There’s a quote I often hear repeated when people find out I’m writer. It goes something like: “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I’ve heard it attributed to Confucius, Mark Antony, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. But the truth is, I don’t care who said it, and I absolutely despise hearing it.
It’s a nice idea. It really is. But the fact of the matter is that it’s just not true. Here are some quotes about writing I prefer:
“You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” –Red Smith
“Writing is hard work and bad for the health.” –E.B. White
“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” –Thomas Mann
The truth of the matter–at least for me–is that in choosing a job I love, I’ve made work my life, and life my work. Writing is a terrific, indescribable alchemy. It’s spinning vast, unseen worlds from pure imagination. It’s creating complex characters who I gut and then heal only to gut once more. It’s living a thousand lives, eked out in tiny words and wobbly sentences and overwrought paragraphs and long, laborious, glorious manuscripts. It’s wonderful but it is also exceptionally, extravagantly hard. It’s hard because it’s a part of me–it’s a little bit of my soul made manifest. My blood, sweat, and tears. And sometimes, that’s just becomes too much to handle.
I started writing because I loved reading. Growing up, my local library had no limits on the number of books you could check out, and believe me, I took advantage of that. Reading was solace and escape and security and adventure and wonder. In middle school, we kept monthly reading logs. I think the goal was a book a week. One month, I turned in my log and it was closer to a book per day. My language arts teacher was so taken aback by this that she actually contacted my parents to make sure I was getting enough sleep and keeping up with my schoolwork.
Writing was the obvious spin-off of this all-consuming hobby. I started journaling at the age of 8 and filled up many horse-themed notebooks with the minutiae of homework and meals and crushes and friend dramas. It wasn’t long before I tried my hand at fiction–terrible, derivative fantasies about unicorns and princesses and magical artifacts that went nowhere and didn’t make any sense. Over time, these got (a little bit) better. I distinctly remember being at a house party during my freshman year of college, and having such a vivid scene for a story pop into my head that I set down my drink, walked out without saying goodbye to my friends, and went to sit in my room to write.
Sadly, in the decade since I chose what I loved as my job, I have lost a lot of that love. Reading and writing used to be my two favorite things in the world. Now, it’s nearly impossible for me to read a book without my internal editor picking apart plot holes and critiquing sentence structure. I can’t actually remember the last time I simply lost myself in a story. Similarly, I struggle to write a single sentence without wondering whether what I’m working on is marketable or whether my characters will be likable or whether my world is high-concept. I wonder, sometimes–if I went back in time and asked that twelve year old bookworm or that nineteen year old scribbler whether they’d trade their favorite hobby for a chance at having a book on the shelves at the bookstore and library, what they would choose?
I’m not always sure I made the right choice.
Listen, I realize this is a first world problem and I’m probably being a teeeeensy bit dramatic. I’m incredibly lucky to have had the resources and the support to pursue writing full time. Although the path to publication was slow, I did get the agent and the book deal and the sequel. I have two published books to my name. But that modicum of success doesn’t take into account the many, many books I’ve trunked. The books I’ve written that didn’t make it past my agent or worse, died on submission. Millions of words that will never see the light of day. Months and years of my life that haven’t borne any fruit. I don’t have any forthcoming novels or book deals in the works. I recently parted ways with my agent.
I’m just tired.
We all need breaks sometimes. I’m going to take one now. I’m not sure yet how I’ll spend it. Maybe I’ll find my way back to reading and give my middle school self a run for her money. Maybe I’ll get a fantastic idea for a new story and become so wrapped up in it that I can’t wait to run home and work on it. Or maybe I’ll just play solitaire on my phone for a few months. I’m not sure. I’m not going to worry about it.
This is all to say, I’m going to be stepping back from the blog in the new year. Hopefully not forever. And hopefully, if and when I’m ready to come back, I’ll have regained that spark I lost, and be eager to talk about reading and writing with the same enthusiasm I once did. Until then–keep reading and writing! I can’t wait to see what you all create.
This post comes out of a couple different places. One, I’ve been pondering my goals for next year. Two, I made more money from book sales this year than I ever have before. (I also spent more this year, and after almost ten years of publishing, have yet to break even.) And three, I’ve expended a whole lot of time and energy over the last couple weeks making Christmas presents.
See, secretly I’m an embroidery nerd. I’ve done cross stitch, crewelwork, needlepoint, black work, and hardanger embroidery, and to a limited extent, I’ve designed my own projects. Needlework was my main hobby in my 40s, until I blew up a disc in my back and couldn’t sit for long periods of time. I couldn’t sit and stitch, but I could lay on my belly and write. I started with journaling to keep from going crazy, moved on to short stories, and voila! A writer was born!
