Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’


Though I’ve been taught to never start writing a book without having my beginning, middle, and end in mind, I have continually insisted on sitting down and blindly tapping away at the keyboard, trusting the plot to work itself out as I go. And sometimes, the story does just that…but sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, as I’ve recently learned the hard way, it’s a mess.

Since deciding that the book I’m currently working on might be stronger if it were written in the third person point of view (and I have to virtually start the book over anyway), I’ve refused to make that mistake again. Therefore, I’ve spent the majority of the past week or so working on an outline for the book.

Here’s what I’m learning:

1) My characters need a little structure. What I mean by that is, although I love the surprises my characters present to me as I write along, I need to keep them under control, to a point. As any writer knows, characters have a way of taking the story into their own fictitious little hands, and guiding the plot their own way. Sometimes, this is a blessing. Other times, it’s a curse. I’m finding that giving them freedom, but within the confines of the stories structure, works out well as long as the boundaries are set in place.

2) My outlines never go exactly as I plan them. Even with a solid outline, the characters bring their own attitudes and actions to the story, the same way actors do with their scripts, so for me, having an outline really doesn’t limit my creative freedom.

3) Outlining is a great way to know what comes next. Nothing sucks worse than getting 35,000 words into a story and suddenly wondering now what? I’m finding that having an outline in place eliminates this problem, and for me, that is awesome.

4) Outlining is hard, damn it. There seem to be two types of writers: those who excel and plot, and those whose strength lies in characterization. I am of the latter persuasion. I just kind of “get” characters. I understand how to make them move and speak, and I usually instinctively know “who” they are and what they want. Creating a strong plot to cast them in, however, isn’t so easy for me. I don’t know how other writers operate, but I see glimpses of story ~ small, seemingly unrelated flashes of action, dialogue, or events. It’s my job then to put these slices of plot into some kind of order, and to ultimately tell a solid and cohesive story. This, for me, is usually pretty challenging, but although it’s difficult (for me anyway), it saves me a lot of trouble in the long run.

5) Process is unique to every writer. I’ve talked to many writers about their process, and none of them use exactly the same methods. This is both a blessing and a curse for the beginning writer. On one hand, it’s great because the possibilities are endless, and the new writer doesn’t feel restrained by the advice of other writers. On the other hand, every writer needs to develop his or her own process, and that takes time, practice, and requires a few (or a lot of) dead-end attempts.

6) Process can change from book to book. For me, some stories work just fine without an outline. When I was writing Sterling Bronson for Beautiful Monster, I rarely referenced the outline, although we had one made up. Sterling just kind of did his own thing, and since he divided his time with Brenna, Mimi’s character, there wasn’t any room for dawdling. The book I’m currently working on now however, needed to be outlined. This one is a more layered storyline and I don’t think there’s any way I could finish the book without a solid knowledge of where I’m going with it.

7) Finally, what I’ve learned from outlining is that whether or not you map your stories out at all, the most important thing in writing anything is still to simply sit down and do it. It doesn’t matter how you do it…just that you do it. I’ve heard of writers who spend so much time working out convoluted character development sheets, learning every detail of each character to the point of what this character’s favorite kind of socks are, that very little actual writing gets done. My advice: outline, even if it’s very skeletal…but let the story come to life as it’s being written. Let the details fill themselves in as the characters and the plot invent or require them.

Until next time,

Happy writing!

(What a typical outline of mine looks like!)

outlining

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As soon as I was accepted for publication by a publisher, I was given some advice by more than one writer: do not read the reviews on your book. For some reason, book critics seem to be especially harsh, and I can see how reading bad reviews would make a writer feel pretty terrible. So, I considered this to be good advice, and made a not very committed decision to follow it. Beautiful Monster has been out for less than two weeks, and guess what I’ve done almost every day since? Yep. I’ve been on Amazon. I’ve been on Goodreads. I’ve been on Barnes & Noble. I’ve been everywhere the book is being marketed and I’ve been reading the reviews.

So far, the reviews have been good… great actually. I’ve been impressed by the readers’ insights into the story, I’m fascinated by the way they are affected by it, and I am, of course, flattered by their kind words. However… it’s just a matter of time till someone feels differently, and publicly states their hatred for me as an author, and/or the book itself. It’s inevitable. The question is: how will I handle it? The answer: I’m not sure.

I’d like to think I’m thick-skinned enough to take some criticism, but after reading some of the incredibly abrasive negative reviews on some of my favorite books, I’m not so sure. People get downright nasty about these things! So… I’ve made a decision. I’m going to stop while I’m ahead and not read any more reviews. The truth is, you can not write for other people. Writing is something that is almost entirely intrinsically motivated~ you have to do it for yourself. As soon as you start listening to critics, you start questioning yourself.

