Adapting as a Writer

When I first started writing books I never outlined. I tried to outline my first book and found that, once it was outlined, I couldn’t get into the rhythm of writing the actual narration of the story.

It was incredibly frustrating and I felt like I couldn’t write. My lifelong dream of being a writer, going to college to learn how to be a writer, all my lofty goals would never be achieved because I couldn’t understand how to write.

Then I read a blog post by an author I loved at the time, she was a very prolific writer so I figured she knew what she was doing, and she said she wasn’t an outliner. She explained that she was a “pantser,” or “pantster” if you prefer, which meant she had an idea for the book and then just wrote freely, or “by the seat of her pants.” As she explained it, once she outlined a book it was as if her brain decided she’d already written the story and lost all sense of urgency to get the story down on paper. That was a lightbulb moment for me.

Maybe I wasn’t an outliner either. So I tried it her way. I was able to write my first three and half books that way. I wrote so much so fast, it was incredible. It really was like I was flying/writing by the seat of my pants. I’d found a key that fit my writer lock and I was so happy and relieved.

Then my hard drive became corrupted and ate tens of thousands of words from my fourth book. I was devastated to say the least. A magical IT guy recovered some of the lost work but I did have to rewrite a lot of what was lost and I had to try to remember what I’d written (I have multiple redundancies of back ups now–a hard lesson learned) and I started making notes, which turned into a very loose outline. And, thanks to those bullet point notes, I finished that book in record time.

So, when I started book five, I tried to outline again. And I found I was a new kind of writer. I started outlining books, long-form, by hand. But the incredible thing was, I didn’t lose my need to tell the story again. Instead I found it easier to leave off for a couple of days and come back and pick up where I left off. I didn’t need to remember all my cool ideas because they were all written down, waiting for me. And I learned I didn’t have to hold exactly to the outline, I could spin out and come back to it. Like an anchor in a storm.

Then, if you’ve been reading our blogs for a while, you know I burned out and took a break from writing. Then the pandemic happened and my life blew up, and I only started writing again very recently. And this book has been entirely different than all my other books.

I’ve worked with an outline with it and then, when I ran out of outline, I’ve pantsed some of it, and then inspiration struck and I got all these incredible plot twist ideas that made me realize I needed to change the whole book. That last bit meant that I needed to add whole scenes and characters to the book. Personally I’m the kind of writer who starts at the start and moves forward, in one document, until I reach the end, then I’ll go back and add/edit later. I never work backwards. But not with this book. Because I’ve had such a paradigm shift with the story of this book. I knew I needed to work through those missing scenes. I tried to just go forward, telling myself I’d fix the first half of the book later, but as soon as I wrote a line referencing the change in the story I knew I needed the ground work.

So I started opening new docs. As you can see I’ve written a few scenes like this.

It’s kind of strange. I feel a little like I’m making a quilt or puzzle pieces that I’m going to fit together later. I’m not even sure where these scenes will go, but I knew I needed them written so, as I write the second half of the book, I have memories of these scenes to build upon. I don’t even know what to call this style of writing.

I will say, I am not a huge fan of it. I like to watch my word counts jump when I’m done for the day and this makes it feel like I’m not doing as much work. But I am. I know I am. One pro is that I can see I’ve hit my daily count much easier than doing the math . Another pro is that it does fee like I’m hitting small milestones so I can feel al sense of accomplishment that way. And I know, once I’m satisfied I’ve written all the missing scenes to pull the book together, when I got to copy and paste those scenes into the main document I’ll feel a huge amount of gratification when I watch my wordcount jump over 5 figures.

It’s just different.

And this far into the game it’s kinda weird to realize you can change your writing style again. So, if you’re new to writing, or old hat but finding you’re struggling to figure out how to do this thing called writing, maybe you just haven’t found your style yet. Sometimes a book is first person, sometimes it’s better in third. Sometimes you need an in-depth, thorough outline, sometimes you just need to write a scene that’s burst into your mind without knowing where it’s going.

Just like a story can evolve as the characters move through the plot, you as a writer can evolve as you get further into your career. You just have to figure out what is going to work for you at this point in your career and learn to adapt if one way of doing things isn’t working for you. All that matters is figuring out what gets the story written. Outline or pantsing. Morning sessions or nighttime. Small goals every day, or big wordcounts once or twice a week. There is no one way to write a book and you can learn from other writers so you don’t lose hope.

What to Do After Finishing a Book

You worked so hard to finish your draft. Maybe you stayed up late, or you woke up early (you weird early bird you). Maybe you struggled to stick to your outline, or had to rewrite a hard scene eight times, or realized you introduced a character in the first half who just…disappeared (we’ve all been there). But you finally did it. You finished your book.

And…now what?

