Discovery vs. planning: character backgrounds

Many writers divide themselves into “plotter” and “pantser” camps. But… there’s more to fiction than plot. If you have a plot and no characters, nothing happens. There’s nobody to move the plot forward. So, today we’re considering “discovery writing” versus planning in developing characters.

The joy of discovery

There is joy in discovery. The things we discover about our characters and ourselves while writing are valuable. Some writers discover the key points of their characters after “just plunging in” and start writing.

In the discovery writing method, we just start with a hook: a name, a detail, a situation, or a need in our story (if we’re being honest); and then we build out the character as we go. The direction the story goes guides us in building and developing our character. Caracter creation by the discovery method (hopefully) occurs naturally as part of the flow of our work. We’re discovering, not cranking things out formulaically.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it (or at least one of them…). We’re not cranking things our formulaically but did we notice we fell into a cliché? Did we notice we have three other characters who are basically the same person with a different name? That’s pretty formulaic…

To write a readable story, we’re going to have to do some work. If you’re a discovery writer, that work comes in on the backend. It comes in rewriting and correcting mistakes we’ve made.

The value of planning

Sometimes there’s value in putting that work on the front end. Lately I’ve been experimenting with a character outline guide I found in Writing the Paranormal Novel. I’m finding helpful.

To be fair, I have done a first draft of the book (or I should say the first draft of a book. The reality of the situation is a bit more complicated ). But, in developing the project, I’m bringing in some new characters; meaning I’m testing on both new and existing characters.

Outline/guide has really helped me explore the characters more deeply before throwing them into the story. It’s helping me see options and story possibilities that might not have occurred to me otherwise (they didn’t occur to me previously on the existing characters…).

Yes, there is a possibility of things becoming too fixed and mechanical. It is possible to crank out a bunch of backgrounds without really doing the thinking. And that doesn’t get you anywhere. It doesn’t save you any work and may create more backend work when you realize you have to go back and do the revision anyway (score one for discovery writing).

There are also things in the ‘standard’ profile that don’t work for every character. The education section makes sense for my wizard/detective. It works for my priest character. And it’s a must for my main villains (I really need to know how they know what they know). But for my street kid character? Let’s be honest, he can’t even spell the word…

And then there are things like the romance section, especially the question about their first sexual encounter. Again, for some characters it makes sense (my main villains especially). But my priest is celibate and always has been. The street kids, that gets uncomfortable. The 11-to-13-year-old siblings with the potential to have their own (mid-grade) side book…? Cringe… NO! I ain’t even thinking about that one.

There’s real potential in doing some character planning beforehand, but there’s the danger of “just going through the motions”, the danger of getting things too locked in, and then there’s the stuff that just doesn’t apply.

Developing and keeping track of it all

Some of the best advice I’ve been given is that we should change whatever we need to in the story in order to make it work (and to make it publishable). If we’re going to cling to a particular detail or idea to the detriment of our story, it’ll kill the story.

Again, this is something that doesn’t just apply to plot. Whether we’re discovery writers or we start out with detailed character dossiers, we have to adapt (and to let our characters do the same). We have to make sure our characters are consistent. If they change, it should be a logical change based on what’s come before, not just a change of convenience.

This suggests that we need some way of keeping track of our characters. That dossier is going to happen, even if it just lives in our heads. The questions are: when do we build it? And how do we use it?

The best option is to follow a middle ground. Not everyone is going to need a dossier. Not every character who needs one will be apparent at the outset. We may decide to ‘86’ a character we’ve built a dossier for (we can save it for another project…). But by having a dossier for our main characters, we can save ourselves some work, make our characters more consistent, and find options and ideas that might take us a couple of rewrites to discover otherwise.

You’ll probably have at least one or two characters in mind at the start. Build a dossier for them (even if it’s only in your head), but recognize you may need to update that dossier as things go. Events will happen and new information will be discovered. It’s just like real life. We update as we go.

We might not need to stop and develop dossiers for every side character. If the cheese monger or ‘guy in traffic’ character is only there for one scene, we probably don’t need a dossier. But if that character keeps showing up, we probably should stop and figure out who this person is.

The truth is often somewhere in-between the extremes. We won’t know all our characters at the start, but we have ideas about at least one… We may be planners or pantsers, but internal consistency is vital to creating a publishable story (even if the internal consistency is hard to see on a first read).

