A Writer’s Refuge, School, and Launch Pad

by Robison Wells

I published my first book in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I felt like a real writer. This was before the rise of Twitter and Facebook, and the world was less connected then than it is now, and there just wasn’t a lot of places for writers to congregate (or so I thought at the time). I had found my publisher on the internet, I had a small, dysfunctional writing group, but that was all I knew about publishing. I had no contacts, no networks, no people who understood me.

It was then that I was invited to teach a class at a writing conference. Not only did that concept seem strange to me, but I was genuinely suspicious of it. What did writers do all day at a writers conference? If it was anything like my writing group, then they just sat around and complained to each other about the state of the industry and about how they weren’t getting published. Was that the kind of place that I wanted to be? Was that the kind of environment that my publisher would even want me to be in? I had to check with my publicist to see if she thought it would be a bad career move.

Fortunately, she didn’t, and my fears were unfounded. The writers conference was the first place where I really met like-minded people. People who really GOT me. Yes, there was talk about publishers, positive and negative, but it wasn’t coming from clueless, dissatisfied outsiders; it was coming from other authors who were in the same market I was in, who had published the same kind of books I had, who, in some cases, had the very same editor I did. And we swapped stories.

I began to realize that there were people in the world who knew what it was like to go to a book signing where no one showed up, or get a royalty check for a grand total of twelve dollars. Or, on the other hand, people who were seeing great success, and were offering their help to the young and naive authors like myself. I met people who lived in their own heads, who, like me, wondered what other people who didn’t write books actually thought about all day. What is there to think about besides your plot, your characters, and your worlds?

I had found my tribe. I met authors there who would change my life forever. I met authors who would become my best of friends. Authors who would eventually collaborate with me. Authors who would employ me, and authors who I would employ. I was invited to join a writing guild, a thing that I never even knew existed, and I found that this writing tribe existed online. I found a new writing group, a group of people who were actually writing in my genre, in my market, with some of the same publishers. It was a writing group that I stayed with for seven years, and through which I saw great successes.

But it wasn’t where I stopped. Just a few years later I found myself at my first big national conference, World Fantasy, where I had a book to pitch and some experience under my belt. I started meeting people in the industry, people from New York, both agents and editors. I made some gaffes, I got some wins. Business cards were exchanged. Some agents told me to send them my manuscript. A few weeks later I signed with my agent. Six months after that, I had a three-book deal with Harper Collins. 

I still go to that original writers conference. Sometimes I teach there, and sometimes I don’t. I’m not shopping for an agent anymore, and I’m not pitching books to editors, but there’s something delicious about sitting with other authors, people who are living the same way you live, thinking the same way you think, and striving after the same goals you’re striving for. It’s something that makes the writing life better, easier, and softer: like-minded people who celebrate your successes, who commiserate with your misses, and who will grow to be some of your very best friends.

“Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough

by Robison Wells

When I first wrote Variant it was on a dare: my brother told me that he would pay my way to the World Fantasy Convention and introduce me to all the agents and editors he knew, if I had something ready to pitch. The only problems: I had never written sci-fi or fantasy, and it was only two months away.

I was writing at the same time as another author, who was also planning on going to World Fantasy, and she and I were communicating daily throughout this process.

I wrote Variant in eleven days. I know. It was a whirlwind, and I’ve never been able to recreate it. It was the right project at the right time.

My friend also finished her book quickly—not as fast as me, but close. She asked me what I was going to do with the next six weeks. I told her, of course, that I was going to revise. She said she was going to write a second book, to have another to pitch as well.

So, I revised and edited and sent the book out to readers and got as much work done as I could in that two month window. My friend wrote a second book. We both went to World Fantasy and pitched. We both bombed out, with no luck. But two weeks later, I landed an agent for Variant. My friend, ten years later, has never published.

I bring this up because as I’m writing this blog I’m in the final days of drafting my latest book. And I can see so many flaws with it, and I keep a running list of things I need to fix, foreshadow, polish, and fill in–and that’s just the stuff I recognize as I’m writing; who knows what it will look like when I read through it?

When we type The End at the end of a project, it feels so much like it’s done, because we’ve just climbed a tall mountain and we’ve just completed a Very Hard Thing. But it’s just one step in climbing Everest. Writing the first draft is reaching base camp—there’s still at least another three camps up that mountain that we’ll need to reach, acclimatize to, and then continue onward before we’ll ever get to the summit.

Author Shannon Hale put it very well in a tweet. “Drafting is shoveling sand into a box. Revision is turning that sand into a castle.”

