Most readers can put together a list of life changing books. I have my own. A list of novels that shaped me in some way. Some of they expanded my perspective of the world, others inspired they way I write my own works. So today I’m sharing a list of nine life changing novels.
This is an abbreviated list. If I were to list every novel that affected me, we’d be here for days. So I set up a kit, an ever-growing list of books that changed my life. If you want more life-changing books, check it out too.
Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson
Treasure Island was one of those early books that encouraged my love of reading and writing. While I started reading illustrated abridged versions of young readers, as I grew older I revisited it several times. Unlike other novels (and movies for that matter) of my younger years, this one held up because of it’s fun and fast-moving plot, engaging characters, and standout villain.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare is an inspiration (buy his complete works). I continue to draw from his works again and again, but never live up to anything he’s accomplished. I love King Learand Titus for the passion in their protagonists. There’s something so compelling in watching a person at their height brought low. The Tempest is surreal, and Othello is captivating. If you haven’t seen a live Shakespeare performance, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
Generally speaking, people tend to talk about Catcher in the Rye as J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece, but I personally think it pales in comparison to Franny and Zooey. The novel is mostly dialog, so we Perdidoget to know these characters. If you’re looking for a study in dialog to improve your own writing, you can’t do much better than this.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Doesn’t it have a fantastic title? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timefollows a young autistic boy as he investigates the murder of a dog in his Perdido yard. But it goes much deeper than that as we follow him day by day and see everything through his perspective. It does a great job of immersing you in a characters head that may be very much unlike you, which is why it affected me so much.
Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days heavily influenced the writing style in my first two books, Discovering Aberrationand The Gin Thief. I love the way he strings a sentence together, so when I set to writing a steampunk novel, I thought a voice similar to his would make a great fit. Not only that, but his novels are pure fun. Sure there are a few boring sections here and there where he get’s overly specific on how technology works or how an economy functions, but if that bores you, simply skip a paragraph or two and you’re back into the adventure.
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hess
In my college years, Hermann Hess affected me more than any other writer. I felt a real connection with him that I haven’t felt with a writer since. While everyone reads Siddhartha, a book that’s fine, most don’t move on to his real masterpieces like Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, or The Glass Bead Game.All of these novels shaped the way I think permanently, gave me perspective on life, sex, religion, and art. If you’re looking for the standout author who really changed the way I view the world, it would be Hermann Hess.
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The grand achievement of this book is the fact that as soon as I finished reading it, I started again from the beginning. I don’t think I’ve done that before or since. It’s world is so utterly engrossing, and so wildly different from our own. If you’re searching for a fantasy that throws out all of the genre norms, builds a world fresh from the ground up, and tells an engaging and dark narrative, look no further than the masterpiece that is Perdido Street Station.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
It is the first book of a now famously unfinished trilogy. The fact that it’s unfinished doesn’t bother me a bit, and it shouldn’t bother you either. Let genius work. Time has always been a major ingredient in the writing of these books. Anyway, The Name of the Windis an outstanding novel that drops you into a characters head as he goes about life, grows up, learns magic, and seeks revenge in this fantasy world. It all sounds fairly typical of a fantasy novel, but in its execution, it really stands out. I’ve read it several times and will read it several more.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
This is a novel with perfect prose. I’ve never read a more perfectly written novel. It’s astounding. Blood Meridian is an extremely dark tale that will stick with you well after you put it down. There are scenes that get etched in your mind. I’ve loved some of Cormac McCarthy’s other books, such as The Road and No Country for Old Men,but even those fantastic novels don’t hold a candle to Blood Meridian.
Patrick H Willems is a YouTube creator who produces a wide variety of content, but is best known for his videos that discuss movies in interesting and insightful ways, praise films you should give a second chance, or critique the current state of Hollywood.
Here’s his latest video to give you an idea of the kind of content he’s known for.
However, Patrick Willems isn’t just a creavie video essayist. He writes and directs his own short films, has written a horror screenplay, and hosts the We Heart Hartnett podcast.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the interview where Patrick discusses all of these things, and even gives us a little peek into what makes him tick.
Hey Patrick, I’m a long-time fan of yours. It’s been exciting to watch your channel (Patrick (H) Willems) grow from a basic a film essay format to something much more creative and unique. You’ve evolved to incorporate creative devices like the ones featured in the Patrick Explains series and the bookends to the Ethan Hunt and Jurassic Park videos, among many others.
Could you explain to me the process of evolving the channel in this way?
Patrick: The evolution actually goes back way further. From 2011-2016 every video on the channel was a narrative short of some kind. The nonfiction videos and video essays didn’t start until November 2016, but since then they’ve become what I’m best known for (something I have mixed feelings about).
When I made the first video essay, “Why Do Marvel Movies Look Kind of Ugly,” I thought it’d just be a one-off experiment that no one would watch, so I used the classic video essay format, just voiceover over movie clips. Then that video was a big success and people demanded more video essays, so I started making more and just stuck with the same style.
What inspired the change?
Patrick: But after a year of doing them that way, I got really bored with the process. There were a million people using the same style. The videos felt so impersonal. Like, not to shit on the video essays I made last year, but I have zero emotional attachment to any of them.
