Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat

I’m posting about queries as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

I’ve never written directly about queries before because I’ve never actually written one myself* so take everything I say after this with a grain of salt. That said, the query is basically a combination of the cover letter and the single page pitch both of which I’ve done about a zillion times at this point in my career, often successfully.

So, first, the cover letter part. Keep it as short and simple as possible. My cover letters go something like this:


I’m Kelly McCullough, author of (three most relevant publications here**).***

(Insert personal connection if appropriate here)****

I am looking to place the (novel title here) or, I am looking for representation, my latest novel is (novel title here).

One page or shorter novel pitch goes here (more on that below the break).

Thank you,

Kelly McCullough

____Arbitrary break to provide someplace for cover letter footnotes_________

*I got my agent through a truly bizarre process, but he’s done very well for me.

**If you’ve you’ve got them.

***Which three of my publications or series are most relevant depends in what I’m pitching and who I’m pitching it to. Basically, my novel resume is not the same as my fiction for science education resume, and it’s important to remember audience.

****”I met you at ArghCON, we discussed my work, and you suggested I send you something” and the like is appropriate. Most other things probably aren’t.


Now for the short pitch segment, I’m going to play to my strengths, laziness and organization and pull from previous things I’ve written on pitch sheets and only update the bits I feel need it. So, stealing from myself:

I’ve already covered some of what a pitch needs to do and how to do in the post on elevator pitches and I’ll go into it further in my post on synopses, so I’m just going  to post a diverse set of examples here. Below you will find a pitch for a novel I’ve never written, one for a novel I’ve written and haven’t yet sold (though I’ve had it almost sell three times), and one for the first novel I sold, WebMage. All of these are exactly as they went out to editors. After each pitch I’ll include a brief note. Oh, and there will obviously be major spoilers.

The rest of this post is beyond the cut to hide the spoilers and because it’s enormous.

Continue reading “Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat”

Friday Cat Blogging

Make sure you get my good side.

You’re so vain, you probably think this blog is about you.

Well, duh. Everything is about me.

Wrong. This monkey is all about me.

Here, try this one. Still life with me. Also, fork. Perfect portrait.

No. I’m a perfect portrait.

Okay, y’all are weird. Everyone know this is how portraits work.

Thanks to Kim, Jonny, Neil, and the National Gallery

Reblog: Proposals and Series Vs. Standalone

Part 1: The Blueprint

One of the bigger changes in my mental model of writing over the last five years is that I no longer loathe and fear synopses and proposals. In fact, I have actually come to enjoy writing them. In part this is a function of practice. I’ve done a lot of these at this point, something on the order of 30, and as with all writing tasks, it gets easier with repetition. But even more, I think it is because I’ve spent the last five years working in the WebMage world with all its interesting bugs and limitations.Now, don’t get me wrong, I love WebMage and it’s been enormous fun to write. At the same time, it’s not a story that was originally intended to become a series. In fact, it wasn’t even originally intended to become a novel. The process went like this:

It started out as a short story. Then it grew a second (never published) short story. Then those two merged into the first half of the book. Then I wrote a third short that eventually became the opening of book II which grew from there. Then I had to come up with one more rough plot, CodeSpell, and a sketchy idea, MythOS. Then I wrote a series closer that had to incorporate all the earlier stuff and tie it up into a neat package.

This was a lot of fun but it also involved a lot of work in terms of making it all fit together and look like a cohesive whole. Picture a one room cabin that slowly accretes additions until it becomes a small mansion. It can be done in a way that produces something with architectural integrity and style, but it’s a hell of a lot more work to do it that way than it would have been to start out by designing a mansion from the blueprints up.

The same is true of series book proposals. In the past five years I’ve written series proposals for four separate series, two with a complete book attached, two with chapters. In all four cases, I knew from the first moment that I was writing a multi-book saga and was able to put all the story equivalents of pouring the slab, electrical runs, plumbing, and facade into the blueprint ahead of time instead of ripping out and replacing the original inadequate hookups or simply making do.

The end result of that advance planning should be a much more cohesive and seamless whole. In the case of one of the series (a trilogy actually), where I went ahead and wrote book II on spec as well, I was able to see how much simpler it was to get book II written and running with all the foundations waiting for it. It wasn’t a perfect fit and there were things in book II that made me go back and make minor adjustments to book I, but overall it was a much simpler and stronger process. The proposal is the blueprint, and if you get that right it means a lot less work and kludging down the road.