Sometimes, after spending months and months creating a book’s world, its characters, and its plot, I feel almost at sea. I never know quite what to do with myself. Do I keep tinkering at the chapters I know aren’t perfect? Do I let my friends read it? Do I print it out, put it in a shoebox, and bury it out back in the dead of night, never to be unearthed?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be wondering what to do after finishing a book too. Well, I’m here to help. Here are my pro tips for what to do after you finish a book, plus a few suggestions of what not to do.

DO let yourself be done. I realize how tempting it is to keep fussing with your draft even after you’ve written The End. There’s so much work still to be done! So many imperfections to correct! But it’s actually really important to hang a bell on the amazing thing you’ve just accomplished. Whether it’s your first or your fortieth, finishing a book is a big deal. And even if you know you’re going to return to it at some point, for this moment, it’s time to step away. Which leads me to my second point…

DO let your book rest. Not only do you need a break after writing your book, your book needs one too. Chances are, after spending so long focused on your draft, you’ve lost all perspective on it. When I finish a book, you can often hear me say, “This is either the best thing I’ve ever written or the worst.” But usually, after taking two weeks or a month away from it, I realize it’s neither. It’s usually half-way decent, but needs work. And that time away is necessary for me to see my work with fresh eyes.

DON’T send it to agents/editors/publishers right away. Don’t send a first draft to anyone in the publishing industry. Ever. I know it’s tempting to immediately share the thing you worked so hard on, but sending it out before it’s ready could damage its chances of being published, or even burn a bridge in the publishing industry. There’s still work to be done.

DO focus on yourself. Writing a book can be mentally and physically taxing. When I finally surface after finishing a draft, I’m usually a bit dazed, a bit burnt out, and often my wrists or my back are aching. Self-care is a necessity. Instead of jumping right into revisions, or starting a new project, try to take a little time to refill the well by reading, watching TV/movies, listening to music, or doing an art project that has nothing to do with writing. And remember that the healthier your body is, the healthier your mind is. Try going for a long walk, doing some yoga, or visiting your chiropractor.

DON’T come back to it until you’re ready. Avoid setting yourself a hard deadline for when you’re going to start edits (unless you’re actually on deadline, of course), like two weeks, or a month. Listen to your muse, who’ll let you know when your well is refilled and you’re ready to work again. I know I’m ready to come back to a draft when I start dreaming about it again. When the characters voices start chiming in my ears, and my fingers itch to pick up a pen. Sometimes that’s a few days. Sometimes it’s months. Some stories I never return to.

DO reread it. Once you feel ready to get back to it, the first step is reading what you’ve written. Now that you’ve gained some distance and perspective, a read-through will help you identify what’s good, what’s meh, and what definitely needs to be changed. Rather than diving in willy nilly, reading your work from start to finish should help you plan out your revision.

DO make big picture changes first. It may be tempting to obsess over grammar and word choice. And those are important! But chances are there are big, structural changes that need your attention first. And it sucks to spend hours perfecting a scene’s word choice only to realize you need to delete it or vastly rewrite it. Identify which scenes need to be moved, changed, or deleted entirely before nit-picking. Same goes for character arcs, world-building, and plot.

DO get some help. Finding people who can read your work and give you useful, honest feedback is invaluable. It’s not too hard to find beta-readers and/or critique partners, once you know where to look. Anyone whose opinion you trust is a good start, but I’d avoid parents, siblings, or good friends, since they probably love you too much to be particularly honest. Do you have a local writer’s group? Author acquaintances on the internet? Look for like-minded folks who are eager to read your work!

That’s it! Congratulations on finishing your book, and remember to pat yourself on the back–what a huge accomplishment!

Art Can and Should Be an Escape

As artists we like to think our work is important. It doesn’t matter what your media is, you want your art to reach people, bring them some joy, provide some entertainment, no matter what that might mean for the consumer. I like to think of art as an escape and I do try to provide that when I’m writing. Probably why I like to write Fantasy novels.

As I’ve mentioned, my family went through some tough times in the last few months, beyond the pandemic. But even before that happened to us, we were dealing with the pandemic just like all of you. Trapped at home, feeling weird doing normal things like going to the grocery store or getting take-away, letting the days run into each other. And of course, a small bummer was that all of our shows were out of production for months, so we didn’t even have that as an escape.

Then the shows came back! Places were able to let production companies get back to work and we were all promised new content! Huzzah!

But, oof. What a disappointment so many shows were! What I couldn’t understand was how so many–SO MANY–shows decided to lean into pandemic and incorporate it into their stories. Like. WHY?

I know at the beginning of the pandemic it was still kind of novel; plenty of us were relatively untouched by it and sales of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic books spiked. People were watching those kinds of shows and movies. It was like hair of the dog, right? Let’s see how much worse it could be instead of just realizing you’ve been wearing the same pair of pajama pants for three days and have probably downloaded one too many food delivery apps for that free first delivery fee. I understood it. Hell, I even did a live-stream story time of World of Ash for my followers.

