A Useful Website: Best Fantasy Books

Yesterday, I shared my opinions here about The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. Upon reflection, I realised that it could seem as if I am a hater of fantasy writing. Not so. I am, however, a somewhat picky reader of fantasy. I did some Googling, and I found a useful website, called Best Fantasy Books, which has this to say about the genre:

Take a stroll through any mega bookstore, and you will be inundated with countless fantasy fiction books. A few will be great fantasy books, some will be good fantasy books, and most will be bad fantasy books. Finding a good fantasy novel is difficult, like sifting for gold among sand. But occasionally, just occasionally, you’ll find that rare nugget, that grain of gold to forever treasure.

Some have a negative perception of fantasy literature (especially those who read only “mainstream” literature) as being cheesy, badly written, and cliche. Yet, rest assured there are some very well written fantasy books out there — books that can compete arm to arm with “literature”. You just have to know where to look.

And Best Fantasy Books is, in fact, a very good place to look. They have a “Top 25” books list (yes, Tolkien’s on the list, but so are many you may have not heard of). They also have lists according to sub-genre, some fairly closely associated with fantasy, and some not. For example, the stewards of that website have assembled a collection of what they deem to be the best of the Tolkien Clones, as well as Asian-themed fantasy.

So, hopefully that does something to dispel any false impressions that I am a fantasy hater. Hope it also gives you some fresh suggestions for reading material.

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Ending the Never-Ending Story Right, or How to Keep Readers From Hating Your Book

(from wikimedia.org)

I am currently working through National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The aim is to write 50,000 words during the month, or 1667 words per day. Day 15 is already here, halfway through the month of November, and I am happy to say that I have reached more than 25,000 words.

But this post is not about NaNoWriMo, per se. Instead, I want to write about an observation my wife made when I read my story-so-far to her the other day. She’d been travelling for the better part of the week, so there were about eight chapters to read through. She sat quite patiently, listening as my story unfolded, not saying much. When I was done, her response was, “It sort of feels like The Neverending Story.”

Most people will be more familiar with the movie of that title than with the book, by German author, Michael Ende. I read the book a few years ago, and in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I did not like it. (I loved Momo, also by Ende, but that’s for a different post, perhaps.) In the words of the Horse from the Ren & Stimpy Show, “No, Sir, I didn’t like it.” You might even say I hated it. In fact, just about the only thing I liked about the book was the title, which I felt was an attempt at being honest with the reader. The story literally seemed as if it would never end, no matter how much the reader (or at least this reader) might want it to.

SpectrumBut what could possibly make me hate it so? After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that the thing that I disliked the most about it is the thing some people may have liked the most: the extreme fantasy element. Imagine a spectrum. Actually, I’ll save you trouble of imagining anything, provided you can stomach burnt orange. On one side, we have Hyper Realism, and other side, Abstract Fantasy. It its most essential form, Hyper Realism is so real that it approaches boring — a description of your day, or a summary of a business meeting. The only thing that keeps it from being non-fiction is that it didn’t happen. Abstract Fantasy, on the other hand, is meant (I assume) to cast off the shackles of the “known” and immerse the reader in something completely foreign. I’m sure that palatable examples exist near the both ends of the spectrum. As a general rule, however, the nearer one gets to the ends, the more challenging the read. We need a little fuel for the imagination, but not so much that we simply can’t imagine it at all.

In my estimation, The Neverending Story sits deep in Abstract Fantasy territory, somewhere between the Swamp of Sighs and the Delta of Disappointment. Building from an admittedly cool premise (a boy finds a book that, when read, draws him into another world), it never manages to put meat on the bones of its plot, characters, or settings. Even the nemesis is abstract — a nothingness that is destroying the world in the book because children in our world are no longer reading or believing in stories. How much concern can the reader have for a world they can barely visualize or feel?  And as if Ende was flipping the bird to readers who thought, “Surely, if I just make it to the end(e), I’ll be rewarded with something concrete,” he ties up the loose ends of the story with “that’s another story and shall be told another time.” (Shorthand for, “My editor says that if I go over 500 pages, he’s not taking the book.”)

