How Not to Finish a Book

How Not to Finish a Book

You are absorbed in what you are reading.  The characters are engaging, the plot is really going strong and the action has reached a dramatic climax.  You turn the page and…the book ends.  It’s not because the book is ending on a cliffhanger for the next book.  The book just ends.  

Has this ever happened to you?  So frequently authors are so excited to be done with their book that they stop as soon as they’ve completed the main action.  Every reader can tell that something’s missing, like the ending has been chopped off just as it got started.  What’s missing?  The wrap-up.

The wrap-up is the part of the book where we take time to decompress with our heroes.  We find out what’s happened to them after the final action, we learn how they’re coping with a changed world.  We learn whether that plucky band of adventurers who came together by chance are still friends or whether, now that the mission is finished, they have drifted back to the places from whence they came.  The wrap-up is your time to play with “happy ever afters” or “unhappy ever afters,” depending on the type of book you’re working on.  You can examine whether people simply go back to their normal lives or whether a fundamental change has happened to their world.  You can zoom out and see the world as whole and how the common people reacted to the ending.

Wrap-up is important because it is the closure your reader (and you, the writer) so desperately need.  It allows you to tie the bow on the package and really, truly be finished.  It isn’t “The End” if there is no wrap-up.  It’s just “and then…”

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So You Have an Idea, Now What?

So You Have an Idea, Now What?

Every piece of writing, whether it’s a poem, a song, a short story, a book, or even a grocery list, starts with an idea.  The germinating spark that brings pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  The very first step is taking the idea in your head and figuring out how to expand on it, and make it more than just an idea.

I’m going to use the grocery list as my first example.  It’s going to sound silly at first, but bear with me and it’ll make sense.  Most grocery lists start with “I’m hungry,” “My fridge is empty,” or “I want to make this recipe!”  For the recipe, you know there is a list of ingredients you are going to need.  Say you want to make a banana split.  Obviously you’ll need some bananas.  Ice cream is usually a thing, but what kind?  Vanilla?  Chocolate? Neapolitan?  Will you add some chocolate sauce or toppings like nuts and sprinkles?  What will you put your banana split in?  If you don’t already have a bowl in home at mind, you’ll probably have to buy one (because who wants to eat a banana split off a plate?) or you may opt for a waffle bowl so that the bowl itself is edible.  You’re already thinking of the construction of your split before you get to the store.  Don’t forget the spoon!

Now let’s pretend you want to write a book instead.  You’re going to go through the same process.  Your basic recipe is characters, world/setting, and plot.  The setting is your bowl, the plot is your ice cream and the characters are your banana.  All those extra toppings and sauces are the flourishes you add like animals and world lore, secret treasures and hidden artifacts.  You think about your construction before you even start writing.  Basically, you make your list.  This is what I call the “Brainstorming” step of the writing process, where you play with all the “What ifs?” in your story.  It’s a time to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

One important tip here is not to overthink it!  If you start adding too many bells and whistles to the point where you can’t keep track of them all, your reader won’t be able to keep track of them either.  So keep it simple and have fun!

Don’t Kill Your Darlings

Don’t Kill Your Darlings

William Faulkner is often attributed the phrase, “Kill Your Darlings.”  The idea behind this writing advice is that we should not be afraid to kill off main characters.  Killing a character can advance the plot, cause other characters to face their own mortality, can create an opening for a new character, and can really make you hate a villain (especially if they kill off someone we like.)

Some writers, however, get a little “trigger happy” (here’s looking at you, George R.R. Martin).  Maybe you’re thinking, What’s wrong with that?  A little death and violence never hurt anyone, right?

Actually, too much death and violence can hurt a lot of things.  For one, it can desensitize your audience. By the sixth season of Charmed, the main characters had died and come back to life so many times that I wasn’t even upset when they died anymore.  It was just, “Oh, look, Piper’s dead again.  Here comes Leo to revive her.”  24 was so famed for random deaths that the first thing the actors did upon receiving their script was check to see if they lived through the episode!

Death in a novel can be as final as in life.  Once you kill that character off, you cannot use them anymore, unless you have some magical means to bring them back from the dead. Even then, the purpose or nature of that character has fundamentally changed.  So here’s where it gets tricky:

Don’t kill your darlings… unless you do so with good reason.  If killing off a character is essential to your story, go for it.  Fling them from the cliff.  If, however, you’re just killing them off because they’re in the way, really think about it first.  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Will this character’s death propel any sort of change?
  2. Does this character’s death matter?

