A Leap into the Future

Happy Leap Day, everyone! I have a little exercise for you. You don’t need to be a writer or even a reader to have a bit of fun with this.

Take a piece of paper, or open a fresh document on your computer. Put today’s date at the top, and the following header: Four Years from Today I Wish…

Below that header, write down 3-5 things you hope to accomplish/wish will come true/think you can pull off in the next four years. They can be big or small, but let your imagination roam. Do you want to be married? Published? Own a house? Have traveled abroad? Run a marathon? Write them down.

That’s it. Don’t plan how you’re going to accomplish these things or schedule the steps required to get from here to there. Just write down your dreams.

Now, take that paper or print out that document, fold it up and put it in an envelope. Write February 29, 2016 on the front and seal it up. Now put that envelope somewhere safe, but where you’ll be sure to come across it from time to time: Top drawer of your dresser, the file cabinet where you keep your tax documents, a jewelry box… And do not open it until the next Leap Day.

Happy writing, and happy dreaming!

Coaxing Your Story Forward through Character and Motivation

It’s Monday morning and chances are good that, for each of you who got plenty accomplished over the weekend on your current writing project, there is another writer who is feeling a bit frustrated with their lack of progress. Call it writers’ block, call it a stumbling block, call it a failure to plan ahead–whatever the reason, most writers find themselves facing this sort of slow down at some point or other. The question is, what to do about it?

There are many ways of jump starting your WIP again, but today I’m looking at character and motivation. Sometimes your issues are as simple as losing track of who your character is and what drives them forward. Go back to your protagonist and really think about what makes them tick. Who are they? What are their motivations? What do you know about them that doesn’t necessarily affect your plot but still somehow informs your character’s state of being?

For example: Your protagonist is afraid of heights. You know this. But what does it mean? If it doesn’t play into the action itself, it still might have helped determine other things about that character. Perhaps they live in a rural area because buildings tend to be shorter–no high rises or skyscrapers to contend with; maybe they refuse to fly when they travel. The fear helps sculpt the person, and can provide new insights that might ultimately transform your storyline. If you need that character to leave town to attend a funeral, how will they get there? Train? Road trip? Can they make it in time? What if they’re a law enforcement officer called to investigate the death of someone who jumped off a bridge? Do they need to stand on the bridge themselves and look down into the water? Can they hand that duty off to someone else? How will that affect their job, or their reputation?

If you’re having difficulties deciding what your character will do next, look at how you’ve developed their personality and their back story. Then pose a series of “what if” questions. What would your protagonist do if X, Y, or Z happened? How would they react? Make sure the questions you pose are relevant to your overall plot. Base your answers on careful thought about the character you’ve created, by looking at the foundation you laid at the beginning of your story, when you were just getting to know this character.

Motivation as it affects the story is just as important as motivation that fleshes out the character. Consider your character’s initial goal, the driving force that carries them through the entire book. Are they looking to avenge the death of a loved one? To find true love? To marry well? Is there a quest involved, to rescue someone or find the treasure? Are their motivations politically driven? To save the kingdom, take down the dictator, end a war? Now look at the last scene you wrote, the one immediately prior to your hitting your block, and ask yourself if it’s advancing your character toward their primary goal, or, conversely, if it’s presenting an obstacle for them to overcome. It needs to do one or the other. Each scene, in whatever small way, should either move your character forward, or issue a set back. If it does neither, you may be off track, and that’s contributing to your inability to move forward. Find the place you last addressed your character’s primary goal and see if you can get your story moving in the right direction. Let that primary motivation determine the path they take.

Again, there are many stumbling blocks that can halt your writing progress. These are just a few ideas to help you get moving once more. Good luck, and happy writing!


Links for Friday

Happy almost-weekend to you all! I come bearing links to keep you entertained and informed while we inch toward quitting time. But also, I wanted to throw out a heads up. There will be some exciting things going on here at the blog next week, including perhaps an announcement or two, so be sure to drop by and check it out.

Have a lovely weekend, and happy writing!

The Well-Readheads: Author Love Edition – A quick, fun list of authors these two love.