I consider myself a filmmaker first, and a video essayist second, so I realized what I had to do was blend the essays with the narrative shorts we had been making for years. And since making that shift at the beginning of the year, I’ve enjoyed making the videos so much more.
Is it difficult to keep it fresh?
Patrick: Yeah, they’re more complicated and time-consuming to create, but more fulfilling. That said, I want to create more of a balance between the nonfiction videos and the regular narrative filmmaking. There haven’t been nearly enough shorts this year, and that bugs me.
One thing I really enjoy about this generation of creators is a willingness to bootstrap it until they fulfil their dreams. There are plenty of examples of people who “made it” because they forged their own way. The cast of Always Sunny in Philadelphia wrote and filmed their pilot because no one was giving them jobs. Seth Rogan wrote Superbad because Judd Apatow told him the best way to make it was to create his own material.
Correct me if any of this is wrong, but from what I gather you started your channel with the same kind of intentions. Could you tell me about your state of mind before you launched your channel? Did you launch it with the goal of eventually “making it” as a Hollywood director? Or was the channel a goal in itself?
Patrick: Yeah, this goes way back to when I graduated from college in 2010. I knew I wanted to make movies, but I had no idea how to go about making it into an actual career.
I’d been making movies with my friends from high school and college for years, and already had a big network of collaborators, so I decided to start making weekly short films, put them on YouTube, and hopefully reach enough people that eventually it might lead to other filmmaking work.
This was way more appealing to me than the more traditional route of moving to LA and working PA jobs for years, since at least this way I got to keep making stuff and would be creatively fulfilled.
Now that you’re coming up on 200,000 YouTube subscribers, have your views of your channel or its purpose changed?
Patrick: Definitely. For years I was convinced the channel would never become profitable and was basically just a way to get the attention of places that might hire me for other work. Now it’s my full time job. I still hope to make bigger projects not on YouTube, but in the meantime, I definitely view the channel as a viable career and not just an online portfolio.
You’ve been stepping up production values lately. You seem to have a growing staff too. Has this been completely enabled by your Patreon campaign, or are the sweet YouTube bucks starting to finance your efforts?
Patrick: I wouldn’t really say the staff is growing. We have an unpaid summer intern, and the rest of the cast and crew is the same group of people who have been working on the channel for years. They’re all good friends of mine who lend me so much of their time, most of whom I’ve been working with since high school.
Are you guys working full time on the channel these days?
Patrick: Right now the income from Patreon, YouTube, etc is just enough for me to get by, but my main goal is to get to the point where I can be paying the team and they can devote more of their time to this.
How’s the script coming? What are the biggest hurdles you see in terms of getting it made?
Patrick: I should clarify some things about the screenplay Jake and I have been writing. We’re not actually planning on producing it. This would require a budget of several million dollars. And since I don’t have any non-YouTube directing credits to my name, it’s highly unlikely a studio would trust me to direct it. Our goal is just to sell it once it’s done.
Could you give me the elevator pitch for the movie you’re making?
Patrick: I don’t want to say much about the story, so I’ll just say it’s a teen-centric horror movie.
Sooooooo…… Josh Hartnett? What a weird choice for an actor to explore the career of, but I dig it. When I told my wife about your podcast (We Heart Hartnett), she was like, “Is Josh Hartnett even in movies anymore?” I’m working my way through the episodes and having a fun time with it.
Here are a few rapid-fire We Heart Hartnett questions. Note: links point to We Heart Hartnett episodes.
What is Josh Hartnett’s best movie you’ve seen to date?
Any indication that he’s going to make it onto the podcast?
Patrick: None yet. He’s a hard man to reach.
How did you like Bunraku (next episode I think)?
Patrick:It’s pretty nuts. It doesn’t totally work, but I like what it’s going for, and there’s some great stuff in there.
Why no Dredd video? It’s a totally fantastic movie that failed at the box office. It knows what it is and sticks too it well, taking inspiration form The Raid (also fantastic) with the “fight their way up a multi-level building to the boss” trope which is weirdly compelling for a straight up action flick. Plus apparently there’s a TV show in production, and I’d love to hear what they should and shouldn’t do. Come on Patrick! As a comic book guy, you should be all over this!
Pa trick:I saw Dredd once back when it was in theaters, liked it, didn’t love it, and honestly haven’t thought about it much since then. But people bring it up to me a lot so I should probably revisit it.
Lightning round! Answer as quick as you can, no cheating even though I can’t see you.
Top three directors?
Patrick: Spielberg, Edgar Wright, Soderbergh.
Biggest source of inspiration outside of film?
Patrick: Comic books.
Dream actor you’d like to cast as the lead in your film?
Patrick:The one we’re writing right now? That’s tough, since the character is a teenage girl. I haven’t really thought about it.
Anime, yes or no?
Patrick:Yes, mostly just for Ghibli.
Favorite Comic Book?
Patrick: Scott Pilgrim
Best YouTube channel other than your own?
Patrick: It isn’t really active anymore, but Waverly Films. For years they made these brilliant, inventive hilarious short films every week. I became obsessed with their videos in college and they’ve been one of my biggest inspirations since then. And those guys have gone on to do huge things, like writing and directing Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Any fan encounters yet?
