Trope Tuesday: The Chessmaster

The Chessmaster is a fun trope, especially when done well. A good villain is always at least one step ahead of the good guys, so when it turns out that he’s three or four or ten steps ahead of them, it can make for some interesting plot twists.

Of course, the chessmaster isn’t always the bad guy. Sometimes, it turns out that the mysterious figure behind the scenes pulling all the strings is actually working for good, even though he may sacrifice a few pawns along the way. Or is he? There’s always that tension, simply because of the chessmaster’s manipulative nature.

I’ve played it both ways. The last time I wrote a chessmaster was Gunslinger to the Stars, but the Patrician in Heart of the Nebula definitely also qualifies. In both cases, the character was introduced as a mysterious employer. I won’t tell you which one was the bad guy, and which one was the good guy.

I’ve never written a story from the perspective of the chessmaster. I imagine it would be quite difficult, since all of the plot twists would have to be telegraphed and/or th reader would have to be kept in the dark about the main character’s plans. Dune is an excellent example of the former, but I can’t think of any good examples of the latter. The Davinci Code comes to mind, but the way it kept the viewer in the dark (seen the movie, haven’t read the book) didn’t work for me.

Even as a non-viewpoint character, the chessmaster can be difficult to write. Careful plotting is key, of course, but so is the iceberg principle. For everything the reader can see, there has to be a bunch of stuff beneath the surface that they can’t see. It doesn’t require the same level of detail as the surface level stuff, of course, but you have to at least have an idea of what the chessmaster would do if the story went in a very different direction. Even if the chessmaster never reveals those plans, you can bet that he still has them figured out.

In part, this is what made Heart of the Nebula so difficult to write. The final draft bears little resemblance to the first draft, with characters and subplots cut out or combined with others. Still, I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and it seems that the readers are as well.

In Sons of the Starfarers, Gulchina isn’t a chessmaster so much as a magnificent bastard with delusions of grandeur. She has plans and does tend to be three or four steps ahead of everyone else, but she’s less interested in manipulating events than she is in manipulating people. Her ultimate goal, as revealed in Captives in Obscurity, is to establish a proud warrior race that will one day wipe out and take over both the Empire and the Outworlds. She doesn’t know how that’s going to happen, but she knows what needs to be done to lay the foundation for that work.

The chessmaster is a challenging trope to write well, but I’m sure I’ll use it many more times in the future. The storytelling potential is just too great to leave it out.

Pantser vs. plotter? There is no such thing

I have come to the conclusion that the “pantsing vs. plotting” way of thinking about writing is as impractical and useless as nature vs. nurture, or talent vs. learned ability.

Are you a pantser who discovery writes from the seat of his pants, or a plotter who has to outline every character, every plot point, and the whole world first? Well, that’s about as useful as asking whether you were born stupid or whether you were taught to be. Probably a combination of both.

The pantsing vs. plotting dichotomy is something I learned early on, when I was just starting out as a writer. At the time, it seemed like a useful distinction to make. Beginning writers tend to make a lot of mistakes, and those range from world-builder’s disease (where you spend all your time outlining instead of actually writing), to rewriting the first chapter into oblivion, to writing yourself into a corner and having all your characters scream at you. It’s amazing how many things you can get wrong. By dividing these things up into pantsing problems vs. plotting problems, it was helpful to figure out how to fix those.

But then you start to identify with one side or the other, and that leads to an entirely new set of problems. Because the truth is that to write well, you need both. A pure pantser often writes himself into problems that he can’t easily get out of, or misses key elements that render the rest of the story moot (like “if only these two people would talk with each other, the obstacles to their romance would all go away” or “if only Hermione would use the time-turner to stop Voldemort from becoming the dark lord, no one else would have to die”). In contrast, a pure plotter often writes stories that are too mechanical and predictable, telegraphing every plot turn and reducing every character into an avatar for some theme or idea.

So, while thinking of it in terms of pantsing vs. plotting may be useful for the beginning writer in diagnosing the areas they need to work on, I’ve found that it’s not particularly useful for the professional writer. In fact, it can be damaging.

For the last several years, I’ve considered myself to be a pantser. Discovery writing is my mojo—give me a few good ideas and the barest outline of a plot, and I’m off to the races. Except… I always tend to stumble and fall in the middle. In fact, I often have to throw out entire chapters or set a story aside for months at a time, to “let the ideas percolate.” For the last several years, that’s been my modus operandi.

Until now.

With Son of the Starfarers, I’m working on a set of very tight deadlines to finish the damn series as quickly as I can. It took way too many months to write book 7, and I can’t afford to take that much time for the last two books because that’s time I’m robbing from other projects (like Edenfall or Gunslinger to the Galaxy or The Sword Bearer). As a pantser, I can write any book if given an infinite amount of time, but that’s not practical. I need to find a new way to write, one that maximizes my efficiency.

