Words for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well

Almost exactly 365 days after my agent called to offer me representation (Good Friday, 2011), he sent out the first submission package for the novel I queried him with. It’s been two weeks since then, with a little bit of feedback from publishers, but nothing substantial, and I’ve nearly gotten over my willies over the fact that there are editors out there at major publishing houses who might be reading my manuscript right now.

When Authors are on submission, the advice they get from the agents, support circles, advice blogs, and writer buddies is nearly always the same thing:  “Start a new project to keep you distracted.”

Excellent advice to my mind. It allows you to fall in love with new characters, and a new world, and helps you unclench your fingers from around the one that’s now out in the real world, all grown up and out of your control.

I want to follow that advice; to the point where I sent my agent the pitches and/or synopsis for five other possible projects. I am waiting to hear which he thinks would be the best next step. But while I’m waiting for his reply, I ought to be reading.

And I’m not.

This is a bit of a problem, I think.

I want to read. I know I should be reading. I know I should be diving into the world of the genre/age range that I am working in and roll around in the glorious prose, let the soft sweet prickly ends of letters cling to my skin and my hair, let its words whisper past my ears, let its character tenderly pluck my heart strings, let its worlds dazzle my eyes and steal my breath.

But I can’t. I’m scared.

I’m afraid that I’ll read a YA Adventure book and it will be better than mine. It will be steampunkier and more creative, that the world will be more awesome than mine, the MC more likeable and badass, the plot more engaging, the prose more vivid, the villain more shiver-inducing. I am afraid that it will make me throw up my hands and say, “I quit!”

I am afraid that I’ll read a book like mine and decide that there’s no place for mine in the world, because they’ve already done everything I wanted to do, and did it better. I am afraid that I will read a book nothing at all like mine and get resentful and worried that I’m not writing books of that quality in that genre instead.

I was genuinely heartbroken when I saw the first trailer for “Lost in Austen”,  because I had been about 1/3rd of the way through writing a novel with the exact same premise. I punched the wall so hard I left a mark on the plaster, and I mourned the loss of those characters and that world for days.  I was able to salvage some of the characters and scenes for another novel I wrote in the era, but ultimately the new book still feels a little like the puppy your dad buys you after your old dog is put down – wonderful, energetic, loving, but not the same. I really like this book, and am really proud of it, and would really like to sell it to a publisher… but I still can’t help but think of Lost in Austen every time I re-read it.

So, to alleviate this fear I’ve been turning a lot to fanfiction.

Partially, (and I will admit that this is totally shallow,) this is because these are stories that cannot, in any way, compete with my books. These are not professional works written for profit, and these are not works filled with original characters and worlds that might end up being objectively ‘better’ than mine. I am already familiar with the worlds and characters, so I can’t resent them.  I can simply turn off my analytical brain and enjoy the story for the story’s sake, because I have nothing to fear from it.

When I start a new book, I also get slightly anxious that I won’t like the characters or the setting.  I had to stop reading Emma because the titular heroine drove me bonkers. I know that she gets better, that’s the point of the novel, but I didn’t have the patience or enough affection for Emma as she was to want to stick it out long enough. Twice in the last year I’ve begun YA books and left them unfinished because I wasn’t feeling engaged.

One of the joys of reading fanfiction is that I already know I love the characters and worlds. The fandom settles over me like a warm sweater, the jumper from university that I’ve had for ten years, whose little whorls and pulls and pilled pile I know intimately; I know who these people are, I know where and when they are, and I understand the shorthand of place and setting. Even when the story is an AU or a crossover, the core of the story and the characters remains the same, and that is a comfort. It is home cooking, Mom’s favourite dishes, and I know I will enjoy the meal and not be stuck trying to figure out which fork I’m supposed to be using at the fancy new restaurant. I feel safe reading these stories, and the anxiety of not like the setting or the characters is absent.

The third reason I read so much fanfiction is that I find the writing incredibly fresh. Most of the writers are not professionals. They don’t do this for a living. They don’t have word counts to hit every day, and editing deadlines, and editors/agents/marketing teams guiding their projects. I’m not implying that professional writing is stale or formulaic, only that the modes and motivations of creation inevitably must inform the creation.

Fanfiction writers are truly free to write whatever they want, at whatever pace they want. And the way that some of these writers – either because they know the rules and choose to deliberately break them, or because they don’t know the rules and they are breaking them without knowing it and creating something new and glorious – assemble narratives is stunning.

Sure, there’s really abysmal fanfiction out there, and the bad is bad. But there is also some really incredible fanfiction, and the good stuff is fantastic.

