Reading Tarot Spreads to Help With Your Writing

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.

The Knight of Wands

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.

The Five of Wands

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.

The Lovers

(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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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!

Adapting As a Writer–Part 3–Fin

Last we spoke, I shared how the WIP I was writing was becoming an ever-evolving beast but I was getting it done, little by little. I’d gone from an outline, to pansting, to writing out of order, to piecing scenes into the book like a quilt. to minimal word goals of 1,000 words a day during the week.

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.

Flipping the Script

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!

Looking for a Quick Read? I’ve Got One for You!

Whether you are waiting to pick up your child, need something to help you drift off to sleep or just have a few minutes to kill, sometimes having a short read on your phone or tablet is handy.

And I have a new historical story for you. My debut novella, Consequences, was just published yesterday. It’s only 35 pages and takes less than an hour to read. I don’t normally write shorter than book length, but this was a story just begging to be told. Here’s the summary:

Famous for her hospitality, Venerable Catherine McAuley only ever turned away one woman who came to her for help, and that decision haunted her for the rest of her life.

This is that servant’s story.

Dublin – 1824. When a fellow maid is forced to temporarily vacate her position under scandalous circumstances, Margaret finds herself in an elevated position under the watchful eye of their master, the infamous Lord Montague. He believes in total obedience from those in his employ and when she dares to fight back, Margaret is left with no choice but to flee or face his wrath. Desperate, she seeks out a pious spinster named Catherine McAuley who is known for her charity to the poor. The decisions both women make upon meeting will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, as well as everyone in their orbit.

Based on a true story, this heart-pounding historical tale will leave you wondering just how much has really changed in the last two hundred years.

I first heard the story of Catherine and the unnamed servant girl about 15 years ago. It struck me as so out of character for Catherine, who is on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, that it stayed with me. (They say it haunted Catherine as well.) I’d find myself every so often trying to figure out why this generous woman would have said no to someone so clearly in need. (The servant’s exact circumstances, identity and Catherine’s motivations are all lost to history.) When an opportunity to write this story for an anthology (which never materialized) came up a few years ago, I couldn’t pass it up. But instead of telling Catherine’s side of the story, I decided to create one for the forgotten servant.

I purposefully released the story on International Domestic Workers Day (June 16) to help draw attention to the fact that most domestic workers have little to no legal rights in the United States even today. They are often paid in cash far below the legal minimum wage, get no paid time off or benefits, cannot unionize and are routinely subject to slave-like conditions, physical and sexual abuse, and even human trafficking. I was fortunate enough to get an op-ed in The Hill about this very subject, if you want to learn more and find out what you can do.

Ill treatment of domestic servants has a long, dark history. Read Consequences, then read the op-ed. It’s frightening how little has changed.

I hope that by sharing Margaret’s story (that’s what I named the girl), you will be entertained, but also a little more informed than you were before. That is what I believe the purpose of historical fiction is: it tells a great story, but it also teaches at the same time. And it is one of the reasons I love this genre.

What’s your favorite Beach Read?

The other night I took part in an author panel for the ConTinual: the Con that Never Ends Facebook page and the topic was beach reads. Since it seems like we’ll actually be able to go to the beach this summer – even those who don’t live near one because travel is opening back up – I thought it would be fun to share ideas about what makes a good beach read and maybe suggest one or two.

When I say “beach read”, what kind of book do you think of?

Tbh, my own definition is fairly broad: books that have words strung together in sentences. (That’d be all books, lol.) Maybe it comes from having attended the University of Hawaii, where it’s possible I lugged nursing textbooks onto the sand to “study”, but I’ll read just about anything on the beach.

Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels? Yup. Read that one on the beach. I’m weird.

Having done this panel, though, I know some of you have higher standards. The general theme of our discussion was that beach reads should be both low angst and escapist. Fluffy, if you will. Or if not fluffy, at least not so demanding that you can’t put it aside when it’s time to take a dip or to order another one of those little umbrella drinks.

Based on the (highly unscientific) panel, I can confidently say that the best Beach Reads fall into a handful of categories. Ymmv, but here’s what I learned, along with a suggestion or two for each one…

Romance!

My first suggestion in the Romance category is Totally Folked by Penny Reid. She’s a fantastic writer and a very cool person, and while I haven’t read all of her books, this one looks like fun. I’m always here for intelligent characters acting naughty and falling in love. (lol!) Totally Forked doesn’t come out until July 20th, which’ll be great timing for a late summer getaway!

For those of you who like historical romances, I can absolutely recommend The Labours of Lord Perry Cavendish by Joanna Chambers. It’s actually the 4th book in her Winterbourne series, but it’s the first featuring a pair of side characters from the earlier books, so it reads like a stand-alone. If you’re intrigued by the idea of a Regency cinnamon roll hero falling for a fussy artist, this is your book!