Patrick: Lots, and everyone has been super nice and cool.
Can I cameo in your movie?
Patrick: I won’t be directing, so it’s not up to me!
So there you have it. It was great having a chance to talk Patrick Willems. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel and podcast. For the many hollywood producers who read this blog, give this man a directing job.
Sounds pretty good right? It’s a platform for people like you to support the artists you love by pledging a monthly payment them. This enables artists to have a predictable income, and helps funds their projects. In return, you get cool exclusive stuff and peeks behind the scenes.
Why Patreon is important to creators
In Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins share’s many arguments for why an artist needs a patron, or several. He explains that a patron can take many forms.
If you are going to create work that matters, you are going to need an advocate—a person who sees your potential and believes in your work. This isn’t just about money. You need someone to give you a chance, maybe even connect you to the right people. The publisher who pays an author’s book advance is a patron. The venture capitalist who funds a start-up in Silicon Valley is one too. But so is the church who gives a minister a salary or the donors who support nonprofit organizations around the world. Patrons do not just make the arts possible; they make the world we inhabit—and so often take for granted—possible.
Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins
Back in the day, a patron of the arts would literally commission an artist full time in order to support them. But as times changed, patrons became rarer.
These days, artists need patrons to survive. Published authors are making less and less money, even while publishing is doing better than ever. If you want to make it in the arts, it’s not enough just to have a book that sells. You need someone, or a group of someones, who are willing to champion your work, and even give you a little cash to support it.
In the New Renaissance, patrons are not some elite class of influencers. They are all around us.
Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins
Why join Patreon now?
I’ve had a plan for a long time to eventually join Patreon, but I was waiting for the right timing. I wanted to re-edit Discovering Aberration and wanted to release The Gin Thief: Episode Two, and then I thought the timing would be perfect.
But what I’ve come to learn lately is that if you want to make it as an artists, the timing is now! If you’re always waiting for the timing to be perfect, then you’re going to miss out on all kinds of opportunities.
When the Starving Artist waits to be noticed, the Thriving Artist finds a patron and shows that her work is worth investing in.
What you get by becoming my Patron
If you decide you want to support me by pledging $1 or more per month, you get several fun things in return. First, $1 get’s you all of my ebooks.
Right now you have access to Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief: Episode one plus all future releases, and early access to upcoming releases like Grim Curio (the first 55 pages are available on Patreon now). In the coming days I’m adding short stories and some unpublished manuscripts.
Beyond this, I’m trying to cultivate a fun fan experience. First of which is our Christopher Nolan movie club where we watch and discuss every movie Christopher Nolan directed. We’re starting with Following and will end with Dunkirk.
There will be more fun stuff too. My patrons will have the chance to really get to know me, see exclusive behind the scenes material, and more. Should be a good time.
Today I want to introduce you to book reviewer Lilyn G (@ScifiandScary). You may know her from her fantastic site Sci-Fi and Scary where she blogs about science fiction and horror novels and movies, along with several other reviewers. I interviewed Lilyn via email, and I think you’ll enjoy our discussion on writing over 2000 posts, what’s so intriguing about science fiction and horror, and some author recommendations that may be under your radar.
Spent most of the day on and off today working on a book page wallpaper background.
Q: You’re the founder of Sci-Fi and Scary which you started in 2015. What drew you to writing book reviews? What’s kept you going over the past 3 years?
A: I actually addressed this in my very first blog post[link mine – check out the post, it’s interesting]. I read that the average adult only read 6 books a year. That stunned me. I can’t imagine reading so little. On top of that, I have a coworker that I introduced to books who now loves to read because I took the time to figure out what her reading level was, what she enjoyed, and was able to guide her to the appropriate books.
I wanted to talk about books like I talk about them to my friends. Nothing high-brow, but more “Was it fun? What made it fun?” That type of thing.
As for what’s kept me going? Not going to lie, it’s at least 30% that once I start something, I have a very hard time breaking from it. However, free books, free movies, my excellent team, and the great community on Twitter have all played a big part as well.
Q: If my math is correct, you’ve published nearly 2000 blog posts, many of which are book reviews. That’s incredible! Thinking back, is there any posts from your early days as a book reviewer that you’re especially proud of?
Not particularly. But I am proud of the fact that the first year I managed a post a day all on my own without any assistance. I worked my butt off that year.
Q: You’re obviously a fan of the Sci-Fi genre. What draws you to science fiction?
Specifically, I like hard science fiction (though I do occasionally enjoy the softer stuff.) I like the logic of it. It’s not fantasy where an author can make up whatever he wants. Instead, hard sci-fi starts with a solid base, extrapolates probabilities based on current science, and builds a story around that. Or it takes a near-future, gives us a character we like, and gives him realistic problems to solve, for example. All of that appeals greatly to me.
I love classic science fiction too. It’s so filled with hope and wonder. You really can’t beat it. Even though some of it is balls to the walls crazy (Ie: Death World, Harry Harrison), and you can’t deny the complete saturation of the genre with strong white male heroes, it’s still just so fun and imaginative. And it’s clean fun too.
You know, sometimes when I look at the behavior of the insanely rich people… I’m ok being poor.
If being rich means I’m going to take my money as a decree that I can be an ignorant bigot, I would rather keep my ability to be a human bring. It’s worth more.