OK, I hope you were able to take that mini-rant about The Neverending Story in stride, because it wasn’t actually the point of this point. It was context for the comment my wife made to me after I read a portion of my first draft to her. “It sort of feels like The Neverending Story,” she said.  We’re allowed to be straight up with each other like that… if you can’t be straight up with your spouse, then I’m not sure who you can be with.

Even so, comparing my story to one that she knows I care for so little seemed like a low blow. But I thought about it a bit, and eventually I had to agree. The part she heard was particularly abstract — two boys on a sailboat become lost in a storm, find out they are in another world, climb a mountain to see a mystical old man, and receive instructions about what to do next. It wasn’t just that though. Through all this, the boys’ emotional response to their circumstances (i.e., what they were feeling) was not clear.

Ordinarily, an observation like that would have sent me back to page one, determined to write in all the things I felt were missing. I wanted to pull it out of Abstract Fantasy territory by adding something more concrete. But I didn’t. I had (and still have) 50,000 words to write by November 30, and a good way to make sure they don’t get written is by puttering around with the finer details.

A comparison, for those of you who draw, would be to begin a drawing that is meant to occupy an entire page, but then get bogged down detailing an area of just a few square inches. This is easy to do, unless one intentionally steps back from page and takes a wider view. Detail that is built on in layers gives the work a uniform and complete feel; detail that is added on sporadically results in a helter-skelter mess.

So I’ve decided to push through and get a rough draft done before going back to add anything. Interestingly, by pushing through as I have, I’ve discovered my characters in a way that is, perhaps, more organic. When I do go back, after I’ve tacked on the final period and amen, I’ll be much better equipped to go back and enhance (or even rewrite) the parts I have reservations about.

(from neverendingstory.com)

To bring myself full circle, I find it interesting that in the movie version of The Neverending Story, the writers thought it best to end the movie at a point that is actually only 1/3 or so of the way through the book. It is as if they, with the gift of hindsight, were able to see that the book would have been better if it had ended sooner and invested more in developing its characters and setting into something that could be imagined and felt by the reader.  After all, who doesn’t want to share in the experience of riding their own dragon?

Do you totally love The Neverending Story and think I’m way off base?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

A Helpful Word Tool for Writers: The Online Etymology Dictionary

No, it’s not a dictionary about insects.

As writers, we sometimes need to know more about the word than just its definition. Where did it come from? How has its usage changed over time? This is especially useful when writing historical fiction, because language, especially spoken language, changes so much over time.

For example, let’s say I’m writing dialogue for a woman living in Philadelphia in 1753. Would she have used the word sticky?  It turns out that she could have, but not in all the senses that we use it today.  Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

sticky (adj.) 1727, “adhesive, inclined to stick,” from stick (v.) + -y (2). An Old English word for this was clibbor. First recorded 1864 in the sense of “sentimental;” of situations, 1915 with the meaning “difficult.” Of weather, “hot and humid,” from 1895. Sticky wicket is 1952, from British slang, in reference to cricket. Related: Stickily; stickiness.

So, my character would have said, “This honey is very sticky,” but she would not have said, “We’ve gotten ourselves into a very sticky situation here.” (Unless, of course, she’d somehow become covered in honey.)

Personally, I find the history and evolution of language to be fascinating in general, and so I’ve spent some time just looking up words I think might have interesting origins. For more discussion on that, see another post I wrote, called The English Language is the Brady Bunch on Steroids.

Hope the dictionary is useful to you in some way.

An Actually Helpful Pep Talk

I admit that I am generally nonplussed by pep talks. Ever since high school pep rallies, since football games doomed to be lost to teams with more money to spend, the cheerleaders have rolled out (sometimes literally) from all quarters, hoping to inspire us about something. “You Can Do This!”

