Tag Archives: publishing goals

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

2020 Author Goals

4 Jan

2019 is over, and honestly it feels like a blur. 

I know this post is going to seem like a hard brag. I promise that isn’t my intention. I accomplished a lot this year, but I can’t say that I allowed much happiness into my life, especially toward the end of 2019. The beginning felt like a lot of highs: New job! An agent! Another birthday! The end felt like a lot of lows: My cat’s health problems. My health problems. Student loan problems. My depression. 

I’m still in a depression fog at the moment. I won’t lie. I had a really difficult time even stringing together this blog post. At the same time, though, that’s why I forced myself to write it. 

We need to take a moment to acknowledge all of our hard work. 

Today, I ask you to join me. 

Grab a pen and paper. Think of everything you did in 2019, and write it down. Leave nothing out. Include all the things, even the little things others might consider insignificant. With every bullet point you add, really think about all the help you received, the support, the encouragement, the opportunities, the sacrifices, the dedication, the passion. Have you thanked these people? Have you thanked yourself for trying? Have you allowed yourself the space to celebrate and be happy? 

In 2019:

  • I was promoted at the library to Story Center Program Manager. Now I’m surrounded by storytellers all day, and I absolutely love it! 
  • I guest spoke at numerous teen writing groups at various libraries, my local chapter of SCBWI, and at Writers United for Johnson County Library
  • I also had my first school visit, ever
  • I was chosen for a mentorship through Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America 
  • I got a literary agent! 
  • I also went out on sub with my agent. 

Capture

Photos show my writing retreat, finishing a WIP, releasing a book on Wattpad, my first school visit, and my new job, which included hosting a publishing panel at Johnson County Library and meeting Janet Evanovich!

But that’s not all! I released Took Me Yesterday (book 2 of the Tomo Trilogy) on Wattpad after readers kept asking for it for five years. I attended two conferences, went on a writing retreat, hosted #BeMyLi, was included in YASH twice, and attended my local critique group every month. (Not to mention exchanged pages with online beta reader friends all year long.) And I tracked my progress. 

I began 2019 with 26,996 words in a YA science fiction novel. I was also, 55,623 words into a revision of my historical fantasy. 

I end 2019 not only with a completed version of my YA science fiction novel, but a majorly revised and polished version, too. I’m on sub with a different science fiction novel, and I finished revising my historical fantasy as well. I even started a new project! And I’m brainstorming even more. 

In 2020, I already know that I’m teaching my first writing course. Only in a few days, too. (If you’re in Kansas City, join me for Getting Started on a Writing Project.) I’ll be teaching my first publishing course in April during Publishing Week at the Library. I also have plans to attend the Kansas City Writing Workshop and the LitUP Festival. And I’m sure there’s more to come: more firsts, more rejections, more congratulations, more plot twists, more tears, more laughter. 

I know this because I’ve written articles just like this one for the past four years:

And every year, I read each one in rescinding order. 

This year I didn’t know if I wanted to write this article. I didn’t think I could. But after reading my past posts, I remembered why these have become so important to me. I can look back. I can remember. I can put it all in perspective. 

Right now, my 2020 perspective is hopeful. Grateful. Humble. 

I promise to try my best to be my best self: as a librarian, an author, a cat lady, a friend. 

I promise to continue.

What do you promise? 

~SAT

Writing with a Motivational Calendar

13 Apr

My life has changed quite a bit over the past year. Between moving and starting (two) new jobs, I’ve had to adjust my writing life and the way I think about my writing life. As many of you know, I currently work full time at the library and then work part time as a freelance editor. Suffice it to say, I don’t have a ton of time to pursue writing, but I try not to let that get me down (because I definitely don’t have extra time to feel down about it either, though it happens from time to time).

So what does a full-time working adult do to feel like they’re still pursuing their writing dreams?

Well, write, of course, but I also keep a motivational calendar.

What’s a motivational calendar?

Technically, it could be whatever you want. Mine, in fact, has changed over the years. A couple years ago, for instance, I liked to have a “future” motivational calendar. Meaning, I would write down goals for that week, and then get it done. Now my calendar is focused on the past. Every day, I take the time to record everything I did to pursue my writing goals. Mostly, I write down my current word count, how many queries I sent, how many writing-related jobs (such as a literary internship) I applied for, and other miscellaneous info. I also make sure to outline where I started on Day 1 and then I update that info on the last day. That way, I can see progress. Oh, and my favorite part, I highlight major accomplishments, like a full request from an agent. 

Here’s a snapshot of my January calendar.

