Signs you’re growing as an aspiring novelist

Growing as a writer

Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.

This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)

My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.

This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.

I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.

Writing pencil twirl

It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.

That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.

Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.

As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.

And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.

I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.

How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?

4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

Cool Story

How to make each character you write sound different

Jane Eyre

One of the foremost tips for writing dialogue is to make each character sound different.

Easier said than done, right?

Recently, I was reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a murderer. One of the many things I adore about Jane Steele is how unique and endearing so many of the characters are.

Jane SteeleYou could easily cherry-pick a piece of dialogue from Jane Steele and match it to its speaker simply by knowing the following:

  • The butler, Sardar Singh: a man of careful words and prone to phrases like, “So often the way with _____.”
  • The ward, Sarjara Kaur: an eager girl who references horses every other sentence at least.
  • Mr. Charles Thornfield: openly bold, sarcastic, and teasing. He participates in exchanges consisting of mock insults, calling Sarjara “Young Marvel” or “tiresome changeling,” for example.
  • Jane: has a tendency for foul, unladylike swearing.

This makes Jane Steele an excellent example of how to write distinct character voices. By giving your characters a quirk as to how they conduct themselves in conversation, you can make them vivid and memorable.

How to write something longer than a short story

Writing novels GIF

You’d think if you struggle with word count, you should forget about novels and just write short stories, right? Nope. YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL. Take it from me. Underwriting is practically my middle name.

If you get stuck after 2,000 words, maybe you’re not planning enough. Maybe you’re “pantsing” — or sitting down to write without much more than an idea and seeing where it takes you.

But 50,000+ word beasts don’t get written that way. Novels require outlines, or you’re gonna get stuck a lot. Now, everyone’s pre-writing stage is different. And there is such a thing as doing too much brainstorming and not enough of the actual writing, so you need to determine the balance that works for you.

Here’s a glimpse at my outline and “story bible” for my WIP. I have five major buckets:

Ideas:

  • My original brainstorming of my seed idea, along with the trigger moment where my story begins and the key scenes in my protagonists’ pasts that shaped their worldviews.
  • A rough sketch of the defining scenes that I knew I wanted in my novel.
  • A bullet-point outline of my whole book. I’ll slot in new scenes here and there, and I refrain from plotting out the next act until I’m done writing the previous one.
  • Main plots and subplots, with chapter-by-chapter developments. This helps me see how each thread is developing and whether any lack substance or depth. Occasionally, I’ll add new subplots while writing the book.
  • Stuff for agents: my query, theme, paragraph summary, elevator pitch, professional synopsis, etc.
  • Notes on the voice of my characters, as well as any slang and sayings unique to my world. I worry about this more in later drafts, but I like to have something to consider as I begin.
  • An ongoing list of things to fix in revision. While I’m working on the first draft, I’ll put stuff here if I’m worried something isn’t working so that I remember to come back to it later.
  • Acknowledgments (so I know who to thank should my book be published).

Characters:

Profiles on each of the central characters. Details about their physical description, personality, moments in their pasts that sparked their “misbelief” (worldview), and ideas on how they will fail and succeed throughout the novel.

As author Lisa Cron says, you can’t “write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone [that you] know absolutely nothing about.”

Rules of the world:

This is where I do my world-building! I take notes on my world’s history, cultures, creatures, religions, locations, and anything else that comes up in my story.

This adds dimension and can be beefed up as you go along, but it’s good to have a decent idea of how things work before you dive in.

Actual research:

Real-world research to lend credibility to different aspects of my story or to inspire fictional elements.

Examples: plants used for healing, types of geography/terrain, how archery or blacksmithing works, and so forth.

Scenes in development:

This is where I keep my scene cards, track my overall progress (chapter/act word counts and what I accomplished each week), and “guiding principles” — memos to myself about bigger picture considerations to keep in mind as I write.

In my pre-writing process, the scene cards come last, and I develop each immediately before writing that scene in my novel.


Writing catI don’t necessarily do all this work upfront. My real-world research, for example, I complete as needed as I’m writing the book, and I may come back to the character profiles to flesh them out more if I’m feeling stuck with a character.

But that’s pretty much it. It’s a growing, organic document, and pre-writing spawns a lot of ideas for plot, subplot, and character development.

I keep all these files in Scrivener, but some people prefer a binder and paper. It’s your choice.

What does you pre-writing process, outline, and “story bible” look like?

5 tips for staying motivated when writing makes you depressed

Booze GoT GIF

Writing is not always fun and joy. In fact, I’d say a lot of writing is not fun and joy. But it is deeply rewarding, and that’s why we do it.

Right now, I’m finding it hard to move on from one manuscript (in the query trenches) and focus on the next. There are no guarantees in writing, and when you’ve put years and tons of work into a book, learning to be okay with possibly nothing happening with it can be soul-crushing.

