When is enough too much?

The last couple of weeks have been more than a bit odd for me — and that’s saying a lot. Between real life deciding I did not have enough excitement and a project hitting me over the head and demanding that I write it NOW, it seems like everything has been turned topsy-turvy. Real life is slowly getting back to normal (fingers crossed) and the demanding project has now seen the first draft done. 82k plus words in a little more than two weeks. Yes, my hands hurt and my brain is bruised. But the draft has been printed out, a few notes to keep in mind on the first editing pass made and it is now sitting in my briefcase where it will stay for awhile so I can look at it with something close to fresh eyes when I start editing.

Now, I usually celebrate the moment I finish the first draft of something. But not this time. Why? Because the book that wasn’t supposed to be written is actually two, maybe three books. Oh, I could keep writing and release it as a single book. Should I do so, it would weigh in at something close to 250-300k words (because I have a feeling by the time I do the edits on this first volume, it will come in at close to 100k words.) That would be fine if I was only releasing it as an e-book. But, since I plan on print as well, I will break the parts up and release them separately and will then, in all likelihood, release a digital “boxed set” later.

Again, that doesn’t sound too bad. The problem arises in that I now have three active series and another set of books that, while not exactly a series, are all related to one another. That means I have a lot of characters to keep straight and my notes, scratched on bits of paper or shoved into file folders isn’t going to do the job any longer. I need something more detailed and, well, more formal. So off to the internet I went to look at what other authors are doing when it comes to character sheets.

A little background here first. Back about six years or so ago when Sarah was first starting to push me to take my writing seriously, I did what all good little control freak authors do — I took to the internet to see what I ought to be doing. One of the things I found was a downloadable version of one author’s Β story bible. I downloaded it and tried to use it.

And quickly became overwhelmed.

This author had character sheets for each character that were pages long. You not only described the character (physical, mental and spiritual) but you gave their entire education history, their likes and dislikes, sexual preferences, etc. Then you got to their parents and their grandparents and even their great-grandparents. I tried filling the sheets out for the project I was working on and soon I had ten pages or more for each character — and you were supposed to do this for your minor characters as well. Needless to day, the pages got tossed and I ran to the proverbial hills, screaming in frustration. If I had to do that for every character, I might as well not write because by the time I finished the character sheets, I wouldn’t want to write the story.

So I created my own version which mainly consisted of simply jotting down what I needed to know for the current project. As I said above, scraps of paper or pages shoved into a file folder I might or not be able to find when I needed it. But now, with several series ongoing, I need something a bit more organized. So, off to the internet I went again. My heart was filled with fear and a sense of impending doom as I did. What if nothing had changed since that day so long ago?

(BTW, I know Scrivener has character sheets but I don’t write in Scrivener most of the time, so I want something that I can have at my fingertips no matter which computer I’m on. Scrivener is on my Mac and not the PC or tablet.)

It seems my fear was justified. One of the first sites I found had a character sheet that consists of 370 questions. 370! Not only no but no way on Earth. That is simply too much. Not only does it want things like name, date of birth, what the character looks and sounds like but it also wants to know when how the character died, what the character’s last words were, etc. Uh, wait a minute, what if my character is going to die? Sure, I kill off some of them but not all by a long shot and, frankly, if I were to start filling out stuff like that on some of my characters they would go on strike — or haunt me for the rest of my life. So, nope. Not gonna answer those questions.

But hey, there might be others gems among the dreck. So I kept looking.

When the list got to my character’s favorite actor, favorite book, song, genre, etc., I sighed and decided that there was no sense in looking any further on that list, especially since I was less than halfway through it. So I went to the next page my search turned up and I still hoped to find something I could adapt without much problem.

Hmm, that one looked promising. For one thing, I didn’t have to scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll some more to get to the end of the list. Sure, there were still some of the silly questions (in my mind at least) about favorite music and book and that sort of thing but it was more along the lines of what I wanted: physical description, nervous habits, verbal tags, special training, etc. Still, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Close but no cigar, especially when it came to layout.

I looked at several other examples and each one left me shaking my head and wondering if I just don’t get it. I really don’t care what my character’s first sexual experience was or what her favorite position might be. It doesn’t matter unless it has a place in the story and, frankly, for most of what I write, it won’t. Nor do I want to “interview” my characters. They already talk more than enough in my head. Can you imagine what they would be like if they were the subject of an “interview”? No, thank you very much.