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Since it’s small, here’s some facts. I started 2019 with my WIP “The Girl With The Thousand Faces” being 26,996 words in first draft/plotting. At the end, it was 31,533 with significant world building being finalized. My other WIP “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” started at 53,633 in its second draft. It ended with 81,938 words and completed. In that time, I also applied for four jobs and sent out five queries on my YA sci-fi “Immersion.” Most exciting of all? I received a full request from an agent for “Immersion” and won the Secret Agent contest with my historical “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” which also resulted in a full request from an agent. (P.S. Both are still pending, so keep your fingers crossed for me.)

It might seem tedious or silly to keep track of all the ways you pursue your dreams, but to me, it keeps me motivated. It helps me remind myself how hard I am working – that I haven’t given up my writing dreams because X, Y, or Z in life – and that I will keep trying. Plus, it’s easy to forget all that you do on a day-by-day basis, and by having a physical representation of it, you won’t forget. You’ll know how hard you work (and also know it’s okay to take a break). You might notice, for instance, that I don’t write every day, or do anything some days. And that’s okay. 

One word at a time, one day at a time, right?

Oh, and one more note of importance.

My calendar is definitely cat-themed.

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~SAT

 

2018: The Year of Writing Limbo

29 Dec

Last year I wrote this article—2017 Wasn’t My Writing Year—and I talked about failing my top three goals. Those goals were wanting an internship at literary agency, working for a library, and signing with a literary agent.

Every year, I write an article like this. But this year, despite struggling to find time to blog, I had to make myself follow up about this year. I mean, come on, I succeeded at one of my major goals! Two months after my past article, I was hired by the library, and last month, I was promoted and became full time. In regards to my other goals, I actually had the opportunity to speak to two literary agencies about internships this year, but with all my life changes going on, I had to back out. But hey, I’m still in contact with them about a future opportunity once life settles down.

This year, I didn’t make any goals for myself.Mainly because I realized how hard I was on myself last year due to the goals I created. In fact, I took a long, hard look at those goals and realized I shouldn’t have goals with uncontrollable results. Ex. “Signing with a literary agent” shouldn’t be a goal dependent on one year. The goal should’ve been “finish writing that new book,” or “query X amount of good fits this summer,” or “take a query workshop to improve your skills.” So, yes, signing with an agent is still a dream of mine, but I’ve learned how to redefine my goals overtime.

So what did I do this year to achieve my dreams?

To be honest, I barely wrote. I sent out a limited number of queries. I didn’t have a single publication come out for the first time in six years.

I could concentrate on the negative, or I could concentrate on this:

I was hired by the library, one of my dreams, and I was promoted eight months later. We moved into a better, healthier house and neighborhood, and my health is improving. I was featured in YASH (the Young Adult Scavenger Hunt) twice! I was invited to speak and sign books at the LitUp Festival, a YA festival run by teens. They were amazing, and I had so much fun. I even got to meet one of my memoir heroes, Ishmael Beah. Clean Teen Publishing released  Bad Bloods: November Snow as an audiobook, narrated by Jonathan Johns, and Minutes Before Sunset also released as an audiobook, narrated by Sarah Puckett and Steve Campbell. They were a blast to work with. I also signed books at the Local Author Fair here in Kansas City, and saw my books in a library for the first time. And I never stopped writing. I finished writing my first historical fantasy during NaNoWriMo, worked on lots of beta reader notes, beta read many books myself, and began writing my next sci-fi.

2018 highlights

So you know what? I did just fine, new publications or not, agent or not, internship or not.

I did my best every day, and I’m going to continue doing my best every day, and I feel pretty good about it in retrospect. Now, to be kinder to myself on a regular basis. I think I’d be a much happier, healthier person.

This is my only goal for 2019.

~SAT

Setting 2018 Writing Goals

6 Jan

Now that we’re a week into 2018, you’ve probably set new goals and you’re already striving after them. And that’s awesome! But I made a huge mistake while setting goals last year, and I thought I’d discuss it, so you don’t make the same mistake I did when you tackle your writing life this year.

So what happened? Last year, I set three goals (and failed them all), which you can read about here, but I thought I would focus on the goal of connecting with a literary agent. While I definitely spoke to a number of talented folks, I never quite found “the one.” I felt like a failure. But did I fail? I mean, I connected with amazing people! I finished manuscripts. I learned. I revised. I resubmitted. I never gave up. And doors are still open for me, even today. So, I shouldn’t have felt like a failure. I should’ve felt proud, because, even though I didn’t walk away with the shiny new contract, I walked away with more knowledge, connections, and opportunities.

Extra tip: Keep a planner to stay on track, but don’t plan too far ahead. That way, you can adjust if need be.