But after eight months of it, I was definitely past that point and ready for a real escape. I wanted some levity, some feel-good, some normalcy in my entertainment. But every show had the damn pandemic in it. Or fucked up politics (I mean, we definitely had plenty of that too, right?) Even sitcoms, which should be a completely safe space for some stupid, predictable humor, had the pandemic in them. I mean. Shows that never mention real current events or who the real-life president still had the pandemic in their storylines. WHY? (I will make an allowance for Prodigal Son–they mention it, but skipped it. Like, the characters went through “quarantine” but we didn’t have to go through it with them. That wasn’t so bad.)

Then my world blew up personally and, when I had some precious time here and there to sit for a minute and check out, I was desperate for real, light, easy escape. I didn’t want to be reminded how ugly the world was. I didn’t want to watch someone have their world taken away from them. I didn’t want to see what I could see out my window on my screen. That’s not an escape. That’s rubbing salt in the wound.

I don’t actually remember a time where I needed something like books or TV to distract me from actual disaster. The last few months of 2020 were the hardest months of my life, so it was the first time where I looked at my sources of entertainment for some help checking out, even if just for an hour here or there. When I say I want my books to provide readers a little escape, I’m thinking of escape from every-day life. Something different. Something fun and dangerous but safe.

I’ve never thought about how someone might be going through the darkest part of their life and my books helping them escape, even if just for an hour or two. Now. I have had readers reach out to me with notes about how my books did just that for them and it really touched me. I don’t think about that when I’m writing because, let’s face it, that’s a lot of fucking pressure to put on yourself. So I just write the story I’m gonna write and hope someone enjoys it. If it turns out it helps them through a dark or terrible time, I am so grateful.

And I needed that myself. I couldn’t really read. That seemed to ask too much of my brain. I was lucky and fellow Scribe, Lyra, had a WIP that she wanted beta’d and it turned out to be a light-hearted escape with drama I could mentally manage. It was a nice escape into a part of the country I’d never seen and there were no pandemics or politics. But TV? Movies? Nope. So, at the suggestion of my dear mom, I tried Psych.

So light-hearted. So funny. So vanilla but entertaining. A buddy comedy that’s not really about cops. It’s even set in the next county over from me. Yes, there’s plenty of murder in it, but it’s cozy murder mysteries, not blood and gore and terror. It was exactly what we needed–true escapism. Even the drama aspects weren’t too much to manage. We could watch an episode or two and feel our anxiety levels evening out. We could turn our brains off and unwind from terrible days so we could go to bed relaxed.

Realizing how little in the way we have of these kinds of shows anymore, Psych, The Librarians, Veronica Mars, Buffy, is disappointing. I don’t mean you can’t stream these older shows, I mean we don’t have anything like it now and these shows keep getting cancelled, even if they’re popular–good sitcoms are also axed left and right while trite and annoying ones are allowed to be renewed again and again. There is a glut of drama out there, for sure. But we also need shows that don’t ask too much of us. Light romance, extremely light drama, enough gentle comedy, all neatly tied up in a 44-48 minute bow.

There were times where I worried my Matilda Kavanagh Novels were too basic witch, too light, too quick. But I wrote them because they were fun for me. I enjoyed the episodic nature of the series–each book can be read on its own but there are over-arching stories tying them together as a series. I liked that the characters didn’t ask too much of me. Yes, there are some darker themes and Big Bads, but there’s a lot of fun and silliness in them too. I needed that and maybe, sometimes, you do too.

Art as escapism is as important, I think, as art as a statement. I hope, when we get on the other side of this, we get back to some fun escapism again. Not everything has to be high brow drama or slap-stick comedy. There’s some middle ground and I hope more TV and Movie writers and producers remember that.

I will say, since we’ve gotten to the other side of our ordeal, we have been able to give other, newer shows a chance. If you haven’t watched Bridgerton, I don’t know why. And I’m giving big kudos to Resident Alien because Allan Tyduk never disappoints and it is really, really funny.

And just one last comment. Can the new trope of the dead wife as the set up for the widower’s story please stop? Legit, there are at least 3 “sitcoms” with that plot on right now.

Anyway. What shows, movies, or books are your go-tos when you need an escape? Are there any out there that got you through a tough time?

How Old is Too Old for YA?

As I was casually lurking on Twitter the other day, I came across this Tweet which, to be honest, took me aback a bit.

Now, YA–otherwise known as Young Adult Fiction–is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart, as a writer but especially as a reader. I’ve been reading young adult books since about the time I was able to choose my own reading material, which was whenever my parents gave their avid reader middle child (me) free run of our local library. With a few exceptions, my parents really didn’t police my reading choices, which meant I was drawing from a pretty broad pool of books from a pretty young age. But my favorite section was always the YA shelves, stocked with books the grown-ups in my life had never heard of before, books that felt like they were just for me, books full of magic and adventure. Garth Nix, Lloyd Alexander, Sherwood Smith, Tamora Pierce–I devoured these old-school YA novels like they were going out of style.

