Tag Archives: writing prompt

Writing About Grief

4 Oct

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

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

Now for writing advice:

Read Other Books About Grief

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

Balance the Sad with Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

~SAT

What Writers Can Learn from Reading Their OLD Work

30 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things I learned from reading my own work:

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

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

My biggest takeaway:

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

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

~SAT

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

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

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

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.

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

Teachings from my Twitter Poll Story

17 Oct

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

Which is probably why I tweeted about it. 

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

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

What is a Twitter poll story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~SAT

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

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! 

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

Finishing My First Pantser Novel

7 Sep

I finished my first panster novel. For those of you who don’t know what a panster is in publishing, it basically means you write with no plan, no outline, nothing. You write by the seat of your pants. Hence, panster.

Typically, I’m an outliner. A pretty detailed one, I might add. There’s something comforting about knowing my characters and their world pretty well before I jump in headfirst. I mean, what happens if I get 30,000 words and freeze? Or decide I hate everything? That hasn’t happened to me in a while, but it happens, which is why I favor spending more time in the heads of my characters/ideas/world before I dedicate a ton of time to a project. But this project was different. This project I never intended to pursue.

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I’m on Instagram! @AuthorSAT

Let me take you back to fall of 2018. (Oh, yes, it’s been one year since I started writing this project.) I was at one of the lowest parts of my writing career. I really felt like giving up. So, while dramatically crying in the shower (because all genius breakthroughs happen in the shower), I told myself it was fine to quit. Fine to write whatever the hell I wanted. Fine to not write at all. By the time I exited, I had decided to write the most ridiculous idea I could think of, and well, this book was born.

Obviously, if you can tell from the backstory, this book was born from a very emotional place, which is one of the reasons I think pansting worked. All I wanted to do was get down my rage, confusion, heartache, frustration, love—damn the timelines. Forget making sense. This wasn’t about sense. It was about nonsense, which is how I felt. And I used those feelings all over ever page of that book.

81,000 words later, and I’ve realized a couple of things.

  1. I had a lot more feelings than I thought—and it was super therapeutic to take a dive deep into them, no holding back. Even the ugly ones. Even the ones I didn’t know I felt. One of the only reasons I feel like I could do this to the extent that I did was because I had written off the idea of pursuing publishing with it. It was just for me. And so I wasn’t writing to satisfy anyone but myself. And guess what? I want to take this mentality with me into all my future projects.
  2. Pansting is a tool. I think it gets a bad rep in the writing world because it seems to be a synonym for those that don’t plan—and publishing does require a lot of planning—but not planning can be a plan in itself. (Crazy, right?) I mean it, though. By not planning, I feel like I have more authentic characters. My plot might need more work than usual. My world building, too. But characters is typically what I struggle with in a first draft, and I didn’t have that issue this time around. I plan on using pansting—even in light instances—to explore characters more.
  3. You never know what you’ll end up pursuing. I sort of already knew this, but this was probably the biggest instance where I seriously never, ever thought I’d share this book, but it’s my next one I’m handing to my agent. Of course, I have a few things to get in line before then. Like, you know, revising. A lot.

I definitely have a lot of revising ahead of me. More than I want to think about at the moment. (I mean, who isn’t burnt out on a piece once they hit THE END? At least, it’s typical behavior from me, which is perfectly fine, because I believe every writer should take a break between revisions. You risk making the same mistakes if you don’t. But I digress.) One tip I suggest: Take notes as you’re writing. I think this is good practice anyway, but it is absolutely necessary when you’re pansting. I already have pages and pages of info I can sort to organize my revision with—and it helps that I already took a significant portion to my writers group. (Typically, I take more polished versions to this group, but again, this book was different. It felt right to take it in early.) Basically, follow your writer’s gut.

