HWSWAnswers: Ideas and Writing

You all were good enough to ask a lot of questions, and we answered them in Slack, and then I tried to group the answers together so they were at least somewhat related. The plan is to put the answer posts up here tonight, tomorrow (Saturday) and Monday. If there are any more questions, put them in the comments on any of the answer posts and we’ll hit Slack again on Tuesday. This first bunch is all writing questions.

DeniseTwin asked:
I read on Reddit a sub where it has writing prompts – I love some of them, they are such clever ideas! So how do you decide what is a great book idea, one that will last all the way to a finished story and what is destined to be nothing but a series of fun rabbit warrens? Do you jot down the rabbit ideas just to get them out of your head so you can focus on the “real” stories or ???

Bob:
There are ideas that I don’t see a story to. What I mean is that there are neat ideas that I don’t think I could develop into a story. But, heck, Breaking Bad did an entire episode about a fly getting into the meth lab. So. Once I get started, I go until I get to the end. Often, that end is not what I envisioned at the start, but that’s the fun part.

Jenny:
For me, it’s not the idea, it’s the character talking in my head. Ideas are easy but ephemeral; characters are solid and layered. The greatest idea in the world is nothing without a character you love to explore it.

Seren asked:
My question is how do make the move from Amazing Idea to Actual Story? Have you ever just stopped at the idea stage and known that there wasn’t much further to go with it? Or is it a good idea to pursue fleshing it out?

Bob:
Every time I start a new novel, it’s a bit overwhelming because I know how much work it’s going to be to get to the end. So before I start, I’m committed to the idea. Right now, for example, I’m playing with ides for a next Area 51 book. A lot of people thought the last one, Earth Abides, was the last, but there are loose end I can pursue to write Area 51: Genesis. Or, I can write a distant prequel telling the story of the First Earth Empire I introduce in Earth Abides and whose remnants are in the meteor belt. As I work on my current projects, those ideas float around in my head. Then, one day, something will click. It’s not scientific; it’s more going with what feels right.

Jenny:
I never have amazing ideas. I have characters who won’t shut up, and they tell me what the problem is, and we take it from there. Ideas on their own are just character generators, otherwise you end up with characters who are servicing an idea instead of living on the page.

Bob:
I’ve had story ideas I’ve written. Now I write character ideas. I think they’re better.

Jenny:
The thing about ideas is that they’ll generate a different story depending on who the protagonist is. So they may be a great starting point, but they won’t come alive until there’s a character invested in them.

LN asked:
A question that has probably been asked already many times to both of you: how did you actually start writing and kept going to the point where you had a complete publishable book? When I say how I mean in a very practical way.

Bob:
For Don’t Look Down, there was a burning bush on the side of the road and a voice called out. Actually, I think the Maui story has been told. But when did we know we were finished? I thought after the first draft we were done. That took seven months in emails back and forth. Jenny said, nope, we’re just starting. So, yeah. Rewriting. I’m not sure how long we spent on that, Plus, the editor, found a major problem in what we thought was a good draft which required more rewriting and introducing Pepper into the story. Plus Jenny cut my character killing the cat.

Jenny:
I did not cut anything of yours. I said, “Bob, killing the cat is upsetting people on the blog. Possibly you could not do that.” And you killed a wild hog instead, as I remember.

The first book I started writing was so awful I stopped (I finished it later and it became Sizzle). I started a second book and just kept going until the end because I was having so much fun with it. It was 160,000 words. I knew nothing. A good editor got hold of me and said, “Let’s get serious about this,” and I started studying craft, and once I had a grip on structure, the whole finishing thing became clearer. But with Manhunting, I was just having aa good time first writing the story (because the heroine was my kind of woman and it was fun doing all the stuff she did vicariously) and then crafting the story (because I am a writing craft wonk and learning and using that stuff is catnip for me).

Bob:
Cat would’ve been better. You also cut out the part about the aliens.

Jenny:
As I recall, Bob, you started your first novel in Korea? You told me this story and I remember the details, but I’m not sure how much you want to share. What was your first published novel? Mine was Manhunting. 1993. Two years after I said, “I’m gonna write a book,” and sat down to type.

There were aliens in Don’t Look Down? There were no aliens in Don’t Look Down.

Bob:
Because you cut them.

Jenny:
I remember you bitching about me cutting a Swedish sex therapist, and even while we writing the book, I couldn’t remember a Swedish sex therapist.

There were no aliens ever in Don’t Look Down. Just that whack job in the swamp. You loved him.

Bob:
My first published book was Eyes of the Hammer. But it wasn’t my first manuscript. I view a first manuscript as a thesis. You’re learning. Eyes of the Hammer (incredibly stupid title which neither my agent or editor told me to fix) came out in 1991. I wrote my first manuscript living in Korea, studying martial arts, doing some active duty stints around the Pacific Rim (fighting kaiju). As soon as I finished it, I started writing my second. I was on my third mss when I got my first book deal.