I also need to use my time writing new material. Beautiful Monster is complete; there’s no taking it back, and no changing anything about it, even if I wanted to. It’s been given wings and is out of my hands. It’s been placed in a world which will do whatever it chooses to do with it. It’s not my business what becomes of the book at this point. The only business I have is to keep writing. That’s what this is all about: keeping on keeping on, and so… onto the next chapter…


After ten years of dreaming about it, seven years of preparing for it, and almost three years of ruthlessly pursuing it- I’ve finally done it. It took me exactly 190 rejection letters between two completed novels, but I have at last been offered a contract. It wasn’t for my first novel, The White Room, which was ultimately rejected by the two publishers who were recently interested in it. Instead, the offer was for Beautiful Monster, the horror story which I collaborated on with Kim Williams-Justesen~ a fact that, given the gruesome nature of the novel, surprises me. But that’s beside the point.

What happened: On the eleventh of May (my birthday!) we submitted the story to a press I’d come across through a strange chain of events two weeks before. A day after the initial submission of the first three chapters and the last chapter of the book, we received an e-mail asking for the entire manuscript. We’ve been down this road before, I thought, bracing myself for the agonizing coming months I’d spend waiting for the eventual, “thanks, but no thanks.” But… that isn’t at all how it played out. Instead, just a couple of days later, we received an e-mail congratulating us. Our novel was accepted for publication. I didn’t get the e-mail. I got the news in a phone message from Kim.

What it was like: It was unreal. I guess if I had to compare it to something, it was a little bit like being on an airplane when it climbs or drops several hundred feet in a matter of seconds. Your vision swells, your stomach lurches, your heart does a somersault, and your head feels like it’s imploding. I don’t think I took a breath for several minutes after I heard the news. I sat down, suddenly unsure if standing was such a good idea. In her message, Kim said she’d forwarded me the e-mail. I got on the computer, logged into my account, and there it was. I blinked at it. I read it three times. I logged out of my e-mail and back in again to check it a fourth time. It was still there. I picked up my phone, went to my voicemail, and listened to the message one more time. Nothing had changed. We’d just been made an offer.

That was when the bliss hit me. Bliss may be a strong word, but I think it’s deserving of its placement in this context. My body tingled and my mind raced. I wanted to jump out of my skin, but in a good way. I wanted to leap from my chair and run into the streets, thrusting my glee upon anyone within a five-mile radius. I could not sit still. I had nowhere to go, so I grabbed my phone again and began texting the news. I later learned that in my excitement, I’d made several errors in my efforts, sending the message, “We just got offered a contract on Beautiful Monster!” to my dentist in Utah, the landline of my poodles’ vet hospital, and, I’m pretty sure, to a woman I’ve never met named Joyce whose number is in my phone because six months ago, she was handling my property out-of-state. But I didn’t care. I was spreading the joy.

You’d think that after all the months and years of working for this very moment, waiting for it to be realized, the bliss would last longer. It doesn’t. I think I squeezed about ten wonderful minutes out of the whole deal before the doubt started in. The doubt is mean and ugly and wants nothing more than to crash your party. No sooner had I hit the send button on the fifth or sixth text to anyone within send-button range when the doubt began creeping in. It told me it wasn’t real. It told me I was being scammed. And worse, it told me that now I was going to have to go back and explain to everyone I’d texted that it was a false alarm. The sting of that blow was very real to me then, and I briefly considered sending out a mass Just Kidding! Gotcha! text to all my contacts.

Suddenly, I doubted everything from the reality of the e-mail to the legitimacy of the publisher. I’d researched the press before submitting of course, but now I was obsessed by the idea that I’d somehow missed something vitally negative about them. I got on the computer. I spent the next several hours combing through their website, researching their authors, and looking for holes in their plans to rip me off. I googled their reviews. I visited Editors and Predators. I read everything I could. I found nothing that supported my suspicion that this was some kind of scam.

We got another e-mail from the publisher saying we’d be receiving a contract in the next few days. We also got our author guidelines and editorial formatting forms, which I believe is for e-book formatting. By now, I’d talked to a friend of mine, an author who has been in the business for about twenty years. She had a little experience with the press and knew someone who had substantial experience with them. The conversations that ensued calmed my mind enough that I made peace with the fact that until I saw the contract, there was no reason for me to neither celebrate nor mourn.

