Comments on Craft: Characters with Conflict

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson CoverThe most interesting characters aren’t necessarily the ones with super-awesome skills or the best backstory. Most times, they’re the ones with the most internal conflict. One example of such a character is Joel from Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist and his co-star, Melody. In this YA novel, magic is restricted to a chosen few, and Joel is not one of them. He is, however, incredibly skilled in every facet of a rithmatist’s skills: geometry and other mathematics, the foundation of the magical system, are Joel’s forte. Melody is a rithmatist but is rubbish at mathematics. Both characters, regardless of any other plot points, are already set in conflict. Conflict is the core of plot, so Sanderson sets himself up for success right out of the gate.

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Leaflet Review: The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson coverThe Emperor’s Soul showcases a fascinating magic system as the clock ticks down for a condemned criminal. When Shai is caught replacing the Moon Scepter with her nearly flawless forgery, she must bargain for her life. An assassin has left the Emperor Ashravan without consciousness, a circumstance concealed only by the death of his wife. If the emperor does not emerge after his hundred-day mourning period, the rule of the Heritage Faction will be forfeit and the empire will fall into chaos. Shai is given an impossible task: to create—to Forge—a new soul for the emperor in less than one hundred days. But her soul-Forgery is considered an abomination by her captors. She is confined to a tiny, dirty chamber, guarded by a man who hates her, spied upon by politicians, and trapped behind a door sealed in her own blood. Shai’s only possible ally is the emperor’s most loyal councillor, Gaotona, who struggles to understand her true talent. Time is running out for Shai. Forging, while deducing the motivations of her captors, she needs a perfect plan to escape …

This novella from Brandon Sanderson was the first full piece I read on the Nook SimpleTouch my husband got me for my birthday. (Side note: I know I’ve never been an outspoken fan of ebooks, but I have to say, with a newborn, I love my Nook. I can hold it and turn pages with one hand, and if the little one is up in the middle of the night, it has a little light to illuminate the screen so I can read while I rock him. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.) It was well worth the money I paid for it, even though there are full ebook novels you can get for the same price. As is typical of Brandon, the magic system is innovative and interesting. The two most important characters, Shai and Gaotona, have very different perspectives on theology, the place of magic in the world, and politics, but Brandon does an amazing job of showing how similar they can be when they’re genuine with one another. There is a great deal of discussion about the nature of beauty and art, and it’s actually quite poetic. As far as intellectual elements go (rather than the fun of character and worldbuilding, which were delightful), my favorite part was when Shai begins to understand how the emperor went from an idealistic crusader to an idle ruler. It rings very true, not just for the characters in the story, but for everyday people in the real world. I have to admit that I skimmed the fight scene. Fight scenes are another thing Brandon is known for, but I didn’t fully appreciate this one. However, you can hear Brandon explain why he kept it in a recent episode of Writing Excuses. (The episode is spoilerific, so don’t listen unless you’re okay with that.) Note: If you’re a big print fan and you decide you’d like a hard-copy version of this novella, go for it. If you buy the print version from Tachyon Publications, just email your receipt or a photo of yourself holding the book to ebooks@brandonsanderson.com and you’ll get a free electronic copy as well.

Weekly Roundup: 9/24–9/30

Gini Dietrich: Control Your Own Destiny

Gini is not in publishing, per se (though she is writing a book). Gini is in PR, and she’s also a business owner and she’s not keen on blaming your shortcomings on the “current climate.” While reading her article, the arguments she was refuting reminded me of common complaints about the publishing industry. She says, “Stop blaming the economy and start working twice as hard to build [y]our businesses”; I hear, “Stop blaming the industry and start working twice as hard on your writing.” Write great sentences; write great chapters; write great books. If you get a pile of rejection letters or your self-published novel tanks, don’t blame your circumstances. Brush yourself off and do it all again, only better. Books are you business. Don’t fall into this human flaw Gini points out: “We’re human beings. We like to have someone/something to blame when things don’t go our way. We’re inherently lazy. And we are always looking for shortcuts and the easy way out.”