Then I got to thinking. Maybe this is a lot like outlining. Each author has to find what works best for them. Some authors may need to know every hidden corner of a character’s psyche, even if the character is a minor one, before they can write it into a scene. Others just let the characters jump into the scene and reveal themselves then. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle and, truth be told, what I need right now is something that can simply remind me about a character’s hair and eye color, are the right or left handed and that sort of thing. So, I will take the character sheet that came close to what I was looking for and adapt it, not only where the questions are concerned but the layout as well.

Or maybe I will just go on a scavenger hunt for all my notes on all the little scraps of paper. Wish me luck as I travel down the rabbit hole of three series and a fourth set of related books.

84 Comments

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84 responses to “When is enough too much?

  1. Heh. You know how a short story turned into a novel into a four book trilogy into an eight book series. You have my sympathy. πŸ™‚

    I do a quick cheat sheet for books, especially when my most familiar MCs are not there. I tend to lump things by sides, then families or other alliance groups. Then name, probably basic description (especially for the Azdhagi!), things-I-need-to-remember, maybe tics or general habits, and perhaps plot arc (subject to change without informing the author).

    • I have the quick cheat sheets but tend to do them by hand and they often get shuffled off somewhere safe — never to be found again. Sigh. At least I back up my manuscripts, right?

  2. Three hundred and seventy questions is likely more than I could answer about me. I would wonder whether the author who came up with that list might be a bit OCD, or perhaps working off a dose of amphetamine.
    Not that there is anything wrong about that…
    But, doesn’t it make you wonder what kind of story the originator of that list would write? Compare that with Heinlein’s famous Future History chart. His was all about building a coherent world, but I bet just doing it generated a lot of stories. Knowing my main character’s favorite jelly bean flavor ? Not so much.
    Okay, it’s Sarah Day for me. I read the last of her KU stories, and have posted the review of “Crawling Between Heaven and Earth” on Amazon and my blog. I’d like to make that collection of short stories the textbook of a writers’ conference. Pay Sarah a million bucks, have her read the stories and do a Q&A, then send everybody back to their rooms to write something based on the story. In the evening session, everybody gets to present their work and receive feedback.
    I’ll be writing and posting the reviews of ‘Whom the Gods Love” and “Sweet Alice” later this morning. This is your official notification; don’t whine if you don’t hit refresh often enough. I THINK I have asked all of you regulars to be my Facebook friends, but if not, I’m the Pat Patterson who has friends in common with you. That way you get notified when I do a blog post automatically.

  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I think the best “bet” would be to enter your “little note” into text files so you can store them on your computer.

    • Reality Observer

      That is what I am doing. I sort of look at characters/cultures/economies as ghosts that I am slowly reanimating… (Each one goes into a folder I keep for the time period, then in a subfolder for the character, planet, economy, whatever.) A few are beginning to look *almost* solid enough to write about.

      OTOH, I recognize that some people just don’t work that way. I couldn’t work like Amanda, because I would never find those pieces of paper EVER again, and the memory clears once I have it written down in a file. (Fortunately, it doesn’t clear until then – so I don’t carry around a notebook like many have to.)

      • Well, those little pieces of paper do seem to walk off on their own from time to time — especially since Demon Kitten (now Demon Cat) has joined the household.

    • I do that to a certain extent but usually don’t have what I need two books later. That means having to go back and reread — again — to find the info. That’s why I need something a bit more formal at this point.

  4. I don’t have any books written, but the TV Tropes style/wiki way looks “right” to me.
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Characters/AvatarTheLastAirbenderTeamAvatar

    Basic information, then with the results of your scrap-search below.

    • And that is something I am looking at. Since I’m starting to reread the two Ashes books in prep for writing Honor from Ashes, this is a good time to start the new system.

  5. I’ve got about a ream of scratch paper within arms reach. Things about the main characters get noted on them, but it’s more often used for timing issues. Anyway, when the story’s done, it gets shuffled together, paper clipped, the title of the story in contrasting ink color on the top sheet. Then it goes over into _that_ pile . . .

    Some of the information gets stuck in computer files. I have a master list of characters, by date of birth, for my main series. A file for the genetics of magic and the genetic engineering, and what special abilities are in which addition. And Governments. Must spell the king’s name the same way every time. Must know who is a son and who’s a cousin or grandson. Which witches are related to whom and how.

    :: sigh :: Yes Amanda, I understand where you are. And maybe after this . . . no, have those others that _must_ get done . . . Okay. Two years from now I’ll . . . do something about it.

