Tag Archives: writing goals

Tracking Character Motivations with a Free Spreadsheet

1 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download your free Excel spreadsheet here. 

How do you track your character motivations? 

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

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

~SAT

2020 Author Goals

4 Jan

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

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

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

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

Today, I ask you to join me. 

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

In 2019:

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

Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise to continue.

What do you promise? 

~SAT

Did I Fail At Blogging? At Writing?

13 Oct

Last month, I received my WordPress award for six years of blogging.

And it felt like such a lie.

Most of you know that I stopped blogging this year. It started in April, a little over six months ago, and it is by far the biggest step back from blogging I’ve ever taken. I tried a lot of things to avoid it. I went from blogging every other day to blogging two times a week to blogging every Saturday. I started taking breaks, and then the breaks weren’t enough.

Granted, this year has been HARD. I know I sound like a broken record, but I’ve been struggling with health issues, my cat had cancer (then beat it!), and I started a new job. Recently, there was an unexpected death in the family and I found out I have to move. All of these issues and more led to posts like Tips For Writing During a Life Change and I’m a Writer with Imposter Syndrome. By writing those blog posts, I realized I needed to take my own advice. I needed to take huge steps back to breathe. But I honestly thought I’d be back by now, and that’s what scares me.

Logically, I know there’s a lot still going on in my life. (My kitchen is filled with moving boxes instead of plates. Not to mention that I currently write in the moving box-filled kitchen because my office is unusable due to a raccoon. Don’t ask.) I keep thinking I will feel better and attain more “when it gets better/easier/less busy,” but everything has just been getting worse, and I often feel at a loss about what to do to change it, because trust me, I’ve tried. And I’m still trying. After six months, though, it starts to feel like life is never going to stabilize enough to get back on track.

Trust me, I’ve tried to take the “life will never stabilize, so get back at it anyway,” but every time I sit down to write a blog post, I just get so depressed. I keep going back and forth, back and forth on when and how to come back. Should I post once a week again? What about every other Saturday? How about only when I feel like it? Will I ever feel like it? Not to mention that my free time is miniscule, and anytime I manage to get some, I want to use it to write my next novel rather than to blog. Not that I don’t want to blog, I do. I love blogging. I never meant to quit. And I still don’t feel like I “quit” blogging. I feel like I failed. Or time got away from me. Or life did.

Everything has felt so out of reach this year: my health, my job security, my writing. I used to average 10,000+ words a week on my “goal” project, plus some in other ideas. Now I’m lucky if I finish one chapter a month for my writers’ group and get to dabble in editing my historical. Forget pursuing publication. I can’t even fathom doing that right now, even though I want to. Granted, I haven’t technically stopped either. I always read Publishers Marketplace and Writers Digest, and reach out to publishing professionals, and work with beta readers, and and and. But every little thing feels huge right now.

It’s just hard to feel like I can give advice on writing, editing, and pursuing publication when I’m struggling to participate anymore. Oddly enough, though, I realized while writing this diary-style rant that I am participating. This is participating.

This is what I used to do every week: share my feelings as I navigate this crazy dream of writing.

And maybe that’s all I need to do. Maybe I’m enough, even in my failures.

~SAT

P.S. On a positive note, I will be signing books at the 2018 Story Center Local Author Fair in Kansas City, Missouri on November 17 at 3 PM. My books will also be paired with a custom-made pastry, so it’ll be super fun (and sweet).

Tips for Writing During a Life Change

3 Mar

Life is crazy, right? There’s moving, job changes, babies, weddings, divorces, health complications, weather disasters, and (okay, I’ll stop listing all these crazy life changes. You get the point.) Life is fun, but it can get complicated.

Working full time while writing is hard enough, but what do you do when you’re also coping with a life change?

You could curl up at your desk and cry…(which, totally valid)…or you could try these tips below.

To be honest, the answer to this question is going to be different for everyone. But I’m actually going through this right now. I just began a new job at the library, so my hours are totally different than what I’ve been used to for the past three years. Even my sleep schedule has changed, dramatically, and adjusting to my new way of living while trying to keep up with my writing goals is a little difficult.

So here are some quick tips I’ve learned by going through this.

1. Give Yourself Time to Breathe

If you’re not on a serious deadline, try to give yourself time to adjust to your new situation. In my case, that meant relaxing when I got home from work (even if it was a super short shift) and only writing on my days off. Slowly, I started to write after or before work too, but to be honest, I’m still adjusting to my new schedule, and my new job has to come first right now. Remember: writing isn’t a race. Start slowly. Getting burnout is the last thing you need, both for your new life change and your writing life. If you’re on a deadline though, you probably don’t have this luxury. In that case, I suggest as much sleep as you can get and, if possible, support from friends and family. Ex. If you’re moving, try to see if you can get a buddy to unbox a few things for you while you write. Pay them with pizza. Heck, hang out with them for five minutes if you can. You still deserve a little time to de-stress. Clearing your mind will help you hit those goals more than pushing yourself too hard all the time. If your stress levels are too high to write, binge-read all the books you’ve missed out on. Breathe.