So how do you stay motivated and optimistic in the face of rejection?

Take a break

First thing’s first: Don’t buy into the myth that you have to write every day. You don’t.

I find that I operate best when I hold myself to a schedule that works for me. Consistency is what matters. I consider sitting down for a writing session (including preparing/building scenes or doing research — whatever keeps me grounded in my book’s world) five days a week to be a respectable, manageable goal.

That’s just me. Find what works for you, and for god’s sake, cut yourself some slack. You are not a machine. You can still (and should) have a semblance of a social life, even as a writer. It’s healthy for you.

Forget about numbers

Some writers keep on track by giving themselves daily, weekly, or monthly word count goals. I find this incredibly demotivating.

Instead, I focus on accomplishing quarterly goals. To push myself, I might set a goal like, “Finish Act I.” When it’s done, it’s done.

I always freeze up when I look at word count, especially since I’m an underwriter. My internal dialogue goes something like, Ugh god this scene was only 800 words how am I supposed to write a 80,000 word novel at this rate, this is IMPOSSIBLE. Cue the self-doubt and worthlessness.

That’s bad. Stop it. Don’t worry about word count. You can always add more in revision.

Watch (or read) something that inspires you

Sometimes just listening to or reading the advice of other writers can give you the shot of inspiration you need to get your butt back to work.

“Booktube” and the community of authors/writers on YouTube always gets me pumped and excited about stories — both reading and writing them. I love Ava Jae, Kim Chance, Rachael Stephen, Lindsay Cummings, and Kristen Martin, for example.

And there’s no better reminder of why you’re in the writing game than reading a book so damn good that it makes you want to learn to be that good, too.

Look at the bigger picture

Writing is hard, but guess what? You’re a rockstar. You’ve got this. You’ve written thousands of words before this — hell, whole manuscripts, even. And you’re getting better every step of the way.

Becoming a good writer is practice. We lose sight of the big picture because writing a single book (over one, two, or more years) is the equivalent of one dance performance, one bicycle race, or one marathon. Ain’t nobody got our level of determination.

This Is Fine

Fucking embrace it

I know it sucks (believe me, I do), but sometimes you just gotta work through the pain.

If you hate the thought of sitting down to write, or if you think you’re a shitty writer — well, you can still feel that and put fingers to keys, or pen to paper.

Use that anger and frustration and agony as fuel — forget all about showing others you can do it. Show YOURSELF you can do it.

It doesn’t have to be perfect — you just need to get the words out. So yes, you can get this piece of shit done. You WILL be an author.

Because you’re a fucking badass, that’s why.

Understanding little things called subplots

X-Files GIF

I’m discovering that “subplots” is a term that most of us think we understand, but really we have a lot to learn about.

Subplots are miniature storylines that branch from the main storyline, right? Except … how the hell do you put them together? What constitutes a good, working “subplot” versus “some random side stuff than happens”?

In my current WIP, I think I’m getting better at developing subplots — or at least better at identifying them, which is really the first step to building them. But it’s a little like trying to make pottery. It looks easy until you actually do it. You end up with something that looks like a lump rather than a pretty pot.

I like how Janice Hardy explains plotting with layers. She writes, “A good subplot will add complications to your core conflict, be a step to achieving that core conflict, or cause trouble in your character’s internal or personal story arc. Subplots aren’t there just to cause random trouble or tell the story of another character because that character is interesting. They’re there to help illustrate some point of your core story.”

How do you know you’ve developed and tied up a sideplot well enough? That’s what I’m trying to figure out for myself, one ugly lump of clay at a time. I’m currently keeping track of each scene that contributes to a particular subplot, and guiding each of the subplots is what I’m calling a “breakthrough question” — the bigger question I’m trying to answer and the point I’m trying to get the character to by the end.

I like that Hardy points out that subplots can be a complication, “a step to achieving that core conflict,” or even a means to “help illustrate some point of your core story,” because that provides a little more room to work with.

I’m not sure if there are any true hard-and-fast rules for crafting subplots, but the bottom line seems to be, make sure it’s relevant to your characters’ growth, theme, or the main conflict … and not just some random side stuff that happens.

Writers, give yourself 10 minutes a day

Don't Give Up Dinosaurs

Honesty time.

I’m at this weird point in my writing life where I know I’m getting better, but I’m the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Let me back up and explain. I’m about a third deep into my WIP, which will be my third novel (fourth if you count that one I started in high school and never finished). At the same time that I’m writing it, I’m querying my previous novel and starting to wonder if I’ll ever get a manuscript request, let alone get it published. Even after two years of writing/revising and rounds of query critiques (including by published authors), it may not happen, folks. The query — for whatever reason — isn’t hooking agents.

So I’m feeling kind of discouraged. Like, what’s even the point of trying?