Well, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and right about now, on Day 13, some people can use a shot in the arm to keep them going. The pep talks are wriggling up from between cracks in the sidewalk. I’ve read a few, and the general theme is much like the tagline of NaNoWriMo itself: “The World Needs Your Novel”. Only trouble is, the world’s never gonna get your story if you’re so darn tired and frustrated with writing that you walk away from it halfway. Perhaps the story has stalled. Some useful kickstarters to get the story moving again might be needed.

This morning I read a post by Tamora Pierce on the NaNoWriMo website that was one part pep talk, and two parts useful kickstarters. In addition to encouragement, she offered some very practical suggestions for ways that you, the author, can get your story moving again.

Here are her main points:

  1. Try adding something short. (A sudden injection of randomness.)
  2. Try something surprising, painful, or frightening to jolt your character into behaving violently.
  3. Try something small. (A mysterious object, a talisman, etc.)

The second point may be the most enduringly useful. In a recent post, fellow blogger, Charles French quoted Mark Twain, saying:

“Put your characters up a tree, and throw stones at them.”

Fun advice any day.

For Tamora’s article, see here. But if you’d rather skip the pep talk and go find some stones right away, then be my guest.

The Agony of Ether to Substance: Bringing Your Story to the Page

In this post, I’ll explore the process of writing the first draft of a novel, with particular attention paid to that awkward period between “Nothing on the Page” and “Done”. (Yes, the part where the writer is writing.)

Because every writer and the creative patterns they follow are different, it may be helpful to share how I go about the process of creating a story. In a previous post, Before Page One, I detailed the process of how I plan for writing a novel. In a nutshell, I follow this pattern:

  • Explore a landscape (where the story happens)
  • Consider the possible implications of that landscape on the story
  • Populate the landscape (create characters)
  • Develop an intimate understanding of those characters
  • Establish point-of-view
  • Build a plot around the actions of the characters on the landscape
  • Outline the story (to whatever level of detail makes sense)

I have never had a problem coming up with story ideas. Like a rabbit, I am an endless source of gestating stories, each one waiting to spill onto the page.  And when they do, the first 5000 words or so come easily. Blind and wriggling and pink, they are born almost of their own volition.

But then, gradually, a few chapters in, the flow begins to taper. I look back at the notes I crafted around the story for inspiration, but what I see haunts me. The landscape, the characters, the plot, the details, they all seem less real than they did before something was put down on the paper.

I’ve asked myself, Why is this? What is it about the physical act of plucking ideas from the ether and making substance of them so agonizing? And why do the ideas seem inherently more diminished or even hollow when they’ve been transformed into words?

I’m not alone in wondering this. Fellow blogger, Anastasiabetts, recently wrote in A Room of My Own:

I think I just need to keep writing until I have a breakthrough. Someone […] said, “First drafts are an act of discovery,” and boy are they! I never really realized this before — just how much I thought I knew before writing, completely goes out the window while writing. I feel like the story I knew so well, for years even, doesn’t even exist — and suddenly this new imposter story has shown up in its place. (11.9.2014)

I suspect that there are two reasons for this agony: (1) it takes time to write well; (2) there is an implicit trade-off associated with writing about what we’ve imagined. I’ll explain.

Time

As for the first point, the relationship between writing and time has been on my mind of late. I am currently participating in NaNoWriMo, an annual writing event that challenges the individual to write 1667 words per day for 30 days. That’s 50,000 words total. It’s a major achievement reaching the end, because at that pace, many people (myself included, in 2012) burn out before the halfway mark. There are folks out there who top 100,000 words by December, which leaves me speechless. That’s in excess of 3333 words every day — the sparks must be just flying off the keyboard at that speed.

Of course, word counts mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, writing is a product, and like any product, it is judged according to the consumer’s tastes. (Sure, we may wish to use more favourable comparisons — works of art to be experienced, perhaps — but a quick scan of the Amazon website or the shelves at Barnes and Noble, or worse, the endless parade of form rejections from agents and publishers, makes that desire feel a little idealistic.) If writing is wine to be sipped or swilled, then some people are after Pinot Noir, and some evidently want Boone’s Farm.

