Writing for Recognition

Writers write for two reasons. (1) A thirst for recognition. (2) And to release the baying hounds of unchecked and untrained inspiration that run amok inside our brainmeats and threaten our (questionable) sanity.

It was just under eight years ago that I stopped writing simply to release the hounds and gave more than a split self-effacing second of thought to the possibility that someone, somewhere might actually want to read what I have to say someday. That was the moment I started writing for recognition.

Yet, after the first two novels began drowning in ever-expanding puddles of their own spilling and dissolving plots, I finally quit beating my head against the many questions that kept arising (no. 1 being: why is this so hard???), and decided to seek professional help. For the writing dilemmas I was facing, that is.

Subsequently, I took a lot of creative writing and editing classes, read a few books on the subjects, and, most importantly, wrote a lot of ridiculous, often hilariously silly, prose. Still, recognizing the embedded lessons of even silly and ridiculous prose is to a writer’s benefit, and makes that prose valuable.

And now, two completed and three to six (but who’s counting?) uncompleted novels and several short stories later, I’m penning the third book in my science fiction trilogy, and finally trying to do it in a logical, structured way. You’d think that someone who spent three years crawling through the mud under concertina wire and jumping out of olive-drab-painted cargo planes for the army would have the structure thing down, but, like most stubborn and willful children (even grown ones), I somehow aspired instead to reject everything the military required of me. Except for remaining fluent in acronymese.

Which brings me to the current topic. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been bouncing around ideas for Contract of War’s anchor scenes (and here’s a great summary at From the Write Angle of what those are). This process, as many of you know, is an agonizing battle of generating wonderful plot ideas, which, after the requisite analysis, you realize aren’t so wonderful and murder with shameless savagery. Because no idea is ever good enough until one IS.

When my gray matter finally started to ooze with sweaty exhaustion even worse than Lawson Craddock felt at the recent Amgen Tour of California, I had a flash of inspiration that told me to step back and first figure out what the hell it is exactly that drives and motivates my characters. Perhaps knowing who they are will help me better know what story eventually needs to be told about them. The notes below are a result of this process and come from using writing techniques taught by the late Jack Bickham in Elements of Fiction Writing – Scene & Structure (and if you write novels and haven’t read this book, I can’t help but wonder if you also like to drive a car with your feet).

SPOILER NOTE: As these are notes for Contract of War, it’s safe to reason that these characters will all be featured in it. Some of the mischief they are planning will likely also be in the notes. So, if you don’t want to know what may go down, best to just leave it at: there’s a congregation of main characters (most you’ve met), and they be wantin’ somethin’.

Character Self-Concept Files

What is each character’s self-concept, and what turns that on its head?

1. Aly
Aly’s self-concept is that she is a woman of action; a doer and a survivor. She was inadvertently recruited as a medic during the war thanks to her affiliation with Vitruzzi. When she ends up still in that role at Broken City, it begins to chafe at her. Her natural cynicism starts to claw at her nerves. When Quantum and Vitruzzi/Brady’s fight for leadership starts to grow, it compounds her own restlessness. She is not a politician and simply wants a regular, 3 squares/day lifestyle where she and Karl can live in relative sanity and peace. If that can’t happen, then she wants to be busy and free from overt dictatorialism (not a real word, but it should be!).

2. Quantum
Quantum refuses the rule of law or rule of authority, or the idea that humanity is capable of order. He is both a technophile and a caveman. Broken City’s mini-government is getting under his skin because he believes it is just the seed for a new version of the Admin. He’s an interferer, but thinks of himself as proactive and a pragmatist about human nature. An egomaniac who thinks machines are better than people, thus machines should be the ultimate goal of people. When he perceives the colony regressing into an atavistic reinstatement of Admin control, he begins looking for ways to sabotage.

– Incidentally, he and Aly share this concept of authority.

3. Vitruzzi
Vitruzzi is a compassionate realist, leader, and reluctant about nothing that serves to keep peace and order. Unflappable and stern, she regards herself as levelheaded and a fair judge. It’s when her own decisions cause harm that she starts to lose touch.

4. Brady
No nonsense, no passes, no breaks. He’s a bulldog and a humanitarian that treats any gray area as an outright enemy. The pain and losses he’s suffered have turned him hard, but the inner Brady is one hundred percent finest-quality human. He is loyal and just, but has a hard time admitting when he’s wrong. Stubborn, like Aly, he believes himself to be a guardian of what is right, but can be too quick to decide what that is.

