Friday, December 30

Open Thread: Do You Have Any Writing Questions?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's time to open up the site to questions once again. If you've been looking for answers, struggling with an aspect of writing, or just unsure about what you're doing (and if you're doing it right), let me know.

I'll answer the quick questions here in the comments section, and write regular articles for the longer topics in the coming weeks.

I'll start by asking you:
  • What technique have you been struggling with lately?
  • What about writing or publishing has you confused?
  • What would you like to know more about?
  • What would you like to see discussed?
  • What's always eluded you and you're not sure why?
There are no dumb questions, and this is open to beginner questions up through advanced concepts. If it's something outside of my wheelhouse (like if it's specific to a genre I don't read or write), I'll hand the question over to a guest author. Ask away with whatever is on your mind.

52 comments:

  1. What about what to include when writing a query letter? Not sure if you want to cover this or not, but right now I'm wondering if I should mention specific editors who have shown interest in my project. Good idea or not? Thanks.

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    1. I think that's something agents would want to know, so a brief mention wouldn't be out of line. I'd be specific about details, such as, "During a critique at RWA last May, Big Editor said XX" or the like. I think context would help the agent more than a "Big Editor has expressed interest." An agent would want to know if it was a casual thing, or if you had actually submitted it previously (which would would bad, as she'd have fewer places to submit it to if you'd already shopped it).

      For more general query questions, try this link: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2008/02/query-letters.html

      If you find what you're looking for there, let me know!

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  2. This feels like a silly question, but I struggle with the...deciding part of outlining? I'm overwhelmed with infinite possibilities, yet each one I come up with doesn't fit what I already have.

    For example, I've been trying to come up with a major clue that this character can discover to move him close to solving a mystery, and I'm trying to come up with one that isn't so obvious that it reveals the culprit in the middle of the story, but also fits how the murder actually took place. So maybe I need to add some complexity to this murder so there are more interesting layers to go through. However, if I do that, then I need to rethink or get rid of even more plot elements related to my original version of the murder, or I need to find a way to give the murder more complexity without changing the already existing elements.

    It seems like every other writer manages to work through this stuff naturally, but I always end up beating my head against a wall.

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    1. I love this question, and I have a mystery writer friend who hates to make decisions who might be a great person to answer this (and I may answer it as well). Putting this one on the list for sure.

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    2. Thank you very much! I look forward to seeing what you guys have to say on the subject.

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  3. What should a first draft look like? As a new writer, I always have the worst time writing first drafts. I keep expecting to write a finished product in one go, then I change the story by chapter 3, and I never manage to finish the story I started. I get disheartened when I go back and read the sloppy, plothole filled mess. Any suggestions? I'd love to see more posts about the early stages of writing a book. Thanks!

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    1. I think the "early stages" idea is great, and I sense a series brewing there (thanks!)

      First drafts are whatever you need to be able to write the second draft. Some writers do quick rough drafts with lots of holes, others take years and have an almost clear first draft. With very rare exceptions (pros who've been at this for decades), no one writes a finished first draft.

      For example, my first drafts are all about finding out how the story unfolds and how my characters will act in the situations I've created. I do very little character development before that first draft, as that's when I figure out who they are. Plots change, holes appear, and I discover what I still need to figure out. This all gives me a guide for the second draft, where I fill all that in.

      If you keep stalling due to changes, you might try outlining before you start. Figure out the story and general plot turning points until you're happy, then go and write those scenes. It sounds like you might be a plotter trying to pants and that's causing you frustration. :)

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    2. This is so hard... I wrote some scenes for the ending, so I know more or less where I want to go, but I'm striving to give life to characters early on. The first 25% of my novel feels like a chain of scenes rather than a story (that's how I see it at least). I'm outlining and rewriting these first chapters for some weeks now, but I think that, in the end, it will bring a positive result.

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    3. You might try looking at what's motivating your protagonist to act. Whenever I feel like the plot is just "stuff happening" it's almost always due to a lack of personally motivated goals for the protagonist. The story actually IS just stuff happening that the protagonist doesn't care about. It moves the plot, the character isn't driving the plot.

      Try looking at those chain of scenes and pinpointing what's driving them. Is the protagonist making choices and acting to cause those events to happen, or are they going along for the ride with little to no input? If the protagonist isn't creating the story, but just "acting it out on demand" that could be the issue.

