Archive | October, 2010

What If You Have A Better Novel Idea?

What do you do if you get a better idea for a novel while you’re writing the one you’re on? Should you go write the new one, or should you show a little persistence and finish the old?

Ron posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

After months of research and Snowflaking I started writing my first novel, an action oriented spy story based on true events with a lot of twists in the plot. I enjoy writing it, but a new story has emerged in my head and it really wants to get out. It’s about a recently divorced father trying to get a grip on his life, but falling in love with his teenage son’s girlfriend. No exploding helicopters here.

Though I’m neither teenage nor divorced, I really enjoy snowflaking this new story and all the Powerful Emotional Experiences I can put into it.

My dilemma and question for you is: should I finish my spy story first or should I go for the second, possibly more inspired story?

Randy sez: There are a couple of factors you should consider here before you abandon Story #1 for Story #2:

  • Author readiness. Just how close to getting published are you? (You might want to read my article on the publishing roadmap before you answer.) If you’re a Freshman or a Sophomore, then your first novel is very unlikely to get published. So there’s no real point in switching to a new novel. Save it for later and finish the one you’re on now.
  • Story quality. Just how much better is this new idea than the one you’re working on? It sounds like an interesting idea, with shades of American Beauty and various other movies and novels thrown in, but unless it is staggeringly better than the story you’re writing now, I’d say you should stick with the one you’re on. You don’t want to get into the habit of abandoning every good idea you ever have as soon as a new one comes along. If you do, then you’ll never finish anything. Finishing is always a good idea unless you’re working on a story that you already know is hopeless.

So Ron, unless you’re an advanced writer AND this new idea is amazingly better than the old one, I’d say to put it in the bank and save it for your next story. That’ll give you some motivation to finish the one you’re on.

I have an “idea file” that has several different ideas for books in various stages of composting. This guarantees that I’ll never run out of ideas.

What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Have any of you ever abandoned one novel for another? Why did you decide to switch? What was the result? Post a comment here and tells us all about it.

I’ve been out of town twice in the last two weeks. The first time I went to Houston to teach a one-day conference for the Northwest Houston RWA. The second time I went to Denver to do a similar one-day conference for the Heart of Denver Romance Writers. Both weekends were great fun and I met a lot of new people. I got to hang out with my friend Margie Lawson and I met several of my Loyal Blog Readers. So it was wonderful, but also exhausting.

I’m glad to be home now for the rest of the year. I don’t foresee much travel during the next several months. Which means I’ll have a bit more time to blog. August through October are always my busy season.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Does Age Matter in Fiction Writing?

How old is too old when you’re a fiction writer? Is there an “age bias” in the publishing world?

The last week has been busy with travel and all that, so I’m just now catching my breath.

Martha posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, I’m a fan, needless to say, and I read your blog daily. This morning’s question brought up one that has been bothering me for some time and that is, when is a writer too OLD to be considered by agents and publishers? One hears all the time that agents/publishers want to develop a career novelist, one who will produce book after book and make the agents and publishers rich. But what about those of us who are seniors. Should we keep mum about our age in our queries or just wait and cross that bridge when and if it comes up? And how about meeting and pitching an agent at a conference? No chance hiding one’s age there, so do you have any advice for what to say or do to mitigate any prejudice they might have about oldsters?

Randy sez: I’m told that age bias is a serious problem in screenwriting. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t do screenplays.

In the world of novel writing, there may possibly be an age bias, but it’s really the least of your worries.

Your main worry with fiction writing is “craft bias.” Agents and editors are massively biased against poor craft. They are massively biased in favor of excellent craft.

It’s that simple. There are any number of examples of fiction writers who’ve published novels in their 70s. Fiction is about life, and the longer you’ve lived, the more you probably know about life.

If you were extremely old, your age might even be a selling point, as it was for 88 year old Helen Hoover Santmyer’s novel “… And Ladies of the Club.”

This is a good time to mention the “Fiction After 50” blog, by my friends Ron and Janet Benrey. They published their first novel after the age of 50, and their blog is about the advantages of being an older writer.

Martha, my advice is to not mention your age at all in your queries. It’s essentially irrelevant. What matters is your craft. Great writing is great writing. If you write well, you can get published at any age.

Go to it.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

If Your Life is Boring, Can Your Novel Be Great?

What happens if you’re a plain old ordinary person trying to write a novel with characters who are anything but plain, old, or ordinary? Can you write great fiction if your own life is boring?

Tammy posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

Just a quick question and one that’s been bugging me a lot since I finally decided to stop dreaming and start writing.

What if you think your life is boring?