Q: I assume horror has a special place in your heart as well, seeing as you founded Sci-Fi and Scary. What drew you to the horror genre, and why do you tend to focus on Sci Fi?
I like science fiction because of the logic and the hope it offers. I like horror because, blast it, sometimes a girl just likes to see someone get smashed over their head with their own ribcage. And, in seriousness, because it’s a safe way to be afraid and let off some of that fear and anxiety that boils up in my life.
It’s not really a misconception on your part, it’s just when you happened to check the site! Seriously, for the first few months of this year, I think I maybe had three science fiction reviews? The rest were horror. I go through spurts where I’m heavily into one or the other. (I think it depends on my mood.)
But yes, in general, I try to focus more on sci-fi for the reviews for the site, and explanation for that is simple: My cohosts Gracie and Nico prefer horror. If I read a lot of horror too, it would throw off the balance, and the site’s name is Sci-Fi AND Scary. Gotta keep them both going!
I hope to add a few more team members soon with a sci-fi love in them.
Q: If you were to meet a reader new to the Sci-Fi/Horror genres, what books would you recommend to ease them in? Why these books?
That’s a trick question, sir. You didn’t give me nearly enough information about the reader to be able to answer that.
A good bookworm doesn’t just recommend their favorite books to a potential reader. They recommend ones that they think that person would genuinely love.
I mean, I love middle-grade dark fantasy, for example, and some of it is very creepy, but I wouldn’t recommend it to your average adult.
Q: What under-appreciated books do you think seasoned readers should be paying more attention too?
Well, obviously indie books! [here here!] Seasoned readers need to step away from the Big Five, and plumb the depths of the small-press world. There are some fantastic stories out there that you aren’t going to find in mainstream because they don’t fit in the conformity boxes just right.
Q: Is there an author you’ve followed who you feel doesn’t get enough attention?
Oh, lots. Let’s see…
Science fiction: J.B. Rockwell, Michael Drakich, Mathew Isaac Sobin, Greg Spry
Horror: Sue Rovens, Michaelbrent Collings, Michael Hodges, Alan Baxter, Michael Patrick Hicks
Q: Have you ever found yourself excited for a particular read, then supremely disappointed? Do you finish the book in this situation, or are you like me and toss it aside with gusto?
Definitely. I’m really hard to please, probably due to the sheer amount I read, so this happens to me more than I would prefer.
It depends on the situation. Is it a review book? Then unless it’s cringe-worthy, I’m going to grit my teeth and try to plow through. Library book? Probably going to toss it aside with gusto unless I’ve already made it to the 50% mark or something. At that point it’s like “Just go ahead and finish it.”
Q: Lately, I’ve been in search of books that will change my life in some way. Books that either open my mind to a new way of thinking or make me feel in ways I haven’t felt before. Have you read anything lately that fits that bill?
In that situation I say just read outside your current genres. Honestly, I don’t look for books that are going to make me think in a new way or anything like that. My life is extremely stressful, so when I pick up a book, I pick it up for the entertainment factor and nothing else.
C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is a good one for making you evaluate the definition of humanity and one of the possible futures of artificial intelligence, though.
Q: I would assume being a book reviewer today comes with its own unique challenges. Is there anything you have to deal with that most people take for granted?
The social media / promotional aspects. I’m solitary by nature, like individual persons occasionally, but think people as a whole suck balls. So, the fact that this whole reviewing thing only really works well if people know you and trust your brand… It’s quite literally mentally and emotionally exhausting for me.
I’m a hardcore introvert that keeps getting stuck in extrovert situation.
Q: What is the highlight moment since you’ve started reviewing books?
When I took the co-worker I mentioned in the first question out to the annual Half Price Books clearance sale and saw her face just light up. We were there for a solid few hours, and she came away with a decent stack of books, and was happy as could be.
I like recommending books to other readers. I love knowing that my support of indie authors helps them sell books and put food on the table. But yeah…that smile on her face when we walked in to the book sale – a woman who until I started talking to her had read maybe 3 books her whole life – was the moment that made it worth it.
As many of you already know, the next project on my slate is writing the long overdue The Gin Thief: Episode 2. So long overdue, in fact, that I need a refresher on the subject material. So I’m rereading Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief: E1. Which leads me to the meat of this post…
That’s right. I’m giving DA some love this year. The biggest criticisms it received were around mistakes in proofreading. So while I read through it, I’m revising and re-releasing it. In fact, I’m already 20% of the way through it.
My plan is to keep my touch as light as possible while addressing it’s issues. It wont turn into a full rewrite. The structure and plot will remain identical. Instead, my goal is to simply clean up sections that need it, trim some of the fat, and fix errors.
I just spent 15 minutes reading the rule of “passed” vs “past”. It’s still confusing, but I think I’ve got a handle on it.
I passed under the bridge ✅
I drove past the bridge ✅
I passed out just past that bridge in the past because my friend passed gas 😅
Simple, it’s weaknesses are holding it back. Initially the novel released to pretty strong sales, but they have declined to a trickle. I’ve tried to diagnose the issues and believe they are as follows:
Reviews that focus on poor proofreading
A convoluted first scene in chapter 1
A cover that doesn’t match its genre (possibly, will know after I address the issues above)
My own hesitation to sell a book with known errors
I need to address these if I don’t want DA to end up holding my career back. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be better.