If we assume that the 3333+ words-per-day writers are the statistical outliers (a safe assumption, I think), then for most of us, writing takes a long time. Not necessarily the 17 years it took James Joyce took to write Finnegans Wake (that’s probably at the extreme opposite end of the bell curve, statistically speaking), but somewhere in between.

What I’ve found is that enough time passes during the writing process to allow the writer to lose vision. In the beginning, the panorama of a story idea spreads in all directions. Then, as the writer begins to select words that represent the idea and places them on the page, frustration and doubt begin to creep in. These come long before the rewards of seeing something tangible and exhilarating, which only come after a long and sometimes awkward process of pushing through the discomfort.

In this sense, writing differs from painting, in which the artist can see the entire product-to-date, even if that product is incomplete. It is more like sculpting from stone, an act of discovery.  And that brings me to my second point.

The Trade-off

A sculptor begins with a block of stone, three dimensions of infinite possibility. I imagine the terror of that first swing of the mallet, the moment that the chisel reduces, however infinitesimally, the sculptors’ possibilities. The very act of realizing her vision reduces her options. She can’t reattach the crumbs of marble to the block.

The very first line of a book is a door closed. There can only be a line after it, another step away from the infinitely elastic concept, something that was felt more than it was seen. The writer begins to feel constrained and frustrated as the feeling that was so initially strong is not realized. Thankfully, backspace is just a pinky’s stretch away, and words can be undone. But something about giving birth, only to commit infanticide moments later, is demoralizing, and seems to leave its ghostly mark on a canvas that was once white.

Only time and dogged determination can rescue the writer, looping us back into my first point, time. In the long-run, perseverance and even the willingness to surrender the panoramic perspective that was had in the beginning, will pay off. Pushing through discomfort allows new excitement to build, as something tangible and concrete takes shape. The words become something greater than the sum of their parts, and a story emerges.

As Anastasiabetts says, first drafts are an act of discovery, and boy are they!

NaNoWriMo: Zoonosis Day 1

To keep myself motivated (and to hold myself to my own goal of sticking with NaNoWriMo), I’m going to be posting a blurb from each day’s writing here. Today I wrote the first chapter, which came out at 3,089 words. I’m sure I won’t always be so diligent, but I was in the zone, and I’d been thinking about the chapter for all of October. It was time to get it on paper!

Here’s a blurb:

Vavilov was dangerously close to the remains of the rig now. His head was tilted back, eyes upwards, locked on the fan of water and ice. The flow showed no signs of lessening. The rig itself was encased in a thick layer of ice, looking more like the base of a translucent volcano than part of a scientific station. Only a few pipes and steel beams jutted out of the ice, and from these, streams of water flowed.

“Grigoriy, come back,” cried Nikolayev. “You’ll be killed.”

—–

In Chapter 2, I’ll introduce the main characters, which should be fun.  Check back tomorrow for Blurb 2.

Before Page One: Planning My Novel

This post is not intended to explore all the many ways in which a person might plan a novel.  There are books about that (such as Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, by Meredith Sue Willis).  As the title of this post suggests, I will only be talking about how I go about planning my stories before putting words on the page.  I will also talk about how I learned to plan—a process that involved vast amounts of time, making lots of mistakes, and dead-ends.

I should also clarify another point.  I have, to date, completed one novel manuscript, and am in the process of working on fourteen others.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Working on fourteen (14) other novels.  Now, before you scroll down to the bottom of the post only to type, “You’re hopelessly over-ambitious” into the comments bar, let me explain:

Of those fourteen, three were the product of my earliest forays into writing, before I’d really developed a sense of planning.  Intended to be a trilogy, the manuscripts are riddled with systemic problems that I currently just don’t have the ambition to fix.  Doing so would require massive reconstructive surgery, the breaking and setting of multiple bones, organ transplants, and so on.  My patience is not up to the task.  So I have frozen them cryogenically, to be thawed out at a later date.

There are still eleven more:

Number Three is a young adult novel, approximately 25% complete.  I love the story, and I have every intention of finishing it someday.  Unfortunately, at some point in the writing, I became waaaay too focused on one minute aspect of the story, and ended up losing my perspective on the story as a whole.  So I stuck the manuscript into cold storage (the icy place where manuscripts go to wait).