In the days while I wait for the contract, I am surprisingly peaceful. If this is a good gig, then great! And if not… I am out nothing. It is during these days of waiting that I believe I have probably grown the most as a writer than I ever have before. I’m realizing during this time that even when the dream comes true, there’s still the reality to be reckoned with; as soon as a wonderful thing happens, there begins the threat of the next potential great disappointment. A lot can happen between the signing of a document (assuming we sign it) and when the actual book is produced, and somehow, I’m okay with that.

All of a sudden, I’m not fighting anymore and this is new territory for me. I think I’ve finally given up. I don’t mean to say I’m quitting. I mean, I think I gave up the control that I never had in the first place. For the first time in years, I don’t care whether or not I get published. I’m turning my attention back to my writing, back to my life, back to the things I love. And for the first time, I’m realizing how hell-bent I’ve been on this thing… for the first time, I understand that even when it does finally happen, it doesn’t actually fix anything. Until now, I didn’t even know I’d been trying to fix anything.

I’m standing here~ facing, for the very first time, the reality of a dream I’ve been entertaining for ages… and I don’t care about it anymore. I realize that I love my writing and that’s all that matters. Above all, I realize with painful clarity all of the unnecessary pressure I’ve put on myself~ the tremendous weight of my self-imposed demands… and the unreachable heights I’ve set for myself.

I haven’t talked to many people during the past few days. I’ve been quiet and withdrawn, but I am at peace. There’s nothing to say. There’s nothing to do. I am tired, as if all the time I’ve spent working for this has finally caught up with me and is taking victory over me. I’ve been sleeping a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever been as exhausted as I have these past few days. I feel raw and weak, but I am finally at peace with the world around me, and at peace with the knowledge that whatever will be will be, and it’s no longer up to me to try to force it.

I’m optimistic about the contract. I don’t know yet whether or not we will sign it, but I feel good about it so far. Whichever way this goes, this experience has been nothing like I thought it would be. It is… real, and somehow I guess I never thought it could be. One thing is certain though. This is not the final destination I somehow thought it was. This is just the beginning. I’m as curious as anyone to see how this plays out.


Writing seems to be an awful lot of re-learning things I should already know. I don’t know why I forget some of these basics, but I continually find myself saying, “Oh yeah… I knew that,” and wondering why yet again, I went down a road I should have known went nowhere.

My most recently forgotten guideline of writing is that first drafts don’t have to be perfect. This was the very first thing I ever learned about writing a novel, and I didn’t even realize I‘d been caught in that very counter-productive trap until last week. Initially, I was only aware that it seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual for me to get the story moving. It wasn’t till I asked myself what the holdup was that I acknowledged what was happening and began practicing something I already know: write first, edit later.

I’ve read the left-brain/right-brain theories which suggest that creative writing and technical revising require the use of opposite sides of the brain. Allegedly, to try to utilize both sides simultaneously results in a kind of cerebral squabble that ends up clogging the system and cancelling out both endeavors, like some kind of cognitive conflict of interest. Whether or not this is the truth, I don’t know. But I do know that for me, editing as I’m writing doesn’t work.

In order for me to get to the story written, I need to drop my “good writing” pretenses, ignore the sentences that suck along the way, just keep moving, and save the spit-shining for the edits. I know this… yet until a few days ago, I was spending hours on paragraphs where no more than a few minutes were needed, at least in this stage of the game anyway.

I’ve given it some thought and have narrowed down the culprits which have triggered this first draft amnesia. The main offender is the new standard I’ve reflexively set for myself; entirely my fault, no surprise there. I’m working on my third novel, and with the previous two under my belt, my expectations of myself have been raised. I reason that by now, I should have a pretty firm grip on what I’m doing and shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time searching for the right words, or ransacking the corners of my mind trying to remember some grammatical technicality or another. That with enough practice we will eventually get good enough to throw gold on paper with the first flick of our wrists, requiring no second, third, or fourth drafts, unfortunately, is a myth. At least, I don’t think that will ever happen for me. I’m almost as dim-witted now as I was two years ago, and perhaps, even more so. The ordinances of the English language and the guidelines of good storytelling are vast. When you’re constantly learning new things, the new information can bury the previous knowledge, leaving you completely dumbfounded when you should be on the ball. This is perfectly okay. That’s what re-writes are for.

The second contributor to this roadblock is having an audience. It’s not a secret anymore that I’m writing. My prior novels have passed through the hands of many friends, agents, and fellow writers, and I’m all too aware that this same fate awaits my current manuscript. I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. When people are eager to read your next project, it’s a good sign you’re doing something right. Still, the pressure is unnerving and I have to pretend, on some level, that no one will ever see it, and try to go back to the days of hobbyist writing.

