What makes you put a book down without finishing it?

The other day one of the writing discords I’m part of asked us what makes us stay up too late reading, and I had trouble actually answering that one. What is it, exactly, that makes me keep turning pages? Compelling characters and situations, yes, but I’ve finished plenty of books where I didn’t actually like the main character, especially not at the beginning. (Wally Lamb writes some very angry men, for example.) I’ve also finished things where the ending or ending explanation is disappointing. (Sorry, Stephen King, but we know you know.)

A screenshot of Stephen King’s cameo in It: Chapter Two where he insults the author character’s endings.

But those are all books I’ve finished in spite of not loving them completely, not books I DNF’d (did not finish). Looking back, though, it takes a lot for me to DNF.

Take We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example. It’s epistolary, for starters, which isn’t usually my thing, and the POV character’s voice really grated on me. She seemed snooty and just … who writes letters to her husband like that? I slogged my way through quite a bit of it before I made a strange (for me at that point, at least) decision: I went to Wikipedia for the plot summary. (Gasp! Who does that? Don’t all good readers finish everything they start, one page at a time?) And, in this case, knowing the ending meant it was worth finishing.

I can’t remember the title of another book I truly DNF’d after going through the same process: slogging through because everyone says it’s good, going to Wikipedia, and then …

Here’s my cardinal sin: when it’s the author screwing with you instead of the characters.

What I found in that Wikipedia search (and really it’s probably good I can’t name the title or the author) was that the jarring POV change I’d just hit was the author purposefully obscuring the truth. Making it seem like the POV in the first section was a specific character when in fact … it wasn’t that character at all. The author jerking you around and yanking your chain and (I imagine) feeling pretty darn clever about it. (Can you tell this is seriously my pet peeve?)

I love reading thrillers. Can’t get enough. And I love unreliable narrators. Gone Girl is awesome. It’s not Gillian Flynn playing the deception, though – it’s her characters, all working to deceive each other in-book, and therefore deceiving the reader. Gillian’s not the one feeling pretty darn clever about it – [character’s name redacted in case you haven’t read the book yet] is the one feeling pretty darn clever about it. Because [character] wants to fool everyone, and the reader just happens to be part of everyone.

I love thrillers with unexpected twists. I also read a lot of thrillers, so more often than not, I can guess the twists. The cool ones leave two or three options open so I’m still not sure. The awesome ones still manage to surprise me. But even when I can guess an ending, I can enjoy how the author takes us there and how they present the story … as long as they don’t get in their own way while doing it.

Clearly the answer to this one is incredibly personal and subjective. What about you? What’s the point where you mark a book as DNF and pick something else up? (Also: what are your favorite thrillers? I could stand to add a few to my TBR pile.)

Nitty gritty: narrative timelines

So this post isn’t about how much time it takes to write something, or caring about a project for months, or about planning your writing schedule. It’s about the timeline within your writing. How much time passes from the first page to the last? How much in a chapter? And how can you make it clear?

I’ve read books where the chapter titles are dates or even, in the case of Rewind by Catherine Ryan Howard, timestamps. (This is especially useful for books that aren’t presented chronologically.) But of course you don’t have to do this to indicate how much time has passed. You can work it into the text via either the characters or the narrator – say, the way The Princess Bride uses “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

We’re going to think about this one for a moment.

If you’ve never read or seen The Princess Bride, it’s a book-within-a-book scenario. William Goldman presents it as the book his father read out loud to him when he was sick, so he’s never actually read it himself. He tracks it down for his own son, who deems it boring, and that’s when Goldman finally picks it up … and decides to publish his own “good parts” edition because the book is boring. In the “original text,” for example, those three years of Buttercup’s life and her training to be a princess are explained in excruciating detail. Goldman, therefore, writes what his father said as he skipped over all those pages: “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

S. Morgenstern, the “original author” of The Princess Bride, should probably have listened to Elmore Leonard:

I try to leave out the parts that people skip

Elmore Leonard

But the question is: what are those parts? How do authors know what to skip?

For Not Your Mary Sue, I have some Very Important Plot Points that happen in June, all close in a row. There’s pretty extensive coverage for a couple weeks, and then … well, the next part I really wanted to write was almost a year later. But it’s not as easy as just writing the parts we want to write. There had to be snapshots of what happened in between in order to set up the proper emotional situation for the almost-a-year-later section.

In my initial draft, I had a bunch of information there. New places, new relationships, new activities. And it was helped along by timeline cues: references to seasons or holidays, which is easiest in the fall and winter. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas New Year’s, Valentine’s Day … they’re easy touchstones because I imagine most of the people interested in my writing would know when they happen, so I don’t have to explain.