In middle school, things changed. A little book called Harry Potter started getting popular, and suddenly, everyone knew about my genre. Don’t get me wrong–I did and do love the Harry Potter books, and loved that soon after they became popular, the bookstore and library bookshelves were packed with new and more varied YA options. Throughout high school, I continued to read everything I could get my hands on, but YA remained my staple. I remember one douche-canoe who sat near me on the bus used to make fun of my reading choices, sneering at the YA covers and flashing his copies of Dostoyevsky at me (eye-roll). But that didn’t stop me from reading.

By the time the next mega-YA-phenomenon rolled around (Twilight) I was in early college. I actually picked the book up off my little sister’s library stack just months before everyone else lost their mind’s over it. Not too longer after that, The Hunger Games trilogy hit the stratosphere, and I was hooked on those too. Around this time in my early twenties, I had technically “aged out” of the target YA demographic. But honestly, the YA genre as a whole was just getting interesting! New ideas, new books, new authors. And I’d started noodling around with the idea of writing my own YA novel. I wasn’t going to stop reading YA just because I was “too old” for it.

All of which is to say, it’s honestly never occurred to me that there could be a designated age when a person ought to “stop reading YA fiction,” as the original tweet suggests. But as I started to read all the replies to the original tweet, I really started to think about it.

Here’s the thing–I think people should read what they want, when they want. Comic books, pulp fiction, Dostoyevsky, YA fantasy, milk cartons. But that said, I do think as readers we have to cultivate an awareness of who the books we read are intended for, especially when those books are intended for children or young adults. Those frames of reference must inform how we interact with the media we consume. When I was nine, I knew that even though I enjoyed reading about the adventures of teenage heroes, some of their conflicts and interactions were more mature than the ones I dealt with in my own life. Similarly, although I read YA throughout my twenties and now into my thirties, I got to a point where I couldn’t personally relate anymore to all the things the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old characters were going through–been there, done that. That didn’t mean I couldn’t still enjoy those books or those narratives.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone has this awareness. Speaking from experience, many of the reviews for my own YA fantasy novel included a sentence that went something like this: “I would have liked the book better if the main character was more mature and made better decisions.” Ummm, she’s seventeen. Do you know many seventeen year olds capable of acting maturely in every circumstance and making all the right decisions in a high-stress environment? *face palm*

So no, I don’t think there’s an age when a person should no longer read young adult books. I do, however, think that once someone passes the age of both the characters in the books and the intended audience for which the book was written, they have to take a step back and ask themselves, “was this written for me?” Because chances are, once they’re out of the 13-18 age range of most YA books, they may start to relate less to some of the problems, choices, and actions of the main characters. And that’s fine! We don’t have to agree with every choice a character makes to still find their stories compelling and worthwhile. But we do have to stop assuming that YA books will cater to adult tastes when they’re intended for teens.

There’s so much to love about YA fiction. These coming-of-age stories remind us of a time when our experiences were most likely to change us; a time when everything felt newly-minted and shiny; when all our firsts were still ahead of us. I think, ultimately, they are stories of hope. And that’s something I hope none of us ever grow out of.

Do you think there’s an “expiration date” for reading YA fiction? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

The Perfect First Line

I consider myself something of a first line connoisseur. What do you mean, that’s not a thing?

Seriously, though, I have a pretty intense fascination with opening lines. I like reading them (I actually have a list in my Notes app with all my favorite opening lines), and I’m borderline obsessed with writing them. I love them in poems and novels and short stories. I’ve heard it said that perfect first lines contain the entirety of the work they represent, and while I’m not sure that’s entirely or always true, it certainly highlights how significant a first line can be. To boil it down: great first lines have the power to entice a reader enough that they wouldn’t dream of putting down your book/short story/poem.

So how on earth do you write a compelling first line? Here are a few methods to make your first line sing!

Use vivid imagery

Invite your reader into the world of your story with an image or feeling that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t have to be long or complex–in fact, with this method I tend to think shorter is better. Pick a specific image or sensation and make it as visceral, punchy, and vivid as possible.

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Make the reader ask questions they can only answer by continuing to read

Many great first lines introduce elements of world-building without explanation as a way to entice readers into the meat of the story. This can be incredibly effective as long as it’s not too confusing. Keep the language clear and simple to balance the unknown elements.

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

Introduce a theme that begs further explanation

Rather than opening in media res, or in the middle of the action, some great opening lines choose instead to posit a theme or a motif that will continue to be explored throughout the story. This can be risky, as the reader may not immediately identify or connect to the theme, but it can also be done very well.

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story…a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Introduce a character’s unique voice

If your story is very character driven, or told from a unique point of view, this may be the best way to draw your readers in to their particular voice, tone, or cadence.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Play with time

Perhaps you want to hint at an event that takes place further along in your story than you’re starting the narrative. Or perhaps you want to tease something that happened in the past that led up to the moment your story begins. Either way, referring to something that happened in a time other than where your story is happening can be a compelling way to draw your reader in.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Make your reader laugh

If your book is funny…why not make the first line funny as well? This is not my forte, so I don’t have any more salient tips than “be funny,” but who doesn’t love a hilarious opening line?

