A game about how writing a book sucks out your soul

Bucket Detective

Writing is hard. Maybe hard enough to want to do anything to make it easier — like helping a weird cult that is up to their necks in some evil business.

That’s the premise of Bucket Detective, an hour-long dark-comedy game about a crummy writer who, desperate to finish his (terrible) book, agrees to help a cult in exchange for divine inspiration. It’s $4 on Steam or Itch.io, and … yeah. That’s kind of awesome.

I wish there were more games about the writing process and the insane lengths authors sometimes go to, honestly. I didn’t particularly care for The Novelist (a game about a novelist and his family struggles), and I’ve heard mixed things about Elegy for a Dead World (a game about writing fiction).

Alan Wake is a decent game about an author — and while it doesn’t focus on writing per se, it’s a fun Stephen-King-esque thriller about a guy whose wife goes missing, and pages from a book you don’t remember writing start showing up as you search for her.

Are there any games out there about writers/writing that you’ve played? Were they any good?

Planning a scene in your novel

Writing a novel

As I start my next manuscript, I’ve been toying with different ways to plan scenes.

Quick aside — go read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll try to post soon about why it’s so good. She has a lot of smart stuff to say about common writing myths and getting story right.

Anyway, back to scenes. I’ve done a lot of groundwork for imagining my world and characters, and I know my novel’s trajectory. But I’m an underwriter, which means I struggle with word count. I need ways to keep myself on course and incorporate that world-building little by little into the actual writing.

So I ask myself these questions to prepare for writing a scene, and so far I’ve found they work like magic:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • Whose POV will this be and why? What’s their emotional state going in?
  • What is the goal, conflict, and disaster?
  • What is the reaction, dilemma, and decision (emotional reflection)?
  • What is the twist that will keep people reading, or how does the problem get bigger?
  • How do things go wrong for the protagonist?
  • What choices does the character make here?

And then, once I’ve answered those:

  • What is the setting, and how can I set the scene as I begin?
  • What description the five senses will help me set this scene?
  • How can I anchor the characters’ behaviors to their past in this scene?
  • How can I deepen the characters’ misbelief (flawed worldview) in this chapter?

By this point, I’ve usually come up with a lot of ideas and gone way deeper into my brainstorming than I anticipated, so I’m ready to begin. But just in case, I sometimes also answer these last two questions:

  • What about my world can I reveal, or dig deeper into? What can I sprinkle in?
  • How else can I ask “why” to make the story richer and motivations more believable?

Since I use Scrivener, anytime as I’m writing that I hit on something I need to research more (including terms or general world choice), I leave myself a note on the side and keep typing.

Your turn. How do you prepare to write a new scene?

The importance of vulnerability

Nobody wants to show themselves failing. Yet that’s exactly what Kim Chance did in her latest video.

Let’s redefine that: Kim isn’t actually failing. She’s acquired a literary agent, which means she has a better chance of succeeding than the vast majority of writers whose manuscripts never get accepted. (See my interview with Kim here.) But the feeling of failing is admitting that you don’t have it together, that things might not work out, and that you’re scared shitless.

It takes a lot of courage to say, “Hey, I might not pull this off.” It takes even more courage to take a step closer to success, in front of the whole world — like Kim has on YouTube — and then fall short. We all go through this. But nobody wants to say, “I’m in the middle of the messy part that could be my failure,” with everyone watching. We only want to say, “I made it to the other side, and whew, it was tough, BUT I DID IT.”

Yet when Kim exposed herself — cried on camera, ditched the bubbly-happy persona she usually shows us, and let herself be completely vulnerable — she sent a message that was way more powerful and inspiring than any “We can do it!” speech. Because she showed us we’re not alone.

Of course, we all realize other writers have doubts and anxiety like we do. But to actually see that? Totally different.

“I guess what I lie awake thinking about is, what if it doesn’t happen?” Kim said. “What if [my book] Keeper doesn’t find a home? What if it doesn’t get published?”

She said, “I’ve been on submission a couple months now, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.”

