Just a quick post today to share a book I read recently that has changed my approach a bit. It’s called Deep Work, by Cal Newport.
The premise of the book is thus: our modern culture is inundating us with constant stimulation, shortening our attention spans, making it difficult for us to focus on complex and difficult tasks. Our brains start to crave distraction, which is why, when I sit down with the best of intentions to bang out a chapter, the lure of the internet or Facebook sometimes proves too strong. Even through time is finite, I find myself wasting it…ALL. THE. TIME. Newport explains why this is happening, and why really, if we want to succeed as a modern day “thought worker” (as he puts it,) we need to be able to sit down, focus, and perform deep and difficult thinking. I mean, yeah, it seems pretty obvious, but why is it SO damn hard to do?
The book gives specific advice on how to create fixed distraction-free periods of time to perform deep work, by eliminating what he calls shallow work (I’m looking at you, email), and then batching the remaining shallow work into chunks. He also gives advice on how to decide if you need certain tools in your life, like social media, or whether a particular task or commitment is a good use of your time. Instead of asking if you get any conceivable benefit from it, ask yourself whether it is actively furthering your core goals and values. If not, say goodbye.
I found this book at THE right time. I was growing increasingly frustrated with how busy I always felt, but how, even when I was overwhelmed with tasks, I would find myself wasting time, or killing time on the easy stuff rather than diving into the meaty bits that actually required serious brainpower. I felt like this cycle was getting worse and it was driving me nuts. As a lawyer and an author who is basically working two jobs, productivity=sanity. Newport explained how your focus is a muscle that you have to exercise, and just like starting an exercise program, you can’t just jump into the gym and start to bench 350 pounds without really regretting it the next day. The way to increase your ability to focus and fight your brain’s desire for distraction is to constantly work at the skill on a daily basis, slowly upping the amount of time you spend doing “deep work.”
This is all to say two things. One, if you’re feeling like your brain spins in a million different directions yet you can’t get anything done (like I did), this book might be for you too. Second, I am going to be reducing the amount of shallow work I’m doing (i.e., spending time on social media and blogging), to increase the time and energy I invest in writing and editing my books, which is really the bit I love the most. So, I’ll still be around, but maybe not as much. But, on the flip side, this will hopefully mean yours truly will be churning out better books at a faster pace. And that feels like a win to me!
I thought the following article was a helpful primer on the concept of world building, which is key in fantasy writing!
This article is reprinted by permission of the author, Randy Ingermanson.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Going Deep or Going Wide
World-building is a large topic with many aspects. We’ll focus on people groups this month, but keep in mind that it’s not the only aspect.
Generally, novelists choose to go either deep or wide in constructing people groups.
“Going deep” means focusing on one single people group that’s different from the one the target audience belongs to. (For example: Amish fiction, targeted to non-Amish readers. Alternatively, World War II fiction set in Nazi Germany, targeted to American readers.)
“Going wide” means having many different people groups that interact with each other. (For example, The Lord of the Rings has humans, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, wizards, balrogs, ents, and more. The humans have several different people groups—the villages around Bree, the Rohirrim, and the men of Minas Tirith. The elves are likewise split geographically into people groups that live in Mirkwood, Lothlorien, and Rivendell.)
So how do you construct a people group? You have a lot of options, but they boil down to asking two very important questions:
- What do all members of this people group have in common?
- How does this people group split up along party lines?
As an example, in the Harry Potter series, the main people group is composed of the witches and wizards. There is a second people group composed of muggles—non-magical people. But the Potter series goes deep—the witches and wizards get the great majority of the air-time in the series.
- What do the witches and wizards have in common? They all have the genetic ability to do magic.
- How are they split along party lines? They differ in their attitudes towards muggles. Lord Voldemort’s party believes that muggles should be ill-treated. They can be killed, tortured, or harassed at will. Witches and wizards who have muggle ancestors are considered “mud-bloods” and should be repressed. Albus Dumbledore’s party believes that muggles should be treated with decency and respect.