For character design, it’s more a case of do you ask yourself “what am I building” or “WTF did I just build”. We need to be flexible with our character dossiers. We can build them before, during, or after our first draft. But they should probably exist before the end of the second. It’ll help us get the story right in the end.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Take care of your characters. I’ll take care of mine. And of course, see you next post!

Life and writing: some realities

There comes a time when the HVAC is down, the repair guy has to fix a flat before he can get to the service call, your finance person is “behind”, the deadlines are imminent (or a little past… (or both)), your partner “isn’t quite getting it”, and the in-laws feel the need to have a two-day visit to ‘chat’ about tacos, your sister-in-law’s kids, and neighbors you might have met once or twice 20 years ago. It happens, even to me. But you have to pick your battles, remember your values, and make the choices that lead to lasting value.

Writing is something we choose to do… But it’s also a compulsive behavior (if we’re being honest). If we’re going to turn it into a way of life, there’s a lot of work involved. There’s also a lot of work involved in just living. And there are relationships to be maintained as well.

Sometimes choices have to be made. The secret is, to avoid blinding ourselves with anger and doubt, look at what’s really going on, and make the choices that best support the things we value (even if they aren’t the choices we want to make).

We call it the writing life (in part) because, as teachers and storytellers, writing is our life. Yes, there will be interruptions and irritations. But we will find a way through. That’s part of who we are.

We aren’t meant to be alone. Human beings (even those introverts known as writers) are by nature social creatures, no matter how we may choose to interact. Sometimes we have to put down the pen and silence the keyboard for at least a little while, because the human element is called for.

Sometimes life happens and there will be interruptions. We’ll get past them. It’s what we do. The false belief we can’t get past our obstacles is one of the biggest obstacles we face. Dismiss it. Ignore it. Do whatever you need to do. Then, work your way past (or through) the obstacles in your way and get back to what you love. That’s the way.

It takes work, but it’s possible, dear reader. I wish you well with your challenges. And, I’ll see you next post.

Great News!

Well dear reader, some good news dropped this week… Registration for the 2022 LDSPMA conference is open! There’s a lot of good (as in good for the world and good for writers) going on at the conference. So, check it out and I’ll see you next post!

Dear Latter-day Saint Writers, Editors, Artists, Performers, Designers, Filmmakers, Marketers, Leaders, Songwriters, Students, and Others Interested in Publishing, Media, and the Arts,
 
The best networking, learning, and professional-development opportunity for Latter-day Saints interested in publishing, media, and the arts is better than ever! The Eighth Annual Conference of Latter-day Saints in Publishing, Media, and the Arts (LDSPMA) will be held both in-person (from October 20–22 at the BYU Conference Center in Provo, Utahand virtually (with live virtual sessions in September and October as well as two months of virtual availability of in-person and virtual session recordings). Our theme this year is “The Faith to Create.”
 