“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams

And that’s all I got! First lines aren’t always easy to write, but when you finally get it right it can be like a path opening up in the woods. Be patient with your craft, listen to how your story wants to be told, and good luck writing your own perfect first line!

How do you go about crafting first lines? Let me know your best tips or drop your favorite literary opening line in the comments section below!

Using current events in fiction.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Pandemic. Lockdown. Quarantine. Protest.
#BlackLivesMatter. #DefundThePolice. #WearAMask.

Think back to the Before Times – you know, like last February. Did any of these terms and hashtags resonate? #BlackLivesMatter is the only one I’d heard of, but now we have this whole new vocabulary.

And it’s….awkward.

I know many authors are struggling to get words on the page, and others who are no longer struggling, because they’ve given up. It’s just too hard to tap into their creativity when it feels like the world is falling in around them. I’ve also seen debates on social media about the appropriateness of writing quickie quarantine romances to try to capitalize on our new reality.

Kinda gives the “forced proximity” trope a whole different spin.

For discussion’s sake, let’s say you do have the spoons to write, but you’re wondering how much of our current quagmire should make it on the page. As a first step, it might be worth considering what people want to read. Maybe they do want that quickie quarantine romance. Or maybe they want Shauna’s fantastic dystopian Ash & Ruin series or any of the books on this Goodreads list of Current Events Fiction.

Or maybe they want something as far from reality as possible. (How ’bout hot&naughty elves? Kasia Bacon‘s Order series – starting with The Mutt – is a whole lot of fun.)

But, some of you might say, if I write about current events, my book might soon feel dated or people will forget what happened. Those are valid points, but I like this rebuttal by Brandi Reissenweber in an article from The Writer Magazine:

Keep them (current events) fresh and meaningful long after they’ve passed in the same way you keep any events in your fiction fresh and meaningful: Lash them with urgency to the experience of one or more characters.

For example, I found one of the best descriptions of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in Royal Street, the first book in Suzanne Johnson‘s Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series. Not only did the author nail the details – she lived in NOLA during Katrina – but her characters had a life or death stake in the events, which made for a real page-turner.

One thing to consider, though, is that Royal Street was published in 2012, about seven years after Katrina. I’ve never asked, but I’d imagine it took Suzanne some time to organize her reactions to the disaster in a way that made sense. In a WaPo article that speculates on what post-pandemic fiction will look like, Chris Bohjalian makes a useful comparison with post-9/11 fiction. He points out that it was 2005 before the serious novels dealing with 9/11 began to be published.

….it took novelists a little more time to shape the nightmare into a story. After all, how do you make something up when the truth is so unspeakable? So wrenching?

Good questions.

The pandemic, with the horrific costs associated with it, is at least as profound an event as 9/11, with arguably greater consequences. The concurrent shifting social paradigms around race and racism are equally significant, though I’d caution all writers who want to explore those issues to make sure the story is theirs to tell. It’s going to take years for creatives to wrap their arms around this phase in our history, and there may be some who’ll never be able to revisit this time, even in fiction.

Is there territory between a quickie something-something that grabs the headlines and runs, and a deep and thoughtful examination of our lived experience? I’d argue that there is. One of the series I’m co-writing with Irene Preston features a character who used to be a cop but quit the force. In part because of that character, I’ve made an effort to read about the whole #DefundThePolice movement and those ideas are definitely influencing his backstory.

Times are hard, and I’ve got it better than most. The stress, the isolation, and the endless conflict have to color what we’re able to create, if not squash our creativity all together. Take care. Be gentle with yourself. Use the grist of these days in any way that makes sense to you.

And wash your hands.

(In his WaPo article, Chris Bohjalian mentions several books on 9/11 that he considered “important”. Here’s another link to the article in case you’re curious.)

And Now For Something Completely Different

In the spirit of my fellow Scribes eschewing too much discussion of the Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I thought today I’d talk a little about my work in progress! You can maybe guess from the title of this blog post that what I’m working on is wayyyy out of my wheelhouse, which has been challenging, but also, fun!

At the beginning of the year I was working on some spec pages for a dark, gritty, and seriously fantastical project involving witches and old gods and necromancy. I sent those pages off to my agent just a few short weeks before things started getting kind of dark and gritty in the real world. And then I sat around twiddling my thumbs for longer than I care to admit, not sure what to work on. I had a few new projects I was outlining, but most of them were very much in line with what I usually like to write–angst-ridden atmospheric fantasies with scary high stakes. And for whatever reason, none of them felt like the right story in the time of corona.