Will it get a new cover?
I don’t know yet. I love Discovering Aberration‘s cover. The team at The Book Designers did a fantastic job. They followed all my instructions and created a work of art. I have no complaints about the cover itself or their work.
But…. I’ve now been in publishing for a few years, and I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know then. In this case, the cover I told them to make DA doesn’t look like other books in its genre and that may be affecting sales. It’s likely that a new cover which better matches steampunk best sellers will entice more readers to give it a chance.
It’s a tough question, and potentially one with an expensive answer. Not sure what I’m going to do anything with the cover, time will tell I guess.
Will this delay The Gin Thief: Episode 2?
Just a bit. But as I said, I’m keeping my touch light and in just over a week and a half I’m 20% through it. I’m not rewriting, I’m cleaning up. So the delay should be minimal. I need to read through the book anyway to immerse myself back into that universe, and in the end this will be the best thing for my writing career. TGT: E2 is coming, and this is part of the process.
When will the revised edition be released?
Don’t know. I’ve given up with release dates. I’ve never once made an accurate prediction, so I’m not trying anymore. It’ll be released as soon as it’s done, hopefully not long. My goal is to have both DA: RE and TGT: E2 out by the end of the year. Is that goal realistic? I don’t know, but it’s what I’m shooting for.
If you want to receive a FREE copy of Discovering Aberration: Revised Edition upon its release, sign up for my mailing list. When it’s out, I’ll be gifting every one of my mailing list subscribers a free digital copy.
You’ve come up with the perfect idea for a novel. Now it’s time to sit down and write. You open your word processor, type in your working title and name (can’t start without that), go to page one and…. freeze. What now? Do I just write? Where do I start? How do I know where I’m going? I’m using Word, do other writers use Word? And…. and… and…
Who knows, maybe when you started your first novel it was a breeze. You just started typing and it felt right. But if you’re anything like many new writers out there, you might not be aware of the many ways novels get written. And even if you do know, you probably don’t know what works best for you until you discover them and give each a shot.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve given several writing methodologies a shot. My process is ever evolving as I try to find the balance of several aspects, which we’re about to dive into.
In this blog post we’ll answer the following questions
How can I plan my novel without getting too bogged down in the details?
How can I plan it and still maintain the freedom of free-writing?
How can I create a basic elevator pitch before I’ve even started writing?
How can I plot my novel and ensure my characters have a compelling arc?
How do I make sure each scene feels complete?
What word processor should I use to organize all of this?
This is a medium-depth overview. I’ll expand on each point in future blog posts, but for now this’ll be a great jumping off point if you’re wanting a crash corse in novel-writing.
Last note before we get started: this is my method, and my method is constantly changing as I hone it to suite my needs. Your method may turn out quite different from this. Use this as a jumping off point, and then change it to match your style.
Planning your novel
Gasp! I said ‘plan’. If you’re among those who fear or despise this word, worry not! Read on and you’ll find a most satisfactory compromise. You see, I used to hate planning as much as anyone, I still don’t love it. But I’ve discovered a hybrid method that will work for even the most hardened hater.
Planning vs. Pantsing
For those of you who said, “huh?” to the paragraph above, let’s touch on case of plan v pants for a second.
Planning refers to preparation before writing, often in the form of an outline, sometimes in the form of lore or backstory, etc. You might also see it called plotting or outlining.
Pantsing refers to “writing from the seat of your pants”. It’s also called discovery writing — but really, who uses two words when they could use one. In essence, it’s writing without preparation H… I mean a preparation stage (stupid autocorrect ).
I’m not going to spend too much time exploring planning vs pantsing since it’s already been discussed ad nauseam on every writers blog on the planet. And, frankly, it doesn’t interest me. If you want more a more in-depth study on the subject, google it.
What is interesting to me is why, after years of being a staunch pantser, I’ve become something of a hybrid. So let’s talk about that.
The early years, or writing without a plan
The first three novels I wrote were 100% done without preparation — 2 unpublished, the other is Discovering Aberration which you can get for free in the doobly doo below. It felt great. When others talked about planning, I scoffed. I couldn’t understand how anyone could cage themselves with an outline.
Then came revisions… I found my plots meandered. It lingered on some plot threads long past there due, lacked proper foreshadowing, and the pacing was all over the place. In the end I was forced to do several major rewrites. I mean major. It was a bummer and added at least six months to the writing process.
Attempting to outline
Eventually I attempted a full outline for another project, The Gin Thief, but as I wrote the mid to late sections, everything felt like a guess. It’s hard to account for character reactions before your characters are even written.
When it came to drafting, I found I deviated far from my plan and all that work planning seemed wasted. Furthermore, I felt confined by my own preparation. Turns out, plot ideas may sound great in the outline phase but in practice feel forced. There’s too many unaccounted for variables early on.
So I abandoned the hardline planning approach, and today follow a hybrid method that’s working extremely well for me.
The hybrid approach to planning
Today I’m somewhere in the middle. I plan just enough to give me direction, but not enough to box me in. Let’s dive in to what this process looks like.