My next novel? I’ve already started writing it—and I outlined it. Though I’ll admit my outline is the basics right now, or what I like to call my road map: Where I begin, where I want to end, and a couple of places I want to stop at in between. I’m still world building and getting to know my characters, so I know my plans will inevitably change. I also know I’ll have to return to my panster novel to start editing. But talking about balancing numerous pieces at once is another blog post for another day. (Maybe next month? Stay tuned…)

In the end, I don’t regret pansting my last book. In fact, I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve written. It’s a super wicked world, and I don’t think I could’ve planned such chaos if I had tried. Basically, pansting was right for that novel. It might be right for another novel in the future. It’s most likely not right for the one I currently want to tackle, but who knows? I might change my mind.

Be open to trying different methods of writing.

You might find out it was everything your work needed. 

~SAT

How I Revise My Novels

3 Aug

I talk a lot about writing, creating, marketing, editing, etc. But I haven’t specifically discussed the revision process. But isn’t revising and editing the same thing, you ask. No, not really. Though the lines can definitely blur, revising is a stage that comes before editing. Revising is knowing what to keep in your work, what to cut, and what to adjust; editing is making all of those changes pretty. You’ll do a ton of both during your writing journey, so I wanted to discuss how I revise my novels.

I have three main revision stages:

  1. Major Revision
  2. Beta Reader Revisions
  3. Final Revision

So let’s go through them one by one.

The Major Revision:

After the first draft, I start my “major revision,” which is basically a giant rewrite. I used to be a big believer in outlining, but the more experimental I got with my writing, the more I realized my outline was holding me back. I was always trying to force my characters to do what they needed to do, not what they wanted to do. Nowadays, I still rely on a basic outline, or what I refer to as my road map. (I know where I’m starting, where I’m ending, and a few pit stops in between, but I mostly let the book lead itself.) Granted, this method definitely creates a lot more revising in the end. In fact, there’s enough revising needed that I’ve also stopped going back and revising as I write. If I did that, I’d constantly be going backward. Instead, I jot down notes as I go and let it go until the end. (No point in making sense of it until I have all the puzzle pieces, right?) In my WIP, I have editing notes on almost every chapter; on top of that, I keep two documents: To-Do Editing and World Building Needs. These will anchor me when I’m finished and need to organize my thoughts. At the end, I look at all my notes, probably take even more notes, and revise. A lot.

Beta Reader Revisions:

I tend to send my work to beta readers after I’ve significantly revised. (More on that later.) Right now, I have 2 or 3 different groups of betas I work with. Typically, my in-person writing group here in KC gets my work first. (Enter revision.) After that, I send it to 1-2 trusted online friends. (Enter another revision.) Then—and I don’t always do this as much as I wish—I try to get the opinion of a non-writer. During these various stages, I might send the work back to the same beta numerous times. If that’s the case, I love to work in revision mode on Scrivener. (Or Track Changes in Word.) That way, it color codes what version I’m on, and they don’t have to re-read my whole manuscript.

RevisionMode

I’m actually not revising in this scene. I’m using revision mode to organize my thoughts. I love color-coding everything.

Instead they can read the color-coded parts and give me feedback on those. Though, to be honest, I typically use the revision mode during writing by myself too. (There’s also a handy screenshot button that lets you keep various versions of the same chapter in one place…but I’ll stop advertising for Scrivener now.) The key to working with beta readers is finding ones that are compatible with your work and your style. That doesn’t mean you connect with someone who praises everything you do; rather it means that you have an understanding of their goals and know how to approach each other in a positive, constructive way. If you don’t vibe with someone well, that’s okay. Move on. Find someone who works well with you. Two amazing writers can be in the same room; that doesn’t mean they’d make good beta readers for each other. (Or, as my father says, two great people can be in the same room; doesn’t mean they should be married.) And you want a marriage…er, a long-term partnership.

Final Revision:

Once I get most of my revisions done, I take a HUGE break. And I mean significant time away from the manuscript. This helps clear my mind. Without that, I’ll probably make the same mistakes I’ve been making in the past. You want to come at your project with fresh eyes. Once that happens, I focus on a basic read through, and I make no changes. Instead, I put sticky notes on places I want to make changes with later. (Yes, I tend to print out my manuscript. I know, I know, what a waste of paper. But this goes back to getting fresh eyes on everything. You’ll see things on paper that you can’t see on a computer screen.) Here’s a photo of my manuscript I worked on with my agent.