So I decided to take a chance on a whim of an idea I hadn’t given much thought to. It actually started as a joke–one lazy Sunday afternoon a few months ago, I was complaining to my husband about bad reviews. We started making up the worst reviews we could think of, and I jokingly said that one of these days–as a form of authorly catharsis–I was going to write a main character who loved writing bad reviews. You know the kind of reviewer I mean–one who just loves to hate on things.

I genuinely meant it in jest–I had no story, no plot, no world prepared for my mean-spirited reviewer! But like so many book ideas, that kernel of a notion had already wormed its way into the little corner of my brain that raises plot bunnies for a living. And one by one, those lacking elements started falling into place. It would be set in the present-ish day, in our world (my reviewer would need technology to spread her scathing gospel). It would be YA, and set at a posh prep school (any other Gossip Girl addicts out there?). And finally, it would OF COURSE be a hate-to-love romance, because character growth (and I love a good trope). Basically, I wanted wish-fulfillment

But then I got cold feet. I’ve written six full length novels and countless partials, and none of them–not a single one–could be considered even loosely contemporary. Okay, so one of them took place in our present, but only for the first two chapters until the main character discovered magic and got swept away into a fantasy adventure. And another thing–no book I’d ever written lacked magic. None of them. Was I even capable of writing a book without spells or illusions or monsters or powers?

And then I decided I didn’t care. I could either keep staring at outlines of books I wasn’t in the mood to write, or I could jump head-first into a totally different project that was demanding to be written. And honestly, it’s been fun. It hasn’t been easy–I won’t go that far–but getting out of my comfort zone and writing something a little light, a little fluffy, a little snarky, and a little romantic has been just what I needed to get me out of my slump.

What are you working on in these challenging times? Let me know in the comment section!

Doing What You Love

There’s a saying I hear a lot as a writer that I’ve come to really hate. It goes: make a career of something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

*incorrect buzzer sound* Wrong answer! In fact, whenever confronted with this annoying adage I usually argue the opposite is true. Because I have pursued my passion as a career, it actually means more to me than the average day job. Which is not to denigrate day jobs, of which I’ve had many. But I’ve invested not only time and effort into becoming an author, but also a bit of my own soul made manifest in paper and ink and many, many words.

Writing is work. Hard work. But what I think that saying is driving at is this: when you make a career out of something you love, you should be able to find some measure of joy in it every day. And sometimes I wonder whether I’ve lost the joy that brought me to writing in the process of trying to monetize my passion.

I’ve written for as long as I can remember. My mom recently found a handwritten story I wrote when I was six or seven–illustrated and bound with yarn–about a clever farmer’s wife who tied chickens to pigs in order to trick her useless husband into doing chores. By the time I was nine, I was filling notebooks full of rambling tales about a warrior princess named Jade and her faithful unicorn steed. By twelve or so, I somehow acquired an old typewriter and spent long hours clickety-clacking away on its half stuck keys (I’m sure my parents were sooo proud). In high school, I wrote such excellent essays that my Lang/Lit teacher frequently asked me to read them aloud to the class (why yes I was the teacher’s pet, why do you ask?).

Writing was a hobby, a passion, a joy, a solace–something I did in my spare time because I wanted to. Because I loved it. Hardly anyone read anything I wrote, and it didn’t occur to me to want it any other way. Because I wasn’t doing it for anyone but myself.

And then I took a fateful elective Creative Writing class my junior year of college. And when we workshopped my first short story, all the other students loved it. They compared my writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite author at the time. Words like “provacative” and “professional” were thrown around. And when the professor returned his feedback he stapled a list of literary journals to the front with the suggestion that I submit to them when I was ready.

And so a monster was born. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to write for just me anymore. I kept writing–private diary entries and short stories no one read and the seeds of some of the books I would later write in earnest–but it wasn’t quite the same. A voice in the back of my head kept whispering: what if you could do this as a job? And suddenly, the reason for writing shifted, minutely at first and then irrevocably, until I wasn’t doing it for myself at all but all the faceless people who might one day read my words.

I’ve written about my journey to publication in other posts, so I won’t reiterate here. It was a long trek, and a lot of hard work, and I’m proud of everything I learned and everything I accomplished. I’m not complaining. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to pursue my passion, and reached some measure of success with it.

But success is a funny word to define. I remember when I first started seriously writing, I used to tell myself: if I can just finish a novel, I’ll be happy. That seemed enough. Later, when I was neck deep in the query trenches trying to get my first few novels published, the mantra became: if I can just sign with an agent, I’ll be happy. Eventually, that too came to pass. Then it was: if only I can sell a book, if only I can sell its sequel, if only if only if only if only…

When does it end? When will it all finally be enough to “make me happy?” If my books hit the NYT Bestseller’s list, will that be enough? If my books are translated into every human language, will that be enough? If my books are ejected into space as a symbol of the sum of human arts and culture for visiting extraterrestrials, will that be enough?