Part 2: Structure without planning—WebMageSo, as mentioned abve, WebMage accreted into a series rather than being planned as one. But what does that mean? How is planning for a series different?

Let’s start with the short-story version of WebMage’s plot and the things I didn’t think about beforehand. The short story WebMage was all about Ravirn’s successful escape after a hacking run. Because it was essentially a chase story, it really didn’t matter why Ravirn had hacked Atropos beyond for the hell of it (strongly implied in the short). Fine motivation for a short story, but ultimately unsatisfying for a novel. Because it was a short the long term effects of the cost of that escape didn’t matter when I was writing the short. So, at the end we have Ravirn with the enmity of one of the Fates, a knee that’s thoroughly hashed, short a fingertip, and in no real shape to do anything but lie in bed and recover. Fine in a short, more problematic in chapter three of a novel with a whole book left for him to limp through.

Then there’s world. In the short all I had to do for the magic system was put together the rough framework and then decorate it with the bits that I needed to make the plot work. A novel needs a lot more than that, and if I’d been planning for more story, there are things I would have made simpler or stronger. Names are another issue. At short story length I just grabbed cool stuff and didn’t worry too much about making a coherent culture of it. Likewise culturally, the colors my characters wore and the pseudo-Elizabethan court structure, both done because they were cool and at short length coherence wasn’t really an issue.

Finally, character: Ravirn and the Fates were basically perfectly workable characters for the longer run of a novel, so no real problems at the first order build-out level. Cerice and Melchior however both needed a lot more room to grow. A good part of the familiar underground subplot was by way of making the expanded Melchior make sense. As for Cerice, I don’t think I really got her to work fully the way I wanted until book V.

So, a good deal of the structure of WebMage the novel went into mitigating and justifying the cost of the events of the short and into making that set of scenes make sense in a larger context. A fair amount of work also went into ret-conning the magic system to make it work for the novel. Culture had to be justified and characters twisted and expanded. I’m quite happy with the result but it was an enormous amount of work to get it there and I suspect that if I’d been planning ahead I could have achieved better results with less wordage, which in turn would have given me room to make things richer elsewhere.

There were similar problems moving from the stand-alone WebMage novel into an open ended series a piece at a time as I did, most notably with Cerice (who worked very well as a love interest in the original happily ever after ending of WebMage but not so much over multiple books), Tisiphone (who I straightjacketed in book I much more than I would have had I known how big a part she was going to play going forward), the magic system (see the handing off of the mweb system from Fate to Necessity), and plot (having your main character go up against Fate in book I doesn’t leave you a lot of room to step back down into a more human scale of story or, on the other end, much space for a bigger badder baddie). Again, I’m happy with the results, and in particular with some of the choices forced on me by the original structure of Tisiphone, but I think it could have been done better with only a little more forethought.

I don’t regret a single choice I made with WebMage but man, looking forward, a lot of them are choices I’m glad I won’t have to make with the next set of books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in two parts Nov 17 and Dec 3 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

On Plotting/Outlining and the Benefits of Experience*

I find that after ~16 highly outlined novels, I mostly don’t need that scaffolding these days. The outlines have become internal to my head.

To elaborate: I find now that if I know where I’m going (almost always before I start the book) I no longer need to do much advance outlining. The things that I need to make a coherent story of the target length with all the bits that are needed for something to be a story are in my head in a very firm way.

If X is my goal then U, V, and W have to happen structurally to provide the story beats. It’s much less mechanistic than that, but that’s more or less how it works now. I know that the plot tools will be there when I need them, so I can focus on the themes and character and bigger picture.

I started to get the first flashes of it around novel number 10 and I’ve been using it ever since, but it really kicked in solidly with Crossed Blades, which was number 17.

This is almost entirely a function of experience. I’m up around 4-5 million words of fiction written counting all the stuff that fell by the wayside. I’ve got around a million words in print, another million that’s forthcoming or that I expect to publish, and 2-3 million that ended up on the cutting room floor.

That last 2 million plus was at least as valuable as the stuff I kept, since it represents reflection and change. I used to cut ~4 words for every survivor when I started. These days the ratio is reversed, but it took 20 years to get here.

