The Battle of the Book


This is sort of a companion piece to last week’s piece on “Arriving.” It wasn’t meant to be, but the main feature of this week was my discovering in many ways I’m still a beginner.

I wish I could tell you I rationally and calmly plot my books, and then sit down to emphasize this and pull that together, and…

To be sure, for many years I did plot carefully ahead, to the point that a 400 page novel had a 100 page outline.

Those books often read both less plotted and far more shallow than the books since I gave up and started pantsying (Working without a plot, aka, working without a net) about five years ago.

There is a reason for this. You see, even when I was carefully plotting ahead, my best work was subconscious. To put it another way, when you plot a novel ahead of time, as I did, before you really have gotten in there and lived with the characters for a while, your characters are going to be simpler than if you “know” them as real people. For instance, if you mean a character to reflect “pride” that’s all he’ll do. He’ll be proud in the morning, and proud in the evening, and proud under the noonday sun.

That’s not how real people work. The proudest person in the world will have something about which they’re unexpectedly humble or easy-going.

But if I have a plot, kind of like if I have a contract, I’m going to stick to it come hell or high water, and not allow those grace notes to sound.

Note, I’m not saying you should pantse. Writing is such a personal thing, that I would never presume to tell another writer whether they should be plotters or pantsers (from “flying by the seat of the pants.”) I can’t. Some authors I read – Pratchett – whom I assumed to be meticulous plotters, are in fact pantsers. So, do it the way you have to do it.

For me, as I said, I pull greatly from the subconscious, and if I try to curtail that, the writing loses all depth. Which was a problem as of course, the old system of proposals meant I had to outline. I soon learned to “do a dance” and give general impressions with no actual outline.

Fortunately now my publisher doesn’t even ask “What is the high idea for this book” and the contracts read something like “Next book in the Darkship Thieves series.”

This is well and good and I’m used to it. I’m also used to the nagging feeling that “this is a very bad book.” Look, at this point no, it’s not beating myself up. Oh, sure, by the time I finish any book, unless I wrote it really fast, like A Few Good Men, I loathe the thing, in the sense that I’ve lived too long with it, and can’t stand to read even a page. Takes me ten years or so to get over that and be able to read the books for reference for the series.

But this is a different feeling. It’s the feeling the book would be a slog for anyone, and that something is seriously wrong.

For those – hi, my publisher! – who wonder why I kept saying Through Fire was almost finished but never delivering? Yeah. I had the nagging, overwhelming feeling that it was a Very Bad Book.

This week, I started trying to figure out why. My first thought was that I hated the main character. I’ve gone through times of not liking my characters very much, but it’s not usually outright hatred.

The main character of Through Fire is Zen Sienna, who is a secondary character in Darkship Renegades. Since I didn’t figure out even while she wanted to live on Earth until two months ago, I thought it was perfectly possible I hated her. But then I could I change her, so I didn’t hate her?

And that’s when I realized – yesterday – the problem was not Zen, but the plot.

I realized I’d written what I’d call a Rincewind plot – a plot built entirely on running away. Oh, sure, she performs feats of cunning and strength, but it’s all in the service of running away.

I don’t like that type of plot even in a comedic style. It robs the book of all force and gives the reader the subconscious wish to run away from it.

Sure, I had her turn and fight in the middle of the book, but by that time, it’s gone too far and so, probably, would the reader have done.

How did I come to make such a rookie mistake?

Well, Through Fire was started when I was very tired and, for reasons external to my head, also very depressed. I think my mind just wanted to run away. (This is why sometimes you can’t force a book.)

And after that, just like with outlines, my mind took this as immovable.

It’s not immovable. I’m now doing the messy and painful work of changing that, which involves completely changing some chapters, but also, suddenly, makes perfect sense out of scenes that seemed not to have any tension.

Anyway – all this to say – at 24 books, I’m still not immune from making a stupid, beginner level mistake and also, if there’s a very strong feeling there’s something VERY wrong with your book, heed it.

I’m not talking about generalized feelings of “My language is not good enough” or “my descriptions such” or whatever. We all have craft issues we’re working on, and we see the mistakes on those way clearer than readers do. No, I mean a specific “there’s something wrong with this book, so I can barely make myself spend time with it.” If you have that feeling, the feeling that the book is somehow twisted or maimed, heed it.

