Tag Archives: write

When to Begin & End Chapters

18 Oct

When writing a novel, writers must consider a lot of factors: characterization, pacing, plot, etc. Take a look around the internet and you’ll find tons of articles on how to begin a novel, outline a novel, flesh out a novel, and end a novel, but when it starts to get into the nitty gritty details, that’s where most advice will meander toward “every writer has their own method” or “it depends on the project.”

My advice on beginning and ending chapters is going to stand on that previous sentiment—I’m not going to lie—but I am going to dig little deeper on the following questions:

How do you start chapters? How do you end them? When do you know those points are enough to keep the reader interested? 

Aside from the adage “every writer has their own method,” I want to share some basic tips, and then add specific methods that I use. 

First and foremost, the key to finding your sweet spot is to understand your age category and genre. 

A sci-fi thriller is going to have shorter, cut-throat chapters that encourage the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. An epic adventure will probably have longer, more descriptive chapters where world-building is key rather than action, especially in the first and second act. Within those genres, age categories will influence word count. Having longer chapters in an adult book is much more appropriate than in middle grade. Not that there aren’t exceptions. There are always exceptions. But these are general tips to keep in mind. 

My first tip would be to go to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up books in your age category and genre. Study their chapter lengths. You should be reading in your age category and genre, too. Seeing how those books find their rhythm will help you find yours. But, at the end of the day, I’m a big believer in finding the right rhythm for your book—not forcing your book into the standard—so make intentional decisions when editing your book. I mention the editing phase on purpose. I don’t worry about chapter lengths until I’m revising. That first draft is just to get the story down. Most of the time, rhythm comes fairly naturally to me, but without fail, I’ll always find a ridiculously long chapter or choppy section that needs reworking. 

As you consider revisions, ask yourself: 

  • How can these chapters be reworked?
  • Are there sections that can be combined? (Especially with “talking head” scenes. If your characters are just talking, figure out if they can be physically doing something in another chapter at the same time.)
  • Does this chapter move the story or characters forward? If not, can I cut it and save it for “extras” for my readers?

Now that we’re past the revision setup, here’s some general tips about ending and beginning chapters. 

The beginning of your chapter should ask a question. The end should answer it. 

This is how I treat every chapter in all my books. I approach each scene like a mini-short story. This is done for many reasons. A) When readers are deciding if they want to pick up a book, they will only read a handful of pages. Show them you can tell a story in that handful. B) Feeling as if you’ve jumped over a hurdle as a reader gives you an accomplished feeling, and that feeling will propel you forward. 

Now, ending a chapter doesn’t mean you’ve answered every question that comes up in the chapter. Oh, no. Quite the contrary. Between asking the chapter question and answering that specific question, you must pose another question. This will end up being your cliffhanger that makes the reader turn the page. 

Formulaic, I know. But trust me, it works. 

For example, I just picked up my book Minutes Before Sunset and turned to a random chapter. In Chapter Thirteen, which is from the perspective of my hero Eric, it literally starts out with the supernatural girl he found in the forest asking him, “What are you going to teach me tonight?” (The literal question I pose.) By the end of the chapter, instead of teaching her magic techniques, which is what she was hoping for (and probably what the reader was expecting), they’ve fallen into a conversation about magic’s past. (Hey there, world building.) This conversation leads to him admitting there’s a war coming that he must survive. He doesn’t tell her he is at the center of it, but she’s grown suspicious. Telling her the truth, though, would expose his identity as heir. Something he’s not allowed to do, at the risk of his own life. But not warning puts her in danger. The new question posed: is he going to come clean about his identity in order to warn her? Will he choose his safety or hers? You must turn the page to find out. 

Now let’s look at how that example specifically begins and ends. The chapter starts out with positive energy. Two secret lovers meeting up in the woods, excited to see each other, learn from each other, etc. But it ends on a negative note. There’s dangerous truths he’s not telling her. She’s starting to sense that. Tension. BAM. Now two lovers are having a bad night. This exchange of rhythm is also key to shaping your chapters. 

Pay attention to your negative and positive energy. I believe this comes from a famous writer’s beat sheet, but I can’t remember who it was at this time. (If someone recognizes it, please let me know, and I’ll edit this to credit them.) Basically, every scene should be shifting your energy. If the beginning of a chapter is negative, it needs to end even more negatively or become positive. There are only four energies. Extra-positive, positive, negative, extra-negative. You shouldn’t have the same one in a row. Especially not over and over again. If your chapters are continuously ending on an extra-negative and starting there, your story will become stagnant, and the reader will grow bored. Even in survival novels where everyone is dying, you can find positive notes to end on. (Example/ Someone finally found food or shelter.) 