Now here’s the tricky part: I actually edited out a bunch of that myself before sending out the full manuscript. Trying to leave out the parts I thought people would skip, you know? Keeping some of the timeline touch points and making it clear time was passing, but … not in as much detail as those first few weeks, or the days covered almost-a-year-later. Those, I figured, were the interesting things.

Well. On the plus side, I still have all those scenes hanging around for when I was asked to put more detail in that middle section. By leaving all of them out, I’d whacked off the opportunity for emotional investment and therefore weakened some of the things that happened almost-a-year-later.

So, if you’re sitting down to plot out or write a story, what are some things to consider about timelines?

  1. Sketch out a calendar. I’ll print out the months my story covers because I tend to use real time, but even giving yourself seasons works. This helps me see when things are happening that will be important to the plot or offer that emotional connections for readers, and what time can be skimmed over. It also helps me make sure I’ve put in all necessary clues and foreshadowing so nothing that happens later should feel like a trick – the seeds should be there.
  2. Use signposts for readers (and yourself). If real-world things like “It was almost Halloween” aren’t going to work, then consider opening a scene or chapter with “It had been three weeks since she’d seen him” – something to help your reader know that yep, there was a time skip. Nothing important happened. (Or, if something did, it’ll come out in the dialogue when she sees him again.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to add too many details to that first draft if you’re not sure. And, when you cut them for a new draft, keep your old draft intact, or cut-and-paste things to a separate file. Don’t ever fully delete your work or kill your darlings, just in case they’re going to be useful later. Go ahead and take your time with the important plot elements – those can expand to fill more pages. Take the time that needs to be taken during your first draft, because you can always massage it later.
  4. Have someone else read it. Get more eyes on the page than just your own. Can they follow what’s going on and when? Do they have enough to form the emotional attachments you’d like them to? Are there in fact parts your beta readers would like to have skipped? (Are there parts that need more emphasis earlier on?)
  5. If things still aren’t working, draw out the timeline again, this time based off what you’ve actually written (and not what you’d planned to write). I like color-coding these and tracing them across characters so that I know what all the important people are doing during a certain week or month, even if they’re not currently “onscreen” in the novel. It can especially help when considering characters’ motivations and their actions: did they just come off of an emotional moment? Or have they had weeks to adjust to something?
  6. And of course remember that your rough draft is a rough draft. It’s for you. Nobody else ever has to see it. This is where you can try to cram in as many clues as possible, or cover that “boring” day if you think it’s important to show changing character relationships, or meticulously explain that cool thing you know how to do just because it brings you joy. Then, when you’re revising, you might sigh and take those things out … or leave them in and see what your beta readers have to say about them.

We’re never going to get it right for everybody – there will be parts people skip, and parts people wish you’d said more about – but paying close attention to your timeline (and not just your plot outline) can help guide you, your characters, and your readers through the story.

Do you think about timelines during your writing process? Is it part of your planning, plotting, revision … or not even on your radar?

What role does the setting play in your plot?

It’s one of the requirements for writing a story: where it all happens. You can have amazingly detailed and dynamic characters but, unless they’re floating in the vacuum of space, they’re not enough. You need to know where they are, and what effect that “where” has on them and on your story. Your setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a character in and of itself, but choosing the right setting matters.

Setting matters for characterization

Think about how the places you’ve lived have affected your own life. They’re going to influence your way of speaking, even when you’re not aware of it. I’ve seen lists of things about the Midwest that other people find weird and of course aren’t strange to me, but it’s important to know all of those “natural” things you say, do, or expect aren’t universal. If your characters say “Ope,” drink pop, or look for a corn maze in the fall, then your setting is going to have to support all of that.

Setting matters for plot

Also think about the challenges you want your characters to face. Should they be able to run to Wal-Mart any hour of the day and buy things to solve their problems? Do they have access to Internet and cell service? Are they living on top of each other in an apartment block or way the heck out there in the middle of nowhere? If there’s a family emergency, how quickly can they be at their parents’ side? If they have a medical emergency, where’s the closest hospital? Your setting will have an effect on all of these plot elements.

Setting matters for believability

Yeah, I know we can argue about what, exactly, is meant by “Write what you know,” but if your story is set in the real world – even if you’ve made up your own town, like Derry, Maine – your familiarity with the wider setting can really help make things seem believable (even when a killer clown comes out of the sewers). Stephen King is from Maine, so his stories set in Maine have a certain verisimilitude because of his personal experience. When he mentions Yoopers, though – he’s done it twice so far, in 11/22/63 and Billy Summers – it’s … not quite right. (Look, I’m impressed he even knows what the UP is, but Traverse City isn’t in it.)

If you choose to mention real places and you’ve never been there, you run the risk of alienating readers who have. Take Traverse City, for example. I was born and raised there, so King’s reference to TC was cool, but … wrong. There’s also Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which messes with the city’s geography in ways that (sorry, Lauren) could have been fixed with a simple google search. Granted, how many people in the world are going to know where there is (and isn’t) a Mailboxes Etc. in Traverse City? Well, say the 15,500 or so people who live there, but … if you don’t know TC, you probably don’t even remember it’s ever been mentioned.