Notice a key point. The storyline of the Harry Potter series is driven by the party differences among the witches and wizards, not by their commonality. Yes, it’s interesting to see how magic plays a role in their ordinary lives, and this provides a lot of local color to the story. But the great arc of the storyline is driven by Lord Voldemort’s attempt to take over the magical world, and Albus Dumbledore’s efforts to defeat him.
The Potter series goes deep, and the story is driven by internal factions within one people group.
That’s not the only option, however. You can go deep but have the story be driven by the battle of your main people group with some other people group. As an example, the movie Independence Day told the story of an invasion of planet earth by aliens who are mostly not seen.
Another option is to go deep and have the main conflict be driven by differences between individuals in the main people group. As an example, an Amish romance novel would feature a single people group and could have no factions at all but could simply focus on the classic romance storyline—will the hero and the heroine get together? In this case, your main work in constructing your people group is understanding the things that your people have in common, especially those things that are different from the ordinary world of the target readers.
When you have multiple people groups that play a central role in your story, you now have a third question:
- What are the central conflicts between your people groups?
In The Lord of the Rings, we have many of these:
- The orcs hate pretty much all the other people groups, and are slaves of Lord Sauron, who is not an orc but created them for his own purposes.
- Elves hate the orcs and will never cooperate with them, but they might choose to insulate themselves from the orcs, giving them free rein. The elves have the right to leave Middle Earth if they choose. Elves are impervious to disease and aging, but they can be killed. So doing battle with orcs has an enormous cost—the elves risk dying in battle.
- Dwarves also hate orcs, but they don’t like elves either, and it’s very difficult to get the elves and dwarves to cooperate to defeat their common enemy. Dwarves have fewer options when it comes to insulating themselves from the orcs. They can’t flee Middle Earth, as the elves can. Dwarves have a love for gold that makes it possible, in principle, to buy their allegiance to the dark side. But they much prefer to keep to themselves.
- Humans mostly hate orcs, but some of them have gone over to the dark side and collaborate with them. Humans look with suspicion on the elves and dwarves and believe that they have to rely on themselves to get anything done. The humans are ready to fight, but they live shorter lives than the other people groups, and they sometimes feel like they are doing most of the work in battling evil, while getting little reward for their trouble.
- Hobbits are barely aware of the wider world. They know that the elves and dwarves and humans and orcs exist, but they don’t think that the wars of these outsiders make a difference to them. Hobbits are happy to keep to themselves and live their own lives.
- Ents are a frozen race. They’re essentially immortal, but they’ve lost the ent-wives, so they aren’t reproducing. They’ve secluded themselves even more than the hobbits in their own little enclave. They’re also very slow to make decisions. But once they choose to fight, they are extraordinarily powerful.
- Wizards are sent into Middle Earth in the guise of men. It’s not clear what wizards are, but their role is to guide the free peoples of Middle Earth to maintain their freedom, but without subjugating them. Wizards can go over to the dark side, and one of them does.
So The Lord of the Rings has one central conflict—Lord Sauron and his orc minions are trying to subjugate the elves, humans, dwarves, and hobbits. The wizards, led by Gandalf, are trying to resist Lord Sauron and ultimately defeat him.
Sauron’s strategy is to divide and conquer. He’s helped by the natural animosities between the elves, dwarves, and humans, and he does his best to boost these animosities.
Gandalf’s strategy is to unify and resist. He must get the elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, and ents to set aside their differences and fight Sauron. No easy task, but if it were easy, there wouldn’t be much of a story.
When Sauron and Gandalf learn that the One Ring of Power still exists, the race is on to find it and use it to tip the balance of power. But the Ring is so corrosive that it can only be trusted in the hands of the hobbits, who are least susceptible to its power.
1) Are people groups an important aspect of your story world? (If your target audience is essentially similar to all the characters in your story, then the answer is probably no.)
2) How many important people groups do you have in your story? (The important ones are usually the ones that contribute at least one primary character.)
3) For each people group, what does this group have in common? What binds it together? (This could be religion, philosophy, geography, customs, or anything else that tends to make different people think that “we are all in this together.”)