And I think I’ve found it. I’m still tweaking it, of course, but it involves <gasp!> outlining. But wait—I’m a pantser, not a plotter! Except, it turns out, that I’m not. Because no one is.

Pantsing vs. plotting does not describe the writer so much as the method of writing. It’s not a question of where you fall on the spectrum, it’s a question of whether this particular project requires more discovery writing or more outlining. And it turns out out that there are ways to outline stories that actually make your discovery writing better. Every battle plan falls apart upon contact with the enemy, but you need the plan to know which direction to march your troops.

In the next few weeks, I’ll go over some of the new outlining methods I’ve been trying out. It took me almost five months to write A Queen in Hiding, struggling over multiple drafts, but it’s been only four weeks since I started An Empire in Disarray and I’m more than 2/3rds of the way through it, with a clean first draft, and I’m on track to have something finished and publishable by the end of next week. There are still a few kinks in the process to work out, but I think I have it down well enough to share.

So if you consider yourself a “pantser” or a “plotter,” and you’re still struggling to write as much or as well as you’d like, I’d urge you to revisit your basic assumptions about your writing process. That’s what I did, and it’s made all the difference.

Four-part structure and the writing process

Over the course of writing Gunslinger to the Stars, I’ve learned some interesting new things about my writing process, as well as being reminded of some of the basic lessons I learned back when I was getting started. These lessons have helped me to have some fantastic writing days, like today, where I hit 2200 WPH at one point and knocked off 1.7k words before lunch.

Just a week ago, though, I was struggling to write anything, which was strange considering how well the story had been coming along up to that point. The realization that helped me to get through that and get back to writing strong was that my difficulty was a function of story structure, and that different parts of the story require a different process.

What follows are my personal conclusions about my own writing process, which may or may not be similar to your own. Every writer is different, so what works for me may not work for you. At the same time, there are enough similarities that I hope my own process may provide some insight into your own.

Four-Part Story Structure

First of all, let’s talk about story structure. There are a lot of different possible structures, but the most common one in the West is the three-act structure. This often echoes the hero’s journey, which goes something like this:

heros_journeyFor purposes of this blog post, I’ll assume you’re already familiar with both the three-act structure and the hero’s journey. If not, there are plenty of other resources where you can learn about them in-depth.

I prefer to think in terms of four-part structure, however, where act two is divided into two halves. In typical three-act structure, the hero hits his lowest point at the midpoint of act two. This is also the midpoint of the story itself, where the hero reaches the nadir of the hero’s journey. In four-part structure, that midpoint is just treated like a plot point, dividing part two from part three. Everything else is the same.

Thus, when you frame a particular story in four-part structure, it looks like this:

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  3. The Darkest Hour
  4. The Final Battle

Part One: The Call to Adventure

The first part of the story typically starts in the ordinary world, until the inciting incident somewhere around the middle of part one calls the hero to adventure. He then either refuses the call (which usually leads to bad things because the call knows where you live), or he accepts it and has to fight off some threshold guardians to get into the realm of adventure (sometimes, he refuses it and has to fight the guardians). Typically around this point, he meets a mentor to help him on his way.

Prewriting: To get off to a good start, I have found that the key is to know (or at least have a good idea) how the story is going to end before I begin to write it. That way, I know that I’m starting in the right part and I have a general idea where I’m going. I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet, but that doesn’t really matter yet.

Writing: The hardest part about writing this part is the first scene. After that, it usually comes quite easily. It helps to do a bit of world building, or to outline the characters and their backstories, but it isn’t always necessary. Personally, I’ve found that I can discovery-write these things pretty well (and yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’m a pantser).

Revising: This is usually the part that needs the most revising. It’s also the part that can get me into the most trouble if I don’t do it well. I’m a chronological writer, and if something in the story is seriously off, I have to go back and fix it before I can proceed to the end. I’ve forced myself to finish even when I knew that things were broken, and it only made the writing process worse. So for me, the beginning usually gets the most revision work, whether I plan on it or not.

Part Two: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Part two is where the adventure really begins. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, and everything is new and exciting. This is also the part where things start to become truly dangerous. Not everyone is who they seem in this part, and the hero may fall into some traps. But the mentor is usually still there to help him get back up.

Prewriting: In my experience, this is the part that needs the least pre-writing. It’s almost always pure discovery. With the ending clearly in mind but still distant enough not to worry about, I can afford to let the story meander a little and take me to some unexpected places.

