Tag Archives: novel writing tips

Inundated with Writing Advice

5 Jul

There comes a point in every writer’s career that they seek out feedback and advice from others. Whether that be critique partners, beta readers, or studying craft books, writers are often doing their best to continuously hone their skills. And while that is commendable, there comes a point where a writer can feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they are learning. They may even get lost or make more mistakes than before—all while trying to improve. 

When and why does this happen? 

This can happen for several reasons, but I believe it happens the most when a writer is at the cusp of something new. For example, a new genre or age category they aren’t used to, or a more complicated story than those they’ve written in the past. Maybe they’ve picked up a craft book for the first time or stumbled across a blog that has lists upon lists of must-do rules that feel endless. (Or, worse, contradictory.) 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the advice out there. I mean, technically, this is one of those articles, too. Right? (I promise I’ll try not to be overwhelming.)  

I, personally, love to challenge myself, so I try new things constantly—new tropes, new genres, new archetypes. It can be fun, but very challenging, and challenges open you up to advice you may not have heard before. When you hear that advice, it may even contradict lessons you’ve learned in the past. Contradictory writing advice is where I see a lot of writers get stuck. You know the kind. One person wants more in this scene; someone else wants less. An industry expert claims deep POV is the way to go; others ask for lighter fiction. And that trope you love? It’s OUT. You better rethink your entire premise. 

Or not. 

While seeking advice is admirable, there comes a point where a writer must know when to focus on their work by themselves. Learning when to make decisions and how to own them will help you tremendously. I believe it comes down to making decisions with purpose. Boil your reasoning down, and you’ll know why you are writing the piece you are writing—and what you are trying to say with it. 

Still lost?

Sometimes it’s not easy to make decisions. I mostly get stuck when I come across discussions about what needs to be in books and what’s been overdone. For example, the brooding male romantic interest is a trope that many say we don’t need anymore. They’d rather have more cinnamon roll boys or other personality types. And that is totally valid! We absolutely need all different types of characters and tropes to keep publishing fresh and exciting. But I also don’t think we need to throw out everything that has been done either. Especially since there are plenty of diverse voices that haven’t had the chance to cover those topics themselves. 

Though you may see a lot of people say they don’t want that type of character, that is their opinion. You can still write it. And there will always be readers who love the brooding male love interest. That said, I would still encourage you to dive deep and ask yourself how you are making your situation unique. 

Knowing what makes your book and voice unique will help guide your ultimate decisions. Theme is big guiding post, too. If you understand those details about your work, you’ll be less likely to get swayed by outside influence that isn’t necessarily good for your specific piece. It’s better to stay true to what you set out to do than to try to force something into your work that you know won’t come across as authentic. But if you want to attempt new skills and try out fresh ideas, don’t hold yourself back. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable when trying new things. (That first draft is never going to look as shiny as your final product!) 

This is where critique partner feedback comes in handy. I love nothing more than bouncing ideas off of my writer friends. They certainly help challenge me (and point out parts of my work that I never would’ve focused on in the same light). That said, managing critique partner feedback is its own challenge. My favorite writing tip?

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman

How can a writer keep advice in mind while making better decisions?

Read all the advice throughout your entire manuscript at once and see if you can identify patterns. (Ex. One character keeps confusing the reader.) Those patterns are most likely your biggest issues that need fixing. Regarding small things, stay as objective as possible, but remind yourself that you are not going to please every reader in every scene or sentence. No matter how shiny your book is, you will get 1-star reviews. It won’t be for everyone. Remind yourself of who you wrote this book for and what you want your book to say. 

Other than that, I would pay attention to how you are as a reader. If you tend to love world building as a reader, you’re probably pretty good at that as a writer. You might even overdo it. Make sure to give extra attention to the areas that you skip over as a reader. You might be surprised to find you did the same thing with your writing. 

Regardless, when all is said and done, this book is yours and the advice you get is a gift—a gift that you must decide how to utilize. I may have given you a few checklist items to keep in mind while considering advice, but I certainly hope you don’t feel inundated. ❤ 

Stay true to your story, 

~SAT

P.S. Now that it’s July, make sure to pick up Bad Bloods: July Thunder & July Lightning. The duology takes place in July, and it can be super fun to read each day as it happens in real life. If you’re an X-Men fan, these are for you.

July Thunder (#3)

AmazonBarnes & NobleiBooksKoboSmashwordsGoodreads

July Lightning (#4)

Amazon, Barnes & NobleiBooksKoboSmashwordsGoodreads

What Happened When I Opened an Old Manuscript that I Hadn’t Read in Three Years

7 Jun

Three years ago, I shelved a manuscript that I loved dearly but had to set aside in order to work on another project gaining interest in the market. It wasn’t a hard decision. At the time, I had just finished its third rewrite and, though it had recently won a writing contest, my other piece had already been circulating with agents and was picked up. The book picked up was science fiction; the WIP that I set down was historical fantasy. Anyone who’s gone the traditional route knows that you typically want similar books ready when you go on submission in case the editor wants to see another piece or wants a two-book deal. It seemed rather obvious to set aside my historical to start working on another sci-fi piece, and besides, I had an outline that I was already dying to try out. 

