Done Like Dinner: 5 Theories On When A Story Is Finished

IMG_1645

These pretzels know the end is coming.

1. When you reach the end. The problem, of course, is that you don’t know which end. The end of the zero draft? That might not make sense after edits. The end of the second draft? But what about the next round? The end of the edits? Hahaha, just kidding, edits never end.

2. When you can’t stand to look at it any more. This is when I usually send things to beta readers. So, an ending of sorts, but I wouldn’t call it done. Not with the comments that usually come back.

3. When you’re happy with it. This would be great…if there was ever a writer who was completely, one thousand percent satisfied with something they’d written. I’m not sure such a person exists outside the tales of old. Show me this unicorn so that I may ask their secrets.

4. When it’s published. This, once, was the final end. Once it’s published, you can’t change it any more. Or you shouldn’t; Pamela gets weirder and weirder with each version. But now, through the miracle of ebooks, publishers can change books after the reader buys them. Which I’m pretty sure is the opening of 1984.

5. When you have to do something else. This is my preferred level of doneness: when I could change stuff, but, really, I’d rather be working on a different project. Those sequels aren’t going to write themselves. Or that short story. Or that completely different novel.

How about you? When do you consider a story done?

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14 Steps To Planning For That Big Writing Project.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest

Better fuel up.

1. Figure out how long it is. Or should be. Or will be.

2. Figure out how many words you can write/edit/extrude/divine in a day without completely losing your shit.

3. Berate yourself for not being able to get as many words done as a famous person/another writer/some imaginary version of yourself.

4. Drink.

5. Get a calculator. Or your phone. They’re the same thing.

6. Divide the number of words needed by the number of words per day OH GOD I’M ASKING YOU TO DO MATH THIS IS WHY YOU TOOK UP WRITING YOU HATE MATH.

7. Figure out how many days a week you can devote to this project. Don’t forget to include other obligations, including but not limited to: jobs, families, pets, exercise, sleep, world domination, reading, taxonomical classification of nose hairs, and banned genetic experimentation on the ants in your backyard.

8. Divide days needed by days per week. This is your number of weeks.

9. Add, like, ten percent to that number, because shit happens.

10. Add on an extra week to account for the time in the middle when you’ll realize you made a mistake four chapters ago and now have to fix everything.

11. Examine the resulting timeline. Don’t forget to include any scheduled vacations.

12. Realize you’ll be done shortly after Christmas. Christmas, 2035.

13. Drink again.

14. Start.

Round and Round: How To Re-Outline A Writing Project Because You Made A Terrible, Terrible Mistake

GOTG

Spin me right round, baby, right round.

1. Write down what happened. In your current draft, anyway. Simple sentences, scene by scene. Cover everything. Everything important. Hint: if you leave it out of your outline, it’s probably something you should think about cutting, because you couldn’t be arsed to write one goddamn sentence about it.

2. Code them. If you’re using Scrivener or Trello or some other index card maker thing, then mark the scenes somehow to indicate different metrics. I mark plots/subplots and viewpoint character. Then I lay them all out in order and see how they stack up. Does one of the subplots disappear, only to reappear at the end? Or never reappear at all? Am I spending more time inside a secondary character’s head than I am inside the main character’s? Cast the augury of the cards. They will reveal your weakness, through which your enemies may strike at thee.

3. Patch and fill and cut. Move stuff around, change viewpoint characters, create some scenes that resolve that subplot…or cut it altogether. Make it count or flush it.

4. Write down what should have happened. New set of cards, writing down what needs to happen now that you’ve changed fucking everything. This is the worst. It’s okay. We’re almost done.

5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Mark up your new cards with pacing elements: action, exposition, character revelation. Does the flow work now that you’ve added in things? If not, get more cards. Oh god, more cards. Keep working at it until it flows like sweet, sweet bourbon. Which reminds me: you might need some bourbon.

6. Mark the scenes as Stop, Go, and Slow The Hell Down. I use the Label function to turn my cards green, red, and yellow. Stop is a new scene entirely. Go is a scene that can be taken 90% verbatim from the old draft. Slow The Hell Down is a scene that needs to be tinkered with in order to fit. Try not to freak out over the amount of red and yellow cards.*

7. Begin. Again. This time with a plan.

*For example, I sat down with a huge coffee at the local caffeine pusher and worked my way through all these bloody cards and here’s my breakdown: 13% Stop, 55% Go, 32% Slow The Hell Down.

Guest Post–Factory Defaults: On Character Motivation

No, you’re the one being irrational!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

The other day one of my characters said something stupid. Not stupid like ‘dude, read a book’ but stupid like ‘dude, stop systematically destroying every good thing in your life.’ Thing was, the character saying it was not a stupid man; he was in fact highly intelligent, and compassionate enough to care about hurting the person to whom he was speaking. So why did he still say something he knew would be a painful verbal blow to a man he loved?