The process has allowed me to create heuristics for writing a Kelly McCullough novel, heuristics which I constantly work to improve as I strive to become a better writer.

It’s that experience and that practice at solving the problems of writing a novel that allowed me to write Blade Reforged in 100 or so days and have something I could turn in without massive rework. Likewise, writing Drawn Blades in 88 days.

It used to take me a year to write a novel because I had to do a lot of backing and filling that I can avoid now. Mind you, I prefer to have 150-175 days, but it’s nice to know I can do it in less when I have to. Unfortunately, the only way that I know of to get there is to hammer out the work day after day and year after year.

*Importing and expanding my contributions from a Twitter conversation about plotting/outlining with Paul Weimer, Tobias Buckell & Damian G Walter

The Plot Synopsis Strikes Back

As part of Joshua Palmatier’s Plot Synopsis Project II I’m posting the proposal synopsis for CodeSpell, the third book in the WebMage series. Links to other writers’ synopses will be at the bottom of this post.

For my full thoughts on how to write one of these you can see my posts on the subject. Pitching and Synopses parts 1, 2, and 3. Plus, what a synopsis should do.

Update: For those who have read CodeSpell you may notice that while the overall sequence of events and emphasis follows the book, there are any number of minor but significant departures. That’s pretty typical and expected. Enough so that this book went straight from delivery to the copyeditor with no revisions. For comparison here’s the synopsis for WebMage written after the book was complete.

Book Proposal for WebMage III (CodeSpell)

The story begins a few days after the end of Cybermancy with Ravirn receiving an invite from Zeus. The big guy is throwing a party of divine proportions. Among the reasons for the party is the coming-out of the newest power in the pantheon, Raven, so Ravirn’s attendance is not subject to negotiation.

The party is held on Mount Olympus in a huge outdoor venue. Ravirn attends with Cerice and Melchior in tow. During the course of the afternoon he encounters Cerberus, Hades, Persephone, the Fates, Dionysus, the Furies, and his own parents. His mother snubs him, his father does not, and in the process we find out that his father is the son of one of the Muses. He also runs into Dairn (last seen being dumped unconscious into a faerie ring in WebMage).

Something is horribly wrong with Dairn, though Ravirn is unable to decide what. This becomes much more important to Ravirn in a few minutes, when Dairn tries to kill Ravirn using powers beyond anything he’s ever previously exhibited. Ravirn is able to escape the attack, but only by the skin of his teeth.

There are a number of things going on that Ravirn doesn’t know or find out about for some time:

1. In the process of falling through the faerie rings, Dairn lost big chunks of his personality and memory. As he was wandering the worlds over the next year by randomly leaving and reentering faerie rings he became merged with the goddess Nemesis. Mythologically the role of Nemesis has a lot of overlap with the Furies, though she is less constrained, because she is without any controlling authority. She is also a bodiless entity, something like a non-replicating computer virus. In merging with Dairn she’s developed a powerful hatred of Ravirn.

2. Zeus is not the buffoon that Ravirn believes him to be. The sex-addled idiot thing is a carefully cultivated and personally rewarding act he uses to help throw his enemies off and reduce his workload. He is not fond of work if it can be avoided.

3. The damage to Necessity in Cybermancy includes a number of things that pose problems for the pantheon in general and Ravirn in specific. Among those is the loosing of Nemesis. Previously she had been confined both in location and power. Also, the resource locator forks for Tartarus (the prison of the Titans) have been destroyed. This last means that Zeus can no longer maintain a tight watch and leash on them, and that they are likely to free themselves and restart the Titanomach (the ten-year war with the gods that ended with the imprisonment of the Titans). Another major result of the damage is severely restricted access to Necessity, both electronic and physical. Not even the Furies are able to access her physical location and they can only speak with her intermittently. There are many other points of damage, but these are the ones of primary interest for this story.

4a. In order to prevent the escape of the Titans Zeus needs to arrange for the repair of Necessity. He believes he could take them in battle again if he had to, but it would be better if he didn’t have to. Fortunately, he sees a perfect out that involves a minimum of effort on his part——make Ravirn fix Necessity.