I also crochet, but that’s more of an addiction than anything else. It keeps my hands busy and it’s less toxic than smoking cigarettes.
This morning as I was putting the finishing touches on some hardanger embroidery ornaments – here’s the link to hardanger’s Wikipedia page in case you’re unfamiliar with the style – I started thinking about how much time it had taken to make each one. The two smaller ones took about four hours each. The larger ones took….longer. The materials don’t cost a whole lot, but even so, for me to earn at least minimum wage, I’d have to sell the small ones for around $75.
The large ones would be…more. Which is why I’m giving them as gifts and not trying to sell them on Etsy.
You can find hardanger ornaments on Etsy, though, and for a lot less than I’d charge. (This one is pretty.And so it this one.) Which means either I’m slow (probably) or the market won’t support what the sellers’ time is really worth.
I mean, if you’re selling a hand-made ornament for $10, either you can finish one in 30 minutes or you’re earning what was minimum wage when I first entered the job market – $3.35/hour.
Which brings me back to publishing. I honestly don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but for the sake of discussion, I can use last month’s NaNoWriMo challenge. I wrote 50,000 words in November, or a little under 1700 words a day. It takes me about 2 hours to write 1700 words, longer if I’m distracted.
My best selling book this year, Soulmates, is about 75,000 words long. Rather than challenge you with a story problem, I’ll just say that, assuming I write 1700 words in 2 hours, it took me 90 hours to write 75,000 words. Cool. I made decent money, if I only count the writing time. That hourly rate gets lower when I add in the editing, with all the false starts and rewrites that went into the final draft.
And after I back out the cost of the editor, the cover artist, and promotion, I’m lucky if I’m making minimum wage….for 1976. ($3.35/hour!)
So why do it? Why spend all the time and thought and energy on a project with little hope of financial reward? We’re only allotted so many hours in this life, and given that I’ll turn 60 on my next birthday….well, you do the math. Is publishing where I want to spend my time?
I’ve talked about retiring from my hospital job in the next couple years, with an eye toward earning enough in book royalties so I won’t have to tap my retirement accounts right away. To do that, I’d need to do more than break even, an elusive goal so far. It means I’d need to keep up the 4-books-a-year pace, and I’d need to pay more attention to the ‘Zon categories so that my upcoming projects align with what’s selling well.
I’d also need to layer on the butter. (See 7 Figure Fiction by T. Taylor for how to use Universal Fantasies, what she calls butter, to sell books.)
But do I want to do all that? I’m still pondering. Over the last ten years, I’ve invested a lot of my time – my self, my spirit, my creative drive – in this publishing project, and I’d like to see it pay off. Or maybe it already has paid off, in the satisfaction I feel knowing I sent some really good stories out into the world.
If you need me, I’m the one with the crochet hook and the wild eyes…
Today’s post is going to be short(ish) because it’s NaNoWriMo and I have words to write. For those of you who haven’t seen the acronym before, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers of all levels all over the world set a goal for the month of November. Traditionally the goal is 50,000 words, which will give people who’ve always wanted to write a novel a good start on one.
It’s also fantastic for those of us who’ve written more than one book but just need a little (or a large) push to crank out the next one.
You can set any goal for the month, and there’s a bajillion ways to connect with other authors while you’re working to meet that goal. That’s the thing that makes NaNo fun! There are groups you can join through the NaNoWriMo website, or you can connect with people through the #NaNoWriMo hashtag on twitter and pretty much any other social media platform.
So how is all this like yoga?
For those of us who’ve committed to the 50k word goal, that works out to a little over 1600 words a day. Every day. All month long. I find that even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about what I will be writing or what I’ve just written and how those pieces fit together. I find that the process of living and breathing the story forces me to get out of my own way.
And that’s how I connected it to yoga.
I took my first yoga class in about 1990, and have practiced off and on ever since. Since the pandemic started, though, I’ve been practicing much more regularly, mostly by streaming classes from Sun Yoga in Honolulu. In a recent class, the teacher said something that really resonated with me. She said that part of yoga was learning to breathe in uncomfortable positions. For me, that idea highlighted how, at its essence, yoga is about developing a connection to the breath. (Even when you’re curled in a ball trying to get your forehead to your knee.)
Yoga is about the process, and NaNoWriMo is about the process. Yoga connects you to your breath, and writing regularly is a way of developing a connection to the words (or to your creativity, or fill in whatever concept works for you.) And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a couple thousand words to write.
Hang on…as long as I’m here, I figure I’ll share the links to a couple of promos I’m involved with….
Over 40 great holiday romances by some of the best in the business! And they’re all ON SALE!
Your friend wrote a book. Or maybe your sister or cousin. Someone you know and maybe love wrote a book and that’s amazing! You’re so excited for them and proud they accomplished this Big Thing. So many people talk about writing or say they’re a writer but never seem to have any concrete proof of it. But this person does! Amazing!