(Reading Gini’s blog, Spin Sucks, can also be very informative when it comes to marketing, especially authentic marketing like that championed by a lot of publishing pros. I read it every day, and while I don’t always find something relevant to me, I find relevant posts often enough that I keep reading.)

TABISSO Punctuation LampsTABISSO: Punctuation Lamps

I want one of these lamps. The closing quotation marks are beautiful, but depending on where it was going I might pick the colon instead, because I love colons. (By the way, last Saturday was National Punctuation Day, and I intended to entertain you with a lovely post about the dash family—hyphen, en dash, and em dash—but I was celebrating the first wedding anniversary I’ve spent in the same country as my husband, so I never wrote the post. I’ll write one for you later, because I believe they grant you amazing options for communication and nuance.)

Amazon: The Kindle Fire & Cheaper Kindle Models

You’ve probably already heard about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the $199 color tablet that was announced this week. My thoughts? If I’m getting an ereader, I want e-ink. I personally don’t like backlighting at all. If I’m going to get a tablet, I would probably go with something other than the Kindle Fire. Currently it appears that Amazon is trying to exert the kind of control over its appstore that Apple has over iTunes, but their submission process has been complicated, flawed, and unhelpful for the app company I work for. Apps get rejected before they’re reviewed and then the company gets reminders to resubmit the app—even though the app is already resubmitted. The system needs ironing out before the Kindle Fire can have the same ecosystem as other tablets.

GalleyCat: Kindle Ebook Errors in Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE

This week Neal Stephenson’s new novel, REAMDE, was released with egregious errors in the Kindle version. From what I’ve heard described, it sounds like the file was probably converted straight from PDF and not proofread afterwards. If publishers are charging a premium on their ebooks, like the price they were asking for a brand-new Stephenson book, the ebooks need to be as pristine as print. That said, if you’re a reader who’s getting pristine ebooks, realize that the publishing house probably put extra work into proofing them in multiple formats (.epub, .mobi, etc.), and don’t squawk too much about the price being the same as the print version, because re-proofing those books is probably worth much more than the $2 is costs to print a hardcover.

Amazon has since mysteriously replaced the copies of the book that had been downloaded, once again proving that if your library is on a Kindle, Amazon has control of it. (Admittedly, it was sort of an opt-in system this time, though cryptic, but Amazon has a habit of doing things that control or obsessively track your use of the things they sell you. Case in point: All your web browsing on the Kindle Fire is tracked, and you can’t opt out.)

Shawn Coyne: Acquisitions P&Ls

Editor Shawn Coyne shares an inside look at acquisitions profit and loss statements (P&Ls). He talks about how to pitch in a way that makes money sense (not just story sense) and gives those who don’t work in a publishing house an inside look at how a manuscript goes from a well liked submission to a book with a contract offer.

Writing Excuses: Writing Assistants

This week the Writing Excuses crew talks to Peter Ahlstrom and Valerie Dowbenko, writing assistants to Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, respectively. They all talk about why hiring a writing assistant helps authors manage their ideas, keep up with deadlines, and accomplish assorted writing-related (but non-writing) tasks. In short, they talk about how writing assistants and other hired help give you more time to just write.

Orbit: Spring-Summer 2021 Covers

Orbit put up a blog post with its covers for the 2012 Spring-Summer catalog. Sometimes Orbit’s covers really delight me (I still practically cackle whenever I see Feed by Mira Grant), but sometimes they don’t quite hit the spot for me. (For example, although Brent Weeks’s Night Angel trilogy has good covers, they are also strikingly similar to Karen Miller’s mage series. The branding for the two has too much crossover for my taste.) Which are your favorite covers in the upcoming catalog?

An Alternative to Publisher Branding?

