Two common problems bedeviling emerging writers admit to a solution in common.
- Problem 1: Stories aren’t adequately planned, so the text sags under the weight of unnecessary backstory and superfluous world-building.
- Problem 2: Authors complain that they don’t know what they ought to write about on their blogs, so they ignore the vital work of audience (platform) building “until the book is done”—i.e., until it’s too late to matter to a prospective agent or publisher.
The Fine Art of Character Sketches
It’s true that you don’t want to publish on your own website large passages of works you hope to sell commercially. After all, no publisher in his or her right mind will try to price content that’s already available online for free. But one way of providing content for your stories without infringing on the marketability of your manuscript is to create a series of vignettes or short stories using your novel’s characters (including places!).
The upshot to writing short stories or vignettes is that these files serve as a form of a character sketch—an opportunity for you as a writer to hone the voice of the character and to get a better head-feel for the character’s unique personality and approach to conflict.
Here’s an example of how the process works:
- You get a rough idea for a novel in your head—e.g., a space opera.
- You kinda-sorta think through characters and universe mechanics and a plot.
- Instead of starting with Chapter 1, start by writing an origin story about the main character. Or a scene where two minor characters have a heart-to-heart about some mechanism of your universe’s physics. Or a flashback scene to explain some important aspect of the main character’s personality or an upstream source of the novel’s main conflict.
- Write one or more sketches before you start drafting the manuscript.
Why bother with this extra work?
First, you generate non-saleable content you’re free to use to hook readers into your novel. Thus, you start to build excitement for the novel among your readers long before the book ever makes it to market. And that interest, by the way, is an important part of provisional profit-and-loss estimates that publishers develop to consider contract offers.
Second, you flush out of your system the need to figure out the physics and the characters as you write. One reason so many genre-fiction novels fail is because the author uses backstory and world-building data dumps to learn as he or she writes. So if you’re not a planner, pants your way to a few short stories so that you need not burden the manuscript with this trial-and-error writing.
Third, investing in these sketches or vignettes before you draft the novel proper helps you figure out whether the core idea you started with is viable in the long run. It’s not unprecedented, after all, for people to get super-excited about an idea then — 50,000 words in — realize that either the idea wasn’t as good as it seemed, or that the initial approach wasn’t optimal. That’s a lot of wasted time and effort!
Good writing is efficient writing. And that efficiency extends not only to the prudent parsimony of sentence-level construction, but also toward developing useful promo content while you figure out the best path forward with a novel.
Writers who plan in depth usually don’t need to figure it out as they go. But if you’re allergic to detailed planning, using scene vignettes and short stories to get your mental map in order can be an effective tool for long-term productivity.