Number Four is also a young adult novel, about 10% complete.  The reason that manuscript is on hold is not because of systemic errors, or because of lost perspective.  Basically, I knew that it needed more time to blossom in my imagination.  I hope to see this book full of drawings and diagrams (in the vein of Joshua Mowll’s Operation Red Jericho), and this has required a serious focus.  I don’t want to write something, go to the trouble of producing drawings, and then change my mind, only to repeat the process.

Numbers Five through Fourteen are in varying states of existence.  Several have only a few words typed on the page.  Should I really be calling these “manuscripts”?  I am, and that is because they exist in other ways.  Each of these stories has been planned out—to varying degrees—in my head and (importantly) on paper.

The original seed for a story idea tends to be extremely macroscopic.  By that, I mean that I tend to imagine a setting or a time period or a situation in which something might occur.  For example, one of my stories, The Tattoo, is set in an imagined Himalayan country in the late 1950s.  The country has just had a Communist revolution, and the royal family has been overthrown.  There’s a suggestion of plot there, but in actual fact, that’s all just setting.

Although I made sure to write the idea down, I let it simmer on low for a while before doing anything more about it.  I had also been reading something about the Copper Age, and found it compelling.  Well, I thought, maybe it could be part of the Himalayan story.  But how?  (Note that this question is actually moving the idea closer to developing a “plot.”)

Maybe, I thought, a person living in that Himalayan region during the Copper Age could end up travelling forward in time to the 1950s, and wind up right in the middle of the Communist revolution.  That would be interesting.  (More plot unfolding…)

Hmm… but how would he travel through time?

Ah!  What if the Copper Age man is a priest who receives a tattoo with strange powers, and it draws him forward in time?  Wait!  What if he has been training for years to become a priest, but it suddenly becomes impossible to achieve this goal?  What if the tattoo is a work-in-progress, only to be completed when someone attains full priesthood?  What kind of unpredictable power might an incomplete tattoo possess?  (Lots of potential for plot here!)

It was at this point that I began writing down what I think of as “setting details.”  By that, I mean facts about the place(s) in which the story occurs.  I started off by writing about the Copper Age valley.  What is the society like?  What is the economy like?  Approximately how many people are there?  Who’s in charge?  How do people make their livelihoods?  What is the geography like?  If there is a priesthood, what is their belief system like?  Is there conflict within the community, or between that and other communities?

Answering questions like these have a tendency to bring interesting plot ideas to the fore.  I decided that story will begin in a village on a lake.  The lake is surrounded by mountains sheathed in ice and snow.  Good farming land is in short supply, so all the buildings are constructed over the water on stilts.  In the same valley to the north is another village, which  has poor farmland.  However, the second village has access to copper goods from outside the valley, and trades these with the first village for grain.

So far, so good.  But what happens when the village on the lake discovers a large supply of copper near their village?  The other village has nothing to trade for grain.  Conflict ensues.

At this point, it’s important to consider how I hope to tell this story.  What will my point-of-view be?  Am the the semi-omniscient god-narrator who tells everything to the reader?  Is the perspective first-person, told only in the voice of the main character(s)?  Just how much backstory will I let into the narrative?  There are no “correct” answers to these questions; it’s just important to have a clear plan from the onset.

I want to use a third-person limited perspective for this novel (by “limited” I mean that the narrator only knows the thoughts and perspectives of the character.  However, I will also switch between the perspectives of different characters.  Of course, that implies that there are multiple characters.  Some emerged organically as I thought through where I would like the story to go, while others were created to fill a strategic need.

An important next step is to develop a strong sense of these characters’ personalities, backgrounds, and desires.  I ask myself, “How does this character look at the world?  Why does he or she look at it this way?  How have his or her past experiences influenced this perspective?  What does he or she hope to go?”  (I explored these ideas in a recent post.)