Mix in the flexibility of the internet as a medium of conveying the story, and, gosh, wow. I think one of the most gorgeous transmedia multi-layered narratives I ever experienced is “Missed the Saturday Dance” by Zoetrope (Stargate Atlantis).   I love it when authors can string me along like taffy for weeks, months, years while making me anticipate the next chapter of their works in progress. I love the thrill of seeing a new chapter come up online, and the horror of being left at an intense cliffhanger.

Sure, there are tropes and stereotypes, idioms and metaphors and phrases that are recycled within the fanfiction of a specific fandom, but that also happens within the genres/age range groups of published novels as well.  But more often than not, I find myself jotting down phrases, or tricks used to convey character, or ways of displaying dialogue, or ways of playing with the page.

I begin to intensely enjoy the play aspect of fanfiction.

Playing with format, with character, with setting, with narrative, with logic, with the rules. I love how fanfiction can focus on minutiae; how a writer can devote 100 or 100,000 on a character study, how conventions and expectations can be inverted, subverted, and reverted.

I become invigorated. I want to try out some of the things I’ve learned, apply them to my words-on-a-page format of my novels and see if I can make it work. I want to play within the worlds in my head.

And this leads into the creative-well filling of the title of this post.  I often refer to my creativity in water metaphors and symbolism. Words flow down my arms, through my fingers, around the keyboard and onto the digital page. Ideas and characters percolate and boil in my brain until the kettle whistles and all the froth of heat and water becomes a perfectly directed cone of steam, a tight idea ready to be written down. Characters and settings slosh between my ears, and occasionally formulate shards of ice that poke into my brain and stab me with an excellent idea.

At the end of a novel, I feel drained. My metaphorical water table of creativity is so low that even crawling across the desert to drink at my bookshelf oasis is hard work. I lose all ambition to read, I get insecure and my confidence-membrane dries out and cracks. I feel like I will never not be parched again.

I know I should reach for the big gallon jugs of water that are the books of my professional colleagues, but the water bottles of the unique fanfiction writers are so much more appealing, and much easier to heft. I don’t want to work, I want to play.

And then, slowly, as my well begins to refill, I find the strength have confidence in my projects and to be recovered enough to try out new novels. Inevitably I enjoy them and wonder why I was being so silly, fearing to read the books, fearing that I would compare them with mine and find mine lacking. Nobody’s novels will ever be like mine, because nobody else is me. Even if we worked from the exact same character list and pitch, my version of a novel would never exactly match, say, Suzanne Collins’, or Lesley Livingston’s, or Adrienne Kress’.

Or Random Nexus, Velvet Mace, or Sheafrotherdon, for that matter. (Though, holy heck, wouldn’t that be a fun thing to try on Archive of Our Own?)

There is nothing to compare, and nothing to fear, because there is no such thing as “a better novel than mine.” Books and stories are different from one another, not “better” or “worse.”

I become even more hydrated, confident in my own work and adoring, celebrating the work of my professional colleagues, splashing amid the fanfiction, and taking in great gulps of inspiration.

It often takes a while for my well to refill. I read for a month or more, and write nothing. I’ve given myself April off of writing – purposefully holding back so that when I do sit down at the computer on May 1st, the stone walls of my well ought to be overflowing, the kettle just beginning the whistle, and the ice shards poking out all over in my gray matter.

The cycle starts again. I imagine my creativity like those posters in your primary school classroom with the mountains and the rainclouds and the lakes, an endless water cycle. The whole ecosystem is needed, necessary, and sometimes there are dry spells. But sometimes, when the weather is lined up just right, there are also floods.


Reminder: J.M. Frey is giving away eBooks of TRIPTYCH or THE DARK SIDE OF THE GLASS on her Tumblr to fancrafters (fanfiction, fanart, cosplay, etc.) until April 30th. Read about the give away here.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Refilling the Creative Well
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Words for Writers: Unhooking, Tough Choices, and Raising Your Manuscript Up Right

So today, I want to talk a bit about tough choices.

I’m sure you’ve heard the metaphor before, but writing a book is a lot like giving birth. Things gestate, come together, split apart, subdivide in your mind from concepts to characters, from outlines into plots into scenes. You must go through the neck-wrist-back-ache of several thousand hours of keyboard-assisted labour.  And then, after months of carrying this writhing, living, wonderful thing around inside of you, suddenly there is a tiny, perfect creature in your hands, staring at the world with wide-eyed wonder and enchanting everyone you show it to.

