On Deviating From Your Outline (and why you should do it)

Writing is an art form, an extension of our vibrant imagination put into the written word. Writing is a artistic expression of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, where the turn of a phrase can excite an audience and a fictional character can tug at our hearts. There should be no doubt that the art of writing is intertwined with an author’s muse, inspiration, and creativity.

But when a writer first conceives of a story, what does he/she do? Create an outline of course! But when we generate outlines, we are putting our story into a box. Albeit, the author pours his/her creativity into the outline, but I fear that for some the creativeness of their ingenuity stops there.

As a writing exercise, try thinking of an alternative plot point from what you currently have planned, and begin outlining the events that would occur from this new pivot point in your novel. Then compare the two story paths (original vs. new); which one was better for you?

I recently did this and was thrilled with the results! My original outline didn’t capture all the particular details that lead up to Chapter 9, so upon my arrival at this point in my story, I realized my characters were stuck. There was now an obstacle that wasn’t there in my outline. I was forced to improvise – and that is when I had this epiphany!

The more I write, the more I favor organic character development – and by extension: story development. I am usually a big planner, down to every detail, so I know how important story outlines are, but now I try to keep my outlines at a high level so that I won’t stifle my creativity as I write.

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Conducting Research for Your Fantasy Novel

As every author must inevitably do, whether it occurs during the writing process or when an editor is fact-checking your work, research must be conducted. I would like to proclaim that no novel in existence has ever been written without a certain level of research. However, in the fantasy genre, I think many new authors feel that the genre itself is an excuse for not researching historical facts, which is something that I believe is hurting new authors.

There are ample amounts of historical knowledge that span all of the various medieval eras and cover what war was like, of what life was like (for nobles and serfs), and what knighthood was really like. George R. R. Martin has always touted that authors should read non-fiction as much as fiction. He has a list of reading recommendations in his FAQ page under the question: “How do you research your novels?”

As far as direct research is concerned for the fantasy genre, I recently stumbled across a few excellent books. The first (The Timeline of Medieval Warfare) details the strategies of war throughout the 11th – 15th centuries, while the second (Knight) details the training, the life, the chivalry, and the honor of what it was really like to be a knight. 

Books such as these are filled with the things that can bring your novel to life. Not only do these books provide a window into the medieval eras, but they can inspire entire stories too.

Though, inspiration can be found anywhere. It was after I watched the Chinese film Red Cliff, that I realized I wanted to convey a story of strategic warfare much like the film, where two generals are trying to outwit each other in a chess-like fashion of war. But in order to do so successfully, I began to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Within the first chapter, I learned so much that I was overflowing with ideas for my characters!

Though books are not the only medium to provide research. I began using Netflix to search for medieval documentaries, and I found a great film called: Medieval Warfare: Agincourt. I learned a lot about the bow, and how far and fast an archer can shoot, what the different arrow tips are for, and how expensive it was for the king to employ archers in his army. Things such as these provide the realism that keeps your reader within their state of suspended disbelief. So be sure to use every medium at your disposal to absorb the information you need to bring realism and inspiration to your novel.

As my final caution to new writers, I’ll leave you with this: Learning so many things will make you want to insert all of it into your story, but you should know when not to say too much. The story always needs to be the focus of your writing.

Book Review: The Tyranny of The Night

RATING: 4/5 Stars

OVERVIEW: The Tyranny of the Night is the first book of Glen Cook’s newest series: The Instrumentalities of the Night. It’s a fantasy novel that is targeted toward an adult audience.

PLOT: It tells the tale of how a soldier named Else encounters a minor god, but doesn’t know that it is beyond something he can kill. Ignorant to the strength of the creature, he fights it and wins. This draws him much unwanted attention from the creatures of the Night as they send two of its once-human agents to try to hunt him down.
Else’s success over the minor-god earns him his next mission where he must infiltrate the enemy as a spy under a new identity. After finding work and gleaning information, his skill in battle and knowledge of warfare earns him many promotions. He becomes torn between his new identity and the one he left behind as he finds himself now leading a new crusade against his own people.
However, the Instrumentalities of the Night were determined to get their revenge. After a failed assassination attempt that was thwarted by other dark forces of the Night, the two soultaken hunters finally catch up to Else on the battlefield, hoping to execute the Godslayer. I shall leave the ending to you.