Having a solid understanding of your characters is critical for at least two reasons: (1) You will be less likely to have characters making decisions that are entirely out of keeping with their personalities (that is, behaving completely irrationally and making your novel unbelievable); and (2) you may find that knowing your character well presents exciting opportunities in the plot that you might not have thought of otherwise.

At this point in the planning process, here’s what I have in hand:

  • Setting (a story universe)
  • A few bare-bones plot ideas (emerging from the setting)
  • Characters (the more detailed, the better*)
  • Point-of-view

*I like to create a table for myself, outlining the main characters and a few other details, like this (from Broken Knife, a manuscript that is ~30% complete, in which characters from many different dimensions are thrown together):

  OVERVIEW OF STORY LOCATIONS AND CHARACTERS
  Dimensions   Time period     Chinese name
  Anthony Ryan   Present day   安东尼
  Cao Cao   2132   曹操
(cao2 cao1)
  Gary Martens   1924   None
  Fidel Castro   1955   菲德尔·卡斯特罗
(fei1de2er3 ka3si1te4luo1)
  Montasiuk   1757   懑她撕有颗
(men4ta1si1you3ke1)
“Star of melancholy tears”
  Gikinakimis   1757   蛤壳娜刻迷色
Montasiuk’s Grandmother
  Zhineng Gongye   2012   智能工业
(zhi1neng2 gong1ye4)
“Intelligent Industries”

 

Once I have Setting, Bare-Bones Plot, and Characters, I feel more confident to begin outlining a plot.  This is typically the point at which I begin dividing the story up into chapters (or whatever type of divisions make sense).

Sometimes I develop a basic outline, with just a few short lines describing what happens in each chapter, like this:
——————–

Chapter 1
Starts with blah-blah-blah.  Here’s the essence of what happens in the middle.  Ends with blah-blah-blah.

Chapter 2
Same pattern as above.

——————–
On the other hand, I sometimes go into a lot more description.  I’m including an outline of the first three chapters of Broken Knife here as an example.  (Please note that I retain full rights over this work.  I have also written the actual chapters for which the outline was developed.)
——————–

Chapter 1:

Cao’s world, 2032 — Shanghai, East Asian Economic Zone

The world is ruled by a single government, and the highest authority of this government is the “Unity Council.”  Seats on the Council are heavily stacked in favour of the Chinese.

At this late stage of the post-industrial era, the Earth’s atmosphere is highly toxic, and not safe for regular human respiration.  Most of the world’s settlements are contained within airtight artificial atmospheres.  However, the cost of maintaining these artificial atmospheres is extremely high, and represents the upper limit on the global economy and human livelihoods in general.

The Unity Council forms a scientific commission to explore options to improve the atmosphere.  Because the commission’s results will be exploratory, they are encouraged by the Council to “think outside the box.”  No idea is too far fetched, they are told.

Cao, a preeminent theoretical physicist, is assigned to the team.  Over the course of their discussion and brainstorming, it becomes clear that his viewpoints differ greatly from the rest of the team (which is comprised of chemical engineers, climatologists, etc.).  Cao is pushed out of the team.

Chapter 2:

The commission presents its results to the Council, and their suggestions are fairly mundane: reducing the emission of toxic gases, and the creation of a battery of air scrubbers at key locations around the globe.

When no mention of Cao’s recommendations is made, he protests angrily.  He states that reducing emissions will only cause an additional burden on an already crippled economy.  Furthermore, he says that to be effective on a global scale, the cost of air scrubbers will be astronomical.  He points knowingly at the climatologists when he adds that the use of scrubbers oversimplifies the complexities of air movements and atmospheric stratification of toxic components.

The Council asks for his alternative.  Cao explains his concept of parallel dimensions.  He emphasizes that he is not referring to multiple universes.  There is only one universe.  However, there are an infinite, and increasing, number of dimensions, existing in synchronicity with our own.  The reason for this phenomenon is choice.  Nature exists, and does not choose.  Even animals, he argues, do not choose.  They exist, follow their instincts, and live according to their passions.  Humans, however, have the ability to choose, and whenever a choice is made, a vacuum is created—the choice not made becomes an absence.  Nature, Cao tells the Council, abhors a vacuum, and rushes to fill it—or rather, to fulfill it.  A split occurs, and a dimension comes into existence in which the “un-choice” is chosen.