Before I knew it, three years had passed, and my historical still sat in a folder on my computer. Sure, it occurred to me every once in a while. Sometimes I’d tell myself that I’d open it up when I had time—but the time never came. There was always another project demanding my attention. Then one of my critique partners asked about it. 

To my own surprise, I immediately began reminiscing about all the research that had gone into the historical piece. I spoke about it with them all night, lost in the rush of the story again. By the end of our conversation, I realized I missed the characters, the world, the language, everything. I wanted to pick up the book again. So, I decided to. 

The very next day, I rushed to the local FedEx to print it off. (A sucker for new office supplies, I grabbed some color-coordinating pens, too!) That night, I began to read. 

First, I was surprised how strong it was—and how much I’d forgotten.

I went into the experience with low expectations. It had been three years since I had opened this manuscript and, though I could recall the basic plot of the storyline, much of it felt new to me. There were pros and cons to this, but mostly pros. I was really, truly able to read the book with fresh eyes. I could almost compare the experience to reading someone else’s book entirely—and not going to lie, I think that will make my future editing easier. 

I can definitely see areas that I can clean up—and areas I can keep as is. 

I told myself going in I was just going to read and not start editing, but alas, my color-coordinated pens have already made an appearance, and I’ve spent a few hours scratching things out, moving sentences, cutting the redundancy, etc. But overall, I was impressed. Not to toot my own horn, of course. I had genuinely thought my writing was going to be a lot clunkier than it was. After all, it’s been three years, and I like to believe that I am growing as a writer every day. Therefore, I figured my writing would be much further behind than where I am currently. But it wasn’t. Or, at least, it wasn’t as behind as I thought it’d be. 

You see, this was my first attempt at historical fantasy. The first draft was really, really messy, so that memory sticks out in my memory—not the two other drafts I worked diligently on. Looking back, it makes sense that my memory would latch onto the harder, more emotional parts of this draft than the days where I was ironing the manuscript out. Basically, my memory was harder on me than necessary, and that might have been one of the reasons I hadn’t opened it over the years. I was holding myself back. Now, I’m glad I’m not. 

Overall, I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

Though I know that I am constantly working on improving my craft, it’s rare to get such a stark example of where I was three years ago compared to today. I’m not the type to let manuscripts sit untouched for years at a time. For me, this was a first-time experience, and I doubt I’ll ever let another book sit that long again. Though my writing was stronger than I expected it’d be, it was also very clear how much I have improved. Sentences were a tad clunkier, a bit more repetitive, and a little unclear at times. I could tell where I had leaned on crutch words or chickened out in a scene because I didn’t know how to phrase something. I identified those “safe” zones, and now I am breaking them. I am reshaping them. I am making this book something new and beautiful and lovely. 

Once I am done, it is certainly not going back in a drawer. This time, I am promising myself to throw it out in the world and give it the shot it deserved three years ago. 

Who knows?

Maybe you’ll pick up an old manuscript today and find just the story you’ve been looking for, 

~SAT

Writing Crying Scenes

17 May

Crying is a common experience. “A study in the 1980s found that women cry an average of 5.3 times per month and men cry an average of 1.3 times per month. A newer study found that the average duration for a crying session was eight minutes.” (Heathline) Does this mean your characters should cry that much in your story? Probably not. 

Like flashbacks and dream sequences, crying scenes should probably be used sparingly. Too much can make it feel over the top and lose the reader. However, if you never utilize it, you risk your characters coming across as emotionless robots.  

Here’s some quick tips on how (and when) to include crying scenes: 

Consider how your character feels. 

This may seem obvious, but nothing really is. Crying doesn’t necessarily mean sad. Some people cry when they’re happy or overwhelmed. People cry differently for different reasons. Make sure your character’s emotions are shown to the reader other than the crying detail. This is particularly important when considering your POV. If the scene is in first-person, your character is going to feel physical changes in their body before, during, and after they cry. Again, you don’t need to include every little detail. But consider which details will help set the tone. If the scene is in third person, or someone is watching someone else cry, your scene is going to require different details. You have a whole cast of characters to play with! Make sure you’re picking the right character at the right time. Even if your main character isn’t the one crying, it will still have an impact on the book as a whole. 

Now that you know your character’s emotions, get more specific.

