Tag Archives: writing advice

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

SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map Conference Announcement!

20 Sep

I have A LOT of wonderful events and opportunities coming up, so I wanted to keep today’s post short, sweet, and informative. Mostly, I’ll be teaching and critiquing at the SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map conference. I’ll also be mentoring a YA writer throughout 2022, but applications open up on November 7!

It’s all virtual, so I hope to see you there!

I put my specific events below, but you can check out the full lineup here.

November 3, 2021: SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map Conference: How to Write a Series WebinarLearn how to write a series by exploring how to use outlines, book bibles, and subplots to keep each book consistent, but also fresh and exciting. We will also cover how to avoid that middle book slump and nail that cliffhanger ending. Walk away with a resource list that includes recommended craft books and websites for further research.

November 6, 2021: SCBWI MS/MO Middle of the Map Conference: Critiques: I’m offering critiques in both YA and MG. Read details here

November 7, 2021: YA Mentorship with SCBWI KS/MO: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to win a free mentorship with our faculty author and local PAL member, Shannon Thompson! The 2022 KSMO Writer’s Mentorship will focus on Young Adult manuscripts.  Applications will be accepted Nov. 7-Dec. 5. Winner will be announced in January 2022! Check out details here.

P.S. Pitch Wars is also going on right now! I’m co-mentoring a middle grade writer. On Saturday, October 9, I’ll be taking over the Pitch Wars InstagramCome stop by to say hi and see the day in the life…

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

Want an Accountability Partner? Consider This First.

19 Jul

Maybe you’ve heard of accountability partners. Maybe you’ve considered getting one. But what is an accountability partner, really, and how do you get someone to help?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, “accountability partner” is teaming up with someone who will keep you accountable for your writing progress. For example, your friend may check in with you every Tuesday to make sure you’ve written 1,000 words that week, and if not, you may jump on Zoom for a quick write-in.

Accountability partners look different to everyone because every writer has their own unique goals.

It may include critiquing, or it might only be a verbal check-in. The partnership can go both ways or not. Your accountability partner might not even be a fellow writer. Finding what works for you is what’s key.

Here’s how I set up my accountability system without anyone but me knowing.

As of late, I’ve spent most of my writing time revising rather than writing a first draft. That said, I have a hard time concentrating on one novel at a time. On any given day, I tend to have three going: One I am revising, one I am writing, and one I am dreaming about (or outlining). That way, I have different projects for different energies. (If I only revise, I lose my motivation fast.) But working on three separate projects doesn’t come without difficulties.

How do you know you’re writing enough? What time do you dedicate to which project? When will you get it all done?

These were questions I had to ask myself. When it comes to revising, I know that I need to get it done as fast as possible, but I also need it to be quality edits, not just speed. That’s why I put most of my energy into that project. That said, I know I need to honor some creative/writing time for myself. If I don’t, I get burnt out. Nevertheless, it’s easy for me to forget that and fall into a responsibility trap, where I end up drained and frustrated.

This was why I knew I needed to make a specific, time-set goal around creative writing.

That goal? Every month, I will write two new chapters for my monthly critique group.

Sometimes I send more if they have the reading time and I had the writing time. But I tend to only manage two chapters. That’s about 20 pages. It’s very minimal. But guess what? It’s better than nothing. Believe it or not, by the end of the year, I tend to have a full-length novel.

But do my critique partners know about this? No, not really.

Here’s the deal: I don’t have accountability partners in the traditional sense. No one is going to email me and say, “You told me you’d have X done by this date, so where is it?” The way I approach it is a lot more light-hearted.

No one in my group knows that my goal is two chapters every month. No one gives me a hard time if I don’t meet that. But every month, my iCalendar bings the week before our meetup and asks me if my pages are ready. If they aren’t, I focus solely on those pages until they are good to go.

For me, accountability is about giving yourself permission to set everything else aside to focus on that one time-set goal you promised yourself.

It’s investing in your work, your future, and your writing. Finding a pattern that helps you do that is key. Sometimes discovering that requires help from a friend or a family member (or an alert on your calendar). Don’t be afraid to ask those around you if they’d be willing to check in. That said, I’d recommend considering your goals before you talk to others. That way, you can tell them what you need.  

My advice?

Set a small writing goal, but don’t forget to consider your accountability.

I will write (# of words) every (time: month, week, etc.) for (my critique group, my website, myself).

If you’re feeling really brave, add stipulations: As I approach my deadline, I will set aside (TV, other projects, dessert) until I complete it. I will also not hesitate to ask for help on (laundry, dishes, childcare, etc.) if I need extra time.

Lastly—and as always—it’s okay to adjust your goals.