2. Experiment

Whether you just had a baby or moved or divorced or (whatever), you will have to experiment with your new life to see what fits you best. It might take a while to realize whether or not the experiment is working. Like I said above, I’m still adjusting. I first made a goal to write on days I was off, but then realized I was exhausted during my first few days off. (Adjusting to a new sleep schedule has been the hardest part.) It took two weeks to realize I needed to try that experiment again, and sure enough, it was successful the second time around. My goal is to adjust, not to perform the exact same right away. Granted, my eventual goal is to get back up to speed, but for now I’m concentrating on work training, feeling energized, and getting back on my feet. Which brings me to my next point…

3. Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself

Adjusting to something is HARD. The last thing you need to do is be any more hard on yourself than life already is. If you struggle with writers block because of the change, take a bigger break or write anyway (and don’t judge yourself when you hate what you wrote. You might find out when you read it later on that it wasn’t so bad after all). Remind yourself why you love writing and that this is a temporary feeling. You will adjust. Reward yourself for the little things (because those little, first steps can feel huge). For instance, on my old schedule, I tended to write 10,000 words per week pretty easily, but lately, I’ve been managing about 5,000, and that’s okay. I’m just glad that I’m still figuring out when and how I can write, so that I can continue more in the future.

So these are my tips!

If you’re currently going through a life change, I hope these help you write well and feel good about writing again.

~SAT

Setting 2018 Writing Goals

6 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of your goals for 2018?

~SAT

Balancing Writing During the Holidays

25 Nov

Most writers aren’t able to write full time. That means we tend to work full time and write full time. Between writing, querying, editing, and marketing, our schedules can quickly feel crushing, especially if you’re working toward a very specific goal, such as a revision deadline. Taking breaks can often make writers feel guilty. But you deserve a break, too. Especially during the holidays.

Grab a cocoa, some cookies, and watch the snow fall.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a workaholic. My life is often, if not always, out of balance. I don’t make enough time for family or friends (or myself) and, though I know I should, I really struggle to find time in my jam-packed calendar full of work, publishing, writing goals, and personal goals. But that’s also why I get burnt out so often. (Okay. So maybe this year was just awful.) Anyway…

I’m trying to be more mindful going into the holiday season. You know, taking more time to sit back and relax, so that when I sit down to write I feel energized and passionate, rather than bogged down by crippling responsibility.

I try to look at it this way: I can’t write dialogue if I’ve never participated in a conversation. Without regular reminders of life, it is more difficult to describe it—to connect with it—and it’s important to be realistic in stories. (It’s also important that we, as people, have interaction with others.)

My personal holiday notes?

  • Don’t let your goals take over your life.
  • Some sacrifice is okay, but don’t sacrifice everything all the time.
  • Enjoy the holidays.

If you are trying to keep up with everything during the holidays, my writing tips are about the same as they are throughout the year: Set aside time to write and stick with it. Always have a notebook on hand. (I use the SimpleNote app, so I never forget it, and I can transfer notes directly to my Scrivener on my laptop.) Set specific goals (Ex. I will write or edit 10,000 words every week), but don’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t accomplish every goal you set. Adjust and keep writing. Rest well and dream often. Oh, and reward yourself with holiday cookies.

If you notice I’m not online as much this holiday season, it’s because I’m trying to be more present in my life. (I even got my first Christmas tree!) I have my blog articles planned for December, but they’ll mostly be fun, light-hearted pieces, along with my regular end-of-the-year posts (like my favorite books of the year and where I think trends are heading). I’m hoping I can get back into the swing of things in 2018, but I’m more focused on having more balance in my life, because I let my life get way too out-of-balance this year.

Balance is important, not only during the holiday season, but also during the rest of the year.

Take care of each other.

Happy Holidays,

~SAT

Challenge Your Writing

12 Jun

Challenging your writing is important, but what does that mean?

It means trying something new—attempting a project outside your box of comfort—or switching everything up entirely. Challenging yourself can be a big or small adventure. You can try a new genre in a short story rather than a novel, for instance. But pushing yourself to try a new genre, tone, perspective, etc. can only benefit you. As an example…

I mainly write YA SFF, and I have done so for ten years now, but recently, I set out to write a historical novel. Not only that, but it is my first serious project written in third person. Why? Because I’m challenging my writing…and myself.

Challenge: Try a new utensil. If you normally type your books, try a pencil. See if that changes your perspective.

You see, I’m comfortable with first-person science fiction and fantasy. Almost too comfortable. I find myself flying through drafts and ideas—and I love that, don’t get me wrong—but I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something more. A hurdle. A bit of fear. A semblance of discovery. By challenging myself, I can learn more. I might even fall in love with a new style, genre, or voice. The possibilities are endless.

It’s easy to write with your strengths, but what about overcoming your writing weaknesses?

I struggle with romance, for instance. Though I love first-person, I find it a bit narcissistic, so concentrating on feelings on top of the I, we, me, etc. has always been uncomfortable for me. So, I thought, What about third person? I had no idea if third person would help me overcome this hurdle or not, but hey, I set out to try…and sure enough, I learned a lot about myself and about writing those more emotional scenes. In fact, I look forward to learning even more about my writing through this challenge, and I look forward to future challenges I set out to overcome.

Granted, challenges come with…well, challenges.

Normally, I would be 60,000 words into this first draft, but I’m currently sitting at 42,000…and it’s a messy 42,000. (A really messy 42,000.) But I’m also in love with the mess.

I have never been so unsure of my writing in my life, but I still believe in the manuscript. I still believe in the challenge. And even if I never finish this book, I already succeeded at reaching my original goal: Learning something new.

Constantly challenging myself helps me learn more about my writing and about myself. So I challenge you to set a challenge for yourself today.

Try a new genre. Write from a new type of character’s perspective. Attempt a different perspective entirely.

Just go on an adventure. Make mistakes. Overcome obstacles. Try again.

You might discover something amazing.

~SAT

 

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