Consider the emotions you have chosen carefully. Sadness, for instance, has a huge range. Someone could be feeling grief, despair, or lonely. Take a moment to ask yourself what your character is truly feeling. You don’t have to literally say this, of course, but it will help you figure out the most believable approach. Consult an emotional sensation wheel used by therapists or flip open the The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. No matter what, remember that some people full-on ugly cry. Some people sniffle. Some people feel aches and get a tight jaw. Play with these differences to make sure it flows with the character and the scene in a way that compliments your story. 

Double check your biases and consider tropes

This is a big final step that I think all authors need to take with every aspect of their work, but I am going to focus on crying. The main tip I have here? Men cry, too. So do heroes. We all know that trope of the stoic male hero who shoulders everyone’s emotions. It can work in certain genres (like military fiction), but at the same time, readers generally want to see more humanity from your characters, especially your protagonist or hero. Take a moment to ask yourself if you are treating all your characters equally. If you are, your characters are going to display emotions differently. Men will cry—and do cry—for lots of reasons. Make sure you’re not relying on stereotypes. Utilize real life by thinking about times in your life where you’ve seen loved ones cry. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and ask yourself why you cry. Make a list and consult it when developing your characters and scenes. 

In the end, it’s always good to get beta reader feedback. Run your crying scene by some fellow writers or readers of your genre, and ask them how they felt when reading it. This is important because you want to make sure your reader is feeling the intended emotions (which isn’t necessarily the emotions your character is going through, but that’s a different post for another day). A crying scene can be a delicate balance. You’d be amazed how big of a difference a few words can make. Taking the extra time to make sure emotional scenes hit right can make the difference between your reader feeling connected to a story and feeling so-so about it. 

My only personal pet peeve? The crier who doesn’t realize they’re crying. Not that it isn’t realistic. It totally is! But I feel like it’s been way overdone and there’s lot of other types I have yet to see. I also don’t think crying has to happen in the climax, as it often does when it’s centered on the protagonist. While I understand that the main character is supposed to be at their worst in the climax, emotional ranges can be found throughout your book. I’ve found that my favorite scenes in stories are the ones that surprise me in some way. Twist those tropes and you might just get there. 

How and why do your characters cry? 

Share a snippet below from a WIP and you’ll be entered to when a first page critique. Winner chosen Wednesday, May 19.  

~SAT

Don’t miss the giveaway this post! Check out that last line and be entered to win a first page critique. If you feel uncomfortable sharing below, you can always send it to me through my Contact page. If you don’t want to share an excerpt, then just tell me about a crying scene you’re working on or have worked on in the past.

Looking Back on my Pantser Novel

3 Apr

“Are you a pantser or a plotter?” is a common question writers hear. Why? There’s something inherently interesting about how someone turns a blank page into a 350-page novel. Sure, it’s easy to say that one word after another leads to a sentence, which eventually becomes a chapter, before those chapters build a book. But there’s so much that happens in between all that. 

Writing a novel is not a linear adventure. Even for a plotter—and take it from me who is a writer who normally has a very, very detailed outline from the start—unforeseen plot twists can throw the entire plan off. An edit letter can trigger a domino effect that tumbles your entire house of cards. Part of the fun is rebuilding your piece over and over, until you have finally found the story it was always meant to be. But this process can also drive you mad. 

Cue the time I decided to be a panster. 

I actually wrote a short blog about this a little while ago. You can catch up here: Finishing My First Pantser Novel

Basically, a few years ago, I was pretty fed up with writing and decided to tackle a “for-fun only” project to take out all my rage in. I had no plan, not even an idea of what I was doing or what my story was trying to say. But before I knew it, I had decided to pursue it seriously, and by the time I finished a first draft, the book was a mess. One that I confidently felt I could polish and fix, because—and I wish I was kidding—I took notes while pantsing. 

To be honest, I severely underestimated how much polishing it needed. I was used to fixing books that had a solid plan from the beginning, not books that were messy from so many angles even explaining it made my mind spin. With my outlined books, a list of notes absolutely helps me revise fairly quickly. With my pantser novel? It honestly became more of a mess. 

Overall, I think this is where my issue began. My issue is that I tackled editing and revising my pantster novel the same way I tackled editing a novel that I had plotted. Looking back, it’s no wonder I got stuck so many times. In fact, I actually put this book down twice—once for over six months—before I got to the point I’m at today. (Did I mention my wonderful beta readers? I had eight people total helping me revise it, including my agent. That’s a lot more than my usual 3-4.) 

To be honest, I’m still working on this book. I’m on the fifth major overhaul and in the last 100 pages. For the first time in a long time, I’m feeling good about it again. I’m excited for what it’s become and how it’s going to read from now on. 

If I could go back and redo my approach, I’d probably throw out the entire first draft and rewrite what I could recall. (I forget which author famously does this, but it is a method I have yet to try. Maybe one day!) If I had done this, I think I would’ve boiled down the substance I needed to keep (and delete) much more effectively. 

Will I pansted a novel again? 