And they want you to read it.
Or maybe you got a little too excited and offered to read it for them. You love them and want to support them, so why wouldn’t you offer or agree? Here’s the thing. Maybe you shouldn’t offer. Just because you’re related or friends and you may have things in common, enjoy a lot of the same stuff, you might not enjoy their writing. Hopefully it’s just a matter of taste and not a comment on their talent, but there’s nothing so awkward as getting your hands on a loved-one’s book only to realize you’ve made a mistake.
It’s one thing to wait until said book is published and you’ve bought it–buying a book is definitely supporting it and you never have to get around to reading it to show that support. Sales are very important. But so are reviews, so you could just quickly spit out a general, “It was an amazing book! I read it in one sitting. You should buy it too!” review and look like the best friend ever.
But no, you offered to read it in a raw, rough draft form. Now you have to tell your loved one what you thought. But what if you couldn’t get through it? What if it wasn’t your cuppa? I’m not going to address if the work is “bad” because that’s a whole different issue. This is about struggling with a book you’re not enjoying.
The book I’ve been working on over the past year is a fairly dark book. I meant for it to be. I decided to have an MC with a skewed center of morality, who made choices based on what she wanted, not what she was expected to do. She is angry, betrayed, and ready for vengeance. It’s heavy in a lot of places. But it’s still fantasy with magic and mystery. So, if you’re a fantasy fan and enjoy witches and magic, you might think it’s right up your alley.
My mom thought so.
My mom is a big fan of mine and not just in the way moms are supposed to be, she has actually read every book I’ve published. But I don’t usually give her rough drafts. Like most moms she just wants to tell me that she liked it and maybe proof read a little bit. But when you’re a writer and you let your beta readers read your rough drafts, you’re not looking for that kind of feedback. You need details, what worked, what didn’t, why on both counts. What they thought about characters–did they hate a protagonist or love interest? Was the plot too confusing or too easy? Things like this. Yeah, we want to hear “I liked it!” but then we need the meat.
My mom is a fast reader. She’s one of those readers authors love and hate. We spend six months to two years on a book only to have her read it in a day or two. It’s awesome that reader can love and enjoy something so much they can’t help but consume it, but also… slow down? I can’t write that fast?
Well. A month had passed and she hadn’t said one word. I don’t like to nudge people. I tell friends and family not to tell me if they’ve bought one of my books because I don’t want to wonder if they’ve read it and hated it and that’s why I haven’t heard from them. I’d rather think they’re like me and yes, they bought the book, but like so many other titles, I was excited to buy it but it’s been added to my very tall TBR pile. A very prestigious place to be.
But I finally asked her if she’d read it. Turns out, she’d gotten to about the half-way mark and stopped.
“It’s too dark for me.” She hadn’t said anything because she thought that comment would hurt my feelings. When, really, since I tried to write a dark book (which I felt like I could push it farther), that was a compliment. It was a good note. It means I did accomplish what I was going for.
“The writing is good, but I don’t think I’m in the right headspace for it.”
Now, obviously it’s a bummer she couldn’t finish it, but that’s okay. I have a book by an author I like and I’ve been reading it for over a year. A few pages here and there. It’s a heavy book and it was too close to the current world-affairs so I had to put it down for a while. It doesn’t mean the book is bad.
So your friend wrote a book and it didn’t work for you but you gotta tell them something. You have to not be afraid to tell them the truth. So long as what you have to say is constructive, it shouldn’t crush them. And if your friend can’t take a note like their dark book is too dark for them to finish, then they’re not ready for real-world publishing criticism.
Do not offer to read for a loved one if you’re worried their ego is too fragile for real feedback, but also be ready with something substantial that they can take away.
I didn’t think my book was too dark, one of my readers didn’t either, one thought it was fairly dark and I was in a dark place when I wrote it (I wasn’t), one enjoyed it but said they hoped teenagers weren’t that dark, and one couldn’t finish it because it was too dark. All different readers, all different takeaways on the same theme.
So your friend wrote a book and they want you to beta read it. Ask them what it’s about, get some real details from them and decide if it’s the kind of book you would have bought on your own even if you didn’t know them. I offer professional manuscript critique services, but on my website I say that I won’t take on genres I don’t enjoy as a reader because I don’t think I could judge them appropriately. You can say the same thing to your friend. “I think it’s awesome you wrote a novel, and Space Opera?! That sounds great! But I’m not generally a fan of sci-fi so I don’t think I’d be a good fit to read it for you.”
Or, if you didn’t know you wouldn’t be into it, like my mom, until you got into it, just be kind and honest. Believe it or not, even explaining why you couldn’t get through something can be very helpful.
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!
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!