Enough is enough. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s time to get back to basics. I have to find a way to make writing about the writing again. It’s going to be hard–the fact of the matter is, I am a published author now. Other people do read my writing and will continue to do so (at least I hope they will). I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to forget that my words don’t belong just to me anymore. But I want to try to have them start out that way, at least.

Why did little Lyra write stories about clever farmer’s wives and spunky princesses and talking unicorns? I don’t know. But she didn’t do it because anyone was going to read it. She didn’t do it because the plot was marketable or the characters were trendy. She didn’t do it because she was on deadline and just had to write something. She did it because she loved it.

I want to learn to love what I do again. I don’t know yet what I’m going to write, but when I do write it…I think it might have to be just for me.

Writing outside my lane

Image from Unsplash.

So I did something sneaky. In this year’s New Years Resolution post, I only listed ONE action item:

I hereby resolve to use my planner.

When it comes to the planner, so far so good. The “sneaky” part comes from what I didn’t say, the one or two other ideas I didn’t share.

For instance, I vowed to take a writing class, something I’d have to commit to and that I’d learn from. I kept that resolution secret, a little something just between me and my laptop because I didn’t have a firm plan at New Years. In early January, however, I stumbled over something good.

I found Writing the Other: Deep Dive into Diverse Characters, which is a month-long class given by Nisi Shawl, Tempest Bradford, and Piper J. Drake.

The foundation for this course is the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl. (I’ve linked to Amazon but it’s available from B&N and the publisher as well.) The course teaches character development through a framework that strives to avoid stereotypes and offensive characterizations when working with characters of different gender, race, &/or orientation.

Here’s a bit from the course description:

Representation is fundamental to writing great fiction. Creating characters that reflect of the diversity of the world we all live in is important for all writers and creators of fictional narratives. But writers often find it difficult to represent people whose gender, sexual orientation, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity is very different from their own. This can lead to fear of getting it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and, in the face of that, some think it’s better to not even try.

But representation is too important to ignore. And it is possible to write characters who represent the “Other” sensitively and convincingly. This four week course will provide authors  with a solid foundation in how to craft characters from any background, no matter how different they are from you.

I’m sharing all of this both because I’ve learned a lot so far and because growing my skill at writing outside my own experience is a crucial part of my development. I’ve published nine novels/novellas with gay or queer protagonists, so I’m working outside my lane all the damned time. I need to make sure I’m not stepping on people’s toes – or damaging their sense of self – when I do.

We’re only halfway through the class, and so far I have a couple of take-homes. First, I think some – possibly younger – people are a lot more comfortable with labels than I am. In the course introduction, we were asked to share how we fit the dominant paradigm and where we differed from it.

All my intro said was “I am the dominant paradigm.”

I’m a cis-het white woman with no chronic health or emotional issues. I’m neurotypical and I’ve never I experimented with alternative lifestyles or genders. Compared with most of the other intros, mine was SHORT.

Having the language to identify yourself as queer or neurodivergent and the comfort level to share ongoing mental health challenges is a truly beautiful change in our culture. I grew up with a much more limited vocabulary:

You were straight or (whispers) gay, a boy or a girl, and if you felt bad you went to a therapist but you damned well didn’t talk about it.

My theory – based on observation alone – is that it’s a generational thing, but I could be wrong. Either way, I count it as progress.

The other take-home from the course has to do with the how of it. How does an author avoid creating hurtful characters?

Do your homework.
Ask yourself honestly if you’re the best person to write this story.
Diversity is important, but I’d be very careful of writing a PoC character where the story was about their experience as a PoC. You’re not here to save anyone.
Get to know people who belong to the group you’re drawing from.
Read and research, looking specifically for works created by group members, not by others writing “authoritatively” about them.

Hire a sensitivity reader.
Although it’s not one person’s job to speak for the many, a good sensitivity reader can help you avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

Respond to feedback with an apology and a promise to change.
Because you’ll make mistakes. I sure as hell have. In one of her comments, Tempest said their goal is harm reduction, and that’s about all I can hope for.

Taking this course has slowed down my word-count, but it’s time well spent. I choose to write outside my lane for a complex mix of reasons, but since I’ve made this choice, I want to do the very best job I can.

I don’t want people hurt by the stories that come from my heart.

Here’s another link to the Writing the Other website. In addition to the Deep Dive course, they have a number of different offerings that I encourage you to check out.

Obligatory #NaNoWriMo Post – 2019 Edition

Welp, here we are: the first week of Nano! Tomorrow is obviously the first full week, but we post on Thursdays so deal with it.

So. How’s it going, boo boo?

At this point, this morning, to be on par you should have hit that all-important 10k word milestone yesterday, looking at hitting 11,669 by the end of the day. But if you haven’t, don’t despair; there is still time. And, honestly, as long as you’re writing, it doesn’t matter if you hit par or if you “win” at the end of the month.

