When my youngest kid was in middle school, he had knee problems. He couldn’t play football, but all that energy needed to go somewhere, so I signed him up for swim team. He went to one regional swim meet and I was impressed (confused? befuddled?) by the sheer number of kids who were rotating in and out of the water. His coaches reinforced the message that the kids weren’t racing each other as much as they were racing themselves. Winning gold was nice, but getting a personal best time was better.
That philosophy fits pretty well with an idea I’ve run across more than once in writing classes, often in terms of inspiration and motivation. We’re told that rather than waste time in jealousy or envy for another author’s success, each author needs to define success for themselves. For example, in a master class at last weekend’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference, Angela James started her presentation by asking each of us to describe what success looks like, and then leave a comment in the chat (we were on zoom) sharing some aspect of it.
People piped right up with comments like, “I’ve figured out what success looks like for three months, six months, and a year.” Which, okay then. LOL. I was happy for them – sincerely – yet there I was, still parsing the question.
See, if you ask me to list my goals for whatever time increment, I can do that, no problem. Weekly, monthly, one year, five year? I got this. (Well, five years might be a little vague.) And generally, I’m pretty good at accomplishing the goals I set for myself – or coming up with a damned good reason why I haven’t.
However, I’m not sure meeting goals and “success” are the same thing.
Clearly they’re related concepts. Checking things off a list feels good, whether it’s this week’s Trello to-do list or January’s goal to publish 4 books this year. And you know, according to the dictionary, that’s success.
So why am I balking? Why do I think success is bigger than just checking things off a list? Why don’t I feel like a success?
I think it’s because whenever I meet a goal, in the next breath I’m already planning the next one. Published 4 books this year? Good for me. What’s on deck for 2022? Pulled off a successful writing conference? Cool. When’s the next one?
I swear if I ever hit the New York Times bestseller list, I’ll immediately start figuring out how to raise the bar.
The thing about goals is they need to be concrete, measurable, and within my control. I’d argue that success is none of those things – unless it’s only about meeting goals. To me, it’s bigger than that. Success is satisfaction and happiness and pride, a complicated emotion that isn’t easily quantified.
I also think that defining success depends on where you focus your lens. The second bullet point in the dictionary definition is “the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.”
And all of those values are relative.
Like, in my day(night) job, I’m a nurse practitioner in the NICU of a major university medical center with a national reputation. Does that make me famous? Probably not, although pretty much everyone in the world of neonatology has heard of my unit. (And if you google the name that’s on my ARNP license, you almost certainly won’t come up with hits about vampire romance. LOL)
Am I a success? Well, this gig is seriously my dream job, the reason I went back to school for a masters degree, and after working in a couple different places, I can honestly say its be the best utilization of the NNP role that I’ve found.
But it’s still a job, and I still have to pump myself up to go to work every night.
My husband and I have owned a house for over 20 years. To someone who’s worried about making rent every month, that might look like success. To me, it looks like unfinished projects and the garden needs work. I’m planning on taking early retirement at age 62, which might look like success, but it’ll only work if I write more books.
And….that might sound like a whole lot of bellyaching, like my cup’s half empty. It’s not. I’m very fortunate and very grateful. In thinking all this through, though, I have reached one conclusion.
If I’m not going to define writing success by meeting goals, there needs to be another way of looking at it. If I take away the goals – the yearly plan, the Trello to-do lists, the orange banners from Amazon – what’s left? The dictionary would say it’s wealth, and yeah, there’s the money, the number of books I sell minus what I spend on production and promotion.
But do I really write books to make money? Maybe a little, although I’m leery of picking a dollar amount to define success, because I can’t truly control how many books I sell. I can put together a good product and do my best to let buyers know it’s available, but I can’t make them buy.
So if I’m not successful because I meet my goals and it’s not about how much money I make, what’s left?
I think for me to be a successful author, it’s about the writing. It’s about being engaged in the process, the nitty-gritty draft and edit and read and learn and polish. It’s bringing characters to life and exploring the world through them, and it’s readers who tell me they love my work. It’s the alchemy of creativity and craft, organizing words into thoughts and recording them with care and attention so they’re telling the story’s truth.
I may not have an Olympic gold medal – or an NYT best seller – but I am writing. And by that measure, I’ve been a lot more successful than I realized.
Personally, the only thing I dislike more than critical feedback is unhelpful critical feedback.
No one writes a book on their own. I think where a lot of fledgling writers fail is they try to write a book without any outside help or support. Yes, the actual writing down of words is all on you, the writer, but getting to that stage, what happens after the first draft is done, how to get from rough draft to finished draft, shouldn’t be all on your own.
New writers are often terrified to let other people read their work. Whether it be insecurity about their talent or fear that someone might steal their work (electronic copyrights are an amazing thing in this day and age so if you’re part of the latter, let me put your mind at ease). And many new writers don’t realize, or maybe don’t want to admit, that even if you’re born with the gift of writing, no one writes well without at lease some practice if not some actual education in the craft. I, myself, have a BA in Creative Writing. And let me tell you: as a freshman in college I was CONVINCED I was an amazing writer and would coast through said major.