25 Subordinating Conjunctions – Having trouble varying the style of your sentences? This might help.

Book Is Judged by the Name on Its Cover – On being forced to take on a pseudonym. (NYT link; free registration required)

The Magical World of Erin Morgenstern – An interesting interview with the author that discusses some of her influences.

25 Things I Want to Say to So-called “Aspiring” Writers – A little tough love.

Finding Your Writing Community

Last week I talked about the importance of finding a strong critique partner to help you in the process of honing your work. But beyond that, I think it’s vital to develop a writing community. By this I mean people with whom you can discuss writing in general and trade recommendations for fabulous books or conferences or writing programs, who will let you complain when your characters are misbehaving and who will cheer you on when you’re close to finishing a book. These folks won’t necessarily read your novel word for word and provide you with feedback, but they will provide you with the water-cooler chat that people find in a more traditional workplace. They can also share their own career experiences if they are ahead of you in the quest to publish.

Let’s face it: Writing can be a solitary, isolating occupation. You might have a day job with co-workers, and a family and friends to keep you sane, but they don’t necessarily get all that excited when you have a breakthrough over a troubling plot point. Nor are they going to commiserate when you hear your arch-nemesis has signed a three-book contract, at least not on the same level as a peer. But the world is full of people who will join you in the sort of discussion that makes you feel like a writer, even before you have your own shiny book deal.

There are plenty of places to find these sorts of partners in crime, both in the real world and online. The obvious choices are writing classes or programs, and organizations geared toward the type of writing you do, such as Sisters in Crime or Romance Writers of America. You can also check your local paper or library to see if there’s a local writers’ group that meets in your town or nearby, and see if they are open to new members. Online, you can find broader versions of the same organizations that hold regional meetings, and many have virtual chapters that meet in cyberspace.

However, don’t discount writers’ conferences. These can cost a bit more than some other options and require advance planning, but they can be well worth the effort. A writers’ conference offers a chance to meet fellow writers at all stages of their careers, including published authors who often present inspiring key note addresses, while also allowing you to attend panels and seminars, perhaps meet with an agent or editor, and puts you smack in the middle of plenty of writerly chat over the course of the conference. The one I attended this past weekend, for example, the San Francisco Writers Conference, was a sold-out event featuring more than 300 attendees and 100 presenters. If that size seems overwhelming, there are certainly smaller gatherings as well.The Shaw Guides website provides a listing of a broad range of conferences available each year.

A writing community helps to keep a writer focused and inspired. Of course, a writing community can also be a distraction if you allow it to swallow all of your free time, including that normally devoted to writing, but that’s true of anything in which you involve yourself. Overall, a community of fellow writers will allow you the support to continue in the face of rejection and the sense of belonging that can help you keep your eye on your goals.

Friday Links

I am off for the weekend to the San Francisco Writers Conference. However, I leave you with some links, as always, to get you through your Friday. For those of you in the U.S., have a wonderful holiday weekend, and a great weekend to the rest of you as well. Happy writing!

The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books – Can there really be too many? I’m not so sure…

29 Soundbites on Writing and Publishing – A fun list.

Literary Heirs – Some intriguing literary magazines for those who read them or submit to them.


Telling It Like It Is: The Value of a Critique Partner

There comes a time in every aspiring professional writer’s life when they need to find someone to read and critique their work. I am, in general, a big believer in doing the work yourself, by which I mean the writing, the research, the revising, the proofreading, etc. It’s your book, your idea, your vision, and you are the person who will bring it to life. However, at the end of the day, you are only human. Human beings make mistakes. Typos. Dropped words. Writers also have a way of believing they’ve said exactly what they meant, because they know what they meant to say, only to discover at some later date that the person reading what they’ve written doesn’t know what they meant at all. Somewhere between the writer’s brain and the page, the message was lost.

As a writer, you are your first reader, your first audience. You should, of course, write what pleases you. But, you are not the intended audience. Those readers out there in the world, those are the people you are ultimately writing for, and so it makes sense to have one on hand who will tell you if you’ve hit all your marks, if the story makes sense and all the pieces hang together, before you loose it on the world at large.