Because, particularly in the heat of the moment, we (meaning humans) don’t act intellectually; we act reactively. And our reactions are based not on logic and reason but on habit and compulsion.

Most of us are motivated at least somewhat by noble aims and ideals we strive towards but, for my money, I say those motivations take a back seat to the things more fervently fuelling us: the wants, fears and world view that are a product of every moment of experience preceding this one. If this wasn’t true, any of us that have ever decided we’d like to get into better shape would just go to the gym, as opposed to partaking in daily internal negotiations that somehow end up with us eating nachos and watching Netflix instead. Any of us that have longed to be in a loving relationship would seek one out enthusiastically, as opposed to being too wary to ask that girl out because what if she says ‘no’ and even if she says ‘yes’ initially every moment afterward is just another opportunity to get hurt as badly as you did last time.

We are less graceful than reason. We bottle things up when we should let them out, and we lie when we should speak honestly. We snap at people we love and we drink when we swore the last one would be our last. We head down roads we know will lead to folly.

Writing believable (and interesting) characters means making them just as flawed and prone to poor choices as ourselves. But here’s the catch: They need to have reasons for making those poor choices. They can be terrible reasons, but they must make sense for your character, even if that sense falls to shit when examined anywhere outside of their psyche. A psyche that will, again, be the sum of their collected experience.

So an intelligent and compassionate character can choose to rip into his lover because, in his youth, every person he ever loved was stolen from him in an act of brutal violence. Aside from leaving him obsessed with becoming stronger (so that never happens again) the experience has, on a deeper level, left him terrified of the pain of both loss and survivor’s guilt. So when the man he loves expresses reasonable disapproval of even a minor infraction, his reaction is not to open a patient and reasonable dialogue to work towards solution, but to lash out, and declare he never cared to begin with. Because, if he can convince himself of that, maybe he won’t have to experience the pain of loss and guilt all over again.

By no means does this mean every moment of back story for every player that appears need be explained in your story. But even if not one single shred of flashback ever makes it into your pages, having the shit sorted in your head matters. Knowing your character’s past and factory defaults lends them a consistency that readers will pick up on, even if that is a consistency to be inconsistent. Believe me when I say it shows if you just lend motivations at random because it suits your plot outline.

Because here’s the thing: when you put the time into breathing complex life into your characters, not only will they act in ways they didn’t intend to, they’ll act in ways you didn’t intend them to. Their dialogue will run away from you. They’ll fight, when you expected them to run. They will walk up to a situation you have crafted for them, cross their arms, look you square in the eye and declare ‘No. This is not me. I don’t do this thing.’ And then you can ask them why and they’ll tell you all about that thing that happened in the dark basement of their brother’s pub when they were sixteen and you’ll start wondering if maybe you should create a therapist for them because that shit is fucked up, yo.

Much like you continue to learn about your friends (and enemies) the longer you know them, so it will (or should) be with your characters. Character creation is an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the imaginary people in your head.

And people wonder why writers drink.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

The Only Two Tools Writers Need

Time to get rid of that special software that promises to write your novel for you.

Let’s talk about writing tools.

There are eleventy billion products out there that will attempt to convince you that you need them to write. Software. Notebooks. Workshops and courses. Special pens that make coffee and are also vibrators.* Some of these things might help some people. But, aside from things to write with and on, there are only two tools you really need when it comes to writing, and both of them are mental.

Are you ready?

Your two tools are: the magic wand and the sledgehammer.

The magic wand** is your creativity and wonder. It has a sign that says Ideas come from right fucking here, asshole.*** This is the thing that shows you all those possibilities. Everything you can possibly create comes from here.

But the magic wand, for all its power, is useless on its own. It’s fun, sure. It always keeps you entertained. But it’s incapable of making anything.

For that you need the sledgehammer.

The sledgehammer doesn’t give a shit about magic. It’s about results. It takes the ideas and makes something out of them. Stories, mostly. Every time you sit down to grind out the word count, that’s the sledgehammer at work.

And, like the magic wand, it is also useless on its own. With no magic, your writing will lack life. Ever read a story that felt like a DVR programming manual? That’s a sledgehammer with no magic wand. The story gets finished, but you’re left wondering why you bothered in the first place.

Here’s another way to break it down:

Magic Wand: Holy shit, check out this dinosaur ninja I just thought up, it has lasers and claws and is also a princess, oh my god, hahahahahah

Sledgehammer: Turn on the computer. Let’s figure out how to make this work. Oh, and you’ve got 1000 words to go today.

Of course, they don’t always work this well together. Sometimes the magic wand gives you samurai unicorns and the sledgehammer thinks that’s stupid. And sometimes the sledgehammer builds something that the magic wand thinks is booooooorrrrrring. They fight. They work at cross purposes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever get it together. But, like the odd pairing in every buddy cop movie, if you keep throwing them into ridiculous situations, they eventually figure out that they work better together.