Only this little thing, as much as you love it, as much as you think it’s incredible, is totally dependent on you raising it up right. Editing, revising, considering critique – this is like teaching your baby manuscript how to eat solid food, to sleep through the night, how to walk on its own.  When it can stand alone, when it can answer any question put to it intelligently and listen to it when you tell it to do something, then it’s time to pack your MS off to college to succeed or fail with agents in the query process on its own merit. As much as you want to stand behind your baby’s shoulder and take the pop quizzes for it, it has to make the grade alone.

And when your MS has graduated, when it’s off in the real world on submission to publishers, it is job seeking. Its marks from college, the letter of support from its professors and its slick pitch are a CV that has to stand in for the candidate before the publisher ever sees the book. And when the book gets the job, when it gets picked up, it enters the publisher’s editing process, the job training. When it’s ready, when it’s mature and representing it’s employer in the work force, published and on the shelves, you can be proud. You raised your little manuscript right and it is out there right now, courting the perfect reader, curling up with him or her in a cozy coffee shop, spawning adorable little thought-lings in his or her minds, seeding the next generation of book-parents, happily going about the gloriously intimate business of making you a grandparent.

Sometimes, though, your manuscript might have a terrible twos, or a teenaged rebellion. It might drop out of college, tell you it hates you, and resist all attempts at corrective behavior. And what do you do when your manuscript just isn’t cooperating?

Several years ago, when I was in university, my grandfather was quite ill, I’d had a horrible row with my friends, I was being emotionally bullied by someone in my program, and I was feeling cripplingly insecure, I did the one thing I never thought I would have to do – I went to see a shrink.

My family was all quite well adjusted, there was no history of mental illness in my immediate gene pool, and I had a good support network at school. Why, I always wondered, would I ever need to see a psychotherapist?

I am glad I did though. She helped me get my head back on straight, was a neutral party when I told her about my problems who didn’t leap to defend other friends when I complained, and taught me how to grieve – something I don’t think we’re very good at in this century.

But the most important thing she ever taught me was how to “unhook”.

Imagine, she said, that your body is covered with fishhooks. Some only dig into your skin a little – those are the people you know from work, the acquaintances that you don’t mind seeing at the pub but would never call to hang out otherwise. The little people dangling like charms off the end of the hook are quite light. Then there are medium sized hooks – these are your closer friends, your pie-in-the-sky fantasies, your distant family, yoru career aspirations.  They’re a bit heavier, but that’s okay, you can bear them easily. Now imagine big hooks, fat hooks, dug far into your flesh.  Some of them are light, they don’t hurt you… in fact, their pull and tug is reassuring, pleasureable. Those are your family, your best friends, the creative project you adore, the dreams you cherish. But there are other giant hooks, and they’re too heavy. They rip your skin. They hurt. They make you bleed. Those are the people who exhaust and frustrate you, the ones who cling and demand and want you to fix all their problems FOR them, the ones who don’t care how much pain they’re causing. Those are the dead dreams and the dead-end job.

Now, she said. Close your eyes. Pick up the biggest, most painful hook that is dragging at you, ripping into your core. Carefully wriggle it out of your skin. Drop it to the floor. Let it go. Let that person go. Let that annoyance, that aggravation vanish. And here, my dear, is the most important thing for you to remember – don’t ever add more hooks to your skin than you can bare. Adding more hooks will never make the heavy ones feel light.  It is better to strip away than to add.

Better to strip away than to add.

This is important advice that I have held on to. That therapist was a lifeline in a hellish part of my youth, and her advice remains with me today. I am very cautious about who and what I let hook into my skin, who I let pull and who I cherish when I see the charm dangling from the line. And I’ve learned to be ruthless about who and what I unhook.

I nearly unhooked this whole manuscript.  I had worked so hard at raising it up right, but it was being obstinate, loud and angry. My manuscript had become an obese, screaming teenager.  It was behaving a lot like this:

And I’ve tried everything. Bribes. More scenes, more character development, more conflict. I made my main character’s best friend turn bitchy, added an entire new race of beings, layered urban legends and fairy tales onto the world. I paid attention to it and lavished love on it, and it slapped me. I did everything I could, and while it was making the manuscript rounder, thicker, plumper… it wasn’t  making it grow up.

I was indulging it instead of fixing it.

Filled with worry, I had a long conversation with Evan, my agent, and every piece of advice, every suggestion he offered made me more miserable. It was all good, it was all right advice, and if my manuscript had been inclined towards corrective behavior, it might have worked.  But even applying these edits, I couldn’t seem to get my fat, lazy manuscript to start playing outdoors and eating his vegetables. It was all Moreness advice.

I was really ready to unhook it and let go. Evan convinced me not to with a very nice list of what he did like in the book, what was working, and it helped me see the positive, wonderful side of my manuscript, made me remember the chubby, laughing baby under the churlish teen.