Urban fantasy!

Urban fantasy series make good beach reads because they definitely take you to an altered version of reality and they’re spooky but not too scary. Tbh I haven’t stumbled on a new UF series in a while, so I’m going to recommend a classic of the genre. The Hollows series by Kim Harrison features the witch Rachel Morgan and a whole host of other paranormal creatures. The worldbuilding for the series is complex and interesting, and I’m still angry about a certain death which tells you how real these characters are to me. Highly recommend!

And while we’re at it, my fellow Scribe Shauna Granger writes urban fantasy-adjacent stories. Check out her Elemental books or her Matilda Kavanaugh series, because girlfriend knows her way around the paranormal and her books are a whole lot of fun!

Mystery!

Are you into podcasts? One of my favorites is Shedunnit, by Caroline Crampton. She’s a huge fan of Golden Age mysteries, books that were written between WW1 and WW2. (Think Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and other authors of their era, and you’ll be right on.) The podcast slices and dices all angles of those Golden Age books, and I generally end up hitting Amazon or Powells Books after each episode. (lol!)

Somehow I managed to get to a fairly advanced age before reading my first Lord Peter Wimsey book, and I regret not having started before now! Whose Body is thoroughly entertaining, and an excellent introduction to both the character and to the Golden Age sub-genre. I also really liked Patricia Wentworth’s The Black Cabinet, because her language is so good and the characters are so vibrant. Spend your vacation getting busy with the classics!!

Horror!

Okay, so, is there a better time to read a Stephen King novel about a beach then when you’re actually on a beach? I don’t think so. (lol!) I’m too much of a wimp to read Stephen King any time, anywhere, but for those of you who are braver, Duma Key is an excellent choice…especially if you happen to be on a beach in Florida.

(And fwiw, my fear of SKing stems from having read The Shining while living in a big old house with lots of shadows and creaking floors and whatnot, during November when the sun sets before 5pm. This was in 1980. I promised myself I’d never do that again, and I’ve kept that promise!)

So there you have it! Books I’ve read, books I’m going to read, and books I’m terrified of reading. (lol!) I hope you have plans for a vacation this summer, and even if it’s not on the beach, that you’ll have some time for a relaxing read!

Leave me a comment with your favorite beach read. I’m always up for suggestion!!

And fyi, click HERE to check out the ConTinual Facebook page. There are all kinds of panels and discussions about books & reading, and while our beach reads panel isn’t up yet, there are lots of others worth watching.

Adapting As a Writer — Part 2

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.

Write Something That May Change Your Life

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?

Promo for Authors

A necessary evil, or The Monster That Ate Your Dreams?

I’ll let you decide which one is social media and which is the hapless author…

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.

Oof.

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!

The Trick is to Pay Attention

“The trick is to keep breathing.” – Garbage

Yes. Breathe first. But second, pay attention. (10 points to Ravenclaw for each one of you who knows that song reference – you have excellent taste in music.)

My brain is stuck in the 1990s lately because I’m working on two book proposals that have to do with female characters on TV in the late 90s and early 00s. I mention this because I found the opportunity on a Facebook group for ghostwriters that I’m a part of. If I hadn’t been paying attention to my feed, it would have passed me by. But because I did, I have the opportunity to pitch two books now and have three others in mind, which could do wonders for my career.

My point is that opportunities are everywhere if you pay attention. A friend of mine was on the Today show about a year ago and now she is in Forbes, just because she was able to pitch her story to the right person at the right time. Another of my friends was a finalist for the Penn Faulkner Award in Fiction this year because he dared to enter even though he isn’t well known and his publisher is small. A paper that I gave at a history conference is being turned into an article for a magazine, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t applied to the conference to speak even though I’m not an official historian.

Tips for finding opportunities:

  • Pay attention to the news (and sports, entertainment, whatever your writing fits best with) and keep an eye out for events and other things you can tie into or get involved with.
  • Set up Google alerts for the subjects/keywords of your books so you can monitor what is going on.
  • Join HARO (help a reporter out) and don’t be shy answering queries related to your expertise. I’ve gotten some great press coverage that way.
  • Join writing groups on social media and investigate opportunities that appeal to you.
  • Actively seek out groups that are similar to your subject and/or places your readers hang out. You never know what may catch your eye.
  • Be brave! Don’t ever think you aren’t good enough, well known enough, etc. There is no such thing. You can’t win if you don’t play!
  • Keep an open mind. Once you start looking, you’ll see opportunities everywhere.