And if you register by April 30, you can get an EarlyBird 40% discount, which is the best offer that will be available at any time. We are limited to 400 in-person registrations—which we expect to sell out—so we encourage you to register soon.Register HereNew This Year!We have added a Music and Visual Arts Track to the conference in conjunction with expanding our scope and recently renaming our association “Latter-day Saints in Publishing, Media, and the Arts.” The arts will be covered in our keynote sessions, in 8 breakout sessions, and in the LDSPMA awards.
 There will be 23 live virtual sessions broadcast via Zoom between September 6 and October 11 on Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, and Saturday mornings—and recordings of these sessions will be available to conference registrants until January 31, 2023.  
 Recordings of the 4 in-person keynote sessions and the 42 in-person breakout sessions will also be available to conference registrants until January 31, 2023. 
 A Praiseworthy Awards Gala will be held the evening of October 21 at the Provo Library Ballroom to honor Latter-day Saint creators. See below for details.
 We are offering a reduced-price virtual-only ticket for those who cannot come in-person. The virtual-only ticket will include live access to all 23 virtual sessions, livestreams of the 4 keynote addresses, and recordings of all 69 keynote and breakout sessions.
 Keynote SpeakersJennifer A. NielsenNew York Times bestselling author of the Ascendance Series, the Mark of the Thief Trilogy, and many other historical fiction and young adult and children’s fantasy titles. Jennifer has won numerous writing awards, including the Sydney Taylor Book Award and multiple Whitney Awards.
 Mauli Junior BonnerPioneering and award-winning songwriter, vocal director for platinum-selling and Grammy-award-winning artists, and author with his wife Chantel of the children’s book A Child of God. Mauli recently wrote, directed, and produced the award-winning film His Name Is Green Flake, which follows the lives of free and enslaved Black pioneers in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
 Jane Clayson JohnsonAward-winning broadcast journalist and anchorwoman—first at KSL-TV, then at ABC News in Los Angeles, and later at CBS News in New York City, where she co-hosted (with Bryant Gumbel) The Early Show. Jane’s first bestselling book was I Am a Mother, and her most recent bestseller is Silent Souls Weeping, which is a frank exploration of her devastating experience with depression.
 Gerald N. LundKnown especially for The Work and the Glory series and The Kingdom and the Crown series and among the most-read authors in Latter-day Saint literature—his books have sold over 3.5 million copies. Elder Lund served as a General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 2002 to 2008 in the Second Quorum of the Seventy.
 7 Tracks with 65 Breakout SessionsSpeakers also include over 80 other leaders in publishing, media, and the arts who will share best practices, life lessons, and industry knowledge in 65 breakout sessions. These sessions are organized into 7 tracks: Publishing TrackMedia TrackMusic and Visual Arts TrackFiction Writing TrackNonfiction Writing TrackEditing, Design, and Production TrackMarketing TrackEach track will have 6 in-person sessions on October 21 and 22 as well as 2 or more virtual sessions broadcast between September 5 and October 11. Recordings of all 65 of these sessions—as well as the 4 keynote sessions—will be available to conference registrants until January 31, 2023.See breakout sessions and speaker biosInteractive SessionsThese interactive ways to network, learn, and receive feedback are one of the most useful aspects of the conference:Fast Pitch: Pitch your book project to agents and publishing company representatives and receive immediate feedback. (Both in-person and virtual Fast Pitch appointments will be scheduled.)
 Online Presence Audit: Get a professional evaluation of where you land in a Google search and how to improve your visibility, message, and clarity. (Available in-person only.)
 Quick Critiques:Receive instant feedback on your manuscript from professional editors. (Both in-person and virtual appointments will be available.)
 Networking Groups: Meet other conference attendees in your niche, connect with industry leaders, and find collaborators and potential critique group partners. (Both in-person and virtual networking sessions will be held.)
 Mass Book and Media Signing: Meet many conference speakers as well as other authors and artists participating in the conference; view their books, audios, videos, and other works; purchase any you are interested in; and get them signed by the authors and artists. (Available in-person only.)                                  
             Thursday Deep-Dive Workshops on October 20The keynote sessions, breakout sessions, and interactive sessions are all included in regular conference registration.
 
In addition, you can register separately for any of our 10 half-day, hands-on, action-learning workshops held on Thursday, October 20, led by top professionals as instructors. These deep-dive workshops will be available in-person only and will not be videorecorded, available virtually, or broadcast later. You can attend up to two workshops (one in the morning and one in the afternoon).

Morning Workshops (8:30 am–12:30 pm)Fiction Writing. Taught by Cheri Pray Earl, BYU creative writing instructor and Honors Professor of the Year as well as author of adult and young adult novels.
 Developmental Editing for Fiction. Taught by BYU editing and publishing program professor and former LDSPMA president Suzy Bills.
 Building and Marketing a Music Business. Taught by Blomberg Music Productions founder Daniel Blomberg and music composer, marketer, and business coach Douglas Pew
Afternoon Workshops (1:00–5:00 pm) Historical Fiction: History or Fiction? Taught by award-winning authors and popular creative writing instructors Dean Hughes and Chris Crowe.
 Power Storytelling Techniques to Captivate Readers: The Hero’s Journey, Writing Juicy, and the Three-Act Play. Taught by New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Bridget Cook-Burch.
 Developmental Editing for Nonfiction. Taught by BYU editing and publishing program professor and former LDSPMA president Suzy Bills.The remaining 4 workshops will be announced soon.See Workshop DetailsPraiseworthy Awards GalaNew this year is the Praiseworthy Awards and Fundraising Gala on Friday evening, October 21, at the Provo Library Ballroom. This celebration will include: A catered dinner.Recognition of our five 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, with three of them sharing highlights from their journeys and careers.Announcement of the winners of Praiseworthy Awards—and bestowal of the awards to recipients—in over 20 different fiction, nonfiction, multimedia/audiovisual, and music categories.An engaging program with emcees, spotlights of winning works, and music.You can purchase a ticket to the Praiseworthy Awards Gala (with or without registering for the rest of the conference) on our registration page.
 Register by April 30 to Get the 40% EarlyBird DiscountThis 40% discount applies to both the main conference and the Thursday deep-dive workshops.Register NowWe hope that you will register for this unique conference. Please share this message with others who might be interested in attending.
 
