p.38: On Unlikeable Protaganists

How likable should protagonists be? Do unlikable protagonists need some qualities about them that readers can identify with, some aspect of the character they can feel invested in?

It’s a debate I’ve had with a number of other writers. While I think there are no right or wrong answers — there’s a reader for every kind of writer — I lean down on the side that even unlikable protagonists should have something about them that helps readers root for them in some way. Even if the protags are horrible human beings.

In that vein, I stumbled on this excellent video blog from the Lessons on the Screenplay channel on Youtube that examines the protagonist in Nightcrawler, a tremendously underrated movie. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a true sociopath in it, someone who I highly doubt most any viewer could actually like, who is yet an incredibly compelling character. The performance is a tour de force, but it’s all there in the screenplay, too.

The video really sums up my thoughts on the subject better than anything I could write, and uses great examples from the screenplay for evidence. I hope others will find it as useful as I did.

P.32: Draft 2 Problems

I’ve joined the SF/F writers Facebook group, which has been an interesting, very positive experience. Lots of great ideas, suggestions and some great questions and discussions.

That said, one of the most common posts I read come from people who ask for suggestions on issues that, in the grand scheme of things, are quite minor — like word choice or some basic character issue.

These aren’t bad things to be focused on, but they reminded me of some of my early mistakes I made as a writer — getting bogged down by the small stuff.

I’ve touched on this issue before, but think it’s worth expounding on. The first few times I attempted a book, I’d always make some great progress on the first 50 or 100 pages — and then things would start to grind to a halt. I’d reread what I had written over and over again — getting stuck in an editing loop, working on what I had already written instead of finishing the story.

I’d spend hours creating notes or doing research to get one scene just right, or read paragraphs over and over again looking trying to come up with a perfect word or sentence — instead of moving anything forward. A lot of times, the ‘fixing’ made things worse, because I wasn’t focused on any particular problem. Without that focus, I could address some minor problem by creating a much bigger one — and it’s hard to know if changes are good or bad without the context of a finished draft.

Don’t get me wrong — spending time on the small stuff, even a lot of time, isn’t bad to do. Most any writer would want their word choices to be as perfect as they could make it, or to create enough notes and do enough research to make sure even a single comes across exactly how they’d want — but none of those things need to happen in Draft 1.

I like to call them Draft 2 Problems — things that can be fixed later, with more precision (and context), once the whole story is finished.

In fact, for me, they’re often Draft 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 problems, as I tend to focus on one or two aspects of a story per draft — trying to fix character issues in one draft, or working on world building in the next. Case in point: I’ll write a story with a second world setting using everyday vernacular here on earth that doesn’t fit within the context of the world I’m creating, just to get the basic story down — and then have a draft specifically focusing on making the dialog and terminology consistent and authentic to the world and characters I created.

Then, of course, I’ll have drafts focused on tightening prose, or on continuity issues, or on specific characters or character relationships, and drafts that focus on a whole host of other issues.

The point is, you don’t want to bog yourself down at any stage of the process because you’re trying to do everything at the same time — because you’re trying to be perfect in a single pass through the story.

If you try to be that perfect, then there’s a good chance you’ll never finish that stage, or even damage the story in some way that could take a lot of time to fix.

Plus, if you’re seeking that perfection in the early stages of your work, you’ll spend hours on scenes or characters that you’ll eventually cut or significantly alter somewhere down the line. And why waste time fixing something that won’t exist later when you could spend that time getting to the end sooner, or starting something new?

So, don’t let Draft X problems creep into Draft 1. Just keep plowing ahead.

P.29: World Building and Cuts

When it comes to writing, there’s almost nothing that I love more than to create new worlds, filled with interesting characters and locations in them.

I also love to create beautiful prose, that flows well on the tongue.

I say all this because I just sent out a short story. It was a story I first finished and sent out in December, but it wasn’t quite ready then — it was one of those situations where I would have liked to spend some more time with it, but had a deadline to hit.

I didn’t really know what was quite wrong with it in my head, but I figured out those problems this past week, prepping it for a new outlet.

There were a few points in the story — just a few — where I was trying to do a little too much. I loved the character details I had, but they were bogging the prose down, making the writing feel clunky.

I didn’t want to lose those details, though. They really did add a dynamic to my main character that otherwise doesn’t quite show.

I tried rewording the writing, I tried to move things around… but nothing worked.

Ultimately, I had to let the writing win, and so I made the cuts.

At the end of the day, no matter how many wonderful ideas you want to try to incorporate in your story, you can’t have clunky prose. Some of them will almost certainly have to be cut.

Be merciless, my friends.

P.26: Get Writing with Themed Issues and Anthologies

I never posted about how one of my favorite literary magazines, Crossed Genre, closed its doors… and I probably should have. **sniff**

One of the reasons why I loved Crossed Genres was because it delivered a different theme every month.

That’s great for readers, ensuring a diversity of stories and content — and great for writers, too.

As a writer, it pushed me to come up with new stories, tackling themes I may not have otherwise, but most importantly it was great incentive to write.

Even if I got a rejection, it meant I had more stories to send out and was pushing my boundaries as a writer.

Anthologies fit a very similar niche. When I see a submission call, I think about what they’re looking for… and, if I’m into it, I write.

For an aspiring writer, the easiest way to fail is to not write, and there’s no better way to ensure you write than having submission calls you’re aiming for — and the deadlines that come with them —  on your calendar.

So… if you’re an aspiring author, take a look at what anthologies or themed issues are out there and consider it a writing prompt, or a call to action.