I needed that education. I needed those professors telling me that, while good, they could tell I was turning in first drafts of essays and stories. What’s the big deal about that? Well, good is not great and if they could tell something was a first draft, then that meant they saw room for improvement. Your first draft may be good, but it’s probably not yet great and it probably needs more than just your eyes to see where it can be improved.
I try to make sure I have at least two beta readers for a book, but if I can get three or four, that’s amazing. And, I think, it’s good to have readers at different life-stages and backgrounds so I can find out what resonated with who and what falls flat and if I get the same/similar notes from multiple readers, I know it’s something to pay attention to for good or bad.
Now, maybe you want to be a beta reader for someone, or you want to develop a critique partner relationship with another writer–if you can, do, it will make you a better writer–and you want to know how to be a good reader. Critical, helpful feedback.
Obviously all writers live for the good feedback. I look for the lols, the yeessssss!, the swoons, the love this!, the good image notes throughout a manuscript when I get it back from my readers. I love those comments. When I read the critique letters I first revel in the parts where they sing my praises and tell me what they loved about the book. We are needy things, we writers, and our sunshine are those compliments and reassurances. But we want the book to be great, not just good, so we need the meat, the real feedback.
If you’re going to help a writer with feedback you need to tell them what didn’t work for you while also explaining why. Did you find your attention waning during a particularly long chapter? Did you find yourself hoping an annoying character died even though they are supposed to be a hero? Did the dialogue fall flat for you because people don’t actually talk like that, or maybe because it was a little too realistic? Were there dropped plot threads because you picked up on something that seemed important in the beginning but then it never came back around? Did you get lost in the magic system because there are no rules?
These are all things that can help a writer who’s been staring at these pages and those tens of thousands of words for the past year and can’t see these issues. Want to know why you can’t see the issues in your book? Because you know the answers to these questions/holes/problems so your mind fills in those gaps when you reread. Just like you can’t see the typos or homonyms but they’re glaring to new eyes.
Now if you’re the one with the book getting the feedback, you need to be open to said feedback. Of course the notes are just the opinion of one person and you’re welcome to take or leave every note, but you cannot, under any circumstances be offended by the constructive criticism they offer. Hopefully they’re actually helpful and constructive and unless they just say your book sucked, you need to remember that, no matter how harsh, they’re trying to help you and they took time out just to read your work and give you feedback.
I offer professional manuscript critique services for people who don’t have a writer group and there are a lot of people who think they’re ready for the critical feedback only to realize they weren’t and they crumble a little bit when the critique letter isn’t just compliments and praise. Remember, the book is personal to you and only you at this stage.
So if you’re looking to write a book, be ready to start forming your own little writing village to help get it from opening sentence, to first draft, to final draft, to publication. Writing is a solitary craft but you don’t have to do it all alone.
Here’s the deal. I had a book release on September 4th and I’ll have another one September 23rd. I’m helping organize the Emerald City Writers’ Conference in October, and I’ve also stepped in as president of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of RWA. (And tbh, I believe in what the the organization is trying to do, but right now supporting RWA is exhausting.)
Also, also, I’m trying to plot the next book in the Soulmates series, and I’ve got research to do – like, two books to read, for starters – for The Pirate’s Vampire (sequel to The Vampire’s Pirate that released last week). And any day now Irene will be sending me the next scene for Benedictus, Book 3 in our Hours of the Night series.
That’s…a lot. (If you have read last month’s post, you might notice I haven’t mentioned the 1950s murder mystery I had on my list. I’ve decided to keep it on the back burner in the interest of honing in on my brand – vampires/paranormal – which is in itself a good subject for a blog post. Maybe I’ll do branding next month.)
You might be wondering how I’m keeping up with it all. Heh. I’m wondering that, myself. There are probably as many ways to stay organized as there are writers, you know? The way I see it, though, a successful approach has to include both the big picture and the daily work in a way that makes sense.
I’ve tried a couple different strategies that didn’t work particularly well. For years, every January I’d come up with a list of goals. I’d use Word or Excel and try to block out what I wanted to get done when.
And then I’d ignore those lists and spend most of the year jumping from thing to thing.
Then 3-ish years ago, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to the use of planners for authors. I bought a pretty, spiral bound notebook planner and actually used it, more or less. I liked that I could make weekly to-do lists, but it still didn’t give me a fluid way of connecting my annual goals to what was happening on a week-to-week basis.
I’m pretty sure that someone in that Facebook group first mentioned Trello. It’s a project management app, and while I probably use about 1/10th of its functionality, that 1/10th is exactly what I need. There are a kajillion different templates for all kinds of business and educational applications, but I use a series of very simple boards.
I don’t know why Trello works for me. Maybe it’s the pretty pictures or the way I can change things with a couple of clicks, but I’ve been more successful using it than any other organization tool I’ve come across. For sure, the phone app makes it easy for me to add to my to-do list when I remember something random and to check things off when I’m not at my laptop. Trello is the easiest way I’ve found to translate goals into action, and I’m pretty danged proud of what I’ve accomplished this year.
If you’ve got a cool organizational tool, leave me a comment. I’m still open to learning something new!
Yesterday I saw a “What are you working on?” query on FB and responded with “I’ve got this, and this, and this, and this in progress.”
