We invited Jeff to blog today and next Friday because he asked us to test drive a plotting tool he developed for fiction writers a while back. I like what Katy said about her experience with Jeff's book: "It's like having a brilliant editor at your elbow for the whole process." Curious? You should be. Jeff brings years of experience as an editor, novelist, and publisher to your elbow too.
I believe there are two kinds of novelists in our world. Of course every writer is an individual and no one writes entirely like anyone else. But when you break it all down into its simplest elements, I think you can put every novelist into one of two groups.
You're either a character-first novelist or a plot-first novelist.
A character-first novelist has character ideas all day long. Interesting people populate this writer's imagination. This writer is constantly coming up with cool issues and fears and backstory for fascinating story people. This kind of novelist will have more heroes and best friends and mysterious women in black than she has stories to put them in.
A plot-first novelist, on the other hand, gets story ideas like crazy. Ooh, this guy could totally be a double agent and that's why he's here with the bomb before the president makes his speech that starts the war! Plot-first novelists create fascinating stories and nail-biting plots that make their character-first brethren's minds spin.
The problem with being a plot-first novelist is that most of her characters are more like furniture than people. They don't have real personalities. Typical characters in these writers' books are "the girl" and "the friend" and "the bad guy," which is to say they're basically just more plot elements. They're in the story so that when the truck blows up and they're killed, it gives the hero a reason to go on his rampage.
The problem with being a character-first novelist is that her books are filled with beautifully drawn, realistic characters--who sit around doing nothing. We get manuscripts full of exquisite dialogue and unforgettable story people, but then we fall asleep because there is no story for these interesting people to live out.
A great novel has both strong characters and a strong plot. But how do you do both if you are, like most novelists, naturally better at the one and weaker at the other?
The solution is twofold. First, you have to dedicate yourself to doing the very hard and counterintuitive work it will take to produce excellence in the area you're not strong in.
Plot-first novelists draw shallow characters partially because they don't think they're important but also because it almost hurts mentally to put in that work. It's like making yourself do a semester of calculus if you're terrible at math. It's the same with character-first novelists trying to come up with good stories. It's so much easier just to do one more exploration of a relationship than it is to figure out three-act structure.
So the first thing needed is to agree with yourself to do the work to get better at what you're weak at. Until you decide that crafting a great character is just as important as writing the scene in which the plane crashes, you're never going to do it. Until you decide that it really is vital to give your story a satisfying structure, you'll simply skip it. Your novels will all remain lopsided and defective. And probably unpublishable.
The second thing you need to do is learn how to get better at the thing you're weak at. There are many books and electronic writer's helps tools that can help you. I have developed two myself: one for character creation and one for plot creation. These are the tools I use in my own writing, and I know they can help you.
Next Friday, I'll summarize Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist and How To Find Your Story, but for now it's enough that you 1) recognize whether you're a plot-firster or a character-firster and 2) commit to doing what it will take to strengthen your skill in the area where you're naturally weak.
By the way, some writers say they are setting-first novelists. I know what they mean, but usually you find out that the setting is, to them, really more like a character. Like Narnia or Middle-Earth or Avonlea. These people are usually character-firsters. Others tell me they're murder-first novelists, but these are really plot-firsters who begin with that element of plot and build the story from there.
You can purchase Jeff's e-books mentioned in this blog at http://marcherlordpress.com/Store_Stand-In.htm