And, most importantly,  3. Does this character serve my story better dead than alive?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, obviously there’s a giant target painted all over that character and his/her death is merely a matter of time.  If there’s wiggle room, think about it before you bring the axe swinging down. The reason I said #3 is the most important is because of character development.  What if that character later develops into such a crucial piece of your plot that you couldn’t finish the story without them?  (Example: Neville in Harry Potter.  In the first book, you might be wondering why he’s still there.  By the end of the 7th, you’re like, “Wow, it would have sucked if he bit it in book one.”)

So before you murder anyone, even the characters you hate, remind yourself that you put them in the story for a reason.  Remind yourself what that reason was, and if they’re still serving it; find a way to keep them safe.

Pick a Number

Pick a Number

“Pick a number, any number!” probably makes you think of the lottery or a carnival.  In writing, picking a number can mean so much more.  I have this number I like to call my “magic number.” Every time I am writing or brainstorming, I always refer to that number and try to use it to define my universe.  My magic number is three, your mileage may vary.

“What’s all this nonsense about magic numbers?” You ask.  “I’m an English major, I hate numbers!” I’m not particularly a fan of numbers either, but this is a situation where I always make an exception.  Let’s say that you’re trying to decide how many main characters to create for your story.  You want something manageable, but you want enough characters that you can bounce around your ideas between them.  You want them to be fully developed people, so you cannot create so many of them that you can never describe them all.  Here’s where your magic number comes into play.  Let’s say your magic number is four– you would come up with four main characters, develop them, then set them loose in your universe together!  “What universe is that?”  You wonder.  Use your magic number:  They are traveling the four ancient kingdoms at the four corners of the world to meet the monarchs of each kingdom and collect the four treasures handed down by each nation to bring to the center of the world to unite all peoples.  You can go really crazy with this and use your magic number everywhere.  Each kingdom’s royal family could have four people in it, there could be four donkeys along on the journey to carry supplies, there could be four towns they stop at in between each kingdom, etc.  It’s a way to create structure.

You don’t have to be strict about using the magic number.  The point of magic is that it’s fluid despite its rules.  The magic number is mainly there because it can be a huge help when you’re brainstorming or you’re stuck.

Example #2:  Your hero is trapped in a cave by the villain who has (of course) kidnapped the hero’s significant other and left the hero stranded and essentially dead.  How is your hero to escape this situation?  If your magic number is five, try to think up five different ways he could get out of the situation. 1) He has magical earth shifting powers and shakes the rocks from the cave-in loose to escape.  2) He discovers a hidden passage and when he is weak and thin enough to fit, he crawls out to safety.  3) He labors over moving the rocks for hours and is about to give up and despair when his buddy/sidekick arrives on the other side and frees him.  4) Secretly, the hero meant to get trapped in this cave to lull the villain into a false sense of security and previously set up a contraption to release the rocks with minimal fuss at the press of a button.  5) There’s always magic lamps and genies.

Having multiple ways to approach the situation can help you learn a lot about your character.  If, as you’re thinking of them, you think, “My hero is way too dumb to come up with the trap thing,” then you realize he’s more the “I’ll be rescued by my buddy” type and you’ve taught the reader and yourself something valuable.  This also leaves you with four valid ideas to use in later pieces or that you could substitute later if you decide “Getting rescued by a friend” ends up being too cliché.

When picking your magic number, try to stay in the single digits.  Ten might work, but I wouldn’t recommend going higher than that because things will get complicated.  Ten kingdoms, yes.  Ten main characters, not quite so much.  Pick something that works for you and go for it.  You’ll be surprised by how much of a difference it makes.

If You’re Bored, So Are We

If You’re Bored, So Are We

Every book has one:  that scene you feel like you have to write because it’s important to the plot.  Meanwhile, you’re thinking that scene is the most boring thing in the world to write and you’re banging your head on your desk hoping it’ll be over soon so you can get back to the good stuff.