4b. His method for doing this is to nudge Nemesis into an encounter with Dairn and then to provide an opportunity for the merged being to have an unsuccessful shot at Ravirn, hence the party. Thereafter, in order to get rid of Nemesis Ravirn will be forced to repair the portion of Necessity that also contains the Tartarus forks.

4c. Zeus is also concerned about the increased power of the Fates in the computerized era and would like to see them taken down a peg or two. By framing them for the creation of Nemesis/Dairn he hopes to set the Furies, who are very jealous of the role of Nemesis, against the Fates. He also hopes that in the course of fixing Necessity Ravirn will introduce an anti-Fate bias that will come into full effect once Necessity’s powers are restored.

The initial attack by Nemesis is quickly followed up by further attempts, forcing Ravirn into a running battle with Nemesis while he tries to figure out some way to stop her. Because of Zeus’s machinations Ravirn becomes convinced that the Fates in general and Clotho in particular are responsible. This puts Cerice in the position of either joining Ravirn in direct opposition to her grandmother or of recusing herself. While she is being torn about this decision, Fate intervenes, literally. Clotho acts to remove Cerice from the equation, imprisoning her. Without Shara, who is still trapped within Necessity, Cerice is unable to resist effectively and is largely removed from the scene.

This is the opportunity Tisiphone has been waiting for, and because of the opposing roles of Furies and Nemesis, she is able to act as a desperately needed ally. Nemesis is a full-fledged goddess and her powers are nearly as great as those of Eris or Hades. Only the combination of the fact that she has to work through the relatively fragile medium of Dairn’s body and the intervention of Zeus allowed Ravirn to escape the first attack in one piece.

Over the course of the next several days Ravirn and Tisiphone discover that it is the damage to Necessity that unleashed Nemesis. A significant part of this discovery process results from communications with Shara from within Necessity. These communications are only possible because of Tisiphone’s tight connection to Necessity. Shara literally has to speak through Tisiphone. We also learn here that something truly strange happened with Ahllan’s disappearance in Cybermancy.

Once this is all established, it becomes clear that Ravirn is going to have to try to repair Necessity. He’s going to need to figure out some point of access. He’s also going to need more computing power. Necessity is simply too big a job for Melchior’s current specs. It’s time for a major (i.e. risky) upgrade. Melchior’s goblin shape and personality will remain the same, but he’s getting a new case and (in line with Ravirn’s chaos powers) a new quantum computing architecture that will make him significantly less mweb dependent.

Just as Ravirn completes the upgrade and reboots Melchior, Nemesis arrives. It’s touch and go, but at the cost of a really severe beating, Tisiphone is able to buy enough time for Ravirn and Melchior to escape. Unfortunately, they are now without the link they need to reach Necessity. In a stroke of apparent coincidence that is simply too much for Ravirn to buy, Megaera show up and offers to provide the missing link. She says she’s doing it for Tisiphone’s sake, but Ravirn realizes there’s more going on here than he thought, and he makes the conceptual leap to link it all back to Zeus.

Tired of being manipulated, Ravirn heads out to confront Zeus with Melchior vociferously arguing that it’s a bad idea. The whole way. Zeus’s role is revealed in the plot, including his actual nature. Ravirn is stunned beyond words, and deeply angry with Zeus, but he admits that at this point their goals coincide and he will go through with the scheme to fix Necessity. Scene ends with an accommodation similar to the one Ravirn enjoys with Eris, affection tinged with fear and grudging respect.

When he arrives at the physical location of Necessity however, he discovers that Nemesis, using Tisiphone as a link, has preceded him. A pitched battle takes place, one that Ravirn is able to win with the aid of Tisiphone, Melchior, and Shara-who can act directly for him in the House of Necessity. The fight is won with the death of Dairn and the apparent destruction of Nemesis through the physical destruction of portion of some of Necessity’s hardware.

Then Melchior and Ravirn proceed to repairing Necessity. Unfortunately, complete repair is far beyond their limited resources at the time. They are able to tie up Tartarus, but the Nemesis portion of the system is totally inoperable and the Furies are going to need do considerable hardware repair over the course of the next several years in order to get Necessity back into a state where Ravirn can take a true crack at the software problems.

