Tag Archives: writers on writing

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.

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! 

Tips for Writing Spooky

31 Oct

Happy Halloween! 

I don’t know about you, but Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. In fact, one time my father snuck into my car while I was at school and filled it with Halloween balloons, chocolates, and a pumpkin-shaped candle burner. (I know. He’s the greatest. Though I admit, I didn’t know who did it at first…and that was unsettling. He kind of tricked me at the same time as giving me a treat! Ha!) I think about that Halloween all the time. There’s just something about the fall weather, the darkening days, the cider, the costumes. ::happy sigh:: Obviously, I’ve always loved the spooky, and that includes writing and reading it. In fact, I recently finished reading HORRID by Katrina Leno, and I absolutely loved it and recommend it 100%, but I thought I’d talk a little bit about writing spooky, too. 

First step is first: 

Ask yourself what scares you. 

The dark, the gremlins, the undistinguishable sounds at night—and what caused them. Just sit at your desk and brainstorm all the things that scare you, including everything that used to scare you. It doesn’t matter if you’re over it now. If you can remember that unsettling feeling you’d get in your gut, jot it down and be prepared to use it in your work.  

Now ask yourself what scares you but not other people.

This is an essential step. Why? Because it will help shape your world, your characters, and your story. It will also make it stand out from other spooky stories. I mean, everyone knows the dark scares a lot of people, but what about mascots? (Seriously, I’m very unsettled by mascots. Always have been, always will be.) If you can make your reader feel fear for something they hadn’t considered before, it will be all the more terrifying.

When I jot down “mascots,” I immediately think of a high school murder mystery, where my main character feels like they’re getting stalked at a football game but can’t see anyone following them. When the mascot comes up to her, she doesn’t think anything of it. But then later that night, someone says the costume was stolen. So who was in that costume? NO ONE KNOWS. Eek! (Even worse, if the person who was supposed to be wearing the costume is also found dead. Up those stakes, people!) 

Ask yourself why it scares you. 

Using my example above, when I ask myself why mascots scare me, it’s because I don’t know who is underneath the mask. I don’t know who is standing in front of me. It’s actually a pretty common fear if you think about it. In fact, most of your “uncommon” fears will have common enough reasons behind them, but tapping into that will help you as a writer shape your story and scare your reader. Ex/ The reason mascots aren’t a common fear is because we have an expectation for when they will appear: at games. But if someone unexpected is wearing the costume or you saw one randomly in an alleyway, you’d be a little unsettled, right? 

Taking something and putting it where it doesn’t belong can be spooky in itself. 

People are creatures of habit. We have expectations, rules, understandings. By breaking them, you will bother your reader. Ex. The dark is scary. It’s even scarier when it isn’t supposed to be dark outside and then it suddenly is.

Play around with all these elements and have fun. Once you’ve made decisions, consider your pacing and word choice. 

Personally, I tackle this on a second round of writing, but your pacing and word choice is going to make a HUGE difference when it comes to creating a creepy atmosphere. It can be a delicate balance and not always what you expect going in. For instance, sometimes describing something scary as beautiful could actually be unnerving (think, vampires), but other times, that sort of description could take away (or even confuse) your reader. 

I recommend going with your gut, but always get the opinion of a trusted beta reader. Don’t tell them your intentions going in. Just ask them how they felt as they read the scene. If they describe it as “lovely” when you were going for “unsettling” then you need to rework. 

Here’s to getting spooky! 

~SAT

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!

Starting a Novel: Tips, Tricks, & A Little Chaos

11 Jul

I recently finished a major revision on a manuscript. Typically that calls for a well-deserved break, to which I shake my fists at, because I am a write-aholic, and I love nothing more than to immediately jump into my next, shiny, new project. That’s right. 

I already started another novel. 

Why did I already start another book? Well, for one, I’ve been working on the aforementioned revision for six months. It’s been a bit, and I’ve been dying to oil my creative gears and discover something new, whether that be a fresh, exciting world or a character that shocks me. I also know that a writer should never put their writing dreams into one book. If my revision doesn’t work out, well, I need something else, don’t I? Might as well get on that. 