Don’t know where to look? Here’s a few places:

  • For Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror, Horror Tree is very good at posting updates for upcoming anthologies.
  • The Submission Grinder is very useful, both its Recently Added Markets tab and by checking out Recent Activity. As a bonus, The Grinder covers all genres, including literary.
  • Then there’s always the #SubmissionCall hashtag on Twitter.

P.24: Defend Your Writing Time!

It’s 11/20/15, and I’m a little over 45,000 words into NaNoWriMo. I’m feeling pretty good, but it hasn’t always been easy. These past couple days, things have gotten in the way of my writing — making the last 10,000 words harder than the first 35,000.

I don’t think I’m alone in life getting in the way, but one thing I’ve learned I need to do that perhaps some others haven’t: defend my writing time.

A lot of us look at writing as a fun hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that — but even if writing is just a fun hobby, writers still need to write.

When people look at you funny for writing, or interrupt you, or wonder why you’re even doing it… tell them they can have their football game, a poker night or The Walking Dead, but you’re going to have your writing time.

If you’re in a real time crunch or find your commitment lagging, block off your writing time, schedule it in your calendar — and make sure everyone knows it. Make sure you know it, and don’t let things get in the way.

Of course, emergencies happen and you may not always succeed in blocking distractions, but if you’re never finding time to write, it’s on you to change that.

So, when it’s your time to write — even if all you can do is block off 30 minutes 4-5 days a week — don’t pick up the phone on the first call. Don’t write in the room people are going to talk to you in. In fact, get the heck out of dodge, if that’s what it takes, and go write at a local cafe or library.

If you have kids, particularly young ones, write for a half hour after they’re in bed, or have your spouse step it up if you have one.

Let people see the fruits of your labor when it’s ready. Maybe they’ll love what you wrote. Maybe it won’t be their cup of tea, but at least they’ll see your commitment — and respect it, and perhaps try to help you find more time to write.

I know finding time can be difficult, but you can do it, even if it’s just a little.

Carve that time out. Schedule it. Create goals. Start a project or two. Plan things out. Make sure others respect that time. Make sure you respect that time — and write.

P.23: My NaNoWriMo Progress Report, plus Keeping Up the Pace!

Book cover with title blocked out

I feel really good about my NaNo book so far — I’m at 21,223 words! Woot!

I even made a mock cover, since NaNo’s site suggested it, for kicks and giggles. I’m certainly not a graphic artist, just computer-literate enough to play around with PicMonkey, but I thought it was fun and serves as a nice little piece of inspiration for me to keep going.

It’s a first draft, so I know it’s rough, but I’m very happy with where the story’s going, and where I am today.

One thing that makes it easier to know how I’m doing is the fact that NaNo graphs our Word Counts. Here’s mine:

NaNo graph

Aside from Day 1, where I wrote a gazillion words out of excitement, I’ve been very consistent, if I do say so myself.

While NaNo’s 50,000 words in 30 days is a somewhat arbitrary number, I don’t think it’s arbitrary to suggest writers need to keep a consistent pace on a first draft.

Graphs like this should be especially valuable for people new to writing fiction, or who have never completed a first draft before.

If you’re working on a first draft, you should absolutely keep track of your daily word count. That way, you can learn what patterns you can reasonably sustain, and catch if you’re slowing down as soon as possible — so you can ask yourself why.

It may be a signal that you need to kick it up a notch, so you don’t risk fizzling out.

As I said in Post #22, fizzling out on your writing kills books. It’s very hard to finish a full draft if you put it down for weeks or months.

Trust me on that — I speak from experience.

So, even if new things are going on in your life, keeping yourself busy — don’t stop writing, just find a new pace instead. Even 30 minutes a day can easily get you 300 words, which adds up to a 100,000 word epic first draft in less than a year.

You can do it, just keep writing.

P.22: Put Away your Inner Editor on the First Draft

Someone in my NaNo region asked if they should really avoid making edits during their first draft, even if the writing isn’t any good.

I thought I gave him a good answer, so here’s what I wrote:

Locking the door on your inner editor on your first draft is really hard to do, but for me at least, it makes a huge difference.

Editing takes up a lot of time — more than writing, IMO, since it involves so much more reading, investigating, critical thinking and trial and error. Plus, for most of us, it’s not like we can edit a passage once and get it to the point we like — it takes many, many edits to get something to the point where we’re happy with it.

I think that can be dispiriting to do before you’re done with a complete draft. When you have a full story, you have that full story to spur you on. If you don’t have that full story, you can read over the same passages over and over again — that may need a lot of fixing to get good — and wonder if it’s even worth doing. If you have your full story done, and like it, then you know the answer is a resounding yes.

The only thing I’ll go back and change or edit on the first draft is if it’s related to the story — like if I realize I forgot to include a plot point earlier that’s important to my plot later. I make those edits because there’s a real chance that I could forget to do it in future drafts (or worse, think I did when I didn’t) and end up creating a plot hole.

But fixing grammar, typos, making language prettier and all that jazz can be done at any time — so I do it when my story’s done.

I forgot to mention two other reasons why it’s not worth making serious edits in a first draft.

  1. You’ll end up having to edit the same areas over and over again in the beginning, when fewer edits could have produced the same results. It’s wasting extra time.
  2. You may end up spending considerably time making edits to a part of a story you realize you’ll have to cut or drastically change, once you’re done with the first draft.

Like it or not, no one can really assess what’s worth spending time editing on when writing a book until there’s a finished draft, and trying to do so before then will not only waste time but could become a depressing vortex of doom you’re spiraling down in that leads to you fizzling out on the entire book.

While there are certainly some who can edit while they go along with the first draft of their book and get it all done in a good amount of time, there’s no real reason to do it. This is one of those things where the vast majority of people are better off trying to get a full story on paper before they do any reassessing.