And those are just my actual writing projects. I’m also involved in two different chapters of RWA (for Reasons) and both have ongoing projects and then there’s the day(night) job, which has apparently decided to seek revenge for the month I took off in April.
It’s all good stuff, but I’m a bit fried.
For today’s post, I thought it would be fun to run through my spinning plates, so you know what’s on the horizon…
Dáire Malone has been undead for over 200 years when he is summoned to the home of a would-be queen, a vampiress who possesses an unnatural potency. She declares that Malone will not leave without giving her a pledge of loyalty.
He’s been held in thrall before and would rather face his final death than let another have power over him.
Thomas Clifton is a pirate, or rather, a privateer. He too is summoned to the vampiress’s home and commanded to pledge his fealty to her. Clifton’s allegiance lies only with the man he sees in the mirror, and his first impulse is to run.
But Dáire Malone’s aura of mystery and his melancholy beauty appeal to Clifton, and Malone won’t leave until they destroy the source of the vampiress’s magic. Caught between opposing impulses, Clifton must choose.
Leave, and lose Malone, or stay and risk his freedom…and his life.
First up, THE VAMPIRE’S PIRATE! A sweet little novella that poses the question, “what if Bridgerton had vampires?” Actually, PIRATE is set in 1805 New Orleans, so the time period similar to Bridgerton, even if the location is different. This book’ll be available FREE as part of a multi-author giveaway that starts tomorrow – Friday, 8/20/21. Here’s the link to the promo so you can bookmark it. The giveaway runs until 9/3/21 and after that, PIRATE will be available at all ebook retailers.
There’s no easy way to come back from the dead…
…and Connor MacPherson is living with the consequences. He may be back in Trajan’s life – and in his bed – but the trust they once shared is gone.
Some days it feels like David is the only thing holding their threesome together.
When Trajan and David stumble over a murdered kitsune, Connor is drawn into the investigation. He uses that murder to cover a second inquiry, one he’s bound by his oath to the Elites to keep secret – specifically from Trajan.
Then David uncovers his covert search, and if Connor’s own internal conflict is painful, seeing how it hurts David makes it even worse.
But they don’t know the secret Trajan’s keeping, a command that could destroy everything. Trajan’s maker has ordered him to kill, and if they don’t rebuild their damaged trust, this time death will be permanent.
TESTED is book 2 in my Soulmates series (m/m/m paranormal romance), and I’m busily editing the manuscript so it’ll be ready for a 9/23/21 release date. The official cover reveal will be on JoyfullyJay‘s blog 9/2/21. I’m sooooo excited for this one!
The next spinning plate doesn’t have an official cover yet. Heck, it doesn’t even have an official title. I’ve been working with The Blue Sky Murders, although that title is subject to change. Basically, the BSM is the start of a mystery series set in 1950 Seattle, about a PI who was an MP in the second World War. He’s hired to follow a young man who just inherited a whole bunch of money and he shows up just in time to see the young man get murdered. He then spends the rest of the book solving the crime and fighting his own demons. Fun stuff! I’ll be (hopefully) pitching it to a couple of publishers this fall. (Also, a red Cadillac plays a key role, so pretend the Mustang is a Caddy.)
The project I’m arguably the most excited about, is BENEDICTUS, book 3 in the Hours of the Night series I co-write with Irene Preston. We started this book in 2017, y’all, but life has a way of messing with even the best plans. At any rate, here we are, four years older and four years wiser, with four years more experience as writers which’ll hopefully pay off as we bring Thaddeus and Sara their happily every after.
But first we’re going to mess with them in a big way!
Just a couple other bullet points to share. One of the bigger projects I’m working on is the Emerald City Writers’ Conference, put on by the Greater Seattle Chapter of RWA. The ECWC will by 10/15- 10/17, and it’s on-line only this year. Registration is $150, and we have a fantastic line-up of presenters, as well as agents and editors who want to hear your pitches!
And FINALLY – for reals, this time – if you’re in the Seattle area, the Shanty Tavern is having their grand reopening on Friday, September 10th. The Shanty’s over on Lake City Way, one of the last survivors of the days when Lake City was it’s own place. The Shanty only opens Friday nights and there’s always live music of both kinds – country and western. (Random Blues Brothers reference…lol…) At any rate, for their first post-pandemic show, my husband’s band The Fentons will open for the 1Uppers, so if you’re in the ‘hood, come say hi!
Two weeks ago at the Historical Novel Society conference, I participated in a brief lecture from my dear friend Kris Waldherr on how writers can use the tarot to help plan their books. It not only re-invigorated me in my study of tarot and inspired me to create my own deck, it reminded me I wrote a series of two articles about it a while back for Novelists’ Inc. that I have never shared here.
If you’re new to the tarot, head on over to my main blog for an introduction to the cards, how they work and what they mean, then come back to learn how to use them in your writing.
Before you read, you might like to find a quiet place where you can be alone with your thoughts and really think about what each card is trying tell you. Have a notebook and pen, or your computer handy so you can jot down ideas as they come to you. Some people choose to lay out a special cloth (usually a solid color) on which to place the cards because it helps focus the mind. If you are religious, you might want to ask your guardian angel or the muses or whatever god(s) you believe in to guide your reading, but that is totally optional.