The final villain in this particular drama is my mentor. Oh yeah, I said it. She and I meet twice a week to do critique, and though we’ve been doing this for almost two years, things are different now than they were in the early days. For one thing, I’m no longer new enough at this to play the bright-eyed, “God-Bless-Your-Ignorant-Heart” novice I was once able to pull off. I’ve spent two years under her tutorship and in that time, I’ve learned more than I ever thought there was to know about this craft. I don’t have the luxury of being uneducated anymore, and that kind of sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my mentor. And it isn’t her Master’s degree in English that intimidates me. Nor is it her years of teaching, or even her owned published books. The problem is that the book she’s currently writing is really damned good. From premise to execution, from characterization to climax, this story casts its golden shadow down hard and heavy on my own project, making it difficult for me to bring her my weekly progress with any kind of pride. But this is good, and here is why: it’s forcing me to get better. Not that I need to feel that I’m a “better writer” than this guy or that girl, but the stakes are higher now, and for the sake of not embarrassing myself, I need to bring some pretty powerful stuff to the table.

There are no doubt thousands of reasons why we slip into bad habits and backslide into unfavorable territory in writing, but if you look at it from different angles, you’ll see that for each new barricade there’s a proportionate opportunity to improve your craft. I think of these stumbling blocks as Fate’s way of upping the ante and lighting the necessary fire under your ass that will get you back in the game with your head on straight and your determination resuscitated and revitalized.

As for forgetting even the basest principles of writing (such as allowing yourself to write bad first drafts), I say forget these things as often as you can, because each time you come back to the basics, you’ll be able to experience the pleasure of seeing your progress in other ways. Back at the very beginning of things is where we see the headway we’ve made. Also, as you “fail” more and more, your armor gets thicker and your tools sharper, so…

Write on… and revise later. Oh, and remember…


I’ve always believed that the most important thing a writer can do is read. By reading, we not only see what’s out there that works, and what’s out there that doesn’t, but also, reading has a way of jostling the imagination, and sparking new ideas in even the most unexpected places. Unfortunately, once you’ve learned the technicalities of writing, it’s hard to forget them while you’re trying to read for pleasure. On every page it seems, there lurks some glaring type of technical issue such as misplaced modifiers, too much exposition, fragmented sentences, and overused adverbs. Another common problem (apparently) is the over use of commas, but I don’t seem to notice those (this is probably due to the fact that of all the rules of writing in existence, comma use is the one that I struggle with the most.)

I’ve always been an avid reader, and after I began to learn the rules of writing, I found myself unable to read without  being critical. There are times this education comes in handy, such as when I’m reading actively, setting out on purpose to read something critically. But when it comes to reading for joy, it’s a real buzz kill.

My first approach to regaining the former pleasure I’d always been able to find in reading was to practice turning that part of my mind off. It didn’t work. I’m ashamed to admit that because of this, I probably only read half a dozen novels in 2011. I believe that if I want to get any better at my work, I need to read, so I’ve decided that I need to change my approach.

A few months ago, me and my friend Tom began our own little “book club” where we take turns choosing novels that we want to read. We’ve done several books now, and with the exception of one, I’ve managed to not only get through, but genuinely enjoy, all of them. I will continue doing this because I don’t ever want to become stagnant in my own writing, or closed-minded to the writing of others. With each book I read, I’m coming to understand more and more clearly that what was formerly stumping me is really just a simple concoction of pros and cons. Although I may find a lot of things wrong with a story, I am also finding a lot of things right. For every line I scoff at, I find another one with mind-blowing beauty.

Reading these days takes a little more patience, but I have yet to throw a book down, call it “bad,” and tell everyone how much it sucks despite the fact that I didn’t finish it. I’d be doing myself no favors by closing my mind this way – not to mention this kind of literary snobbery doesn’t look good on anyone. However, I also believe I should be a little more selective about what I read, because as important as reading may be, it’s still second to writing, and if I am doing enough of that, I probably shouldn’t invest a whole lot of time into something I probably won’t learn anything from.

I can not un-learn the things I’ve learned over the past few years, and I’m glad for that, but most of all, I’m glad that I’m coming to understand that when it comes to reading, nothing has changed except how I choose to approach it. These days, I need to approach reading with an open mind as well as a willingness to accept that not everyone follows all the rules all the time, not even me… and that is okay.


As I began the fifth chapter of my third book, I realized I had no idea where my story was going. That is a strange thing to admit, but it’s true. Obviously, I had a rough idea, but that’s all it was… a rough idea, and I’ve learned that, for me, a rough idea is not enough to keep me going. It seems strange that a person would sit down to write a novel with only a vague impression of the outcome, but that’s exactly what I did. Again.