Writing: This is usually the easiest part of the story to write, for the same reasons as above. I can afford to do almost 100% discovery writing at this part, and it usually feels quite effortless. When the writing does get blocked, it’s usually because something in part one is totally broken.

Revising: Most of the revision process for part two consists of making sure that later events are properly foreshadowed. I usually don’t add enough foreshadowing when I write the first draft, so it’s essential to go back and add it later. Thankfully, this can usually be accomplished by a couple of tweaks, or adding a couple extra paragraphs to an already extant scene.

Part Three: The Darkest Hour

This is where the story gets real. The hero falls into a much larger trap than any of the others, and the mentor can no longer help him (usually because he’s dead). Alone, the hero has to find his own way out, usually hitting rock bottom along the way. Just when it looks like all is lost, some new twist sends the hero in a different direction, setting things up for the final act.

Prewriting: This is where prewriting goes from being unimportant to absolutely essential. Whereas in part two, I can afford to let the story meander a little bit, in part three I absolutely need direction. It’s not enough just to know how the story will ultimately end: at this point, I’ve found that I really need to map my way there.

Writing: This is also typically the most difficult part for me to write. However, when the prewriting is done well and the plot is set up properly, it’s actually not that bad. But it’s important to go really hard on your characters—to make life truly miserable for them. There can be no easy way outs for them, otherwise the entire story will suffer.

Revising: For part three, revising usually consists of putting scenes in the proper order, not in rewriting them completely from scratch. If the foundational elements of the previous two parts were set up correctly, then everything in part three will usually come out well too, but they’re almost always in the wrong order. Transitions then are the part that usually need the most cleanup.

Part Four: The Final Battle

At this point, the hero has a clear direction and a knowledge of how to get there. In climbing up from his lowest point, he finds the boon that will save the world, makes peace with the higher power, and comes back stronger than ever before. But the forces of evil have never been stronger either, and the clash marks the climax of the entire story. There may be a big damn hero moment, or a last minute rescue from the cavalry. There may also be a standoff with no apparent solution, or some truly complex power plays. Inevitably, though, there is a resolution, followed by a return (even if only to the world of adventure). The hero saves the world, gets the girl, and rides off into the sunset. Curtains, applause, and lights.

Prewriting: By this point, most of the prewriting has already been done. The important thing is to have the flexibility to change and adjust, because this is the point where the story often surprises me. It is also the point where discovery-writing is often the most satisfying.

Writing: At this point, I’m usually tearing it up in a white-hot heat of creative energy. It’s extremely rare that I’ll get blocked at this point, but if I do, the key is almost always to just write through it. Often, I’ll make notes of things to change in revision and just barrel ahead—and it works, because there’s no need to set anything up for later. This is the moment of truth, where everything comes together.

Revising: Most of the revision at this point of the story has to do with tying up loose ends. That’s usually not a problem for me, though, because I tend to write very clean. If there is a loose end, it’s usually something that I’ve made a note to fix earlier in the story. For me, the ending is usually the part that needs revising the least.

So there you have it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned just recently is how important it is not to neglect the prewriting aspect of the creative process, especially around part-three. When everything is in place, it makes the story flow so much better.

What are your thoughts? Any plotters or outliners out there with a different take on the process? Everyone is different, but we’re all basically trying to do the same thing, so it’s interesting to see what works for different people!

Trope Tuesday: Character Alignment

Alternate versions put 20th Century Fox in the Lawful Evil slot.

I love personality tests.  There’s something immensely satisfying about putting yourself on a grid that tells you something new and insightful about yourself and the people around you.  My personal favorite is the Meyers-Briggs test (I’m an ENTP), but I like playing around with others as well.

Character alignment is what you get when you combine fictional characters with the role they’re supposed to play in the story.  It’s a way to categorize the different ways they react to problems and ethical dilemmas, and to see which are inclined to be enemies and  which are inclined to be allies.

These systems initially arose out of RPG systems like Dungeons and Dragons, which use numbers, charts, and statistics to turn a story into a playable game.  There are many different kinds of alignments, but the most well-known is probably the one used by D&D, which charts characters along a good-evil axis and a lawful-chaotic axis.  In practice, the result looks a little like this:

Of course, that’s a very simplified version.  The tvtropes page goes into much greater depth, but I’ve personally found that this page right here does a much better job explaining the concepts behind the chart.

The horizontal axis, law vs. chaos, describes how much the character values order and authority vs. their own independence and freedom.  Lawful characters value honor and obedience, while chaotic characters value innovation and rebelliousness.  Characters who are neutral with regards to law and chaos generally respect authority, but put their own interests first and go against the established norms when that’s the best way to further their own ends.