To begin, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Think about your question. If you are using your reading to build out your plot from the beginning, you might ask a question like “What is the framework of this book?” or “Show me how this plot should progress.” If you’re trying the work through a block, think about it as specifically as you can, something like “what happens to X character next?” or “How does X get out of [name the jam you put them in].” If you are building a character you could start with “Show me X’s progression throughout the book.” Keep repeating your question in your mind over and over as you shuffle the deck. You’ll know when to stop. Sometimes you will feel a card get hot or cold or your fingers will tingle. Other times, you just know to stop. Sometimes nothing at all happens and you just get tired of shuffling. Trust your instincts; there are no wrong answer. Once you feel ready, draw your first card from the top of the deck.
Because of their unique symbolism, you can always do readings using only the major or minor arcana cards if you want to. But I have found that using both major and minor arcana (which is the standard practice) gives you a more complete picture. There are three basic types of spreads, which I’ll explain from the easiest to the most complex.
One Card Spreads
This involves drawing a single card and is the fastest and easiest, It allows you to be very focused in your question and answer, but it also provides you with the least amount of information because you don’t have the influence of surrounding cards. But if you are in a hurry or just need a prompt to get you going, one is all you need. Potential uses:
Getting to know your characters – Draw a card for each major character in your plot. This will tell you a lot about them, since we each have a card that best symbolizes who we are. (Mine is Strength.) This is best determined over time through multiple readings when the same card keeps showing up over and over again, but can also be done with a single reading.
I recently did this for a book I was plotting. It is biographical historical fiction set in WWII Poland and the card I drew was the Knight of Wands . This card symbolizes someone clever, with a strong sense of humor who is good with words and has sound instincts and a gift for seeing things others may have missed. This describes my heroine (who was a real person) to a tee. Because of this card, I learned what key aspects of her personality to focus on when writing.
Get to know the overall “vibe” of your book. A single card can also tell you about the theme(s) of your book. As I was writing this article, I pulled a card for my latest project, another biographical historical, this one set the colonial United States. My card was The Five of Wands I was immediately struck by the image, which shows five people fighting with staves, because while my book written in a single first-person POV, there are multiple competing timelines and storylines to keep straight, so much so that I needed to make a chart.
The meaning of the card is competition and being obsessed with material things or as the book that came with the deck puts it “keeping up with the Joneses.” That is certainly relevant because there are many men competing for the affection of my heroine. She also a very well-to-do woman who was known historically for her lavish parties and spending that, combined with her husband’s gambling, eventually drove them deep into debt. The card can also mean a clash of ideas and principles and hurting others by giving mixed messages. My main character is in love with her sisters’ husband and both are tempted to have an affair. Much of their relationship takes place via letter and because of both, they often wonder what the other really feels.
(While I was writing this, I accidently knocked the next card off the top of the deck. It was The Lovers which is what I was expecting the main card for the book to be because it is essentially a story of forbidden love. Always pay attention when cards fall out of the deck as you shuffle or otherwise make themselves known—it happens for a reason.
Find the answer to a plot problem or writer’s block. All you have to do here is ask what the problem is. Pay close attention to what the card symbolizes. It may tell you where you’ve gone wrong in plotting in another part of the book, directly answer your question, or even tell you about something in yourself that is causing the block (such as being overworked and needing to take a break).
Three Card Spreads
There are many variations on three-card spreads, but the most common is past-present-future, which can be used for both plots and characters.
If you write to a three-act structure, you could use this spread to learn about the themes of each act.
You could take each of your major characters and do a past-present-future spread to learn about their backstory, where they are when the book begins, and how they change as the novel progresses.
For character arcs, think about one card as being where the character is now, the second as where they want to be, and the third how to get there.
If you are experiencing a writing problem, you can have one card symbolize the nature of the problem, one the cause, and one the solution. Similarly, you can have the cards stand for what the character wants/what will help them, what is standing in their way, and how to overcome it.
We’ve all heard about MRUs (motivation reaction units), right? One card can be your character’s thought/feeling, one their reaction, and the third, what he or she is going to say or do in response.
If you are mulling over the relationship between characters you could have one card stand for each character and the third for their relationship. Or you could use one for what brought them together, one for what pulls them apart, and the third for the resolution. (This one is particularly good for romance novels and romantic plotlines.)
You could seriously go on forever with these. There’s a long list of three-card spreads online here.
The Celtic Cross Spread
This is the classic tarot spread, the one you’ve seen in every TV show and movie with a fortune teller and the one you will see if you go visit one in real life. This is because it is the most comprehensive. I’m going to explain it first, and then show you a few ways to use it.
The Celtic Cross spread involves 10 or 11 cards. Some people choose to designate one card that is set off to the side to symbolize the question or the person asking the question. If you choose to do this, you will draw that card first after you have finished shuffling the deck. Then draw the cards from the top of the deck and lay them out according to the pattern above.
Once you’ve done that. Take a look at the overall spread. Is your gut telling you anything? Does the spread feel inherently happy or sad, positive or negative? Does anything immediately jump out at you? It can take some time to develop the ability to get the “feel” for a spread, so don’t worry if you don’t come up with anything right away.