I’ve been through this before, and you’d think I would have learned my lesson. I was taught that as your story is being written, you need to constantly be moving things in the direction of the end. I had my setting down, I knew the characters, I knew the basic premise… but somehow, I had no idea where I was trying to go. This explains why it has taken me so long to get this project going.

One of the most valuable things I learned from my mentor very early on was that I need to know my ending first. This may not be true for every writer, but for me, it’s absolutely essential. Without a known ending, I am like a blind rat in a maze, bumping into things and following dead ends. (It’s just that I get so excited to write new stories and utilize the knowledge I’ve acquired that I forget many of the fundamentals!)

I’ve spent many many hours these past few weeks trying to iron out the wrinkles in this storyline and trying to decide what it is that I am ultimately trying to say, and finally, this morning, I figured it out. My mentor told me to develop my theme. This, all of a sudden, sounded like a foreign term to me, which reminded me just how much of the basics I had forgotten. According to Wikipedia a theme is: “a broad idea, message, or moral of a story. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas and are almost always implied rather than stated explicitly.” Fair enough.

I turned the story over in my head and finally decided that what I’m really trying to say in this current novel is that sometimes, in order to appreciate the people around you, you have to see the profound greatness they’re capable of~ and that good and evil exist all around us at all times, but within all of us is the voice of reason, and the power to do to great things. Sounds good, right? Not really. It’s too complicated and unclear.

So we went a layer deeper. And another layer deeper after that. Finally, I concluded that my theme is this: A human being with faith has as much power as any of God’s angels. Knowing my theme then paved the way for the rest of the story. For the first time since I began writing this book, I have an absolute idea of what I want to say, and how I need to get there. There are still some issues that need a bit more thought, but I finally believe I can sit down and write this book without feeling overwhelmed by the fact that I am completely lost.

If I can do this right, I believe this story could easily be my best one yet. If I do it wrong, however, I think it could easily come off as being amateur, juvenile and an embarrassment to my capabilities. Right now, I can see it going either way. The beauty of writing though, is that you can always re-write, and having a clear vision of where you’re going with a story is the best place to start… even though it isn’t where I started. Again.

On that note, if I had any advice, it would be this: First develop your theme. Know exactly what you want to say. Define it as clearly as possible and then work backwards. Figure out the end… and begin at the beginning, making sure that every move you make along the way leads to that end. This is the most priceless piece of knowledge I was given, and despite my attempts to bypass it, I find myself coming back to it. Again.


Yesterday I received a text from a friend of mine who has been reading my manuscript, The White Room. “I can’t believe you killed him!” he said, referring to one of the characters in the story. I explained to my friend the reasons behind the macabre act and why it had to be done… and it got me to thinking about the reasons we kill some of our favorite characters.

 

When killing a character that the reader has invested in, an author walks a fine line between further engaging the audience and losing them altogether. The key to successfully murdering a make-believe person without repelling the reader lies in the reasons behind the character’s death and the string of events and ultimate outcome it provides.

We’ve all read stories or seen movies where a character we love dies for no good reason. At best, this divorces us from the active role we felt we were playing in the story. At worst, it offends and alienates us entirely, angering us enough to put the book down, change the channel, or otherwise find new and better things to invest our time in. Shock value, convenience, gore factor or just plain whimsy are not good enough reasons to kill someone you’ve asked the audience to care about.

The character my friend was referring to was the hardest character I’ve ever had to kill. My initial intention was to let the guy live, but as was pointed out to me in the process of writing the book, he had to die. He had to die not only for the sake of moving the story forward with its integrity in tact, but mostly, for the sake of propelling my protagonist forward and arming him with the conviction and wrath he would need in order to believably make the choices he had to make.

I did everything I could to find a way to reach the end of my story without killing this guy. For many reasons, I was incredibly attached to this character and accepting that he had to die was a gradual process that took place in slow sections. I fought with myself and with my mentor the whole way… but when the story was finished, I understood. Reading the manuscript from beginning to end, I realized that this character’s death was vital in the overall power of the story.

Murdering my all time favorite character was a good learning experience for me as a writer. I learned that, as it is in life, some things need to be compromised for the greater good; that even in the world of fiction, there is a price for everything… and if you want to write a good, strong story with enough emotional impact to keep the readers reading, sometimes you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to. I learned to tiptoe the precarious edge of good storytelling and cheap shots; that the death of a beloved character must be a kind of fictional human sacrifice for the greater good of the story. I learned the bottom line of all storytelling:  if it serves to further strengthen the story, do it… and if not, don’t.