NaNo Need-to-Knows: The Inciting Incident

Continuing on my theme of plot-related need-to-knows for NaNoWriMo, I want to talk about the inciting incident today. What is it? And why is it so useful to know your story’s inciting incident ahead of starting to write your NaNo Novel?

You know that line in book descriptions? “Everything changes when…”

The event that changes things for the character is the inciting incident. It’s literally the event that “incites” the character to set the goal which carries the story.

And if the goal is your story’s point, the inciting incident is then the catalyst that sparks off the story in earnest.

If you think about it from the reader’s point of view, the story’s goal doesn’t exist until the inciting incident occurred. So the introduction has no direction; it’s only an introduction. Direction only happens when the character says (directly or indirectly), “This is what I want to do.” After that, the story is about whether or not that thing is achieved.

But it can’t happen if there isn’t some spark that makes the character set out on their journey in the first place.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to have the inciting incident occur as soon as possible. Some people say within the first third of your story, but I personally think that’s too long, unless your story has a slower pace. Others say you must start in medias res, and that the inciting incident has to happen in the first chapter. Which I say is too fast for most genres outside of mysteries (where the incident in question is someone dying or something being stolen) or a thriller. Personal experience says that most of my stories work best with a proper character intro, and the inciting incident occurring somewhere in the first fifth of a book. But that’s because I prefer to emphasize my character arcs. Putting the inciting incident at around 10k words in (assuming I have a 50k book) gives me time to show the readers who the characters are before the inciting incident changes things, which I feel gives those changes more of an impact.

That said, I tend to personally leave it up to the story I’m writing, for the inciting incident to happen when it’s ready to happen.

So why the spiel about where to put it, then?

Because a surprising amount of writers feel like their story is dragging half-way into the book and they can’t tell why.

Often, the reason is that they’ve written half a novel’s worth of words, but nothing’s happened yet. So it’s basically a half a novel of waffling around with no direction and no visible point. Because nothing happened to make the character decide to do something. And as such, nothing is done.

If you know what the inciting incident is supposed to be, you’ll also know if it hasn’t happened yet, and so you can make sure it does happen and soon enough to keep your story from lagging.

Do you pre-plan your inciting incidents? Do you prefer inciting incidents to happen right at the beginning, or at a later point in the story?

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NaNo Need-to-Knows: Picking Your Story Idea

Hey everyone! Today’s my first vlog post for my NaNo Need-to-Knows series (click here for the list of posts as the series progresses). Right now, the vlog part is dealing more with survival strategies than technique (whereas my blog posts are more technical) so I thought I’d start at the very beginning.

The script I used for this vlog post is under the video.

October is here, and that means it’s time to start ramping up for NaNoWriMo. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month is a writing marathon where writers try to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.

It’s something I believe writers should try at least once, but NaNo is hard. I’m not going to lie. This will be my eighth NaNo, and I still have days in November when I wonder why I do it to myself.

But I always end November with a sense of accomplishment because I always get more done than I do in other months, even if I don’t get to 50,000 words.

It can be a bit of an overwhelming experience, especially for newbies, so I decided to start a blog and vlog series about things you need to know about and for NaNo. Hopefully it will make the process just a bit easier for you. I will provide the links to my blogs below.

Right now, my blog posts are dealing more with some story tips, while the vlogs are dealing with survival tips. And since this is Week 1 of the series, I thought I’d start with advice on deciding what you want to work on.

So you’ve decided you’re going to do NaNo, but you don’t know what you want to work on. What do you do?

My first tip is: Write what you wish you could read more of.

If you have been waiting for a book to come out about a pirate mermaid in space and it’s just not coming out, that could be your sign to write it yourself.

Bonus points because of the fact that you’re already passionate about your idea.

Which brings me to my next tip:

Pick the story idea you’re most passionate about.

If you have more than one idea that you want to get to, make sure you pick the one that makes your heart beat faster when you think about.

Writing is already a challenge. Racing time to write about 1,700 words a day makes it even harder. Accomplishing this mammoth task with a story that feels like a punishment to work on because you’re just not that into it is going to make NaNo almost impossible.