Next, take a look at each card individually. Write down your impressions of each one. I did a reading for my colonial American book while writing this using the question “show me what I need to know about X book” and I’ll give you my cards as well as an example.
My overall impression is that this is a positive reading with five major arcana cards (which is a lot) and no dominant suit (two swords and two pentacles, which neutralize each other’s negative and positive elements). It’s going to be an interesting reading.
Relationship to the Present Situation. Queen of Swords – An impressive, trailblazing woman of courage and intelligence who will not be held down by convention. This is my main character very clearly summed up.
Positive Forces in Your Favor. The Chariot – Triumph, balance, holding opposing views in equal tension. Enjoying life. This describes my character’s approach to life pretty well, though she’s more known for extravagance than balance.
Message from Your Higher Self – Queen of Pentacles – Female strength and success in business and with money. A caring woman concerned with the lives of those around her. Again, you have to trust me that this fits my character very well.
Subconscious/Underlying Themes/Emotional – The Priestess – Inspiration and advice from a woman who is wise and mature. Can also represent isolation. That last part is interesting to me because my heroine spends most of the book in another country than the rest of her family. Her best friend could easily be represented by the priestess and would provide calm to her boundless energy.
The Past – The Fool – Setting off on a journey unaware of an uncaring of the consequences; innocence and foolishness. My character married very young and regrets it almost immediately when her husband turns out not to be who she though he was (quite literally) and she falls in love with someone else, but can’t have him because she is already married.
Relationship with Others – The Two of Cups – The minor arcana card most like The Lovers. Represents relationships, attraction, engagement/marriage and emotional bonds. Perfect for describing the forbidden love she experiences for most of her life.
Psychological States/Forces That Can Affect the Outcome – The Six of Swords. Ugh, the swords. Movement, alignment of heart and mind, a declaration of love, focus and follow-through with unpredictable results. Funny that this one depicts a journey across water because my character travels back and forth between America and Europe a lot. Again, I see shades of the forbidden romance in this card, especially since it comes right between the Two of Cups and The Sun
Environment/Unseen Forces – The Sun – Triumph, bounty, enjoying life. It is interesting that the book that comes with this deck mentions “summer love” in connection to this card. If my two historical people ever actually consummated their affair, it would have been a particular summer while his wife was away.
Hopes and Fears – The Magician – A man of creativity, power and strong voice who is eloquent and charming. This could be my hero and describe what my heroine sees in him. This card can also mean someone who is manipulative and at times untrue, which applies to her fears about him just being a flirt and not really loving her since she is already married. (Which is something historians haven’t even figured out.)
Outcome – The King of Pentacles – A proud, self-assured young man of status and wealth, a supportive husband who recognizes the value of culture. This card could represent either her husband or her lover. Her husband is proud and wealthy, but he is not exactly supportive, while her lover is. I see this as the outcome she wants; her ideal man. Unfortunately, he does not exist and history does not bear out a happy ending for her or her lover. However, as a writer, I see this as an opportunity to really amp up the tragedy of the ending. Outcomes are even more powerful when the hero and heroine don’t get what they want because readers have been rooting for them the entire book and now will mourn with them as well.
Finally, look at the cards in groups of three or four. Do they affect each other or change the meaning of surrounding cards? Make notes of anything that notice. Again, it may take time to learn this part. In my example, as you can see from the explanations above, the first four cards agree with each other and strengthen one another in a description of my heroine. In the same way, cards six through nine all play on the same theme of forbidden love. Taken together, these influenced my interpretation of the Outcome card.
Of course, everything is subject to interpretation; I may read a spread totally differently than you do, which is why some people don’t put any stock in tarot readings. And that is fine. I’m only here to advise you on how you can use them as a tool in your writing; whether or not you believe they will work for you is a personal decision.
Once you get comfortable with your cards you can also make up your own spreads to fit your questions. They can be circular, triangle, any shape that works for what you need. You could even take the major archetypes and draw a card for each one or take your favorite plot arc or character arc tool (I’m a fan of Michael Hauge’s “Six Stage Plot Structure” and Larry Brooks’ Four Part Structure) and make up a spread to fit it. The sky is the limit.
I hope this series of articles has given you a new tool in your writing toolbox. If you are familiar with other systems of divination like runes, wisdom sticks, or even astrology or dowsing with a pendulum, you can employ those as well. They all tap into your subconscious mind in a similar manner. Best of luck!
When I wrote that last blog post I was at 90k words on the WIP. For the last couple of years that would have meant I was at a completed draft. I’d gotten very good at honing my craft so I could still set the scene but not be so flowery that I was pushing over the 100k mark. But not this beast. No, 90k and the end wasn’t quite in sight. But I was so happy to be writing and moving forward that I didn’t focus on that. I can always edit later.
My husband and I had a long weekend away planned for June 25th, so I told myself, I wanted to be done by the time we left. I didn’t call it a deadline because I was afraid I would jinx my progress. But in my mind, I knew it would be harder to enjoy our time away if the draft still wasn’t done. The point of the trip wasn’t a reward for this project, but there was no reason why it couldn’t double as one. That was also a weird change for me; I always did better with a deadline but now I was afraid of setting one.