Probably not one I will pursue seriously. Then again, that’s what I told myself last time…

Have you ever pantsed a novel or attempted outlining when you’re not used to it?

I’d love to hear about what you’ve learned along the way!

~SAT 

P.S. I am still moving! Basically, we bought a house in March, and we’ve been using the entire month to renovate. (So. Much. Paint.) I’m really excited though. We’re actually putting in the last of our flooring today, so I’ll be physically moving our belongings over soon. Hopefully by next month we’ll be all settled in. ❤  

How to be Flexible with Writing

6 Feb

“How do you have time to write?” is probably in the top three questions I get asked, and I always answer the same way: I don’t have time to write. I make time to write, and I remain flexible. What works one year may not work another year. But if we dive a little deeper, flexibility with your schedule is just one aspect. You should also learn how to be flexible with your writing. 

Flexibility with your writing means you can easily shift from one project to another, even when it wasn’t in the plans. 

Why is this important? 

Whether or not you are traditionally publishing or self-publishing, there’s going to be times where you’re in the middle of writing your urban fantasy and get notes back from your agent/editor/audiobook narrator that means you need to focus on your murder mystery right away. Why does this happen? Working on the next piece while subbing/publishing another one is common practice, and it’s inevitable these two pieces will collide on your calendar. 

Woman in yoga pose
A quick yoga break helps me, too!

Learning how to pivot from one WIP to another with ease will help you be more productive (and hopefully make the process less stressful and more fun). 

Just last year, I was writing an adult fantasy while getting beta reader notes back on my adult science fiction and waiting for the go-to signal from my agent to revise a totally different adult science fiction piece. I’m constantly hopping from one project to the other. It’s been difficult at times, but I’ve certainly learned some tricks that make it easier. 

Here’s some quick ways to help with flexibility:

– Pinterest mood board: quickly scrolling through my inspiration reminds me why I love it and what the tone is. 

– Playlist: Even if you don’t listen to music while writing, try to make a playlist that you associate with your WIP. Maybe you use it when you’re brainstorming. Maybe you only listen to it as you sit down at your computer. Even better if they have totally different sounds. Five minutes of sensory encouragement can make all the difference! 

– Speaking of sensory help: Candles! I am in love with candles. I always have a candle on my desk. It’s my splurge. I actually use two different ones right now depending on the book I’m writing (and they’re both almost out!) Weird way to see how much time I spend on a book, but it certainly helps set the mood. I have a campfire one for my book that takes place in autumn and a fresh one for the project that takes place in winter. It’s calming and energizing. 

 

– Make a plan before you pivot: This is probably the biggest tip that has helped me. Before I leap out of a project to tackle another one, I open a new document and summarize everything I’m thinking/feeling/planning for the next scene. In fact, it’s almost so detailed that I only need to fill in a couple lines of prose to write a whole new chapter. It helps me feel more comfortable when I come back (and confident right away)! 

Finally, setting boundaries and expectations is important!

Right now, I’m in a monsters in space revision (the fifth revision)! I finally hit a spot where I know things are going to get difficult, so I stopped. It was an excellent place to take a break, clear my head, and work on something else. I’m now jumping back into the first draft of my monster murder mystery academia book. Two totally different tones and settings. The genres aren’t even the same. But I know that I stopped right before my midpoint chapter, and I left myself a ton of notes so that jumping into that scene will be as easy as cutting butter. When I get back to my monsters in space revision, an outline of all the major changes I want to make is waiting for me. 

Granted, any day I could get notes back from someone and have to pivot again, but I am ready. I know where and how to make clean breaks, and I’m comfortable with returning whenever I can. 

I hope these tips help you, too!

~SAT

P.S. I’ve added a new page for book clubs & teachers! It includes fun questions to lead a book discussion about Minute Before Sunset, book 1 of the Timely Death trilogy. There’s also a fabulous lemon bar recipe, in honor of Mindy Welborn who constantly bakes these throughout the series. If you’d like me to stop by your book club or classroom virtually, be sure to use my contact page! I’m happy to if my schedule allows.

Writing Method: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

2 Jan

With the New Year upon us—HALLELUJAH—I know many of you are gearing up to tackle your 2021 goals. Whether that’s to finally finish that WIP you’ve been working on or to start writing a novel for the first time, I thought I’d share a new writing method I’ve been using to crank out more words than I have in a long time. 

It’s what I call the Two Steps Forward, One Step Back Writing Method.

You might be able to guess what I do just by the title, but a little background first. 

I’m constantly trying to find ways to better my writing. I read craft books. I study writing tips. I play with new tenses, POVS, age categories, and genres. I love to challenge myself. But sometimes I can get caught up in all the writing advice and lose sight of my own knowledge, specifically my gut instinct. 

One example is my writing output. 