The book ends on the first day of spring when Shara is ejected from Necessity. Ravirn is triumphant, but a number of loose ends leave him with a great deal of work to do and food for thought. Necessity is still controlling the mweb, but only portions of the destinies of the gods. Cerice and Ravirn parted under very stressful circumstances and Ravirn has developed further feelings for Tisiphone over the course of their conflict with Nemesis. This is further complicated by Tisiphone’s anger and grief over the damage done to Necessity’s physical form in the battle. She feels personal responsibility for that and her fellow Furies also blame her, but she also holds Ravirn partially to blame. And, where is Ahllan? All of which will lead into WebMage IV, MythOS.

Joshua Palmatier

Alma Alexander (Will post on the 20th instead.)

Sam Butler

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Daryl Gregory

Simon Haynes

Jay Lake’s comments and his synopses

Kelly McCullough

Jeri Smith-Ready

Jennifer Stevenson

Edward Willett

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog September 19 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Story And Structure Part II

So this is the second post thinking through my next class, though it probably comes sequentially before the last. This one may also be a bit less linear.

One of the most important things to remember in the course of structuring a novel is whose story it is and that they must protag. I know this sounds simple and old hat, but it’s easy to lose lock on that at critical moments. And, it really does have some major impacts on the way the story get put together in a structural sense.

As usual, all statements should be considered as suggestions to be discarded if they don’t work for you, and sufficiently good writing can always trump any rule of writing.

Thing One: Where do you start the book? Wherever possible, you should start it with your protagonist, ideally in a way that draws the reader into their story in a sympathetic way, and they should be protagging. Protagging is absolutely key to establishing sympathy and establishing the idea that the character is a mover of events, not a cork on the water.*

Thing One-A: This is true even for multi-protagonist books which, if you want to be successful, will generally have a primary protagonist and secondary protagonists.** I’ve actually been struggling with this in my own WIP, where I have settled on juggling chapter lengths and giving my main focus character about twice as much wordage as my secondary protagonist as one of the means I’m using to keep the primary focus where it needs to be. Which leads to…

Thing Two: Keeping the reader’s attention where you want it. Even in a single POV book, you need to remember whose story it is, and structure the book to keep that story at the center of the narrative. Subplot and secondary plots and resolutions are key elements to crafting a strong well rounded book, but if you don’t watch them carefully and keep the structural necessities of the main narrative in mind, it is easy to let them steal the focus. Especially, if one of the secondary characters is more interesting to write, or you’re in one of the bridging sections where the main narrative is forced to slow down.

For example, I love the divine madman and I have included a number of them in stories and books. They’re generally a joy to write because they get to say really interesting and apparently nonsensical things that you can use to illuminate themes and mysteries or as time bombs that will provide a key to understanding a later scene. It would be very easy for me to give one of my madmen too much screen time or to let them steal the protag ball*** for a scene or two in a way that does not serve the narrative. So, lets talk about that a bit in…

Thing Three: Every scene in a book should serve the story of the central character in some way. If it does not, why is it there? Now, that doesn’t mean the central character has to be in the scene or even mentioned in the scene. You can have thematic scenes, in which case you have to understand how your theme reinforces and relates to the protagonist’s story and the central narrative. Or you might have contrast scenes in which subplot, secondary character plot, villain moments, or counter-theme can be used to throw the main narrative into higher contrast. You might have parallel-structure scenes where the narrative of the world or secondary characters shows a mirror of the main narrative. You might well have some really clever scene written for reasons not mentioned here, but if you do, you should always know how that scene relates to the primary narrative and serves the story you want to tell.

Thing Four: Endings and the protagonist. Wherever possible, the protagonist should be on screen for the end of the plot arc and have a strong roll in any denouement. It’s their story, and not only does the reader want to see them be the one to come up with and implement the solution (see also protagging), but the reader expects to have a sense of rest or closure about the story, an understanding of what happens next with the protagonist they’ve been following and identifying with for ~100,000 words. Again, as always, there are exceptions, most notably the series book where you want to leave your reader with a sense that there is more to come while still giving them a satisfying resolution to the portion of the story arc covered in this book. The last important shot of the story should have the protagonist at the center of the frame.


*Common alternative starting points can be with the antagonist or some sort of foreshadowing or scene setting moment with parents, mentors, prophets, etc. All of which can work just fine but really ought to be about the protagonist’s struggle. See Thing Three above.

**It’s possible to have a successful and perfectly balanced book with six protagonists who all get equal time, but it’s really hard and I’ve seen a lot more failures than successes.