And, a few days later, I realized that what the manuscript needed was not More, but Less.

I remembered my therapist’s advice – unhook.

But what had to go? Or worse, who? What wasn’t so vital to the story that the story wouldn’t suffer when it was taken away?

I couldn’t choose. Which element? Which character? Which chapter and all the  following scenes connected to it? My heart broke.

Then I remembered that Evan had confessed that he was less than enamored of one of my characters, especially with his role and dialogue patterns in this book.

I liked this character. He was smart-mouthed, a good shot, and trying to explain his existance was the impetus for a lot of the worldbuilding I’d done.  He was fun to write and great to make the reader mistrust. But, in the end, I realized, he was an indulgence.

He was taking the role of hero away from my MC, doing the things that she should be doing. He was taking the role of the villain away, too, being threatening when fear of the villain should have been paramount, instead of worry about him.

He was, in every sense, in the way of the plot.

Nothing could happen around him because he would prevent/solve the problem before my MC could or my villain arrived. He was a black hole – he sucked up the momentum, the motivation, adn the reasoning in my world, and he was sucking up my time and energy and focus, too.

I still like this character. But, for the MS to thrive and mature, he had to be unhooked.

And that was one of the toughest choices I have had to make. It feels a little bit like killing a kitten. It feels a lot like betraying the friend on whom this character was based. It is terrifying and it hurts.  I mean, what if the whole plot disintegrates without him there to hold up part of the frame? What if cutting him out destroys the fun in the novel, and it becomes too serious for itself? What if taking him away makes the whole novel crumble?

But unhooking the burden of this character and his motivations from the manuscript has made both the MS and I stand a little straighter, walk a little lighter, smile a little more. Because, even though it took hours and hours of talking through motivations and action points and scenes with an author friend… the plot is better. The characters’ motivations are clearer. My hero is a hero.

It’s like… a pyramid that had one too many sides. The structure was actually made weaker by having too many supporting struts, sharing out the weight between them, allowing for cracks.

Now, the villain has matured and grown into his own, spreading like squid-ink into the places that this character has vacated – an honest, ever-present threat, now. The heroine has something tangible to fight against.  The stakes have been raised, and all the Moreness that I added to complicate/explain/fill out the manuscript can be pared back, turned around, and slimmed down. My best friend character doesn’t have to be bitchy anymore, because with this extra character gone, my MC has reason to stay her friend. My MC will have to do the stalking, fighting, and shooting for herself. She will have to defend her choices, and angst over the hard ones, instead of someone letting her do it all for her.

In short, my baby manuscript is growing up.

And the character that I cut? He’s hanging out in the wings, waiting for his turn to take the stage. Because the truth is, he was getting just a little cramped, all jammed into that manuscript, cheek-by-jowl and doing very little. He strolled on out of there happy as you please.  He’s got breathing room now. He’s pushing his shoulders back and grinning his white grin at me, glittering tarnished-penny eyes saying, silently, Oh yes. You and I both know that I was meant for the sequel, anyway.  There wasn’t enough room to maneuver over there. Let me have my space here.

His hooks are still in my skin, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, because he’s finally hanging in the right place. And he is watching, plotting, planning, as another baby manuscript starts to gestate in my mind, waiting for the right moment for that world to be complete enough for him to step inside and become a part of it.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Unhooking, Tough Choices, and Raising Your Manuscript Up Right
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The Power of Sacrifice and the Price of Being the Hero

Yesterday, unable to get my brain to calm down before heading out to a rehearsal, I was looking at fan art pictures of SailorMoon. I will admit I still love that series, love that love is the greatest weapon in the universe, love the adorable outfits that no living human being will ever be able to carry off (physics says “no!”) simply for their beauty and frivolity.

Going back and looking at the things that had inspired me in my childhood helps me to reconnect with the emotional, visceral feelings I had when I first loved them. I rewatch Forever Knight, and SailorMoon, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek to remind myself why I love story telling and what it meant to be a kid enamored with a narrative for the first time, not just the pretty bright colours on the television and the flashbang of distraction. I reread Peter and Wendy, The Tale of the Body Thief, and the Howl’s Moving Castle books for the same reason. It wasn’t reading a story because the teacher told me I had to read a book, but because I loved the story and wanted to feel that same surge of connection over and over again.

When my writer brain won’t shut off, I go and watch music videos or clips on YouTube, or peruse fanfiction and fan art of childhood shows, in order to unplug and just revel in comfort consumption.

(I sound like an addict going back to her drug of choice. I guess I am.)