Where I went wrong: Setting the goal of “I will get a literary agent” was unrealistic. Why? Because it depended on another person, and that person is largely out of my control. Yes, I can always write more and better—and yes, I could always spend more time making connections—but just because you have a great book or idea or following or etc. does not mean you’ll find the right person to represent you and your work. Do I have room to grow? Always. But so do many repped authors. Signing that contract is a largely personal decision from both sides. This goal depends on two people, not just me, so while having the goal to connect with an agent is fine, my goal shouldn’t have been “get a literary agent by the end of the year.” It should’ve been “I will submit my work to # of agents who enjoy my genre” or “I will spend X hours a week researching the industry, so that I am more prepared to query next time around.”

Basically, I learned to set realistic and fair goals. What do I mean by that? Goals should revolve around work you can accomplish, not how others react to your work.

Common, unrealistic publishing goals: How large your advance is, how many copies of your books are distributed, how well something sells (because, seriously, even experts can’t predict why books resonate), and publishing contracts in general.

Solution? Set goals to learn, write more, and submit, submit, submit. Examples: I will read fifty books this year, I will write 10,000 words every week, I will try to connect with new beta readers by this spring, I will submit my manuscript by July, etc. But remember, publishing isn’t a race. While goals should keep you moving, they aren’t meant to be hard deadlines. If you find out you can’t write 10,000 words a week, that’s fine. Do what you can. Never let your goals hurt you. For example, “I will get a publishing contract by December” might negatively impact you, because you’re going to submit when you’re not ready just to meet a deadline you alone set. If you make a goal to meet something by January, don’t beat yourself up if you end up needing to extend it to February. Just make sure you’re ready. You can always edit your goals…and set completely new ones.

In fact, when I really think about it, I set goals all year around.

Whether its spring or fall, rain or shine, I’m constantly considering what I want to do next and/or how to accomplish it.

Actually, I’ve met two goals this year already.

  1. The Timely Death trilogy will be an audiobook with duel narration!
  2. I resubmitted a revised manuscript.

All goals take a lot of time and energy, and I’m really proud I’ve accomplished these two goals. Where those paths will take me, I have no clue, but I am ready to set more goals and move forward in a realistic and positive way.

What are some of your goals for 2018?

~SAT

2017 Wasn’t My Writing Year

9 Dec

Last year, I wrote an incredibly positive article called, Dear Writers, 2017 Can Be Your Year! It summed up my 2016 accomplishments and how I got there by taking advantage of every opportunity I could and working hard, and how you can, too. (Oh, how I side-eye myself so hard now.)

This year? 

I failed most of my goals. There, I said it.  

Following the format of last year, I had three main goals.

1. I wanted an internship with a literary agency.

2. I wanted to work for a library.

3. I wanted a literary agent.

To be honest, I got SO, SO close to most of these goals. So close that I feel like crying just thinking about it. But it ultimately didn’t work out.

Why? Well, there are numerous reasons why.

Firstly, adjusting to my new job (while keeping my old job) allows me very little free time. Then I got sick. Like really, really sick. To be honest, I’m still super sick, but I’m currently undergoing a lot of health assessments to figure out what is happening to me. It’s scary not knowing. It’s worse feeling like something unknown has such a negative impact on my life…and there’s nothing I can do about it except get more tests done so I can be healthy again. (Not to mention medical tests cost a lot of money.) My savings for conferences has gone toward medical expenses.

Basically, it didn’t matter that I took advantage of every opportunity I could…because most of the opportunities I received I couldn’t take advantage of due to health, finances, and other issues.

Basically, this year failed. I failed. I failed so hard.

I’m trying to be kind to myself though.

I mean, I didn’t completely “fail” in 2017. Clean Teen Publishing released Bad Bloods: July Thunder (#3) and July Lightning (#4). My first audiobook released! I revised one of my books three times. (I’m determined to make this book work.) And I began writing my first historical. I attended my first writing retreat, joined SCBWI (and an in-person writers group), and began a new job as a publicist for a YA/MG publisher. As an editor, I worked with some amazing authors, and I was featured in YASH and signed books at BFest in Barnes & Noble. On top of that, I was invited to speak at Wizard World Comic Con again! (Oh, how I wish I could’ve attended.) Denver Comic Con also featured my monster panel, even though I couldn’t attend last minute, but fellow Clean Teen authors enjoyed it, and that makes me happy.

2017 highlights

So why do I feel so awful?

It hurt so much watching opportunities pass me by. It still hurts. But I’m grateful that those offering opportunities thought of me in the first place. I’m hoping I’ll have more opportunities in the future when I am healthy—and have more time—again. I’m not giving up. Just because I failed my goals this year doesn’t mean I can’t succeed in those goals next year. In fact, I’m holding onto my 2017 goals as I move into 2018. I’ll probably add new goals, too!