So don’t do it to yourself. Pick the idea you love.

But what to do if you’re equally passionate about both?

Pick the most complete story idea.

Once NaNo starts, you don’t want to stop to rework a story idea because it turned out not to be strong enough to carry a 50,000-word story.

So pick the idea with the biggest goals, the strongest inherent conflicts and the highest stakes. If your ideas lack those, it’s a good idea to figure them out for all of your possible options, and then compare.

I’ll providing tips on my blogs to help you with this.

But then, what if both stories are strong?

What if you’re equally passionate about two stories, and both of them come with everything you’d need to ever make them both awesome?

Just Pick One.

Yep, you heard me. If you’re wavering between two ideas, you’re really wasting time you could be spending on preparation or worse, on NaNo itself.

So if you trust your ideas, pick which one you’re going to write and promise to get to the other once this one is done. Be decisive and commit to one of your awesome ideas.

Or Pick Both.

Now we’re venturing into Rebel territory, but if you feel like you can handle it and you don’t want to leave one of your stories by the wayside, write both concurrently. I have a whole new series worth of advice for people who want to do this, but there’s just no time right now.

It’s not for everyone, though, so tread lightly. But just keep it in mind as an option, because if you have your heart set on NaNo’ing and you just can’t decide, it’s better to add 50,000 words across two books than it is to not write because you’re still wavering.

Before you go, do let me know if you’re going to do NaNo and leave your NaNo name so we can buddy up. Is this your first time or are you a veteran? Do you have any questions? What’s your best advice for picking a story idea.

NaNo Need-to-Knows: Your Characters

As part of my NaNo Need-to-Knows series, I’m sharing advice on the things you need in order to get through NaNoWriMo. (Click here for a list of links for the ongoing series.)

For the rest of October, the blog part of this series will deal with some writing technique things you need to know in order to create a strong NaNoWriMo Novel.

Since I’m more of a character-driven writer, I’m starting with characterization, but you can sort out the plot-related aspects first, if that’s what you want. (I’ll be starting with those on Monday.)

But what does one have to figure out with regards to characterization? And why is it important?

Who Is Your Main Character?

Do they have a name? What do they do? What do they want? What are their hopes, dreams and aspirations? What are they willing to do in order to achieve those? What are their worst fears? What are they willing to do to avoid those?

Yes, the way a character looks can be important for description purposes, but when it comes to creating a strong story, you need to go deeper than the superficial.

Why?

Because knowing your character means you know what your character will do in a given situation, which in turn can help you drive the plot forward as you write.

Is your character prone to keeping grudges? Then having something happen to make them want to avenge themselves will be a great way to set a strong story goal. AND your character will want to go after that goal.

Want means there are now personal stakes to achieving the goal, which is one of the best ways to maintain tension in a story.

So make sure you get to know your character before you start, or that you create enough opportunities in your writing during NaNoWriMo to explore your characterization.

Some ways to do this exploration before NaNoWriMo:

  • Spend time to create detailed notes as you build your character. I’ve heard the snowflake method is particularly good for this. (As with most plotting-related activities.)
  • Or you can take my approach of assuming a character to be a real person that you need to get to know. This approach might be out there, but I find that, if I treat characters like real people, they tend to feel more real in my writing too. Often, I simply do this by letting them live and make their own decisions in a story as I write, but if I want to prepare ahead, I do interviews with my characters. Yes, I literally act like I’m drinking coffee with a character. I’ll ask them all kinds of stuff, having some real, deep conversations with them, and then I’ll note down their answers. Not only does doing this help you understand a character, but it also helps you nail down the rhythms and cadences of their voice. (Which does come in handy later.)

What Motivates Your Characters?

In simple terms, character motivation is the reason behind the reason behind the reason behind the reason why a character does something. Think of it like peeling an onion. There’s the skin at the surface, but under that is another layer, and another, and another. The deeper you go, the closer to the heart you get.

And if you can get to the heart of any situation with a character, you can use that to strengthen the impact of what’s going on. You’ll also instantly know when a scene doesn’t make sense, if it goes against the character’s motivation.