Acts in bullet point form
First, I break down my novel into three simple lists of arcs organized by Act. Three’s just a number, you can do five or seven or whatever the hell you want. The three act structure is common and it’s what I find myself gravitating to recently, but Shakespeare wrote in five acts and he’s pretty good.
Below is an example. It’s the three acts of my novel Grim Curio, which I’ve nearly completed writing. Spoilers below, but it wont ruin the book even if you know the vague details.
James and Simon save a village from a strange, alien disease which came from another reality. It doesn’t go well.
Nat joins nihilist cult.
Scientists experiment with the nature of reality.
James and Simon struggle to return home. When they arrive their home is drastically changed.
Scientists open a hole in reality.
Cult attacks scientists.
Revolution has broken out. Simon is caught up in it.
Reality is torn, leaking. James tries to fix it.
All hell breaks loose.
Notice how simple it all is. Just the major beats of the story in a loose arrangement. Best of all, before I’ve even written my novel I can give an elevator pitch. It’s not as refined as it will be later in the process, but having these bullet points gives you ammunition when anyone asks you, “so what’s your book about?”
Here’s an elevator pitch built from the bullet point list above: “Grim Curio is about these guys who save a village from an otherworldly disease and get punished for it. When they return home, everything has changed. Reality is torn, and a revolution is on. And that’s not mentioning the nihilist cult in the middle of it all.”
Fleshing out characters
Now we know the basic arc of our novel. You have a lot of options at this point. If you were a hardcore planner, you might start a flowchart of every scene. If you’re a lore geek, you might start nailing down all of the back story. If you’re a pantser at heart, you might just start writing.
As for me, I’m obsessed with character. I believe characters are why we read books. Everything else is just sugar on top, plot included. So my next step is spending some time getting to know them.
A characters beginning and end
First thing I like to do for all major characters is determine their starting and ending state of mind. This doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Could be, “Jill starts out bad, becomes good,” or “Sam hates dogs, learns dogs are man’s best friend”. That kind of thing.
And then there are characters who don’t change, static characters. There’s nothing wrong with a static character, but you should know before hand if your character is going to be unchanging, and why.
In the case of Simon, from Grim Curio, he starts as a man who believes he understands the world but has little affect on it, and ends as a man who realizes he knows nothing but the masses follow him regardless.
As for James, he’s more static. There are changes, but its much more subtle and internal. James is a man who always needs to be working, being stagnant leads him into depression. He begins believing in himself but even as his successes are marred with terrible consequences. Because of this, he stops believing in himself, continues trying anyway, and finally gets things right.
Creating character arc through sign posts
We now have our major characters beginning and ending state of mind. Time to fill in the rest with sign posts. These are plot points you can aim towards while you’re writing your scenes. If you know that Jaclyn is an asshole who becomes a saint, then each of these sign posts are the moments where small amounts of change occur. By the end of the novel, all of these small moments of change will build up to a big revelation.
If you want more information on this, I recommend reading Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland and watching these two Brandon Sanderson lectures. These resources changed my outlook on crafting character, and I consider them required reading/viewing.
Do I really need to do all this work before I start writing?
HELL NO! You don’t need to do anything you don’t feel like. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On The Road in a single drugged out session, and that’s considered a masterpiece. So go do that if you feel like it. Doesn’t matter how you write it as long as it gets written.
There are zero rules to writing other than you need to put words on paper — or e ink. Don’t let anyone push you around with their rules. Your weird unheard of method may result in a best seller or critical darling. I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.
I don’t even always stick to my own rules. They are there to service me, not the other way around. So I deviate when I feel like it. But I’ve found having these methods in mind greatly helps me, even when I don’t follow them.
Post continues below.
The drafting process
If you’re following along, you’ll have bullet pointed your major arcs, you’ll have created you’re major characters with beginnings and endings in mind, and you’ll have some scenes you can aim towards via character sign posts. Now it’s time to actually write.
If you’re brave, you can start by writing scene one all the way through and then move on to scene two. This is the most straight forward approach. But I’ve found simply drafting an entire scene from scratch is fraught with flaws. It takes too long, has too many uncertainties, requires too much mental gymnastics as I attempt to account for later scenes, and is prone to unexpected bouts of writers block.
But I made a brilliant discovery. Write descriptions of scenes before writing the scenes themselves. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with this. It’s been a long time since I read Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, but as I recall they have a similar method.
Before we talk about that, let’s take a look at our most potent weapon, the word processor
Sorry. This bit sort of comes out of nowhere, but I want to make sure I include it because it’s such a fundamental part of my process these days. Let’s talk about Scrivener for a sec.
Scrivener is a word processor that’s built with novel-writing in mind. You can organize things by act, scene, character, tag, and so much more. Drag and drop whole chapters at a time. It’s well worth the $45, and is by far my tool of choice.
Above is an older version of Scrivener (I need to upgrade to version 3). What you see is Grim Curio broken up by act, and each act broken up by chapter, and each chapter broken up by scene. This is how I write, and I find it invaluable. You’ll see why next.
