NanoWrimo is coming. Or, you have two weeks of vacation and you want to write that novel. Or, you have a deadline looming for the next book. Sometimes, you just want to get that first draft done so you can work on the revisions. Or, you have a great idea for a book and need the glue to put it together.
Whatever the case, there is a way to write a decent first draft quickly. Here are four things to help write your first draft well without a lot of outlining. While some like to outline in great detail I find that it doesn’t always work very well for me. But, like it or not, we all do some form of outlining even if it’s just in our heads.
The first three you’ll think are no brainers, but the fourth? It’s the secret glue to making a story come together and stick … and it’s more important than you think … and sometimes this fourth point is actually your number one consideration!
1) Follow a basic story arc. Whether it’s the hero’s journey, or knowing the beginning, middle and end with two or three try/fail cycles thrown in, know the basic story structure for your genre. It what’s readers and publishers expect you, as a professional writer/author to know and follow. So learn it and use it.
2) Know your protagonist and the world your protagonist functions in. There are a lot of great posts on this site about creating great characters and what motivates them. Know your protagonist well because that will inform how he responds and reacts in situations and what motivates him to take on the challenge the villain presents and how he will respond to that challenge.
3) Know your villain and what motivates him. You may not appear on the pages as often as the protagonist but you still need to know the villain in as much depth as the protagonist. The villain motivates the protagonist, is who the protagonist reacts against, and sets the obstacles. In a murder mystery, the author needs to know the crime scene, the victim and the criminal in a s much (or more) detail than the protagonist before writing the first draft. I’ve come to believe, that in every genre we all need to have similar cache of knowledge to write a good first draft.
And now for the secret glue that holds all this together …
4) Theme Yup. Theme.
Most authors don’t try to figure this out until they’ve completed their novel. Not understanding your theme ahead of time, creates massive revisions, and characters who don’t always have depth and who don’t have distinct voices.
Theme is about making a universal truth personal. It is taking a larger truth such as good prevails over evil, love conquers all, David can beat Goliath, and so on, and making it a central stake in the protagonist’s world.
Theme is the idea which all characters from the villain, the protagonist and the supporting characters will either try to prove or disprove. Theme informs motivations for each character as they will either be, to varying degrees, for, against or ambivalent to the idea. Because of their attitude or belief with regards to the theme, characters will either support, hinder, or be decidedly unhelpful. Most importantly, they will have different voices.
With theme, characters will always move the story forward, illuminate the point you the writer are trying to make in telling the story and theme and they will broaden the scope of the issue thus making the story richer for the reader. Every character’s desire to either prove or disprove the theme forms the central conflict.
You are thinking that if you’ve followed steps 2 and 3 and you know your protagonist and villain, that you have your central conflict. You are right. But your writing will be more informed if you are aware of the conflict and what it means or what the principle surrounding it is. That is theme. It is the deepest motivation, the desire, the earnest yearnings and dreams your characters have. It is what makes the prize or the goal so valuable. Once you’ve got his nailed, then you develop the rest of the cast to illuminate the theme and the conflict.
Conversely, if you have an idea and don’t know where or how to start the story, think about the theme and what universal truth or belief you want to write about, Then, create the host of characters who show different sides of the struggle.
Finally, knowing the theme also gives purpose to character transformation. The protagonist has to change, for if he or she is ambivalent, there is no story. Basically, the protagonist knows what he wants to accomplish and must overcome internal and external obstacles to get the prize. Theme gives your character a reason to grow and change.
In short, know your theme. Choose characters who will represent different sides, who have different opinions, and you will have a lot of options for conflict, a lot of different voices.
So my fellow pantsers, if you are aware of these four things, you’re well on your way to writing a truly spectacular first draft!
I had the pleasure of asking Randy for his tips and insights into establishing a successful writing convention. There’s a link for some special content at the end of the interview so please don’t miss that!
WWC’s tagline is A Reader’s and Writer’s Festival. Why this branding rather than simply making it a writers’ convention or a writers’ and fan convention?
If you are a writer, you will know that there are numerous writers conferences out there, even in western Canada. When looking to start a literary event in Calgary, I didn’t want to start an event like one I could already go to, but something different. I did want to provide a networking opportunity for writers and publishers, but I also wanted to create an opportunity for readers to meet authors they might have read as well as discover new authors. The tag line is a very good description of our event. We chose the word ‘festival’ over ‘convention’ because it is more apt to what we are about. Though we are educational, we are also fun. Smiles and laughter are encouraged.
Our demographics show that almost half of our attendees consider themselves readers. We attract readers by offering inexpensive passes ($45-$55 for a weekend pass, depending on when it is purchased), while most writers conferences cost much more. Inexpensive passes are common to speculative fiction fan conventions that are designed primarily for non-professionals. Very few readers will spend $100-$300, not even to see their favourite author (especially as we also provide several free events where the public can meet our guests.)