I know I’m usually all about preaching, “YOU CAN DO THIS KEEP TRYING,” but the truth is, even those of us who understand the value of persistence to a successful writing career aren’t immune to struggling with confidence. I’m feeling pretty lousy.

Yes, I take comfort in the fact that for many published authors, it takes multiple books before they get published. Maybe even ten books. Or twenty. (Seriously, read this post — it will give you hope.) And pretty much every book can feel like “the one” and not be it.

And I know I’m growing and getting better. For my first book (not counting that high school attempt), I finished the first draft but not revision. For my second book, I finished the first draft and several rounds of revision with several critique partners, but the foundation is perhaps too weak to fix. For this book (third), I’m much more confident in the world-building, characters, and the foundation of the novel — it’s going to be better from the start.

All signs point to “it will happen someday.” I will get published. But the “someday” part throws me off.

And then I watched author Rachael Stephen‘s video about how it’s important just to try, every day, and keep trying. “You don’t want to write today,” she says, “but all you have to do is try. For ten minutes. … Once they’re up, you can get up and walk away. And at least you tried today.”

After that, she says, chances are you’ll get over the feeling of “oh my god this is so grueling ugh why even do this” and actually get carried away in the writing and start to enjoy yourself. You’ll start to remember why you wanted to write a book in the first place, and that will support you through the process.

Stephen admits that the video is as much a reminder to other writers as it is to herself, and I think this blog post is the same thing for me.

So I’m going to put in my ten minutes today. Even though I don’t want to. Even though I’m not feeling it. Even though I don’t particularly believe in myself right now. Because if I don’t at least try, then it will 100% never happen. And if I do try, and keep trying — well, even if I can’t predict whether it will or won’t happen, those are far better odds.

How to use Scrivener minimally to write a novel

Scrivener corkboard

I will never, ever go back to Microsoft Word.

Scrivener is a godly writing platform at a stupidly affordable price (under $50). But dozens of writers are hesitant to switch over because it’s “complicated.”

Let me ask you this: How many things do you know how to do in Word? Maybe … 10%? 20%?

Scrivener is easy. I know it can do some pretty fancy things, but even at bare minimum, it’s amazing. You absolutely do not need to pay someone to teach you how to use Scrivener.

Here’s the gist.

Your novel consists of “folders” and “texts”

When you start up Scrivener, you make a new project. Choose “Fiction” and then “Novel.” Give it a title, and voilà.

Your chapters and scenes all go in the sidebar so you can quickly switch between them. Select “Manuscript,” right-click, and then add a new folder for a chapter. Right-click on the folder and add a new text for a scene.

From there, you can drag folders and texts around to put them in whatever order you want. I give my chapters a name, but I just list scenes as “Scene 1.1,” “Scene 1.2,” etc.

(The below screenshot is from the Mac version, but I’ve used the PC version as well and they’re both equally good.)

Scrivener Mac

You only really need two modes

Wherever your three “Group”/”View” mode buttons are (these vary on PC and Mac), toggle between them to try them out. One looks like a blank sheet of paper; another looks like a notecard. There’s a third mode, but don’t worry about it.

These are the only two modes you need. Actually, you only need the mode that’s a blank sheet of paper. It’s the only one I use.

Scrivener mode

Delete a bunch of stuff

Delete everything under “Research.” Delete the “Template Sheets.” Delete “Sample Output.”

You can always recover these from the Trash if you want them later.

Scrivener binder

Write in any font you want

One thing I really like about Scrivener is that you can write in whatever font or size you want. None of it matters when you compile the document because Scrivener formats your manuscript for you.

And that’s the single best reason to use it.

“Research” is for everything else

I took out everything in the pre-formatted “Research” section and made folders for:

  1. “Characters” — literally, profiles on each main character
  2. “World-building” — magic rules, politics, geography, etc.
  3. “Plotting” — For me, this consists of things like chapter and act word counts, a table of macro problems to fix, scraps and random brainstorming, ideas for a sequel, and discarded chapters.
  4. “Other” — For tentative query pitches, a sample query letter, a novel synopsis, an elevator pitch, thoughts on theme, and so on. It was super helpful to see those in one place, side by side. (More on that later.)

And that’s it

I don’t really use the corkboard (digital index card feature) in Scrivener because I do a lot of planning in a good old-fashioned paper notebook before I even open a word document and start typing. That’s just my style.

You can go a lot deeper with Scrivener, but at the end of the day, it’s no more complicated than using Microsoft Word. Probably less so, because Word is annoying and dumb.

When you’re ready to print or make a non-Scrivener file type — a Word doc … or, on second thought, anything else, like a Kindle file or PDF — all you have to do is hit “Compile.” Easy peasy.

I’m happy to talk more in-depth if you have questions or want to bounce around ideas, so leave your thoughts in the comments.

 

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done