Creating scene descriptions
Let’s say today is the first day of drafting for my new project. I have my characters in mind with some sign posts to aim for. What I do now is create a new scene file, but rather than start writing a fully fleshed out scene, I write a very short description of the scene I’ll eventually write. My goal is a rough idea of the scene in a couple of paragraphs.
Here’s a contrived example:
James enters the village, and immediately is struck by their strange customs. Everyone is gathered around a great dead tree that’s scorched black. The people are coated in mud and dirt, and as they work they toss more dirt on their skin. Their homes are burrows in the ground.
As James approaches, they notice him and send someone to intercept/question him. He makes some basic mistakes, but recovers a little. They lead him to talk to the village elders, but their conversation is interrupted by screams.
I’m not trying to write well here. I’m just getting a basic idea of how the scene will progress. When that’s done, I create the next scene file and do it again. I’ll do this as far as I possibly can before it feels like I’m forcing it. Usually this is a few chapters worth of scene descriptions.
As I read through the descriptions, using Scrivener I can rearrange them easily if needed. Later I’ll come back, go back to scene 1, and start fleshing it out.
Writing the scene
From here, it’s pretty straight forward. Go through your description and expand. Don’t worry about writing perfect prose. Just get the scene done and feeling pretty good. Then move on to the next scene description and expand that. Do this over and over until you reach the end of your written scene descriptions.
Now that we have a series of drafted scenes, I go through several passthroughs to improve them.
Phases of rewriting
I tend to go through my scenes at least four times. Each time, I focus on a different element of storytelling.
First passthrough I focus on character. I make sure motivations feel legit, make sure dialog feels real, and generally just try to keep each character inline with their personalities.
Second passthrough I focus on descriptions. The best narration engages the senses, so I try to mimic what I consider the best. That means making sure every scene not only has a look, but a feel, a sound, a scent. If a character touches a wall, I want a line about the texture. If they enter a kitchen, I want a line about the scent.
Third passthrough I focus on prose. That’s the words themselves. I like books with good word economy, meaning never using two words where one will do. This doesn’t necessarily mean using big words all the time, but I also don’t shy away from big words if they feel right.
Forth passthrough I just refine and cut. If there’s anything extra that doesn’t service the characters or the plot, I cut it. Even if it’s really good on its own. Doesn’t matter. Cut mercilessly. After all this work, you’re gonna have paragraphs that you labored over that don’t fit right. Don’t be sentimental. Cut the shit out of them.
Bear in mind that four passthroughs is on the low end for me. That’s a straight forward scene without too many complications. The first and last chapters of Grim Curio both had at least 10-15 passthroughs, as well as some all out rewrites. Keep massaging it til it feels right.
Continue this cycle over an over again for about a year, and you’ll have a damn fine novel. When you’ve written up to the end of your scene descriptions, start writing descriptions again and write towards your sign posts. Then expand and refine. And again and again.
That’s it. That’s my process. If you want me to get more granular on any topic, let me know and I’ll make time to do so. If you like this post and want more like it, then please share through your favorite social network. If you want to support my work, buy a novel using a link to the right, or sign up for my mailing list in the doobly doo above. Until next time, I’ll see you around.
Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.
You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Dietoday, I doubt it would have the same effect.
Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos
The make-out years
I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.
Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.
The book that changed everything
During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled it. Then again and again…
Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.
First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.
I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.
All About Timing
This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the Rye, I don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.
Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.
Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.
Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.
So maybe greatness is all about timing.
Fight Club fifteen years later
I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.
Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.
What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.
So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.
While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.
She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.
I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.
She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”
She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborntrilogy. Sounds good to me.
“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”
I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”
We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.
It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.
Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?
Find someone to bounce ideas off of
As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.
It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.
Start broad, then go more and more narrow
You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.
Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.
Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.
What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.
Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.
Realize that this is just the first step
The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.
Hello dear readers, it’s that time again. Beta readers, assemble! Who among you will rise to the challenge and beta read Grim Curio before it’s submitted to contests, agents, and publishers? To become a beta reader, follow the link below and fill out the short form.
The beta reading period is quickly approaching, with a targeted date of Tuesday Jan 2nd for the first three chapters to be handed out. If you want to be a part of the process, sign up now! Beta readers will receive a free copy of Grim Curio upon release, and I’m going to try to come up with another way to thank you, maybe a t-shirt or something — I’m open to ideas.
About Grim Curio
The story of how the world ends begins on a near barren planet within the last and only city on earth, along a narrow empty street, dusk sunlight casting the toxic air in rainbow streaks of red, purple and green. This story begins and ends with James.
James is rogue veil researcher. He seeks evidence that will prove parallel realities exist, hoping to save humanity from the caustic, dying waste the earth has become. In order to make this discovery, he will cross paths with violent teenage nihilists, scientists attempting to cut a hole in the fabric of reality, a researcher hell bent on following the rules, a politician struggling to maintain order and stability, and many more strange and dangerous people.
When the fate of Refuge is at stake, can these disparate people with conflicting goals band together to survive or will their discord be their downfall?
What does a Beta Reader do?
A beta reader is one of the greatest people living on the face of the earth. They receive chapters from the Grim Curio manuscript, read it, answer questions and leave feedback, then return their notes to me. We’ll talk about the novel, about your opinions, and laugh at my stupid grammar mistakes. In the end, you’ll get a signed copy and another gift yet to be determined.