Though many conferences and festivals are genre-specific, it has always been my feeling that genres have more in common than differences. Most readers, also, read across multiple genres. The speculative fiction convention model is not common outside of SF&F, but we wanted to see if other genres as well as literary readers & writers would give it a try, so we invited them. To our delight, they came. We now try to have representatives for each genre an well as literary and poetry on our organization board.
There is a very dynamic dealer’s room at WWC. Writers congregate, presses sell books, writers and presses are talking business and making book deals, all the while books are being sold by writing groups, book sellers, and publishers.
Many conferences (and book stores) offer a range of non-book products. Our Merchants Corner is a book-only room, though we do include some art. Our most unique table is the Shared Authors Table, where attending authors not represented by other vendors may have their books sold. This table typical does over $2,500 worth of sales over the weekend. As far as I am aware, we did it first back in 2011, though I have seen the concept more recently at other events.
We also have a hotel-provided snack bar and seating area in the Merchants Corner where people can get drinks, soup, sandwiches, and salads. Something I haven’t seen anywhere else.
For a convention to have a good reputation, several factors must come together from programming, to guests of honour, attendee packages, and advertising. I’d like to talk about some of these aspects so that we can understand what it takes for them to work well.
Any event must decide on a mission statement and a business model. Our mission statement is: to bring readers and writers together in a celebration of the written word. Our business model is a fusion of best practices I’ve taken from other events I have attended. A few important concepts are:
Inclusive and inexpensive to attend.
100% volunteer run.
Multi-track so attendees always have something of interest going on.
A safe and fun environment.
Since an event will fail if no one shows up, let’s begin with advertising. While we do have a modest marketing budget and place posters and pamphlets in book stores, word-of-mouth is by far the best advertising. When we started in 2011 we made sure to promote our new event by speaking to writers groups and placing marketing literature in books stores. Even so, we budgeted for 150 people showing up. 280 did, so we were off to a good start, growing each year until we are now peaked out at 750 people. Most people found out about us from a friend. We have no desire to grow past 750 attendees as I find larger events too impersonal.
Guest speakers are tricky as no one can agree on who to invite. If we receive 100 feedback forms from attendees we will receive 100 guest suggestions. Each year we try to invite guests that cover a range of disciplines who are good speakers. If we need to reduce our budget somewhere, we look to the guest budget first (example: finding guests closer to home).
Our attendee package is very simple and economical: a plastic name badge on a string, a 5.5” x 8.5” stapled program book, and a single sheet quick guide. We don’t have a welcome bag, though book bags and fancy badge holders are available.
Our venue, the Delta Calgary South, has meeting space for as many as 15 concurrent events, giving attendees lots to choose from during the weekend. This means our program has over 200 different sessions to plan. Again, using the speculative fiction model, we open the program to attending professionals, encouraging them to speak, take manuscript pitches (if they are acquisition editors), and participate in our Blue Pencil Café, all on a volunteer basis. Each year around 150 attending experts join with our 5 or 6 festival guests to provide a dynamic and diverse program for the attendees.
There are other aspects to the festival, including a hospitality suite, a mass autograph session, a banquet, and even awards ceremonies as we sometimes host awards. As you can imagine, all of this requires a large number of volunteers putting in time and effort. We also try to do things efficiently with the lowest demand on volunteer time as possible.
On the topic of programming, in WWC 2017, there were ~80 panels on craft and business, blocks of time with guests of honour, blue pencil cafes, and pitching sessions. There is a variety of topics which appeal to both readers and writers and this can be seen by the packed rooms at many of the panels. How do you assess and what is needed and then deliver it?
The short answer is: we don’t. Like our staff, our presenters are volunteers. We ask them what they would like to present, and then we try to accommodate them. We do let them know what types of programming, such as what you listed above, we are looking for. This approach has some drawbacks, but in the end I believe it has more advantages. Presenters come up with all sorts of brilliant ideas we would never think of. This approach also greatly reduces demand on volunteer effort to put the program together.
Guests of Honour Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana Gabaldon, Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, Jack Whyte, Kevin J. Anderson, David B. Coe, Robert J. Sawyer, Ian Hamilton, Patricia Briggs, Anthony Bidulka, Kelly Armstrong, Sam Hiyate (The Rights Factory), and Sally Harding (Cooke Agency) are a few of the big selling authors and agents who have come to WWC. Some continue to come back as festival attendees because, as I’ve heard them say, it’s an awesome experience.
Since we are a 100% volunteer event, we do not budget for speakers fees. While we do cover travel and hotel for our festival guests, they, like everyone else, are donating their time and talents to participate at our festival. People need to understand that the business model of many speakers does not include speaking at events such as ours on a voluntary basis. Many of our invitations have been turned down. No hard feelings. That’s just the way it is. The outcome, however, is that speakers who do accept our invitations enjoy events such as ours and regularly accept invitations such as ours. And yes, we are fortunate that many of our guests choose to return when they can.