Returning to Chapter Thirteen, it begins positive, ends negative. Chapter Fourteen starts negative, ends positive. Chapter Fifteen begins positive, ends negative. Chapter Sixteen begins negative, ends extra-negative. Etc. 

If you’ve had lots of negative chapters, have a positive one, and vice versa. 

And don’t forget those cliffhangers!

When I freelance edited, I always found that most writers had natural cliffhangers in their work. They just didn’t recognize them. If you struggle with where to end a chapter, take a look a few paragraphs up from where you lost steam. It’s probably hiding in plain sight. If not, go back to that question you posed at the beginning of your chapter. What’s the next natural mystery your reader will want to know? Head towards that. 

Before I ramble on forever, here’s some fun facts about my work:

My average chapter length in Minutes Before Sunset: 2,123

My average chapter length in Bad Bloods: November Snow: 3,422

The difference? The format. Both are young adult, but Bad Bloods is formatted to show day-by-day plays, so each chapter covers one day. This meant numerous scenes in one chapter versus Minutes Before Sunset, which was set up to show scene-by-scene. Minutes Before Sunset is a much quicker book and centered on romance, whereas November Snow has a much heavier tone and centered on survival. Longer chapters were more fitting for that audience. 

Right now, I’m working on an adult fantasy, and my chapters seem to be landing anywhere between 2,000-3,000 words. As a reader, though, I love those 1,500-word chapters. Turning the pages feels good!

Take that as you will, and good luck,

~~SAT

P.S. I want to thank TJ Horton from my Facebook page who suggested I write about this topic! If you have a topic you want me to write about, let me know in the comments below. 

Writing About Grief

4 Oct

As someone who usually writes science fiction and fantasy, I decided to take a sharp turn during these last few months of 2021 to write my first contemporary. It’s a verse novel, centered on the loss of my mother when I was 11. (For those of you who are new to my blog, she died from a drug overdose, and I struggled to find books for kids like me in the middle grade section.) I finally want to try to make that happen. Granted, it’s going to be a while before I finish, but I’m halfway through and thought it was time to talk about the lessons I’ve learned while writing about grief. That isn’t to say you must be writing a contemporary novel centered on grief. Grief can be present in any novel in any genre, but these tips are designed for someone who is writing a novel that is exploring grief as the central theme. 

First and foremost, when grief is the central theme of your work, it’s important to keep track of your emotions, especially if what you’re writing about is deeply personal or based on real-life. Check in with yourself. Give yourself permission to put your work down and come back at another time. Have something else to write on the side. Whatever you need to do to stop yourself from rumination. If you’re trying to write about a tragedy that recently happened, that’s okay, but I would caution you to take time to grieve before you dive into writing a book about your grief. Let time give you space to heal.

Now for writing advice:

Read Other Books About Grief

I know this might sound counterintuitive. Too much grief might be too much grief. But for me, I decided to lean onto other works of art. I picked up some nonfiction and fiction that centers on the topic I’m covering, and I’m still combing through them right now. Seeing how others covered grief in their stories helps me see which events in my life will work for a story rather than a diary entry. It can be extra helpful if you can find books in the same age category. That will help you with voice, but also give you some possible comp titles, so that you can pitch your book knowing where it will land on the shelf. 

Balance the Sad with Happy

Even though I’m writing a book about an extremely dark time in my childhood, I still remember happy slices of life. Granted, when I started writing this book and took a step back, I realized those were missing. It takes another muscle to my brain to recall those happy moments that took place in the dark. Though, I think that’s perfectly normal. When you’re dealing with grief—especially the death of the loved one—guilt can be associated with happiness. That might happen in your writing, too. Be prepared to stumble along the way. 

Take breaks. BIG ones. And don’t forget your resources.

You may get overwhelmed, and that’s okay. I made a promise to myself that I’d stop writing any time it started to feel like too much. During those pauses, I liked to search through some resources, such as The Grief Toolbox: How to Write About Grief in a Story or Novel. There’s lot of fantastic articles out there that I’d recommend. Give yourself some time to research others’ methods. 

