Changing Gears

For a year and some change, I’ve been in steady-state revision mode.

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Oh, not on the same project, and in different stages of different edits and revisions on those different projects, but in revision mode all the same. There were copy edits for my forthcoming novel AMBER & DUSK…and then more copyedits to those copy edits. Near the beginning of this year, I did put about 50K new words on my Swan Lake WIP, but it was more like a rewrite of an already existing project that I’d worked on the year before. Early this summer I revisited a trunked book to see if it could be given new life. August, I returned to my Swan Lake WIP for yet another round of edits.

You catch my drift. Or should I say draft? (Sorry! I’m so sorry.)

But last week, the shiny book idea that’s been patiently simmering in the back of my head tapped me on the shoulder. “Girl,” it whispered seductively. “You’ve already outlined me, named all my characters, and done enough world building to make my head spin. Let’s do this thing!”

So I gathered up all my notebooks, grabbed my favorite pen, opened up a blank document, and…nothing. Which was especially weird considering I’d more or less already written the opening scene in my head. Or so I’d thought.

“Type!” I hissed at my fingers, poised over the keyboard.

“We don’t remember how!” they wailed in unison.

And that’s when I considered quitting writing for the one-millionth time this year.

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Listen–writing is hard. All of it. Every stage. It is a pure and exquisite expression of individual creativity, but it’s also messy. And hard. Did I mention hard? Revising and editing is hard, and rarely fun. It’s a lot of tweaking and moving around and deleting and adding and rephrasing. But here’s the thing–you’re working with something that already exists. It may be a jumbled, half-incoherent first draft full of cliches, dropped characters, and bad dialogue, but it’s words on a page. It’s something. And even with a first draft, there are probably glimmers of voice, murmurs of character development, a vague inkling of plot.

But facing the tyranny of the blank page–of staring down the barrel at 80 to 100 thousand words of unwritten story–is probably one of the hardest aspects of writing. Especially because if you don’t write the story living inside you…no one else ever will. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

So I’m shifting gears. I’m downshifting–back to first gear, where I’m building a world from scratch and filling it with complicated, obtuse characters who aren’t interested in cooperating with the plan I’ve made for them. To second gear, where motivations are finally clear and I’m consistently hitting my daily word counts. And–gods willing–third gear, where I’m up writing far past my bedtime, because I’m not longer a creator but a participant in the story hurtling toward its inevitable climax.

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And then, of course…it will be time for revisions.

How to Plot and Pants at the Same Time

pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outlinegiphy2

When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!

Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.

giphyHmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use,  I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.

I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.

giphy3And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.

But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.

First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.

giphy1My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.

Resources:

Kurt Vonnegut, and the Shapes of Stories

Jami Gold | Worksheets for Writers

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling

My New Venture: Teaching Online Courses

Every year in autumn as soon as the weather gets cool, I get the same urge: to teach. I think this stems from all the years of going to back to school. Well, that and for a long time now I’ve wanted to be a college professor. The bad news is I can’t afford to go back to school (again – I have 2 bachelors and a masters degree), so that PhD is going to have to wait.

But this past fall I embarked on a new venture aimed at satisfying my inner teacher (while hopefully earning some extra money): creating online classes. After researching many possible platforms, I chose to go with Teachable. Then I developed a series of 12 business and craft classes to launch my school, Professional Author Academy. But between my full-time job and releasing a book in November, I’ve just now launched the classes.

I love this option because it gives me a chance to take all the presentations I’ve done for speaking engagements (and a few new ones) and expand them out to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to come see me speak. And it gives me something to do with all this knowledge and experience in my head. (In addition to the degrees I mentioned earlier, I have 15 years of professional experience in marketing. Here’s my whole list of qualifications.)

I’m a firm believer that one should never stop learning, so I’ve created classes for different skill levels from aspiring author to multi-published, as well as indie and traditionally published. These courses can be taken anyone:

  • How to Write Back Cover Copy That Sells
  • Marketing Plans for Authors
  • Business Plans for Authors
  • Branding for Authors
  • Websites and Social Media for Authors
  • Self-Editing
  • Writing Historical Fiction
  • Setting and Description

These are geared only to indie authors:

  • Steps to Self Publishing
  • Self Publishing 101
  • Audio Books for Indie Authors
  • Legal Issues for Indie Authors

See a complete course catalogue, including course descriptions. Samples are available for each course (just click on the course you’re interested in from the main page for Professional Author Academy and you’ll see a video on the top left) so you can see what you’re getting before you commit. Plus, if you want to experience my online teaching style, the How to Write Back Cover Copy That Sells course is free, so there’s no risk to you.