Who knows what 2018 will bring? Maybe I’ll repeat a successful 2016. Maybe I’ll repeat my terrible 2017. Or—and here’s a crazy thought—maybe 2018 will be 2018, with all its failures and accomplishments and surprises.

Not every year is going to be successful and wonderful and feel amazing, but you can always try your best. And that’s what I’m planning for 2018.

Here’s to working as hard as I am able to and keeping my chin up.

I hope you keep trying, too!

~SAT

#SATurday Author Goals

6 Jun

#SATurday Author Goals

About a week ago, my publisher—Clean Teen Publishing—went to Book Expo of America (#BEA15) to share our novels with the world. Awesome, right? I almost jumped out of my computer chair at the sight (and I rarely leave that chair, considering I’m a writer ::wink::) After that, I basically stalked their LIVE pictures all afternoon and wished I were there . . . which brings me to what I want to talk about.

Author goals.

Everyone discusses word count for the day or hopeful release dates. Sometimes, I even see a confession of wanting to hit the New York Times bestseller list, of dreaming up a day that their novel is a movie, but I haven’t seen a lot of variety in author goals. Main one? Get popular. It’s generally worded differently, of course, but that’s what I generally see, and I want to take a moment to clarify how much I don’t think that’s wrong. (I don’t.) I just wish I saw different types of goals discussed. I don’t know about you all, but I wonder about my author goals a lot. I know I want to be able to travel more. In fact, by next summer, I hope I am packing up and hitting the road with boxes of books in my truck (or on a plane or train or whatever I’m on). I have a set goal for UtopYA, but I also would like to make it to more events than one. That’s currently my biggest goal. (And that specific goal gets bigger for me.)

Here is Clean Teen Publishing at BEA15!

Here is Clean Teen Publishing at BEA15!

Why do I want to travel as an author more?

Well, I mainly want to have the opportunity to meet more readers face to face. I want to shake their hand, hug them, take an Instagram photo with them, sign their book, give them a cookie, etc. Anything really. This is about to get crazy, and it’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I think one of my biggest dreams is traveling as an author but always meeting a random reader (out of a lottery of readers in that city) for coffee. This means that if I meet my goal of traveling more by next summer, you should look out, because I am going to meet SOMEONE for coffee. That is a promise.

This is a goal of mine, and it might seem silly or outlandish or that I’m dreaming too wildly, but traveling is in my bones. I grew up on the road. I travel anyway. I just want to incorporate that part of my life into my writing life, and I want to take it as an opportunity to thank those who have supported me along the road of life. (See what I did there? God, I love cheesy metaphors.)

Sure, a lot of authors want to hit those bestseller lists or have movies made out of their books, but I don’t think those are on my goals. (Not that I’d complain if it happened.) But I think most of my goals revolve around giving out more gifts to readers and meeting more readers (and meeting more writers). I dream of flying to Australia to meet one of my super fans who’s begged me to come out there. I dream of flying my readers out to a major Comic Con they’ve been wanting to go to. I dream of involving readers in my writing process. (And in fact, I think a beta reading opportunity might be coming up soon, so look out for that.) I dream of meeting them, and I think it’s because I am a reader—just as much as I am a writer—and meeting my favorite authors are some of the highlights of my life. Traveling more might help that happen!

This isn’t a promise or manifesto by any means. I’m just a girl with a dream, trying to make it happen every day, and talking about it out of curiosity more than anything else (and a tad bit of embarrassment ::blush::).

My other author goals include sitting on a panel at a literary festival, attending a Comic Con as an author, collaborating on a novel (specifically like Holly Black did with Cassandra Clare, when your characters appear in one another’s novels but don’t’ necessarily affect the story, not the actual collaboration novel they did), teaching a writer seminar for young writers, and seeing a book translated into another language. (The other language dream stems from the fact that I love languages, and I have a deep appreciate for language, especially after studying Italian in college at a fluent level.) And . . . I probably have so many more but those are the ones that came to mind today.

What are your author goals? And if you’re not a writer, what are your reading goals? (For instance, I want to meet Meg Cabot and Ally Carter. I want to meet them SO bad.) Let’s talk about your goals!

~SAT

We’re coming up on one year since Take Me Tomorrow released, but this YA dystopian novel was only available for a few months. Recently, I’ve received a lot of messages about how to get ahold of a copy, and now you can!

By donating to www.ShannonAThompson.com, you will receive an eBook as well as a permanent website slot on the donations page. All the proceeds will go toward book events later this year and next year, so we can finally meet in person. (Think UtopYA.) Once you donate, you can expect an email from shannonathompson@aol.com within 24 hours!

Thank you for your continuous support,
~SAT

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