Finally, it’s okay to get inspiration from real life, but remember that you’re writing a story. My mom’s death didn’t happen in a neat little package that fits on a storyline arc. I didn’t follow the traditional five stages of grief in order, jumping from one period of growth to the next with clear transitions. Life doesn’t work that way. Instead, I am using these events and emotions to write, and it’s okay to write messy, especially on a first draft. From there, it’s my job as a writer to get an actual plot out of it all. 

The biggest surprise for me? Grief can feed off other grief—and spark more inspiration. 

Writing about my childhood grief also brought up my teenage grief. Two tragedies in my life really fed off of the other. I didn’t know why I kept thinking about my teenage years when I was trying to think of my middle grade years, but I realized my teenage years was when I started to come to terms with it, and there is no writing about one without bringing up the other. Not for me. So, I opened up a fresh document and began writing a YA verse novel at the same time. I’m often flipping back and forth between the two with little idea which one I’ll finish first. But at the end of this, I know I’ll have a book about grief. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll make it to the shelves one day, so a kid like me can see it and know they aren’t alone in their grief. 

~SAT

What Writers Can Learn from Reading Their OLD Work

30 Aug

I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned how to write. I’m not kidding. My first pieces of work go back to when I was 4 years old. My first story was a 5-page rambling piece about my new husky throwing a party so that the two older dogs would attend and possibly befriend him. (Totally based on a true story. But more on that below.) 

Lots of writers have stories like mine. That first attempt in grade school. Then, the first REAL attempt. You know, the one where you wrote wayyyyy too many words over a span of years. Maybe you finished; maybe you didn’t, but you *think* there’s a copy of it somewhere on an old laptop or shoved in a dresser drawer somewhere. If you have it, I encourage you to go find it today. 

I’m a big believer in keeping old work. I’m a bigger believer in re-reading it. Not just to evaluate where you started and who you’ve grown to be, but also to simply enjoy it. 

Those words brought you joy at some point, and I think you’ll be surprised to find they still do (even if your writing wasn’t exactly what you’d call “seasoned”). You might also learn a thing or two about yourself that you weren’t expecting. 

Let’s take my dog story as an example. I wrote it because we had literally just welcomed a new husky puppy to the family. We had two other dogs. They had to learn to get along. BAM. Storytime. At least, that’s how I saw it at the time. Looking back, the theme of friendship isn’t lost on me. As someone who moved around the country every two-ish years while growing up, I was a very lonely kid, and stories often were the only things to keep me company. My characters were some of my best friends. They still are, in fact. (I certainly spend more time at my computer desk than at brunch catching up with buddies.) Friendship was something that always eluded me and, honestly, it still feels that way most days. I often write about that feeling in my current novels. What surprised me, though, was my four-year-old self considering it. Even before I knew what a theme was, I had threaded it into my storyline while also expressing my own wants and fears. And isn’t that what storytelling is about? Personal expression?

I bring this up because I think it’s quite common to lose sight of storytelling basics the more you learn and grow. In an industry where you constantly hear that’s been done before; everything’s been done before; why is your story unique?; why should we care?, it’s easy to start tweaking plot to add more action; changing characters to shift dynamics; moving or cutting whole scenes to keep up the tension; and before you know it, the story feels stale, and you cannot for the life of you figure out why (especially after twelve revisions).

Maybe—in all those revisions—you accidentally lost track of why you wanted to write the story in the first place or why the story mattered to you. Maybe you cut out that theme of friendship in favor of a romance subplot you’ve been told would be more popular. Worse, you can re-read your new version a 1,000 times and never see what’s wrong because it isn’t there anymore. 

That’s why you keep old work and old versions. It reminds you of why you began and what you were trying to express. In fact, I’ve been re-reading a lot of my old work for this purpose. I’ve even been asking myself what I want out of my stories as a whole.  

Call it an existential crisis brought on by the pandemic, or writer’s block, or self-discovery, or whatever. But I decided to do a deep dive into all my old work. 

Some of those ideas I came up with in high school were brazen and wacky and just plain old rubbish. But they were fresh. So fresh, in fact, that I doubt I could come up with some of those ideas today. Back then, I wasn’t worried about writing to hit a trend or fulfilling genre expectations. (Both of which aren’t inherently bad things to keep in mind while writing professionally.) I simply wrote, and within those writings, I found some shiny pieces. Things that, if I came up with today, I might outright dismiss because “no one will want to read that.” I’m re-learning how to love that wild freshness again.

This past month, I sat back and re-read the Timely Death trilogy. (Yes, my own books.) It felt weird at first. Certainly egotistical. (Why spend time reading my own books that are complete and published when I could spend time reading others’ novels or re-reading a WIP that has hope for the future?) Trust me, I thought the same thing. But the books had been nagging at me for weeks. I just had this feeling that I wanted to dive back into that world and re-experience it. 