The image that really struck me was this one, by SpaceWeaver:


SailorMoon FanArt by SpaceWeaver (found on DeviantArt)

As I often do, I paused to tweet about it. I said:

@scifrey: I think what I liked best about #SailorMoon was this: the more powerful Usagi/Serena got, the less human she looked. Emphasized her alienness


Now, I was talking about how inhuman Usagi/Serena got – the emphasis of the fact that she is, actually, not from Earth. She was reborn after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom into a human vessel, they all were, but the human flesh that she wears seems to barely be able to contain the power of her Star Seed, the Silver Crystal, and the vast powers she possesses as the Princess of the Moon.


At the start of the series she is happy go lucky, oblivious to what is hibernating inside of her, and totally human. As the series progresses and she unlocks more and more of her “true” self, i.e. her powers, she becomes more wraith-like, less intimately connected to her friends and family, less of a human and more of an abstract concept of compassion and love.


The “Serena-ness” of her was burned away and replaced by a serene, human-shaped creature who loved passionately but who forgot how much she enjoyed teasing her little brother.


I actually always felt sorry for her human family – how would they deal with the fact that their sister/daughter was not really human at all, had this double life replete with so much sorrow, and that in the end everyone knew that she was destined to die, to give up all that she is, with no thanks for it from the world she has sacrificed so much to protect? That she engages so fully with a life that is past – a melencoly thing in itself because she is living with the dead – and all but divorces herself from her human friends and family. 


Anything that is not “Sailor Business” or people who are not heroes/villains eventually fall away, cease to be a motivating factor in Serena/Usagi’s life and that, I think, is the saddest thing about the show of all. That she becomes alienated from the very people she has sworn to protect.


Though, by the end, she’s not SailorMoon to be a superhero and save the people of Tokyo/the Earth, is she? She’s become the lynchpin in a struggle for power encompassing the whole galaxy, and Earth becomes little more than a staging ground for their wars, humans not much more than cannon fodder and energy sources. That’s sad, too.


And that is some damn gorgeous storytelling.


And then this happened:

@AdamShaftoe: Same sort of thing happened in Tekkaman Blade – The more D-Boy/Tekkaman tapped his power, the more of his sense of self was lost


@scifrey: Never thought of that. You’re right. Same thing again in Eva – the more the kids around Shinji succumbed the less human they became


@scifrey: Is this a predominant theme in anime? Correlation between tapping into a supernatural power, sometimes bestowed scientifically…


@scifrey:…and the loss of humanity? Are there any Japanese myths or legends where this is the moral/theme? Theme of fear of power?


@scifrey: Lots of examples springing to mind – “X”, “Tokyo Babylon”, “Inu Yasha”, “Naruto”, “Bleach” Power is a force for good, or evil.


@scifrey: Seems the pattern says it doesn’t matter that the one gaining power is good or bad. Humanity is in jeopardy regardless.


@scifrey:  Even the loss of humanity isn’t positioned as good or evil. It just it. However, it does come tinged with melancholy.


@scifrey: Like it’s sad that the person has evolved away from more intimate emotion and a vibrant personality, only has abstract emotion.


@scifrey: Sure EternalSailorMoon has compassion for humankind and love for her family/friends, but she seems dimished in her “real” life.


@scifrey: And we’re positioned to hate Seichirou in “Tokyo Babylon”, but can’t help pity him his inability to feel beyond lust and hate.


@Adamshaftoe: Anime writers don’t seem content to let people do good but to show that heroism requires more and more self-sacrifice

@Adamshaftoe: I think it’s an interesting take on Superhero mythology, skipping the Uncle Ben BS for something more tangible.

@scifrey: YES

@AdamShaftoe: D-Boy/Tekkaman is left in a lobotomised cripple not from the combat of his final battle but from his final transformation.


@AdamShaftoe: Of course in his case this ultimate sacrifice comes after watching his brother and mentor murder his twin sister and…


@scifrey: Same thing happens in both “Tokyo Babylon” and “X” – mentor/brother/lover kills sister/lover to emotionally cripple the hero.


@AdamShaftoe: … eventually fighting them to the death to save the Earth. First he gives up his family, then his sanity, then his body.


@AdamShaftoe: And I’m not even touching the biopolitcal aspect of the Radamians colonizing child D-Boy via the TekSet system.


@AdamShaftoe: If we really wanted to melt our brains we could chart this phenomenon through Neon Genesis Evangelion.


@scifrey: It’s def. there.


@AdamShaftoe: Wow, impromptu twitter discussion of the heroic sacrifice in anime with @scifrey #awesome


@scifrey: Yes, I love this stuff…!


