GUEST POST: Connecting the Dots by V.E. Schwab

When it comes out writing, one of the most common questions I’m asked about process is whether I’m a “plotter” or “pantser”—whether I outline my books before starting, or fly by the seat of my trousers. As a fantasy writer, I have to imagine the majority of us fall into the former camp (the thought of setting out on an adventure WITHOUT a map is quite frankly terrifying). At the same time, I’ve found that knowing too much about my story diminishes the excitement of actually WRITING it. I need the kindling to light the fire, but discovery keeps it alive.

Because of this, I’ve realized I’m neither a plotter, nor a pantser.

I’m a connect-the-dots-er.

What this means is that before I start writing a book, I create five to ten plot points that absolutely must be present in order for my story to be, well, my story. Some of these are pivotal plot moments, some are twists, others are moments that reveal the nature of a character, but each is vital in its way, and together, they make a loose road map for my book. A way to keep one’s self from wandering 50,000 words in the wrong direction.

With A Darker Shade of Magic, for instance, the very first plot point I had was the inspiration for the entire book: the moment when a magician walked through a wall, and ran into a street thief who picked his pocket. This intersection of the two main characters, Kell and Lila, was a pivotal moment, a crux, and I knew that without it, the story wasn’t the one I wanted to tell, and I ended up working outward from that moment to find the other ten points.

But the important thing about connecting the dots is that I start with these marks, but not the lines between. Finding my way from point to point, that’s the blank space, the place for discovery. I might stray, explore, write myself down wrong paths, but I never stray so far that I loose the pattern, and I can always back up to the last plot point or work backwards from the next.

The advantage of plotting is that you have a detailed plan, but little room for inspiration. If you do have an idea that leads you astray, you risk setting off a chain of events the ripple effect of which disrupts if not negates your entire outline.

The advantage of pantsing is that everything is a mystery and anything could happen! The downside is that anything could happen and you might write yourself down a path of no return and have to rip out thousands upon thousands of words worth of plot stitches.

Connecting the dots is a way to introduce a controlled measure of chaos into the creative process. To stray without straying, to keep the story in your mind, the next plot point a guiding light in the distance, but the way from here to there filled with possibility.



V.E. Schwab is the critically acclaimed author of Vicious, which was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013, an Amazon Best Book of the Year (as well as Best Book of the month), a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Choice 2013 Book Awards, and the ALA top pick for Fantasy for their 2014 reading list. She is also the author of several books for children and teens, including The Archived series. You can check out her website here, then go buy her new book, A Darker Shade of Magic, here.

Please Help!

I’m really excited about this, but I need your help to pull it off!

Starting today (2/13) and running for one week (until 2/20), I’ll be giving away my share of all book sales ($2 for each copy of THE EMPEROR’S BLADES, $3 per copy of THE PROVIDENCE OF FIRE) to the charity Reading is Fundamental. The mission of this group is to put books into the hands of children who would otherwise have limited access. Check out their website here.

Clearly, the books I write aren’t kids’ fare, but I’m excited to put some of my income from the Unhewn Throne series toward this wonderful, important organization. If you’ve been holding off on your purchase, or you need a book to buy for a friend, this is your chance — you’ll know that some of the money is going to a very good cause.

Please share this message widely. Tell your friends, buy early birthday gifts, buy late birthday gifts, take out full-page ads in the Times. Perhaps most importantly, spread the message on facebook, twitter, instagram, and other social media. I’d be thrilled to be able to write a big check to Reading is Fundamental in a couple of weeks.

THANK YOU, and happy reading!

(Two notes: 1) No need to tell me you’ve purchased the books — Tor is tracking that for me, and 2) This applies to physical books AND ebooks sold by Tor in North America — it’s harder for me to get audiobook or overseas numbers, so I’m not including those in the tally.)

Dual-Wielding, Ekphrasis, and Dirty Underwear: Another Round-Up

Just in case the last volley didn’t fully satisfy, here’s another round-up of recent posts and articles I’ve done, most of them for The first two are about the ways in which writing poetry for so many years has informed my experience working in epic fantasy. Enjoy!

