Author Archives: Lee French

About Lee French

Lee French lives in Olympia, WA with two kids, two bicycles, and too much stuff. She is an avid gamer and active member of the Myth-Weavers online RPG community, where she is known for her fondness for Angry Ninja Squirrels of Doom. In addition to spending much time there, she also trains year-round for the one-week of glorious madness that is RAGBRAI, has a nice flower garden with one dragon and absolutely no lawn gnomes, and tries in vain every year to grow vegetables that don't get devoured by neighborhood wildlife.

#NaNoPrep Season: Being Creative When Life Sucks

For many professional arting types, such as writers, this has been a rough year. A lot of us have been exhausted by all the things going on for the past 12-15 months. This isn’t even solely about politics. Natural disasters and terrorism are horrible for creativity. The economy isn’t exactly fantastic if you’re not already rich. I’ve been watching politicians press to take away my health care, either wholly or partially, over and over, and again. As a value-added bonus, my father passed away last November.

This stuff is exhausting. Things which are exhausting are problematic for creative expression.

Here, have a refreshing pic of Supercat, my personal writing helper.

If you like writing, you’ve probably seen quotes about why writing is more important than ever lately. Which is great, but doesn’t help if you’re struggling to put ideas together or if you feel like your work is frivolous in a time that seems to demand seriousness.

This is how I’ve still managed to produce work over the past year:

  1. Stop spending so much time on social media. At least half the crap you find there isn’t even real anyway. Check in, catch up with your friends, and check out. Don’t argue with anyone unless it’s silly or frivolous and you need some silly or frivolous. No one has their mind changed by arguments on FB or Twitter.
  2. Get into a routine. Creativity is a lot like a muscle. Flex it every day at the same time, and your brain starts to expect that. Treat it like an exercise regimen. Go easy on yourself at first, and slowly add more weight (by which I mean time and demands).
  3. When something happens that you don’t understand and/or can’t process, like a terrorist opening fire on a crowd of people having fun, set aside your WIP for the day and write a loose story about how you feel. Write a story where you save all those people through some improbable means. Or tell a story about an imaginary victim who finds true love, or meets their maker, or whatever else pops into your head. Get that crap out so it stops festering inside. No one else ever has to read it, you just have to bleed it.
  4. Don’t watch the news for more than one hour on any given day. Keep up with current events, especially local ones, but pass on all the editorializing and opinionating.
  5. Exercise. Like, actual physical exercise that gets you off your butt for at least an hour a day. Writing is a sedentary job. Break it up a bit. For every hour you spend writing, get up for five minutes and do something that needs doing around your dwelling. Between chapters, take a walk or lift some weights, or whatever works for you.
  6. If you don’t have one already, find a social writing group that you can meet with in person on some regular schedule. This is not the same thing as a critique group. Critique groups are great and important, but you need a few folks you can just chill with and talk to who understand the plight of being a writer. NaNo write-ins are a great time to find folks for this purpose.
  7. Take a day off every week or so. Unplug. Go for a hike in the woods without your phone. Get away from your writing, from the news, from Uncle Bob’s opinions, from everything. If you can’t take a whole day, take as much of one as you can. At the least, treat yourself to something you consider decadent–an activity or foodstuff is a great thing to spend some time savoring.
  8. Make time to experience new things once in a while. Go someplace you’ve never been. Watch a webinar about a subject you’re not familiar with. Try the cheapest possible version of a handicraft you’ve never tried. Play a new game. Taste a new flavor. Take a different way home. Something.

If none of that helps, I strongly suggest seeking professional medical assistance. You may have depression or some other medical or psychological issue standing in your way. Mental health issues are exceedingly common among creative types. Modern medicine and/or psychology can fix a lot of those kinds of problems, or at least make them less debilitating.

As a side note, clever readers will notice I didn’t address the frivolity issue. That’s because it’s not a real issue. Everything doesn’t have to delve into serious, timely topics. Everything doesn’t have to address problems in our current culture. Relationships matter, buttkicking for goodness matters, the struggles of gods and mortals alike matter. Whatever you write, so long as it’s from your soul, it matters.

Next week: Panicking with style.

#NaNoPrep Season: Basics of Writing an Outline

You may think you don’t need an outline, but odds are good that your first draft will turn out better with one. More time spent before the writing on figuring out how to work the plot means less time spent during the writing on that very subject.

What is an outline?

At its most basic, an outline for a novel is a list of notes about the plot in chronological order. Outlines can be vague or detailed, terse or verbose. The right way to outline is the way that provides you with what you need to write the story. Which is to say that there is no right way to outline, there’s only the way that works for you.

Like this, except with plot points.

Of course, that’s not helpful if you’re not sure what to put in an outline to start with.

How Does One Do This Outlining Thing?

To start your first real outline, you’ll have to know some things about your story. You’ll need your genre, basic setting, character ideas, and what story you want to tell. Let’s go back to my ridiculous example of Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim from last week.

The genre could either be fantasy or science fiction. I’m going to go with fantasy, then further refine to modern fantasy. It’ll still have sci-fi elements, but this lets me have teenage wizards and witches, which is kind of the point of Harry Potter. I’ll include giant mecha and kaiju because that’s also required. So, my teenage wizards are piloting giant mecha to fight kaiju created by an evil wizard who wants to control the world. Because that’s what evil wizards do. It’ll take place in near-future Earth where magic exists for some reason I don’t need to identify right now.

Now that I know the basic premise, I can begin an outline. The more information you have, the easier it is to make up a robust outline, but you can start with just this much.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to work up a full outline for a novel-length story and post it publicly. If you want to write Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim, you’re welcome for the idea, but figure out the story yourself.

We know the plot will center around our teenage wizards working to defeat the evil wizard. We need to decide if they defeat him for good in this story (thus making this book a standalone), or if they only defeat him temporarily (for a series). I’m going to say this will be a trilogy. So the evil wizard gets defeated, but only temporarily.

Now we know the end. How does the story start? Since this is a Harry Potter knockoff, it’ll start with kids in a school. I don’t want to do 7 years and cross age category from middle grade to YA, so we’ll do YA. Our teenage wizards are 14 years old and attending wizard high school so they can learn to pilot giant mecha and fight kaiju. A lot of kids start high school at 14, so let’s begin with our heroes on their first day of magic high school.

Tip: Don’t follow the plot of any existing story with precision unless that existing story is public domain. Ripping off other authors is bad. Getting caught doing it is worse.

I now have two important pieces of my outline: the beginning and the end. Neither has much detail, but knowing where to start and where to end is an excellent way to begin an outline.

From here, you need to make an important decision. About how long do you want this book to be? A 50k word novel is less complex and has fewer plotlines than a 100k word novel. A 75k novel is in between. For my purposes, I’m going to go with 75k as my ideal target wordcount.

Notice how I use “ideal target wordcount” and don’t make it a concrete thing. Don’t be surprised if you pick a target number and shoot way under or way over. Part of the learning process is discovering how many words it takes to tell the story in your head.

Next, you need to decide what kind of story you want to tell. I could take this outline in several directions. It could be relationship-driven, focusing on the connections between the characters and how magic impacts their lives. I could go action-heavy, throwing them into the mecha and onto the front lines for some reason. I could make it a mystery, with the kids working to discover why the evil wizard is using kaiju. There are other options, but these three appeal to me the most. Since my target wordcount is 75k, I’m going to pick action for a major focus, mystery for a secondary focus, and relationships to bubble underneath.

For a 50k work, I’d use only two. For a 100k work, I’d take all three, plus see if I can come up with another one to bubble with the relationships.

This is the part where you start doing the real work.

Figure out the evil wizard’s goals. Why is he evil? (Because you need an antagonist is not a good reason.) What does he think “control the world” means? How does he intend to accomplish that?

Take your major focus and figure out the simplest path to defeating the evil wizard if everything goes right for the heroes. My major focus is action, so my wizards are going to learn to use their magic and mecha well enough to fight the evil wizard’s kaiju and smash his headquarters. The simplest path is for them to jump in, learn everything they need to know on the fly, and wade through the kaiju to reach him.

Which is not a compelling story.

Figure out your evil wizard’s simplest path to victory if everything goes right for him. My evil wizard wants to control the world. He’s using kaiju to lure out all those who would resist him and crush them so he can take control of the weak, who’ll then be his slaves. His simplest path is for the kaiju to wade through his enemies and smash lots of stuff, including that school with those damned kids.

Also not a compelling story.

Those two boring stories, when pursued concurrently, have a lot of potential. The heroes and villain have a direct conflict in their goal. You can now see that the villain has a reason to target the school, which is why the kids are going to be involved in the fighting.

At this point, you fill in the path from the Starting Point to the Ending Point with ideas and notes. Whatever you think of, write it down.

Once you have some basic ideas for that, repeat for your secondary focus, weaving them together. Then slide in your bubbling option wherever it feels right. As you go, get specific enough that you can write a scene from your notes without being so specific that you feel like you already wrote the scene.

Here’s the trick.

Outlines end as a list of notes in chronological order. They rarely start that way.

For example, I think this book should have a scene involving the heroes getting into trouble for breaking some school rules. I have no idea where that fits in my plot, but I’m making a note, and I’ll pull it out when I reach a point where I need one or more of my heroes taken out of commission, or to be in a place where they can do a thing they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Think of Harry finding Filch’s squib letter or the three kids running across the troll.

One option is to write your scene ideas on index cards and move them around until they make sense. If that isn’t your style, figure out what works for your brain and do that instead.

One Last Point…For Now.

There are lots of ways to get into your first outline. If you’d rather have a book, there are plenty of excellent ones to try. I recommend 21 Days To A Novel and No Plot? No Problem! as good, all-purpose guides by people who know what they’re talking about.

And it’s worth saying that every time you set out to write a book, your process will probably shift, at least a little. The important part is to start, not to start perfect.

#NaNoPrep Season: Learning Your Pre-writing Style #NaNoWriMo

There are many writers who claim to pants their stories. That is, fly by the seat of their pants, aka no plan, no outline, no nothing before starting to write. The other option is planning, which consists of drawing up a complete outline, character bios, detailed setting documents, and so on.

Pantser vs. Plotter

I wish to submit two controversial opinions:

  1. Pantsing and plotting are not two options, but rather two ends of a spectrum.
  2. As with many linear scales, most of us fit most comfortably somewhere between the two extremes.

The popularized term for folks who do “both” is Plantser. My argument is that we are all plantsers. Or, at least, the majority of us are.

Planster

The hitch: until you start writing, you have no real idea where you fit on that spectrum. You may think you’re on the Pantser end, then you get stuck on Day 4 with no idea what to do. Or you could Plannerize everything down to the details, then discover you only want to write a few of those scenes because the rest is already fulfilled in your head. Or your plans fly out the window because on Day 3, you thought of something brilliant.

My advice to any writer who isn’t sure where you fall on the spectrum is to aim for the middle. This list is not in order, because no one uses exactly the same process:

  1. Draft an outline focused on the major plot points. Leave out details and keep to the basic facts.
  2. Figure out the broad strokes of your main characters.
  3. Do some pre-writing of 1-3 short scenes that would take place before the novel starts to settle into the characters’ voices and mannerisms.
  4. Figure out what your setting needs to accommodate your plot and characters.
  5. If you have any mystery elements at all, come up with the clues.
  6. Come up with your ideal “It’s this meets this!” line. Example: “It’s Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim!” (I have no idea what that would look like, but I’d read the hell out of it.)
  7. Do your research, whether it’s about a place, a person label, a culture, clothing, technology, or whatever. Bookmark web pages with useful information about whatever topics you need.

For the average writer, this list should cover your prepping needs. You may discover you need more detail. Maybe you’re better with less.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to toss your outline if your brain takes you in a direction than your outline. Be flexible. But when you decide to veer off course, take a little time and figure out why. Is the new idea really better? Does the new journey suit the character/theme/conflict you want to portray?

If you feel good about the new direction, do a fresh set of plot points with it in mind and carry on.

#NaNoPrep Season Is Upon Us: Ideas & Context

As a Municipal Liaison for my NaNoWriMo region, I try to get things going at the start of September with prompts, advice, and helpful story-building whatnot. We’re currently going through Michael Stackpole’s 21 Days to a Novel as a group. Good stuff, but it doesn’t follow how I work.

What do you need to write a novel in a month? What do you really need before you start?

  1. Time. Writing is an activity that requires uninterrupted time in blocks of at least 15 minutes. You can certainly pause for 1 minute to jot down a sentence, but you won’t meet the daily goal by doing so, and your project will lack coherence.
  2. A writing medium. Anything that lets you record words generated by your brain into a reviewable format is fine. I write on a laptop. Some folks dictate. Others go old school and use a pad of paper. Someday, we’ll use datajacks with an ASIST interface. It’ll still be writing.
  3. Ideas. For most writers, this is the easy part.
  4. Technical stuff. Plot, characters, setting, etc. This is where the novel actually comes from. Some folks need all the technical things to start, others only need a few.

#1 & 2 are pretty straightforward. Either you can make time or you can’t. Either you have something to write with or you don’t. It’s #3 & 4 that trip people up.

What is an Idea?

We all know what ideas are–seeds for greater things. But how do you make your ideas coherent and usable? It’s all fine and dandy to see a a gif of a cat knocking books off a shelf and thinking that’d make a great story somehow. Converting it into a story idea is the tricky part.

Because no one really cares about a cat knocking books off a shelf. Most folks find it amusing, but there’s no actual story. It’s a cat acting like a cat. Whoopie-ding-fizz. No story there.

To make this a story, you have to do something important: place it in a context.

Context is how stories happen. Why is the cat up there? Whose bookshelf is that? What happened 5 seconds before this gif? How about 5 seconds after? Expand to 30 seconds. 3 minutes. Is this Earth as we know it? Does magic exist in this gif’s world? Is the cat sentient? Was it chasing something? Escaping something?

So many ways to take that story once you start considering the context.

More to come as we prep our way to November!

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Not Tell People How to Read #amwriting

Every so often, I run across an article predicting the demise of print books, or ebooks, or books altogether, critical thinking, libraries, and so on. Every time I see one of these articles, I read it to see which argument the writer has elected to trot out, whose numbers they’re paying attention to, and whether they have anything new to add to the conversation.

Spoiler alert: most of them fail at that last thing.

I have ebook and print versions of all my books. Here’s what I know.

Ebooks are cheap and easy to produce. Once the final proofing is done on a story, I can bang out a perfectly acceptable ebook in an hour. No fancy razzmatazz, but the story is there with all you need to enjoy it. I typically spend a few hours to make it a little prettier than that. For most of my ebooks, I make about 70% of what you pay, and the distributor takes the rest.

Print books are less cheap and less easy to produce, but still not a huge investment. My print books typically take about a day to format. I can do it in four hours or so with zero razzmatazz, but as with my ebooks, I prefer taking a little time to do it right. For most of my print books, how much I get of what you pay depends completely on where you buy it. Unless you get it directly from me at a show, a $15.99 book sale pays me anywhere from $1-6. The rest goes to pay for printing and those pesky distributors. (Before you get excited about how much I earn from a book sale at a show, remember that I have to pay to be at that show.)

Major publishers can charge less for the smaller-sized paperbacks because they can print 10,000 at a time, which makes them super-cheap. They make money because a $1 profit on 10,000 sales is still $10,000.

Like most indies, I get my print books from a Print-On-Demand service, which means my print books are not super-cheap. They are still relatively cheap, but I have to charge what I do because my volume is much lower and I like doing crazy things like eating food, using electricity, and sleeping in a bed.

Major publishers would like ebooks to die for a lot of complex reasons that boil down to the fact they don’t control the sales channels for ebooks, but they do control the sales channels for print books.

You see, indies price our ebooks cheaper than our print books because there’s no paper involved, and it’s easier to get ebooks distributed around the world than print books. If I want to get my print books into a Barnes & Noble, I have to convince a store manager that they want my books in their store, then go through some hoops and provide a method for them to return the books to me for a refund if they don’t sell in an allotted amount of time. And also not get very much money for them.

By the way, when publishers get those returned books back, they still counted as sales for the bestseller lists.

But I digress.

Even if I do all that for Barnes & Noble, that gets me into one (1) B&N store. Not all of them. One.

That thing you just thought upon learning this information is about how I feel about it, only tempered because I’ve known this for a while.

To get worldwide distribution for my ebooks, I upload the file to three different websites. That’s it. No haggling, no convincing, no crap.

An in case you happen to still think indie books are inferior, I challenge you to visit the bestseller lists on Amazon and pick out all the indie books in the Top 100 of any given category. Author services has become an industry. Artists of high quality have turned to cover art as a way to pay the bills. Editors have gone freelance. Indies are teaming up in collectives and co-ops like Clockwork Dragon to trade skills.

Ebooks aren’t going to die. Print books are also not going to die. Each has inherent strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay to like one and not the other. It’s also okay to like both.

As they tell kids in school, what matters is that you read and support the people who make the things you love, in whichever format you prefer. When you stop supporting us, we stop producing it. Because we’re people who like to do silly things like eat, use electricity, and sleep in beds.

P.S. I left out audiobooks for a reason. Whole other topic.

A Serious Moment

I was raised in a time and place where we didn’t talk about politics or religion much. Not for any particular reason, other than perhaps because my homework seemed to be a topic of incessant and pointed interest.

At extended family gatherings, I didn’t have That Uncle because we didn’t talk much about That Stuff. We watched football, ate foodstuffs, and played cards. When people did the talking thing, they had more than enough family whatnot to keep them occupied. Occasionally, someone would bring up some political thing, but everyone just agreed about it and moved on. Religion also came up once in a while, but typically in the form of determining when everyone last went to church and why it wasn’t Gramma’s church.

Discussing either of these topics with strangers wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities.

As such, I’m reticent to get into these two topics, especially on the internet. For once, though, I’d like to be serious and take a firm stand on a few important things.

Nazis are bad.

Institutional Racism is also bad.

Slavery is really bad.

Representation matters.

Science is important.

Climate change is real.

Mental health problems should not be shameful.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you are, someone cares about you.

If these stances make me a radical loon, then so be it. I’m a radical loon.

By John Picken from Chicago, USA

This @storybundle Thing Happened #fantasy #ebook #SPShow @NIWA_writers

Topic: https://storybundle.com/epic

Once upon a time, there were two authors. Well, actually, there are thousands, but this story is about two. Five. Fifteen, really. But we’ll start with two, because one of them is me, and the other one is Kevin J Anderson.

For clarity, this story is not a romance. There is no romance in this story at all.

Okay, there’s a little, but it’s all in books. Because we’re authors and that stuff is about the human condition, and that’s what spec fic is about. Besides, I’ve met Kevin’s wife, Rebecca, and she’s lovely.

*ahem*

Moving on.

Once upon a time, there was an indie author and an established, famous, excellent person. No lie! I’ve met him in person and he’s pretty cool. This one time, we were both concurrently at a convention–which is to say that I was there as part of Clockwork Dragon, and he was there because he’s Kevin J Motherf—ing Anderson (not his real middle name). This fan walks up, and Kevin drops everything to say hi, pose for a pic, sign some books, and remember the dude’s name from ten years ago in Greenland*.

*Not actually Greenland.

Everything I know about how to behave toward fans was reinforced by watching this man. I didn’t learn it from him, because by the time I met him, I’d been at this for a while and come to similar conclusions on my own. I’m smart and stuff, or so people tell me. Also, did you know I write books? It’s amazing! You may have read one or more of them without noticing because I’m an indie, and that’s our lot in life.

But I digress.

Again.

At this point, I should probably sum up, because there isn’t too much.

Ta da! *hand flourish* Look at that. Pretty, ain’t it?

Kevin graciously extended an invite to some indies like myself to have a book in the 2017 Truly Epic Fantasy Bundle on Storybundle. Other authors with books in there include some dudes named Brandon Sanderson, RA Salvatore, and Michael Stackpole. Y’know, regular guys you’ve never heard of.

Part of the proceeds benefits starving* indie authors like myself and Erik. The other part benefits the Challenger Learning Centers for Space Education, which is all about STEM and full of excellent people.

*Not actually starving to death. Erik and I are both in excellent health and should be around long enough to finish The Greatest Sin. No promises after that.