Impossible, argues a scientist on the commission.  Matter cannot be created from nothing.  But it is not being created, says Cao.  It is being fulfilled.

Cao explains that he only came to be aware of the existence of parallel dimensions through the measurement of inexplicable resonances and dissonances on an atomic level.  After a lengthy experimental phase, he can now conclude that these reverberations are caused by similarities and differences between the dimensions.  Importantly, if the dissonances were to be amplified, they have the potential to tear a rift in the septa dividing the dimensions.  If done strategically, a puncture in our earth’s atmosphere will allow us to discharge our spent atmosphere and siphon off that of an earth in another dimension.

The Council rules that the idea is completely unethical, and will not be done.  Cao points out that if they choose not to do it, they are only preventing the action from occurring in this dimension.  They are ensuring that it will happen in another dimension.  The Council remains unmoved, and Cao storms from the building.

Chapter 3:

Cao has obtained a truck, and is rumbling his way along a barren, windswept section of the Tibetan Plateau.  It is sunset, and in all directions, there is nothing to be seen but rust-coloured sand, spotted here and there by small, toxic lakes.

He is determined to build his apparatus without the Council’s consent.  It is clear that he is driven by ego, and not by love for humanity.  In fact, he is obviously willing to sacrifice the world whose atmosphere he will steal.  He wants to prove that he is able to do it.

Cao drives into the mountains, where he builds the resonance amplifier.  The apparatus is small—because it operates on an atomic level, it doesn’t need to be large to be powerful.  Cao starts the process, and at first it appears as though nothing has happened.  He expects this.  Slowly, the dissonances increase, and the strangeness builds as a rift opens between dimensions.  Cao is then sucked into the rift.

——————

Personally, I prefer to develop the second, more detailed type of outline, because I find that in the process of writing it out, my mind is making connections and exploring the avenues by which I might tell the story.  The details in the outline easily transfer to the writing of the story itself.

The balancing act, of course, is to write out details, but not to confine the story. You’re not setting hard parameters for the plot.  At the end of the day, doing that will only make the story flat and rigid.  Make sure to leave lots of room for organic creativity.  If the story suddenly demands a shift in plot, be flexible.  However, make sure that you actually think through what those changes mean, and how they would affect the rest of the story as you originally envisioned it.  (We’ve probably all read stories that have conflicting internal structures, and I personally think they originate from the writer making flippant changes on the fly.)

Ideally, I will completely outline a story before actually writing the manuscript. However, for a few stories, I have outlined to a certain point, and then realized that the remainder of the story will take care of itself.  By that, I mean that I’ve established a strong framework for the story (setting, characters, plot), and the conclusion of the story flows naturally from there.  In that case, I get to writing.

As a parting thought, it is worth mentioning that I am focusing my energies on just two of these manuscripts for the time being.  I harbour no delusions of grandeur, and know that I could not work on 14 manuscripts simultaneously.  Well, I suppose I could, but the quality of each one would probably all suffer as a result.  Working on two allows me some variety when I feel frustrated with one or the other.

So, to recap my novel-planning process, I generally follow this pattern:

  1. Explore a landscape (where the story happens)
  2. Consider the possible implications of that landscape on the story
  3. Populate the landscape (create characters)
  4. Develop an intimate understanding of those characters
  5. Establish point-of-view
  6. Build a plot around the actions of the characters on the landscape
  7. Outline the story (to whatever level of detail makes sense)

Again, this is only the way I do it.  Hopefully, this will give you a few ideas as to how you might go about planning your novel in a way that makes sense to you.  I also hope that this post shows how the entire planning process can be exciting, instead of a chore that the writer must complete before getting down to the fun part.  Be the creative demi-god of your domain!

You can also check out a great (and much more succinct) post by elmowrites for her take on planning a novel.