Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?
For me, writing is full of surprises, mostly because my characters tend to take on a life of their own.
For example, with my current WIP, I told myself the mc was a girl because that story would be easier to sell than one with a non-binary main character. However, before I realized what I was doing, the character was telling someone that they use “they/them/their” as pronouns and thinking about being neither boy nor girl.
I thought I could control the gender of my main character, but that character decided they were non-binary (like me) whether I liked it or not.
The idea of characters I’m creating doing unexpected things always seems odd to me, even though it is something many writers have experienced.
I often find myself wondering why things like this happen. Why do my creations surprise me? Am I really surprising myself? How come I feel like I am not in control of these characters as I create them and make them do things? Shouldn’t I be more deliberate? What is the point of craft advice if my characters are just running around doing their own things with me putting zero thought into how that affects the story on some technical level?
I can maybe answer one of those questions.
Craft advice is for revision, not first drafts. At least, that is how it is for me. Other writers might be able to think about plot and scene and characterization while they draft. I can’t. I can only think of the characters as living entities and the story as something unfolding as it happens. If I outline, it’s because the story is unfolding in my head much faster than I can really write, and even then, when I start writing, I don’t usually stick to exactly what I outlined.
I think I get surprised because a lot of what I’m doing is not happening on a conscious level. It’s like dreaming. When I draft, my subconscious does the heavy lifting, so it feels like my creations have more agency in the creation of the story than I do.
When I was younger, part of me wanted to believe there was something supernatural about writing. I don’t think that now, but I do love writing about supernatural things.
I always surprise my self when I’m drafting.
My revisions, on the other hand, are far more deliberate and conscious. The biggest surprises there are how patient I am. In real life, I’m not known for my patience.
What kind of surprises do you find when writing?
Photo Credit: The back ground photo on the header was taken from Simone Scarano on Unsplash.
If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)
For me, this would be the first chapter. However, I wouldn’t use the wish to help write it. I’d use the wish to help revise it.
Writing a first draft of a first chapter is a blast.
It’s like standing at the base of trail I’ve never hiked. The sun is out but there is a cool breeze. I have a map. I have ample snacks and water for both me and my dog. It is going to be an awesome day even if I am going to be gaining about 1,000 vertical feet per mile.
The first chapter is just that first stretch of trail when I am full of energy, when I’m practically running, wondering just how long it will be before the trail gets steep and I hit a scramble.
The whole hike up is the first draft of the manuscript. It’s hard work, but it is the kind that gets the adrenaline going and results with a breathtaking view.
I can’t stay at the summit forever. Eventually, I have to come down.
Often, when hiking in New England, the steepest scrambles are close to the summit. They’re my favorite part to go up and my least favorite to go down.
I can just see myself on my way down Killington. I’m a little ways down from the summit, standing on a slab of granite, staring straight down a ravine thinking,
“Did we really go up that? Do I have to go back down that way?”
I’m exhausted. My spouse is exhausted. The dog is exhausted. The dog, who was like a brilliant mountain goat on the way up, needs assistance going down the steep sections.
For a minute, I just stand there wondering what the heck I was thinking. I curse myself for picking an out and back trail and for being so obsessed with scrambles in the first place. But then I think about how much fun I had, how worth it the view was, and of how many times I have done this before on other mountains.
Then, after I’ve planned a way down in my head, my spouse and I slowly work our way down, helping the dog when necessary.
It’s the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the hike. It’s the one part I would skip if I could magically do so. It reminds me a lot of revising my opening chapters.
As fun as the first draft was, I never start the book in the right place, and fixing that is never as simple as just deleting a chapter or several chapters. It’s deleting a whole chapter and replacing it with something else and then rewriting it, deleting it, and replacing it. Once I find something that works as a concept, then I still have to fine tune it over and over.
For current WIP, I haven’t revised the opening chapter four times. I’ve written four completely different opening chapters, and that isn’t counting all the false starts I had while trying to get the first draft going.
So if I could use a wish to help me write a book? I would use that wish to revise my opening chapter.