So strengthen both. Absorb the weirdness that the magic wand runs on. Hone your practical skills so the sledgehammer is easier to lift. With those two in your toolbox, you’ll be amazed at what you make.

*Could someone invent this real quick?

**Bonus fact: The Husband used to have a magic wand at his place of work, for customers who demanded the impossible. When new regulations required that everything be labelled, he even labelled it ‘magic wand’.

***Magic does not equal nice.

Livin’ In A Material World: Characters and Objects

You want a signature object? Try not thinking of this as a Sherlock Holmes hat.

I’m this close to buying a pendant off Etsy because it’s very much like something one of my characters wears. In fact, at this point, it’s damn near identical, because when I saw this version, the one in my book subtly changed to match it. It was too perfect for the character, and now I’m trying to decide if I want a copy of my own to wear while writing about this guy kicking ass and taking names.*

Why? Because things are important.

You can make this as materialistic as you want, but humans place a lot of stock in things. Tools. Symbols. Whether they’re things we need to do our jobs or just things that make us feel like us, things are a part of how we see ourselves and how others see us. A surprising amount of people have a signature item, something that’s always with them and without which they would feel a little…off. Maybe you’re that guy who always wears big leather boots, or has a huge collection of comic book t-shirts**. Maybe you’re that lady who loves red lipstick.*** Or you could be that person with the really cool glasses that you wear all the time. Nor does the item have to be fashion-related. It could be a holy symbol you wear beneath your clothes, or your lucky underpants. It could be a book.

All you armchair philosophers out there who are getting ready to tell me that those things don’t make us who we are…I know they don’t. Because that’s ass-backwards. They’re a physical manifestation of who we are, and who we want the world to think we are. Inside becoming outside.

Characters are the same. They have symbols. Things that they always have with them, that in a small way helps them feel like themselves. So if you really want to get inside their skin…think about that stuff. Give them tokens. Pieces of their history that they carry around, readable to anyone who knows the code. The guy who owns that necklace I’m thinking about buying? He’s had it since he was thirteen, when he killed something to get the pieces of the pendant. The part-time sheriff of his piss-ant little one horse town hammered it together for him so he wouldn’t forget. And he never has.

So, turn out your character’s pockets. Check their clothes and their bags. What are they carrying that’s theirs in more ways than just possession? What defines them, in their own eyes or in the eyes of others?

Figure that out, and you’ll know more about them.

*Ah, who am I kidding? I know I’m going to order this.
**Bonus fact: I am both these guys.
***I’m also this lady.

The Power Of Hate: Making Monsters

You wanna get a drink after we’re done burning this place down?

The opposite of the hero is not the villain*. It is the monster.

The hero and the villain are often flip sides of the same coin. One dark and one light, they nevertheless have a connection. A common background, a common cause, a shared set of ideals…the villain has something of the hero’s, just twisted.

The monster, however, is a different beast altogether. They can sometimes be the villain, but not always; sometimes they’re an associate or a secondary villain, sometimes they’re a henchman** who lurks in the corner, exuding menace like Axe Body Spray at a junior high dance. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they are the one who does the unthinkable: sets fire to the house with the kids still inside, butchers the village even after they collected the taxes, lets the virulent toxin loose in the air recycling systems of the old folk’s space station. The monster goes toward evil—and then goes a step further.

If you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie where there was a bad guy…and then the guy that you really hated, you’ve met the monster.

Sometimes the villain and the monster are the same person. One memorable Stephen King book I read had the villain, very early on in the book, beat a dog to death because it tore his pants. It was a horrifying act, clearly defining that man as both the villain and a monster. Heroes are often said to have a ‘Save the Cat’ moment—the point in the story where they, literally or figuratively, save a cat from a burning building because they’re the hero, god damn it. Monsters can have the opposite: a ‘Kick the Cat’ moment. Or, in this case, kick the dog. The point where they hurt someone because they can.

To take a pop culture reference: in the Harry Potter series***, Voldemort is the villain, hands down. But Bellatrix Lestrange is the monster. [Spoilers coming, though if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies by now, I doubt you’re going to, so quit your fucking complaining.] She kills Sirius, tortures Hermione, and is not only responsible for the worst crime of the entire series, but gloats about it. The characters fear Voldemort; they hate Bellatrix.

And that’s the point of the monster: to make us hate. It’s an emotional investment in the story. Just like the characters we love, the ones we hate draw us in. Some villains we can understand, or even empathize with, despite their actions. But not these guys. We just want them to die. Or, at the very least, be confined to the deepest, darkest prison imaginable with no hope of parole. They become the lightning rod for our desire for revenge and we want to see them go the fuck down.

Even better: because of their nature, we can safely hate them. They have no hope of redemption. There is no saving the monsters.

Nor does there need to be. Because there’s nothing that gets your audience going like the character they love to hate.

*Or not always. Read the rest of the post, ding bat.
**Women are significantly underrepresented in the henching fields.
***Using this one because I’m reading it again.