Still. It’s something to think about.

So how do I bring this all together in my own writing?

Not Your Mary Sue opens on an island in Lake Superior. I don’t name it – it’s just … a private island. The actual location along the coast doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact of isolation. I wanted my two characters completely stuck with each other for the first half of the book.

I’ve lived in the UP since 2007, so I know the area. The way Superior looks when it’s the only thing on the horizon. How to warn people if you’re going through certain dead zones because no, your cell phone won’t work – you know you’ve come out the other size when you get a whole slew of notifications. I wanted my characters to have the isolation in Misery but to somehow make this happen in the 21st century, when cell phones and Wi-Fi make that difficult. It’s hard to be a kidnap victim for weeks on end when you can simply dial 911.

Lake Superior as seen from Eagle River

My male main character is from the UP, and my female main character grew up in the Midwest and has done a bunch of traveling, which means I can use either my normal speech patterns or the way my friends talk. I don’t have to try to make sure that someone’s always from Brooklyn, for example, because they’re from the places I know.

For me, the setting and initial situation – two characters in isolation – occurred together. I’ve never tried to put Jay and Marcy anywhere other than their rocky island out there in Superior. (Unnamed island, remember, so nobody can tell me I got the number of pine trees wrong.) It just made sense, based on my own life experience.

What’s been really interesting, though, for someone who’s lived in Michigan most of her life, is remember that not everyone knows what it’s like to look out over Superior. How that view can change drastically depending on the weather.

Lake Superior at Agate Beach

Superior isn’t a main character in the book, but she’s certainly a presence. They’re literally surrounded by the water, isolated because of it, and any thoughts of escaping have to take the lake into account. In Not Your Mary Sue, the setting plays such a major role in that first half of the story that it couldn’t be picked up and transplanted anywhere else.

How do you think about setting when you write? What makes your settings necessary to plot and characterization?

Do you “cast” your characters in your head?

It’s part of character building: figuring out their biographies and motivations, yes, but also their eye color and hairstyle. How they stand, sit, and speak. I spend more time on my characters than a plot outline because my usual strategy is “Put them together, give them an inciting incident, and chase after them.”

Sometimes I work up complete character sheets with all of this info actually written down, and then I do include a photo of a celebrity as a reference. At times it’s a specific screen shot from a specific role that celebrity has played, so my character is more cued in to that role than the person whose face I’m using. Other times it’s a specific expression that just captures what I’m going for. I can remember one specific character from 2012 where I just searched for “redheaded man” and found one perfect shot of an actor whose name I don’t know, with the exact expression that captured my character. Googling the actor at the time didn’t give me any other angles that really spoke of my character, but that one photo was just *chef’s kiss.*

Picking the photo – or the actor I associate with certain traits – can be key to helping me write the character consistently. In 2019, I had a character in my NaNoWriMo novel who was supposed to be calm. About everything. No matter what I threw at him. And I, myself, am not like this. So.

I picked Patrick Dempsey as my casting for that character even though they don’t really look alike. I’ve just seen Dempsey play a number of characters who are soft-spoken no matter what the situation. When things were getting exciting in the plot, I’d picture Dempsey in one of those roles saying my character’s lines, and it helped me focus on the character’s (almost unnatural) calm. It helped me get out of my own head and my own reactions and into the character who, being an immortal warlock, had little in common with me.

Or take my upcoming novel, which you’ll actually get to read. Not Your Mary Sue opens with two characters, Marcy and Jay. Marcy is a televangelist’s adult daughter, a white woman in her early 30’s. Jay happens to be the notorious Fresh Coast Killer. He’s also white and in his thirties, but … a male serial killer. That’s not within my personal realm of experience.

For Jay, I was playing with the idea of an actor who presents as someone absolutely horrible onscreen, but who is apparently a very nice person in real life. Jay is, of course, the opposite: the “nice person” is his act and the “absolutely horrible” is his real self, but it was a good jumping off point for me. I started thinking about that sort of character around the time when Sherlock and the Loki fandom were big, so you have Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston playing these characters who are, at best, jerks, and yet who have fans fawning over them because they’re apparently really nice people. I mean, you’ve got Loki killing 80 people in two days and Tom posing with kids for UNICEF. That contrast spoke to me.

I’ll say at this point that I haven’t done any looking into Benedict and Tom to actually confirm any of this. Their real lives, that is. Tumblr posts praising their public lives? Sure. Just this idea that they can have these two incredibly contrasting public faces, no matter what their private lives are actually like.