That wasn’t the only fear she shared. She challenged herself to write the first draft of a new manuscript by June, before her baby is born. But she admitted she’s made no progress since that announcement.

“I am crippled with this fear that I can’t write a book. Isn’t that dumb?” she said. “But I just have this fear that I’m a one-hit wonder. I wrote Keeper and that was awesome, but what if I can’t do it again? What if that was it? What if that was my bout of creativity there in that one book, and now I’m trying to write the book of my dreams, the book that I would absolutely die to write, and what if I can’t do it?”

Yes, yes, a million times YES. I recently finished my second book last year and started querying it, and I’m already paralyzed by this fear. How can I move on to begin another project after this last one took two years of my life — hundreds of hours of time and energy — and nothing might happen with it? And that’s the norm. How do you find the motivation to do that all over again while facing rejection after rejection, or no response at all, from agents about the last book you wrote? How do you not get defeated by that? How do you not judge yourself by each and every “no”?

Kim said, “What if I let everybody down? What if I let [my agent] Caitlin down? What if I let you guys down? What if I let my family and my friends down? What if I let myself down? What if everything I’ve been telling myself is a lie?”

The stakes for Kim are even higher than they are for many of us. Personally, I don’t often share, outside of the internet, that I write books. That I spent night after night, week after week, working on a manuscript. Because as soon as you do that, people expect results. They don’t understand that the normal process is very slow-moving, that some authors don’t get published until their third or fourth or tenth book — and others, never at all. People think no news or bad news is a sign that you’re doomed to fail, that you’re a hack writer, that you’re chasing an impossible dream. And it’s hard not to believe them.

Kim said, “I know that somewhere out there, there’s somebody watching this who’s shaking their head, saying, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t want anybody to feel alone during this process. So as defeated as I feel right now, I’m gonna tell myself … I’m gonna keep telling myself what I’m always telling you guys. That dreams don’t work unless you do. And that no matter how hard it gets, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep fighting.”

Every part of a writer’s journey is tough, she said. And it is. It absolutely is. “Writing a book is hard,” Kim said. “Querying a book is hard. Writing a sequel is hard. Being on submission is hard. Being a writer is hard, guys! … But it’s one of the best jobs in the world. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. And I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

Me too, Kim. Me fucking too.

2016 is almost over. You were awesome.

Buffy Awesome

New Year’s Eve is a night of promises. “This next year is going to be awesome. I’m going to lose weight, read a hundred books, and run a marathon.”

Chances are, we’ll break those promises and then spend the year feeling bad about ourselves. How about we change that?

My new tradition is not to make resolutions on NYE, and not to beat myself up over what I failed to do this past year, but instead to give myself credit for what I accomplished.

My biggest feat? I finished a book. My second book.

I may not yet be a published author, but I Am an Author. I wrote a thing, revised a thing, and did all the work in between. Hey, I’m fucking proud of myself.

I learned new skills this year. I stepped out of my comfort zone more times than I can count, both for my day job and in my personal life. And I finally conquered my dread of revising. I figured out that the “secret” is that there is no secret — it requires you to roll up your sleeves and dive in and get really messy, and you’re wrestling with your own Watcher in the Water that you can only partially see and it’s horrible, and you want to give up and cry uncle, but eventually you survive.

I don’t always feel awesome, but I deserve to, and so do you.

Watcher in the Water

Right now, I’m querying, and it’s mostly a lot of waiting and worrying. In January, I’ll be tackling feedback from a beta reader, and I’m sure that will fill me with doubt and cause me to flail and agonize like I’m battling a baby water watcher, but there’s nowhere to go but forward. I’ve done the whole tango before. I can do it again.

And regardless of whether I find an agent and a publisher, I’m going to do the dance again, from the very beginning. I’ll start another book. And this time, I’ll try out some new moves.

That monster won’t know what hit him.

My favorite books this year were all by women

Kristen Bell sloth

It’s December, which means soon we’ll have a whole new year of books to look forward to. What’s your favorite book that you read in 2016?