Steve Piersanti
Annual Conference Director, LDSPMA

P.S. Whether or not you’re able to attend this conference, we hope that you’ll join LDSPMA. Membership is free. Latter-day Saints in Publishing, Media, and the Arts (LDSPMA) is a nonprofit networking and career development organization. Started in 2015 and run almost entirely by volunteers, our mission is to empower Latter-day Saints to spread light and truth in publishing, media, and the arts. LDSPMA is not endorsed by nor affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Writing and project management

As writers, we’re learners, discoverers, and doers of the work. And if we want to be published, really published with stuff people actually read, there’s a lot of work to do. True, you might have a tweet or blog post go viral with little effort. But a book, article, or post that people come back to year after year, the ones people don’t forget just because the next viral thing happens, takes more effort.

A successful writing project (even a blog post) is a project. You could just sort of mess around with it. But usually, success comes with focused effort. And whether you’re working alone or you’ve got a cast of thousands, success requires someone to manage that project.

What is project management?

Project management is the part where you’re keeping track of what’s going on. What parts need to be finished before the other parts begin? When do we need all of that done by? Who should talk to whom to make sure it happens? Knowing, keeping track of, and communicating with the team about that stuff is project management.

The project manager doesn’t have to do it all (unless you’re a “one-man band”). But the project manager keeps an eye out to make sure those who do the work are doing their part well, on time, and within budget (hopefully).

To adapt a bit from Franklyn Covey, leaders make sure you’re in the right forest and point which direction to go; project managers make sure the workers have what they need to get through the forest and are heading the right direction.

Why does it matter to writers?

Well, a book, and even more so a series, can be a pretty big forest. Even an article can have lots of components. There are words to be written. But then someone has to edit those words (developmental and copy editing…). Pictures, charts, and drawings may need to be created, edited, and incorporated. Somebody needs to figure out where, and to whom, the project is going to be submitted. Somebody has to do the submitting. Somebody at the publisher’s end has to accept the manuscript. More editing happens. Page design. Physical/electronic production of the work… Oh, by the way… Did anyone bother to format the manuscript the way the publisher wanted? There’s a reason (several actually) that publishers ask for a particular format setup.

Any or all of those things can go wrong. And that’s why successful writers need to be successful project managers. They need to make sure everything’s happening, heading in the right direction, and arriving where and when it’s needed.

Ok… It matters. So, how do I do it?

Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? First question: are we talking about a project that’s underway already or one we’re just starting?

If we’re starting fresh…

If we’re just starting, start with a plan. Take the time to figure out what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, who your audience is, who you’re submitting the thing to, what parts and steps are involved, and whose help and buy-in you need to do all of that. It’s ok if you don’t have the whole team yet. You probably don’t have a publisher acceptance before you have a manuscript (you definitely don’t if you don’t have a proposal or pitch yet). But you need to have some idea of when and how you’ll bring these folks in and then take the steps to include them.

Even when you’ve created an initial plan, the planning doesn’t really stop. Many parts of the process require individual planning and communication. You have to talk to the people involved (even if that’s just you) and make sure everyone’s seeing the vision. You will also need to watch for and adapt to challenges that happen along the way.

That means when you’re doing the work, you need to be monitoring the work, both what’s happening and what’s coming up so that you can navigate the challenges that happen. This can be a split focus thing. If you really can do it all yourself good for you. If not having a partner or teammate to help you see the forest through the trees may be helpful.