A critique partner can be another writer or just a good reader. But the chances are that they should not be a) your mother, b) your spouse, or c) your best friend. Generally, those people are a little bit too close to you to be brutally honest when it comes to your writing. More than likely, they will tell you that you are wonderful and perfect and the answer to all the publishing world’s problems. They might point out a misspelled word here and there, or wish for a happier ending, but overall, they will not give you useful, honest criticism. There are always exceptions, of course, but be honest with yourself in your assessment. You can always let Mom read your manuscript when you need a mental hug.

Where should you look for a critique partner? Writing classes, writers’ groups, online writing organizations, colleges and universities where writing classes are taught, bookstores, the library… Pretty much anywhere that readers and/or writers spend time. Friends might know other people interested in books and writing and craft, so let them know you’re looking for a reader.

You will probably have to try out a few people before you find someone whose skills and style are a good match to your own. If they are also a writer, you might want to reciprocate critiquing duties, but that’s not necessary. Plenty of people will read and critique for you simply for the pleasure of getting that first look at your work. But whatever else they do, they should be willing to tell you truthfully, in a straightforward if polite manner, what in your story is and isn’t working, and they should do so without telling you precisely how to fix it.

That last part is important, so I want to break it out a bit. I am not saying your critique partner should never make a suggestion. And certainly, when it comes to copy-editing-type critiques, of course they can correct your spelling or grammar errors. But the plot and the story are your own. Your critique partner can tell you if something isn’t believable, if you fail to answer questions that you’ve set up, if you’ve gone off on a boring tangent. By all means, listen to their thoughts on character motivation, consider their ideas about where you might need more tension or some comic relief. But your critique partner should not try to rewrite you; they have to remember that it’s not their book. You might be comfortable brainstorming with them, or bouncing your own ideas off of them, but beware of anyone who starts feeding you entire strings of story points and encouraging you to use them. If you refuse, it could strain your relationship. If you actually use them, you start veering into co-authorship and that can cause other problems if it’s not your intended path.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all people have equal skills in all areas, and so you might consider having several critique partners instead of just one. Perhaps one of your writing friends has a fabulous ear for dialogue and another an excellent grasp of pacing and structure. Both could give you their thoughts, allowing you to benefit from a well-rounded critique overall. The danger here is if your critique partners provide you with conflicting advice. At the end of the day, this is no different than receiving multiple sets of feedback in a writing workshop. You need to be able to sift through everyone’s opinions and determine for yourself what works best for the project. This can take practice, but it’s an important skill to develop, since one day those recommended changes will be coming from an editor. Even at that level, you have the option of disagreeing with something you feel will take away from your book instead of making it stronger.

Finally, keep in mind that you may not have the same critique partner forever, or even for more than one or two projects. People’s lives change, get busier, and they move on. Or you may write something that’s in a genre your critique partner does not read, and find yourself searching for someone new just on that one book. Be open to meeting new critique partners even if you’re happily ensconced with your current reader; you never know when you might need to call on another set of eyes to help you make your book the best that it can be.

Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to Heather, the winner of the ARC for Shannon K. Butcher‘s newest Sentinel Wars book, DYING WISH. Heather, please watch your e-mail for information on how to claim your prize.

Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the giveaway. The book will be available in stores on March 6th. In the meantime, keep on visiting, as there will be more fun stuff here on the blog in months to come.

Links to Kick-off the Weekend

Happy Friday, everyone! I hope you’ve all had a good week and have some plans for the weekend ahead. Regardless, I bring you a few links to entertaining/informative/inspiring sites that I’ve stumbled across in the past week or two. Happy writing, and enjoy!

Writing Tips from Talented Authors – Including the likes of Henry Miller, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard and more.

Some thoughts on Metrics – Author Vicki Pettersson looks at how metrics work on an individual level.

Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood looks back at writing her classic novel and the politics that have followed it through the years.

12 Things You Were Not Taught in School about Creative Thinking – Just what it says. Pretty interesting.

25 Reasons that Writers Are Nuts – Mostly humorous. A few are frighteningly close to the mark, however.