4) For each people group, what are the internal factions that tend to destroy the group unity? Why do these factions exist? What drives the conflict between them?
The Kindle version of my novel Moonburner is on sale for .99 cents this week! Don’t miss your chance to grab a copy!
Excuse me while I gush about Vengeance Road, by Erin Bowman! I absolutely adored this book! Plus, that cover!?! Swoon! I want to get the cover designer for one of my next books!
When her father is murdered for a journal revealing the location of a hidden guild mine, eighteen-year-old Kate Thompson disguises herself as a boy and takes to the gritty plains looking for answers–and justice. What she finds are untrustworthy strangers, endless dust and heat, and a surprising band of allies, among them a young Apache girl and a pair of stubborn brothers who refuse to quit riding in her shadow. But as Kate gets closer to the secrets about her family, a startling truth becomes clear: some men will stop at nothing to get their hands on gold, and Kate’s quest for revenge may prove fatal.
Nothing in Vengeance Road is particularly novel or new. In fact, the book seems to run through several comfortable old tropes: girl disguises herself as boy (I did that one in my own book!), teen finds out there is something mysterious about her family after it’s too late, girl can’t stand cute boy until she realizes she can’t live without him, the Western trope of the search for gold and buried treasure. But, but, this is the perfect example of how old tropes can be phenomenal if they are executed well. And boy, are they executed well.
As a writer, you strive for an authentic voice for your character, which is often an ephemeral “you know it if you see it” (as in a failure of voice is only conspicuous in its absence). Not this book. The voice makes the book. The main character, Kate, sounds like she’s from the old west. The way she thinks, the way she talks, the euphemisms she uses. Here’s a quote:
“The bartender’s right ’bout one thing–the place is busy considering it’s the Lord’s day. What the stout fella don’t seem to realize is that a strong drink can numb the soul good as any prayer. Hell, I muttered ‘Oh, God’ ’bout a dozen times after I found Pa swinging, and it ain’t like it brought him back to life.”
The whole book is like that, It’s really fun to read.
Kate’s a great character, tough, determined, single-minded to a fault. She doesn’t want any help in her wild quest to avenge her Pa, knowing that it will probably spell her doom. When Jesse and Will refuse to let her travel alone, the friction between them is both comical and poignant. The romance that blooms between Kate and Jesse is sweet and believable, without being over the top. Waylan Rose and his Rose Riders make passable villains–tough, scary, cruel. We don’t actually see much of them, but they are bad-ass enough fill Kate’s journey with suspense and drama.
Bowman also does a great job of exploring the historical setting of this novel, in 19th century Arizona. The conflict and distrust between settlers and Native Americans plays an important role in the story and an interesting backdrop to the rest of the plot.
My main complaint, if I had one, would be that the plot is a bit predictable at times, especially the big revelation at the end, which I kinda saw coming. But, like I said, that’s not much of a complaint, because the prose and the characters were so enjoyable that I loved every minute of it!
I’ll be honest. One of my biggest challenges as an author is editing. First drafts are easy. It’s pure creativity, dumping words on the page like sand into a sandbox. When you start editing, you have to turn that sand into the complex and well-thought-out sandcastle that will become your novel.
So, I was surprised to find out that there aren’t a lot of books on editing. There are hundreds of books on how to write a great work of fiction, but in my opinion, the pickings on editing are comparatively slim. I tried a few, but none really gave me a method. They gave me plenty to worry and think about while editing: plot, story structure, characters, pacing, dialogue, tense, point of view…but in what order? How do you edit for the macro and the micro issues your novel might have? To actually conceptualize the cohesive whole of those 90,000 words as they currently are, let alone how they should be. None of those books told me how the heck to actually go about self-editing a novel.