There are places in my book where I know there are problems. A girl sprains her ankle in one scene and then is fine the next. I know I need to fix that. And there are scenes where I’ve left myself notes such as [I DON’T KNOW HOW HORSES WORK FIGURE THIS OUT LATER]. Fortunately for me, I’m cowriting this project with another author, and our deal is that I do the drafting and she does the revisions. It’s very freeing for me to know that I can write anything I want, keep a file with a list of fixes, and know that she has to do the heavy lifting. (She says that I’m doing the heavy lifting. I think we’re both getting exactly what we want.)

My friend, from the beginning of this blog, didn’t do anything inherently wrong by choosing to write a second book instead of revising her first. She just never went back and did the work to get herself to the next level—she was content in what she had done. After publishing fifteen novels now, I don’t know how anyone can be content in what they’ve done, though. Even my books that have been published, that are effectively set in stone, still have passages I wish I could revise. And I think that’s exactly why I went on to publish and she didn’t. Because “good enough” was never good enough.

Things Never Work Out As Planned (And Sometimes That’s a Good Thing)

My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was in elementary school, and it got me fascinated with fantasy and quests and epics. So, when my fourth and fifth grade teachers asked me to write stories, I’d always start writing an enormous quest, describing the characters and their cool swords, all the wacky stuff they had in their backpacks, and their special powers.

Inevitably, I’d get bored of writing this after a page or two, and I’d find a quick way to end the story. I’d set up the storyline so that the characters were going to have to overcome big obstacles and fight the villian, and I’d end it with “And they did.”

It was a lot more fun for me to look at the beginning of the story and imagine the possibilities than to actually bother with writing it out. I just assumed that everything went according to plan: my awesome characters did awesome things, the bad guys were defeated, and everyone was happy.

But stories rarely go according to plan–we’d hate it if they did! We don’t want to see a hero easily defeat every foe and waltz into a victory; we want to see him try and fail, and try and fail again, and barely crawl across the finish line against all odds.

One of the great military philosophers, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote the following about battle:

“In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance.”

Clausewitz refers to this as friction: nothing goes according to plan because there are so many variables; the slightest thing could change (ruin) everything.

“…[A] general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. 

The obvious comparison with all of this–especially in the context of this blog–is to our writing: it’s this friction, these try-and-fail cycles, that make our stories interesting. They provide surprises and conflict and drama and suspense.

But that’s actually not the point I wanted to make. Yes, things not going to plan can be good for our stories, but they can also be good for our lives.

In the Spring of 2009 I graduated with my MBA. Normally, the program boasts a 97% job placement rate at graduation, but the economy had just tanked and most of the graduating class was unemployed. We’d expected jobs approaching or above the six-figure mark, but that salary target dropped and dropped over the following months, as we became desperate for a job–any job.

My wife and I (and our three kids) only lasted for a couple of months before moving back in with my parents. Bills went unpaid. We were uninsured. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

Every day I’d go to my dad’s office and work–I’d tweak my resume and call leads and scour job listings. And then I’d write, because I had nothing else to do.

In the fall, my brother and fellow author, Dan Wells, came to me and told me that if I had something to pitch, he’d pay my way to the World Fantasy convention, and he’d introduce me to agents and editors. There were only two problems with that plan: I didn’t have anything sci-fi or fantasy (which is what editors at the con would be interested in) and the con was only two months away.

So, I wrote Variant. I pounded through the first draft in a little under two weeks, and then spent the next month and a half revising and polishing. I went to the con and pitched very poorly (and unsuccessfully), but Sara Crowe (my agent) picked me up about a week after that.

Variant sold six months later to HarperTeen in a fantastic three-book deal. Later that would turn into a five-book deal. It would lead to amazing successes, awards, and opportunities.

But here’s the thing that just blows my mind: if things had “gone to plan”, then I’d have an MBA job (that I’d probably dislike, because business has always been the backup plan), and I’d still write novels in the evenings and and on weekends. But things didn’t go to plan–I failed to get a job. And there were dozens and dozens of try-and-fail cycles in those months of unemployment.

If things had gone to plan, I’d have never written the book. I’d have never gotten an agent. I’d have never gotten a book deal.

Sometimes it’s great when things don’t go to plan.

Four Steps to a Fast First Draft

by Robison Wells

I am in the middle of a cowriting project, wherein I’m writing the first draft and my coauthor is doing the bulk of the revision. My manuscript is due to her on July 1st, and I have a way to go to hit that goal. But I’m going to do it. I’ve written fast before. My first national novel, Variant, was drafted in 11 days. While I don’t think that level of speed is necessary here, this is similar to a NaNoWriMo situation.