REVIEW: Glen Cook writes in a style that is unlike any other author I’ve ever encountered. It took some getting used to before I fell into his rhythm. In addition, this was another book that didn’t capture my intrigue until 300 pages in, which is where multiple story lines began to entwine. But, once I reached that point in the story, I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.
Since the character Else tries to associate himself with very powerful people (heads of state, patriarchs, etc) to glean the best information he can, this book follows the political side of how wars are declared and fought in that world. As such, this book is overflowing with characters, far too many to remember – though Glen Cook does a good job of reminding the reader who each character is once their name resurfaces within the story. But it was still confusing, and would probably be best understood if this book was read in one sitting. But to add to the confusion, there were multiple lands and cities that were referenced again and again, but unlike many fantasy novels, this one does not have a map of the world. I had no reference-point to understand the layout of the land, which I would have appreciated a lot, considering the vast amount of cities that are mentioned throughout this novel.
Those were my only complaints, so on the flip side, I must say that Cook’s writing is wonderful. Any fan of sword-and-sorcery fantasy would appreciate the fantastical elements that were included throughout this novel (such as rare magical weapons and trinkets, sorcerers that are weakened by silver, and the creatures of the Night that constantly haunt the land). I can honestly say this, “Glen Cook delivered.” Every character had their own unique personality and his descriptions evoked my imagination to conjure every scene in my mind’s eye. I can honestly say, I look forward to completing the series.

Turn your Fantasy Novel into a RPG

Most Novembers, authors focus on dumping 50,000 words onto the page in one month, but this article is for those of you that want to try something different by turning your novel into a Role Playing Game. What better way to do it than by joining National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) this coming November? “But it conflicts with NaNoWriMo,” you say. Have no fear because you can do both! It’s called being a NaNo Rebel, and it’s never too early to start.

RPG’s and novels go hand-in-hand more than ever before. Take a look at the wealth of fantasy novels published by Wizards of the Coast (D&D), Games Workshop (Warhammer), and Paizo (Pathfinder). Even video games such as Elder Scrolls, Dungeon Siege, Gears of War, Halo, and Fable (just to name a few) publish books so fans can go deeper into the lore. The fact is: They help sell each other. Those that play table top RPGs will also enjoy reading the books, and those that enjoy the books might want to play a game set in the same world. Tabletop RPGs make up roughly a $40-$50 million industry. Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones have all capitalized on this and you should too.

So how does one go about building a RPG? Well, it’s an arduous undertaking and requires a LOT of work. I am in the beginning stages of gamifying my novel (plus designing my own rules) and after conducting some major research, I’m happy to say that there are plenty of options at your disposal – some of which can cut your work-load in half! For example, you don’t have to invent your own rules. Numerous game systems have published their rules with “open licenses” (much like open source software) so they are free to use. However, some other systems are attached to Trademarked logos (like D20 and GURPS), so the use of their licensed rules are a bit more restrictive. Whichever you choose, you can adopt their rule systems into your game as long as you follow their license agreement. Below are the most popular to choose from:

By using one these pre-designed rule systems, it drastically reduces your work. All that is left is for you to design is the three necessary components that accompany your chosen rule system. These are:

  1. The campaign setting that details the world which tells of the politics, the religions, the world history, the currency, the organizations, the world map, and anything else that will help the Game Master run the game.
  2. The list of monsters and their stats for the players to encounter.
  3. The player-character options (such as races, classes, magic spells, feats, skills, equipment, etc).

Once you are done with your first draft, you get to reward yourself by play testing the rules! This is where you validate that the rules you created are fair and balanced. If you don’t have a group of friends willing to go through the growth pains of your game, MeetUp.com is a great place to find local playtesters. Keep in mind that it is important that you document why you decided to make a rule a certain way so that you have a log of your development process. Maintaining a detailed log will help you version control your rules so that you don’t ever find yourself accidentally inserting an old rule that you had eliminated previously.

Still too much work? You don’t need go the whole nine yards; you can design a simple game supplement that only contains a few extras from your fantasy novel that can be plugged in to a popular RPG. Gary Vannucci, a self-published fantasy author, has done this with his world of Ashenclaw by building 1 new race, 2 new classes, plus new monsters that were from his novel for use with D&D 4th Edition rules. I had asked Mr. Vannucci what sort of success he has seen from his D&D supplement and he replied, “Very little to be honest…a lot of work and so far, smattering of sales here and there.”

