Category: writing advice

Planning My Next Book

The time has come. I’m up to date with all my other projects, and so I’ve begun to turn my attention to the age old question of “What should I write next?” This will be my eighteenth book, if I finish it. (I’ve started five others that I never finished, though it’s been around four years since I did that. I’ve gotten better at finishing books the more practice I’ve gotten with it. I think it has to do with being able to identify a subject that I can make a good run at. The books that fell apart on me before just didn’t have enough substance to maintain an entire novel.)

In this case, I’ve got a good feeling about it. I’m excited to write the book, and really interested to see what will come of it. The topic? A middle grade steampunk western. I’m thinking something in the vein of Silverado, but with gearwork demons, Mormon kung fu missionaries, and an apprentice gearsmith on a quest to find her grandfather.

I’d actually initially planned this as an adult book, but after conferring with my illustrious agent, I discovered steampunk and adults just aren’t doing that well, from a market perspective. On the middle grade side however, it’s smoother sailing. Rather than turning me off from the idea, it intrigued me even more. What could I do with that same concept, but with a tighter, middle grade audience?

People always ask authors where they get their ideas. They come to me every now and then as cool what-ifs. I write them down. This book is actually going to be a sequel of sorts to the short story I wrote at the beginning of the year. (AN INCIDENT AT OAK CREEK, which will actually be coming to a short story anthology near you sometime in the future.) The short story is much more serious, and definitely aimed at an adult audience, just by subject matter and how I dealt with the material.

Once I have a kernel of a story idea, I start to flesh it out, thinking about what sort of conflicts would be interesting with that as the central conceit. Steampunk western, middle grade audience. Who might the characters be? I think through the various things I’ve read and watched to get a taste for what’s been done before. Westerns come in a few different flavors. Lone gunman comes to save a family or redeem himself. Scrappy group of ruffians save a town. Band of outlaws running from the law. That kind of thing.

I tumble through each of those ideas, one at a time, comparing it with the sort of book that’s itching the back of my mind, seeing which ones feel the most promising. Some concepts just appeal to me more, the same way I like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla. Next, I turn to setting details. Where might this happen? Desert? Mountains? Remote? City? I do a bit of research into the time period to get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not. Even in a book with gearwork demons, it’s important to have some concrete sense of reality. (More important, actually.)

I watch movies in the genre I’m approaching. It helps give me more ideas and get excited for the project. I start to write down plot points and highlights. Cool scenes I’d like to write. Then I begin to piece together those scenes in a rough outline that could make sense. That in turn calls for more details and more research as questions arise.

Once I’ve got all that done, I’ll write up a short summary of the book. Maybe two or three pages, keeping in mind overall length. (For this book, I’m going to shoot for 40,000-50,000 words, for example.) I’ll send that summary to my agent and have him pick it apart. Often there are ideas that seemed good in theory that he can identify as glaring problems long before I start actually writing. Better to avoid those early on. Once we’ve kicked the general concept back and forth and have it at a place we’re both happy with, I begin to write.

At that point, it’s all about word speed. I do 1,000 words a day, and so if the book ends up at 50,000 words, it’ll take me around two months to finish. During that process, I inevitably find things in the plot I didn’t like. Things that need to change. (Though I hope I’m doing better at avoiding throwing in random new things just because they seem cool. That usually takes me in places that just get too convoluted and unworkable.) Honestly, that first draft is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s what I look forward to the most. I feel most fulfilled each day as I find out what happens next. As I get to the know the characters better. Revising is important and great, but my biggest love is original composition.

So I’m really excited to be approaching that point again. Wish me luck!

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It’s Often Not about the Performance. It’s about the Competition.

I’ve been watching the Olympics since they started last week, and I was very excited to see Shaun White’s gold medal run last night in the half pipe, as I was to see Chloe Kim’s gold. We let Tomas and DC stay up late last night to see the final runs, and it was pretty riveting stuff.

As I was watching, I compared my investment in the event with the amount I was invested in the female halfpipe a couple of days ago. It was markedly different, and I wondered why that was. Kim and White both have compelling stories. There were strong reasons to root for both of them, but for Kim’s runs, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to see what would happen.

The difference, of course, is the competition. In Kim’s event, she was in the lead the whole time. She seemed like she had the rest of the field simply outclassed. Her first run was a 93.75, which put her in first place by almost eight points. The second round, someone came within four points of her, but by the third round, everyone knew she’d already won.

With White, his first run was a 94.25, only a bit above Kim’s. But there was someone in second place with a 92. Already, he seemed more vulnerable. That score didn’t feel as ironclad. Like Kim, White fell during his second run. But for White, someone stepped up and took first place. Suddenly, he was losing by a point. So when he went down for his final run, everyone knew he’d have to do better. Everything was on the line. Kim ended up with the higher score, but White ended up with the better story.

