Character vs Plot

I am finally really reading Reamde by Neal Stephenson. I’d made it not quite 25% of the way through last time I started. This time, I’m further, and right about 25% of the way in, the story really picks up (which is about 30% sooner in the story than Anathem picked up).

It was at that point that I noticed something.

For me, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson write very similar types of books. For both, their early work was much more what we would call cyberpunk, much more obviously futuristic. But Reamde, much like the Pattern Recognition/Spook Country/Zero History trilogy (which combined is also about the same number of pages at Reamde) is ostensibly set in the present. And having finished re-reading Spook Country right before this, I can’t help but notice some key similarities and differences in two of my favorite authors.


Reading the newer Gibson and Stephenson books requires you to trust the author. You absolutely cannot make it through Anathem or Spook Country if you do not trust that your author will make it work. You just can’t. You absolutely must trust that the set up will make it all worth it – that all the background information you are being given will absolutely matter and pay off by the end of the book.

And yet, the way in which they handle the structure of their books, their plot and characters, is very different.

In Spook Country, Gibson introduces you to every character who is going to matter right off the bat. You get a chapter for each character. You know them from the very beginning. You must trust that these characters who seem to have nothing to do with each other, whose actions seem to have no effect on the lives of the other characters, will, by the end, be tied together in a reasonable way. You must believe that there will be a pay off to knowing everyone from the beginning and seeing their story lines developing in the same time frame. In Spook Country, you are following the characters and only meet the plot when it is necessary for understanding the characters.

Gibson writes very differently. In Reamde, you follow the plot and only meet characters when they are necessary for understanding the plot. Sometimes you get a characters back story as soon as you meet them. Sometimes you don’t get that back story until their part in the plot diverges from that of the other characters you met first. In this case, you must trust that the characters are there for a reason, that they are not filler.


In many ways, it is easier to read Stephenson than Gibson. It is easier to trust and follow plot than it is to trust and follow characters. If you have read both authors, imagine for a moment trying to read a 1000 page William Gibson novel. It seems nearly impossible, even if you are a fan of Gibson, even if he has earned your trust. And yet, Stephenson doesn’t appear to be able to write anything less than 1000 pages.

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Making myself write in order to make myself want to write

When I am busy, I crave time to write. I consciously carve out that time and protect it jealously. And when I do write, I am productive. While working, I was able to maintain three to four blogs, one of them updated daily, two others 2-3 times a week, and the fourth (this one) updated when I felt like it. In addition, I worked on my fiction, generally about once every two weeks in my time before critique group. I valued that time for my creativity, my expression, and made sure I could get that done. And my creative juices flowed.

I have been out of work since January. This blog has not been updated since September (though again, it was never on a regular schedule). My pet and personal finance blogs have been neglected. I am on complete hiatus from my 100 words a day blog. And as for my fiction, I have barely touched it. This despite the fact that I now have time, actual time, not a few stolen moments, to write.

I guess this is related to the same part of my brain that makes me a procrastinator. My brain works best when I have a deadline, when time is short. It fuels the adrenaline, which in turn gives me the creative energy I need to put words on paper. It creates the conundrum that when I have no time to write, I have so much I want to say. And when I have all the time I could ask for, I feel strangely silent.

This does not make me happy. I love writing. Writing makes me happy, whether it is fiction or blog posts. I always feel better when I have written something, anything. And so, I am trying to make myself change. I am trying to set myself a schedule, and that schedule will include writing time. It will not matter to me what I write, just that I write.

I am hoping that making a schedule will help me find the creative energy to write, and that writing will make me feel more productive and add to my desire to have a schedule and get things done. It is a circle that should feed itself.

And with any luck, I’ll get a job soon, too.

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Thoughts About Writing Inspired by #FinCon12 (part 2)