Three years ago, I used to revise while I was writing, but then a writer friend of mine talked about how they finished first drafts so much faster if they just kept going. I took a hard look at my own productivity and realized I could benefit from the same method. I’d work on the same section for weeks—only to completely cut it by the third or fourth draft. What a waste of time, right??? 

Wrong. 

Despite finishing my first draft so much faster when I ignored revisions on the first go-around, I got stuck pretty quickly. In fact, I printed it out, readied myself to revise it into a second draft, and completely froze. Despite keeping an organized list of revision notes while I was writing, I was immediately lost. I forgot what certain notes meant. Some notes canceled out other notes. I couldn’t find notes I swore I took down. I didn’t know where to begin or even if any of it made sense anymore.

Cue the panic. 

Once I put my Imposter Syndrome aside, I realized that I wasn’t so organized, after all. (And admittedly, that book is still not where I want it to be.) That said, I’m really glad I tried the no-revising method. It helped me face the fact that I would get too caught up in perfectionism in a first draft and, regardless of how I felt about not revising while writing, that part of me had to change. I didn’t want to fall back into the pits of perfectionism. I knew I had to find a balance.   

End of story: Not revising at all while drafting wasn’t working for me, but neither was revising whenever I felt like it.   

I needed to find my rhythm again—a new one that worked for me that embraced all I had learned from my recent experiences. 

So, on my next WIP, I tried an experiment, and I found a happy medium that became the Two Steps Forward, One Step Back Writing Method.  

Basically, I let myself write 2-4 chapters at a time. Then I stop and reevaluate what I created. Did all go according to plan? If it didn’t, why not? What did I learn? What was unexpected? How does that change where we’re going? 

If I spot something in that window that I realize I want to adjust, I allow myself to go back, but only if it’s in that 2-4-chapter window. Anything outside that window I jot down for my first major overhaul. 

What I’m left with is a piece I’m feeling more proud of and less notes for future me. It was a little less confusing for my beta readers. (Yes, I share my first drafts with betas, but that’s another story for another day.) 

I truly enjoyed creating it, and I think I’ll stick to this method for a while. 

Who knows? Maybe you’ll love it, too! Maybe you won’t. 

Either way, don’t lose sight of what works for you and your book. It might change from project to project, or youmight change from project to project. What’s important is that you’re learning and enjoying the process.  

You can always find that happy medium. 

~SAT 

P.S. I’m teaching Starting a Writing Project for The Story Center at MCPL on Wednesday, January 13 at 6:30 PM (CT). The event is virtual, completely free, and open to anyone in the world. I’d love to see you there! 

A Writer’s Freakout Schedule

29 Aug

Between COVID and (insert any number of other awful things happening right now), freakouts are commonplace at the moment. Right? RIGHT???

I don’t know. Maybe you’re not going through it, but I know I’ve certainly had my moments of heightened stress, which is probably why I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the delicate balance of productivity and mindfulness. On one hand, I want to maintain my level of productivity, be successful, follow the dream. On the other, I just want to eat this tub of ice cream and be left alone. So, I guess the solution is to sit here with my ice cream while I write this article. (It’s Cherry Garcia, if you’re wondering.)

Writers are used to wearing a lot of hats. Between day jobs and family, squeezing in time to write is nothing new to the aspiring novelist. Neither is imposter syndrome or writers’ burnout, not to mention writers’ block. But the other day, I finally heard a new one. 

A writers’ freakout schedule.

But first, a little backstory: 

Once a month, I meet up with some fellow writers on ZOOM just to chat about what we’re going through and how we’re handling it. We talk about our projects, but there’s no pressure to exchange pages or anything. If you don’t have something like this in your life, I highly recommend it. I look forward to it every month. 

During one of these monthly calls, I was talking about how bonkers life is at the moment and how to manage all these tectonic plates that are now life, when Jessica Conoley (authorpreneurship coach) mentioned how knowing her “freakout” schedule has helped her manage.

The moment she mentioned it, a lightbulb went off in my head. I had never thought about the concept of a freakout schedule before, but I also recognized how true the sentiment was right away.

Understanding when and how you will react to news, such as a critique or a rejection, can help you stay focused and calm, especially in these strange and twisty times. 

That being said, I wasn’t always aware of my freakout schedule. In fact, I’m pretty sure my roommate had to point it out to me once. (Okay. So, maybe a couple dozen times.) Basically, I used to think I didn’t have a freakout schedule. I would hear criticism or get a rejection and brush it off pretty quickly. Publishing is just business, right? I can adjust and keep trying. And I would. Right away, I would dive into revisions or go about writing life as normal…but two weeks later, the doubt would creep in. Then, the inevitable imposter syndrome. Soon, I’d be asking friends if I was delusional in my capabilities to finish a likeable story. I would threaten to put everything down, eventually declaring, “This is it! I quit!” 