In writing, this is something that can be easy to forget at times. I’ll be working on a novel and trying to get the main character just right. I want them to be relatable and realistic. I want my readers to be invested in what happens to them. But often the solution to unlocking that isn’t found in the character at all. It’s found in the circumstances around that character. Who he or she is up against. The odds they’re facing.

Generally speaking, if you want the climax to be memorable, you don’t do it by adding more pyrotechnics to the scene. You don’t get it by having the main character be even more awesome. You do it by raising the stakes. Making the opponents stronger and more fearsome. Increasing the odds. The Miracle on Ice isn’t remembered because the favorites won. It’s remembered because the underdogs pulled off the upset.

And there’s your bit of writing advice for the day.

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Taking the First Step

Just a brief thought for you today. (At least, I think it’ll be brief.) I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the creative process, and we were discussing how hard it can be sometimes to take that first step. To actually begin working on whatever it is you’re working on.

This morning, I saw the same feeling arise in the construction process, as we try to decide how to proceed actually building the front steps. (So now we’re talking about the first step quite literally.) I’ve been looking at pictures of houses. Studying front steps as we drive by other homes. Watching videos. Reading articles. And at times, it all seems so clear. I’ll go outside and expect I’ll know just what to do.

Except when I go outside and look at where I want the front steps to go, suddenly there are a slew of questions and doubts. How deep do I need to dig? How wide should the stairs actually be? What will I really make them out of? Because when everything’s theoretical, it’s perfect. It’s this Platonic ideal of “steps” in my mind.

Taking things from that theoretical plane into the actual world is really tricky. You need to make actual decisions. Commit real money. And (what’s worse) make tangible mistakes.

I think that’s what causes me to hesitate more than anything. The fear of Doing It Wrong. And that’s true in the creative process as much as it is in the construction process. Doing something the first time is almost always the easiest. Fixing something done wrong can be really difficult, not to mention embarrassing. Because you’re spending more time fixing something you already spent a whole lot of time doing in the first place.

Of course, I don’t think about all the time I’ve wasted in that hesitation before I begin. That doesn’t seem to count, somehow. And so it’s easy to wait. To plan some more. To think things through yet again.

But sooner or later, you have to pick up that shovel and start digging. And if you make a mistake, you make a mistake. Those stairs aren’t going to build themselves.

Searching for Success

I’ve written this blog pretty much every weekday for about ten years now, give or take. (Actually I just went and checked. My ten year anniversary will be January 17th. Coming right up!) And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in that time, it’s that there’s no way to know ahead of time when a post will be successful or not. I can spend an hour on a post. Pour out my feelings on the page and really put in a ton of effort. The resulting post might be fantastic in my opinion, but the moment I hit “publish”, it’s out of my hands as to whether people read it or not.

Oh, there are some things I can do to try and boost its visibility. I’ve posted some things to Reddit. Reposted things to Facebook later in the day if I feel like a post isn’t getting the traffic it deserves. But the sad truth is that even that isn’t enough to get things read.

Ten years doing this, and I still haven’t gotten it figured out. Yesterday’s quick “Come on, Mitt” post was my most popular post in months, easily. No one reposted it. No one retweeted it. But somehow it managed to find its way to an audience. Other posts end up being more of the “slow and steady wins the race” variety. For example, the one I wrote almost 3 years ago about getting into BYU continues to rack up the views each week. A little here, a little there, but it’s now the 6th most popular post I’ve ever written. It’s the second most popular post people have read this year. The second most popular post people have read this quarter. The second most popular post people have read this month. The third most popular post they’ve read this week.

You get the picture.

I don’t do anything to promote that post now. (Well, until this entry, I guess.) But people find it.

In a way, this is really frustrating. I write my posts so that people will read them. All of them. They’re all important to me (well, most of them, at least.) And if I could figure out a way to have them all get the attention they deserve, I’d do it. But in another way, it’s comforting. Because the same thing happens with everything out there. The books I write, for one thing.

I’ve finished 15 novels now. Two of them are professionally published. 2 are bouncing around editors’ desks, still trying to find a home. 1 is about to go out. But for all of them, once I’ve written them, much of their success is out of my hands. I can write blog posts. Do book signings. School visits. Conferences. But in the end, so much of their success is dependent on things other than me. I can move the needle only so much.

In a way, that’s depressing. But in a larger way, it’s freeing. It’s a big relief to know that if a book doesn’t do well, it’s not all on me.

And that’s my deep thought for today.

Heavy Meta: Interview with Bryce Moore

Suffering from election fatigue? Have I got you covered! Listen to me talk about anything *but* the election for once. It’s a recording of this week’s edition of my radio show!

Granted, it’s sort of a podcast where I’m a special guest on my own podcast, but I didn’t ask the questions (and I didn’t know what they’d be ahead of time), so it’s not like this was staged or anything. Just a good old fashioned 20 minute discussion about my thoughts on writing. I thought it turned out pretty well, though perhaps I’m biased.

As a bonus, there’s a top 10 list of movies about writers and writing, made up by yours truly. Tell me how badly I messed it up.

(And go vote if you haven’t already!)

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