So now that I’ve addressed the questions about voice, what about the general writing questions? Here’s the thing about writing- I can’t tell you how to do it. I can teach you about content, about story needs, character, etc. But I can’t tell you how to actually sit down and write.
I can tell you what works for me. I can tell you what works for my friends. I can give you ideas to try, but I can’t tell you what will work for you. Only you can figure that out.
As a procrastinator, I write best when I have deadlines, unless I am particularly inspired. But that’s why I do have a set blogging schedule (even though many experienced bloggers argue against that) because I need the power of a deadline, even if I’m the one who set it.
I also need dedicated writing time NOT at home. I have a very difficult time writing anything- blog posts or fiction -when I’m at home. The dogs want attention. My husband wants attention, or my bed and the tv look so relaxing. There are just too many distractions from what I want to write.
I actually do some good writing at work on slow days. I’m writing this while at FinCon. I work on my fiction for about an hour prior to every critique group meeting at a Starbucks.
For blog posts, I don’t have too many drafts. Generally, I write what I want to write, do a quick scan for typos and put it up. If, while I’m writing, I realize the post has jumped the shark, I delete the whole thing and start over. Sometimes that means I start a post 3 or 4 times, but for the most part, it’s a one and done.
For fiction, I write and share my first rough draft with my critique group. And then I put it away. I don’t look at it again until I’m done, unless something very strongly inspires me to change it. My fiction tends to have many drafts. Still, when I go to do my initial edits, I rewrite the whole scene. I don’t go into the text I have written and make edits. I start with a fresh piece of paper and do a wholesale rewrite. It’s only when I’m near a final draft that I simply edit the words on the page, instead of starting from scratch.

I have friends who only write at home; who only bring their 3rd or 4th draft to critique group, who go home and make their edits immediately. That is what works for them. Some set dedicated writing time every day, and they write during that time, no matter where they are (home, swim practice, etc). And that is what works for them. You have to find what works for you.

As for exercises, there are tons of them. Most of the ones I know are for fiction, but they can be adapted to blogging or non-fiction. Since most blogging is storytelling in some form or another, any exercise that helps you form stories can help.
For me, the “exercise” that works best for me is micro writing. Whether it’s my microblog- 100 Words On… where every post is exactly 100 words long, or if it’s micro or flash fiction. These exercises help me distill what I want to say to their essence. It prevents me from babbling or going off on tangents.
Even if I plan on putting the post up on one of my longer blog post sites, if I’m having a hard time focusing on the post, I do the 100 words exercise, and then I let myself expand from there.

The key to all writing- blogging or fiction -is to be yourself. Write like yourself. Write when it works for you. By putting yourself at the center of your writing (not exactly the content, but the actual act of writing) you will have consistent voice and get the writing that you need to get done done.

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Thoughts About Writing Inspired by #FinCon12 (part 1)

Writers are writers. It doesn’t matter whether they write fiction or non-fiction, books or blogs. Writers feel the need to write. And writers want to talk about writing.
I am at a conference for finance bloggers this weekend. Much of the content of the conference is about blog content, blog design, ways to grow the blog, etc. But there has been only one talk on the craft of writing. In this case, it was about the importance of voice in writing. It was a good talk, but what I found most interesting were the questions at the end. There were questions about voice- does “consistency” matter in voice, how do you find your “voice” when you’re writing informative articles, and what about voice when you manage a site with multiple authors.
Other questions were more about the basic craft- hints for writing, exercises to make yourself a better writer, etc.

While the speaker at the talk gave her answers, I felt like they were limited by her experience as a journalist and blogger. That may seem odd, but I think having the combination of fiction and non-fiction writing experience gives me a slightly broader view.

If you write as you, your voice will always be consistent. Your voice doesn’t stop being your voice when you write an emotional post. It may have more anger or joy or sadness than other posts, but the voice remains the same. You don’t stop being you, you don’t stop speaking with your voice when you’re emotional- there’s just an added element.

As for finding a voice when you’re writing informative articles, my first question is- are you writing for a text book? If you’re not writing a text book, you’ve got room for voice. Even financial writers for the Wall Street Journal and The Economist have their own unique voices. The next response is that you are a blogger. People don’t come to blogs to read what they would read in a text book. If that’s what they were looking for, they would be at the library. People read blogs, even personal finance blogs, because of the personal. They need the financial information, but they are looking for it in a personal format because that makes it easier to understand, easier to digest, and even easier to follow. You’re not a nameless “expert” writing about what they “should do”; you’re a real person who has been there done that. Your struggles help them feel not alone. Your successes help them feel like they can do it to. You always want you in your posts. And if you do that, they will have voice.

If you manage a multiple author blog (kind of like editing an anthology or newsletter), unless you are asking all of your authors to pretend to be the same person, you want them all to have their own unique voices. There’s no point in having multiple writers if you are not looking for multiple points of view and multiple voices.
That doesn’t mean you don’t want some consistency in the blog. But you don’t get that consistency by trying to control their voices. You create a style guide for the blog. You have guidelines for content, perhaps formatting requirements (or you format the posts yourself, instead of letting the authors format them). But consistency in your blog does not have to mean forcing your writers to have the same voice. In fact, trying to force that will probably lose you your writers.

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