Zebra herdAs Nathan Bransford has pointed out, branding and credibility are two things publishers have a great grasp of. A book gets a boost when it has a certain imprint’s logo on its spine, and the name recognition of some brands can give a debut author a leg up he or she wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own. Since most readers—most consumers, really—tend to go with names they trust, this branding and name recognition is a huge aspect of marketing that indie authors miss out on.

(To any of you who doubt that publishers’ brands have a strong pull, look to Angry Robot, whose bestselling item in their online store is a yearly subscription to their ebooks, sight unseen, and to the rabid Baen readership.)

Personal Branding and Group Branding

Most indie authors strike out to create their own personal brand associated with their name and style, and some of them do quite well—Amanda Hocking and John Locke, to name two. Traditionally published authors also achieve personal brands beyond their publishers—Tom Clancy is a good example there. But I wonder if group branding could be beneficial to indie authors.

Group branding, like that available via publishers to traditionally published authors, gives immense benefits to new or little-known authors as they’re building their own platforms and personal brands. Indie authors start with even less credibility than a debut traditional author, so I believe group branding is something they could definitely look into.

Currently I’m just musing, and I hardly have any hard and fast answers in this regard, but I wonder if some sort of group branding will emerge in indie publishing. A form I believe could be effective is a sort of authors club in which like-minded authors build a reputation as a group as well as individuals. An individual reputation could lend to the overall marketing draw of the group, and the group reputation could lend itself to newer writers.

Authors Clubs in Action

I’ve seen something like this work with writers already out on the market. Though Brandon Sanderson, Dan Well, and Howard Tayler all tell stories in different styles (and mediums), readers of one storyteller will often end up sampling the work from one of the others simply because these three do so much together (Writing Excuses, for one example). Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch share a similar sort of group branding because they’re married and do a lot together. Each author retains an individual identity within the group, but they draw readers to each other by virtue of the group. For example, when Mary Robinette Kowal joined Writing Excuses, my (already existing) interest in her book, Shades of Milk and Honey, grew because she associated with a group of people I was already familiar with.

Indie authors could likely achieve something similar. They could produce something together (like Writing Excuses) and promote each others’ individual works. Perhaps when someone came out with a new book, the authors in the group could all pool together and write an anthology of short stories based in the same world, using the same characters, or centered on the same theme that could be used to drive buzz and interest.

Practical Matters and Considerations

Of course, there a small difficulty of determining how you would go about creating some sort of authors club. The default answer would be to get your friends or writing group together and make that your club. This would present problems if your club needed to do some quality control and one member wasn’t quite up to the same level as the rest of the members; you’d be so tightly knit together that the interpersonal issues could create more drama than it’s worth. You could also try to attract a group of authors who have similar views on what stories and writing should do (entertain, enlighten, enlarge, etc.), or you could create a band of individuals who write with similar styles, in the same genre niche, or on the same topic (which would be especially useful for nonfiction).

Maybe you could try out a few mutually promotional anthologies or blog tours to test out the relationship before really going full bore on it; maybe you already have a group you work well with and you’d just need to share your brains a bit before you could make it work. There would be a lot of things that needed to be ironed out. Do you need a formal agreement? How do you determine who joins your club? How do you control quality and standards? How you do kick someone out? Can you kick someone out, and will you ever want to? Will anyone be “in charge”?

Bottom line, it could be really tricky to create a successful group for branding purposes. The Writing Excuses crowd are all friends, and Smith and Rusch are married, so their groups formed more or less organically. But I think the benefits of having a group pool of branding capital could be extremely beneficial for writers who are looking to strike out on their own. Yeah, “group branding” and “striking out on your own” are a bit paradoxical. But there’s a reason publishing has consolidated into a handful of large groups. It’s because a group has more opportunities than an individual, and in optimal circumstances the group flourishes when its individuals do, and individuals flourish my nature of belonging to the group.

The future and place of group branding in indie publishing efforts is something I’m curious about and keeping an eye on. What are your thoughts?

Image by Worakit Sirjinda via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

3 Common Conflict Killers

Cover of Kidnapped by Robert Louis StevensonOne of the panels I attended at WorldCon was “Creating Gods.” The panelists were Brandon Sanderson, Carrie Vaughn, some people they invited up from the audience, and Patrick Rothfuss. The main thrust of the panel was how to have superbeings (and/or deities) in a story without pushing humans or regular Joes into insignificance.

The bottom line for the panel was that you have to create conflict. You can do this by creating a disparity of powers, giving everyone something they are completely awesome at (even if it’s just being totally loyal, like Sam in Lord of the Rings), not letting powers define who someone is, making the superbeing’s power irrelevant to the main problem, or focusing on interpersonal conflicts.

This all boils down to the same thing: no matter what you add to your story, you have to maintain a level of conflict. This is one of the biggest problems I’ve pointed out in manuscript evalutions. Authors either let their conflict falter, make their first conflicts irrelevant to what the plot later becomes, or never really establish a strong conflict in the first place.

Conflict = Story

Conflict is what drives your story. If you’ve got a character-driven book, the conflicts within that character are the thing the reader is reading about. If you’ve got a plot-driven book, the plot is centered around conflicts, whether they are interpersonal, societal, global, or simply fist-to-fist mindless fight conflicts. Allow me to rephrase the first sentence in this paragraph: Conflict doesn’t drive story; conflict is story.

If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have story. If you don’t have story, you don’t really have fiction. (I’d also argue that most good nonfiction has a story as well. But I won’t get into that right now.)

Common Conflict Killers

If you’re writing a story, you’ll want to be on the lookout for common conflict killers. I’ve seen several types of conflict killers in manuscripts I’ve read or evaluated, and here are a few of the most common.

1. The main character doesn’t need to try. This first conflict killer is what the “Creating Gods” panel centered on. If you make a character too powerful, or even just too competent, there isn’t enough conflict to keep things interesting. If I look at your character, then at the situation, and know exactly how it’s going to go down and I know your character won’t lose anything in the process, then what is there to worry about or root for? There’s no suspense.

This doesn’t mean your character can’t be powerful; it just means they need to have skin in the game and something to lose. Take Superman. Kryptonite is a pretty lame weakness; it almost doesn’t count. But he has something to lose. He cares about people who are too weak to defend themselves, and he has Lois Lane to protect all the time. The WorldCon panelists pointed out that a lot of Superman’s identity stems from those he has to save. Even collateral damage can provide conflict. I’ve read far too many manuscripts where every obstacle the character faces provides no threat of loss.

2. A conflict is forgotten or erased instead of overcome. Relationship conflicts threaten a loss of love; many genre conflicts threaten a loss of life; several gut-wrenching conflicts threaten a loss of self or moral standing. That threat of loss drives a reader’s interest. If you, as the writer, then forget the first conflict you introduce and supplant it with another, or magic it away instead of having the characters sort through it, you have made the conflict your reader invested in irrelevant. Do not do this. If the conflict is irrelevant, don’t introduce it in the first place. Ditching conflicts asks your reader to make an emotional investment and get absolutely no return.

That isn’t to say you can’t have multiple conflicts, or that they can’t interrupt each other. They just need to be sustained and relevant throughout your book. For example, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, the initial conflict is that David Balfour cannot wrest his inheritance out of the clutches of his uncle Ebenezer. That conflict gets interrupted when David is kidnapped and ends up going on a book’s worth of adventures with the Scotsman Alan Breck. However, the conflict of David’s poverty continues throughout the book, and the conflict with Ebenezer returns in the final chapters and illustrates David’s emotional growth. The conflict is explicitly overcome.

3. Promising one conflict and delivering another. The last common conflict killer is one likely more subjective than the other two because it centers on what you promise a reader in the opening chapters of your book. If you set up one type of conflict and then provide a completely different one, you can run into a load of trouble. I once read a manuscript that opened with a heart-wrenching revelation to the main character. The way it was introduced promised that the character would need to relearn how to trust herself and others. This conflict didn’t happen. She jumped right into trusting someone she hardly knew and risked all sorts of things for him. Given the self doubt at the beginning of the book, that path didn’t ring true.