Put your feelings about the scene into perspective:  if you don’t want to write it, why is your reader going to want to read it? Examine the scene for what it is you really need to convey and ask yourself:  “Is there another way I can get this information across?”

Have a character discover the ancient prophecy under the squeaky floorboard in their room instead of droning on about it for three pages in the beginning of the book.  Have that scene where some old guy tells you all about the burning of a local village change into a scene from the villain’s perspective as he actually burns the village down.  Instead of that footnote at the bottom of the page, include the tale of how the town statue became famous in a funny story about how the main character’s best friend got drunk and threw up on it one time, then was arrested for defacing a local landmark.

There’s always another way.  That’s why we call it “creative” writing.

Build a World Just Like a Character

Build a World Just Like a Character

Building an entire world for your characters to live in can be a daunting task.  There are places to consider, cultures, rules, geography, modes of transportation…the list goes on and on.  You can set about this task any number of ways, but I think the best advice I ever got for this was:  Build your world like you would build a character.

For me, building a character is the easiest part of story-crafting.  I have lists of character traits and questions and things I should consider when creating characters and I used to spend hours filling these lists out and making more characters just for the fun of it, even if I would never use them.  Finding out their quirks and filling their backgrounds with the details that make them into the person they are when the story takes place was thrilling for me.  When I took this approach with world-building I was astonished by the difference it made.  When your world is a character instead of just a place, you ask different questions.  What is the world’s personality?  Is it a gloomy place with sagging buildings and icy rain?  Is it a place of wonder with the latest technological marvels and flying machines and mechanized walkways?  What are the world’s quirks and idiosyncrasies?  Do people like to ride on giant chicken-like birds for fun even though the latest airships are readily available? (Final Fantasy). Is there a forest around the town that residents are told never to go through because a monster lives within, and yet the only girl brave enough to venture into said forest is blind? (The Village) Is there a castle up on the local hill that spews smoke and changes location daily? (Howl’s Moving Castle). Knowing what your world looks like is part of portraying how it acts.

So the next time you have a world to create, build it the same way you would build a character and see if that makes a difference.  The results may just surprise you.

Defeating Your Inner Critic

Defeating Your Inner Critic

There will be millions of voices that say, “This isn’t good enough.” The hardest one to overcome is the one that comes from inside yourself.  It’s the dark monster in the pit, whispering (sometimes shouting) in your ear, “No one is going to like this, I don’t even like this, this is the stupidest thing anyone has ever written, why would anyone read this? I don’t want to write this anymore.  It just isn’t good enough.” Sometimes that inner voice, the inner critic, can become so loud it’s deafening.  Soon you’re editing more than you’re writing, and the red pen comes out and one big slash goes across the page and your inner critic is laughing with glee, but you are crying in despair.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Fear is one of the most paralyzing foes of the writer.  It creeps up behind you, latches onto your back and refuses to let go.  You have to find a way to punch through that fear, say, “get lost” to your inner critic and fight on.  Yes, there will be a time for you to nitpick every little word and piece of punctuation you have written.  That’s what editing is.  When the inner critic is more hindrance than help is during the initial writing process, when the fingers first hit the keyboard.  If you’re constantly doubting every key you press, you’ll never make it past the first line, let alone the first paragraph.

So what to do?  Kick the inner critic to the side, tell it firmly to wait its turn, and then move along.  There are all sorts of ways to do this, but it basically comes down to two main tactics:  discipline and distraction.

The Discipline Method

This is literally forcing yourself to keep going.  No matter what mistakes you make, no matter how loud the inner critic yells, you keep going.  No backspacing, no erasing, no scribbling out the words with a furious pen.  You just keep going until you hit the point you want to stop.  Yes, you may end up with a train wreck you’ll have to fix later.  The point is that you can fix it.  You can’t fix it if nothing’s there.

The Distraction Method

This is exactly what it sounds like:  distract your brain.  Multi-tasking is really just the brain ping-ponging its attention from one thing to the next.  The brain can only handle so much back and forth, so distracting it is a great way to make the inner critic go from “This is so stupid” to “Oh, look, candy!” You can put on the TV in the background, play some music, munch some literal candy, whatever it takes.  Just make that inner critic focus on the shiny background stuff instead of whatever you’re writing.

I’m not going to say this is easy, but it is worth it.  Remember that even a small step is still a step.