Without a doubt, mine is …

Uprooted

Okay, Uprooted is from 2015, but … sigh. It’s so beautiful. And powerful. And enchanting. It’s the best fantasy literature that I’ve read since Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle (my favorite series). I don’t often encounter genuine page-turners, but this is one of them. GO READ IT PLEASE.

Also, yay for positive female friendships!

I also have to give a big shout-out to Liane Moriarty, who’s my new favorite author that I discovered this year (her books are secretly amazing), and Ava Jae, who’s my new favorite debut author (go read her too, please!).

I finished my Goodreads challenge this year. Did you?

Let’s not be lit snobs

Illuminae

Recently, I borrowed Illuminae from the library and found this note inside: “So cool! But is it literature? Is this the future of novels?”

I promptly took a photo and then crumpled the note into a ball and threw it away.

Because ugh. Who cares about these things? I doubt that authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff were writing the book and thinking to themselves, “Gosh, is this literature? Are we writing literature right now?” and patting themselves on the back.

My fiancée and I rolled our eyes. We started making jokes. We pointed at our cats and said, “So cool! But is this cat? Is this the future of cat?”

The future of cat

The note has a tone of condescension that basically says, “Gee, I see why you like this. Space is nifty, especially to teens like you! But let’s think seriously now. Is this good? Is this actually worth our time?”

Because literature = good and non-literature = bad, obviously.

As for the “future of novels” jab, that’s in reference to Illuminae’s unique format. It’s a story told through emails, interview transcripts, diary entries, Wikipedia articles, etc. These resources 1) make you feel like you’re right there, living through this cataclysmic space event with the survivors, and 2) create the intentional feeling of a historical record. It’s an objective collection of very subjective witness accounts.

So look. Whoever wrote this, I have a message for you: Stop patronizing teens (and oh hey, adults too) for what they want to read. Stop acting like the content and the format is so inferior that you have to question, “Golly, is this going to be our standards for novels now?” because you’re not reading Dickens or Twain or Joyce. No one is worried about this except for you.

I threw your note in the trash as a favor to the readers that matter — the readers who love to read, the teens who read, the adults who read, and who shouldn’t have to feel bad about that no matter what books they choose.

Please don’t be a lit snob.

How to use Scrivener minimally to write a novel

Scrivener corkboard

I will never, ever go back to Microsoft Word.

Scrivener is a godly writing platform at a stupidly affordable price (under $50). But dozens of writers are hesitant to switch over because it’s “complicated.”

Let me ask you this: How many things do you know how to do in Word? Maybe … 10%? 20%?

Scrivener is easy. I know it can do some pretty fancy things, but even at bare minimum, it’s amazing. You absolutely do not need to pay someone to teach you how to use Scrivener.

Here’s the gist.

Your novel consists of “folders” and “texts”

When you start up Scrivener, you make a new project. Choose “Fiction” and then “Novel.” Give it a title, and voilà.

Your chapters and scenes all go in the sidebar so you can quickly switch between them. Select “Manuscript,” right-click, and then add a new folder for a chapter. Right-click on the folder and add a new text for a scene.

From there, you can drag folders and texts around to put them in whatever order you want. I give my chapters a name, but I just list scenes as “Scene 1.1,” “Scene 1.2,” etc.

(The below screenshot is from the Mac version, but I’ve used the PC version as well and they’re both equally good.)

Scrivener Mac

You only really need two modes

Wherever your three “Group”/”View” mode buttons are (these vary on PC and Mac), toggle between them to try them out. One looks like a blank sheet of paper; another looks like a notecard. There’s a third mode, but don’t worry about it.

These are the only two modes you need. Actually, you only need the mode that’s a blank sheet of paper. It’s the only one I use.

Scrivener mode

Delete a bunch of stuff

Delete everything under “Research.” Delete the “Template Sheets.” Delete “Sample Output.”

You can always recover these from the Trash if you want them later.

Scrivener binder

Write in any font you want

One thing I really like about Scrivener is that you can write in whatever font or size you want. None of it matters when you compile the document because Scrivener formats your manuscript for you.