Convenient and Reasonably Priced
I know what it’s like to try to fit learning into a life already filled with work, family, writing and other responsibilities. That’s why they are short; most are around 30 mins and none exceed 2 hours. Plus, they don’t require any homework and can be taken at your own pace. All courses include a welcome video and narrated Powerpoint slides. Many also include a recommended reading list and other handouts for reference or use as a worksheet or template.

In addition, they are cheaper than your average college course, which runs about $1,500/course (at $500/credit hour), or even many Writer’s Digest Online Workshops, which average between $200-$600+. I offer a tiered pricing structure based on the amount of information in each course. You can pay all at once or installments.

Mini – Free (so you can try before you buy)

  • Back Cover Copy That Sells

Basic – $100/course

  • Legal Issues for Indie Authors
  • Writing Setting and Description

Standard – $200/course

  • Audio Books for Indie Authors
  • Business Plans for Authors
  • Self-Editing

Advanced$300/course

  • Branding for Authors
  • Website and Social Media for Authors
  • Steps to Self Publishing

Premium – $500/course

  • Marketing Plans for Authors
  • Writing Historical Fiction

Premier – $1,000/course

  • Self Publishing 101 (This course is several courses in one, including Steps to Self Publishing, Business Plans, Marketing Plans, Legal Issues, Web and Social Media. If you bought the classes separately, you’d pay more than $1,400.)

To register, just head over to Professional Author Academy.

Stay Up to Date
I’m planning to add new courses several times a year, so if you’d like to be notified when there is a new course or a current course goes on sale, please sign up for my course newsletter.

But for now, since the classes are done, I’m going to take off my teacher hat and put my writer one back on. It will be nice to think about fiction for a while again! Mistress of Legend calls to me, as does Isolde’s currently untitled story.

Have you ever taken online classes? If so where? What was your experience like? Do you have questions about my courses? What other subjects would you like to see?

On the Importance of Ritual

The other day a reader asked me if I ever wrote in long hand, much like Neil Gaiman is known to do. I do not–never. I hate the idea of writing something by hand knowing I’ll just have to type it again later, creating twice the work for me. But, I conceded, I do hand write my outlines, always. I tried to type one once because I always end up adding asides and run out of space on my papers, and I thought it would be nice to be able to just add in a line when I needed to but there was no magic in a typed outline.

So, always type a story, always hand write the outline.

Funny, right?

But it got me thinking about the rituals of writing. Any art, really, but writing is my magic, so that’s what I’m focusing on now.

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Any professional artist will tell you that you can’t wait for the Muses to speak to you, otherwise you’ll (almost) never get any work done. You have to make your Muses speak on days you just don’t feel like it. On days where you only have an hour, or less, to get the words done. You have to force the magic to make the art.

And there are ways to do this. There are ingredients to every spell and if you manage to figure them out, you can create the magic potion to get the art done even under the worst situations. A few years ago, I was stuck at jury duty for the full 8 hours. I got so much writing done that day, it must’ve been a record, all because I have my ritual to make the magic.

First, I outline. Now, if you’re a pantser, this part doesn’t apply to you. But for me, I allow myself at least a week to complete an outline before I ever start a new manuscript. You’ll have to figure out how detailed or loose your outline needs to be, that in of itself is its own magic spell. If too loose you leave yourself sitting at the keys, trying to figure out how to get from point D to point M. Too detailed you might feel like you’ve already written the story and lose your excitement to actually write it.

Secondly, if this is the start of a brand new book, not part of a series, I allow myself a day to start to curate a soundtrack for the book/main character. I know, this seems like one of those “I’m an artiste! I need my special music to write!” kinda things, but it’s not. For many, both reading and writing a book plays out like a movie in our heads and what is a movie without a soundtrack? You need the creepy notes that warn you the monster is coming. You need the pounding base to choreograph a fight and get your heart moving. You need the sweet strings of a romantic moment. But, I think, most importantly, it gives you the feel of the book or main character. This, for me, is what helps me get into the right headspace for a book, no matter where I am or what mood I am in. And with each book in a series, I add more and more songs to the list until it’s hours and hours long.