When I wrote my first novel Moonburner, I kinda winged it, cobbling together a method from these various suggestions. But before I wrote Sunburner, I found The Story Grid. This book is a game changer! The Story Grid, written by editor Shawn Coyne, gives you a method for full-on nerd-level dissection of your story. While other editing books generally said: make sure the patient doesn’t have one of these ten diseases…this book shows you in detail how to diagnose, and treat, those illnesses, right down to where to put the scalpel. Warning: this book is a tome. It took me months to read it and digest all of the nuggets in here, and by the time I got to the end I felt like I should re-read it all again! There’s that much good stuff in there.
Though this is a huge oversimplification, my key takeaways from the book fall into four main categories.
- Genre: Coyne has a complex view of genre that encompasses more than the categories we typically think of when we think of genre, e.g. mystery, western, sci-fi, etc. He looks at genre through a five-leaf clover of choices the author makes, from content (traditional view of genre) to structure, style, reality, and time. Each of these different elements come with different reader expectations, called “obligatory scenes.” You need to hit the right obligatory scenes, depending on what genre you are writing in, or your book won’t work. I have found these obligatory scenes to be a helpful road map for drafting and editing, to make sure you’re making your readers happy.
Told you! There’s a lot here!
- Internal versus external arc: Books are often described as “plot driven” or “character driven.” But in most well-written novels, you will have some aspect of both an external story arc (plot), and an internal story arc (character) (though the ratios between the two will look different between a James-bond type thriller versus a literary novel). Coyne talks about this in terms of “internal content genre” and “external content genre” and explains how you have to know both (1) your protagonist’s external story arc, and (2) the transformation they are undergoing on the inside. While this may be intuitive to many authors, I found it super helpful to name my internal (maturation plot) and external arcs (savior plot-action genre), so I could keep this front of mind during my editing process.
- Units of story structure: Coyne breaks down story structure into its component parts. The smallest unit of story structure is the beat: which involves five steps–inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. This structure then repeats itself in larger story units: the scene, the sequence of scenes, the act, and the story as a whole. This is a good gut check when something doesn’t seem to be working–often you find that you are missing one of these key elements.
- The Story Grid: The Story Grid is the most exciting take-away from the book for me. The Story Grid is a method by which you set up an excel spreadsheet with each of your scenes, identifying numerous elements: such as character, point of view, value at stake, and change in the scene. You then turn this itemization into the story grid, where you can generate a visual representation of the changes in your story (see below). In my opinion, the key element of this method is identifying the value-shift, or turning point, in each of your scenes. According to Coyne, each scene needs to have some shift in value, to move the story in some direction, either good or bad, otherwise you should cut it. Example: your characters are chatting over coffee. Nothing new or exciting is revealed that effects the plot or their character arcs. No value shift. You need to rework that scene. Versus a scene where your characters are chatting over coffee and one reveals that they’re sleeping with the other’s boyfriend…now there has been a value shift. From trust to distrust and belief to disillusionment. That will be an exciting scene for your reader!
The Story Grid for the middle build of the Silence of the Lambs
I ran Sunburner through the Story Grid (a somewhat tedious process), but I learned that I had about six scenes that were effectively filler, with no real value shift. Often these were scenes where I was trying to reveal some tidbit or backstory about a character, but in the focus on character, the forward progress in my story totally stalled. The Story Grid told me I needed to re-work those scenes (see scenes below where I couldn’t come up with anything to put in the “value shift” column). Obviously, it’s ok to have moments where there isn’t traditional “action” happening in the story, but then revelations about your characters need to provide the value shift. If I include a tidbit about a character because I really like that tidbit but it doesn’t actually matter for the story…well, that’s the exact type of darling you should be killing in the editing stage.
There are a bunch of other story elements that the Story Grid will reveal to you, but identifying these turning points, or value shifts, was the most helpful aspect of the exercise for me.
The beginnings of my story grid analysis of Sunburner
If you’re a fiction writer who has struggled to find a tried and true method of self-editing, (especially large-scale, structural edits), I would highly recommend you check out The Story Grid! It will definitely play a big role in my editing process going forward.
Shawn also has a podcast called the Story Grid where he helps book marketing guru Tim Grahl try to write his first book, as well as a website and newsletter with great resources. Check out both at http://www.storygrid.com.