Oddly enough, for those of us who want to complete more than one project in our lifetimes, once the project is done, it isn’t really done. There’s one last step: review the project and discover the lessons learned that will help you in planning and doing the next one.

What if things are already under way…?

Well, it’s not the end of the world. Coming in with some project management may save the project. Or at least prevent more problems. But you have your work cut out for you. Things are already in motion. Some things might be in a position where you can’t put them on hold, and yet all those beginning steps need to happen.

You’re going to have to put in extra effort to catch things up. But the increased probability of success is often worth it.

Obviously, I didn’t cover everything about project management in the last 800 words… There are thousands of pages (tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands) that have been written about project management. And every project and every project team have their own quirks and nuances. Even if I had presented the “one way to project manage”, you’d still have to adapt it for your project.

The point for today’s post is that project management is necessary for successful writers. How we actually do it is a subject for future posts, and planning for our individual projects.

And with that, I hear my fiction partner, my rules team, my non-fiction team, and my conference committee all trying to reach me (there are questions…). Good luck with your writing, dear reader. Make a plan, follow your plan, and I’ll see you next post.

Spell concentration

Following up on my game design post, I’m presenting some thoughts for a game and world I’m building. Since I’m building off the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition open-source rules, it could work as a variant 5E Dungeons and Dragons rule but is definitely not an official Wizards of the Coast rule. (For those preferring non-game content, don’t worry. I’m not giving up on non-game stuff (some is coming up next week))

The old rule

In 5E Dungeons and Dragons, concentration serves as a limiting factor. There are many things you can do while concentrating, but you are prohibited from casting another spell that requires concentration; you might lose concentration if you take damage; and you lose concentration if you lose consciousness (that last one’s kind of obvious).

In general, this is a pretty good idea. I’d agree with it. Except when I look at the list of spells that require concentration. There are problems, and it’s not just me being salty about someone limiting the magic I can use.

So, I did some thinking and came up with a better way.

My variant

Some “concentration” spells make sense; you’re actively controlling the spell throughout its duration. You really should have to concentrate on those. But other spells don’t need active direction, yet they still get hit with the concentration tag.

Yes, the game designers are trying to limit the number of spells in effect and some of these can be pretty powerful. But it doesn’t seem right to “nerf” a player’s spell casting abilities for eight (8!) hours just because they cast a particular spell.

Being both a fiction writer and a gamer, I understand the concept of a spell caster investing energy into maintaining a spell. But the current system asks for too much. So, here’s my solution…

Some spells, the ones you actively direct during their duration, will continue to function under the current concentration rules. Other spells, the ones which should take a bit more power to maintain but shouldn’t suffer the current concentration penalty, will be granted Passive Concentration status.

Passive concentration still limits the number of these spells in play (though it expands the number possible…), but allows the player to continue spell casting and otherwise doing what a magic based character does during the game.

It works like this: each player may have one (1) active concentration (the regular type) spell in play or several passive concentration spells (any number up to their intelligence modifier (generally 1-5)).

Potential effects

Following my suggestion, a player will still only be allowed to use one actively controlled spell at a time. But the player can have several spells that they’re feeding ‘just a bit’ of power into instead. The player is still limited. But they can do more with their magic at one time.

The balance is that the player loses more when their concentration breaks. If they break concentration by taking damage, casting an active concentration spell, or too many Passive Concentration spells, they are losing more magical effects. The risks are higher and the impacts (good and bad) are higher, too.

This change would make magical characters more powerful. But it fits my world better, and it’s what I’m doing. Game design (as discussed in my last post and as will be discussed in my book review in a couple of weeks) is the process of deciding what tradeoffs to make and how to balance the game. Since this change increases risk as well as reward, I think it’s a pretty well-balanced rule. So, since it fits my world better, why not use it?

Even non-game fiction writers are occasionally forced to deal with issues of balance. After all, if your hero’s vastly more powerful than your villain, where’s the fun? You have to balance things so the villain can harm (or at least annoy) the hero. So, this kind of process is important, even for writers who don’t game.

It’s something to think about…

Naturally, since we’re dealing with a game system and commenting on someone else’s rules, there’s intellectual property involved. I’ve respected the property of the creators and owners of Dungeons and Dragons by not directly quoting their material here and limiting my comments to a single relevant concept that had to be reviewed to present my idea. In the same way, I expect others to respect my intellectual property rights and the rules variant I’ve created and presented here.