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If you didn’t catch on, I love office supplies. (Seriously, there’s nothing better than fresh pens and paper and Sticky Notes.) In case you’re curious what you’re looking at:

Blue = grammar

Orange = plot I know I need to fix

Pink = other things I want to consider

Green = current reading place

I actually go back and fix my grammar first. But that’s because I have so little to fix at this point. (I work on my grammar during the beta readers stage.) After that, I’ll tackle the orange and make an outline of each issue. Once I have a list of page numbers, I’ll fix each problem at a time. That way I know what the rhythm is like and I have my obvious problems out of the way by the time I move into pink. “Other things I want to consider” tend to be strange bits of info that caught me off guard during my initial read through. Something I wasn’t expecting but something that I might want to reconsider. The possibilities are truly endless, but this is another reason to come at your work with fresh eyes. You might realize you accidentally left something from version one of your book’s world building in the current script even though it no longer matters (or, worse, isn’t true anymore).

Now these stages aren’t necessarily taken so cleanly. My latest piece for instance? I started taking the very first draft to my writers’ group, no revisions beforehand. Why? It felt right to me, and sometimes (okay, all the time) you gotta go with your gut. In this case, I wanted to revise as I created. I think a part of the reason this happened was because I began this book for fun. I literally never thought I’d pursue it seriously, so I had no plan, no outline, no road map. It’s been really exciting, but also very challenging. Having beta readers help along the way was the right move. My point being, of course, is that just because you find a revising style that works for you doesn’t mean that you won’t adjust your own methods from project to project.

Be honest with yourself while revising. Find others who will also be honest with you. And revise as many times as your writing heart can take it (and then a few times more).

~SAT

P.S. I recently made the leap and decided to pay WordPress for the premium edition, so you shouldn’t have to see any more ads. I hope you enjoy the cleaner look! (The ads were really starting to bug me.) If you see an ad, take a screenshot and send it to shannonathompson@aol.com. Because they def should not be there.

P.S.S. I also decided to shut down my editing services. After six years of editing, I came to love so many of y’all’s work, and I will forever be a fan. (Shout out to C.E. Johnson, Steve Ramirez, Grant Goodman, Rich Leder, Kristin and Ryan King, and so many more.) I didn’t make this decision lightly. Between my new job at the library and my new goals with my writing career, though, I just couldn’t keep up with the quality and demand anymore. I know this is the right move for me (and for my authors), but my little editor’s heart is sad. I’m sending good vibes to all my authors out there. Thank you for trusting me with your words all of these years. ❤ It was an honor.

I’m a Writer with Imposter Syndrome

17 Mar

I have imposter syndrome. For those of you who don’t know, imposter syndrome “is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.” At least according to Wikipedia. (And, yes, I see the humor in starting this article with a quote from Wikipedia, but they honestly had the best to-the-point definition I could find, so…)

I’m surprised I haven’t discussed imposter syndrome before. Or maybe I have and it was archived at one point. Either way, it’s time to discuss it, because imposter syndrome is awful.

Imposter syndrome can also make you feel like you’re not yourself, that you’re hiding something, that you’re failing, hard. But hopefully this will help!

I tend to get imposter syndrome for two reasons:

1. I haven’t had a lot of writing time

This is actually my #1 reason. When I don’t have a lot of time to write, I don’t feel like a writer. I mean, writers write, right? (Say that ten times fast.) While, yes, writers definitely write, that statement bothers a lot of writers, because it puts an unnecessary pressure on them to always be writing, and that’s not always the case. Some writers write every day, sure, and that’s awesome! But some writers only write a few days a week. Or only once a week. And that’s awesome, too! Heck, I know published authors who tend to write-write (meaning putting prose on paper) only a few months out of the year. The other months are strictly for other types of writing (outlining, discussing ideas, researching, etc.). Whatever works for the writer and allows them to meet deadlines (and hopefully feel creative and happy) is what matters. But that doesn’t mean we writers don’t have moments where we don’t feel like we’re doing enough, where we don’t feel like enough. Believe me, I’ve been there. In fact, I’m feeling that way right now. (I’ll get to why in a minute.)