Some things I learned from reading my own work:

  1. I did not remember large parts of my own trilogy. It’s been so many years, it was almost like reading a book someone else wrote. This helped me judge it from a third-party perspective (and enjoy it)! I tried to take note of which parts of the book I loved and which slowed me down. They were surprisingly different than I remembered! 
  2. I can certainly see where I’ve grown—my word choice is stronger, my transitions are swifter, and my dialogue feels more natural. I also think my world building ability has grown, not just the literal world, but also how it is introduced and why. That’s a good feeling! 
  3. I can see where I regressed. Granted this point is a little bit more complicated. I have to be careful not to compare a final, published piece with my current WIPs, but I still feel like my characters were more vulnerable back then than they are now. They certainly have more imperfections and layers, and so do their relationships. I think there’s a lot of pressure right now for characters to be more “perfect” than they were in the past. For example, if a character thinks or feels something controversial, it can be seen as the author’s opinion, especially if another character doesn’t correct them, and I (personally) think that’s a slippery slope. Many of my characters act and think in ways that I do not. I’m just trying to tell a story, and sometimes stories follow controversial people or situations, especially in fantasy where the rules of that world do not align with the rules in our world. I think it was Will in Cassandra Clare’s book that said, “Requited love is ideal but doesn’t make much of a ballad,” and I feel that way about stories in general. If my characters acted or thought “correctly” all the time (or, in the case of the quote, loved each other correctly), it would become a very boring book. But that’s probably another topic for another day! Basically, I feel like I regressed in the darker parts of my books and characters. I’ve held a lot of their vulnerability back out of fear for how it would reflect on me. And I hope to break that mold again. 

As an extra, re-reading definitely rekindled that flame for the books. I spent a week or so outlining an adult followup for the trilogy, and it was so much fun!

My biggest takeaway:

Looking back on all my old books and manuscripts, I realized I have the same central theme threading through all of them—except for the ones I’m struggling to connect with. It was a EUREKA moment for me. This theme, which I’d rather keep to myself for now, is an essential part of who I am as a writer. Somehow, somewhere, I lost sight of that. I lost that feeling. Now I’m working on getting it back. 

Have you ever read an old work of yours and realized a truth about your writing?

~SAT

P.S. There won’t be a blog post on Monday, September 6th. It is Labor Day, and I will be taking the weekend off. The next blog post will be the Pitch Wars blog hop, which takes place on Saturday, September 11.

For those who didn’t see the announcement, I am returning to Pitch Wars this year as a co-mentor with Sandra Proudman! We’re Team Stellify, and we’re going to mentor a middle grade writer. We’re so excited to meet our mentee! For more information, visit pitchwars.org. You can see my Pitch Wars profile here.

If you’re a middle grade writer interested in this mentorship program, I encourage you to come to the Pitch Wars Middle Grade Mentor chat this Saturday, September 4 at 12 PM EST! Click here to add it to your YouTube watchlist.

How to Plot a Series and Make Every Book Stand Out

16 Aug

As an author with three series under my belt, I’m often asked how to plot a series, and I thought it was finally time to share a few tips. 

First thing is first, anyone considering traditional publishing should make book one a standalone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have the dream of writing a series, but in traditional publishing, that choice is out of your control. Agents/editors will get discouraged by proposals that say, “this is first book in a five-book series,” because no one can guarantee that will happen. (In fact, a series can be very rare for a debut author.) 

Repeat after me: “standalone with series potential”

But that’s more to do with traditional publishing than writing—and it doesn’t affect those who are self-publishing as much—so let’s get to those writing tips: 

Identify the Sub-Genre of Each Book

When I set out to write a series, I know each book needs to feel special. The way that I do that is by identifying each book’s sub-genre. For example, in my Timely Death trilogy, book 1 is a paranormal romance, book 2 is a paranormal mystery, book 3 is a paranormal action. In the Tomo trilogy, book 1 is certainly dystopian action, but book 2 is dystopian horror. (Time will tell what book 3 is.) 

When each book has its own sub-genre, it’ll help them stand apart while also inviting new energy into the storyline. Personally, I’d recommend every first book heavily lean toward your main genre in order to set the overall tone and expectation. Using my example above, the Timely Death trilogy is a paranormal romance, and book 1 is heavily focused on that, both in the main plot and the subplots. It’s the next books where I allow a little more deviation. 