And that’s the single best reason to use it.

“Research” is for everything else

I took out everything in the pre-formatted “Research” section and made folders for:

  1. “Characters” — literally, profiles on each main character
  2. “World-building” — magic rules, politics, geography, etc.
  3. “Plotting” — For me, this consists of things like chapter and act word counts, a table of macro problems to fix, scraps and random brainstorming, ideas for a sequel, and discarded chapters.
  4. “Other” — For tentative query pitches, a sample query letter, a novel synopsis, an elevator pitch, thoughts on theme, and so on. It was super helpful to see those in one place, side by side. (More on that later.)

And that’s it

I don’t really use the corkboard (digital index card feature) in Scrivener because I do a lot of planning in a good old-fashioned paper notebook before I even open a word document and start typing. That’s just my style.

You can go a lot deeper with Scrivener, but at the end of the day, it’s no more complicated than using Microsoft Word. Probably less so, because Word is annoying and dumb.

When you’re ready to print or make a non-Scrivener file type — a Word doc … or, on second thought, anything else, like a Kindle file or PDF — all you have to do is hit “Compile.” Easy peasy.

I’m happy to talk more in-depth if you have questions or want to bounce around ideas, so leave your thoughts in the comments.

 

BBC’s The Fall: The character development of Paul Spector

BBC Two's The Fall

BBC Two’s The Fall (available on Netflix) is one of my new favorite TV shows. It follows the life and crimes of serial killer Paul Spector and Stella Gibson, the detective in charge of bringing him to justice.

Paul Spector (actor Jamie Dornan) is one of the most fascinating characters portrayed on TV, so he makes an excellent case study for good character development — whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay or anything in between.

WARNING: Lots of spoilers for The Fall, “series” (seasons) 1-3, so read on at your own discretion.

From monster to sympathetic villain

In series one, we immediately learn who Paul Spector is. He’s a killer, no mistake about it, as we follow his perspective throughout the show. We also learn that he’s a husband and loving father. But his docility around his children only makes his actions that much more heinous and frightening.

By series three, Paul is in police custody and undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The evidence against him is overwhelming, not to mention he’s made a full confession. But as he’s suffering from amnesia (either real or pretend), we see a new side of Paul, a different kind of intimacy. There’s the intimacy of watching him strangle and beat his victims. Then there’s the intimacy of learning about his childhood and how he views himself.

Paul Spector Olivia

He’s complicated, and the beauty of his character development is that complexity makes him impossible to pin down. As the audience, we can only speculate about what’s going on his mind, the same way that Stella Gibson can only speculate (sometimes, perhaps wrongly) about what drives him. Paul continues to surprise us.

Continue reading BBC’s The Fall: The character development of Paul Spector

A lesson on writing tension from a bad horror movie

Sleepaway Camp III

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. So yesterday, my fiancée and I snuggled up together to celebrate with a good old-fashioned horror movie.

Too bad it sucked.

Granted, the first Sleepaway Camp was a great movie. Some kids attend a summer camp and wear ridiculously short shorts, and one of the campers starts offing people. Classic set-up. Sleepaway Camp III was free on Amazon Prime, so we thought, “Why not?”

Ha ha.

Sleepaway Camp III follows the same premise as the first film, only the original killer, Angela Baker, has returned to do away with another generation of kids — half pretty rich teenagers from states like Ohio, half gang members and delinquents.

Angela ends up killing almost everyone in the movie, and it couldn’t be more dull. Even Angela sounds bored doing it. (“Just taking care of business.”)

The movie has no tension, the undercurrent of electricity that makes us care, worry for the characters, and squirm in anticipation. Which provides a pretty good lesson on why tension is important to any story.

Problem 1: Sleepaway Camp III is told from the killer’s point of view.

We follow Angela around everywhere, and we see everything she does. That doesn’t leave much to the imagination. She can’t pop up and scare us if she’s in every scene.