The main reason that guests return, I believe, is that we are different from most other conventions. We chose to call ourselves a festival rather than a conference or convention, because we want our event to be a party. While many writers do network and learn from each other, they also attend our festival because it is fun. People are having a good time. Our guests have a good time.
The other reason guests return is because we treat them well. Each guest is assigned a liaison to handle transportation and any needs they may have. We provide our guests breakfast and banquet tickets and take them out to dinner a couple of times. They each receive a welcome basket with souvenirs and goodies. In other words, we give them the respect they deserve for agreeing to join us on their own time.
I must say, that attendees really appreciate how accessible the guests have been, not only with their readings and key note speeches, but some hold workshops and most are willing to chat informally with readers and writers.
One of the things that makes us different from other conventions is that we don’t have a presenter green room. I never understood the point of separating the speakers from the people who have come to see them. Our guests usually spend their free time in the Merchants Corner, the Hospitality room, or the bar where they can mingle with attendees.
We also give our guests the option of holding a master class so that a smaller group of attendees can spend several hours with them. I, for one, very much enjoy attending master classes whenever I can.
In 2011 WWC had 282 people attend. 2017 had 750 attendees. WWC has been nominated for the Aurora Award for best volunteer-run organization every year and has won the award 6 times. Incidentally, for those who aren’t aware, the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award is a fan appreciation award so being nominated and winning is a great vote of confidence. Obviously, you have a lot of happy customers! What have they told you why they like WWC so much and what does your volunteer core do to ensure their satisfaction?
We are thrilled to be nominated for the award each year and to have won so often. As you say, the award is for fan-run events (meaning volunteer-run), such as CanCon in Ottawa, VCon in Vancouver, and numerous other volunteer-run events across Canada, ranging from international conventions that are sometimes hosted in Canada to various public reading series.
All volunteer-run events, no matter the size, are limited by the ability of the organizers to put something together. For free. In their spare time. When Words Collide is fortunate in that we have a board of 20+ volunteers to plan each year’s festival. We also rely on an addition 50+ on-site volunteers during the festival. Even so, there is only so much we can do, so we try to make sure that whatever we do looks, from the outside at least, amazing and flawless. We are regularly asked by attendees why we don’t add something to the festival. My reply is always the same. It would require more manpower than we have. This might be a good time to ask your readers if they are interested in joining our board or participating as an on-site volunteer. J We can always use more help.
What tips do you have for anyone wishing to start a convention in their community?
First off, a convention is big. Very big. WWC costs around $40,000 to put on. When Creative Ink (Burnaby, BC) asked for advice getting started, I suggested they do a 1-day event to get their feet wet, which they did in 2015. They learned a lot and went to a full weekend in 2016. Here are some quick tips to consider:
Attend other events to see what they do, what you like, and what you don’t like.
Do what you want to do, not what others want, even if it is totally different (like WWC was in 2011).
Find some good help.
Start small and set the bar low. Grow as circumstances allow.
Spend money wisely and build a modest rainy day fund.
Make sure you have fun doing it.
Something to know is that people are happy to be helpful. If you are unsure about anything, ask around and you’ll get lots of advice. If something sounds like it will work, problem solved.
Any special announcements for 2018?
Our 2018 festival is 11 months away and we have already sold 25% of the passes. We are typically sold out in June, so don’t wait too long to get your pass. The only thing I’d like to say at this time is that we have an amazing line-up of festival guests next year: Peter V. Brett, Harold Johnson, Erin Lindsey, Deanna Raybourn, and Arthur Slade. If you are unfamiliar with these authors, you will want to change that. Literary agent Sam Morgan of Foundry Media is also joining us. Several of our past guests are returning. I’m looking forward to yet another excellent festival.
And now for the SPECIAL LINK: WWC has a variety of podcasts available on it’s website and they’re awesome! Check them out here! Who knows, maybe they’ll inspire you to come to When Words Collide in 2018.
RANDY MCCHARLES is a full-time author of speculative and crime fiction.
He is the recipient of several Aurora Awards (Canada’s most prestigious award for speculative fiction) and in 2013 his short story Ghost-B-Gone Incorporated won the House of Anansi 7-day Ghost Story Contest. Randy’s most recent publications include the 2016 Aurora Award shortlisted novel Much Ado about Macbeth from Tyche Books, the short story Murder at the Mall from Coffin Hop Press, and the 2017 Aurora Award shortlisted novel The Day of the Demon. In addition to writing, Randy organizes various events including the award-winning When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. To learn more about Randy and his books, go to www.randymccharles.com.