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    4. I'm trying it already, but I'm struggling. However, thinking about your answer gave me some ideas. I think a very short subplot might solve my problem.

      Thanks again, Janice!

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  4. Im struggling with filling in the holes in my story. Once i can figure out how to make believeable connections with the areas i have already written i will have completed my first draft. I'm so close! Brainstorming tricks/advice for situations like this would be appreciated.

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  5. I have 300,000 plus words and counting and can't seem to focus. I have no problem writing. Just writing with intention. Any suggestions?

    Love your site!

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    1. Sounds like you're missing a core conflict, so there's no one problem to solve for the story. No problem means no clear moment that's a "win" for your protagonist to signal the end of the story. You have lots of things going on to write about, but nothing tying it all together. Or, you have a major series and just need to find the core conflicts of each individual book and break it up.

      Try pinpointing the one major problem that has to be resolved, and keep only the things that relate to that problem. A story structure template could be very useful to you, as it would give you the specific turning points and moments for you to plot out and guide you. (pardon the self-serving vibe, but my Planning Your Novel book would be a big help here).

      Also find your character arc to provide the inner conflict. Those two conflicts will help you determine what parts belong in that book and what is just extra story.

      Try this article on the Three Act Structure to get you started: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/10/how-to-plot-with-three-act-structure.html

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    2. Have all your books. They're immeasurably helpful. You're right. I just need to stop falling in love with every idea and work on what serves the story arc. Thank you so much.

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    3. You're welcome, and thanks so much! Shiny ideas are seductive little buggers :)

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  6. I'd like a clear definition between YA and the relatively new genre New Adult. What are the requirements for each and perhaps some dos and don'ts. For instance is it okay for characters to get engaged in a YA?

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    1. I'll look for a NA author to do more on this, but in general, it's a murky market. The original definition I'd heard was that YA was all about taking the first steps toward becoming an adult (solving problems facing teen characters). NA was about dealing with actually being an adult for the first time (problems dealing with those in the 18-25 age group).

      The reality is vague and varied. I've heard it described at YA with more sex, books with characters in the early 20s, and nothing more than a marketing ploy (books called NA but there's little difference between them and an adult novel with a 25 year old protagonist). NA seems to be for adult readers who like YA style plotting and emotions, but want more grown-up situations.

      As for the engagement, it depends on the genre or topic. Fantasy characters do face marriage as teens, but in contemporary or real life stories, you don't usually see it. When you do, it's often paired with pregnancy, a'la "a cautionary tale" style. There are exceptions, and some long-running series have the characters marry at the end (Both Twilight and Harry Potter do this)

      It's an interesting topic, so I'd like to hear what some NA authors think, as well.

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    2. Still looking, but Ava Jae did a fantastic post on this: http://avajae.blogspot.com/2016/08/about-traditionally-publishing-new-adult.html

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  7. I'm struggling with world building for my fantasy novel. The whole prospect is overwhelming so I haven't even started. I would appreciate a chart, checklist or some general directions on the basics to include.

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    1. http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

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    2. Thanks for this list, I've put it in favourites for future reference.
      Jan

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  8. Tips on combining writing with a 'real life' not-nine-to-five job and a family are always welcome :-) I suppose most people are struggling with this, so any best practices/great tips on how to make sure you juggle the many coloured balls of life would be great

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    1. My Monday post talks about this some. A round-up post with some tips would be fun to do, too. I'll put out a call!

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  9. How can I make my characters come alive so much so that the reader will be ready to flip the page before they reach the end of that page?

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  10. Starting in the right place and the definition of proper execution.

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    1. Ooo, proper execution is a fun topic.

      A quick answer for starting in the right place, try this post from 2012:

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/01/line-forms-where-knowing-where-to-start.html

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  11. i'm having trouble with the genre of my story. What is it called if there is a historical setting, but the countries and customs are fictional, but realistic (there is no magic or fantastic creatures and it doesn't violate the laws of physics)? When I've looked it up, I feel like it doesn't quite fit with either historical fiction or fantasy.
    P.S. I've been writing for years and you helped me solve my biggest hurdle - all my stories were premise novels. It was wonderful when that light dawned.