If you have beta readers good enough to catch it, good for you. If not, get up, go for a walk and think it over. Sometimes it takes a month of walks, granted, but it will come to you.

This is not an excuse to give up on a book halfway through. If you find on your walks you’re thinking of what bulbs to plant in the garden, instead, it’s time to come back and tinker with the book some more to see if you can get it to disclose what is wrong. Another thing that can work is try to write a short story with those same characters three years in the future. Sometimes this makes it all plain as day.

On the other hand, no matter how much you need to deliver that book, or whether (Hi, publishers!) it’s grossly overdue, do not force it or rush it out, because chances are you’ll write a very bad book.

And now pardon me, I have to return to my plastic surgery on this book! (Messy, painful, bloody AND detail oriented.)


  1. Patricia Wrede posted more-or-less about the same thing this week. Though she focuses on a slightly different aspect, which isn’t running away so much as legitimately not having choices to make. Which I suppose is close to the same, just from a different angle. (Plus, she tries really hard not to present anything as a rule that can’t be violated.)

    IMO, this is probably a rule that pretty much can’t be violated. I know that I read a book once that was exciting and action filled and had a lot of really interesting world building and intrigue, and I got to the end with the feeling that it wasn’t nearly as good as it seemed to have been, that it should have been a good book, but wasn’t. And I spent quite a bit of time mulling it over and trying to decide *why* it wasn’t a good book and a fun story. (And I do not remember the author or title, so I’m not just keeping that to myself to be nice about it.)

    I came to the conclusion that the story sucked because the main character spent the whole book running away… and not only that but she wasn’t in charge of her own running, she was being hauled along by someone else.

    But there was so much *interesting* stuff going on with the story-world that it was difficult to realize that beneath it all the protagonist wasn’t pro-acting, ever.

    1. Yes. Lack of choice is far worse than running away. Even if the lack of choice forces the protagonost to do “good” things, because it’s boring.

      We want more active heros and heroines.

      I can see “running away” as a reasonabloe choice in some circumstances but I agree that the protagonist needs to at least struggle with whatever she’s running away from first before running away, and it needs to be clear that she’s running away merely to regroup and get back in the action rather than permanently quitting the fight.

      1. Running away permanently is a valid option, assuming that the forces want the character to stay put. Depends on how it’s set up.

    2. I’m reminded of the major plot problem in a video game, Final Fantasy XII: the point-of-view character was not the protagonist. The entire plot revolved around Queen Ashe’s quest for revenge against the Empire that had murdered her father, yet she was not the point-of-view character. Instead, the point-of-view character was a thief named Vaan who got swept up in events and ended up tagging along with Ashe. Ashe makes all kinds of decisions — to seek after a superweapon with which to take revenge, to give up on using the superweapon because of how it works and what the side-effects would be, to deal with the side-effects caused by someone else’s use of the superweapon in the past — but Vaan, the point-of-view character and (ostensibly) the protagonist, never decides a single thing. He’s just hauled along in the trail of Queen Ashe’s decisions.

      The game could have had an excellent story if Queen Ashe had been the protagonist, or even her loyal knight if the developers really wanted a male protagonist for their (presumed 90% male) customers to identify with. Instead, they chose to shoehorn in a teenaged male character for their customers to identify with, but didn’t do a thing to make him relevant to the plot.

  2. Recognizing a “running away” plot is particularly difficult for me because I grew up in a home where “running away” was used as a verbal stick to beat me with every time I expressed a desire to change an unsatisfactory situation. If I wanted to get out of a class with a bully that was making my life a living hell, that was “running away.” If I was in a boring dead-end job and wanted to look for something that was going somewhere, I was “just running away instead of coping.” You name it, if I didn’t like it, any effort to remove myself from it was condemned as “running away” from my problems. Which gave me the impression that holding still and taking it, whatever “it” was, was the highest of virtue and any effort to seek a better situation was morally lacking.

    Is every story in which a character is trying to get out of a crummy situation a “running away” plot, or only some of them? I’d hate to have to throw away several of my favorite works in progress just because they’re about a character who’s tossed into a crap situation and is trying to get out of it rather than just “holding still and taking it” as the authority figures keep oh-so-helpfully advising them. And my current one involves my protagonists going on a journey in which they encounter some bad guys, and spend a good bit of the story running from them, but there’s also the question of whether to continue their original journey in an unreliable car, or to turn back and give up on (or at least defer until later) their original goal.