I encourage anyone writing a series to keep that tip in mind when plotting out numerous books that follow the same characters. If you’re unsure what sort of sub-genres might work with your overall genre, “20 Master Plots and How to Form Them” by Ronald Tobias is a fantastic resource that helps explain plot and genre expectations. Play around with a few and see how they feel. 

Avoid the Dreaded Middle Book Slump

Avoid that middle book slump by throwing everything you can at it. What do I mean by that? I mean that a lot of writers stop themselves from using amazing material because they want to save it for the big, explosive finale. And that’s valid. But personally, I disagree with that method. Trust me when I say not to hold back. Give each book everything you got. You will come up with something even bigger for the next book. I know it can feel scary, but I’ve done it before, not knowing what I was going to do with the last book, and everything came together perfectly. 

If you want that example, I’ll explain, but it does spoil book 2: 

In the Timely Death trilogy, there’s a prophetic fight-to-the-death between two clans alluded to in the first book. Every reader expected it to be in book 3. And guess what? It’s in book 2. Though it seems to be set up as the ultimate climax from book 1, I knew I wanted to push against that formula the moment I started writing book 2, so I trusted my gut and used it in book 2. Book 3 ended up being even bigger and followed the fallout of that fight. Using everything I had in book 2 opened the series to even more dramatics, plot twists, and drama than I ever could’ve planned had I tried to save material for the finale.  

Don’t Fear Character Change, Including Relationships 

Too often I read series where characters’ friendships and romances remain intact book after book. Granted, the romance genre requires a happy ending, but you can still have a happy ending while pushing what it means for a couple to be together. You can break friendships and meld them—or break them up forever. You don’t have to have a happy ending for everyone. In fact, if I know my main couple won’t work out, I make sure to show one that will, and vice versa. 

To me, this tip is reminiscent of being willing to kill your darlings. 

If no one’s relationships ever suffer, then readers might get too comfortable with the stakes. Be willing to part family, friends, and lovers. Allow them to make new friends and find new families. This will allow for fresh scenes and stakes because new relationships mean something new to lose. New relationships will also show how your characters are changing. My favorite kind? A villain who joins the good side in the end. There’s something so interesting about showing what it takes to get the hero and villain to see eye-to-eye, even if one of them can’t exist in the end. 

These are just my top three tips for planning a series.

How do you plan yours?

~SAT

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

How to Name Your Characters

31 May

Naming your characters, especially your main characters, can feel like a daunting task. Some enjoy the thrill of it; others struggle a lot, and never quite feel like they found the “right” name. 

I, for one, love naming characters. I often joke that baby name books are some of my favorite reads and, in fact, I’ve been this way for a while. I hated my name growing up and spent a lot of time vicariously living through my characters with fanciful or meaningful names I much more preferred. (Fun fact: I’m named after the song “Shannon” by Henry Gross.) 

Naming characters can be a lot of fun and, with the right tools and a little bit of imagination, you can enjoy the process, too. 

First and foremost: 

When should you name characters? Honestly, whenever you want to. I tend to name my characters long before I start writing. (I spend a significant time researching and playing with the names before I attempt Chapter One.) This has benefits, but it also has drawbacks. I’ve had to change character names after the fact, and due to my attachment, it was a lot harder. (I still secretly call them by their original names to my beta readers.) But I love getting to know my characters long before I meet them on the page. 

How should you name your characters? Consider the setting of your novel. What time period are you in? What culture? 1880 in Russia is going to be VERY different from 2030 in Brazil. Once you figure that out, consider who is naming your character. Technically, it’s you, yes, but in the world of your character, they were named by someone and/or adopted a name for themselves. Knowing this motivation will help you not only build your world but get to know your character better. A daughter may be named after her grandparent, or a man may reject his name because he hates who he is named after. The nickname he adopts could mean something to him or be something he saw off of a billboard. Either way, that says a lot about what is happening. Remember most parents use iambic pentameter for names. The rhythm often works and will help your character names shine. 

Where can I find names?

Babynames.com provides thousands of names within cultures, meanings, genders, and more. I love BabyNames.com. You can even save your favorite names as you skip around. (Don’t be surprised if people ask you why you’re looking up baby names in public. I’ve been “congratulated” on a number of occasions.)

