Monday, 7 March 2011


Hi everyone! Monday again, and time for some more questions from you, my precious readers.

First question today comes from commentor Elise:

I know the number one piece of advice from any author is "just sit down and write the freakin' thing already!" and I've tried! I write a scene or two and then I story has no plot. I have three ideas for stories floating around in my head right now, and all of them have 1) a fairly well laid out setting, 2) really in-depth characters, with backstory and development, and 3) little to no actual plotline whatsover... This is obviously not a book anyone who likes reading good books will want to read. I have a few ideas for plotlines, but they all feel kind of forced, and like they don't quite fit with the rest of what I created. Should I pick one of these just so I have something to work with, or is there some key to creating plots that I'm missing?

Well, the problem here seems fairly obvious, Elise. You say you have ideas for three stories, but in actual fact you have three story worlds and three sets of characters - which is great - but no stories to put them in. The story is what happens to your characters after the reader meets them in chapter one, the series of events that allows the reader to get to know them and to move through your invented worlds. The story is, basically, STUFF HAPPENING. That's what you lack.

Not having a plot laid out isn't right at the beginning isn't necessarily a huge problem. Some writers are 'pantsers' which means they write by the seat of their pants and just follow the characters. But you don't seem to be a pantser - if you were you wouldn't keep bumping up against the feeling that you don't know what to do with these people. But you can learn a lesson from the pansters by allowing your characters to tell you their story.

You say you have a lot of knowledge about your characters and their backstory. You say you have a fully fleshed out world. Use this information. Ask yourself - what is the worst that this world could throw at my characters? Or the best? What is the worst that these characters could throw at each other, or the best? What can change between my people? What can go very wrong or very right? How can I break my main character, bring him or her to their lowest moment of sorrow and despair? How can I tranform my main character, and allow him or her to display their deepest and best traits?

It seems as if plotting isn't a very natural thing for you, Elise, so you might want to take some time over this. There's no rush. It's supposed to be *fun*, because you can do anything at this point. Let the elements you already have just roll around together in your head and keep your mind open. What kind of stories do you like to read? Funny? Action-packed? Romantic? Sad? Hopefully once all the possibilities start playing out in your head you will begin to have any idea where you would like to go. A good way to keep track of all the ideas is to brainstorm, like in this image.

At some point your brain will reach saturation point with all these ideas and you will really want to write some of the scenes that have occurred to you. You can do that, or you can try plotting those scenes out, maybe using bullet points, and seeing how they work as a story. Do whatever seems natural to you. Above all, give yourself time. Trying to write a story before it's ready, before it's fully mature in your head, will often result in the problems you've described - so don't be in a hurry!

The next question came via email from Lexie. She asks: my stories/attempted books i always avoid the meticulous doings of a normal person. I always hate writing about someone going to school, or doing chores. I try to keep away from anything normal, in any normal persons life. So, is it okay, if i avoid those things, and write exactly what i want to write? I've never tried it, i always force myself to write normal occurences. But, why do i have to? Also, my friends always read my stories and freak out, because one of the characters might resemble me. IS it okay to have characters based on yourself?

Two questions here. 

First - is it okay to find the normal day-to-day events of normal people's lives boring and avoid them? Heck yes. I do it as much as possible. In most cases, unless there's a point in showing someone ironing their clothes (like that they burn their shirt, which shows they're careless/dreamy, and also makes them late which results in them going to the head teacher's office and accidentally finding out that the head teacher is an alien), you can skip it.

Second - is it okay to have characters that resemble you? Depends. HOW does this person resemble you? Most of my characters (even the evil ones) have *something* in common with me, because I have to understand them in order to write them realistically. Zira/Zahira has my way with words and my occasional ruthlessness. Alexandra has my desire to please people and my love of nature. But neither of them are actually anything like me as a person.

That's the vital distinction here. If a character has fluffy brown hair and freckles like you, 'cos you're sick of reading about tanned blondes, fine. If your character loves playing the piano like you 'cos music's something you're interested in writing about, fine. But if you're writing about someone who actually IS you...who friends of yours recognise as being a fictional version of who YOU are...that's not a great idea. Some writers have managed to create stories this way, usually people who've lived through amazing events and tell a fictionalised version of them (like Gerald Durrell and Roald Dahl). But in general it's going to lead to this character getting unfair treatment from you in the story (who wants to see *themselves* fall in a hole and get covered in cow dung, even if that's what *should* happen?) and probably making everyone who reads it roll their eyes as they figure out that you've shoved yourself into your own story and you're just writing to make yourself look good in it.  This is what is called a Mary-Sue.

Plus, there's such a fascinating variety of people out there in the world that it seems kind of boring to write about people who are just like you, as I say in this previous blog-post. It's limiting, and it won't result in the best stories. My advice is to think a bit more and create a new character who is their own person.

Lexie, you also asked if I would be able to give you feedback on stories that you've written, and I'm mentioning this just as a general reminder: both for reasons of time and legal safety, I cannot read other people's unpublished work. And even if I could, I'm not an editor, I've never critiqued anyone's writing, and I really don't have the necessary skills. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and I hate saying 'no', but I can't change the way the world is. Sorry.

Okay, I hope that's been helpful! Any more questions, email me or get in touch through the comments. 