For example. You have a character (let’s call her Sally), who gives a bitchy response to a snarky comment from another character (Dan).

Sally could theoretically have hundreds of choices about how she’s going to respond to Dan’s sass, and she goes for being nasty. Why? Why didn’t she walk away instead? Or play sweet?

Because she sees every sassy comment as an attack on her person and feels the need to retaliate. Why?

Because she feels like the whole world is out to get her and she needs to fight to survive. Why?

Because she’s seen the hard side of the world and has been in survival mode her entire life.

Why?
….

And this can go on forever, really. The deeper you go, the more information you have to mine. Just three why’s in and we have a very tantalizing clue about Sally’s backstory that can help fill her out as a character. And the deeper you go, the more info you’ll have. So keep asking why.

Another benefit to knowing your characters’ motivations is that you can create some incredibly compelling conflict just by having two characters’ motivations and the resulting desires they have oppose each other.

Characters wanting things are nice. But I frequently want to eat a chocolate. What do they need? What is the thing they would do anything to get because that need comes from the depths of their souls? Those are the truly important things, and if Sally needs something to happen, and Dan equally needs that same thing not to occur, you have instant fireworks. So take the time to learn your characters’ motivations, and then figure out if you can put them in opposition to each other.

It just livens up every scene containing those characters, because now every moment between them matters.

Thanks for reading! How do you approach characterization? Any further characterization advice? 

Next week, I’ll be talking about story goals and inciting incidents, and why they’re important. And on my vlog on Friday, I’ll be sharing tips on how to choose between story ideas for NaNo. If you’re a Patreon patron for as little as $1 a month, you’ll be able to watch my vlog post on Thursday instead. 

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NaNo Need-to-Knows: An Introduction

It was a bit of a shock a few days ago when I received a reminder from NaNoWriMo to announce my NaNo novel for this year. Silly, I know. You’d think I have a firmer hold on the progress of time, but there you go.

If you’re new to writing and stumbled onto my blog, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write a “novel” or part of a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November.

It’s a huge amount of fun, if you can handle the pressure, and the nice thing about it is that you’re part of a larger NaNo community during this time. In fact, I met one of my best friends because of a NaNo event in my area. So yeah, it’s a great way to get involved. Just click on the link up top for more information.

Anyway, since NaNoWriMo can be a bit overwhelming, especially for first-timers, I thought I’d spend the rest of October and November to give a bit of advice from my eight years of NaNo experience.

On Mondays, I’ll do a series of blog posts (although the first post in this series will be on Wednesday to fit everything in, and I might use more Wednesdays if I need to). On Fridays, I’ll be updating on my YouTube Channel. But don’t worry, I’ll be posting the video and my script on my blogs as well.

If you are joining and you want to buddy up with me, click here.

Okay, so before I start, I just want to clarify something about my approach. I’m a full-blown character-driven pantser, so I don’t do much in the way of planning before I start a rough draft. That said, these posts will be useful to plot-driven plotters (which would be my polar opposites) as well. All you have to do is take my plot-related posts as reminders to include later if you’re a pantser, and as some things to keep in mind if you plan if you’re a plotter. And depending on whether you’re a plot-driven or character-driven writer, you can scramble the order of my suggestions to fit you. All writing methods are valid, as long as your method helps you create a strong foundation to your story.

And the first few posts I’ll be writing will be about the things you need to build that foundation. Then as we go into NaNo itself, I’ll be changing to focus more on NaNo survival. (Because hey, no one said NaNo is easy.)

For ease of use, I’ll be using this post as a table of contents for you to refer to.

Table of Contents:

  1. Your Characters
  2. Picking Your Story Idea
  3. Your Story’s Goal
  4. The Inciting Incident
Who’s going to join NaNoWriMo? What are you doing to prepare?

My Five Writing Rules

Hey everyone!

This video is a continuation of my vlog on making sense of writing advice. In the previous vlog, I had pointed out that not all rules suit all people, so this time I shared the rules I apply the most to my own writing.