Aside from BabyNames.com, I get creative. I flip through old yearbooks, magazines, etc. I’ve even used my own family’s genealogy as a place to get inspired. For historical pieces, I tend to look at popular names through the years at SSA, [Social Security Association.] I also consider last names very carefully. Last Name Meanings provides a list of last names and where they derived from, along with the meaning behind them.

Can I make up names?

Absolutely! I tend to get this question from fantasy/sci-fi writers, because sci-fi/fantasy generally calls for unique names, but tread carefully. Sometimes, your best bet is taking well-known names and simply mixing them to create something unique, ex. Serena + Violet = Serolet. Try NameCombiner.com to see what you can come up with.

Pinterest board sneak peek

Is choosing a name holding you back from actually writing? Embrace filler names. I use filler names all the time. Basically, I have a list of names that are placeholders for certain personalities. I consistently use these names while first drafting, until I settle on a “real” name that feels right. If you don’t have these, grab some from a name generator. I don’t use Scrivener to get my character names. However, there’s a name generator that I think is an awesome tool that is often overlooked. It’s found in the same place: Edit -> Writing Tools -> Name Generator, and you can select from a variety of choices: names by country origin, first letter, ending letter, alliteration, and more. More recently, I’ve started a private Pinterest board where I pin baby name articles and other fun names I come across. Now it’s easy to just hop on and scroll through ones I’ve been saving for future use. 

Once you get a full cast, it’s best to double check the list and ask yourself how they’ll appear throughout the series. Too many similar names might make it hard for readers to follow. Avoid repetitive names or sounds. You probably don’t want to name everyone with a “J” name. It’d be hard to follow Jack, John, Jared, and Jill around. I suggest making a list of characters names in alphabetical order so you can physically see what is represented. Consider start, end, and syllables. The exception generally happens within relationships. Example? If you have brothers, maybe they will have similar names, but don’t overdo it. Granted, this solution might not fit every scenario. There are times where similarities can be too meaningful to change. But it doesn’t hurt to consider all your options. 

A mixture of all these things creates a list of believable characters, and I really hope you’ll enjoy playing around with names more than before!

~SAT

P.S. I’m teaching a free, virtual writing class on Wednesday, June 2 at 6:30 PM-8:00 PM CDT. It’s all about Starting a Writing Project. So, if you’re looking for more inspiration and fun tools/tricks, you can register here.

When You Don’t Write As Much As You Should

19 Apr

Recently, I didn’t write as much as I should have over a few weeks. Or should I say, I didn’t write as much as I thought I should have. 

Let me break it down. 

Every first of the month, I take a moment to look at my stats and see how much I’ve written. In March, I wrote significantly less than usual. Honestly, I barely wrote at all. But you know what I did do? 

I closed on my first home. We tore up the old flooring, painted every single room, including every closet and ceiling. (Did I mention sanding all the cottage cheese off every ceiling?) We renovated like crazy. We’re still renovating. But we’re making progress every single day. 

That said, my personal life obviously took priority over my writing life recently, which can spark imposter syndrome. When your writing life comes to a screeching halt, it’s hard not to notice everyone else’s word counts climbing and wondering if you just aren’t cut out for the writing life. I definitely had moments where I didn’t even feel like a writer anymore. There’s just so much pressure to write every day, to always be working on the next best thing. But it’s unrealistic. And it’s important to keep that in mind. 

Here’s some tips for when you find yourself in this position:

First, don’t beat yourself up. 

There’s no point in spending precious time thinking about all the things you didn’t do. Focus on what you can do. 

This can take a lot of self-awareness and correction. (At least, for me it does.) I beat myself up a lot. Too much, really. But I try to be conscious of what I’m thinking and doing. If the doubt bug starts to crawl in, I swat it away and try something new. 

Get creative:

While painting, my hands were obvious full, so writing was out of the question for me. But you could always use a tape recorder or speech-to-text software to keep going. Personally, that just felt like too much, so I decided to tackle an audiobook. I listened to The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene, which is a nonfiction book I’ve been meaning to pick up for another book idea. (It was awesome, by the way. Totally informative but also terrifying. The narrator is so dramatic in such a delicious way. If you want to learn about war strategies, I highly recommend it.) 

While listening, if I got to a point where something demanded my attention, I would stop to take off my painter’s gloves and type a few notes on my phone. I ended up finishing the book so quickly that I had time to download a “for fun” book, too. (These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is amazing. Just saying.) 

Accept the situation that you’re in and know that it will pass. (Or, if it doesn’t, trust that you will adjust.) 