So I kept opening fresh docs and writing from zero to whatever natural stopping point I hit for the day and copy and pasting those words into the main document.
Then, Monday morning I had an epiphany. I don’t know where it came from but it was a lightning bolt moment.
The story I’m writing is the idea of one movie from my childhood meets a movie from my teen years (yes, I’m being vague on purpose). Now, the love interest from the childhood movie is wildly problematic in this day and age (yeah, problematic back then too but… moving on!) and it had been nagging at me this whole time. How could I base a character on that character knowing he just wouldn’t survive (rightly), let alone sell, in today’s culture. But I still love his problematic face.
I love his problematic face because I understand why and how he was broken. I know his origin story so I can look past the problematic parts–of course that just makes my affection for him sound toxic, right? I know.
But having that information in my mind was helping me work out this problem. When we decide to write something new inspired by something we love, we’re trying to look at it from a different perspective. Maybe not make it better, or, hell, maybe we are trying to make it better.
And then, because I hadn’t been trying to force the story, the epiphany came. I knew why this character was broken. The reader needed to know too. The other character needed to know too. So often stories are frustrating for the reader or viewer because we know all that needs to happen to fix 90% of the problems is for the characters to talk to each other. But the writer avoids that at all costs. I decided to face that head on. Something so basic shouldn’t be a twist but it was and it worked. Because, just like my MC, the reader will likely be surprised too.
Then I couldn’t stop writing. The words just poured out of me. The character’s motivations, choices, the ending, it was all right there at my fingertips. It was bright and fully formed in my brain, I just had to get it out.
On June 17th, I crossed the 109k word and I wrote the ending.
I actually like the ending. I like the epiphany. I buy it. I think others will too.
Does it need work? Oh, oh yes. It needs so much work, I am sure. But I backed up my work and then I closed the document and I haven’t looked at it since. When I finished, I interrupted my husband at work and told him I finished before I told anyone else. And I cried. He hugged me and said, “See? You’re not broken.” I cried a little more.
Then we left the city and found fresh air, salt water, and ancient trees.
The words will come back to you. You may need to try a new method, you may need to try many new methods, you may have to try ones that didn’t work for you in the past, but the words will come to you again. If you keep trying. Keep adapting. The end of the book is in sight, you just have to keep going.
I love a good trope as much as the next girl. When two rivals forced by circumstance to work together show up at an inn, the room they’re given better have only one bed. Better yet, have them kiss to avoid being discovered by the enemy!
But often while reading, I want to be surprised. Don’t get me wrong–tropes and archetypes can be useful, and certainly play their roles in providing your reader with solid ground. But it can often be even more useful to flip these tropes on their heads. The technical term for this is subversion, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolbox. Curious to know more? Keep reading for a few of my favorite techniques to use your audience’s expectations both for and against them in order to create a more compelling read.
Start with dialogue. Witty banter is a must for a snappy and fast-paced read. But it’s easy to let characters fall into a rhythm where your reader might almost be able to predict what they’re going to say next. If you feel your characters keep more or less saying the same thing over and over, try playing with that familiarity to make it unexpected. Oscar Wilde was a master of this–he’d start a line of dialogue with a familiar phrase, then take the second half of the line in a completely different direction for humorous effect. For example: “All the world’s a stage…but the play is badly cast.” He knows the audience expects something, and upends that expectation for a witty surprise.
Try this with your own writing. If a conversation feels stale, try having the characters say the exact opposite of what they mean, take a familiar phrase in an unfamiliar direction, or flip a familiar saying on its head (“Work is the curse of the drinking classes”)
Move on to worldbuilding.If you’re writing fantasy, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of building a familiar, wholly expected world that will surprise your reader not one jot (coughGameofThronescough). Even in other genres, world building often has a set of expectations that, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself emulating. The trick here is to be aware of the tropes, where they arise from, and why they’re common. For example, patriarchal societies are so common in fantasy writing because they’re based on Western medieval history, and the first half a century of fantasy writing was dominated by white males. When you use this expectation against your reader and subvert it, by putting women in power or even exploring a society where men are second-class citizens, your story will almost certainly be more compelling than if you follow what others have done before you.
So take a long hard look at the world you’ve built (even if it’s a world that looks very much like our own). How much of that world is knee-jerk fill-in-the-blank? And if it feels like a place you’ve maaaaybe been before, how can you subvert those expectations for a more original, compelling setting?
Next up? Characters. Want to write about the Chosen One? How about nah. Don’t get me wrong–these stories do and will continue to exist, and there’s value in that. But how often have you read a book where the Chosen One’s sidekick is the main character? Or better yet, the Chosen One’s opponent, who views the Chosen One as the villain? Now there’s a compelling story, amiright? Most craft books will tell you that all characters fall into certain archetypes–the Trickster, the Warrior, the Damsel, the King. And sure, that’s partially true. But the value here is knowing these archetypes, understanding their benefits, then learning when and where to turn them upside down. Go through your cast of characters and think about their stereotypes, then consider where you could subvert them.
Maybe your Damsel is really a Trickster, luring Warriors to their doom. Or perhaps your Warrior is actually a Damsel at heart, terrified behind their mask of strength. The harder you examine the archetypes you fall back on in creating characters, the more opportunities you have to explore their inverses!