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    1. Oh cool! Glad I was able to help there.

      I think that's still historical, but let me check with some historical writers and see who I can find to chat about that :)

      You might also try Jody Hedlund's blog. She writes historical and may have talked about this.

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    2. Sounds a bit like you could call it one of these, depending on context:

      Magic-free fantasy
      Alt-earth fantasy
      Alt-earth historical/Alternate history

      It depends on how you've made your world. For instance, is it taking place in the land of Systropia which somewhat resembles/is inspired by feudal Japan, or are the countries called things like New Ottoman Empire (and do they have other details that specifically place them on Earth/in the context of Earth's real history)? By historical setting, do you mean, "Alternate version of Italy in 1215," or do you mean "medieval-inspired fantasy setting"?

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  12. I'm confused about how to classify a coming-of-age story. Is "coming of age" a genre? Is it a plot within a genre? Someone might say, "This book is a coming-of-age mystery." Does this mean the book is a mystery (genre) with a coming of age internal story? What if the internal story is the main story and the external mystery is B-story? Do we still classify its genre as a mystery?

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    1. It's a subgenre of fiction, so yes. But it can be paired with other genres, such as a paranormal romance.

      The genre is whatever the core conflict is. So, if the book was all about solving the mystery, it would be a mystery. If the book was all about solving a problem that allowed a character to "come of age," it would most likely be basic coming of age fiction. If the book had the protagonist coming of age while solving a mystery, it would depend on what the resolution of the book was. What's more important, solving the mystery, or the coming of age part? Tone, style, voice would also play a role.

      When in doubt, think about what other books are like it and where would you see it on the shelves in a bookstore. If it has more in common with books of a certain genre, odds are it's that genre.

      Also remember that coming of age is more of an adult novel thing. All YA/MG is basically coming of age, as that's the point of most of those stories (grin).

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  13. How great of you! I have tons of questions, but as usual, I'm blank the second someone asks what they are! :)

    One I do remember is that more agents are asking specially to include a bio with the submission package. One agent said it's because they are trying to find out more about you and gage personality. What is your take and how does one write a bio without writing creds?

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    1. Bios are pretty standard, but you certainly don't have to add them if you don't want to. Writing credits are different from a bio, so those would be added separately if applicable.

      What they basically want is a little bit about you. Read any general author bio and you can get a feel for the style and things to include. If you have life experience or hobbies that relate to the type of book, that's great and shows experience in that area, but even if it's just a quick, "I have two kids and three dogs" that's fine.

      Gail Carriger did a nice post here on the author bio that could give you insights. She treated hers like an opportunity to hook readers, but it could apply to queries as well as novels.

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    2. Thanks. I'll look that up. I didn't realize there were seperate things.

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    3. They're frequently in the same paragraph, a'la "I live in Georgia with my wife and two kids, and enjoy hiking on the weekends. I've had short stories published in Analog and Clarksworld." But if you have no credits, you'd leave them out.

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  15. I struggle with internalisation in first person POV. I've just purchased and read your show don't tell book that actually really helped me out in this area, however my internalisation still feels a little off. Do you have any resources on this? I've read your internalisation 101 post. Maybe it's that I don't know my character well enough to get a feel for how she would describe what she sees, feels, hears etc. I don't feel like I'm quite there with her voice and I think big part of it comes down to her thoughts (or lack thereof).

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    1. Oh good, I'm glad it got you started in the right direction. Right now all I have is what's on the site, but it's a topic I plan to do a Skill Builder book on at some point. I can certainly talk specifically about first person, since that has its own share of challenges.

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    2. I, personally, would highly value a skill builder in this area. I've sought out other books that deal with internalisation but feel like first person POV is never adressed thoroughly (sometimes barely at all) and doesn't get the same air time as third limited. Looking forward to reading and learning from more of your skill builders in the future. Thanks, Stacey.

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    3. Thanks, that helps. There are so many topics it's good to know what folks are looking for. Some are easy (like SDT and conflict, the next book) but then it gets a little harder to choose.

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  16. This may sound too general to address with concrete examples, but I'll post it anyway with the hope that others struggle with it too: when passages are mainly dialogue, how can you add in little touches of (modest) action?