Basically, as a writer, you’re not going to write every day. Maybe a whole season will pass without many words. Maybe a year. What matter is that you keep going and do your best when you are capable of chasing the dream. 

This goes to say: There is no amount you “should” be writing. There’s the amount you can write and the amount you want to write. Often, these two ideals conflict,and that confliction can cause anxiety. 

Being aware of where they collided—and how you feel—can help you side-step it and course correct. Or not. 

Maybe the amount you “should” be writing is exactly the amount you wrote today, 

~SAT

!! ANNOUNCEMENT TIME !!

I miss blogging! When I first started blogging in 2012, I blogged every other day. (Which blows my mind now.) Nowadays, I only blog once a month, but that is soon changing! 

I’m now going to blog twice a month: on the first and third Monday of every month. (And maybe a few extra days in between.)

Did I mention the giveaways? I’m planning some really fun giveaways to appear in the blog posts, so I hope you stick around. The first one will go up on Monday, May 3.

I’ll also be revisiting some of my more popular posts over the years and updating them with new tips and tricks. 

I can’t wait!  

If there’s an old post of mine that you love, please let me know. I’d love to re-tackle it!

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. ❤  

2020: The Strangest Writing Year (Hopefully?)

19 Dec

Every year I like to reflect and talk about expectations, goal-setting, writing life, changing trends, etc., and as strange as this past year has been, I still want to keep that tradition going. That said, looking back, January feels like it happened three years ago, not eleven months. In fact, right at the beginning of 2020, I taught my first writing course—Starting a Writing Project—and over 40 people attended. I was super proud. Still am! But seeing photos of everyone crowded into one room has me reeling now. 

That’s why I decided to name 2020 the strangest writing year. Not only because it was absolutely bonkers (and still is), but because current events have also shifted our way of thinking about other times. They’ve also affected us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, too. For me, spiritually has more to do with energy levels. You know, keeping your hopes up. Holding onto focus. Maintaining a level of discipline and using your energy to keep on keeping on. 

That was hard this year. But I’m choosing to focus on the positive.

When we went into lockdown in March, I thought Kansas City would be back to normal by June, August at the latest. Well… I’m still working from home, and I barely leave my home office. Sharing my workspace with my writing space has certainly taken a dent on my productivity, but going virtual hasn’t been all bad. In fact, my virtual world is pretty neat. I attended WriteOnCon, the Kansas City Writing Workshop, and YALLFest online. I also taught my first writing class online for Woodneath Writers. More regularly, I attended virtual write-ins with friends in California and Canada! I also continued to see my two local writers’ groups every month via ZOOM. 

my life pre-lockdown teaching to a crowded room vs. my life after lockdown at virtual write-ins

In my spare time, I also wrote an article for my local SCBWI scribbles newsletter, and later that year, I was the local author feature. Even more mind-blowing? I was chosen as a co-mentor in Pitch Wars with long-time CP and friend, Sandra Proudman. Only three years ago, I was submitting to Pitch Wars as a hopeful mentee, so being able to give back to that is so much fun. (Fun fact: Sandra and I actually met because of Pitch Wars.)  

At work, I was awarded Maggie Jackson Community Spirit Award for helping The Story Center at Mid-Continent Public Library go virtual. It’s the first time I’ve been awarded anything. It was a true honor. I’m so proud of everything my team and I were able to do for The Story Center and our customers during the lockdowns. In fact, I recently got to watch 21 of my students complete the Storytelling Certificate Program (which is currently free, virtual, and open to anyone in the world). What a way to celebrate all their hard work!

In personal news, I got engaged! My partner and I have been together for almost nine years now, so this is an exciting step for us. We’ve been house hunting, too, which is fun and new to us. I also became student debt free this year, which, if you remember my post from last year, I never thought I’d get to see that day. I am so relieved. And happy. (And absolutely still rooting for student loan forgiveness! It’s such a predatory system, and I hope others get forgiven soon.) 

In publishing news, I went out on sub with my agent, and I’m soon to go back out on sub in the new year. 

Over this past year, I sent my first-ever adult science fiction novel to my agent and started an adult fantasy novel. Since then, I’ve completed one major overhaul of my adult science fiction book and I’m currently working on revising it some more. I also revised a totally other book, too (which is what we’re going out on sub with)! In regard to my adult fantasy book, I’m currently 40,000 words in. I also played around with four new ideas and even received some feedback from an editor through SCBWI on my first middle grade verse novel!