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I also have a few universal playlists to help me with certain types of scenes. If I’m in the middle of fights or battles, I have strong lyric-less soundtracks from movies or video games to help me. If I’m trying to get into the head of a strong, angry female, I have a playlist of what I call “angry power” songs, only sung by strong female vocals.

You could be trapped in the middle seat of coach, on a full flight, but you put your headphones on and turn on the soundtrack of your book, and bam! Watch the words flow. I won NaNo last year in that exact situation because I had my music.

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This also helps if you’re working on more than one project at a time. For example, I’m working on a witch book in my Matilda Kavanagh series and I’m working on a piece of flash fiction that is a spin off from my post-apocalyptic Ash & Ruin series. Neither MC is the same and both worlds are totally different. So, they have their own soundtracks to help me switch my brain depending on which one I want to write in.

Third, I always have something to drink. Usually it’s coffee, but sometimes just water. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. It adds to the level of comfort as you stare into that bright screen and create indents on your wrists as you pound away.

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There are other things, like I try to write in the mornings, but if I miss that window, I don’t skip on writing unless it’s One Of Those Days. It’s always easy to make excuses to get out of writing, but unless you’re under a contractual deadline, you’re just letting yourself down by putting it off or treating it like a chore. I mean, some days, it does feel like a chore but when it’s done, damn that’s a good feeling.

Figuring out your rituals to help you get shit done is important. It’s not being a fussy artiste, it’s creating magic. Allow yourself the special combo of ingredients that will allow you to create art no matter what the situation. Make no excuses for doing what you need to get it done and give yourself no excuses to avoid it.
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Speaking of… I have some words that need writing before dinner.

When did you start writing?

A simple question. One that many of us have been asked before. A question I think about all the time because it’s a reminder of what I’ve always wanted to do. Write.

This past week I got to meet some amazing people at Authors After Dark. One reader was sixteen and an aspiring author. She was asking everyone about when they first started writing.

There is one key moment in my life that I remember wanting to be an author. It was in elementary school. Fourth or fifth grade. We had a local author come to school and tell us about her career. How she started. Why she wrote realistic fiction. I was hooked. I wanted to be her. There was a contest we could all enter. All we had to do was write a short story and submit it in the contest. So I took the leap. And I got to go to the mini-conference they had for everyone who entered. For one whole day I got to talk to authors, I got to learn how to write a book.

Now, I don’t remember all the details of the day. But I remember the amazing feeling of knowing I could write. Knowing I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. I wanted to go to a school and inspire kids the way she had inspired me. Of course back then I thought I would write realistic fiction.

Things change. Our perspectives change. I’m not the ten year old with a dream anymore. Now, I write. One day I will make this my career and I won’t have to worry about the day job. Until then, I’m so happy to have the chance to publish what I can. To edit for authors who I fan girl over.

My dreams are coming true each and every day. I hope the young lady I met at Authors After Dark will get the same opportunity. I hope she will follow her dream. I have a question for you…when did you start writing?

Beauty In The Beats

The other day, my friend Amanda made a blog post about working with a beat sheet for the first time. She titled it Beating the Cat, which should give you a hint as to how well she enjoyed the process. Her exploration of the beat sheet was motivated by changes an editor requested in a novel she’d submitted. Coincidentally, I recently received a very similar request, and in part because of her example, I broke out a beat sheet, too.

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For those of you who are uninitiated, a beat sheet is a plot template grounded in Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey and constructed around a three-act structure. It’s a key part of Blake Snyder’s approach in Save the Cat, one of the best books on writing I’ve ever come across and one I think every writer should read.

(The other book every writer should read is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon, but that’s another blog post.)

So where am I going with all this? Perhaps an erudite rehash of the material found in Mr. Snyder’s book?  (Except this blog post does it so well.) Perhaps a sensitive dissection of differing plot requirements based on genre? (I’d argue there are none. A good story is a good story, whether it’s contemporary or historical or fantasy. However you dress it up, your protagonist has to start somewhere, get beat on a little, and finish up in a better place. Otherwise it’s literary fiction. Right?)

Perhaps this post should be an analysis of my own experience using the beat sheet concept?

Sure. Let’s go with that.

It’s not difficult for me to understand the bullet points on a beat sheet. The names are a little goofy, but I know there needs to be an opening image, and early on someone needs to state the theme. The protagonist needs to be confronted by a challenge, and they need to spend time dithering before finally accepting it.