And finally…plot. This one is arguably the hardest, especially when craft books like Save the Cat argue that all stories follow the same basic structures. Again, the trick here is to identify tropes before they happen…and then put your own twist on it. For example, everyone knows that no matter how hard characters try to avoid a prophecy, it always comes true–in fact, usually the things they do to avoid the prophecy make it come true! What if, instead, your characters want a prophecy to come true, but no matter what they do they can’t seem to trigger it? Instead of your villain trying to prevent your hero from achieving his goal, maybe they actually want the same exact thing?
Again, you want to examine the building blocks of your story and identify where you may be falling into old familiar ruts. Does the good guy win? Is the villain a mustache-twirling madman? When you find these elements, see whether you can upend them in such a way as to use your readers’ expectations against them, a surprise them with something fresh and unexpected.
Which are your favorite literary tropes? Or, better yet, which are your favorite tropes you love to see subverted? Share you thoughts in the comment section!
If you’ve been following along with my posts, you know that I’ve been working on a new book and it’s been kicking my ass a little bit, as books are often want to do. So I started changing how I wrote it–with an outline, without one, adding in new scenes to the early stages of the book–doing whatever I needed to in order to get words done.
I had never written scenes out of order before this book. When I had a new idea for what this book was really about, I knew I couldn’t just keep writing because I was having the characters reference things that hadn’t happened but should have.
So once I had those extra scenes written, I had to re-read the book for the third time to figure out where those scenes fit into the book–often having to rewrite a little bit before and after in order for them to fit seamlessly. It was weird, but it was so satisfying to watch my wordcount jump almost 10k in one day.
Now, because I’m dealing with a whole new animal of a book and I no longer have an outline to work with, I’m writing little by little to get it done. I went back to what worked for me as a new writer: just getting 1,000 words a day, Monday through Friday. It’s helping me gradually figure out what this book is about and where it’s going and what the characters’ motivations are.
That’s a big one: what do the characters want? I’m doing something different with this book than I’ve ever done before: I’m letting the teenagers act like teenagers. So often, YA books have us following the most ethical and morally centered people but really, when you were a teenager were you completely altruistic? Were you the most self-less, self-sacrificing person? Or did you some times fanaticize about what you would do if you had magical powers and maybe those fantasies weren’t for the greater good? Maybe they were petty and self-serving? Yeah, because that’s realistic.
I remember seeing Village of the Dammed with a friend and on our way home, in the backseat of my parents’ car, we talked about who we would use those powers on. Creepy, sure, but you have enemies in school and you think about winning your battles.
So I’m keeping that in mind as I write. And it’s kinda freeing and a little strange. Of course the characters are evolving but it’s nice to let them use their powers how Nancy used hers and not seeing them as the bad guy.
But, because I’m taking it slow, I’m giving myself the time and space I need to think about what’s coming next instead of seeing the whole story arc and that’s been kind of cool. I’ve kept up the practice of writing scenes on new documents and adding them to the book and it’s been a huge help getting my daily word goals.
When you have a document that’s over 80k words, watching your word count slowly creep up can be distracting, but if you have a fresh document open and tell yourself you just need 1,000 words, the word count tracker looks like you’re going much faster. Yesterday I was able to sit and get 1700+ words in one session and that was after a very bad night’s sleep. Which also means that I’m ahead of my weekly goal, so I can either keep going to get extra words, or I can give myself time away from writing to think about what’s coming next.
It’s been really nice taking the pressure off. Minimum word goals sometimes feel like you’re not doing enough but small goals are easier to achieve and eventually a bunch of small goals will add up to the main, major goal: a finished first draft.
So, you all knew me as the prolific writer who could normally do 3-5k words a day once I had a book idea fleshed out, but now I’m back to that 1k words a day, slowly but surely pace. I hope, if you’re like the rest of us comparing your accomplishments and abilities to others, and have felt like you’re not doing enough, knowing that we all have to change and adapt will give you some peace. It certainly has given me some.
Real Talk: as the mom of a six month old, I haven’t yet found any kind of rhythm when it comes to writing. I promise myself that the second she goes down for a nap, I’m going to jump right on my laptop and pound out a few hundred words. But realistically, there are so many things I feel like I have to do around the house or for basic self-care that writing often falls all the way to the bottom of the priority pile. What I do have time for–between marathon feeding sessions and contact naps–is reading. My Kindle has been getting a real work out lately. But as someone with a back-log of story ideas, it can be frustrating to exclusively read other peoples’ stories when I kind of wish I had time to work on my own.
Then, the idea struck me: what if I peppered some craft books into the mix? Then I would at least feel like I was preparing or honing my skills for when I finally had the time to write. The only question was, which craft books? I’ve already read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, On Writing by Stephen King, and Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. Fortunately, the answer was dropped into my lap when an author I follow on Instagram mentioned the method she uses to outline–Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.
Now, I usually approach these craft books with a hefty grain of salt. First of all, I’ve been writing for long enough to know that every author’s process is different and what works for someone else is not necessarily going to work for me. No point in trying to fit my square peg into someone else’s round hole. Second of all, a lot of the “beat sheet” methods strike me as underwhelming and a bit unspecific–I struggle with the idea that all stories “must” follow these precise structures to be successful. I want a craft book that will guide me, inspire me, and deepen my process, not boil it down to a generic three acts, seven plot points, and three pinch points.
