There’s a lot more to it than that, and I recommend you check that out at the link as well.

So with that in mind, what method do you think you’ll use?


Next time: character development.

The best laid schemes


I’d had every intention of starting Camp Nanowrimo by now, but events have conspired to keep me from even starting to think about my next project. Last Wednesday, my mother broke—nay, shattered—her ankle while walking on the beach. She is currently recovering from her first surgery and waiting for the second. The first surgery screwed a metal cage onto her leg and foot to hold everything in place. The second will bolt metal plates to her bone, making her a cyborg. This means that I’ve spent most of the last week driving back and forth between Providence and Boston, leading me to wonder why anyone would ever willingly commute to Boston.

Originally I was going to start off Camp Nanowrimo with a bang, making a second attempt at Nanowriday, which I tried and failed at last year. I just want to beat my wordcount from last time. But in order to do that, I have to have a vague idea about what to write. This is always the most fun part of writing—the part when the possibilities are endless. I move back in with my parents on Friday, and hopefully I can steal away from my nursing duties for 24 hours to make a valiant effort at writing 50k words. Or, at the very least, more than 10k.

In other news, I took advantage of the Steam summer sales and picked up a few games for my future procrastination. Tomb Raider, Borderlands 2, The Stanley Parable, The Wolf Among Us, and Civ V: Brave New World. That should help with that whole Camp Nanowrimo thing.

Oh! And before I forget: my fiendish critiquer William has started an epistolary book rec blog at Hey Ashers! If you like YA novels, especially spec fic with queer themes, you might be interested in what Will has to recommend.

So now I’ll get back to melting in the heat and thinking about my next project. I hope it’s not supposed to be this hot the rest of the week, especially on Friday, which is my moving out day. Let’s see what has to say about the forecast.

Looks like some sort of whirling disc of death for Friday.Oh, good.


Book rec: The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer


I’ve been recommending Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles to everyone who ranges within earshot of me for the past week or so. My friend William loaned me Cinder because she thought I might be interested in a book written during Nanowrimo. It was on my ‘to be read’ pile for a month or so before I picked it up–and then was completely unable to put it down. I bought Scarlet for my Kindle before I’d finished Cinder, and then bought Cress the same afternoon.

Cinder is a YA science fiction series that retells the story of Cinderella, where Cinder is a cyborg mechanic living in plague-ridden New Beijing. The fairy tale is really only a framework; the real story is a combination thriller/mystery with a touch of romance. Scarlet and Cress add on to the story arc with retellings of Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, respectively. Meyer is an extremely competent writer who balances a diverse cast of likeable, well-written characters with an exciting plot. This is the kind of book that feels like a guilty pleasure to read. And yes, all three of the books were written during three separate Nanowrimos.

My only complaint is that I thought the series was a trilogy, and was 90% done with Cress when I realized that there was no way the story was going to end anytime soon. The next book, Winter, comes out in 2015. I’m a little disappointed that I binge read them all before I found that out, though I guess that only means I’ll have to re-read the lot of them next year in preparation. It’s not exactly a hardship.

You can find Cinder on Amazon here.


Nanowrimo post mortem

Happy December, everyone!

I finished Nanowrimo a couple days early. I was on track to finish on the 30th, but around the 25th I decided to do a push and finish the last 10k in two days to get it done before Thanksgiving. This was mostly so my eternal rival Rob wouldn’t finish ahead of me. (How do you like THEM apples, Rob??)

The novel itself isn’t finished, but it’s hovering around 84k. It’s nearing its conclusion, which means I keep adding and subtracting scenes while I try to figure out what that conclusion actually is. I think the last five thousand words I’ve written need to go in a different direction, but hopefully that will improve it. I’m counting down the days to when I can print this manuscript out on paper and attack it with a red pen. Ink will flow.

The end of Nanowrimo hopefully means I’ll have more time to finish reading Kameron Hurley’s Infidel. I’m still swooning over God’s War. I want to be Kameron Hurley when I grow up. Honestly, Kameron Hurley, Paolo Bacigalupi and China Miéville are my writing heroes.

In other news, I went for a two mile jog today, the first time I’ve gone jogging since September. The Zombies, Run! app is literally the only thing that keeps me running. I would have given up on it ages ago if I didn’t want to know what happens next in the story. Back in February I managed to jog every day for a month. I wonder if I can get back into that? Clearly the tenets of Nanowrimo bleed over into just about every aspect of my life.


Writing playlist of the moment


Writing playlist of the moment

Notice a theme?


Nanowrimo metrics

We’re more than halfway through Nanowrimo by now. This is my 11th Nanowrimo, and I’m sticking with the usual goal of 50k. In the past I’ve done 100k or even, one excruciating year, 150k, but that’s not something I can manage this time.

This time of year is always filled with debate over whether Nanowrimo is a good thing or not. No one denies that Nanowrimo is focused more on quantity rather than quality, but its detractors argue that more bad words aren’t helping anyone, while supporters point out that you can’t perfect a draft if you’ve been too picky to write it in the first place.

I always have considered writing a novel to be a lot like oil painting. I took a class in oil painting a few years ago. One of the other students in the class was very well versed in watercolor, but had never done oil painting before. She was a great artist, but her canvases would end up with a lot of white, unpainted parts and half-finished sections, because she would spend so much time perfecting one particular figure. Since she was used to watercolor, she didn’t really get the idea of building up the paint in layers and working from a general sketch up to a perfect finished product. She felt that it had to be perfect from the start, and that every stroke of paint couldn’t be moved once it had been put down.

The instructor, on the other hand, taught that one of the things you wanted to do first when you started painting was to cover the canvas in a thin wash of paint, and then sketch out a general outline of the painting with more of this thin paint. Then you slowly build up the painting, layer by layer. This way you find the structural issues early on and can fix them before you’ve spent too much time perfecting a section that needs to be smudged out and redone.

It’s pretty clear where I’m going with this. Ultimately, when you’re working on a novel, it’s a lot easier to dash out a very rough draft and then kick it into shape, building it up with revisions over time, rather than fiddle around with a perfect first chapter and slowly dole out some hand-chosen words a little at a time before realizing that you’ve made a terrible plot hole in the story and need to delete the stuff you’ve worked so hard at perfecting. The book’s never going to be perfect, so expecting perfection from the start is an insidious form of procrastination.

Nanowrimo is great for me since it’s a deadline imposed by an outside force. I can give myself deadlines all I want, but it’s not that hard to blow them off. Nanowrimo doesn’t really punish you for losing, but I have a ten year winning streak going and I’d hate to break it.

This year I’m adding 50,000 words onto a draft already in progress. The ultimate goal is around 95-100k, and it was roughly 45k to start.

Current wordcount: 66,091/100,000 words