Jay is more Loki than Sherlock, and having that idea of someone who could present such a range of emotions – and inflict such a range of emotions on other people – helped me start sorting out his background, and his various reactions to things, and his view of himself. He had to be changeable, and secretive, and that’s got to take a toll on his mental health even before we add in the Fresh Coast Killer aspect.

I’m looking ahead to NaNo this year, and I haven’t cast my characters yet. I’m debating doing picrew versions, building them from the ground up instead of trying to find the absolute perfect actor and image. (I don’t draw, so that’s out.) I’ve got the basics – hair color, eye color, height differentials, that kind of thing – but sometimes being able to just look at a face really helps things fall into place for me and help me get into that headspace of who a character really is.

How about you? Do you cast your characters at any point in your writing process?

“Do you actually write every day?”

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”

The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”

As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.

But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.

The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)

One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.

I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.

Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.

The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.

But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.

If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.

What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?

What we leave out when we talk about writing

I’m working on knitting a sweater right now. It’s far enough along that I tried it on to check for the sleeve length and posted a mirror selfie, and one of my friends commented that the body is a perfect fit. Which meant I made a list of all the steps I’d gone through to make sure of it. And then got me musing on knitting patterns and writing books.

Bear with me.

When you buy a knitting pattern, you get instructions on how to make the exact object in the photo, sometimes in different sizes. Let’s focus on a sweater. You choose your sweater size off the bust measurement – how big around you want to make it – and go, right? Because all the information is right there. Nyoom! Sweater!

Well.

When you walk into a store and can try on clothes, they’re sized. You know what one to start with and what generally fits, but if it’s more expensive, you’ll take it back and try it on and see how the standard measurements actually look on you. So yes, you can make a sweater following a pattern exactly – and that’s the easiest way to do it the first time – but … it’s not just about customization. It’s about apparently commonly-known tricks and hurdles that patterns often leave out.

If you’re just knitting on your own, without a community, you might wonder why the heck your armholes always end up holier than they should be. Maybe it’s just you. It takes communication with other people – people willing to show the mistakes and oopsies, even – to learn that hey, actually, lots of people have that issue with armholes, and here’s an easy trick to fix it.

Or, until you knit more than one sweater or talk to other people, you might not consider all the ways you can customize a sweater. Neck, sleeves, shaping, length … top down or bottom up … seamed or in one piece … you can adapt the things you like about a pattern and swap out the things you don’t like.

Patterns also use shorthand like “take time to check gauge” for things that actually take a lot of work. The sweater I’m knitting right now, for example: I’m not knitting the size of my actual measurements. I’ve got another sweater using the same yarn and needles (which, for the record, is very important when you’re using it to do the math) and I measured that, plus a couple other shirts I own that are similar in construction to the pattern I’m knitting (and which I like to wear), and I did a lot of math. Like … a lot. That’s before I even started knitting. But a normal knitting problem doesn’t tell you all that. It assumes you either know about checking gauge and substituting yarn, or you’ll google it on your own.

Non-knitters, you still with me?

Thinking how much gets left out of knitting patterns – how much knowledge you’re assumed to already have at the ready – started me thinking about writing advice. What do writers leave out when we’re talking about writing because it just seems so essential to us, so much like habit, that we forget we once had to learn it? Is there advice out there like “take time to check gauge” that tells you plenty if you already know what it means, but is confusing and overlookable if you don’t?

So much of writing is invisible to the reader, if the writing’s good. All of the stuff that goes behind “take time to check gauge” – measuring the already knit and washed garment in multiple places to calculate stitches and rows per inch, and then measuring clothes of a similar style that give me a good fit, and doing the math to figure out circumference, and then making sure things like armhole depth aren’t going to be completely out of whack, and remembering that my own gauge changes when I knit flat versus knitting in the round …

Do we always share all the stuff that we, personally, had to learn the hard way? (Pro tip: make the sweater that looks like the sweaters you’ve already got in your closet. You know you’ll wear it. And you won’t put in 50+ hours of work on something that looks different and you won’t actually wear.) Or do we just internalize it and think everyone else already knows it, too?

I’ve had some good conversations lately with my writing buddy and a friend of mine who asked me things about my writing, both the nonfiction and the fiction, and I’m compiling a list of those questions to answer in blog posts moving forward. Things that other people want to know, and not just the things I think other people want to know.

If you have any questions about the writing process, or things you’d like to hear me muse about, please share them! I love talking about my research, and I love talking about writing, so if there’s something you’ve always wondered or wanted to ask … now’s the time. Let’s de-mystify the writing shorthand.

(Oh, and the part about how you can change up a sweater pattern to add your favorite sleeves or preferred shaping? That also goes for writing advice. It’s not one size fits all. You pick what works for you, and maybe set some pieces aside to look at more later, and move on from the stuff that doesn’t. The more you read or talk about writing, the more options you’ll have.)