That said, this environment definitely took a toll. I used to write about 10,000 words a week pretty consistently, and that did not happen for me this year. Between adjusting my day job and just life in general, my overall productivity was down, but I’m pretty happy with what I managed to cover this year. (Also a little sad I didn’t complete anything brand-new, but I did what I could.) 

I have no idea what 2021 will hold. Then again, I never know what the next year will bring. 

Maybe 2021 will be stranger. Maybe good-strange. Maybe not. 

All I can do is keep writing, keep trying, keep dreaming.

My only goal? To do the best that I can!

Here’s to 2021,

~SAT

If you’re interested, here’s my previous years:

Teachings from my Twitter Poll Story

17 Oct

It was noon, the sun was high, and I was standing on my back porch trying to get some fresh air during my lunch break when I heard strange music coming from the woods behind my house. Naturally, my imagination ran off with dreams of fairy parties and otherworldly adventures. It was a brief moment of respite in today’s ever-changing environment. 

Which is probably why I tweeted about it. 

(Okay, so I tweet about everything, but I digress.)

If you follow me on Twitter @AuthorSAT, then you’ve probably seen my Twitter poll story. If not, no worries! Here’s a link to the first part to catch you up. 

What is a Twitter poll story?

Basically, I write a little scene within Twitter’s 280-character limit that also sets up a question for readers to answer via poll. It’s reminiscent of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories that were really popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The biggest difference is that you don’t have to write the endings for the other choices; you only follow the path that the majority wanted to see. It reminds me a lot of RPG (role playing games) I’d play with my friends when I was young, or stories that we would take turns writing. (You email me Chapter One, I’ll then write Chapter Two, etc.)  

Writing those stories with friends used to bring me a lot of joy between classes in school, which is probably another reason I decided to run with this online. (A little bit of nostalgia goes a long way.) What I didn’t expect was to learn more about storytelling, reevaluate a current WIP, and have in-depth discussions with my writer friends—all topics I wanted to share with you all today.

There’s something to be said about being able to summarize your next plot point in 280 characters or less (and 2-4 choices in less than 25).

Every time I sat down to write the next scene, I really had to ask myself what could realistically happen next while also weighing its overall importance. If it was too easy to write, then the scene probably didn’t have enough risk. If it was too difficult, then I was probably getting ahead of myself. It definitely made me think about fluff. This goes for choices, too. 

Once I started expanding the story, I realized I wanted the votes to be as close to 50-50 as possible. Why? Well, mostly because it’s more exciting! The choices a character must make in a book should be difficult. Readers should be able to believe the character would make both choices, and those choices should make it so that they can’t go backwards and redo it. Basically, this is a great way to double check that your characters have agency. (They should be happening to the story; the story shouldn’t be happening to them. Though, it’s totally fine if a few scenes mix it up.) I only used two choices throughout this particular story, but I might try 3 or 4 next time!

In fact, I’m currently using this method to try and smooth out an outline for my new WIP.  

It’s been a lot of fun! And really insightful, too. 

My imagination can often get bigger than the story truly needs, and this has helped me make hard decisions about efficiency. It was also really fun! 

The most unexpected lesson? A story can benefit from playing into the readers’ desires. Not everything has to be shocking or a fresh, new twist. Sometimes, giving in to what the reader wants can be just what a story needs to feel alive again. In regards to poll stories in particular, involving readers can also be exciting. Along the way, I had a few readers comment with advice for the characters, and bringing them into the character’s thoughts made it feel like the readers were inside the story. (If only there was a way to do this with novels! If I ever get a series deal, I’m totally doing a giveaway for a character to be named after a reader. That’s a promise.)  

My Twitter poll story also caught the eye of some writer friends, and I was asked some questions that I thought would be fun to share:

  • How did you plan it? I didn’t! Not at all. I literally posted the first tweet from real life, and then just ran with it. I never wanted to get ahead of myself, because readers genuinely chose paths that I didn’t think they would follow (which was so fun to see)! 
  • What was the hardest part? Keeping my eyes off Twitter! Seriously, I was having so much fun, I just wanted to spend time on Twitter all day. 
  • Any tips for starting my own? Have fun. Make sure you can post around the same time every day, so that readers know when to check in for the next poll. I post on my lunch break M-F, and let each poll run one day. Let readers know when they should expect an update.

I hope you try this exercise with your WIP. If you create an online poll story, be sure to tag me @AuthorSAT! 

I’d love to follow your poll stories, too. (And vote!)

~SAT

Speaking of voting, the election is coming up! PLEASE VOTE.

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