Good luck in your writing, dear reader, and with balance in your life. I’ll see you next post.

Games as Story

I’m a fiction writer. I also have a thing for games, particularly roleplaying games. So, I’ve been reading about game design.

An essay I read this week struck me as funny. According to the author, games aren’t fiction. This is hilarious given that we’re talking about fantasy role-playing games! I’m planning a review of the entire book later, but I needed to say something about this one now.

Yes, they are different

Ok. Yes. Writing a book and designing a game aren’t the same thing, which is what the author meant. A story is under the control of the writer, with relatively little interference. But a game involves other people and (usually) random dice rolls. There are genuine differences in the use, writing and structure of the work.

But, unless your game is replicating events that actually happened, any story attached to the game is still fiction. And an exact replay of actual events isn’t really a game either…

But… There’s still a story

Games aren’t (usually) fiction stories. But, with the exception of games like checkers, there’s still some element of story involved. In board games, the story falls in the setup and rationale for the gameplay. In video games, it’s the same. But in video games, you’re often taking part in a prescribed series of events (which the designers might have drawn out on story boards…). And in first-person shooters (FPS) and roleplaying games (RPGs), you’re actually taking part in a story.

Player investment and participation are part of what makes writing a book and a game different, but it’s still taking part in a story. Particularly in the case of RPGs. Whether tabletop or online, roleplaying games require story. Many elements of story are integral to the game, even if all you’re doing is running around a maze killing things.

Why, when, and how we tell the story matters

Story matters in games, especially RPGs. Designing and writing a game isn’t the same as writing traditional fiction. But that’s because there are other people taking part in the storytelling process (or taking part differently at least).

The more I read about game design, the more I see a variation on a familiar theme. The book I’m reading has many familiar topics and elements, as I’ll show when I review the book. The differences are in the expectations and participation of the audience. When we have more people involved in the storytelling process, we have to adjust the way we think and write (less novelist and more playwright perhaps…)

I’ll follow up on this after I’ve finished the book, dear reader. But for now, good luck in the things you write and the games you play. And, I’ll see you next post.

Writing the Paranormal Novel approachable, straightforward, and useful

Writers need to be readers as well. And, if we’re going to be readers, it’s natural for us to talk about what we read. This week we’re looking at Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. Is it perfect for everyone? Probably not. Is it useful for people who want to learn about writing? I’m inclined to say so…

Who’s it for?

Writing the Paranormal Novel is meant (obviously) for those who want to write a Paranormal Novel. I wouldclassify the target audience as new or inexperienced writers. However, more experience writers can benefit too, particularly if they’re new to fiction or writing paranormal books.

What’s it good at?

The book covers a lot of nuts-and-bolts basics of writing and submitting for publication, with a focus on paranormal material.

One of the most interesting things it covers is defining what’s meant as a paranormal novel. A paranormal novel is relatively real-world, not high fantasy or ‘whiz jet’ science fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy writers can learn from the book but expect the examples to have a lot more ‘smart’ phones and compact cars than laser cannons or knights on horseback.

To me, the most useful thing in the book is advice about using themes in your writing. It got me thinking about how to work more efficiently on some of my non-paranormal stories, as well as the magic infused ones.

What isn’t it good at?

The book’s on the basic side of things. You won’t find the inner secrets of Steven King (try reading On Writing (By Steven King…)). You’re also not going to find a Dungeons and Dragons style “Monster Manual”.

The book will teach you about researching monsters and weirdness. It will teach you how to make your monsters and weirdness distinctive. But it won’t tell you what specific weirdness and beasties you need to include in your book. I’m actually ok with that, because you should make those decisions for yourself.

Would I read it again?

Would I read it for the first time, knowing what the book is good at? Probably. I learned a thing or two.

Would I read it a second time? Probably not, in the near future at least. I’ve mined the information I need from it and I’m ready to move on. I am holding onto it, in case I need to refer to it (or loan it to someone else) in the future.

Like I said, as writers, we need to be readers as well. We need to read in genre, out of genre (why I picked the book up), and about writing. Currently, I’m reading a book on game design (for reasons that will come up here in the future…).

What books are on your list, dear reader? Share if you want to. And either way, I’ll see you next post.