So how does someone start a novel?

Quick answer: It’s different for every writer and often every project. Some of my projects are more outlined than others. Some come to me in a blink; others fight me the whole way. But there are ways you can enhance your chances for success. 

Here are those tips: 

  1. Set Yourself Up Before You Begin

On any given day, I’m working on about three novels. One that I’m revising, one that I’m writing, and one that I’m outlining. Because my recent revision was more of a rewrite, it had been taking up both my revising and writing focus—so, when I turned that in, I had space available for one of the novels I’ve been outlining. (I currently have three strong contenders.) These three ideas have been rattling around in my brain for a while. (One I recently came up with only a few weeks ago; another is based on an idea I actually started drafting when I was 14. That’s right, the idea is 15 years old! But now I’m giving away my age. Always keep your notes.)

By having notes ahead of time, you won’t feel burdened by the blank page, because, well, you aren’t starting on a blank page. You’re starting with bursts of character, fun dialogue snippets, exciting scenes, and more.

2. Research, Research, Research

Research comes into the writing process at different stages for everyone. For example, when I write my fantasy novels, research might not come into play until the later drafting stages. I typically write the book, realize the type of research it needs, then do that. My science fiction novels are the complete opposite. I need to know how certain technologies work long before I start writing, or I’m going to have a mess on my hands. Same thing with the historical novel I wrote. Research happened before writing. Significant research. Knowing what sort of project you are writing and how research will affect the project is important. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and jot down a couple topics you know are in your story but you don’t know that much about. Next time you’re having a writer’s block day, guess what? You now have something to do. Better to research earlier on and prevent a blundering plot hole than to write an entire book and realize the premise is flawed. Amiright?

3. Start Writing that FIRST Draft 

Write however you want to. Write messy. Write in order. Just write. Right now, I’ve been writing in one of those three fun ideas I’ve had laying around, and I’m still at the stage where I’m writing snippets all over the place. I wrote Chapter One – Six, and then I went back and added a short prologue, flipped three chapters, and started outlining the rest. I have one document titled ORGANIZEDwhich includes notes I can put in order by scene, and one called UNORGANIZED, which is my chaos document. I have no idea where these snippets will go or even if I’ll use them, but I love them and hope to use them as the book shapes up. 

A sneak peek behind the curtains

Basically, my Scrivener project looks like a mess right now, but I’ve been here a dozen times before. I trust that it will come together as it should. I trust the process. I trust me. If you don’t trust yourself to write or finish, then you’re still at the stage of your writing career where you’re figuring out what your process is and how to go about it, and that’s totally valid. Try different times of the day. Experiment with new writing methods. Are you used to plotting? Go ahead and be a pantser for the afternoon. Play with a new genre you’ve never tried before. Explore, and eventually you’ll find an adventure worth pursuing. If you’re struggling with meeting your goals, try NaNoWriMo, setting goals, or using tools like PaceMaker Planner

At the end of the day, you’re at the start line, not the finish line, so treat it as such. You shouldn’t be comparing your new words to someone’s edited words. Remember: This is your first draft. You can be as messy as you need to be in order to figure out what your book is about—as long as you plan on revising later. And guess what? No matter how perfect you think your first draft is, you will have to revise, so embrace the moment. 

Start writing your novel today.  

~SAT

P.S. For more tips and tricks on starting a novel, I will be teaching a FREE virtual class on Monday, July 27 at 6:30 PM (CST). More information: Starting a Writing Project. It is taught through ZOOM. Go ahead and register, and I will see you there! 

One Writer’s Staycation & How You Can Recharge At Home

20 Jun

I recently took a week-long staycation, which consisted of me laying around my house doing absolutely nothing productive. I won’t lie, it was bliss. 