So what is the viability of actually turning all this work into a worthwhile amount of success? First, I’ll mention that places such as Dragon Magazine, which is a monthly publication for D&D related topics (and is also a qualified publication for membership to the SFWA), can publish articles and some original game content. But if you’re like me and want to go big game fishing, independent game publishers like Troll Lord Games accept business inquiry emails and may be willing to publishing your original game content. In addition, book publishers like Hydra Publications have created a gaming-division of their company that currently only accepts submissions for use in Primal Earth (a Pathfinder-based game), which is a prime example of the bond between novels and RPGs. I would imagine that if you authored a novel and developed the RPG material for it, you would be the total package to publishers like Hydra. Just remember: If you build it, they will come.

If you want to see a longer list of open source RPGs, check out this link: http://www.homebrew.net/games/

If you care to follow the development of my RPG campaign world and rule system, check out my other blog: http://thornwall.wordpress.com/

How to Write a Synopsis For Your Novel

Synopsis of Hamlet. This mind map gives a visual display of why it is so difficult to capture everything from a novel within the short length of a synopsis.

In my journey toward seeking representation, I have queried over 50 literary agents, all of which did not require a synopsis as part of the submission. I kept a reserve of ~20 other literary agents that I would submit to if my first round of submissions didn’t go so well. These 20 all require synopsis’s.  Unfortunately for authors, literary agents do not have standardized requests. Some ask for 1 page synopsis’s and others want 2 pages (a rare few even ask for a 3-5 page synopsis), which of course must be submitted along with your Query Letter and/or a sample of your work. While I do have one very promising agency reviewing my manuscript (fingers crossed!), I am preparing for round 2 (just in case) and just completed my synopsis.

SYNOPSIS TIPS & FORMAT:

At the top of the page (left or center) provide this info: Synopsis of “Title”. Genre: ____ Word Count: _____ By: “Your Name” (however, you can put your pen name if you wish).

Since most agents/publishers ask for either a 1 page or a “brief” synopsis, I think it’s best that you craft it to be within 1 page, single spaced. A synopsis is a narrative of your story, written with the same style and sense of excitement and wonder of your novel. Do not simply say, “Here is the main character, and this is what happens to him/her,” you must make the synopsis drool-worthy.

Synopses are always, ALWAYS, written in 3rd person and in the present tense. No exceptions! The synopsis must introduce your main characters. When you do so, you must make their full name in ALL CAPS, but only for the first time you mention their name. This makes it easy for a reader to locate the introduction of a character.

You do not have to detail all your sub-plots or all your characters, but the main story line must come across in your narrative. So it is best to ensure that you have captured all the major scenes and major plot elements and conflicts, and most importantly: The ending. Yes, you must give away your ending. How you conclude your story is especially important to agents and publishers.

PRO TIP #1:

Have a reader that is unfamiliar with your story read your synopsis and give you feedback. It can be difficult for you to be objective about your synopsis since you understand the meaning behind every sentence.

PRO TIP #2:

Think outside the box. You don’t have to write your synopsis in the same order of events as your novel. You can explain things out of order, which can help when you are trying to condense things down to one page.

PRO TIP #3:

Before writing your synopsis, bulletize the main points that you want to write about. This will help keep your novel at a high level and will help prevent you from diving into the details.

PRO TIP #4:

Don’t go down a rabbit hole. Beware of explaining one event/scene that forces you to explain another. Rabbit holes add additional details to your synopsis that only raise more questions than answers.

PRO TIP #5:

Less is more.

PERSONAL OPINION:

Why did I delay writing a synopsis, you ask? Because, summarizing your entire novel into one page is quite possibly the Achilles Heel of every author. Reducing my 100,000 word novel into an ~900 word page is difficult, to say the least. For most novels, there are so many complex sub-plots that hold a lot of weight to the overall story (as shown in the picture above), and not being able to fit them into your synopsis can be torturous.

When I joined NaNoWriMo this year, in order to fill out my profile, it made me write a synopsis of my novel before I even began writing it. I must say that writing the synopsis beforehand helped me identify character motivations that I hadn’t even considered in my outline. It was profound, and it helped me expand on my planning. However, if you were to write a synopsis before hand (which is similar to the Snowflake method of outlining, which I discuss here), you can bet, with a certainty, that you will need to revise it after you finish your novel.

STEPHEN KING’S APPROACH:

In his novel, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King doesn’t touch on writing a synopsis, but what he does talk about is plot – which is what a synopsis is supposed to capture. Steven King’s novels are not born from the conception of a plot, but are based on a single situation instead (I wrote more about it here in my discussion of the 7 basic plots). He is able to reduce his entire novels down to one sentence. It struck me that when writing a novel using this approach, it would probably be a lot more friendly when it’s time to summarize your novel into a synopsis. And even more helpful for the purposes of writing a Query Letter (explained here with additional detail here).