See you all on Wednesday, when I will be interviewing Fabulous Author Person Cat Clarke and giving away a copy of her book ENTANGLED (oooooh!).


Alex Mullarky said...

I'm studying a French author at the moment in European Literature called Michel Houellebecq, who, in every one of his books, includes a character called Michel as a protagonist. His books have been criticised as just about every kind of 'ist' there is and it reflects very badly on him. I'm not saying he shouldn't do it, it's just interesting because I could/would never have a character who I had intentionally based on myself. Sure, sometimes I read over it and think "this is a little like me", but since I wrote it, that's hardly surprising! I think all your characters have to have a little bit of you in them, whether you intend it or not.

Zoë Marriott said...

It does sound like he was a bit self obsessed! I mean, how terribly boring, to keep writing about yourself over and over! I'd give up and take up pottery or something.

Megha said...

WOW! I've ALWAYS wanted to read Entangled (well, since I found out about it). ARGH I'm wishing I win the next giveaway too XD

How self-centered. But then, who DOESN'T hope that? Hehe.

Anyway, thanks for the post. Hm. They weren't questions I've ever wondered before.

Zoë Marriott said...

I think the universe is unlikely to be that kind twice in a row, Megha, but you can enter anyway. You never know.

Isabel said...

Hmm... interesting questions. It made me think about my own main character, and if she was too similar to me, and turns out she isn't! She's totally different. If you asked me to find some traits I have in common with her, I have a few, but they're just normal traits that mix in with all the rest of her awesomeness (and non-awesomeness - everyone has their weaknesses). And I never write based on other people I know... odd, I know. First of all, I have no idea what's going on in their head, and no matter how well you know a person, you're never going to know every single thing about them. Plus it's more fun if you make up your characters. But I think it's important to keep in mind that characters shouldn't just be a random assortment of traits (likes to read, plays the violin, is stubborn and evil and likes to cook spaghetti) because this never makes a fully-fleshed protagonist. Different traits have to overlap and make sense together: the fact that someone enjoys reading doesn't add much to the story unless it's key and is a big part of their personality. (Is pointedly thinking about Bella from Twilight as I discuss this.) I never really found making lists of my characters' personality traits very helpful at all. Also, sometimes you can find yourself just scribbling out stuff for the heck of it, thinking it will add to that character. Well, guess what, it's not. Look over that list and you may find that Susie usually goes with the flow and is extremely stubborn. She's quiet and thoughtful and kind and has to go to the principle's office every other day. I usually just start writing, and my characters' personalities simply evolve, and all I have to do is think about what they would do in a certain situation, based on who they are as a person? You can't just put a label on anyone, because people are too complex than that.

Jeez, you can tell this is something I feel strongly about. But I'll spare you all and stop rambling now. Very VERY excited for the giveaway. I really hope I win!!! Or anyone else who deserves it. I'll be VERY jealous, like I said to Megha, but also happy for you. Not resentful.

Anonymous said...

I never really thought about putting too much of myself into a character before, I feel like the stuff I do isn't interesting enough. But I do feel like sometimes I put too much of my characters into each other...if that makes sense. If I'm not careful they all seem the same. I'll love a certain personality traight, and then poof, all of my characters have it. I's so jealous of all the people who don't have that problem...


Isabel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isabel said...

196 followers. Almost there!!!

Elise said...

Wow, thanks! I feel so special! You are fantastic at giving advice! It is well thought out and thorough, without making me feel stupid. I will be thinking about all the things you said for a while. I definitely have a better idea of what direction I should be heading now. Really helpful! Again, thanks!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Yes, I know what you mean - sometimes I think people can get carried away with listing everything a character is or has, thinking this is the same as characterisation. But a list isn't a person. Often the best way to get to know a character is just to write about them. And yes, it's getting worryingly close...

Katie-Lynn: Character bleeding (like you mention) is kind of the opposite problem. You're not seeing your characters as individuals enough. For you, maybe sitting down and writing lists of what each character has and is might be useful in helping you fix their traits in your head.

Elise: you're very welcome.

Anonymous said...

OMG. I got TIW today.

I'm not going to say thank you because my thanks won't be enough to show how I feel. BUT THANK YOU!!! You're so generous. I mean, you gave SO much. Thanks!

Zoë Marriott said...

I'm glad you liked the prize, Megha, and I hope you enjoy the book. Congrats again.

Isabel said...

LOL! I can't WAIT till we reach 200, but I wouldn't be as excited if I were you. But don't worry about it. I'm sure you'll be fantastic! =D

OMG, you just explained so eloquently in a few sentences what it took me a long rant to explain. Thanks.

We're writing fiction stories at school, and we're in the planning stage. Today the teachers handed out a sheet for us to fill out about our main character to get ready to write the story. Let me tell you, it was a joke. The questions were like: How tall is he? Does he have glasses, contacts, braces? What is their weight? Complexion? Distinct facial features? Torso? What was their favorite toy as a child? What is their preference of clothing? What are some posters on their wall?

WHAT. THE. HECK. How on EARTH is the fact that your main character wears glasses going to add onto their character development, their personality, their strengths and their weaknesses? I seriously could not believe that sheet. These teachers know absolutely NOTHING about writing, or character development. I mean, seriously?? ARGH!!! Plus, in the world of my fiction story, there's no such thing as braces or contacts, or posters. Mine is a FANTASY story.

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