Here’s the script, for those of you who don’t like the video thing…

My Five Writing Rules

I decided it’s time to get back to those writing rules. Previously, I talked about how no writing rule is ever hard and fast for every writer, but I thought it might be interesting to share my personal rules because those very much dictate the reading experience of my writing.

Man. I actually have a lot of them. But let’s start with 5.

1) In rough drafts, there are no rules.

For me, rough drafts are where my mind can really take wing and fly, so I try to write without worrying about anything. I write for me. What I find interesting. What I want to enjoy. And if that means breaking a million so-called writing rules, that’s fine. I rein it all back in later.

2) Always Rewrite.

Since I just let my words bleed onto the page, the end result is… Okay bad. It’s bad. Really. Really. Bad.

But I expected that and it’s okay. I really don’t believe in perfect first drafts. Because in between the million things that don’t work in the rough draft, there are the hundred things that do, and I wouldn’t have found them if I kept stressing about the quality of my output.

So I take those things I like and I build the story again from scratch, using those things as my foundation. And the result of that draft is miles better.

3) Wait for it…

My writing process is filled with stops and starts. I’ll do an intensive writing period where I’m rough drafting a book. As soon as it’s done, though, I set it aside for at least a month. Then I spend time furiously rewriting the same story. And another rest period. Then I revise. And wait. And edit. And wait… And so on.

Because when it comes to perfecting my work, I need distance from it. Distance means time away.

4) Edit and edit some more.

When it comes to getting the book ready for publishing, I’m a bit of an editing fiend. If drafting is for myself, editing is for my readers. So I’ll go over the manuscript again and again, doing my absolute best to make sure the readers have at least a little taste of my experience as I wrote it.

This is also the place where a story goes from meh to amazing, so I go over it again and again until I find nothing more to change. And then I bring outside help in to see if they can’t find anything I missed.

5) At some point, I have to stop.

This is probably the hardest rule for me to follow. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my work, so I could find better ways to do things and say things and better places for commas almost indefinitely, if I let this perfectionistic streak run amok.

So there’s a point where I know I’m satisfied enough and where any further tweaking is superfluous. That’s where I stop.

It’s hard, though. And that’s where I miss having a publisher who can come in and pull the manuscript from my grabby hands.

That’s it for today! What is your biggest writing rule?

IWSG: I’m Back and Boy Am I Feeling the Insecurity

Hey all!

Heads-up to everyone wanting to support Hurricane Harvey victims: There’s a charity auction going on right now here
If you’re planning to self-publish, you can bid on my ebook and paperback formatting offer.

I’ve been away from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group for a while, but yesterday I decided to get right back onto that bandwagon.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with IWSG, it’s the brainchild of Alex Cavanaugh, where us writers can go to share our fears and insecurities once a month, on the first Wednesday. In addition, there is also an optional extra question for those of us who just don’t feel that insecure at the time.

I have a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge insecurity this month, but I stupidly made that my vlog post for Friday.

Lucky me, I also have another, smaller, niggling insecurity that I’ve been trying to ignore. And that big insecurity has just made that feeling much worse.

In short, I feel like nothing’s getting done.

Which is a stupid feeling for me to have, as I literally have a list every day, where I’m checking off task after task that I’ve finished.

But.

There was once a time when I was capable of rough drafting, rewriting and editing a manuscript in six to eight months.

That’s a lovely pace to maintain. And I did it while having a day-job.

But since then, all of my projects just seem to be stuck in mud. Book 3 in The War of Six Crowns has been two years (!!!) in the making and it’s still not done. And now I’m having problems with another project that will be setting me back for some more months on that. (This is my big insecurity.)

That’s not the worst, though.

The worst is that I’ve made the decision to become a full-time writer a year ago. Did that help me speed up?

Nope. Because now that I have more time for writerly things, I somehow also have less time to actually write, because to be a writer who isn’t also a starving writer, I have to do other writing-related jobs for money. This part is surprisingly successful.

But actually writing?

Uhm….

Uhm….

Uhm…..

I haven’t been able to write in more than a month, now. Mainly because of the crippling insecurity around that other book. But also because I conveniently have a million other things to do, which makes it so easy to procrastinate.

Sigh.