    • Hahahahahahahaha. You obviously don’t have a cat that lives to dump important stacks of anything onto the floor — usually in the middle of the night — and then running off with as many pieces of paper as possible. This cat has an unholy — is there any other kind where a cat is concerned — obsession with sticky notes followed closely by regular paper.

  6. I sympathize! I’m currently writing a novel that has time travel as a backdrop for the story. I want what I write about the past to be as correct as I can make it. I also have a major character who’s a young girl, lost in the Nevada during the late 19th Century. She needs someone to interact with (show, not tell, remember?), which means someone who speaks English and who would be where I strand her. Location isn’t arbitrary; it derives from previous books in the series.
    Fortunately, I discovered a historic character, Sarah Winnemucca, who perfectly fits the bill. But I have to know and understand Sarah, or lack of knowledge will distract from the story, make it less enjoyable for the reader. I ended up constructing a timeline of Sarah’s life, then interpolated later acts to make my portrait of her believable.
    All this, for a minor character who’s a foil for the major character. But that’s what the plot and my own writing ethic requires.

    • You just think its a minor character. Cue the evil laughter. Wait. If not in this book then in another, the character will try to take over the story. Or are mine the only characters to do that?

  7. I’m a retired counselor, so I think about such things? I wonder if any author has had their character take one of the quick-and-dirty personality sorters, like Myers-Briggs or True Colors, and then used the results to write their lines?

    • Are you kidding? I don’t want my characters having that sort of validation. All I need is for one — or more — of them thinking they are more sane or well-adjusted than I am.

  8. I am writing a novel with my wife. The male MC I have completely internalized. I hardly need to think about what he is going to do, his voice fills my head. The problem is not figuring out what he is going to do, the problem is getting him to shut up. The female MC, on the other hand, I have very little clue about. Fortunately, my wife seems to have the same problem with her that I have with mine, she can’t get her to shut up. So, basically, when I write, I ask my wife what the female MC is doing, then add in the actions of the male MC. Actually, it is a lot like my marriage. I don’t actually have a clue why or how my wife does the things she does, I just smile and go along for the ride.

    Seriously, though. it is working out pretty well. I take care of the fighting and action, and my wife supplies all the touchy-feely shit. It’s a workable arrangement.

  9. McChuck

    I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned the obvious answer – simply ask some of your more emphatic fans. There’s bound to be somebody who already has them all worked out, and probably memorized.

    The trick is probably getting them to stop. And showing weakness in front of the ravenous librovores, of course.

    • LOL. I’m not sure I have fans like that ;-p

      Seriously, I’m not good at asking for help, as my fellow MGCers will attest. You’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.

  10. I just posted a review of Dave Freer’s excellent coming of age story “Paddavissie” on my blog and Amazon.
    People, it’s starting to get slim pickings here. I have reviewed everything KU by Sarah, Amanda, Jason, David Pascoe, and Peter. I think I’m down to short stories, if that, with Cedar and Dave Freer. Fortunately, Pam’s Wine of the Gods has 187 more books in the series…
    And also fortunately, if anything is published by Baen, I can do that as well…
    But I need books to review!
    Did you know that Amazon lets you loan one of your books to a friend hint hint hint for 14 days like for a review or something hint hint hint?
    Don’t make me beg….any more…

    • Not that many! . . . Yet.

    • McChuck

      Have you done the Elizabeth series by Alma Boykin yet? I just finished them…

    • My latest, Jinxers, is in KU. Young adult fantasy.

    • Pat, the new Colplatschki book should be out at the end of this week and will be in K-Select. Thanks for the review you did on _Elizabeth of Starland_, I really appreciate it.

    • Holly

      Have you done Kate Paulk’s Con books?

      • Would LOVE to, but can’t. I can only do KU & Baen.

        • Holly

          Pat, I haven’t done a Kindle loan before, so if I can figure it out . . . I think I need your email?

          • It’s patpatterson12 at comcast dot net.
            Henry Vogel and I tried it to see how it worked, and it went fine. He loaned me the first book in his series (Scout’s Honor) so I could review it, and then I loaned him one of mine (meaning one I had purchased). It works just like a paper book, in the sense that you can’t read it while it’s loaned out, but unlike a paper book, you always get it back. Two weeks and it auto-returns, and the borrower can return it earlier than that.

    • Angus Trim

      I’m not really a Mad Genius, I just hang around here. However, within 6 to 8 weeks I’m going to be publishing a five novel series, and the first two of an urban fantasy, within a couple of weeks of one another.