So how do you draft fast? How do you work your way through the exciting beginning, the marathon of the middle, and still have the steam for the fully-fleshed-out climax and resolution? Over the course of my career, there are a few tricks that I’ve picked up.

First, I outline. I know there’s a fundamental difference between plotters and pantsers, but I’ve found that at least a basic outline is necessary to writing fast. And a detailed outline can let you fly. While I was co-writing with James Patterson (The Warning, coming this August) he and I worked out a highly detailed, 50-paged, single-spaced outline for the book. We hashed out the details in the outlining stage so that when it came to drafting, we would both be on the same page, as it were. So it is with my current writing project. My coauthor and I spent a couple of weeks outlining the book, nailing down a relatively detailed outline (about a paragraph per chapter). I don’t have to wonder where I’m going or what needs to lead where—I already know. (And knowing’s half the battle!)

Second, I allow myself to write crummy first drafts. I used to say that I was freeing myself to fail, but a book I’ve recently read has changed my view of the “failure” process. Adam Savage’s Every Tool Is a Hammer talks about how Adam fails frequently, but he doesn’t call it failure. It’s iterations. He might create something and it doesn’t work, so he refines it, and it still doesn’t work, and he iterates and iterates until it finally works. He doesn’t expect perfection the first time—iteration is the essence of creation, not a flaw in the system.

Third, I set a schedule. It’s part of the outlining process for me: I know what chapters I’m going to write every day. For you it might be page count or word count. For me it’s chapters. I have a calendar. I have an excel spreadsheet. And I have a timer. At regular intervals throughout the day, my phone alarm goes off and I mark on my spreadsheet how much progress I’ve made. By keeping to a schedule, I have a constant reminder not to waste time on Twitter or Wikipedia or Reddit.

Finally, I use placeholders. I don’t edit or research as I go (or, at least, I try not to). If I need the name of a city, I use [CITY]. Right now there’s a pet rat in the book who is just called [RAT] because I don’t want to spend the time thinking up a good name for it. I have a cowriter whose whole job is to revise my first draft. I’ll let her come up with the name of a rat. I also have a Google Doc titled “Stuff to fix in revision”. When I feel the need to go back and revise chapter four to include more foreshadowing, or go back to chapter six and introduce an important character description, I just put that note in my “fix later” file. I can fix it later.

I still have 30,000 words to write between now and the end of July, but it’s only June 14th. I’ve got plenty of time.

3 Traits of a Great Main Character

Over the years I’ve spent working in publishing, I’ve found that I’m usually drawn to main characters that have three things embedded in the core of their character: activity, relatability, and competency. Each one of these traits could have entire blog posts written about them, but I want to give you an overview of how you can use them in your work. 

In general, most people respond well to characters with these traits. We enjoy reading characters who make things happen, who are good at things, or with whom we relate. As with every piece of writing advice that you’ll ever hear, this is much easier to talk about than it is to actually implement it in your writing. But don’t let that hold you back! Start working on it now, and you’ll be a master before you know it. 

1. Activity

Active characters make things happen, which is the heart of why we’re drawn to activity. The first thing you need to ask yourself is this: how do I make a character active without it seeming contrived? Because you cannot simply throw a character into any random situation and force them to act. Action does have a basis in circumstance, but it has everything to do with personality, temperance, and ability to problem solve. Something you should always keep in mind is that your characters’ actions should most often be the result of their previous choices—how they decide to deal with the consequences of those choices is the basis for their actions.

If you’re stuck in your writing, ask yourself this: “Is my character making things happen, or are things simply happening to my character?” If the latter is true, you should probably find a way to switch this around. Things can and should happen to your character, but as I mention above, it’s all the more realistic and satisfying when the happenings are a result of the choices your characters previously made. 

There’s no one way to write a novel—you can go about it many different ways, which is what makes this so hard. But if there were a basic structure to follow, it would go something like this:

  1. A character with a goal
  2. An obstacle to said goal
  3. Action to overcome said obstacle
  4. Rinse, repeat and build until the climax
  5. (add complexity by increasing the number of characters and obstacles each must face)

2. Relatability

One of the best ways to make real, relatable characters, is to understand that personalities contain multitudes. You’ll seldom ever meet a real human that has only a single personality trait, or a single goal in life, or a single hobby, etc. Most people have more to them than you first realize, and the same goes for your characters. Spend time developing those traits about them that people will attach to—more than just hair, skin, and eye color, what about them is unique? What do they like to do? What do they want in life? What is going to make me want to read an entire story about this character?