The next day, I’d sit down at my computer, determined to delete it all and never look back…but hey, it couldn’t hurt to read it one last time. Soon, I’d be revising. And reading. And writing like nothing ever happened. 

My freakouts definitely have varying degrees, depending on what caused the situation to spiral. 

A little writers block isn’t going to last as long for me as a brutally honest critique from a trusted colleague. However, for someone else, it might be the complete opposite. Which brings me to my next piece of advice:

Understanding what sets you off—and for how long—is just as important as understanding you’re in a cycle. The cycle will end. 

This is just your freakout schedule.

~SAT

P.S. You may have noticed a new badge on my website. In case you didn’t, I am officially going to co-mentor with Sandra Proudman for Pitch Wars this year. Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer to spend three months revising their manuscript. It ends in February with an Agent Showcase, where agents can read a pitch/first page and can request to read more. Learn more at PitchWars.orgOur wishlist will go up right here on September 12!

Tracking Character Motivations with a Free Spreadsheet

1 Feb

It’s no secret that I’m currently revising a manuscript. I’ve been talking about revising a lot lately and giving glimpses into what my revision process looks like. I’m currently on my third draft of a multi-POV sci-fi novel, and I am still smoothing out my character motivations. (What can I say? It can be tricky! Especially when you change something in chapter 3 and it causes a domino effect for the next thirty chapters.) In fact, character motivations can get trickier the more you revise. Why? Because you have to remember the exact decision each character made and why in this particular version. Obviously, you might see where lines start to blur. No one expects you to remember every little detail of every manuscript you’ve ever written, but readers do expect consistent, believable characters. And it’s your job as the writer to deliver.

One way I track the motivations of my characters is an Excel spreadsheet. 

If you follow me elsewhere, you might have seen me upload the photo of my Excel spreadsheet, which actually led me to today’s topic. I received a lot of messages asking for more information and tips on motivations, so I thought I would dive deep into this topic today. 

Motivations are important. So. Incredibly. Important. Without motivation, characters will come across as bland and unbelievable, which, quite frankly, makes them hard to follow or care about. There’s a lot to consider when choosing any particular character’s motivation. (Did I mention that ALL of your characters need a driving force? It isn’t just your protagonist, though your protagonist’s will probably matter the most since they are, well, you know, the protagonist.) Mostly, I find there’s a misconception that the bigger the motivation, the more important the story will feel to the reader. But it’s really the opposite. The more personal the motivation, the better. Why? Because the reader is more likely to empathize with personal stakes rather than worldly stakes. Which one do you care about more: A main character who must save the world or a main character who must save their little sister while the world is ending?

Typically, readers are drawn to characters who have personal stakes driving their motivation, even if the overall arc is huge (like saving the world). A great example is Katniss Everdeen. While she is the heroine at the center of a dystopian novel – and saving her country could’ve been the driving force – her true motivation was keeping her little sister safe. Without having a sister to save, Katniss wouldn’t have volunteered. (We know this as fact, because she had been in many lotteries before, and hadn’t volunteered before her sister was chosen.) Without a sister, Katniss wouldn’t be Katniss. Which is why what happens to her sister is so devastating. This sister-led motivation also creates a solid foundation for the reader to see why saving the “world” matters so much. (Why save a world if you don’t care about anyone in it?) Personal motivation will resonant more; therefore, allowing worldly stakes to have a solid platform. So let’s talk about those stakes. 

Your characters’ motivations should be challenged at all times. This is mostly referred to as “raising the stakes”. 

Ex. What does Katniss have to sacrifice in order to save her sister? What does saving her sister do to others around her? How does that affect Katniss’s future decisions? When does it change her decisions and motivation?

In addition to paying attention to your characters’ motivations (and upping those stakes), it’s important that your characters (especially your protagonist), change. At the end of the book, your characters should not be the same people we met on the first page. If they are the exact same person with the same feelings and motivations, then what actually happened in 300 pages? 

By creating a spreadsheet, you are forcing yourself to answer hard questions: “Did my character change in this scene? Did those changes push them forward or hold them back? Did it affect the story at all?” Spoiler alert: you should be answering YES to each of these questions, from chapter one allllll the way to the end.  

Typically, when I start writing a novel, I know where I’m going to begin and end. It rarely changes for me. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever started a book when I didn’t know the ending (or have a really close idea to what my ending would be). Why? Because the beginning tells me who the character started as, whereas the ending tells me where the character ends. The middle is going to be my character arc (herein referred to as the “rainbow”). If I don’t know where that rainbow is going, I will struggle to form all those colors that makes the story colorful, let alone form an ending that’s a believable treasure chest of gold. 