      If you don’t mind trying out something from a hanger on, not a true MG, I’ll have them to send.

      • *crosses arms* You’ve got it all written up to send to Oyster for the weekly post at Sarah’s, right?
        (My totally inexpert suggestion is to plug one a week in each series, but that’s just because I know I get overwhelmed easily as a buyer/reader.)

        • Angus Trim

          I got involved in a big move this winter, started just before Christmas. I didn’t have the shop up and running again until February. The personal move took another few days………

          My editor had the first two edited, then sold her house. Her move lasted until March. Now that she’s settled in, she has two more edited. I now have to do the cover, blurb, synopsis, formatting, etc. That’s why it’ll still be 6 to 8 weeks.

          In finished form, last year the six novels I wrote added up to over 420k words. I don’t know how many I actually wrote including rewrites etc. A lot.

          Soon…..

          • Good heaven, ’tis the season. You’re something like the sixth person moving this late winter I know of, and only a third of ’em are on orders!

      • Hangers-on gratefully reviewed. Done seven (I think) friends-of-MGC books so far.

    • The Ugly Knight, Elizabeth A. Lightfoot
      (Note, I did not write a book about Michelle Obama.)

      I don’t know how good it is, but it’s mine.

    • If you haven’t done so already, you can review my book. The man Who Was A Santa Claus. I have to fix the “name” listing, when I have time. (My “name” got misspelled.)

  11. BobtheRegisterredFool

    There is a program, I think called yWriter, written by a guy who also does comic science fiction. I recall that he was a programmer who had some success writing fiction, then started making his own tools.

    When I first started looking into his stuff, I was much more clueless about what I was doing. Hence I just typed stuff into fields, and didn’t understand what /I/ actually needed in terms of project management.

    Now I have more clue about plot and my process. I’m currently thinking that I might be able to use the outlining tool from the yWriter toolbox.

    When I hear your problem, I think computer database of characters. Next that yWriter, or whichever one, might serve that end.

    That said, you are looking at a different end, and perhaps that is the one that needs solving.

    Certainly someone who does no sex thrillers has different needs from one who does thinky erotica.

  12. If you find anything geared towards SF/F, let us know. But it sounds like the things you found were all for “literary” (read SJW/vileprog) stories.

    I have a master timeline, and I constantly have to check on what I’ve said about what and whom. I have a little fudge room; story tellers embellish, and my books are about bards. They are committed to the truth, but knowledge can be lost over time, and how it happened and how it was remembered later can be different… Yes, I have notes. But I try and keep them on the computer, where it’s at least somewhat searchable.

    • Mine that are on the computer are usually also printed out and thumbtacked on the wall. Saves time hunting things down. I just have to remember to add my additions and notes to the file and print out the new version.

    • I don’t know about the leanings because those sheets were simply adaptations of what I’ve seen for years. Yeah, they were a bit longer but they seem to be going hand in hand with what I’ve seen with advice being given by the so-called pros (those who still believe every word coming out of the Big 4 — or is it still 5 — publishers). These are the ones who encourage writers to find actors or actresses who they think would be good fits for their characters and put together Pinterest pages for them. Then they are to find images of rooms and houses, etc., for their settings. Some go so far as to scour online mags and books for clothing, etc. Let’s have every detail of every moment of the character’s life planned out before you even start writing. Sorry, I’d be so bored by then that I would never write the story.

      • Well, when you have no imagination, you do what you can to fake it. And if the personality profile holds, the same people who have to micro-manage their imaginary characters to such an extent tend to want do the same with you and me. Well, mostly you. I’m safe enough to be ignored (grin).

      • *hides her maps and whistles innocently*

      • Laura M

        I discovered Pinterest a few months ago, and quite like it. I have started throwing things in it that inspire me for particular titles. A whole bunch of old paintings had scenes that I used as backdrops for countryside in the WIP.

        • I think it is great for that but to have a publisher tell you that you have to do it as part of the promo, etc., for your book — and some want you to do it in such a way it looks like there might actually be a movie being made of the book even when there isn’t — is where I draw the line. Inspiration is one thing but more than that can go over the line imo.

  13. From the interviews I’ve heard of Jim Butcher, he literally generated character sheets from D&D for his book characters. Keeping track of them like a GM would seems to work for him. I don’t know if you’re into RPG’s at all.

  14. Christopher M. Chupik

    I keep some extra worldbuilding and character names in reserve, in case I need something I didn’t anticipate. Always helps to know more than what’s on the page.

  15. Ahhh, I feel your pain deeply. I’m in the middle of editing my first book, writing two others, and doing college. Of course, that, by no means, means that I have stopped having ideas. My Word file of book ideas is longer than one of the ones I’m working on. I think it has 25 or so different book ideas full of notes. And that’s not even counting the file for clippings of scenes I can’t write yet. *Sigh* ‘Tis the writer’s curse.

  16. sabrinachase

    At the top level, I keep a stylesheet of names, places, expressions in foreign languages, etc. This is handed over to my editor with the manuscript, and when a standalone book turns into a series, I just add to it. I also use the feature in OpenOffice which allows you to create separate dictionaries that are reference along with standard English, and I put names/terms in that book-specific dictionary.

    I haven’t yet pulled out biographical data for the characters. I can see some worlds where I might have to going forward, however.

    • I have that basic info. It is the more detailed info I need to pull together and why oh why did I not keep a list of the nicknames I used in the science fiction books?

  17. You might look into things for gamers… DMs often have to keep track of that sort of thing. I use Realm Works (not free, but very powerful, and you can put as much or as little as you want into it… on the other hand setting up the first ‘realm’ as a template takes time.) I also use scrivener as my filing cabinet (Yes, I have 2, but my brain handles things a little oddly I need something I can work with and something I can ‘dump’ things into as I get done with them), but I tend not to do detailed analysis away from my desk top.

  18. Draven

    When i have done comic book-style fiction, i have written Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe-style writeups for my main characters, including pretty detailed pseudoscience descriptions of their powers, how they work, and what limitations they have. One such writeup was christened by one of the … players (i used my stories as ‘interactive fiction’ ) as my ‘thesis for (my) PHD in BS Physics’ (an older writeup on fusion-based sublight propulsion that gave three different types that all worked slightly different and had different power requirements and signatures, thus allowing for different races to have slightly different drive systems, was christened the thesis for my master’s)
    Heck, my paid SF writing was BS physics- or, technically, BS engineering.
    I write timelines and character summaries and… stuff. Lots of it.

  19. Laura M

    I’ve learned to start keeping character lists as I go along I usually start them later than I should, but plugging along with control+F to see what I said before works, too.

  20. I know people who recommend wikidpad http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/ — it’s basically a standalone wiki. If you like wiki organization (or maybe I should say the way wiki let’s you grow piles?), that might be a way to go.

    • Mike, I’ve considered it. Haven’t tossed it out yet but haven’t been completely sold on it either. So, it gets some more thought. Thanks.

  21. Okay, while I was waiting for some new material ( and THANK YOU!!!) I decided to review some old stuff. I just posted on my blog “Slow Train To Arcturus”, by Eric Flint and Dave Freer. Another great read; space migration with a twist or two.
    And now I can start on the new things that have just come in…Mwa Ha Ha! (ummm….that isn’t an evil laugh. it’s an ‘i got books laugh, i’m rich beyond my wildest dreams’)

  22. 370 questions sounds more like an exercise in how to AVOID writing.

    For the Dr. Mauser stories, I have two files. The first is a text file where I dump all the biographies of major and minor characters, and which I usually end up revising after the stories contradict them. And the other is a spreadsheet where I try to keep track of the character’s relative ages and the events in the history.

    The first file I even have on DeviantArt for the fans to check out. Although this copy is a little out of date (And it shows the danger of making your stories contemporaneous with the real world. He’s still stuck in 2010.)
    http://mauser712.deviantart.com/art/Dr-Mauser-Characters-Setting-140531689

    • That looks pretty much like what I have been doing. And what I will probably keep doing unless I stumble across something that is easy to use and I can adapt to quickly. Thanks!

  23. Holly

    http://hollylisle.com/the-character-workshop-designing-a-life/

    That’s Holly Lisle’s character creation questions. I’ve found them somewhat useful, but I’m quite quick to cross off any that don’t apply. Love interest? Jon’s a fourteen-year-old boy. Not interested. Past job? See fourteen-year-old.
    I find the questions about the characters’ motivations to be the most helpful, particularly what their moral limits are on avoiding/obtaining what they fear/want.

    • I love those questions, on the whole, for when I am first creating a character. What I need now is just a tickler sheet of some sort to keep track of things like physical description, current rank, assignment, etc. I think I’ve cobbled one I can work with together. Once I’m sure, I’ll post it. But thanks for the link. It is a great starting point if you are at the creation phase of a book or outline.

  24. Find out how David Weber does it. You could also build a computer database pretty quick if you know how.