Altogether Elsewhere; or Enough About the Fucking Feast Already

Keeping the Underwear Clean; The Art of Formal Constraint

When My Wife Put her Face in a Fireball for Epic Fantasy

Three Ekphrastic Dialogues; or, No Dual-Wielding Until Book III

Reflections of a Snake Wrestler

I’m Not Dead! A Round-up of Recent Guest Posts

To the untrained eye, it might appear that I haven’t written any blog posts recently. You might imagine me lounging around on the beach drinking mai tais. Well, you’d be partially right. I am on the beach drinking mai tais, but I’ve also been working, and writing blog posts – they’ve just been for other sites. Here’s a convenient round-up:

A Human Tooth in the Pasta; On the Limits of Outlining

Stop Pissing on the Floor; The Challenge of the Second Book

A Causal Fish-Fry; Taoism in the Unhewn Throne Series

The Lesson of the Selfie; or The Power of Point of View

The Limits of Empathy; or Macbeth is an Asshole

Altogether Elsewhere; or Enough About the Fucking Feast

An Interview

Another Interview

Yep, Another Interview

Rocket Talk Podcast Interview

I Ought to Write Romance; a Statistically Bankrupt Analysis

I used to study and write poetry, a fact that is relevant to this post in two ways. First, it helps to explain why the statistical methodology to follow is so shoddy, so truly terrible that it would make any self-respecting statistician gouge out her own eyes, Oedipus-style. Second, this post helps to explain, in small part, one of the reasons I stopped writing poetry and started with the epic fantasy.

Every year Goodreads hosts the “Readers’ Choice” awards, which the site bills as “the only major book award decided by readers.” That claim depends, of course, on what you consider “major”, but with nearly two million votes cast in 2013 competition, it’s fair to say that Goodreads is running a big competition. There are twenty categories, with fifteen books nominated in each. I’m thrilled to be nominated in two categories: Best Fantasy and Best Goodreads Debut Author. I also thought this was a perfect opportunity for someone who hasn’t done math since high school to do some math.

Specifically, I was curious to see if there was any difference in the average number of reader ratings per book by category. These ratings have nothing to do with the Choice awards – they’re just the number of ratings each book has accrued since its release. Still, it seemed like the nominations offered a sort of snapshot of each genre.

Of course, there are problems. The books are released at different points in the year, for one thing, and obviously books released in January have more ratings than those released two weeks ago. It’s very possible that readers of certain genres might be more likely to use Goodreads than others. Ratings might not translate well to sales. I accept my D- for data analysis.

Still, check this shit out:

Category        Average Number of Ratings per Nominated Book

YA SF/F:                    23,726

Romance:                   14,871

Fantasy:                     9,957

Fiction:                      9,554

SF:                              5,269

Non-Fiction:             2,591

Poetry:                       242

The discrepancy is pretty astounding. It seems to suggest that writers of Young Adult Fantasy and Sci-Fi are just absolutely killing it, sales-wise, compared to anyone writing what we might call (for lack of a better term) Adult-Oriented Sci-Fi and Fantasy. The YA title with the most ratings was Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, with 73,629 ratings. This is half the number of ratings all fifteen nominated adult fantasy titles combined. The only other genre that even comes close to these numbers is Romance.

That said, I think this is good news for those of us writing non-YA fantasy. I, for one, am delighted to see the YA market so robust. I like to think that when these kids get older, they’ll keep reading fantasy.

And then, of course, there’s the plight of non-fiction. After the breakout success of such books as The Perfect Storm, and Longitude, I expected non-fiction to have a much higher readership. Maybe it does in other years. Maybe non-fiction readers just hate goodreads. I dunno. Again, the holes in my method here are massive, but these numbers seem bleak.

Finally, poetry. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school writing poetry that I started to really understand it would be almost impossible to make money in the enterprise. I admit that this was pretty late for what should have been an obvious realization, but I love poetry. I still write the occasional poem. My son and I recite poems before bed every night. If you want to make a living as a writer, however, and I do, it’s not a viable path (unless you couple it with teaching or prostitution or something). Fortunately, my other great literary love, the writing of epic fantasy, offers more possibilities.

I’m delighted about the nomination of The Emperor’s Blades. Both slates (fantasy and debut) include some incredibly stiff competition, but it’s exciting to find my name in the fray alongside the likes of Rothfuss and Sanderson. I hope some of you wander over to the site, check out some of the categories and titles for yourself, and let me know what you make of all this data. Where have I gone horribly and wildly wrong? Or do you think that, warts and all, this is actually a pretty accurate picture of the current publishing world? Finally, please vote, either for The Emperor’s Blades or another writer you’re excited about. I love doing this, I’m incredibly grateful to be making a living at it, and I couldn’t do it – no writer could – without you.