Usually, I like to talk about writing and publishing here on the blog, but I realized one vital truth while I was out: Breaks are a part of writing. If you don’t take breaks—if you don’t live—you’ll eventually suffer from burnout. To be honest, I’ve been suffering from burnout. (I should take my own advice from 2016: How to Avoid Writer Burnout.) This was my first week-long vacation in three years. Maybe more. I honestly can’t remember. Between moving and changing jobs three times, I found it incredibly difficult to justify a break. Now I realize I didn’t need justification. Working hard means getting breaks. (Granted, it’s easy to say this in retrospect. In reality, I honestly couldn’t afford to take much of a break until now, but that’s another discussion for a different day.) 

In the end, breaks are important. They can also be inspirational! In fact, I was inspired to be a little nicer to myself by writing this blog post instead of the more detailed one I had planned. (Considering how long I was gone, I’m a bit swamped with catching up with work and revisions at the moment.)  

For fun, I thought I’d share my staycation ideas with you, especially since these ideas are social distance friendly, on the cheaper end, and might just help you have a day to unwind. 

First and foremost, I promised myself two things when I went on my staycation:

  • No “serious” writing: What do I mean by serious? I mean anything that you plan on pursuing seriously. For me, that meant NOT working on my revisions. It’s not much of a vacation if I replace it with my other career, right? I actually made this mistake once during my last trip. I flew the whole way to Charleston just to pull out my laptop and work on a R&R for an agent that ended up quitting before I finished the rewrite. Biggest vacation regret ever. 
  • Staying offline as much as possible: As a writer and program manager who manages social media, I spend an ungodly amount of time staring at screens, let alone being online. I promised myself I’d log off as much as I could. And I did! TBH, it was my favorite part. I think this is a good idea for many of us. The internet is an awesome place, but it can also be very distracting. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve logged on for “just five minutes” only to realize a half-hour has passed. For this reason, I recently took Facebook and Twitter off my phone, and it’s been a godsend. 

So, what did I do during my staycation? 

  • Baking Day: I love baking. It keeps me off my phone and computer, and I get to have a delicious treat after. Recently, I haven’t been baking as often, but this past week, I baked my first Japanese roll cake. (Strawberries and cream!) I definitely recommend choosing something you’ve always wanted to try but have never felt energized enough to pursue. It was so satisfying! 
  • Spa Day: I had a spa day with cucumber/lemon water, face masks, Epsom salt, etc. 
  • TBR catch-up: Here’s the thing, I have A LOT of books I want to catch up on. But reading many of those novels felt a lot like industry research to me, even if they are books I personally want to read. So I set out to catch up on my Webtoons. If you haven’t given Webtoons a chance, I highly recommend them. I caught up on Siren’s Lament, SubZero, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Midnight Poppy Land. The artwork is beautiful, and so are the stories. 
  • Fondue Night: Who needs a fancy restaurant when you can recreate one at home? I made fondue and chocolate dip, picked up all my favorites, and had a blast. 
  • High Tea: Before everything shutdown, I went to high tea at a local historic house that happens to also post their recipes online. Check it out. You can have high tea at home! 
  • Movie Night: I’ve fallen behind on many of the films I’ve wanted to see the last few years, so I set aside some time to watch Get Out and Knives Out, and they were both amazing! 

Basically, there’s lot of fun activities you can do at home, and you don’t even need to take significant time off to do so or spend lots of money. Most of these could be done on the weekend. I’m definitely going to partake again! And hopefully, I’ll have less burnout this year, more laughter and fun, and my work-writing-life balance will be—well—more balanced. 

How do you recharge?

~SAT

P.S. When I made it back to work this month, I was awarded Mid-Continent Public Library’s Maggie Jackson Community Spirit Award, which is given to a library employee who dedicates extra time and energy to their community. I was totally blown away. Working at The Story Center over this past year has been a dream come true, and I can’t wait to see where the next year takes our community. Keep sharing your stories, everyone! The world needs them.

How Virtual Write-Ins Help Me During COVID-19 Lockdown

2 May

It goes without saying that life is strange right now—and stressful. As someone who has moved every few years my entire life, I adapt to change pretty quickly, and yet these amount of sudden changes (and the constant drone of breaking news) has created an environment requiring constant reevaluation. 