I understand it’s a necessity to draw on experiences you’ve had in your own life to enrich your novel, but I honestly think my life has been dull, run-of-the-mill everyday toast with butter boring. I have a vivid imagination and I’ve been relying on that to get me where I want to go with my writing but I’m starting to find that characterisation is the bane of my existence. Is it because I’m a ‘never bungee jumping’, ‘won’t smoke or drink’, ‘can’t bear the thought of short-changing someone’, kind of plain Jane?

I’ve tried some psychology books about different habits in different personalities but I still can’t turn my character from a stick figure into a fleshy Mona Lisa!


How do you take mundane and make it something magnificent?

Randy sez: Join the club, Tammy. I know a lot of writers. The vast majority of them live tofu lives and still manage to write hot curry fiction.

I know a sweet and gracious Southern lady who regular murders people in her novels. I know a guy who preaches in his church every Sunday and writes novels with alcoholics and pimps and . . . lawyers. I know a mild-mannered mom who writes werewolf erotica.

Your characters are not you and they don’t have to be like you. They can do all the bizarro things you’d never do. That’s probably why most writers write — so they can vicariously do all those things that they’d never do.

Tammy, I’ve never bungee-jumped either. I don’t smoke or drink. And I do my best not to short-change people. Are you telling me I’m . . . boring? Not possible. I’m a geek, and geeks are the new cool.

I haven’t seen your writing and I’ve never met you, but my bet is that the problem isn’t with you. If you’re like most writers, the problem is with your writing.

Which is good news, because you can make improvements to your writing a lot easier than you can make changes in yourself.

In fact, the real problem appears to be pretty simple: Your characters are underdeveloped. There’s a cure for that, and it comes in three parts:

  1. Read up. There are plenty of good books on characters. I recommend Brandilyn Collins’ book GETTING INTO CHARACTER. Also, Margie Lawson’s course on EMPOWERING CHARACTER EMOTIONS. And while I’m passing out recommendations, chapters 7 and 12 of my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES are pretty decent too.
  2. Write on. There is no substitute for getting words on paper. Every day. You get good at brain surgery by doing brain surgery. You get good at writing by writing.
  3. Get critiqued. Every writer is her own worst critic, so you have no business critiquing your own work. You need a second opinion — preferably from somebody who is one part nice, two parts honest, and three parts well-trained in the art of fiction. A professional novelist can see problems that you’d never find on your own, if you’re willing to listen and not argue.

So Tammy, don’t worry about being a Plain Old Ordinary Person. You’ll probably live longer not smoking or drinking or jumping off bridges or whatever it is you think would make you more exciting. If you want to write about something you’ve never done before, the information on what it’s like is only a Google away, and you can probably interview online twenty people who’ve done exactly the thing your character wants to do.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Writing Fictional Characters Who Aren’t Like You

Is it OK to write characters who are older than you are? More mature? Characters who’ve gone through life experiences you haven’t?

Monica posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hello, Randy- I happened across your blog about three weeks ago, and it has really encouraged and challenged me- so thank you!

I read your blog yesterday about 15 year-old Colby, and in reading your response I happened across the dilemma that had been growing in my mind.

You see, I’ve been working on and writing a novel for about eight months, and I’ve nearly finished the first draft and have been going back giving everything more detail, more background, etc. As I’ve gone back and read it, I realized that my characters lacked “pop”. Part of this problem was the fact that I wrote most of the novel for the NaNoWriMo challenge in November, and planning/writing at high speed is not conducive to fleshing out characters. I am 17, and I am writing about adult characters in their late-twenties and on, and I’m worried that my lack of experience of being that old is inhibiting my ability to portray characters of that age.

Should I hold off for a few years on this novel, and work on something that has younger characters? Or should I just continue working on and rewriting this novel, and at the worst treat it as a cringe-worthy, but necessary part of my journey as writer?

Randy sez: A lot depends on where your heart is. If your heart is in writing this story, then write the story, whether or not you’ve got the life experience to write the characters credibly.

As I’ve said in previous posts on this blog, you don’t have to be like your characters to write them. You don’t have to be a man to write male characters; you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish characters; you don’t have to be a Martian to write Martian characters.

The more unlike yourself your characters are, the more research you need to do. Monica, your characters are about ten years older than you. If you know a lot of twenty-somethings, then you might very well do just fine with writing people that age. Or not.

The easy way to find out is to get a critique from a few people in that age group. If they think you nailed your characters, then you probably did. If they don’t, then you probably didn’t.

One advantage that any outsider has in writing about characters is that the outsider sees things that the insiders take for granted. So you may be able to put some new insights into your characters. Or you might end up, as you suggested, with a piece of cringe-worthy shlock. There’s no way to know until you try.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. There’s no way to be a great writer unless you’re first ready to be a horrible, wretched, shlocky, cliche-ridden, miserably bad writer. You get good by starting out bad. Some people can’t handle that. Some people can.

There’s a word for people who can: “Authors.”

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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