Do I have to read all of Grim Curio?
Nope. If life gets in the way, or if you just don’t want to keep on beta reading, you can drop out at any time. Beta reading is purely optional, but in order to receive any of the beta reader gifts, you must read and offer feedback for at least 85% of Grim Curio.
What if I’ve never edited anything before?
That’s fine! All you need to be is a passionate reader. If you live for science fiction and fantasy novels, then you’re the perfect candidate to become a beta reader.
How much feedback should beta readers give?
As much or as little as you’re willing to share. If you want to write a full-page critiquing each chapter, that’s great. If you only want to share a few sentences on how you feel about the material, that’s great too.
What is the process, in detail?
The process is pretty straight forward.
Receive 3 chapters starting with chapter 1
Read through, comment, and answer a few specific questions within a timely manner (3-5 days)
Return chapters and notes back
Receive next 3 chapters, etc.
Enjoy an occasional Skype call where I thank you profusely and we chat about the novel
It’s quarter past eleven at night — quarter til midnight at the time of publishing — and I’m still writing. About to head to bed when I realized I haven’t posted in a while. Got to throw you guys something before you forget about Grim Curio. I feel so great about this novel, better than I’ve felt for anything I’ve ever written. I feel it, this one is going to make a splash.
Anyway, here’s a few snippets from the novel. I hope you enjoy them.
In the dark of this hole, their faces are cloaked in hoods, disrupted but shadow, lenses, cloth. Only a green glint in their goggles, the reflection of the abused computer monitor, betrays their eyes. Even so, James reads their emotion in the constance of their stair, the stiffness in their shoulders, the way they contemplate the first words that might tidy this strange situation. He bristles when he see’s the sidearms strapped to their thighs, see’s the military precision in the packing gear.
‘There’s got to be an easier way to make a buck.’ The phrase springs to his mind, and he almost smiles. It’s not the buck’s he’s after. Anxiety runs down his back in a skittering of pinpricks, and suddenly the world is hyperreal. It’s moments like these — when the only thing between him and consequence is his tenacity — when he finally feels in control of his destiny. No system brought him here, no misguided ideology. He walked upstream, against the current like a boss, and now he’s ready to see how close he come’s to oblivion.
Then he’ll pull himself back out again. Cause that’s just how it goes.
Note: Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a piece of writing within the world of Grim Curio. These are emails, journal entries, propaganda, and in the following’s case, a poem.
Girlies an’ Boy’os, do not break a rule, Sit straight, listen, when ya go to school, Them cleary* bastards won’t stand none’ya fight, Mark ya in they ledger, ya stupid little fool.
Girlies an’ Boy’os, do not break a rule, Just ya wait’n listen, soon come the ghoul, Them cleary bastards’ll get’ya come the night, Dis’pear ya to nothin, ya stupid little fool.
Mind all ya manners ‘Member who they was When top ‘comes bottom and bottom the top Show ‘em then what we lil’ shit’s think of ‘em, Cut ‘em, gut ‘em, hang them from the rafters That is all.
– Untitled Poem from The Outlaw’s Book of Rhymes
*cleary is a derogatory term for people who live in the undercity. After hundreds of years below ground, their skin has gone opaque. The undercity residents tend to be the elites, politicians, artisans, scientists, teachers, students, and stability officers.
Note: Last bit. This is just a snippet of a conversation that is currently in chapter 6 between James and the student Gretchen. James is from the surface, Gretchen from the undercity. I’m trying to make their cultures very different and their confines tight. Ok, here it is:
Gretchen frowns thoughtfully. “There’s an empty hut up the hill, I’ll ask an elder if we can use it. If he says no, though, there’s nothing we can do. Fringes Protocol states we follow tribal rules.”
“Fine. Do what you can. Introduce me as a spiritual healer. Stress that I use natural methods to expel spirits and demons, lift curses, that sort of thing.”
“You mean lie?”
“I mean embellish. Just a bit.”
“I’m above protocol and I herby grant you permission to rise above the protocol with me and get shit done. Temporary leniency granted, congratulations. When you talk to whoever… who will you be talking to?”
Suddenly preoccupied, she says quietly, “Probably Elder Nevin.”
“Tell Elder Nevin that I’m not with associated with you. Call me weird or something, point to my skin, the way I talk and move, make sure he can see as clear as day that I’m an outsider here. That’s the only way I can build my own reputation at this point. Also, mention how strange it is that I don’t use tech.”
Gretchen studies the ground, contemplates the lies she’s been ordered to pass along.
“You alright?” asks James evenly.
“I know they’ve taught you’ to follow protocols your entire life, and what I’m asking you to do feels wrong, but you asked for me and now you’ve got me. Do you want to help this village? Their children?”
“Then what we’ve got to do is create a scenario with the greatest chance of success, and this is what I’ve got. If you’ve got a better idea, name it. How ‘bout you, at the computer. Any killer ideas?”
Ryan shakes his head.
Back to Gretchen, he says, “This is what I do every single day. Stick with me, and we’ll have you breaking protocol left and right, and trust me it’ll be the best you’ve ever felt. But if you don’t feel comfortable, I’ll manage.”
That’s all for now. Hope to be sharing more soon 🙂