At its most basic, relatability is all about emotion. How your characters express emotion plays a large role in how your reader will connect and relate with them. This, however, is something that I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers struggle with. To start, if you have a hard time expressing emotion on the page, just use classic tells and say “she felt excited,” or “he felt sad.” As you revise and refine your writing, you can come back to those moments and sharpen them for more of an emotional impact on your reader.

3. Competency

We all love characters who are good at things. Take Sherlock Holmes for example (the BBC version, if you will)—he would be a nightmare to be in a room with, but on screen? We love him. We love how smart he is, how quickly he can solve things and understand a person just by looking at them. What makes this show so great comes right down to the direction of the character, and his competencies. 

It’s important to recognize that while we enjoy characters who do things well, most of us do not connect with characters who are good at everything and have no flaws. This is another reason why BBC Sherlock is a great example—we see clear as day that he has weaknesses, he has faults, and those faults get him into trouble. 

Your characters don’t have to start off being competent, either. And really, it may not even be something you want them to achieve in your story. A lack of competency can be made up by strengthening relatability and activity—especially if your character is actively trying to gain competency, which is a very endearing character arc. Take Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series (though far from being a main character, he illustrates this trope so well)—it takes seven years for him to get there, but after being belittled by his enemies and his friends his entire life, he grows into someone who destroys one of Voldemort’s horcruxes—and only Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and Voldemort were the only other ones to do this. And the beautiful part about it all is that he never grew into this super-powerful mega-wizard—he simply gained the confidence that he could.

Your job as a writer is a balancing act. You have to know when to let your characters take action, when to let them get hurt, when to show their emotions and their weaknesses, and when to let them grow and build their strengths. But if you can manage to work that all into your novel (and keep in mind that it doesn’t have to happen on the first try—revision is your friend!), then you’ll have a great main character that we’ll want to follow through the entire book, and maybe even more.


4 Steps to World Building

Whether you’re writing commercial fiction, an epic fantasy, or a space opera, realistic world building is an absolute must. (Yes, even if it’s set on Earth.) In order for a reader to connect with the characters you create, they need to understand how your world made your characters who they are—because character goals and plot stakes heavily rely on the world your story is set in.

We’ve written before on this blog about how plot, character, and setting are all intricately related—there is a cause and effect relationship between all three. What happens to one influences the others, even if only in a small way. This is why it’s so important to have a vivd, real world in your novel. 

With that in mind, here are four ways you can make your world building stand out from the crowd.

1. Define the Roles of Politics and Religion

Most of us were taught as kids to avoid talking about politics and religion (whether we should continue to teach our kids that is a different matter entirely) because, well, they can cause tension. The thing about tension is that you need a lot of it in your novel. And at the heart of this tension is something politics and religion have had in common for thousands of years: power and control. 

No matter what kind of story you’re telling, the politics and religions of the world will influence your characters significantly—from kingdoms to communism, every political atmosphere offers unique challenges and obstacles that inform the setting and shape the plot of your work. Take, for example, Game of Thrones (if you want to discuss the ending then find me on Twitter)—the entire story revolves around the politicking and plotting to get control of the Iron Throne—or freedom from it. And everything from gods (i.e. religion) to dragons plays a role in fighting for or against it. 

On the other end of the spectrum is a fun book called The Last Kids on Earth—the zombie apocalypse has already wiped out the entire population, and so a type of hysterical anarchy ensues where kids get to make their own rules while they fight to survive. The complete absence of organized government and religion is glaring, and that’s part of what makes it fun.

2. Know the Education System

Lots of middle grade books like Harry Potter and Wonder use education systems as the story’s main setting. Whether it’s Hogwarts or public school, many books have benefitted from a detailed, working school. How you work this into your novel will depend largely on the market and the genre—an epic fantasy might not have many scenes actually set in a school building, but the overall education available to the characters in that epic fantasy will determine what they know, what their perceptions and biases are, what histories they’re taught (even if those histories are false), and a number of other small aspects that determine who a character is. If your book is set in a school, develop everything about that school. If you never see a school in your whole novel, determine how schools or education in general shaped the characters and their desires.

3. Develop the Landscape, Flora, and Fauna

A book I read recently that used landscape and wildlife extremely well was The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill. The way the author presents the world that she created is just magical. Swamp monster poets, Perfectly Tiny Dragons, witches that feed children starlight, a dormant volcano come to life—there are so many elements that make this story great. 