This is hard to spot in your own writing because you don’t always know what you’re promising. Get someone to read your manuscript. Most well read people will be able to articulate when they’re getting something other than what they were promised. Also know that this is sometimes subjective. A friend of mine read Kidnapped and thought she was being served a family conflict and felt betrayed when she got a coming-of-age adventure story. I thought I was promised a coming-of-age story, and I didn’t gripe much when it stopped being a family drama and started being a Highland adventure.

Subjective or not, a disjoint between your promises and your delivery can kill your story. My friend hated Kidnapped, even though she could recognize many good things about it. That one broken promise broke the book for her.

So cultivate your conflict. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

Weekly Roundup: 9/3–9/9

Cory Doctorow: “Why Should Anyone Care?”

Cory Doctorow shares his thoughts about working at a bookstore and how that opened his eyes to how the book-producing industry chugs through the years. He also provides some practical thoughts on self-publishing based on his own experience. My favorite quote: “I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. ”

Stacy Whitman: “Some Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice”

The editorial director of Tu Books shares her thoughts on voice in general and the middle grade voice in particular (I thought this article would follow up last week’s Wordplay podcast quite well). She focuses on how hard humor is, and why it’s really bad if your writing displays the difficulty of your undertaking.

Nathan Bransford: “Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints”

Nathan Bransford presents a post about how publishers lend credibility to authors associated with their brand name—and why that credibility may be squandered on lesser-known imprints and specialty groups. (I’d like to comment more on this, but I recognize more imprints than most people should, so I can’t really say which imprints are actually adding brand-name power to a book.)

Wordplay Podcast Episode 2: “Character, Plot, & Protagonists”

This week the Wordplay team has Ally Condie, the author of Matched, as a guest on episode 2.They talk about the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction, and why you need a balance between the two. They also harangue the idea of a paper cutout villain who doesn’t have believable motives or a certain degree of emotional complexity.

Writing Excuses 6.14: “Suspension of Disbelief”

The Writing Excuses crew has Patrick Rothfuss joining them for a podcast about suspending your reader’s disbelief. Some highlights: don’t make everything too tidy, don’t betray human nature, lay your groundwork, and make use of the slow build to absurdity. Rothfuss also highlights the concept of bathos, which boils down to undercutting serious or weighty things with commonplace events or thoughts.

Jon Schindehette: “Is Illustration a Viable and Productive Art Form?”

Illustration is the art of books, from two-page illustrated spreads to covers. In this post Jon Schindehette (creative director at Wizards of the Coast) briefly looks at illustration as an art form from an artist’s standpoint. He also addresses the viewpoint of an art director or editor. “[Art directors and editors] are responsible for ensure [sic] the artist that is chosen is appropriate for the task at hand, but they are also responsible for communicating the ‘needs of the text’ so that you [the illustrator] understand what success will look like.” If you’re an author looking into being your own publisher, you should also start thinking about what it takes to be your own art director as well.

Kristin Nelson: “In The Author’s Shoes”

Agent Kristin Nelson shares a conversation she had with an author who has recently changed agents. The author pointed out three things every author should be sure of before signing with an agent. Kristin adds her thoughts on each point. These points serve as a reminder that the author–agent relationship should be a partnership, and you should approach it as such. If you can’t ensure they’ll be a good business partner, you shouldn’t be signing with them.

Weekly Roundup: 8/29–9/3

This is the first of my (hopefully) weekly roundups where I post articles and events in publishing that caught my eye this week. The focus is that these are what caught my eye, so they may not be the most important stuff for anyone else.