Jenny:
I agree, the first one has the greatest learning curve. My curve on Manhunting was huge. (I also hate my first title. Sigh.)

Nicole wrote:
How do you know when it’s time to end a series?

Bob:
Tough one. I’ve written lots of series. I thought Area 51 was done. Then I re-read it and realized there were lots of threads I could pick up and I did.

I think when you don’t have the passion for it any more. I left Area 51 alone for almost 15 years, but then, upon re-reading, realized there was something more I wanted to unravel.

In my Green Beret series I did six Dave Riley books, then moved on to Horace Chase. But he was so flawed, I knew he couldn’t last. So, spoiler alert, he dies at the end of his third book and Riley is in the background. I remember Walter Moseley two years ago at Thrillerfest being asked why his protagonist drove his car off the cliff and he said “Because that’s what he would do.”

After killing Chase, I invented Will Kane and took the Green Beret series back well before the first book to 1977 because I thought Kane was a great character and that time period unique in New York City. I got tired of books and shows that relied on cell phones and googling stuff. So I’m now working on the fifth book in that series and really enjoying it because it has an entire cast of characters I like, not just Kane. There’s Morticia, the waitress, Thao the Montagnard cook studying to be a doctor who saved Kane’s life in Vietnam. Strong the cop with a secret I still haven’t revealed in four books and won’t until it needs to, etcetera.

I’m well into Shane and the Red Wedding and it follows the HEA in Agnes and the Hitman. Is it really an HEA? I’m pretty far in and not sure. Agnes is off stage, at a cooking school in Paris, while Shane is at Two Rivers trying to put on a wedding that’s turning into a bloody mess. But the undercurrent I’m trying to sort out, which just occurred to me as I wrote this is: what price is love worth? Not quite “if you love someone let them go” but more if you love some, how much danger can you put them in?

Jenny:
Also, having made sure they understand the danger, can you step back and let them make the decision themselves? Avoid the “Can he protect her?” trap.

Bob:
Well the point kind of is not whether he can protect her. It’s more he’s just a walking blob of danger wherever he is.

Jenny:
I doubt I’ll ever have the focus to do a series, but I like the idea of connected books. I think the key is that no book is just part of a series, it always has to stand alone, it has to be a book you needed to write, and not just because you started with three brothers and now you’re stuck writing a book for each of them. So if you’re writing about a central character you like, and they have a series of interesting adventures that build a character arc, you’re done when the character arc is done.

Whatever it is that you build the series on, it has to arc. Take Discworld. The Watch series arcs the character of everyone in it: Vimes moves from being a drunk hasbeen in a gutter to a Duke who goes toe-to-toe with the Patrician. Carrot moves from being an innocent to the quiet power behind the Watch and throne-he-won’t-take. Or look at Susan Sto-Helit who moves from being a granddaughter-of-Death-rock-groupie to a powerful adult capable of saving the world while falling in love with Time. It’s not “here’s another story about Susan,” it’s “here’s another story about Susan, watch how she fights back and grows into the amazing woman she is at the end.” I know a lot of series are just one story after another, but I think when you look at the best of them, there’s growth in relationships and maturity, and that growth, punctuated in a series ender that’s planned as an ender, makes the series satisfying and not repetitive. Dorothy Sayers arced Whimsey to stability. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin stories are a good example: Archie starts out as playboy-cad and ends in a solid relationship with a woman as strong as he is; the relationships among the team end explosively but Stout finishes that arc, too. That series ended when Stout was in his late eighties and decided to quit writing, but he didn’t just stop, he completed the arc. And then, of course, there’s Murderbot. Huge arc there, and Wells better keep writing it because I want to see where Murderbot goes next and how it arcs next.

Back to Bob’s sequel for Agnes: But she KNOWS he’s a walking blob of danger, she knew he was a hitman when she invited him into her life. If there’s a clear and present danger, she needs a head’s up, but at this point, if he’s saying, “You know, being with me is dangerous,” she’s going to come back with, “Duh.”

Margo asked:
I’d like to know how writers are dealing with the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic (and all that entails) in a “current year” story. Do we ignore it? Include the details (do I want my protagonist and other characters wearing masks and keeping six feet apart, not going into restaurants or being able to travel? Where’s the fun in that?!?!?) I’m curious to know how other authors are dealing with this. Do we just move the story back to 2019 (instead of 2020 or 2021) or pretend none of this is real (I suppose it IS fiction, after all)? Any suggestions or advice?