In addition, inspiration is everywhere if you pay attention.

I follow a lot of people (writers and otherwise) whose careers I want to imitate. From looking at their websites, analyzing their newsletters and social media activity, I think about what I can model in my own life. There are a lot of things I don’t have the budget/time to do (yet) but sometimes there are scaled back versions I can do right now.

Ideas for finding inspiration:

  • Follow blogs, newsletters, other communications on people and subjects you care about.
  • Join groups on social media that discuss these topics and issues.
  • Become involved (online for now, but in person once COVID is over) in groups of people who are passionate about the same things you are.
  • Read and watch movies/TV widely. It could be one little word or scene that triggers something in your mind.
  • If you are a visual person like me, frequent Instagram and Pinterest for images that inspire you. Save them and look back every so often to see if anything strikes you.
  • Take time to refill your well. Walk in nature. Go to a museum or other place that inspires you. (I personally like New Age stores – they rebalance my energy. Oddly enough, Whole Foods does as well.)
  • Take time to dream. Imagine your perfect life. Sketch out what you can do to get there. Make a vision board. I am a firm believer that when you think about things, they happen.

It’s easy to sleepwalk through life – especially now during the pandemic when we’ve been worn down by so much strangeness – but that isn’t going to benefit you or anyone else. Even if you don’t have the energy to do anything right now (I’ve experienced burnout, so I know what that is like), keep a list of ideas/opportunities to address at a later date. Future you will thank present you.

Do You Re-Read Before Watching?

The big deal in the book world (at the moment) is the Netfilx adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s awesome series, Shadow and Bone.

I was lucky enough to discover this series early on and even got to meet Leigh at the Burbank Library just at the release of the second book in the series. And let me tell you, that author event was NOTHING compared to the release of the third book in the series when the events became actual spectacles like, at The Last Bookstore, where there were passed hors d’oeuvres by waiters dressed in Russian-inspired garb.

The library event was much more intimate, Leigh had more time to talk to those present and even do selfies with those of us brave enough to ask. Let me just say, as nice as Leigh seems online, she is better in person. She really is kind, approachable, and funny. If you get the chance to meet her, do it.

Blurry because my hand was shaking from fangirling when she complimented my jacket after I complimented her pants.

But, back to the series adaptation.

I think most readers are a mixture of excited and nervous when our favorite stories are picked up for screen adaptations. We love getting lost in these books, we love being transported somewhere different, we love imagining joining these characters on their adventures, so getting to see, hear, and experience them in a new medium is great! But what if they get it wrong? What if they edit too heavily? What if they pick an actor that doesn’t fit the character? What if what if what if!

I used to be the kind of reader who was very critical of adaptations when they strayed too far from the source material. After all, if the book was good enough to get optioned and make it to screen, why change it? And I had to really adjust my way of thinking in order to truly enjoy these new interpretations.

Because, that’s really what an adaptation is, an interpretation.

And, if you look at it that way, it makes it easier to let go of your need for something to be perfectly translated. Hunger Games did a great job of following closely to the source material. But as the Harry Potter films went on, they started to deviate and edit, much to the chagrin of longtime fans.

I remember staying up late into the night to finish reading Beautiful Creatures before seeing the movie the next day. The source material was so fresh in my mind that I knew every single detail they changed, both small and huge. It was incredibly frustrating trying to enjoy the movie because I kept focusing on how different it was from the book–and it was incredibly different. I think that was the last time I read something right before watching it.

I told myself, it’s not the book. And they can’t get every omnipresent detail in a movie like they can in the narration of a book. So they have to leave some stuff out and sometimes that means making changes. So it’s not an exact duplicate of a story, but instead, an interpretation.

So, if you’re wondering, no, I haven’t mainlined Shadow and Bone yet. I’ve watched the first episode and then decided to save the rest. My husband and I are getting our second vaccine shots Friday afternoon and have already planned a whole weekend of nothing just to be safe so I decided it was best to save the show as something to keep us on the couch while we deal with possible side-effects.

And no, I haven’t re-read the books. I thought about it, but there’s been enough distance in my mind from when I first read them, that the show will be something totally new for me. I will admit, I am already disappointed by one casting choice–not because I don’t like the actor or think they aren’t a good actor, but because they don’t look like what I had in my mind (no, not Alina) and so it’s already coloring my opinion, the last thing I want is to re-read these books I so enjoyed just to sit and nit-pick at the show. I want to just enjoy the show as a separate part of this universe.

I don’t know if I always wont re-read before something makes it to screen, but I know I have had a much more enjoyable time with shows and movies now that I don’t.

So, do you re-read before you watch an adaptation? Or do you wait and see what it brings to its literary universe?