Even your accountability partner will understand if you say you can’t write the same amount of words in the fall as you can in the spring. Life happens. Don’t punish yourself for not hitting your goal. Instead, ask yourself why. Are you being too hard on yourself? Are your expectations too high? Adjust your word count or time, and try again.  

It took me a long time to find my happy place with creative writing vs. revising, but I would never have found it if I hadn’t adjusted along the way.

For instance, I used to write 10,000 words a week. That number makes me gasp now. With a full-time job, a house to take care of, and the understanding that I need more time to be human, I’m nowhere near that output anymore. And that’s okay! I have new goals now. And with those, I am staying accountable.

What about you? Do you have accountability partners?

~SAT

How to Enjoy Reading as a Writer (And Complete Those Reading Goals)

21 Jun

It’s summertime, which means beach reads are among us. Not to mention the fact that we’re halfway through 2021. (Eek!) How far along are you on your reading goals? I aim to read 52 books a year. I’m definitely not there yet. But I know a lot of us take this time of the year to catch up on our TBR pile, so I wanted to chat about books from the writer’s perspective. 

As Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” It’s a very popular writing advice quote that most writers have probably heard here and there. I tend to agree with it. Reading is an important step of becoming a writer. But what happens when you don’t enjoy reading anymore? What if reading starts to feel like a chore? 

More often than not, I hear three reading issues from writers:

  • I can’t read while I’m writing. I fear accidentally taking those author’s words and using them myself in my current WIP. 
  • I don’t have enough time to read and write. My schedule doesn’t allow me to sit down and do both, so I have to skip the reading part. 
  • I don’t enjoy reading anymore. All I do is compare my work to theirs and/or I see tropes/mistakes/what’s coming rather than enjoy the moment.  

Sound like you? I’ve certainly been here before. The one that bit me the hardest was the last one. I used to get in such a writing headspace that I felt like I was studying every book I was reading rather than sitting back and enjoying the story. Eventually, I realized that I had to consciously set aside my writing brain and invite my reading one in. But more on that below! 

Combining reading with a beautiful place doesn’t hurt either!

If you’re the kind of writer that struggles with reading, here’s some quick tips:

  • Try reading in a different medium: I love audiobooks. They are absolutely perfect when it comes to my schedule, because I can read while driving, cooking, or doing other chores. They also give me a chance to rest my eyes and hands, which often get sore between my day job and writing. I’ve personally found audiobooks to help with separating reading from writing. My writing brain is easier to turn off when I’m listening to an audiobook because I don’t write in that same format. This required some lifestyle adjustments, though. In fact, I deleted all writing advice podcasts from my phone, so that I would stop associating audio with advice. Audio is now solely a place for joy—not advice—and making sure I honor that has helped my brain stay in that happy place for longer. 
  • Try reading a genre or age category that you don’t write: This is a good fit for those of you who fear accidentally taking something from a book you’re currently reading and putting it into your own words. If you’re reading a different genre/age category, it will feel more separated than if you’re reading something along similar lines. It may also help with the comparison bug. (It’s harder to compare your work to someone else’s when they are so vastly different.) 
  • Embrace how you’re feeling: What you’re feeling is perfectly normal. I find the writers who fight these feelings are the writers who struggle with it the most. I know, because I was one of these people for a long time. I often had to find ways to beat back the comparison bug. For instance, whenever I was reading something amazing and I started to think “I’ll never be able to write like this”, I would immediately flip to the back of the book. There, I would read the Acknowledgements page and read the growing list of people who helped that author get their story to where it is today. This was a factual reminder that my WIP was still a WIP; this book was a story dozens of people had helped shape. Seeing that almost always made me feel better. So yes, embrace what you’re feeling. Ask yourself why. Then tackle it. Once you do, you’ll find a solution. 

There are lots of ways to tackle reading and bring back the joy if you’re struggling. For instance, if I read something I admired—be it a trope, scene, or even a word—I would write it down. That way, I was acknowledging something my writer brain loved, but also took a note to deal with it on another day. At the end of reading, I’ll come back and analyze it.

It may take some experimenting, and you may experience hiccups along the way, but never give up on your love for reading. So many of us started writing because of reading. In fact, if you remember those old favorites that inspired you, I would encourage you to pick them up again. Enjoy that experience again. Remind yourself why you love the written word, and I’m sure you’ll be reading again in no time!

Do you have any reading tricks or tips? Feel free to share them with me! 

~SAT

P.S. Wednesday, June 23 is my 30th birthday! Where has time gone?!

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

7 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows?

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

~SAT

Writing Crying Scenes

17 May

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

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

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

Consider how your character feels. 

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

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

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

Double check your biases and consider tropes

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

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

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

How and why do your characters cry? 

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

~SAT

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

Looking Back on my Pantser Novel

3 Apr

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

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

Cue the time I decided to be a panster. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will I pansted a novel again? 

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

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

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

~SAT 

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

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