NaNoWriMo

How better to start my first blog post in November than to share my experience joining NaNoWriMo?! National Novel Writing Month is the talk of the town, and it sets a great goal for any author of writing 50,000 words in one month. Now, that is a bit steep for me given my current situation of a full time job, grad school at night (plus homework), and my wife is due to give birth to our second daughter in a matter of days. With all that on my plate, my participation would be minimal, at best. But, even with such a large goal of 50,000 words, I realized that joining the movement couldn’t hurt. After all, it’s free!

After signing up at www.NaNoWriMo.org I began filling out my profile. They even allowed me to claim participation in NaNoWriMo for previous years, so I logged THE SOUL SMITH as my composition for 2011. They asked for my synopsis, a sample of my work, and the book cover, all of which I copied over from my website. Then it asked me the same questions for the book I plan on writing for the 2012 NaNoWriMo. Fortunately, I knew I would be writing THE CHROMIUM SMITH, book 2 of my fantasy series. However, I found that the simple, yet complex question of asking for the synopsis of my unwritten book was profound. Trying to convert the story concept from my head into words really helped shape my character motivations, and I found this simple exercise as a very helpful tool for planning my novel.

Another benefit of joining NaNoWriMo.org are the forums and Regions which help you connect with other local authors. I have already found fellow SDSU students to meet up with and organize write-ins, etc. Connecting with other writers keeps you motivated, and it’s not just on the forum boards either. The authors I follow on Facebook and Twitter are constantly asking for everyone’s current word count. The peer pressure keeps you motivated toward writing more.

In addition, the website has a Word Tracker tool (shown below), that helps you visualize your progress and easily calculate your daily writing average to help you meet the goal of 50,000 words.

Upon becoming a fresh, new member of NaNoWriMo, they shared a few tips toward achieving the 50,000 word goal. For those of you that do not have a plan in place, or a story concept in mind, I’ve written a brief summary of their main points below:

  1. Just wing it. It’s okay to not know what you’re doing. Write every day and soon enough, a story will appear.
  2. Do not edit, just write. Get your 50,000 words on the page and use the rest of the year to edit it.
  3. Tell people that you’re writing a novel. Sure enough, they’ll ask you about your progress. Use that peer pressure of “not wanting to look like a failure in front of your friends” as something to motivate you to keep writing.
  4. It’s okay to feel the urge to quit; just know that it gets easier as time goes on.

Questions For A Literary Agent

An agency has requested to read my full manuscript. After I had submitted it, I had been waiting to hear from them for about two weeks. Those two weeks were nerve racking. I began rereading my book and noticed so much more that needed editing. They were small things, but they were imperfections, so I did another round of editing. I took the liberty to send the revised manuscript to them just in case they hadn’t received my original submission (they never confirmed with me that they got it). 

The lady that I was in contact with informed me that she was 100 pages in and did not want to switch to a new file. I learned that she was an intern at the agency and it was her job to review my manuscript and then write a report to submit to her boss. As far as I can tell, this report is going to be the deciding factor in whether the agent chooses to offer me representation or not.She also informed me that whatever her boss’ decision is, he will let me read her report verbatim. While that is very comforting, this chance to communicate with an agent about my novel and my future as an author is monumental. It is also a critical opportunity for learning any information that can help me to succeed if, *knocks on wood*, he chooses to pass.

I can only hope that they can look past any minor errors that may have existed in the version of my manuscript that she read. I’m hoping that they can say, “With editing, this book would be great!” What I don’t want to hear is, “I’m sorry, while your story is compelling, your writing isn’t strong enough.” (Or something of that sort). So, in during the wait for their response, I have prepared a great many questions. When I get that phone call, I want to be ready.

  1. (The BIG question) What did you think of the story of The Soul Smith?
  2. What criteria was I being evaluated against?
  3. As an agent, what are you looking for in a book? (e.g. marketability, story, characters, originality, length?)
  4. What are you looking for from the author? (e.g. commitment, motivation, coach-able, long term relationship?)
  5. What was I doing well in my book?
  6. What is my greatest area that needs improvement?
  7. (If necessary) Am I worthy of a second chance?
  8. What did he like about my query letter? What caught his eye when I submitted?
  9. (Assuming he offers me representation) What are the next steps? (e.g. professional editing? submitting to publishers? getting it translated for international submission?)
  10. What services do you provide as a boutique agency?
  11. What could a full agency provide that a boutique agency cannot?
  12. What are the terms you are offering me? (% for international and national sales)