When you sit down to write, make sure you can answer the following questions:

  • What area of the world is my story set in, and what landmarks and wildlife are around that area?
  • If you’re creating a new world: what kinds of new creatures exist there?
  • If you’re in space: what intricacies of a spaceship can you describe? What lifeforms are aboard the ship?
  • If you’re writing historical fiction: what kinds of plants and animals existed back then that are now extinct?

Once you have these answers, fill your story with them. Even better, weave them into your narrative, and give them the breath of life. Fill your world with this, and it will feel so real to your reader that they’ll think they are there.

4. Have Precise Magic Systems or Tech (or Both)

Always remember that you must use the technology of the time period you are writing in insofar as it is relevant to the plot and characters. Historical, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.—if the technology you use doesn’t fit the time period, the reader will know. And this doesn’t necessarily mean electronic technology—e.g. the Ancient Greeks had different ways of doing things than the Byzantines. And if you set your story in some future earth with new technology, said technology must make sense (and, bonus points, it’ll read so much better if you research the theories of that unmade technology before you write about it). 

I will forever and always defer to Brandon Sanderson’s laws of magic when discussing world building and magic systems. The concept is fascinating and complex, but it essentially boils down to this: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Essentially, if you have a complex magic system that your reader doesn’t understand, resolving conflict with that magic will feel cheap. On the reverse, if your reader understands the magic and its limitations, then resolving conflict with magic becomes a challenge the reader anticipates and reacts to. In the end, if you use magic in your story, your reader has to understand how it works if you want to use it to resolve conflict. But then again, if you just want to use magic for spectacle, then you can be as vague about it as you want. 

3 Things to Think About when Pacing Your Novel

Guest post by author Robison Wells

Just like there’s no one “right” way to write a book, there’s no one “right” way to pace a novel. Sometimes you need to move slower and sometimes you need to move faster. It’s a balancing act that depends a great deal on your genre, style, voice, and intent. I tend to write thrillers, which are very fast paced, with only the occasional pause to catch your breath. On the other hand, historical fiction and epic fantasy might move at a much slower pace. In this article I want to talk about a three tools you can use to speed up or slow down your novel.

5 Ways First Person Point of View Can Help Your Novel [Workshop]

Written by Ben Grange, Literary Agent and co-founder of Writers’ Clearinghouse

Wondering if you should write your book in first person narrative?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. The perspective of your novel plays a huge role in how your reader connects with it and, more specifically, your characters.

But you’re in the right place if you’re struggling to find that answer. Because I’m about to show you five ways first person point of view can benefit your writing. And, to help you implement them into your writing, I’ve designed five writing prompts to go along with them.

Think of it as a solo writing workshop.

Micro Madness Romance Winners!

The winners of the #MicMad Romance Contest are:

1st Place: @kparkerrichmond (Wins a free full evaluation!)

He chewed his lip. “Ever kiss anyone with braces before?”
“No. You?”
“Yeah, too many stories about getting tangled up.”
“What—worried our wires will get crossed?”
Her eyes held his. Then she leaned in and whispered, “Why would I worry? I know exactly what you mean.”

2nd Place: @kristaljensen (Wins $100 off an evaluation, or free first ten pages!)

She grabbed the ledge and swung her legs over.
“How’s it look?” he asked.
“Incredible. Here.” She reached down and pulled until he sat beside her.
“You’re right.” He touched her cheek. “We can climb higher, you know.”
She focused on him, how their hands fit. “We will.”

3rd Place: @hailish (Wins $50 off an evaluation, or free first ten pages!)

The lass in the pub said “Fáilte,” on Jen’s last night. Then came round after round, inching closer until closing. In the street, a kiss on lips and a hush in Jen’s ear: “If I could, I’d be attracted to you.” Sparks of thrilling never-will-be on the long plane ride home.

Character Goals: The 4 Gears that Drive Your Story

Guest post by author J. Scott Savage

Several years ago, I was working on the second book of a mystery series. The plot revolved around a man who appeared to be murdered over and over. My main character, a young reporter, was drawn into a series of scenes where she witnessed the man die in an explosion, a fire, and by falling off a balcony.

The main character was one I had used before and knew well, the plot felt interesting, the settings were sufficiently creepy. But the story just wasn’t working. I went over and over the same twenty pages, wondering what I was doing wrong, when, all at once, the problem became clear.

We were several chapters into the story and, while my reporter had witnessed several exciting events, she wasn’t doing anything about them. The MC was reacting, not acting, and as a result there was nothing for the reader to root for. As soon as I put her into action trying to solve the crimes, everything clicked into place.