Anyone else feel like they’re stuck in mud with their writing? I’d ask how you get over that feeling, but I already know the only thing to do is actually stop moaning and start actually working on something again. 

Why Writers Need Critique Partners

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On September 4th, 2016, I had decided to use my knowledge gained from about sixteen years of writing in order to stabilize my income. I started freelancing as an editor and critique partner on Fiverr and Upwork.

For the most part, I love this job, because it basically pays me to read. A lot.

But there’s a flip-side: I sometimes have to deal with a lot of writing by people learning the craft. Don’t get me wrong. I love helping people. But the truth is that often, an editorial letter and comments written into the margins of a manuscript just aren’t enough to explain exactly what I mean.

The biggest reason for this is the huge disconnect in experience between me and my client. At the moment, probably close to two thirds of my clients for content edits are first-time writers. They paid for me to tell them how to improve their stories.

But when it comes to things that I take for granted, they never even thought about it. Within this blogging community, we’ve formed a sort of short-hand. When someone’s offering to exchange critiques with me, I know it’s okay for us to use that short-hand, because we do share a common background when it comes to how and where we find our knowledge.

So in a lot of ways, the bloggosphere forms a sort of hive-mind. Although the transmission of information isn’t perfect, I usually know, when I picked another blogger’s work up to critique, more or less what the level is that I’m batting for. So when I say, “Your opening isn’t really hooking me,” I’m pretty dang sure the writer I’m critiquing either knows what I mean, or knows where to find the information they need to correct this issue.

My belief that this is so is further reinforced by the general level of writing I’ve critiqued over the last seven years. You can see when someone has a concept of what’s going on.

I believe there are certain fundamentals to the plot and development of fiction (regardless of genre). And most of the time, people in my network get the majority of those fundamentals right. In this way, then, content editing is more about catching where the writer slipped than anything else. I think it’s because we are a network that shares what we learned and often I would critique someone, who critiques someone else, who critiques someone else, etc. Because a large amount of us are connected in multiple degrees (I have 20 people or more in my network who are also in your network), it means that the information I share gets refined and then applied to my work again when one of you reads for me. And just so, if I learn something new because of something one of my critique partners (CPs) picked up, I can take that information, refine it, and apply it to that CP’s work, and also the work of all my other CPs.

And so, overall, the quality of our output increases.

But when I’m freelancing, all those assumptions go out the window. I can’t say “This opening isn’t a good hook,” because the writer has no idea what a hook is.

And often, none of the fundamentals are there.

Without any of the fundamentals in place, it’s almost impossible to improve the writing without rewriting the whole thing first. And no matter how nicely I try to put it, that’s an incredibly demoralizing thing for a new writer to find out.

I’m talking about things like character arcs. I’m talking about motivation. I’m talking about internal logic. I’m talking about obedience to the set-up. I’m talking about having the set-up be in the writing, in a way that’s palpable to the reader. I’m talking about not having certain plot points in the writing because it’s “done” in the genre, but have that be at the cost of believability. I’m talking about the ways to create tension and to keep the pacing at a reasonable clip.

These things rarely come naturally to writers. They’re learned by trial and error. And honestly, I don’t think learning all that by paying an editor is the best way to do that.

So my suggestion: Don’t give up on writing. On the contrary, write more. Practice. But improve on your craft by learning from other writers. Get critique partners and learn both from the critiques you get and the ones you give. Read up to understand why your CPs are suggesting certain things. Learn.

That way, your developmental editor is there to help you perfect what you wrote and revised, instead of finding gaping holes that will make you want to write off your skill as a writer entirely.

Also, it’s easier for a content editor to write a thousand-word outline of why this one thing needs work. Not so much when all of your fundamentals are missing. It’s simply too much knowledge for someone to impart in one go, and it’s also too much for you, with your small amount of experience, to understand.

All of us had to start somewhere. But those of us who are here after ten years or more crawled before we ran.

And if you’re a new writer paying for an editor without having critique partners look at your writing first, you basically tried to skip to riding a unicycle.

Do you have critique partners? If so, how did you find them? Any tips for finding and being an awesome critique partner?