The spreadsheet helps me most out in the middle. I’ve found the middle is a place where a lot of writers struggle. In fact, the place I always get stuck at is about 65%. And when I get stuck, I love to work backward. This is where my motivational spreadsheet becomes super helpful. I can see where I want my characters end and compare it to where I got stuck. Then, I can ask myself, “What has to happen to these characters to get them here?” Once I start brainstorming, I can fill those motivations in. 

A spreadsheet is additionally helpful if you have multiple POVs or characters (ex. if you are struggling to track minor characters or the villain’s motivations), especially if Character A and B know something that Character C has yet to learn. In the end, I track the following: Chapter number/title, Chapter Summary, Character A, Character B, etc. (Typically listed in the order of importance.) I put the POV note in the chapter number. I also sum up what Character C is thinking/doing even if they don’t physically appear in a particular scene. That way, I am forcing each character to have their own presence, even in the “white noise” of their nonexistence in a scene. 

I highly encourage you to try this out if you are struggling with motivation, pushing stakes, and/or filling in that ugly middle. I gravitated toward this method because I’m an INTJ. I thrive with tasks dependent on logic. (Which is also why writing can be so hard sometimes.) Characters, as we all know, aren’t always logical, and yet they need to make logical sense to the reader. This single truth can feel like a huge contradiction to fledgling writers, when it isn’t. Not really. In reality, readers need to understand your character, even in your character’s most illogical moments. They need to believe that your characters illogical moments made sense to your character. Ex. Let’s say Character A loves Character B, and Character B has been kidnapped. Character A has a chance to save them, but only a 2% chance. And if they took that 2% chance, there’s a 98% chance they’ll both die. And yet, there’s no other chances coming their way. Logically, Character A should probably save themselves and hope for another chance. But we’re reading about heros! Character A is going to take that 2% chance, with all odds against them. Your reader should get that. They should feel how emotions have driven their decision-making. 

That’s what a spreadsheet is for. It’s forcing you, the writer, to give us those reasons, and making sure you’ve made those reasons clear in your story. 

Download your free Excel spreadsheet here. 

How do you track your character motivations? 

Also, what else do you want help with? I love to hear from you! In fact, it helps me help you more when I hear from you. I heard a lot from a lot of you all in my latest newsletter. (Whaaaaat? Shannon, you have a newsletter? I do! It releases once a quarter, and I always include more writing tips, sneak peeks at my work, and an exclusive surprise giveaway. Subscribe here.

My blog posts happen the first Saturday of every month, so check back in on Saturday, March 7. 

~SAT

Trying to Write as a Pantser

16 Jan

I’m a pantser for the first time.

What’s a pantser? Someone who writes a book with no plan, as opposed to a plotter, who, you know, plots.

Normally, I plot like crazy. I have plots for my plots. (Also known as subplots.) And though I almost always deviate from my original plans, I always have a plan. But lately, I was feeling a little bogged down by all that planning. I yearned for adventure. For mystery. For absolute chaos. Like a road trip with no destination ahead. Just me and the road and whatever will happen.

So, I decided my first book of 2017 would be written in perfect pantser style, full speed ahead.

I’m not going to lie, I thought I would crash and burn. In fact, I expected to. But that wasn’t the case. Let me explain the differences by comparing my normal plotter ways and my current pantser adventure.

The Idea

Plotter: Disclaimer: Almost all of my books start off as a dream, and this one was no different. After I have a dream I think might be worthy of a book, I sit on the floor with a million notebooks and just write down scenes and ideas that come to me. Throughout the next few weeks (or even months), I expand on the characters and world until they blend together and I have a solid plot, character list, and timeline. Sometimes, I even write an entire screenplay, dialogue and all, before I actually write Chapter One.

Pantser: I had a dream, cracked my knuckles, and sat down at my computer.

plotter

Beginning to Write

Plotter: I start in Chapter One after reading Chapter One’s notes thoroughly, and then I repeat with Chapter Two and Chapter Three and so on.

Pantser: Literally, the day I had the dream, I sat down at my computer and wrote down what I saw. I didn’t even know the general theme or my protagonist’s name, or even if she was the protagonist. But she quickly fleshed out into the full-fledged botanist she is today. The world she was in quickly followed. Fun fact: the dream I had wasn’t Chapter One, which is where I usually start. Instead, it turned out to be a mixture of Chapter Two and Chapter Four. (For now.) panster

The Rest of the Adventure

Plotter: I always know where I’m going and what will probably happen. Even if something changes, it doesn’t affect the story too much. I can still stay on course. (Basically, my GPS will reroute me no matter where I go.)

Pantser: I can’t stay on course, because there is no course. Even more confusing, there is no world to navigate anyway. This current project of mine is a YA sci-fi, but I’m letting my world build itself. That is honestly the strangest part for me. Normally, I have an entire system of rules and ideas to constrain my characters to, but not this time. This time, I’m letting the book let me know what it needs to do before I figure out where the boundaries go. We’re very much off-roading in unknown terrain, but I haven’t popped a tire yet. And if I do, I can create a spare out of thin air…because you know, no rules. I’ll make laws up later. And while this might sound reckless, I’ve been keeping a list of boundaries that come up in the text as I go, and it seems as solid as anything else I could’ve created by plotting.