5. David
David is a joker and a mediator who doesn’t like to fight, but can handle himself in any kind. He reasons lengthily before deciding on a course of action. His loyalty to his crew can be rigid to a fault. He’s quick to think the best of people, but still slow to embrace them in his inner circle or confidence.

6. Karl
Like Aly, Karl is a doer. Stoic and driven, his main goals include keeping his friends safe, keeping out of the way of trouble, and enjoying what life has to offer. Having been a soldier and wounded, most of his life experience has trained him to value rules and be realistic about consequences and avoiding recklessness. Yet he’ll turn himself inside out to come to the aid of those he is loyal to.

The great news is, after doing this exercise, those anchor scenes are finally done!

Anyone want to share some of the steps you undertake as part of your pre-writing process?

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All content copyright unless otherwise specified © 2013 by Tammy Salyer, writer. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to use short quotes provided proper attribution is given.

8 Replies to “Writing for Recognition”

  1. Pingback: And the award for the most belated acknowledgement goes to: | The D/A Dialogues

  2. Christopher Pitchford

    Thanks so much for sharing your process! It’s opened up new possibilities in how I outline. I’ve been outlining around the beats of the story, using a three-part dramatic structure as the basis for determining where to place the beats!

    I’m doing something new myself. I use Scrivener for writing, and I just tried Scapple for visualizing the networks between five fantasy races (I want to be the anti-Tolkien and work against type, if possible).

    And I think you are just starting to get the recognition–I think a lot more will be on its way!

    1. Tammy Salyer Post author

      Hi Chris!
      I think there are as many processes as there are writers. I use a five act structure, but am always thinking of how they fit inside three acts. It’s a fascinating adventure! Hope you’re enjoying PDX. I think John Scalzi is there right now too. Cheers!

  3. Susan SPann

    Thank you for sharing this insight into your process! I love reading about how other authors write (and prepare to write!!).

    I used to resist plotting in advance, but once I started writing mysteries I discovered I couldn’t get by without it. Now I’m more of a plantser….I write a detailed outline in advance, but I let myself depart from it in the writing process if the characters choose not to cooperate with my plans. Sometimes that works really well – a pivotal character in my second mystery didn’t even appear in the original outline. Other times, it makes a big mess – in the same novel, my outline included three maids and four carpenters as secondary characters, and the “cast of thousands” got out of hand. I ended up combining all of the maids into one and reducing four carpenters to two, and things became much more manageable.

    1. Tammy Salyer Post author

      Hi Susan! Did you mean “planster,” because I think that’s great! It kind of fuses both plotster and panster together in exactly the way you’ve described. Write an outline, then let it go when the story insists on doing it’s own thing. Though, I cannot imagine trying to write a mystery without one. Talk about a recipe for crazy making! Good to hear from you 🙂 Looking forward to July!

  4. Katie Sullivan

    Like you, I resisted the formality and structure of pre-planning a story – I always had a general idea but never wrote it out as such until I got really close to that particular part of the book.

    Now, I write character portraits, and a general outline of where I want the story to go. As I write the first two-three chapters of a particular section, I revise the outline with the specific points I want each to achieve, with motivations and challenges, and write from there, revising a little as I go, but keeping the general outline/objective in mind.

    I’m still a little disorganized as I have scraps of conversations that come to me and I have to write before they leave (swiss-cheese brain), and I think I want to use a slightly different approach for the follow-up books. I like the idea of visually mapping a book out with postcards. and I think the format of the second book will lend itself to that better (It’s written, but now it has to be re-written in a whole new way).

    1. Tammy Salyer Post author

      Hi Katie! Thanks for stopping in. Swiss cheese brain, haha! Oh how I know that one! I now use Evernote, an iPhone app, to keep all those little things from disappearing into the ether. But kudos to you for outlining! I’m still not able to go there. I just use anchor scenes and let the rest fill itself in.

      1. Katie Sullivan

        This is the second time I’ve heard of Evernote (semi-luddite, me? Never!). I think I may need to start using that. It’ll cut down on post-it note abuse. I have to revise my outline claim – I use them to highlight the main points and then they tend to be thrown out the window once the characters actually have their way with the story. Sometimes I’ll go back to old outlines and think, really, that’s where you thought this was going? Huh. Other times I use them as a procrastination technique. 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your process. I love peering into the brain of others and seeing from their perspective!