So far, Truby’s book is that and more. I feel like I’ve been highlighting every other passage on my Kindle! But one line in particular shook me to my core, and I want to share it with you all in case it helps you as much as it helps me.
Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life. This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.
Anatomy of Story, by John Truby
Superficially, this isn’t the most novel advice in the world. It’s a variation of “Write the book you want to read.” But for me, that last line gave me chills. Because it shifts all of the focus from the external outcome to the internal outcome, which is something I’ve struggled with since the very first query letter I sent out into the world. From the moment I decided to “become an author,” I’ve grappled with what success could and would look like to me. Getting an agent? Getting a book deal? Hitting a best-seller list? Selling a million copies? I found that I could never define what success would look like, and whenever I did manage to hit a milestone, I found my own goal-posts had already moved.
In the past few years I’ve tried to shift that focus back to the internal, but it’s harder than it sounds. Even when I tell myself that I’m just writing something for me, or just writing the book I want to read, or just writing for fun, the fact of the matter is that writing books will never just be a hobby for me again. I’ve sunk years and tears and too much love into this career to never try to publish another novel. So how do I balance those external expectations with those internal motivations?
I think that’s why this advice from Truby resonated with me so much. He’s not telling you to simply write for fun, or for yourself. He’s not even telling you to write the book you want to read. He’s encouraging you to do so much more than that–he’s encouraging you to write the book that may change your life. He’s asking you to dig so deep, work so hard, and aim so high that the end result will literally transform you.
I find this idea daunting, but so inspiring. No one–not a craft book, not a friend, not a mentor, not even myself–has ever asked so much of me. So I’m going to try to follow his advice. The story I write may not sell a million copies. It may not hit any bestseller lists. It may not even get published.
But what does any of that even matter if I’ve changed my own life?
A necessary evil, or The Monster That Ate Your Dreams?
I got an email this morning from an author who regularly coordinates book promotions and invites all her friends to participate. Today’s email included a link to a Facebook page for authors who are interested in building a supportive LGBTQ Romance community on TikTok.
She had me until she got to that last word. I mean, I know TikTok is a thing, and I’ve heard it’s a great way for authors to connect with new readers. I even know a couple of authors who have made the leap and are TikToking away.
So far, I have not joined them.
See, if I draw a line connecting the authors I know who have jumped on the TikTok wagon, I find a couple of common traits. They’re either full-time authors, or they’re younger than me. Or both.
I shared a link to the FB page with my writing partner Irene, and after some discussion, we decided we were both undecided. (Lol!) She recently met The Gang* for happy hour (*a group of her author friends) and one was all excited about the new platform and shared a bunch of popular hashtags.
I feel like we’ve been invited to join an exclusive club with secret codes and everything.
The thing is, though, Irene and I both have fairly demanding day jobs and are trying to fit this writing thing in wherever we can. And honestly, my goals for 2021 included things like “publish 4 novels/novellas” and “study writing craft through books and classes” and “recruit agents & editors for this fall’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference”.
Nowhere on my goal list was there anything about conquering a social media platform that was invented like fifteen minutes ago.
Part of my reluctance stems from the fact that, while TikTok may well connect me with new readers, I wonder if they’ll be my readers. One of the basic lessons in book promotion has to do with knowing your audience and identifying your target reader. While I know readers don’t always conform to a predictable demographic, I’m also pretty sure that the readers I’m trying to reach skew a little bit older than what I imagine for the TikTok crowd.
Of course, I’m basing this on a guess, because my experience of TikTok is the occasional silly clip my kids share or that I stumble over on Twitter. And they do make me laugh. The people who excel at the format are really, really clever.
Hmm. Maybe deep down, I’m worried that nobody will want to see a grey-haired old lady trying to be funny when all she wants to do is finish the damned novella for the August giveaway and get back to work on Benedictus (Hours of the Night book 3).
As usual with one of my writing posts, I start with a title that suggests I know something about a topic and then proceed to rant for five hundred words, leaving you with a heartfelt suggestion. And today’s suggestion?
You’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.
I don’t say that just to be snarky. (Okay, maybe a little snarky, but mostly not.) Because another basic rule of book promotion is to be authentic. If you like Twitter (bless your heart), tweet away. (Lol! Joking. I’m on Twitter daily.) If FB is your thing, focus your content efforts there. There are about a bazillion ways to promote your books – promos and giveaways and the like – and while some are expensive (Bookbub) others only cost you the time it takes you to write the book and put it out there.
And if TikTok is your thing, leave a link to your page in the comments. Can’t promise I’ll join you there, but you never know…
And just to prove me n’ Irene can change with the times…do you Radish?
Earlier this month, Irene and I republished Vespers (m/m vampire romance with a 100-year old monk and his college grad demon-fighting assistant) on Radish, the serial reading app that’s optimized for your phone. Vespers is now called Vampire’s Sin, and we fancied up the cover (b/c we had to get rid of the text) and you can download the first six episodes for FREE to see if you like it. Click HERE to see more!