I’m exhausted, y’all. And I’m sure many of you are, too. 

For me, Kansas City went on a stay a home order back in March. That’s when I began working from home, readjusting my schedule, and trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to continue with “normal” life, even though “normal” had been redefined. 

During the first week, I did okay. Dare I say, too okay. 

I got up at the same time, wrote during my “lunch break” like I would normally do at work, and went about life as if it were normal. But life isn’t normal. Working from home is different than working in an office, not that I haven’t experienced that before. I used to be a full-time freelance editor who worked from home. But that was when I was an independent contractor. This situation isn’t that. The main difference? Everyone else in my life is adjusting, too. We aren’t alone, but at the same time, we are having to help each other and cope with one another’s stress levels, which were all heightened simultaneously. 

Before I knew it, goals I was on top of at the start of this year slid off the radar. Between work and home life and the stress of the world, I had to put my writing on the backburner. This included not only working on my own projects but also “attending” my usual writing groups, even though we converted to the virtual world. I normally have time and energy to devote to others’ work, but I simply didn’t have much leftover energy at all, and it felt wrong to attend if I couldn’t offer the basics. That being said, I didn’t want to disconnect completely. Doing that can cause even more depression and anxiety. So, I reevaluated. 

If I didn’t have the time and energy to devote to my writers’ groups, what could I handle? What did I want? More importantly, what did I need?

I definitely wanted more time to write, especially after finding myself unable to write as much during my lunch breaks (or even on my weekends, due to a lack of energy). I also wanted to stay connected to my writing friends. Luckily for me, a few writer friends reached out to me, asking if I wanted to come to their virtual write-ins. No critiques, no editing, no expectations; just a bunch of writers writing about anything. If you can make it, great. If not, we’ll see you next time.

This is what I had been looking for. 

This is my setup! My desk is really short, so I stack my computer on top of three books to get eye-level during video conferences, then put it back down when I’m writing. ^_^

At a virtual-write in, it’s just you and a bunch of other writers sitting down at their computers to write. We’re not reading what the other is writing; we don’t even necessarily talk about what the other is doing. We just show up and write. It’s such a simple concept, and yet it feels so huge and wonderful right now. It helps me feel connected and focused, and knowing that I have one coming up helps me look forward to something on my calendar. It reminds me that even if I don’t get anything done on my lunch break, I have an hour set aside here and there to get something done, and I’ll have fun while doing it. 

This past month was my WORST writing month this year by far, but I think we can all be kinder to ourselves right now. One of the ways I’ve learned to be kinder to myself is by communicating my limitations to my friends and creating new spaces to explore my current energy levels, and I highly encourage you all to try the same thing. It may not be a write-in. It might be a brainstorming session or a critique group or a million other things. But write-ins have helped me tremendously.  

How to create a write-in:

  1. Send out a call – let others know that you’re trying to organize a virtual write-in via email or social media. If you have a time/date picked out, let everyone know. (Don’t forget the timezone!) 
  2. Use Zoom – send out the log-in information the day before via email (or try another platform, dependent on what everyone has access to). I recommend Zoom because it’s free for forty minutes, and that might be a good time limit to try something new. I’ve attended ones that are thirty minutes and ones that are two-ish hours. For me, 1-1 ½ hours works best, with a little extra time to chat. 
  3. Now write! – It can be easy to get lost in conversation (and some of that is a good thing)! But if you’re there to get words on paper and you find yourself getting distracted by convo, set timers to chat and timers to write. Having a host who is in charge of these aspects helps, too. 

I hope this stirs up new and fun ideas for your writing life! 

It sure has helped me. Whether or not they continue when the world opens back up, I don’t know—I hope so!—but I’ll never forget those that reached out and made me feel more connected in a lockdown than I could’ve ever imagined. 

What are ways you’ve tackled your writing during this time? 

~SAT

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

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