All that is just fine. The hard part for me is figuring out which moments in my plot fit the bullet points on the beat sheet. For example, differentiating the bullet points leading up to the final conflict can be tricky, though I find it helps to keep in mind whether the bullet point has to do with internal or external conflict. (All Is Lost refers to the external conflict, while the Dark Night of the Soul is internal, the emotional response to events. I think.)

I’m pretty good with language, with making sure the voice of a piece is fresh and fun. I’m getting better at making sure there’s goal, motivation, and conflict built into each scene. It’s hanging it all together in a coherent narrative that gives me trouble. I mean, my plots tell a story, but they don’t always have the emotional impact they could. And that’s where the beat sheet comes in.

Last week I received a contract offer for a novella I wrote (and here’s a huge shout-out to #TeamAwesome for helping me get those words on the page). The publisher loved the characters and the setting, but felt the project needed a stronger central conflict. Now, I wrote this story as a Christmas present to myself in the end of December 2012 – beginning of January 2013, and I love it hard. I’ve actually had a couple other publishers offer me contracts for it. So why did I turn those offers down and wait for one with surgery attached?

Perhaps because, on some level, I sensed there were weaknesses, and knew that the changes suggested by the previous publishers wouldn’t address them.

Either that or because I’m essentially a masochist.

Yesterday I sat down with the editor’s comments and a blank beat sheet and got to work. Figuring out what went where, and filling in the blanks between key scenes – either by recycling existing material or creating something new – was PAINFUL. But you know what? The end result is going to be a lot stronger.

Now I just have to finish the re-write, though at least I know where I’m going.

What about you? Ever used a beat sheet? Or are you more into herding cats?

Peace,
Liv

 

 

Nailing Character Voice

vintage_mic“All your characters talk the same,” said my critique partner. “If I plucked a quotation randomly from within the pages, I wouldn’t be able to tell who was speaking without looking at the dialogue cues.”

My jaw dropped. All my characters talk the same? I thought to myself. Impossible! They were well-rounded characters with developed backgrounds and unique personalities. I could practically hear their voices in my head as I wrote! So why did they sound the same to another reader? And more importantly, how on earth was I going to fix it?

When I’m pounding away on the keyboard trying to up the word-count on whatever project I’m currently working on, the last thing on my mind is how my characters talk. Heck, I’m usually happy if I can remember where the quotation marks go! But imbuing characters with unique voices is in fact crucial to making them jump off the pages as memorable individualsIt’s a messy, tricky art. And if, like me, you’re having trouble mastering that art, here are a few suggestions to speed you on your way.

1) Listen to the way real people talk…

not how people in movies or on TV or in the pages of a book talk. Go to a cafe. Ride the subway. Sit alone at a bar. And then listen. It’s okay–I’m giving you permission to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations, just this once. Really listen to the rhythms of sentences, and how different people string words together. Does the severe-looking woman in the business suit use the same language as the hip young dad with junior in tow? I doubt it. The same goes for characters.

2) Remember that character and voice are a feedback loop…

…continuously amplifying one another. Characters’ backgrounds and personalities give cues about how they should and would talk as real people, and the resulting “voice” in turn strengthens the character by reflecting those qualities. Let’s say a rags-to-riches prodigy constantly uses big technical words to explain simple concepts. That tells the reader Doogie Howser still feels like he has something to prove. Maybe an ex-military bodyguard speaks in short words and choppy sentences because she believes actions are more important than words. Voice may be informed by background and personality, but it is also a window back into the character.

3) Add in verbal tics and habitual phrases…

…without resorting to cliché. We humans are creatures of habit, and the way we speak often falls into familiar repetitive patterns. While I’m not suggesting you have your character say “like” every two seconds, sometimes one character’s verbal tics can set them apart from the others. Think of Breaking Bad: Jesse Pinkman’s indiscriminate usage of “yo” and “b***h” throughout the show served to make his voice distinctive from Walter’s or Skylar’s while also giving cues about his personality and background. Just be careful not to repeat it to the point where it becomes a catchphrase, like George R. R. Martin’s character Ygritte’s now-famous line “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

That is, unless you’re trying to start a meme.

Well, that’s it! Follow these steps and you should be well on your way to mastering the tricky art of character voice. And don’t feel bad if you can’t get the hang of it at first: I’ll still be over here wondering why my uneducated, sullen love interest shouldn’t talk like a poet! “You know nothing, yo!”