Nano doesn’t work for everyone, but I personally love it. I’ve been participating in Nano or Camp Nano since 2012 when I wrote my first Matilda Kavanagh novel that month, well, the first half of it anyway.

And that’s one of the reasons I love Nano, I love the jump start it gives me on a project. I’ve used it many a time for the push I needed to get into writing.

Take this year for example: I took most of the year off from writing, since about February, and was terrified I wouldn’t get back into the groove of writing again and be back at square one. But the pressure of Nano mounted for me in October and I managed to get thirteen chapters outlined before November first so I had something to start with when the big day came. And, so far, I am slightly over par.

“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” – Duke Ellington. I feel you man. This is so me.

I like to write more than I need if I can on a given day so when I come up on days like today yesterday, and I can’t quite write the 1633 words I need, I’m still okay on the overall word count.

How do I do it, you ask? Well, henny, sit back and Auntie Shauna will give you a few tips and tricks that work for me.

As I mentioned above, I love an outline. When I was a baby writer, I didn’t outline and that led to meandering, massive manuscripts (say that three times fast) that needed 4-5 rounds edits before they were decent. With an outline I have a map I’m following to help me focus and leads to much cleaner and tighter manuscripts at the end. Yes, I deviate, and that’s okay, but the next page in the outline helps me remember where to pull back on course. Like, this story for example? My MC was giving me serious Carrie in the Library vibes as I was writing, but not when I was outlining. So, it’s in the story now and I’ll adjust as I go along. You can add things that weren’t in the outline to begin with, it’s fun to discover things you hadn’t thought of. So don’t look at an outline as set in stone, look at it as Google Maps that keeps “recalculating” as you turn down this road and that to see different attractions or get a coffee.

I also need a soundtrack.

I like to curate a playlist for every book/story, but I also have a playlist that is just soundtrack scores if I need that kind of big, fast energy without lyrics. It helps me tune everything out and zone in on the writing. Some people need silence and that’s hard to come by, so maybe just put your headphones in but with nothing playing and the soft electronic buzz might help.

Now to get the word counts. I’ve written quite a few books, so the idea of getting 1633 words a day isn’t particularly daunting, but I do NOT sit down and think, “Okay, I’m going to type until I hit 1600 words before I stop.” Nope. That’s a recipe for failure for me. Now, I just might get that many in a sprint/session, but I’m not doing it intentionally. I like to break it into pieces. I’ll tell myself I’m gonna get 500 words and then take a break—which might net more like 600 words. Or I’ll see that I have 20 mins before I have to go do something, so I’ll just get what I get in that 20 and it just might be a full 1k words. You decide if word goals or timed sessions work better for you.

Day-to-day, outside of Nano I may not go for multiple writing sessions. If I have time in the morning and over the course of an hour or two, if I get 1500-3000 words, I’ll call that good for the day and not come back in the afternoon or evening. But during Nano? No. If I have time to get a second session in, I will. Even if it is less than 30 mins. That’s how I stay over par. That’s how you get 2-3k words a day when you don’t have a couple of hours in the morning to do it all.

That’s also you hit par. If you get in your head that you HAVE to get those 1633 words all at once, you may be creating a creative blockage in your system. The anxiety, the pressure, that just steals the fun of this.

You’re writing with literally millions of other people. You’re writing with me. You might be writing with your favorite author. Even if you’re not sprinting actively with friends, if you’re doing this on your own, we’re all doing this with you! It’s a fun, friendly competition where we all want to win, but we’re excited to see you winning too! Nano is like the writer community Great British Bake Off! We’re all clapping for you and saying “Well done!” So don’t work yourself up thinking it all has to happen in one sitting.

I mean, look at this:

See that graph? So I “only” wrote 1334 today yesterday. And I did that in 2 sessions, not one. But I was just so tired and felt kinda grumpy all day; I didn’t have those 300 extra words in me. But I was already over par because of how many words I got the day before. Ups and downs are normal and there is always time to catch up. Do not kill yourself doing this. It’s meant to be encouraging and fun so try to keep that in mind.

You’re doing great. I promise!

One other thing I make sure I do is not end right after a climax. If I wrote a particularly exciting scene, maybe a fight or something intense and there’s a natural end to that scene, and I’ve hit my goal for the day, I will still make sure I start the first couple hundred words or so of the next scene. There’s something about starting a new chapter at the very beginning that kind of feels like starting at the very beginning again and you have to sort of find your momentum again and it can be a little hard. It may eat some of your writing time figuring out how you meant to start the next scene. But if you flow right into it and get a couple of paragraphs, you’re setting yourself up to get right into it the next day. If you haven’t done this before, try it, see if it helps.

One last piece of advice from Auntie Shauna. BACK UP YOUR WORK! Seriously. Email your manuscript to yourself every damn day. Do it after every session if you want—even if that means you have 3 or 4 emails in one day—I don’t care. JUST EMAIL IT. BACK IT UP. DO IT! DO IT NOW!