For our nonfiction friends

I got my start in fiction. I love doing fiction. But today’s post is for those who focus on non-fiction.

The writing conference/organization I work with (LDSPMA) is doing a seven (7) week nonfiction workshop. And, even as a fiction writer, this thing really catches my attention.

What is it?

The workshop is a seven-week virtual workshop featuring live Q&As, prerecorded classes, and personalized review and feedback on non-fiction material.

Who’s it for?

This year’s non-fiction workshop has a definite focus toward beginning and intermediate level writers.

Most interesting (to me) is the “I have an idea, how do I develop it?” track. It’s something we all ask ourselves eventually (you have to if you want to succeed). Beyond this track, there is a definite faith and family focus, with tracks for memoirs, family history, Gospel/spiritual topics, and the personal essay.

If you’re at all interested in these things, it’s worth a look. And, eventually, these topics come up (even for us fiction folks!).

What’s in it for participants?

As I’ve said, there are classes and Q&A sessions (opportunities to gain information (even individualized questions and answers)). There are also genre specific two-hour-per-week live classes. There’s the opportunity for individualized review and critique of your nonfiction manuscript. But… then there’s the big benefit…

Shadow Mountain Publishing (a supporter of the workshop) is offering a benefit that I’ve never encountered before (and if they ever offer it for fiction, I’m there already!). All participants in the workshop get a “get out of the slush pile free card”!

Yep! I said that! If you attend the workshop, and then submit a non-fiction manuscript to Shadow Mountain during 2022, you get head of line privileges. Your manuscript bounces past the early filters and into the hands of an actual editor (the kind who can pick up a book and see it through to publication).

This is very useful since there are also rumors Shadow Mountain is going agent only soon…

Where can I learn more?

This post isn’t “the whole deal”, dear reader. If you’re interested in the opportunity, check out the website (last I checked, they’ve extended early bird pricing through March 5th, 2022).

If you decide to go for it, let me know how it went. If it’s not your thing… Not a problem; I’m just sharing. Either way, I’ll see you next post.

The Great Gatsby

Previously, on Forever Mountain Publishing… I talked about reading Shadow of Ender and Enders Game as part of my ongoing study of character representation. I also said I’d read The Great Gatsby. Well, I did and I’m glad I did.

There’s a lot you can learn from reading other people’s stuff. In the case of The Great Gatsby, the book’s been used as an example in several books about writing and editing. So, it’s worth the read both for what you can learn from the book itself, and to help you understand the “About writing” books that reference it.

Spoiler alert! We’re talking about a book here, and in doing so we may (Will…) give away certain details about said book…

It’s the narrator’s story (even though it’s Gatsby’s)

It is. Nick, the narrator, starts off talking about his own life and why he went to New York. He mentions Gatsby, but we don’t actually see Gatsby in the first thirty pages. And, we have to wait even longer before Gatsby actually says anything. Gatsby dies before the book ends, and the last portion of the book is Nick telling about life “After Gatsby.”

Gatsby is absolutely central to the story. It couldn’t happen without him. And his story is told. But the book’s about how Gatsby and his choices affect those around him as much (or more) than it is about what happened with Gatsby himself.

Gatsby the “source of conflict”

Gatsby is the center of the book. The choices and moves he makes have a major impact on the characters around him, and the whole social scene of his area. He takes heavy blame for what happens in the end. But it’d be more accurate to say he’s the catalyst of conflict than the source. Yes, he’s going to get a lot of the blame (speaking of misplaced blame, check out my Words Mean Stuff post this week).

A lot of the story’s conflict was already present. People were already cheating on their spouses, drinking, and acting like shallow little mayflies before Gatsby speaks his first sentence; and the survivors are still doing it after Gatsby’s body is in the ground. But it was Gatsby that brought things to the flash point. The events of the story might never have come to pass if it weren’t for Gatsby, even the stuff he wasn’t directly involved in.

Nick’s story, because Gatsby couldn’t tell it.

As I’ve said, It’s Nick’s story, not Gatsby’s. Gatsby’s story is in there, but Gatsby couldn’t tell it, not in a way that would satisfy the author or his readers. Gatsby does a lot of hiding, including hiding from himself. He couldn’t tell the story.