Recently three other writers and I formed a writing group. Our initial goal was to support each other’s efforts in mystery writing.
Good mystery writing requires lots of planning – knowing the crime scene, knowing the victim and knowing the sleuth. It requires carefully planting the clues and the red herrings. Equally, it requires knowing the cast of characters who the sleuth will encounter.
Because we’re all speculative writers (science fiction and fantasy) with a goal to write cross genre, none of us really knew how to write a mystery. We decided that collectively, we were stronger when we shared what we knew. Then, good fortune smiled on us and sent us a mentor who shared her knowledge with us.
When our group meets, we each have half an hour to talk about our project – about where it’s at, where we want to go. Sometimes we talk about an aspect of craft. But always we always end up brainstorming and making suggestions which allow us to see creative options to enhance our stories. We do this by asking questions about the story – plot, setting and characters and sometimes we provide options to solve story problems.
How does group think relate to writing momentum?
We know we’ve got someone to help us when we get stuck.
We encourage each other and we expand our craft.
We learn new skills from each other.
And we are accountable. We set goals. Then we write to meet them.
But most importantly, through group think we don’t let a story problem or craft issue slow us down. Problems don’t have a chance to give us writer’s block because we know we’ve got a safe and supportive place to work out the story problem.
However, this is not a critique group. Crit groups have their place, but much later in the process. Eventually, we may read each other’s work and provide crits. But for now, this is an imagination group – a story building, not refining group.
Support. Accountability. Brain storming. Problem solving. Those are the momentum builders. As is laughter, enthusiasm and encouragement because when one of us succeeds, we all succeed.
If you’re having problem staying on track and getting the words out, start or find a support group which will encourage, share craft and brainstorm. From this words will flow and stories will be written.
I was part way into the book ad things seemed to be going well. The story was coming together. My protagonist was active. He was in a tree and I kept throwing rocks at him. Somewhere, somehow, he had to muster the strength that would make him stop being on the defensive and get on the offensive.
Then my protagonist and I hit the proverbial brick wall. Ouch! All the momentum I had, the three thousand plus words I wrote every day stopped. My brain became a repository of mush, not great ideas. My energy was but a whisper of a breeze unable to flutter a tiny leaf.
I had to figure this out.
What had I done to prepare?
I had done some planning. I knew the character, the climax, the villain and where I wanted the story to be by the end.
Distractions were minimal. I had the hours I needed every day to write.
My chair was comfortable. (sounds lame I know but those Excuse Gremlins can be weird at times)
The problem: the momentum was gone.
I was still certain I had a good story and I wanted to write it, but what was wrong?
I was a few chapters in so I did a chapter by chapter outline. The progression seemed logical enough. But, I found a niggle, the tiniest one. Why would my character have acted this way? Actually, the question needed to be reframed: what motivated him to do this? He is trying to tell me something, something I hadn’t realized in my initial thoughts about him.
It was time to re-examine my protagonist, to ask him more questions, to delve deeper into his background and the society in which he lived. It was then that I discovered that his father had instilled in him values I hadn’t been fully aware of. From those values came his struggle. What he had grown up to believe wasn’t holding true. So, now he had conflict and I the writer, had theme.
I went back over those first chapters, re-examined them in the context of the theme, his inner struggle and discovered that although I had an okay plot, the protagonist’s struggle wasn’t being reflected in some scenes and it didn’t serve to motivate him to act or not act in situations.
Aha! moment in hand, I rewrote those scens, thought through the novel once more.
The take away? My writing momentum stopped because I didn’t have enough knowledge about my protagonist to proceed. For me, knowing what’s at stake, what my character’s inner conflict is, what motivates him at the core, drives my story telling. Knowing this speaks to theme and helps create a stronger villain. In other words, the rocks I’m throwing up the tree are a lot bigger and hurt a lot more. Knowing the character’s inner conflict also helps create better secondary characters: some who enable, others who derail, and others who hold the mirror of truth.
With deeper understanding and greater potential for conflict realized, my writing momentum returned.
1)When momentum lags, re-examine your protagonist and maybe the villain too. Find what excites and moves them and most importantly, what their deepest conflicts and influences are.
2) Determine what your story is about (aka the theme). If you know that, then your characters are the instruments to explore that theme with all its inherent conflicts and consequences. If you’re having trouble figuring out your theme, then re-examine key characters deeper still.
If you’re having trouble maintaining your momentum, stop wrting and take a moment to think about what motivates the protagonist and what his inner conflicts are. Look at theme too for understanding that will keep the story from being derailed as all scenes and characters will somehow speak to it. And, you never know, maybe your subconscious was trying to tell you something about another story problem which you aren’t yet consciously aware of. Stopping, and taking a bit of time to reflect, will not only help you to regain your momentum, but to also keep it.