@AdamShaftoe: Though I think NGE takes it a step farther with Shinji/Gendo’s transhuman agenda.


@scifrey: I think one of the more fascinating visual cues that this process is happening is the removal of pupil in the character design


@AdamShaftoe: In the sense that the hero is fully formed without a “Yoda” to guide them through their powers? #animechat


@scifrey: And in having no mentor, they somehow fail to retain their humanity and become little more than an abstract emotion embodied?

The conversation petered out there, but feel free to continue in the comments!

(Dude, I am an aca-geek and proud of it!)

JM FreyThe Power of Sacrifice and the Price of Being the Hero
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Words for Writers: The Balance Between Science-telling and Story-telling

The first of a series of guest posts I will be doing over at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, is up.

In this post, I talk about the division among fans between Hard and Soft SF and ask why we all can’t just get along.

Read it here.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: The Balance Between Science-telling and Story-telling
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Words for Writers: How To Structure A Story

Just wanted to say, I’m really enjoying the blog posts that are coming out of the questions folks ask me via email; please feel free to send me any questions about writing, publishing, cosplay, being an acafan, or anything else, and I will be happy to answer as best as I can here!

Yesterday I talked about techniques for how to keep your bum in your seat and your fingers on the keys and finish your book. Today I’m going to get a bit more basic and talk about how to tell a story.

Stories have a specific structure – they are narratives about a character who goes through a conflict.  After 4000 or so years of human culture, we’ve pretty much figured out how it is that we, as human beings, prefer to tell and be told stories. Of course there are always exceptions to every rule, but in general, when you are preparing to write a story, I would consider these three tenants:

#1  Stories Are About People, Not Places


This might seem obvious, but there is a large danger in genre fiction (especially fantasy) that people are so focused on the world building that they forget that the story has to be about one person, a person on whose shoulder the reader rides and whose thoughts we get to share.

What makes a story compelling is the journey we get to go on with that one person, the hero/anti-hero/protagonist.  Something amazing happens to them, and we get to experience it with them.  The villain/antagonist appears to try to thwart the hero, and we want to be a part of the epic struggle they go through in order to achieve their wants and desires.

The world around the character has to be rich, of course, so world build away! The world needs to be filled with scents and sounds and textures, with cultural institutions and a weighty history of culture and civilization – but it has to be revealed through the eyes of the characters.

The great danger of drowning in worldbuilding so much at the beginning is that it becomes an exposition dump that impedes your ability to actually start the plot. The best way to avoid this is to cut it out entirely.  I know, it’s painful to think that your perfectly crafted treatise on why the world is in the political situation that it is would be cut out, but it’s necessary.  Start your novel when the story starts.  Start when the bullet leaves the barrel, when the king is slain, when a messenger from the regent comes and tells the miller boy that he is being drafted for a war with foreign wizards, when the aliens crash-land on Earth, when your heroine meets the love of her life and watches him walk away with another girl, etc.

Put the world building AROUND that stuff.  Use the plot to tell us about the world as your hero interacts with it.

Here’s an example from Pride and Prejudice (CAPs are my comments):

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. AH, OKAY – SO NOW AUSTEN IS GETTING US TO START THINKING ABOUT HIGH SOCIETY MAMAS WHO ARE FIGHTING ONE ANOTHER OFF TO MAKE SURE THEIR DAUGHTERS MARRY BEST.


Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.” OH, LOOK. MRS. BENNET IS A GOSSIP!


“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently. BUT MRS. BENNET HAS A LOT OF EXPERIENCE WITH HIS SILENCES AND HAS SUCH AMAZING GOOD NEWS THAT SHE HAS TO SHARE.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” AH, MR. BENNET IS DROLL AND LONG SUFFERING.

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.” GOSSIP GOSSIP GOSSIP, BUT IT SERVES TO EXPAND THE READER’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD IN WHICH THE BENNETS LIVE. THEY HAVE A NEIGHBOUR NAMED MRS. LONG, THEY LIVE IN ENGLAND, THE NEIGHBOUR DRIVES A CHAISE AND FOUR, SO THAT PUTS US FIRMLY IN A PRE-INDUSTRIAL SETTING, AND THAT THEIR NEIGHBOURHOOD IS VERY RELIGIOUS.

“What is his name?”






So, you see – we learned a lot about the world by simply listening to the conversation. The plot began while we were with the Bennets in the library, we found out immediately what sort of woman Mrs. Bennet was and what her marriage is like, and we already know that the theme of the book is centered around the scramble of the poor landed gentry to marry their offspring off to advantage.