Nothing is unexpected. We know as soon as she gets someone alone what she’s planning. No surprises there.

Problem 2: Everybody else sits around.

Half the characters are “troublemakers,” but no one actually does anything. The black kid listens to rap music. The others fool around in the woods. Wow. Such behavior. Much rebelling. Aside from a fistfight fight early on, no one does much else than insult each other or make out.

Most importantly, no one makes Angela’s life harder in a way that actually counts. The kids tease her by lighting a firework in a fish. She retaliates by murdering them.

Problem 3: Angela’s actions are totally predictable.

Angela’s already a known killer who detests swearing, drug taking, fornicating, and … laziness? So we know exactly as soon as someone makes her hit list. She has no secrets left for us to discover, no mystery to her actions or words, and her moods are totally transparent. She’s practically in cahoots with the audience.

Sleepaway Camp III

Problem 4: No one notices anything.

The campers are separated into three groups, or Angela picks them off a couple at a time. Whenever someone walks by, they wonder, “Hey, where is what’s-his-face?” And Angela makes up a lie like, “Oh, she went back to the main camp,” or, “They went fishing.”

No one actually finds the corpses or sees Angela doing any wrong, so no one suspects her until she wants them to (at the end). There’s no urgency. They’re all so oblivious, she takes her sweet time.

Problem 5: Her only opposition is absent for half the movie.

The only character who stands a chance against Angela is a cop/counselor with a grudge against her. Conveniently, he doesn’t recognize her for most of the movie. When he finally figures it out, she shoots him.

Snore.

How do you add tension to your stories? What’s another example of a movie, book, or show that does tension right?

Here’s a trick for eliminating unnecessary exposition in your novel

dark willow buffy bored blah

As I revise my novel, one of the problems I’m working on is too much exposition, especially in the beginning chapters.

I’ve devised a little trick to help as it’s not always apparent to me when I have too much.

What is exposition, anyway?

Author Beth Amos defines exposition as “information that is offered to readers to help them understand the plot, characters, or setting in a story. Exposition is telling, not showing, and passive rather than active.”

What is too much exposition?

Amos has a nice way of explaining when you’re hitting the danger zone with exposition:

The key is to use it piecemeal, doling it out in small chunks and only when absolutely necessary. To involve readers in your story, you need to maintain their interest and pique their curiosity. You do that by revealing just enough details to make a character or situation intriguing without insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling it out for them. And if you can offer those same revelations through dialogue and action, so much the better.

Think of real life. When we meet a person for the first time, we know nothing about their past, their personalities, or even much of their present day life. Over time, if we continue to be exposed to this person, we will glean these details through the person’s actions, interactions, and conversations. The more puzzling and complex a person seems, the more our interest is piqued. In contrast, when you meet someone who is so fascinated by his own life that he proceeds to tell you every aspect of it in excruciating detail, the impulse is to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Here’s my trick to reducing exposition:

I’ve been rereading each scene and chapter looking only for tell-ish exposition — anywhere I’m stepping out of the “present” to explain something so the reader better understands the deeper context — and I highlight it in yellow. I especially look for exposition that feels like it could be taken out without affecting the action or flow of the scene. In other words, it’s just not that relevant or necessary.

If the highlighted portion is more than two lines, I trim it down to two (or less). But instead of simply deleting the offending text, I cut and paste it into a text document in my Scrivener project that I titled “Scraps.” This way, I’m not losing the extra information — and I don’t forget what it is, either. I’m taking it and moving it to the side, out of the way, so I can recycle it later, or so I can remember why it was so important in the first place.

What this has taught me:

First, it’s made this exercise has made it much easier to spot heavy exposition in my novel. It really is true that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look for everything (character, exposition, description, etc.) at the same time — you need to take a pass for one thing, then a pass for another.

Second, I’ve learned to take out the bits I don’t need and find more creative ways to incorporate them. For example, in my novel, I realized I had told the reader what my character’s unusual routine was each morning when I could have shown her going through it at the start of the story.

What techniques do you use to eliminate unnecessary exposition in your stories?