In the end, being a pantser or a plotter doesn’t feel that much different, but this risk helped me fall back in love with the thrill of writing. I’m writing around the same pace as usual, but I do feel like I’m enjoying it more. I already know I’m going to have to rewrite a ton, but I do that when I plot, too, so that doesn’t feel like a huge loss to me. In fact, if I were being honest—if this works out—I kind of like this pantser thing. It feels more vulnerable (and more likely for things to go terribly, horribly wrong), but that vulnerability makes it feel more authentic, too. Like the characters are definitely more in charge.

Recently, for instance, I realized my villain is probably not who I thought it was going to be. And I’m still unsure about where the next chapters are going, but I definitely know the ending. (Or I think I do. Ha.) And I’m kind of enjoying my hesitation and fear and absolute joy when it works out.

Perhaps, this pantser mode worked for this particular book and wouldn’t for others, but I’m glad I decided to try it out. I’m having a lot fun, and I believe the project is forming together beautifully. If I had to guess, I would say a writer could do either one and be successful with it. And it definitely can’t hurt to try. In fact, it helped me.

Now to go write a scene I know nothing about.

~SAT

#MondayBlogs Feeling Down About Writing? Here’s How To Write Again!

2 Jan

Recently, I felt down about writing. When I sat at the computer, the words didn’t flow, and when I walked away, the urge to try again was gone. I struggled and searched for the reason I was struggling and continued to struggle again. Honestly, my “down” period was caused by the holidays, and let’s be honest, 2016 was one hot mess. But now that we’re into 2017—and many of us are typing at full speed ahead to meet our New Year’s resolutions—there’s bound to be a time when you feel down again.

How can you feel better about writing when you aren’t feeling so great?

Well, there are plenty of ways. In fact, there are so many ways, I asked my fellow Clean Teen Publishing authors to share their secrets to get back on the keyboard.

1. Listen to Music

Music is a really big way for me to get back into writing. Certain songs or arrangements feel suited to different characters or situations, and that usually gets the words flowing with some regularity again. – Molly Bilinski, debut author of Lady of Sherwood (April, 2017)

When I’m struggling to write, or inspiration has left me, I always return to the old reliable; music. I go on the hunt for new music and spend time finding songs that match the mood and tone of my WIP. There is nothing more therapeutic then finding a song and suddenly having clarity. – Susan Harris, best-selling author of Skin and Bones 

2. Play!

Whenever I’m down, I find that it’s usually because I’m taking everything too seriously and I’m too busy “adulting” to appreciate the fun in life. I need to get back to that “kid” space where anything goes and nothing is crushingly important. You’re just playing to play, having fun and going where it takes you – Jennifer Derrick, author of Avenging Fate

I always encourage writer friends to find another creative outlet. As creative spirits, writing is not all we can or should do. Create something else, craft, sew, crochet, whatever, but cultivate that creative spirit in another way. We can channel our inspiration in so many ways. – Lila Felix, author of Lightning Forgotten

3. Remind Yourself Why You Write

I reread something that I’m really proud of writing, usually something from at least a couple years ago. Sometimes remembering how great that felt can spring new ideas to mind. And sometimes it just reminds you that you have survived bad times before, and were still able to write something amazing. – Kendra Sanders, author of Dating An Alien Pop Star

“The moment you quit is the moment you fail.” I’ve been living by this mantra since September 1, 2010, the day I started writing the first novel I ever finished. Since then, I’ve had my fair share of discouraging moments, but I can honestly say I’ve never seriously considered quitting. Because if I quit, I fail. I’ve got too many stories to tell to let that happen. – Tamara Grantham, award-winning author of Dreamthief

So what’s my advice?

Along with all of these wonderful writers, I think stepping away, listening to music, reading your favorite book, or visiting your favorite café can help clear your mind of whatever’s holding you back. Sometimes, it just takes time, and I have to remind myself that writing is not a race—that my mental and physical health is important, too. Sounds simple, but it isn’t.

I always joke that I’m a Triple A personality. I’m constantly working, and if you catch me during a rare moment off, I’m probably thinking about working. (I could really use a hobby outside of reading and writing, but alas, I love them so much.) For me, visiting Barnes & Noble or a library and just surrounding myself with books can calm my soul. In the end though, one thought always finds its way back to me.

Be sure to visit all the awesome Clean Teen authors who made this post possible, and of course, good luck getting back on the keyboard.

It might be difficult. It might feel impossible today. But every day is the start of something new and wonderful, and every novel starts with one word.

~SAT

%d bloggers like this: