The last few weeks have been particularly busy over here, which means my brain cells are very slowly draining out of my skull from overuse. So rather than blabber at you myself, I offer you Neil Gaiman, with thoughts on where ideas come from and other writerly things. He will be far more entertaining than I will right now. So take a gander, then go write something. Enjoy!
As children, we fall in love with books that take us along for the ride, stories where we can close our eyes and easily imagine ourselves into the adventure. Book lovers never really lose that urge to join the story, to fall into the romance between the pages or head out on the dangerous quest. The writer’s job is to craft their tale in such a way as to allow the reader this mental insertion. But how does that work? What makes a novel that accessible?
Writers of otherwise polished, well-paced stories often hear back from agents or editors that they could not “connect” with the protagonist. Or that they weren’t “feeling” the voice. In some instances this is a case of personal taste, but in others it can mean that the writer has held back from really delving into their main character, especially if they are writing a limited third-person narrative. The character might be portrayed in great detail — lots of showing and not too much telling — but what’s lacking is the why behind the actions. If the reader is going to be able to walk in the character’s shoes and feel that connection, the writer must walk there first, and showing the details of that character’s journey includes conveying their thoughts and motivations and making sure they have direct correlation to their actions.
A writer who puts themselves inside their character’s head and asks why — why are they doing this, why are they saying that — will soon find their story changing. Filler actions, such as smiles and sighs and other character twitches that often serve no purpose, will get deleted. Dialogue might become more meaningful, or more sparse, or more snarky, depending on the character and the point in the story. Emotions such as fear and anxiety get ramped up. Characters might be less likely to faint or cry without true provocation. Complications could arise, making the text richer and more layered. All of these things help pull the reader into the story. The character will no longer be shuttered and closed off, keeping the reader at bay.
First-person narratives might seem like an easy fix to this issue, but the truth is that writers can fail to dig deeply into the character even when writing in first person. The danger with first person can be the temptation to ramble on inside the character’s head, creating overly long monologues that cover every nuance of their thoughts. As with real life dialogue, which features far too much chit-chat to include in character dialogue, a real person’s thoughts include more tangents and fluff than is interesting in a novel. A writer must still crawl quite consciously into their character’s head and sort the important details from the detritus. Again, it’s important to ask why the character thinks these things, how they connect to their actions in the story, and to make these things shine through in the writing so that the reader feels welcome in that character’s head as well.
Knowing the character, drilling down, strengthening motivations, taking it further — all ways of referring to this opening up the details of the story in order to make it accessible for the reader. The goal is to pull that reader in on an emotional level, make them wish they were part of the action on the page. A well-written novel is an invitation to fall in love, to catch the killer, to find the treasure, to slay the monster. A completed novel might be an accomplishment, but it only truly comes to life when someone opens its pages and dives into the world the writer has created.
Long-time readers of this blog know I occasionally teach a course on synopsis writing through the Writer’s Digest webinar series. The course focuses on how to organize your thoughts in order to distill a full-length manuscript or the plot of a work-in-progress into a brief synopsis — either very short, to be used in query letters, or several pages that can be sent to agents or editors who request it or used to sell a project on partial. The live online format means attendees sign into the course and go through it in real time, but they also receive a file of the completed webinar later by email, including both audio and the slide presentation, to review at their leisure. Anyone who registers to take the live course may also submit a single completed synopsis for critique after applying what they learned in class.
Interested in whipping your synopsis into shape? Feel overwhelmed by the task, with no idea where to start? Join me for Conquer the Dreaded Synopsis: Construct Your Ultimate Sales Tool on Thursday, March 17, 2016, at 1pm ET. Please keep in mind that, even if you can’t attend live, you will receive the complete course and audio by email, and only those who register ahead will be eligible for the critique.
Check out the course description for complete details, including information on system requirements, etc. I hope to see you in class!
Long-time readers of this site might remember the March Writing Challenge I issued a few years back. It’s designed to help you work on different areas of your writing each week and is fully customizable based on your schedule and your personal goals. If you’re looking for a new challenge this month, I highly recommend you zip back in time and take a look at the challenge. The weeks won’t quite line up to a Monday start, obviously, but you can still adapt it easily enough for you to apply the challenge to 2016. Good luck, and happy writing!
Austin Kleon encourages you to steal in the name of art. Not plagiarize — nothing so mundane (or illegal), but steal and remake, to borrow from the greats who’ve gone before, to take their ideas and make them your own. In his TED Talk below, he explains precisely how he steals like an artist, and how you can too. Wonderfully inspiring stuff, especially for anyone facing a bit of writer’s block — the circumstance that first led Kleon to steal like an artist himself. Enjoy!
Last November, Neil Gaiman sat down and had a long chat with author Junot Díaz, one of his final appearances before he takes 2016 off to be just a writer and a father to his new baby with wife Amanda Palmer. This interview kicks off with a great rundown of the history of Sandman, which is well worth watching whether you’re familiar with the comics series or not. If you prefer to just get right to Neil, you can jump to about the 6:30 mark, where the video moves to the interview venue. This is a longish interview — nearly an hour and a half — so be sure to carve out a bit of time to watch.
Remember that list of writing goals you made at the end of 2015? Is it already starting to feel like a long time ago? In reality, it was probably about two weeks, but time flies when you’re facing the realities of a new year. Your shiny goals tend to get put on the back burner when they come up against your boss’s goals for the new year, or your kid’s flu, or the realization that you have no idea where to put all those books you got with your Christmas gift cards. Whether it’s real life or procrastination or a little bit of both, old habits die hard, and the most stubborn is likely your own inclination to put other things before your own ambitions. But only you can make your writing a priority.
So, I’m here to poke you. Check out that list of goals. Choose something. And do a little bit of work on it today. Whether that means making a point of actually writing, researching an agent, finding a short story contest to enter, or submitting your work to an online magazine. Go for it. One thing, one little step. I dare you to make this year different.
I read an interesting article over the weekend that talked about the difference between asking yourself what you want and asking yourself what pain and struggle you’re willing to endure in order to get it. The first question demands you respond with a result, and we all have very similar results on our wish lists: money, health, love, a nice home, wonderful trips for vacation, and so on. The second question demands you think about what level of effort you’re willing to put forth, what struggle is required, what pain you must endure in order to achieve your goal — and it makes you consider whether you want that thing enough to do the hard work necessary.
At the start of the new year, it’s natural to set goals. I’ve discussed them several times here on the blog leading up to the end of 2015, as well as the importance of planning out the steps you need to take in order to achieve those goals. But we rarely discuss what those steps entail.
Most things don’t come easily. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether you want to train to run a marathon or write a novel, you’re going to have to put in hours and hours of effort, and say no to the distractions that might mean putting in less of the time your goal demands. And the reality is that you’ll spend far more time in the lead up to your goal than you will enjoying the goal itself. A marathon requires hours of training and at least a few hours to run the day of the event, but the joy and excitement of crossing the finish line will be brief, and the bragging rights you earn will be temporary (unless you want to drive your friends and family crazy). Likewise, writing a novel and getting it published is a long, difficult road, often with frustrating set backs. At the end, you have a beautiful finished book in your hands, but then comes the concern about sales figures and writing the next book and the entire process starts all over again.
Writing, like certain other careers, has this strange illusion of glamour attached to it. But in truth it is a hard job, one that requires a great deal of time and patience, and that, in most cases, yields a very small financial reward. If you don’t enjoy the process at least part of the time, if your primary motivation is that end result, you might want to consider carefully whether you love writing, or if you love the fantasy of having written. I don’t want to discourage anyone who truly wishes to write; the world would be a smaller, sadder place without all the stories being written each year. But I also want people to find their truest dreams to follow, the ones that light them up every step of the way. Whether that is writing for you or some other thing you’ve yet to discover, I wish you a fascinating and successful journey.
Still here? Then go write.
I’m supposed to be back in California today, but instead I’m sitting cross-legged on the bed in my room at my parents’ house in Connecticut. In a perfect example of a domino effect, my first flight out last night was delayed an hour and a half, which happened to be nearly the precise length of my layover before my second flight out to Los Angeles. When I went to the airline’s desk to get rebooked, I fell victim to a combination of holiday crowds and the economy, meaning there weren’t any available seats on any flights out of the New York/Connecticut area to LA until Friday morning. (Lots of people traveling, fewer total flights on the schedule.) Fortunately I didn’t have any major plans for the next few days, but I did have some things I intended to do, and now they’ve been… preempted.
It’s fair to say I was pissed off last night. But there’s nothing I can do about the situation, and it’s not like it’s a catastrophe. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to keep an upbeat attitude when fate steps in and messes with your plans, and this is just as true when planning your career as it is when making travel arrangements.
Writing can be a frustrating business, no matter where you are in the process or how long you’ve been at it. Some days it might seem like all you’re asked to do is jump through hoops: Submitting to agents, submitting to editors, doing rounds of revisions, rewriting book proposals, mastering social media. It goes on and on, and in may cases what you do needs to be redone because it didn’t work the first time. Not all manuscripts get published, not all books sell well. Sometimes writers have to start over with a new editor or new publisher, or even a new pen name. It can get discouraging.
You need to get through it. If you want to be a published writer, you’re going to face rejection and frustration. It’s the nature of the business. There is no easy route or guarantee of success, whether you wish to publish traditionally or you give the self-publishing route a try. Either way, you will have to work hard, and there will be days you need to dust yourself off and try again. Occasionally, a bit of luck might rain down on you, and when it does, you should smile and be grateful, because most of the time, writing is a job. It’s an art, and it can be a joy, but it’s also a job, and every job, even the one you adore, has its difficult facets.
But here’s the thing. When you commit to writing, when you decide this is what you want, you become part of a larger world of people who love and appreciate storytelling and words and books. There are rewards along with the frustrations, and not all of them might be initially obvious. So remember you can do this. You just need to get your words down, one at a time, day after day. Write that first draft, then rewrite it again and again until the words sing and your characters pop off the page. Reach out to fellow writers for help and encouragement. Find people who understand your dream and let them give you emotional support. Allow yourself to suck because those lousy sentences and weak paragraphs give you something to revise, a place to start. And when disappointment or frustration strike, take a deep cleansing breath and ask yourself “what next?” because the only way to get to your destination is to keep moving forward. Word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.
Now go write.
A couple of weeks back I suggested you start thinking about your writing goals, both your progress on those set for this year and what you might like to accomplish in the year ahead. Now that 2016 is only a few days away, it’s a great time to get out a notebook or open up a file on your computer and start really shaping and finalizing those goals for the new year.
Whether you’ve got mental notes or written ones regarding your wishes for your writing career, start jotting them down now. Make a list of every goal you have for your writing, from the small things to the truly out-there, oversized dreams. Don’t worry if they’re attainable in the next year. This exercise is just to get an idea of the scope of your ambitions, keeping in mind that some things will likely change in the years ahead.
Once you have a list, go through and note a reasonable time frame to complete each item. Is it something you can manage in a month? Will it take several months of concerted effort? Perhaps an entire year, plugging away a bit each day? Or is it something you’d like to tackle eventually but you know is a bit out of reach for the time being, whether because your skills haven’t quite reached the stage where you’re ready or because there are many things you need to accomplish to prepare for the goal?
Now it’s time to decide what goals you’d actually like to work on in 2016. You probably have a fair idea, if you’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of weeks. There are also going to be things that are prerequisites for others — such as finishing a book before you can submit it, or publishing something before you can achieve any sales goals. But you want to find a balance in your goals; some should be a true challenge that take a good part, if not all of the year, while others should be achievable in one-to-three-month blocks of time.
Once you’ve chosen one or two large goals and a handful of smaller ones, consider any factors that affect when you’ll be able to work on them and when you should work on them. Pencil in a potential time frame for each, such as all year, February/March, June — September, etc. Again, try to balance your schedule. Obviously year-long goals will be a constant, but try not to overlap too many small goals unless they tie together in some way that makes it necessary or you feel like you’ll have extra free time to work on them for some reason. And if a goal is large enough that it will carry into the following year, be sure to space out your efforts so that you make appropriate progress by the end of 2016.
Now that you have a rough idea of when you’ll be working on each goal, you want to come up with a couple of brief bullet points regarding the how. What do you need to do in order to achieve each goal? What steps must you take? What actions? Think about things that might distract you from your goals, and how you can avoid them. For example, if your goal is to write daily all year, but you know you get distracted by interruptions, think of ways to limit them, such as turning your phone off or activating the privacy setting, setting up an internet blocker during your writing time, or hanging a note on your door so your kids know not to interrupt unless there’s an emergency. If self-sabotage is an issue for you, come up with a little pep talk to give yourself when that devil on your shoulder is tempting you to play hooky. You want to determine both the route to your goal and how to dodge the common obstacles along the way.
Finally, break down any larger goals that have multiple steps so you have an idea of what sort of progress you’d like to make. Tackle one part of the goal each month or each quarter — whatever feels logical to you based on how intricate and challenging your project is to complete.
Use whatever system you like to organize your goals for the year. Some people simplify and just hang a list on their cork board or refrigerator, others keep detailed notes in a journal or a spread sheet. Goal deadlines and any projected completion dates should be put on your planner or calendar, including due dates for those smaller components that you’ve broken down from your larger goals, and you can set reminders in your phone if you’d like a periodic nudge to keep yourself on track. The important thing is to keep your goals accessible and to check in on them periodically in order to lessen the chance of veering off course. I recommend reviewing your progress at least at the end of each quarter of the year, at which point you can make small adjustments as necessary depending on how things are going.
Be sure to keep your original list of goals — the one that included your big, crazy dreams. It will give you a head start this time next year when you sit down to determine your goals for 2017. Good luck with setting your goals for the year ahead, and happy writing!