So my tip if you’re going through this: While you’re running errands or driving to and from work, really consider why you don’t have time to write. Do you actually have time that you can clear out on your schedule or are you going through a life change? Don’t be too hard on yourself either way. It’s okay to acknowledge that maybe you have been neglecting your craft. Admitting it is the first step to finding time again. If you haven’t been purposely neglecting anything—and your schedule is just rough—consider whether or not it’s temporary. If it’s temporary, relax. Get done what you need to get done. Communicate with agents, editors, publishers, etc. about what is going on in your life and see if anyone (like betas) can help. If it isn’t temporary, try to figure out what you can give up in your schedule for writing. Maybe you don’t need to watch five television shows a week. Instead, reward yourself with the whole season once you finish your first draft. Tah-dah!

 2. I’m pushing myself too hard

Now this is the other reason I get imposter syndrome. If you didn’t notice, it’s basically the opposite reason I listed above, right? Sort of. Sometimes they can go hand-in-hand. How? Well, because I might be pushing myself too hard somewhere else in my life (and still not getting writing time), and when I get exhausted, I get a little irrational. I start thinking there is 24 hours in a day. What do I mean by that? I mean that I forget basic necessities need to be done in 24 hours. You can’t pack all 24 hours with things to accomplish. You also need to sleep, to eat, to breathe. Pushing myself too hard can mess me up, especially when I’m not finding a lot of time to write, because I feel like I’ve done a lot and done nothing at all at the same time. This happens because I forget that writing is a part of my whole life, not a separated life from my job or home struggles. It’s easy to put writing accomplishments in one basket and everything else in the other, but try to put them in the same basket. That way, you’re acknowledging everything you’re doing in your life right now, not just your writing ups and downs, and you won’t feel like you’re failing when you’re actually working really, really hard.

I’m not going to lie. I think I’m going through both of these at the moment. Adjusting to the new job and still dealing with health issues has been rough. Fun but rough. (Fun fact: I found out I’ve been near-sighted my whole life this week, so I’m getting glasses soon. And hopefully, less headaches.) I definitely haven’t had a lot (if any) time to write between that and editing and marketing my current books (and keeping up on my TBR). Basically, I feel really disconnected to my writing, while also feeling too tired to try to write when I have a little time off. Granted, I should be following my own advice from the article a few weeks ago, Tips For Going Through a Life Change, and allowing myself to have an adjustment period, but let’s be real, easier said than done, right?

What I think triggered the imposter syndrome was meeting a bunch of new (and awesome) people who didn’t know I was an author. People, especially people who work in libraries, tend to get really excited/surprised/interested to hear about it when they first meet you, and while that should feel heartwarming, it feels really overwhelming when I’m not actively able to write as much as I like. It makes me feel like I’m neglecting everything, that I’m not accomplishing anything new, that I’m—you guessed it—an imposter.

But I’m trying to take a step back and remind myself that this is imposter syndrome. Though it feels real, it isn’t. Not really. It’s a construct, a pressure I’ve put on myself, and unhealthy at best.

I’m not quite out of the imposter woods, but admitting it to myself has helped me see the light, so to speak.

I have taken a moment to acknowledge how I feel and why I feel that way and what steps I can take to feel better—mainly rest, allowing myself to adjust to my job, and feeling good when I get a few words down. But the #1 thing I’m reminding myself—that I hope will help you—is an ultimatum I don’t see talked about enough.

As long as you’re not stealing someone’s identity, none of us are imposters. We’re writers. We’re all on a different path to publication, and we’re in this together, on good days and bad days. We aren’t “faking” anything if we are trying, and that’s what matters. Love your journey, always remember why you love writing, and love yourself.

There’s only one of you out there, and trust me, you are not an imposter.

You are a writer.

~SAT

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