A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, Part 2

by syaffolee

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous post: Part 1.


(Left to right: Rosemary Jones, Fallon Jones, Kaye Thornbrugh, Jane Fancher, and C.J. Cherryh)

Here’s the panel description for “Muddle in the Middle”: You’ve got a great beginning and know how the story ends, but that middle part is tricky! See how the professionals push through the hard parts. The pros on this panel were Rosemary Jones, Fallon Jones, Kaye Thornbrugh, Jane Fancher, and C.J. Cherryh. (AQ is an audience question.)

RJ: Most of the novels I did for Wizards of the Coast came from requested themes. I had nine months to write a book for a dungeon crawl. In another book I had to revisit a fantasy city and they wanted it in six months. For the e-serieal Neverwinter where there’s adventure and every section ends with a cliffhanger, I had to write the whole thing in eight weeks.

JF: At least you had the chance to make little cliffhanger sections. In a book, you do it at the end of each chapter. Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote it all before his serials were published.

RJ: I have a muddle in the middle all the time. If I have more time, I use it to fix the middle. I’m used to writing on a tight deadline.

JF: Is it different writing for the gaming industry? There is a gaming market is difference, especially for complexities of the story.

RJ: I usually get pulled in when they’re redoing it. Have a strong ouline. A solution for muddling through is to have a map.

FJ: Even if you don’t have a map, connect the dots to the end. If you have a character, set them on the path and walk them to the end.

AQ: What if the middle of the book is comprised of battle scenes?

JF: That’s a different problem. Battle scenes are not muddle. But ask yourself, is the story about the battle or the effects before and after?

CJC: If you’re in a battle, you don’t think about it. It’s much blurrier. If you’re fighting for your life, it’s not formulated and clear. You’re not a robot. Instead you have the emotional impression of killed or be killed and getting out of there.

JF: Unless the tactics of battle are important to the story, don’t use it. I don’t work from a strict outline. I know where to end up but it’s not an assignment from point A to B. In the prequel I wrote, I knew the ending. The muddle from the middle can come from many things: wanting to explain too much or thinking that characters go certain events but the characters won’t do it. You may need to trick character earlier in the story to make them do what you want them to do. Or follow them to see if it’s a more interesting route. Everyone who writes a complex story has a muddle in the middle. Short stories can barrel through. Sometimes you need to go back to do a rolling rewrite to see where you’re going.

RJ: You have a trilogy with a middle book. How do you set up the middle book in trilogy?

CJC: I used to worry about it. In my Morgaine books, I found out that it was listed as series even though I didn’t intend to make it one. But I’m not one to turn down a presale. One thing I did was to change the environment. It’s the quick and dirty way to create a new problem. Or you could set up a solution at end of the first book which ends up as bigger problem in the second book. Recap in such a way that reader doesn’t feel lectured to. Sometimes I set up a forward to do that.

JF: The Foreigner books are written as sets of three. Do you know where it goes?

CJC: I know where it ends up but sometimes it surprises me.

AQ: I tend to repeat myself even in different setting. How do you avoid that?

CJC: That happens to all of us, so that’s why we have a beta reader. Take the best bits of each and see if you can blend it together and cut out repetitive scenes.

JF: Sometimes you may have five different intense view points. It may seem to be repeating, but it’s important for character development. Scenes need to do three different things.

CJC: There’s development point of view and world point of view.

RJ: If there’s something important that you need to set up, putting in clues and repeating them is important.

FJ: You can emphasize with different details that are constantly changing.

CJC: There’s a difference between repetition and themes. A piece of music has motifs on a theme. Music composition and writing have many things in common.

JF: It’s like John williams or Wagner. The whole idea of character development is to get deeper and deeper. There may be one level of understanding and next time something happens, there may be ramifications in a scene where you can learn more about character.

RJ: Up the emotional stakes of the scene. I tend to write in one point of view for the first draft for the journey. In the next drafts, I ask, are there other characters that wandering into story? In one story, I had a dog wandering, so I used the magician’s trick to distract reader so to expand the scene with the dog. In another scene, a character was caught by some hired goons and I fleshed them out.

FJ: You can do a lot of character development in the middle. You need a character who changes. It’s where your character is doing most growing while going from point A to point B.

CJC: Not all story structure is linear like A, B, C, D, E, F. It can be a set of nested brackets. If it’s a character driven story, you will have a huge mathematical equation with a statement inside and then various parensethesis inside that are nested. Open nested bracket and another one and let them run without closing many of them and opening more. Never end a chapter with total resolution of everything that happened.

AQ: Flowcharts and outlines tend to work well for some people and not well for others. I’ve tried envisioning encounters, various crises and how to fit them together.

JF: I have scenes that suggest themselves and no idea of the background of characters. When they suggested themselves then I wrote them. A story is jigsaw puzzle and how to fit them together. I have a general idea of where it’s heading, but I let the characters tell me about . However, in my prequel I found out why the characters did what they did in the subsequent books.