Note: As you read this post, you may notice I’m vague about the content of the review. You could probably go on Goodreads and figure out what I’m referring to, but I don’t want this to be seen as a response or rebuttal to the review. My goal is to capture my thought process as a new author seeing a negative review of their first novel.
Up until this week, all the reviews that I’d seen for Power Surge have been positive, which of course, made me skeptical. Inevitably, someone was going to burst my bubble.
It finally happened. Someone who didn’t finish the book left a review without a rating.
I disregarded advice I’ve heard across the internet and read the review. I’m glad I read it, even if I was surprised by my reaction.
At first, my brain processed it like feedback from a CP or beta reader. I had to squash my instinct to explain why I wrote something the way I did, and then I had to squash my urge to reply thanking the reviewer.
I thought about what I could’ve changed in a scene the reviewer alluded to. I came to the conclusion that in general, I need to be more careful about how my main character and my narrative voice react to characters who say problematic things or hold problematic opinions.
After a day, I realized that in my mind, the review had shifted from what it actually was something completely different. I had latched onto to a specific phrase the reviewer mentioned and made the whole thing about that scene.
Early in the morning when I just wanted to go back to sleep, I took it personally, as if the characters flaws were my own.
I realized one assumption the reviewer made was literally wrong.
I thought that it was the only review people are going to pay attention to. No one else would buy my book. No agent or publisher will represent future works of mine.
I thought the reviewer was wrong. I thought the reviewer was calling me out on an important issue. I wanted to thank them. I wanted to argue. I wanted respond, to know more, but I didn’t because writers need to leave readers and reviewers alone.
Instead of filing the feedback aside for future work and moving on, as you can see, I obsessed over it.
But something good did come out of it.
It reminded me that just says they don’t like a character or can’t connect with a character in a published work, I’m shouldn’t think much of it, especially when I know other readers have connected to that character. That type of thing is subjective and varies from person to person.
If a character makes someone uncomfortable? That’s okay. I’ve read books with characters that made me uncomfortable too, but that didn’t mean that book was bad.
Different people react differently to different characters. A good chunk of this bad review was based off of things I think of as subjective, and some assumptions the person made because they stopped reading too soon.
However, when I see a reviewer mention something harmful, like misogyny, it is worth reflecting on. The reviewer mentioned a phrase a character used in a scene, and I think I could’ve done a better job showing the main character and the narrative voice’s disapproval of that attitude.
Now, that might not have fixed it for the reviewer, who might have perceived an overall tone that I’m somewhat oblivious to, but to me, that change would’ve helped.
If a reviewer calls an author out on problematic or harmful ideas, then the author needs to listen. They need to take that into account and reflect. Maybe the reviewer is onto something. Maybe they are misconstruing it or their reading is being influenced by some outside factor. Either way, it’s something for me to keep in the back of my head when I’m revising the sequel and other works, especially since I do tend to include characters who hold problematic opinions or say harmful things in some of my works.
Sometimes those characters change.
Sometimes I kill them.
Sometimes they don’t actually mean the things they say, but feel they are expected to act that way fit a certain mold…or they are just trying to piss someone off.
In future science fiction and secondary world fantasy, I’m open to leaving those characters out and writing about societies that have out grown a lot of the problems that plague Earth today. On the other hand, when I write books like Power Surge, urban fantasy with a contemporary setting, the nasty side of present-day humanity rears it’s ugly head.
Sometimes problematic ideas creep in unintentionally, stemming from things I may not realize I internalized. Other times, I think I am deliberate exposing the dirt and raking up the muck, yelling “Look! This is a problem! Do you see why?”
I need to careful that the narrative voice isn’t endorsing their harmful words and to remember that silence equals endorsement. I need to acknowledge that some readers don’t want to see certain harmful concepts represented on the page in any way, shape or form, and that if those readers pick up a book like Power Surge, they might have a problem with.
Books that ignore problematic concepts and try to show us a better way to live and think and act are incredibly important. Books that get messy and roll around in humanity’s, books that acknowledge harm ideas and punch them in the face are also important.
Reading a critical review of my book ended up being a thought provoking excercise that was worth the stress it created.
If you are interested in reading Power Surge, for yourself, here are some buy links.