    1. I see your point. Perhaps, a better way of putting it is the difference between “acting” and “reacting”. Is the character choosing to “run away” or is the character forced by events to “run away”? Another way to say it, is he/she taking action on his/her own or is he/she being moved by other people’s actions?

      1. And of course, if you’re being hunted by a dinosaur that’s going to eat you, you need to run away first, and not get eaten, before you can get your revenge, either direct or of the “living well” sort… so long as the revenge isn’t a Deus Ex cheat.

        1. It also depends on “what kind of dino wants to eat you”. T-Rex or Raptor? Your proper course of action with Mr. T-Rex might be to find ways to avoid further encounters. With Mr. Raptor and his pack, you can plan to make the next encounter more in your favor.

      2. Not even that, Drak. My issue is that her whole thing was “I got to get out of here” which does not engage the reader. And then when she does come back, she seems schizophrenic.

        1. I’m thinking more in general terms but yeah a character who “just wants to get away” only to later come back fighting is a little strange unless you give some reason for changing his/her mind or at least a hint that he/she has mixed feelings about “just wants to get away”.

          In the first Star Wars movie, Han Solo “just wants to get paid and leave” or so he says. Still, his return is foreshadowed to a degree when he leaves after being paid.

        2. Did you provide her motive in DSR and is that why you feel stuck with it now? I can’t remember, but I think her reasons were kind of a mystery to everyone else.

            1. That seems very reckless or trusting or something. Maybe, brave: throwing someone into a published work who you would figure out later, without being able to go back and edit that first book. Very scary, ma’am. Or, perhaps you left her a little opaque on purpose to provide wiggle room later?

              1. Sigh. You know my methods, Watson. Or maybe not. Frankly, the way I write is probably a sign of serious mental illness. Tedd Roberts, aka Speaker to Lab Animals says I might be a savant. You see, Zen just WAS — and she’s close-mouthed.

                1. Is she first person and close mouthed? I would imagine that would be very difficult.

    2. In the WIP, the protagonist runs away in the second chapter. He does so because a close family has been murdered and he’s next, so he heads off to try and gain experience and allies enough to return and claim what (he believes) is rightfully his. So here’s a case of character “running away,” but also “running toward” a (possible) source of assistance/refuge. Yeah, in theory he could stay and fight, but he doesn’t have a lot of backup or resources at this point, and even he (arrogant 15 y.o. cus that he is) would rather be a live lion than a dead one.

      Does the running just fill pages, or does the running include growth and is it toward a goal? I think that makes the difference between being a Flock of Seagulls story and a workable story. (Yeah, I listen to way too many 1980s one-hit-wonders.)

    3. No — this is a place that has gone bananas, but the character’s motivation is “I’ve got to get out of here” instead of “I have to safe my friends.” The actions aren’t very different. She still has to escape and come back to kick butt — but her internals need to be different, if that makes sense.

      1. It makes sense, but I was thinking more in terms of Leigh’s semi-predicament with a “running away” story.

    4. “Cowardice is when you’re more afraid of what you’re running *from* than what you’re running *to*.”

      And there’s a difference between “running away” and “retreating”/”rearguard action” (see Xenophon, or George Thomas at Chickamauga).

  3. Re: insights that you’re “still a beginner” – from a related creative field, acting: My wife some years ago took a class from one of the best actors in Seattle (in the sense that he’s one of the few who make a “living” wage from it); the point was made at the beginning that “this isn’t an ‘advanced’ acting class, because there are NO advanced actors. Just people who are continuously learning what they don’t know, and getting better.”

  4. **facepalm**
    Now I get it. A story I’ve been having trouble with…forever… is a story where it’s two characters running away. They decide *little things* in each vignette, or they wouldn’t get anywhere at all. Their main goal is to survive, and it doesn’t get interesting until they can’t move forward anymore because a twist happens which fundamentally restricts movement. THey find a creative solution, but not before there’s significant ‘sitting around’ time. Perhaps I need to look carefully at the little decisions they make. Maybe they need a second goal that keeps them moving, not just away from danger, but towards something. Thanks, your troubles might actually give me some guidance for a story I thought was too far gone to salvage.

    1. Yes. In my case, see, I was suffering from seeing ahead. I know how horrible things are going to get, so it’s sensible to run away. but, d*mn it, the character DOESN’T know it, and it makes no sense for someone of her stamp, and with the scars she has to want to run away.

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