None of the worldbuilding was sacrificed, but the focus was on the character-building instead.  And this is a great set up, because now we know what sort of family the Bennet girls come from – when we finally meet our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, we understand why she is so witty, frustrated with her family life, prejudiced against Mr. Darcy’s cold formality, and full of the vigor of a very busy household.

Now imagine if Austen had instead opened with ten pages about how the Bennets had fallen into poverty, how in England the estates must be entailed to eldest male heirs, and how the great families are all considered cold and aloof to the lower class ones. Boring!  It’s a fantastic bit of world building, but I have nobody to stand beside and care about, nobody to champion, nobody to invest in emotionally.

Tell me a story about a person, start the story when the plot starts, when something in that person’s life is about to change, and I will remain engaged as a reader. And you will remain engaged as a writer, because you will suddenly have someone that you care about immensely and you will be able to keep at writing his / her story.

Stephen Jay Schwartz has a great article on writing strong characters here

Also check out “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman

#2 Stories Must Have Conflict


When I talk about a character, your hero, you must imbue them with a WANT and a FLAW.  Characters are flat and too perfect if they have neither of these things.  The WANT drives the plot, and in fact often begins it, and the FLAW is the way that the character often trips themselves up or are tripped up in their pursuit.

Let’s go back to Pride and Prejudice:
Mrs. Bennet WANTS her girls to marry Mr. Bingly, but her FLAW is that she’s a horrible busybody gossip who embarrasses her daughters and whose behavior drives away the Binglys. Elizabeth Bennet WANTS to marry for love, but her FLAW is that she’s prejudiced against snobs without grounds and her pride was wounded by Darcy’s harsh words.

In Buffy the Vampire slayer, Buffy Summers WANTS to be a regular normal girl, but her FLAW is that she’s the Slayer and her mere existence means that the baddies of the world are attracted to her and so she can’t avoid being a Slayer.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker WANTS to become a Jedi and save the Princess, but his FLAW is that he is Vader’s son and there’s a danger he may switch to the Dark Side. Also, he’s an undisciplined whiney brat, and that is a FLAW he must overcome within himself.

You see where I’m going?  The plot arises out of the clash between those wants and flaws.  Your character desires something, but can’t get it. The story is about your character trying to get that thing.

Author David Nickle; says: “Drama happens between people, not inside people.” And author Laurie Channer says “A Situation is not a Story.”  These are good axioms to keep in mind.

This very informative Wikipedia entry about narrative conflict nicely sums up the seven major types of conflict between WANT and FLAW that your hero can experience:

    • Character vs. Self  – in which the character fights with some part of themselves (In Star Wars, Anikin Skywalker’s ambition and desire overwhelms him and he turns to the Dark Side.)
    • Character vs. Character – in which the character fights with an antagonist who seeks to keep them from getting what they want (In Superman, Lex Luthor wants to protect the world by destroying Supes, and Supes wants to protect the world from Lex Luthor’s evil schemes.)
    • Character vs. Society  – in which the character fights against an aspect of their own culture to achieve their want (In 1984, the protagonist fights against Big Brother to achieve freedom of thought and agency over his own life).
    • Character vs. Nature  – in which the character must struggle against the environment around him to achieve his want (In 127 Hours, the protagonist must  fight to survive being trapped in a cave with his sanity intact.)
    • Character vs. Supernatural  – in which the character must struggle with forces outside of the realm of the norm to achieve their want (In Supernatural, the Winchester brothers must fight against the Yellow Eyed Demon and all his monsters to keep the world safe and discover the truth of Sam’s birth.)
    • Character vs. Machine/Technology – in which the character must struggle against forces of technology to achieve their want (In The Matrix, Neo must learn to master and destroy the computer programs in order to free humanity)
    • Character vs. Destiny  – in which the character either embraces or struggles against their prescribed destiny (In Harry Potter, Harry must become the best wizard he can to avenge his parents and save the Wizarding community from Voldemort. Alternatively, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers tries to defy her role as a Slayer in order to live a normal, happy life)

Another great tool for building a plot out of conflict is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The 12 steps of the mythological hero’s journey is based on the life of Christ, and corresponds to the labours of Hercules, the deeds of Oden, the deeds of Osiris, and many other mythological heroes. There is a reason for this – these are the sorts of stories that we as human beings love to hear, and we as writers love to tell.

You know who else follows the Hero’s Journey?  Buffy Summers.  Harry Potter. Luke Skywalker. Xander Harris. Peter Parker.

Now, I’m not saying you have to follow it slavishly, but this is a great starting point, and a fantastic way to start fleshing out your plot.  Here are the steps (from this site)

  1. The Ordinary World

Here the person is introduced to the audience. S/he doesn’t know her/his personal potential or calling.