Wordplay Podcast: Young Adult & Middle Grade Novels

Nathan Bransford (former agent, author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow), James Dashner (author of the Thirteenth Reality series, Maze Runner Trilogy), and J. Scott Savage (author of the Far World series and the forthcoming Grimville Case Files from HarperCollins) launched a new podcast this week called Wordplay. Their first episode was “Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels,” which, given their publishing credentials, was a perfect topic for them (the episode is around 20 minutes long—I’m pretty sure they don’t intend for it to become an hour-long monster ’cast).

The point they hit on that I appreciated the most was defining the idea of a middle grade sensibility. That sensibility is something I’ve heard a lot about, and when I read a YA book and then a middle grade book I can definitely feel the difference, but it’s hard to define. They essentially said that reaching a middle grade sensibility means writing from the perspective of a young reader—the things that get noticed, the way they’re interpreted, etc., should be seen like your ideal reader. This can come from channeling your inner 12-year-old (and trying to sound like them) or simply capturing the sense of wonder associated with what your ideal reader will fall in love with (they use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an example of a middle grade book that doesn’t have a middle grade voice but still captures the middle grade sensibility). Portraying your ideal reader’s interests in a way they’ll appreciate is good advice no matter the age group you’re writing for.

Another interesting point they hit on was whether the MG/YA distinction is going to matter quite as much as people move away from physical bookstores (where things are shelved categorically, instead of by author). Nathan mentioned that middle grade is the youngest genre that gets read up by older people; James said he has the same reader in mind when he’s writing the Thirteenth Reality books (MG) and when he’s writing the Maze Runner books (YA). They all think the distinctions are going to become less important for future electronic markets.

The podcast will also have special episodes every third Monday that are just for younger writers and readers (3rd through 8th grade). You can email questions or requests for content directly to contact@wordplaypodcast.com.

Writing Excuses: World Building Communications Technology

If you write in speculative fiction, you’ve probably already heard of Writing Excuses, the writing podcast from Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and (new to this season) Mary Robinette Kowal. For episode 13 of season 6, they put out “World Building Communications Technology.”

The podcast is basically an encouragement to think outside the box when you’re thinking about your speculative world’s communications capabilities, and they also warned against defaulting to the level of communication you’re familiar with. When you’re in a pre-industrial world, remember things like the semaphor, or the communication capabilities of the Great Wall of China (old war technologies are good things to look at). In Victorian England, they had mail deliveries and pickups 10 times a day—that’s practically as good as email if you live close enough together.

To find inspiration for conflict in your communications, the WE crew recommended looking for failure points in your communications system (where can servers clog up, what happens during natural disasters, etc.).

Nathan Bransford: The Place for Publishers with Big-Name Authors

Nathan Bransford makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his blog post entitled “By the Time A Self-Publisher Hits It Big, Do They Really Need a Publisher?” In the post he looks at John Locke’s recent distribution deal with Simon & Schuster and questions what publishers can offer authors who have already made a name for themselves (i.e. the authors who do much of the work to make publishing a functional business). He wonders if publishers who survive the revolution will need to focus on the package of services they provide authors and instead become service providers instead of top dogs.

Janet Reid: Pitch versus query

For those of you planning to go with traditional publishing: the literary agent behind Query Shark posted about the difference between a pitch and a query—with examples. Examples really are the best way to learn this stuff.

Joe Konrath: How To Succeed

For anyone trying to be published (traditionally or on your own): self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath succinctly outlines how to succeed. My favorite line? “No one deserves to make money writing. The world doesn’t owe you a living, and you aren’t entitled to huge sales. You simply need to work at it, until you get lucky.” I also like his answer to “What if I never get lucky?” and “Can it really take forever to be successful?” No matter what you’re trying to do with your books, it takes hard work, dedication, and a lot of luck. That doesn’t mean you need a lot of those things concentrated over a matter of month, or even over a few years.

Lou Anders: Thoughts on eBooks

Please take a moment to consider Lou Anders’s thoughts on ebooks. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ll probably add more thoughts on this in future posts.