***The protag ball…hmm. (This is me thinking in real time as I write this.) I’m kind of liking the idea of looking at a novel as a sort of metaphorical Calvinball type game, with control of the ball as a way of modeling who is in control of the scene at a given time. The protagonist can throw the ball to secondary characters, or have it stolen by the antagonist, or whatever, and its part of your job as the author to keep track of the ball and make sure that your protagonist controls the ball most of the time. Then you could do an analysis of the story with the protagonist controlling the ball highlighted in green, the antagonist in red, and various secondary characters each in their own color to give you a quick visual way of telling if your protagonist is protagging enough.****

****And, yes, for anyone in the Twin Cities area who ever might think about taking a class from me, this really is how I teach, complete with verbally footnoted digressions–often further delineated by hand gestures. It may sound like madness, but so far the reviews are pretty decent.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 25 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Structure and Story Part I

I’ve been thinking about teaching at the Loft again, an advanced novelists class on structure and story and I’m going to use the blog to work through some of my ideas on the subject. Today’s post focuses on first chapters and book openings. I’m going to try to formulate some general principals on what I think a first chapter needs to accomplish and some ways to look at how to do that. As always, sufficiently good writing will trump any general principal.

So, a first chapter should:1) Introduce the protagonist in a way that makes the reader want to know more about their story. I think that generally this is best done by making the protagonist a sympathetic and likable* character. You need to spend some time with the protagonist under circumstances that allow the reader to get to know their best side so that they will be pulling for the character.

2) Set up the central problem or conflict of the story. I generally try to put a “problem statement”** of some sort into the opening three pages, and if I can’t do that I make very sure to get it in by the end of the first chapter. I’m not sure you can apply this to every kind of story, and it can be very difficult, but it’s a good exercise both for the writer and reader. You also have to be careful not to make the problem statement so obvious that the reader can then put down the novel because they know what’s going to happen.

In the WebMage books the problem statement is usually also a red herring, i.e. Ravirn thinks he has x problem with thing y, but in actuality he has g problem with thing y, or x problem with thing r, or some other variation. In Cybermancy, Ravirn initially thinks the problem is simply “I need to get Shara’s soul out of Hades,” and that is the opening problem, but the actual problem is closer to “How do I get Shara’s soul out of Hades successfully and survive the consequences?” which is a multi-step process that only begins with the initial extraction of Shara’s soul.

3) Introduce the setting. This is especially important in science fiction and fantasy where part of what the reader is looking for is a cool speculative world (technology, magic system, magical creature, alien, magical situation, etc.). I’m generally of the school that says the more of this you put up front the better, though there are situations where you might want to keep parts of it secret for a while. I’m absolutely of the opinion that something fantastical has to happen before the chapter ends.

In summation:
1) Protagonist introduction (generally sympathetic).
2) Problem statement.
3) Setting.

Hey, that sounds like a character with a problem in a setting. Isn’t that the most basic description of story? Why, yes it is Mr. McCullough; you get a balloon. I know this seems almost too basic, but it’s remarkably easy to lose track of. In many ways an opening chapter has to play out the arc of the book in miniature. For that matter, so does a closing chapter.

It’s really very similar to the best advice I ever got for writing an essay: Paragraph one, tell the reader what you’re going to tell them. Main body of paper, tell the reader what you said you were going to tell them. Final paragraph, tell the reader what you just told them.

As a writer you have to think about chapter and scene, especially first chapters and scenes, as much in terms of what they do for the reader as you do about what the events of the story are. You have to develop a sense of the structure of story in a way that non-critical readers don’t.


*I really do like the word likable–not so much in terms of likable to the other characters and certainly not in terms of “nice” but in terms of a character that the reader can like. I prefer lead characters who are complex and layered and morally ambiguous. That said, it’s my bias both as a writer and a reader that if I don’t get a reason to like a character fairly quickly I’m not going to want to spend time with them. That’s not to say that they can’t be nasty or vicious or evil on some levels–a good writer can make people with all of those traits likable–just that if I don’t like the protagonist pretty quickly I put the book down and walk away and don’t come back.

**I’ve borrowed this term from physics problem solving theory** in which the student’s first task is to read the test or homework problem, figure out what they are solving for, and restate it in a clear way so that they can dedicate all of their efforts toward the correct goal.