  1. Call to Adventure

The call to adventure is the point in a person’s life when s/he is first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not.

  1. Refusal of Call/Reluctant Hero

Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.

  1. Meeting Wise Mentor

Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known.

  1. The First Threshold

This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.

  1. Tests, Allies and Enemies

The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in 3s.

  1. Supreme Ordeal

This is sometimes described as the person’s lowest point or darkest moment. The separation has been made between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. By entering this stage, the person shows her/his willingness to make a change, to die and become a new person.

  1. Revisiting the Mentor

The person revisits the teachings of an old mentor or meets and learns from a new mentor and subsequently returns to the path s/he started on.

  1. Return with New Knowledge

The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult. Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often times he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.

  1. Seizing the Sword (or Prize)

Here the hero confronts and defeats old enemies with the new power and knowledge gained. S/he is able to overthrow or defeat the opponent.

  1. Resurrection

The old self dies physically or spiritually and moves beyond the normal human state. This is a god-like state where the hero acknowledges her/his new stature. Another way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.

  1. Return with Elixir*

The return with elixir is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the elixir is like a plant, or a magic potion or medicine, that supplies immortality. For a human hero, it means achieving a balance between material and spiritual world. There is freedom to live and freedom from the fear of death. This is sometimes referred to as “living in the moment”.

*magic potion or medicine


Of course, the thing with this is that it doesn’t have to be about swords and potions. It can be about marriage and love. It can be about ray guns and spaceships.  It can be about self worth and bullies.

A really great and compact version of a perfect Hero’s Journey is the webseries “The Legend of Neil” (warning! NSFW!).  By some of the same folks who brought you The Guild, the Legend of Neil is about a regular looser who gets sucked into a game of Zelda and must learn to be a hero against his will.  He WANTS to be a hero and save the Princess Zelda (so he can get laid), but his FLAW is that he’s a lazy whiner who only thinks of himself.  It plays out the Hero’s Journey in an entertaining, engaging, and thoughtful way, and it’s also a really great example because it’s a completed story.

Also check out The Key To Writing Damn Good Fiction, Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey
#3 Stories must have narrative structure


Okay – so you’ve figured out who you want to tell the story about, what their WANTS and FLAWS are, the sort of world they live in, and where their major struggle will lay. Now it’s time to actually PLOT the story.

As I said yesterday, there are two types of writers who do this different ways. The Planners make very detailed notes and charts about what is going to happen to whom, in what order, and why.  The Pantsers have a vauge idea of what the thrust and ending of the book should be, and write without a plan, seeing where the story takes them. I’m a hybrid species, where I usually write the ending first and then go back to the beginning and figure out how to get my characters there.

Gustav Freytag put together a graph of what the common conflict-based narrative looks like:

From Wikipedia

There’s more explanation in the link above, but generally the graph can be broken out like this:

Exposition – in which we learn about the hero and why we should care about them. We also learn a little about their WANTS and FLAWS.

Triggering Event – the event in which the hero is forced to do something or go somewhere by an outside force, that sets them on the path of achieving their WANT.

Rising Action – in which the antagonist appears and proceeds to thwart the hero in pursuit of their WANT, usually by exploiting the hero’s FLAWS. The hero struggles here, and often times considers turning back. They then learn or realize that they are the only person who can stop the antagonist and go forward, and usually correct  their FLAWS.

Climax – in which the antagonist is defeated and the hero achieves his WANT.

Falling Action – in which the hero returns home triumphant but ultimately changed, and uses his new knowledge to benefit his society or close circle of peers.

Also check out: “Conflict and Character Within Story Structure” over on the Elements of Writing a Novel blog.


At every stage, ask yourself WHY.

WHY is this character the one I want to focus on?
WHY do they WANT that?
WHY is that their FLAW?
WHY are they struggling with that element?
WHY does the antagonist want to thwart them?
WHY doesn’t someone else do it instead, WHY does it have to be my hero?
WHY do they need to travel there, or not travel there?


Then answer that WHY within the book.

And the scariest WHY of all… WHY do I feel this story needs telling?  WHY do I need to sit down and spend all this time and mental energy on this narrative?

My answers to that WHY are generally – a) because I want to make a comment on this or that thing, and my book will do that, b) I want to start a discussion on that theme, c) I love to tell stories and I want to tell this one, d) I love these people I have created and I want to share them with my readers, e)I might actually go crazy if I keep all these people pent up between the confines of my skull.

Also check out my blog post on Why I Write.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: How To Structure A Story
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