Holly Lisle is a self-taught, commercially published novelist who sold her first novel in 1991 to Baen. She has also worked with Time-Warner, HarperCollins, Scholastic, with more than thirty novels and a few million words in print in the US. She has been translated into a dozen languages. She runs writing workshops at hollyswritingclasses.com.
This week, writing coach Holly Lisle, takes on 3 questions about some of the most difficult issues authors are confronted with.
Q1: How do I actually write the story?
If you’ve had this problem, try asking yourself when you start each scene: “What’s the worst thing that could happen now?”
Here’s a demo. The story starts:
Bob sat on the rock, waiting for his girlfriend Kate to arrive.
I ask myself: What is the worst thing that could happen to Bob?
- She shows up and tells him she’s pregnant.
- She doesn’t show up because she’s sleeping with his best friend.
- She doesn’t show up because she just ran into Bob’s mistress.
- She doesn’t show up because she’s dead.
- She shows up, after calling the police and telling them he threatened to kill her… and then kills herself in front of him.
- Her secret lover shows up and kills him.
From Bob’s point of view, answer six is the worst-case scenario. Storywise, though, answer five is worse, because it leaves Bob at the scene of the crime with a corpse—and if he tries to help Kate, with his fingerprints all over the murder weapon.
So I write Kate running up to him holding a butcher knife, wearing mittens because it’s cold, and I proceed through her stabbing herself in the heart with the knife and him pulling the knife out while she lies there bleeding.
I write the police showing up and arresting Bob. I make them good guys who are careful to do everything right, who don’t screw up the crime scene, who don’t leave Bob’s eventual lawyer any loopholes. Because that’s what's worst for Bob.
Then, I ask the same question about the next one.
When writing a new scene ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that could happen now?” #writetip
Q2: My character isn’t going where I want him to go!
One of the commonest complaints I get from writers is, “My character suddenly went in a different direction…
…did something I don’t like…
…just showed up and hogged all the attention…
It happens. There’s a fix, and it’s easy.
Kill him. Out of story if you want to remove everything he messed up. In story if you want to get at least some value out of him before you return to telling the story you wanted to tell.
Here’s the thing: Your characters do not get to dictate your story.
You are the boss of your story.
One more time. You are the boss of your story, and you get to fire unruly, obnoxious, lazy, or incompetent employees. These would be your characters. They’re like actors, only without union representatives, which works out well for you.
Your characters, made up by your wonderful brain, exist in this universe ONLY to help you tell the story you want to tell, and if they are not doing the job you created them for, you remove them and replace them with characters who will. And because you made them up, if they’re really obnoxious, you kill them in terrible or tragic or heartbreaking ways.
Killing a misbehaving character in-story accomplishes three essential things:
- It solves your problem with that character.
- It lets your other characters know you’re serious, and will give them incentive to shape up and tell the story YOU want to tell.
- It gives your future readers something to either cheer or cry over, depending on how you do it.
Your characters do not get to dictate your story. Kill them if they misbehave. #writetip
Me? I do this all the time. Haven’t had to lately, though, because I decided the next character I kill off is going by shark pack feeding frenzy.
Word got out, and my guys have been on their best behavior ever since.
Q3: How do I make myself write?
The answer to this question starts with another question.
Why do you WANT to write?
And I’m asking you this because for people who choose writing as a profession, the question is not “How do I make myself write?” It’s usually, “How do I stop writing long enough to remember to feed the dog, hang out with my family, buy groceries…eat…sleep…breathe…”
So why DO you want to write?
Is it because people have told you you’re good at it?
If you are, so what? If you were the world’s best toilet scrubber, would you think you had an obligation to scrub the toilets of the world? That scrubbing toilets was your duty, just because you were so good at it?
Of course not… unless you really loved scrubbing toilets.
Writing is the same way.
You don’t owe the world another book.
Even if, were you to write it, it would be the best book in the world, you still don’t owe the world another book.
You do not owe your friends, your parents, your sweet and encouraging sixth-grade English teacher or anyone else a year, or six years, or twenty years of your precious, irreplaceable time spent doing something you hate, that makes you miserable, and that prevents you from doing things you love.
It takes — minimum — around ten thousand hours of focused, intelligent practice to get good enough at writing to make it a career. It took me seven unpaid years of writing during every free minute of my spare time, working late into the night, while the kids were napping, while the kids were in school, while working around a job as a nurse, to get good enough to make my first sale. Which was two poems for twenty-five bucks each.
During those seven long, hard, hungry years, I never once asked myself how I could make myself write. My only question was, “Where can I find more time in each day?”
So I’m gonna set you free, here. I’m going to ask you one more time…
WHY do you want to write?
Because deep down, you think you should?
You know what the word “should” means? It means “I don’t want to.”
When you are saying, “I should write,” you are really saying, “I don’t want to write, but for some reason, I think I owe someone this incredibly difficult, incredibly complex work that I don’t want to do at all.”
Write because you want to. Not because you should.
Look at your life, look at what you love, and figure out how to do THAT for a living. You don’t make yourself write for the same reason you don’t make yourself dig ditches or teach math or any other job you would hate.
Because you have one life, and if you look at what really matters to you, instead of what you think SHOULD matter, you get to make your life something you love.
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