Bob:
I don’t let current events affect story. Early on, with thrillers, I learned this. I’d ignore it because it will be dated (hopefully) by the time the book comes out. I also don’t date stories. Well, except for my Time Patrol stories, where each one takes place on the same date in six different years, but that’s all historical.

Jenny:
The choice of whether or not to deal with the pandemic depends on the story. If the extra pressure makes the story stronger, I’d put it in the pandemic. However, since Trump was elected, I’ve stipulated that my stories start at an earlier date because he poisoned the air for everything, seeped into everything, and I don’t want him in my stories. If you set a book in 2020, you’re going to have to deal masks and lockdowns; it’s like setting it during the Civil War. It doesn’t have to be about the war or the pandemic, but people are gonna mention it and it’s going to have a huge effect on every day life. If you decide to write a book about 2019 in which people aren’t dealing with Covid, you’re writing alternate history/fantasy.

Bob:
I’ve got a book, Dragon Sim-13, that takes place during the Tienanmen Square riot, which kind of dates it. My Will Kane stories start in 1977 and for the first two, Son of Sam is in the backdrop. Of course, I lived through that and a girl from my elementary school was shot. And I knew I wanted the climactic scene to be 13 July 1977, the night of the big blackout. I thought the Blackout would be big for the scene, but it turned out not to be.

In summation– unless there’s a reason for, no need to date your story.

Jenny:
I don’t think you have to drag in current events, as Bob said, unless the current event had a huge impact that your characters would be idiots to ignore. Maybe if you write a book that doesn’t deal with Covid in any way, people will just assume it was set earlier? I just put “This story happened in 2015” at the beginning, and then go on, ignoring current events,

+5

9 thoughts on “HWSWAnswers: Ideas and Writing

  1. Do you read Urban fantasy? Would you consider writing one as a play project this year?
    Or an anti hero story? Or a heist like Oceans Eleven? It’s an old favourite.
    I’d love to know how you would approach and tweak these.
    What would you change about Harry Potter?
    The best writing advice? Which part of the writing process do you enjoy most? Which part do you avoid?

    +2
  2. Thanks for answering my question so thoroughly. It’s interesting that for both of you, you had to go through a few manuscripts to get to your first book. I suspect all of us avid readers fantazise about one day writing a book but we are in awe of writers because we know how much hard work it must be to write a book.

    +3
  3. This was great!
    Also (tongue in cheek), you could set your book in New Zealand, for instance. You can have restaurants and no Trump as you wish. Fingers crossed (there’s still a sense we’re living on the edge, in borrowed time, and the hit tourism has taken is eek, but it’s not people in hospital).

    +3
    1. A country where the leader is beautiful and wise and protects her people?
      I don’t write fairy tales.

      But I’d love to come back to New Zealand again,

      +4
  4. I started dating my stories when I realized I was writing a series (of the connected-stories type, not the 1 leads to 2 leads to 3 type). The characters exist in a version of the real world, and various real-world things (mostly having to do with gay rights) occur at specific times which affect certain characters. e.g.: two men who fall in love in 2000 cannot get married then.

    Also as the number of stories grew, I thought it was important (since they *do* stand alone) to give the potential reader some idea of where a given title falls on the When This Happens timeline. Aside from real-world things there are in-series things in which many characters are involved, so continuity was a concern.

    I had to park two completed stories early last year because they were set in 2020 and Life Happened. Both will be revised to account for real life, because those stories are already in my headcanon for the series timeline. They happen when they happen, which is 2020, so certain things have to happen differently. And I just started writing something that’s set in 2021 (like Jenny says, sometimes a character won’t shut up). The MCs are able to quarantine together, so at a certain point the masks can come off. 🙂

    +1
  5. First I wish they had used Bob for Pacific Rim, Charlie Hunnam is good at some things (Sons of Anarchy), but Pacific Rim was not one of them. The sequel was not that good, but still better then the original because he wasn’t in it.

    Secondly Agnes took out a dog napper and uses a frying pan as a lethal weapon and that was before she met Shane… Danger might stalk him, but she wasn’t exactly living the tranquil life when they met

    +1
    1. I just rewatched the opening of Pacific Rim. It’s a corny movie but the imagery is pretty interesting. I preferred the live action in the first movie to the CGI in the second. The problem with CGI is that they always go too far. Of course, people in monsters suits is going kind of far. I found it odd they could lift a Jaeger with helicopters as those things must have weighed a lot. Still, it was a good idea. And the entire wall metaphor was good.

      1. I am sure the concept started with people brainstorming new ideas to take on Godzilla (except they didn’t have the rights to it) So they decided more is more and went with lots of monsters. Jaegers being lifted by helicopters were a contradiction, the set up lead us to believe those things have to be heavy to stand up to physical attack, but then were light weight enough to be dropped into the ocean.

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