CJC: There are a hundred ways of writing and they’re all right. Methodology changes with each story. I violated own rule of writing in order for one story and wrote the big scene first and then figured out what I needed to write for it.

KT: I use outlines and bulleted lists to give myself something to work from. I need a map to keep on course. In my manuscript, I made a detailed list of the timeline. I start loose and then do detailed things which was tinkering.

CJC: I have a suggestion for people who have trouble with timelines: use old calendars. Then you know who is where and when. It’s easier to see things in that schematic.

FJ: Continuity is important, that’s why you have beta readers. Don’t limit yourself with your outline. In your writing, your characters become their own people.

RJ: During revision, you can go off the outline. You can have a character who is emotionally struck by x, so you can go back and do more with it.

JF: A lot of the expansion of the novel happens in the middle phase. It’s where the causality is taking effect. It’s how it all gets there. Look for phrases that suggest you need to expand. In a short story, everything has to point to one thing. If something points to something else, you need to excise it. In a novel, it’s different. You have a little leeway.

CJC: You can envision the whole novel and then write it, but if it becomes irrelavant to current novel, it becomes a boggy swamp.

JF: There’s no tension.

CJC: Then kick the scene out. It’s like stone soup.

RJ: In a shared world with established history, I write in the cracks. I do lots of research for graveyards, spies, fencing.

JF: It’s like writing supports researching habits.

RJ: For looser stories, go for atmospheric. I envisioned a scene where a character had glass eyes. It started in the middle and then I needed to write the beginning and end to bracket. Doodle. Let yourself be creative.

JF: My first novel was like that. CJ said to outline, put characters in a room and see what happens. The scene that I started that day became the second section in the first book. I had started in middle and realized I was explaining too much so I needed to start earlier.

CJC: Show don’t tell.

JF: Don’t be afraid to be liquid. If it’s happening too fast in the end, split it into more books. I didn’t have three books until I looked at what happened and pulled out things from previous books. Let yourself go with the flow.

FJ: Don’t stay in one way. Writing is artistic, as long it’s as developed.

RJ: If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to chuck it in the drawer for a while. Walk away from it. Sometimes I need to tell the publisher that I need to set it aside for a couple of days. And I start reorganizing laundry shelves. Or go off write something else.

AQ: Many aspiring writers get stuck and inspiration peters out. How do you prevent that?

KT: Add ninjas. It doesn’t have to be ninjas. Erin Morgenstern, the author of The Night Circus, posted about adding ninjas. When you have loose outlines and get bored, just throw something in and do something unexpected: a new setting, new characters, or sea monsters. Keep it fresh for yourself. If you’re bored, others are bored.

CJC: If it’s boring, you have to be very clever to let castor oil go down. Sometimes it may mean you have too many characters and need to get rid of them. If you draw a map before start story and there’s a desert in the middle, move the mountains or fold the map to get rid of it.

RJ: Teleportation was invented for a reason. When someone asked me how something got into a sealed room, I said: teleportation.

FJ: You have a relationship with the book. Step back if you get angry. It can get into the writing and a reader can tell.

CJC: If you’re too nice to do something, you’re in trouble. Play with multiple viewpoints. Not everything you see or told is reliable. If you take everything as gospel, you may be in trouble. What if your perception is wrong?

AQ: How do you stay motivated to keep writing?

JF: Junk food is great for writing but you get to this.

RJ: You can step away and then fall back in love with the character.

CJC: Science fiction uses a different set of muscles. There are “what if” questions.

JF: Now there are cell phones when you had communicators in Star Trek. When I was doing rewrites, it made things simple.

FJ: Always keep learning. If your fantasy novel has fencing and you don’t know fencing, learn about fencing. Read something else and see what’s missing. If you stop learning, you won’t have anything to teach reader.

AQ: How do you balance writing with your personal life?

JF: I live with my characters. Ever since we bought the house, we didn’t know we would also start a business. So now I don’t sleep.

FJ: If you don’t learn from relationships then you don’t know what to write. Watch people in coffee bars. Watch people who watch people. See the reactions on people’s faces.

RJ: I wrote a theater column in Seattle. I interviewed creators and do non-fiction writing. I see this writing as an opportunity to explore many things. Writing non-fiction helps to keep it fresh and gives new openings. Think about pacing. Most books open with a bang and the end is also explosive. It’s in the middle that you’re most likely to lose the reader. Exciting things also need to happen in the middle. Does the pace have tension?

CJC: Is it a roller coaster or just a gentle downhill? By the time you hit 40,000 words, you have left the beginning. By 80,000-90,000, you need to think to close it. By 100,000, then in 20,000 words you need to pull everything together. Everything is proportional. People expect a certain pace. If it feels like long middle, the pacing is off.

JF: I wrote a prequel which was 200,000 words and wondered if it was a decent return. I ended up with two books instead. I rethought where the roller coaster was. It lead from one book to another, because how big is that final glide?

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Stay tuned for Part 3, a panel on how to create mystery in your work.

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