***Where they got it I can’t say, physicists just like it better that way.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 1st 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Notes on Plot (pt 2 and 3 of 3)

For the intro, see part one below. I’m going to move on to models for thinking about plot in this and the next post. All of these can be applied to either internal or external plot.

Model 1-Plot, what, why how: Plot is confusing in part because when writers and readers talk about it, they’re talking about several different things, and we rarely differentiate explicitly.

Plot the what, plot the why, and plot the how. Very often we focus on plot the what, the sequence of events that take us from the beginning of a story to the end, and talk about it in great detail.

The what of plot can be anything and everything and is easy to overthink and to worry about to distraction.

The why of plot is the most important thing for the writer to think about. And, fortunately, it’s much simpler. Why do the things in a story happen? Fiction is the art of crafting stories with a purpose. That purpose can be as simple as crafting a ripping yarn, or as complex as, well, pretty much anything you can conceive of.

The key to a well plotted story is mapping the why onto the what. The how follows naturally after that. Why are you telling the story? What do you want out of the story? Once you have an idea of that you can move on to the how.

In my case, the why is usually built around wanting people to come see my cool world. I decide what parts of the world I want to show off. Where in the world can I place the story for maximum tourist advantage? Then I map out a loose path through the set, and start thinking about what sort of character would follow that path, which leads me to conflict and another way to think about plot.

A note on cost: There is no plot without cost. If the characters in your story don’t have to give anything up (cost) there is no tension, and so no story.

Model 2-Plot as conflict: One writer, (sadly, I can’t remember who) said that all you need to know for plot is “things get worse.” Anytime in the story when you don’t know what comes next, make things worse. Done well, this is true enough. Done wrong, it becomes “hit the bird.” (Disney’s Alladin. Don’t know what to do, hit the bird.) As I said, done right it works. Things keep getting worse for your Protagonist until the end when they get better.

I prefer to think in terms of conflict. Plot is getting from point a to point b with the maximum amount of interesting and appropriate mayhem (conflict) in between. Your character wants or needs something (internal vs. external) and chooses to try or is forced to try to get it or to get away from having to get it. How that plays out, and what he or she loses or gains along the way is plot. This is a sort of hero’s journey model.

Model 3-Plot as conflict part B; internal vs. external: In most fantasy fiction you will have a protagonist and an antagonist, or hero and villain. In conflict type B, the conflict and plot are driven by the opposing needs of the hero and the villain, remembering always that the villain is the hero of his or her own story. This leads us back to internally vs. externally driven plots.

Model 4-Plot as motion: In normal life, long periods go by without anything of significance happening. In fiction everything is a significant happening, or should be. If it doesn’t move the story somehow, it probably shouldn’t be in the text. In plot as motion we start at a point of stasis, or immediately after a point of stasis has been destabilized. The story then revolves around getting to a new point of stasis which involves motion through the world and through time. Attempts to halt or redirect the flow of motion create the conflict necessary to interesting story-telling.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 31 2007 and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Notes on Plot (pt 1 of 3)

I’ve spent a good bit of time over the years thinking about plot and I thought some of those ideas might be of interest to y’all. I’ll start with a definition of terms today and then discuss four models of plot construction in the next part.

The basic equation of plot as I see it goes a bit like this:

Plot = How Conflict interacts with Cost to achieve resolution
Conflict = The difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be
Cost = Price of resolving conflict

That said, there two basic types of plots. Internally driven and externally driven.

Much of classic fantasy and most of classic science fiction revolves around externally driven plot. Sauron seeks the one ring. Either Frodo and co destroy it or are destroyed. No internal transformation has to take place in any of the characters. They have a goal. The trilogy is built around achieving that goal. In fantasy the external plot is usually driven by a BBE, or big bad evil. Sauron. The White Witch. Etc.

Most lit fic and an ever growing portion of F&SF is internally driven. Internally driven stories usually revolve around the problems of the character though many have explicit external villains as well. The protagonist is broken in some fundamental way, either some time before the action of the book begins, or very soon thereafter. They then go on a journey which either fixes them, or transforms them into someone who no longer needs to be fixed.

I personally try to write a story with both external and internal plot drivers, as I feel that a fusion of the two makes for a stronger story.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 30 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)