Nick could tell the story. But he couldn’t tell Gatsby’s story without telling his own. Gatsby had a profound effect on Nick’s life and Nick is a pretty realistic character. He couldn’t tell Gatsby’s story without telling his own.

The Great Gatsby (the man and the book) has a lot to teach us. It’s a fast read (barely over 100 pages), even though you have to get used to the 1920s writing. And it has 1920s writing. It’s an artifact of its era. But even that has something to teach us. How would the book be different if it were written now?

I’m actually not answering that question. It’s too big for one post, and I want you to come up with your own answer. This post is about learning from books and I want to encourage you to do that (If you come up with something good, leave a comment).

This blog is about writing and learning, I wouldn’t bring something here if it didn’t have value. So, I encourage you to read The Great Gatsby (or reread it) and learn from what’s there. I’ll also encourage you to keep writing. And of course, I’ll see you next post!

The value of time

This week we’re talking about a very helpful tool, one overlooked by many outside the “grind a day” world: an hourly rate.

Hourly rates for non-hourly people

There are those that’ll tell you the hourly wage is for blue collar folk. And, the hourly wage might be, but the hourly rate is for anyone who values their time. Actually, that’s what setting an hourly rate for yourself does: it assigns a minimum value to your time.

Once you’ve set a value on your time, you can use that number for decision making. No, it doesn’t mean you have to punch a time clock. What it means is you can estimate how long a project or process will take, and then use that information to make decisions, like how much money to ask for in a bid, or decide whether that project is worth hiring out or doing yourself.

As writers, we know this won’t work for novels and extensive projects like that. But what about editing gigs? Reviews? Ad copy? Estimating based on an hourly rate will never work for the big labor of love projects (we do those for things besides money), but for the other projects, the ones that pay the bills in the meantime, it can be helpful.

Knowing how we value our time helps us make other decisions too. “OK… My favorite drink is on sale for fifty cents less at the store across town. I’m in the market for two cases… Is it really worth my time to drive all the way over there or should I just buy it here?” If you know what your time’s worth, you can make the best decision possible.

In my situation, it’s probably not worth it, unless I’m planning to go that way anyway…

We can use this process for more than snacks and drinks too…

Time investments and when to call for help

There are a lot of factors that go into deciding to hire an editor or a book designer (or a plumber, or a mechanic, or…). Do you have the knowledge to do it yourself? Do you have the tools? How long will it take you?

My car’s last oil change cost me about $40.00. It takes my oil change guy 10-15 minutes. It would take me longer. I don’t have a garage so I’d be laying out in the street. And, I’d have to buy some extra tools. That one’s a “no kidding” I’ll hire it done for many reasons. I’m better off paying someone to do it.

I also enjoy eating. Specifically, on ‘big project days’, I like to order from a Chinese place about five miles from the house. I figure I’d have to stop working, drive the 10-12 minutes to get there, order, wait for the food, then drive another 10-12 minutes to get the food home, where I can resume my bad habit of eating while I work. I could do that. Or, I could pay a 15% fee and have the food delivered (about a buck fifty on my usual order). I don’t need any new tools. I’m not stuck lying in the street. But, my time’s worth more that the service fee. So, unless I need a break, I guess I’m having it delivered.

These decisions can get really important in writing work. Not necessarily from a money saving stand point (though that can happen), but from a time saving one. And, possibly, from a quality of work standpoint.

Depending on what’s needed, a freelance editor’s typical rate is about the same as mine. So, hiring one won’t save me money, but by having the editor edit one piece while I’m writing another, I’m getting a lot more done in a day. 

Would you like to see the money come in this year, next year, or a few years down the road? Paying the price to hire an editor can speed up when you get paid. Hiring a cover designer can save you time, software fees (generally, excellent covers don’t come from freeware…), and give you a better product than what you might create yourself. Hiring a proof reader might be cheaper than doing it yourself (on a time spent basis), and spot that typo that you’ve gone blind to (We alll have tham).

An hourly rate isn’t just for “work a day” labor types. An hourly rate is a tool we use to help us decide what we’re working on, how we work on it, and sometimes how much to charge for what we’re doing. It’s a planning tool, not a limitation.

Think about your hourly rate if you have one. Think about setting one if you don’t. And, I’ll see you next post.