    For example, I'm writing a sci-fi novel. In certain passages where the crew is trying to devise a weapon to defeat the enemy, I have not found a way to insert much action. The story's protagonist is the ship's captain, and she cannot be personally involved in things like weapons building. So I'm reduced to having her call meetings to discuss strategy, which can only maintain our interest for a page, at most.

    Is there any trick, mental or otherwise, that one can use to break out of the trap of no-action scenes? When this happens, I find myself going perhaps too deeply inside her head to reveal her fears and discontentment since blocks of nothing but straight dialogue would be boring.

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    1. A good topic actually. A quick answer for now, is to look for places to have them discuss strategy when other things are also going on. For example, maybe they're busy and don't have time for an official meeting, but they can talk during the lead up to a battle or the like. (Such as, they're ready to face the enemy, but they have three hours until the ships reach each other to be able to fire).

      It can be hard to find place where the conversation fits naturally, but if you look for scenes that have a little action, but not much else really driving them (small goals), then you might be able to add this discussion during it to strengthen the entire scene.

      Another option is to find the worst possible place storywise to have this conversion and force it (plausibly) to happen there :) Instant conflict!

      Hopefully this made sense! If not, I'll explain more.

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  17. I'd love a how-to for writing scenes. I always freeze up when it comes to actually write them, and that's pretty depressing after all the outlining I did before... I have the story lined up, I know and love my characters, but I can't walk them through the scene. Perhaps it's a psychological problem, but I haven't seen a scene workshop comparable to all those (fantastic!) "outlining your novel" workshops on the net. I need someone to walk me through writing a scene, please!

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    1. I did an article on just this, so I'll point you toward that to start. If this doesn't help, let me know and I'll do another post :)

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/01/thoughts-on-writing-scene.html

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    2. Thanks. That IS helpful. However, I've been hovering at that point, too - knowing everything I want to write, but not being able to put the words down. I guess it's a case of "revise while your draft," or even "revise BEFORE you draft," and then getting blocked. I had similar problems with writing official letters, and I got around by telling myself, "well, just write what you actually WANTED to say, and then polish afterwards." Which is how you draft LOL so I don't know why I'm having such problems with it. Write the what, then worry about the how in revisions. Now I only have to do it. Sigh.

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    3. Ooo, sorry to hear that. I know some writers who've done NaNo to force them to write and not look back, so maybe try that? They do have "NaNo camps" a few times a year.

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    4. I did NaNo camp in July, and while it was a great experience doing it, it didn't produce a draft that I could use afterwards LOL. I am writing again since last week, so I'm cautiously optimistic that I have found a process that works for me.

      In the meantime, I found an article of yours here that was even more helpful than the one you suggested, so I thought I put the link here for others who may have the same problem as I:

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2009/05/if-at-first-you-dont-succeedthen-you.html

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  18. I hope it's not to late to post here... A question regarding point of view. I have a YA fantasy novel with multiple points of view, however, the protagonist's point of view is dominant. Despite this the book opens (or will open, once it's rewritten) in a secondary character's voice. Is this 'cheating' the reader? Should I have 'rules' or clear patterns when changing the POV? Originally it was when the main character was asleep or unconscious. Having the multiple views does seem to solve a lot of the issues I was having with the story. Thanks :)

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    1. Not too late :)

      It's not cheating unless you're doing it to deliberately trick the reader (and not in a good "misleading them with red herrings" way).

      You can do anything you want, as long as you establish your rules early on so readers can follow. For example, if you change POVs every five chapters or so, stay consistent with that. If you change all the time, start early. Let readers know what the style is right away.

      What you want to avoid is anything that will jar the reader or make them feel tricked. For example, if the book starts with another character and they spend five chapters thinking that character is the protagonist, and then suddenly someone else is, they may feel that they invested all that time in the wrong person. Or they might care more about that character than the protagonist, and lose interest in the story.

      It also depends on what you're doing. If you're crafting an omniscient POV, then changing characters is the norm. But if you're focusing on one character's story, and only showing other POV to basically dump information readers can't get otherwise, it might come across as an infodump.

      Try this article I did for more things to consider when changing POVs. It could give you some more tips:

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/03/changing-views-take-second-look-when.html

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  19. Thank you for your response. Originally the story was omniscient POV but it just feels 'right' with multiple POVs. I will take a look at the article when the kids are asleep!

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