The vertical axis, good vs. evil, describes how well (or poorly) characters tend to treat other people.  Good characters are altruistic and make sacrifices to protect the defenseless, whereas evil characters will kill, rob, or torture the innocent simply for the evulz.  Characters who are neutral with regards to good and evil don’t like to hurt others, but are not above pursuing questionable means to achieve their own goals.

Put together, the alignments create a 9-square chart, like the one at the top of the post.  While it’s certainly not obligatory to fill every slot, doing so can add a greater degree of depth to your story, as it certainly did with Firefly.

As with any formula, however, there is danger in holding too closely to the chart and becoming inflexible.  In real life, people switch alignments all the time, just as personalities can change and evolve (in high school, for example, I was an INTP).  Not only that, but some characters even fulfill all the possible roles, depending on the incarnation and the story.

Because I'm BATMAN!

The point is, character alignment is just a tool, not a hard-and-fast rule that needs to be used with every story.  If it’s a helpful way to think about your characters and set them up with interesting conflicts, great.  If not, don’t sweat it; Homer and Shakespeare were telling great stories long before this chart.

I’m going to be going overseas soon, so I expect my internet access is going to be spotty for the next couple of months.  Because of that, I’m going to write up a bunch of Trope Tuesday posts on each of the nine alignments and schedule them to post automatically.  So stay tuned for more!

Climbing the 10k mountain

Many Bothans died to bring you this.

I recently read an amazing blog post by Rachel Aaron, in which she explains how she went from writing about 2k words per day (about what I’m doing) to routinely breaking 10k.

This is something I really want to do with my own writing.  As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I need to pick up the pace if I’m going to keep up with my professional goals.  If I could go from 2k to 10k, and make 10k the standard…holy cow, that’s a 500% jump in productivity.  Who wouldn’t want that?

From Rachel’s blog:

Drastically increasing your words per day is actually pretty easy, all it takes is a shift in perspective and the ability to be honest with yourself (which is the hardest part). Because I’m a giant nerd, I ended up creating a metric, a triangle with three core requirements: Knowledge, Time, and Enthusiasm. Any one of these can noticeably boost your daily output, but all three together can turn you into a word machine. I never start writing these days unless I can hit all three.

The point that I probably need to work on the most is time: I tend to start off the day slow, checking Facebook and blogs and other stuff before getting into the writing, then write for a little while before running off and doing some chore or allowing myself to get distracted again.  Sometimes, I don’t really buckle down until a couple of hours before I should go to bed, and that’s bad.

But really, I think the main obstacle is just thinking that writing is difficult.  If everything comes together in the right way, there really isn’t any reason why 5k or 6k or even 10k should be too difficult–and yet we naturally think that if 2k is hard, anything more should be that much harder.

I’m in a weird state of limbo right now between moving and preparing to go overseas, but I’m going to start a daily writing log so that I can figure out what time of day is most productive.  You can’t wait for life to settle down before you get to work; you have to roll with what you’re given.  Also, I’m going to put a lot more effort into outlining and planning, so that I don’t get hung up by research when I should be writing.  Even discovery writers need a little bit of time to ponder things before putting words to the page.

Also, after considerable thought and effort, I’ve decided to put Star Wanderers on the back burner again.  I finished the novelette last week and submitted it to Writers of the Future; I think it’s quite good, and stands a good chance of finding a home in one of the short markets.  But the full length novel, for various reasons, just isn’t coming to me.  I don’t know if it’s because I lack the life experience to write it, or because I’m too close to it to see what’s broken, but regardless of the reason, I need the break.

I’m not sure whether to do Edenfall or Stars of Blood and Glory next, but I’m leaning towards Stars of Blood and Glory.  This is a novel set in the Gaia Nova universe, with characters from Desert Stars, Bringing Stella Home, and Heart of the Nebula.  I’ve been itching to write it since this summer, but never got around to it because other projects got in the way.  Well, hopefully now that will change.

I know from emails and other correspondence that some of you are really looking forward to Edenfall, but don’t worry, I’ll get around to it soon.  In order to do it justice, I feel I need to reread Genesis Earth and immerse myself in some Carl Sagan, but right now I’m still running on a sci fi adventure trip.  If I can implement some of these metrics and push my daily word count upwards of 10k, it shouldn’t be long before Edenfall gets my attention again.  My goal is to finish it before the end of the year, so there’s a very good chance it’ll be published sometime in late 2012.

As for Star Wanderers, I’ll shop the novelette around after I hear back from Writers of the Future.  I think it has a good chance at winning the quarter, but of course I can’t count on it.  At this point in my career, I should probably be playing both the traditional markets as well as the indie field.

That’s just about it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to write…