The number one thing that stops me from writing my novels isn’t a lack of time, opportunity, or ideas. It’s how I feel while I’m writing.
The act of writing hurts.
It goes a little like this. I sit down and spend at least 20 minutes getting into a good headspace. And once I get going, it’s not necessarily any easier. The whole process, from beginning to end, is painful. It’s basically “this sucks this is bad and dull and uninspiring” on loop.
And knowing it’s like this almost every time is depressing because I start to question my life choices. Why couldn’t I have picked a nice, happy hobby, like knitting?
There’s only one way I know to deal with this feeling. Not even to make it go away — just to get around it.
Yeah, yeah. Easier said than done, I know. (Trust me, I know.) Because it’s a bit like a catch-22. You have to write often to stop the feeling from being so intense, but the feeling is so intense that it stops you from writing often.
In that way it’s a little like exercising. It’s terrible until you like it (or so I’ve heard). But exercising isn’t a perfect metaphor because it’s not so much that I like it or that it gets any easier. It’s more like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard — consistently, no matter how much I do it — until that moment when it’s not.
It happens when I’m maybe an hour in, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, I call it falling into the “writing zone” because that’s about the time when my husband is asking if I’m ever rejoining the rest of humanity because three hours have flown by. I get up from my laptop all groggy and wondering where I am.
As a writer, I can only live for these moments. But it’s like getting in a car and every time having to drive with a blindfold on. You’re horrified and you want to get out because this is a bad idea, but then you can feel you’re on the highway, and you’ve forgotten anything is wrong because you’re one with your car or something. (No, I have not done this. Do not do this.)
If writing is meditation, it’s a struggle of trying to make it from one word, one sentence, one paragraph to the next while machete-hacking through a jungle of my own terrible thoughts. It’s a fight. It’s relentless. And then all of a sudden, I’m in the groove. I’m too deep and too focused to care or even notice I’m in the jungle anymore — I’m just there, slinging the words, too busy to complain about how hot it is or how hungry I am.
This is probably too many metaphors, but you get the idea.
Writing is hard. It’s hard. I don’t know that it’ll ever not be hard. And yeah, most of the time that makes me want to crawl under the blankets and never emerge.
But then I achieve that small moment — and it’s the tiniest indication that everything will be okay. That maybe I can do this after all.
So here I am. Still writing. Still going.
It’s been almost two years since I wrote my last blog post. And boy, things have changed.
Baby boy, to be exact.
I was feeling pretty down on myself in my last post. I was also — hey — about three months pregnant and constantly sick. So in hindsight, that makes sense. But I was also really stuck on the fact that I’d put a huge amount of energy into writing a novel that was my best one yet, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
So I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. For all my past talk about “writing’s hard, you just gotta push through” — I couldn’t. All the self-discipline in the world wasn’t getting those words out of me.
Part of me thought, “Okay, this is fine. My mind and body only have energy enough for growing a human being. If I start another novel now, I’ll give birth before it’s finished, and then I’ll have to put it on ice for months as I adjust to being a new mom, and that’ll kill the project anyway.”
That was fine.
I did the thing. I gave birth to a baby boy, seven pounds, one ounce. I enjoyed my maternity leave. Then I grew restless. I wanted to get back to my job. I did.
And then my brain latched on to an idea and it was happening. I was writing a novel again.
As of last weekend, I finished the first draft of my fourth novel, a middle grade fantasy.
It’s a funny thing, life. I guess I only had room for one big project in me at a time. (God forbid I ever have twins.) But I was pretty sure I would never write another novel again. I was that demotivated and hopeless.
But then I did.
Writing with a 10 month old isn’t easy. Time is scarcer than ever. But you get it done. The words are bad, and you hate them, but they go down on the page.
And then you have a novel.
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.
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?
I love watching writing videos on YouTube. Often it’s information I already know, but listening always inspires me to get back to my own writing. (I’m almost done with the first draft of my third manuscript, guys! Eeee!)
That said, sometimes I stumble across a gem of insight. That happened to me yesterday when I watched novel editor Ellen Brock’s video on how to describe emotion in your novel without being melodramatic or cliché.
Why do I love her advice so much?
- Because soooo much writing advice gets our brains stuck on showing, never telling, when telling is a useful tool.
- Because there’s a ton of advice out there that only encourages writers to show emotion in cliché ways, like “her hands clenched into fists” to demonstrate anger.
- As Ellen points out, no one in real life is 100 percent transparent about their emotions at all times. We’re more often concealing what we’re really feeling.
The key is, as Ellen says, introspection.
“What your character thinks, how they interpret the world, how they interpret their emotions — that is a lot more important than what they feel,” she says.
“If you pull a gun on someone, pretty much everybody in the world is going to feel afraid in that situation. But that doesn’t tell the reader anything about your character. That’s not special, that’s not unique. That’s just the obvious reaction to that situation. What is special and unique is what your character thinks.”
Ellen also gives some examples of what this looks like in Stephen King’s novel Misery, including how he uses this technique in combination with showing or telling, so definitely give her video a watch!
I’ve always felt this way about describing emotion in my gut, but it’s so helpful to have someone else validate that idea and put it clearly into words.
What do you think is important about showing, telling, and describing emotion in a story?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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”?
Writing is connected. From tweets, emails, and status updates to novels, newspaper articles, and ads.
The world sees writing in four types — expository (to explain), descriptive (to paint a picture), persuasive (to convince), and narrative (to a story) — but I see a million types.
I see the journalist who’s also a poet.
The marketer who’s a blogger.
The novelist who’s a tweeter.
We’re wizards, casting words as spells, always inventing new ones — pithy, funny, sassy, heart-wrenching. We’ve got so many tricks.
I’m part journalist, part storyteller, part social media engager, part email queen, part critical reviewer, part grammar stickler, part website copy slinger.
I started out as just blogger. I learned. I grew.
Every muscle, every skill feeds into another.
The clouds take on different shapes.
Writing is fucking magic.
You’re always discovering.
Being a writer is a profession nobody seems to understand. Do you sit around all day in your pajamas? Do you use a fancy pants typewriter? Are you just making elaborate fantasy maps all day?
The answer to all of these is “usually no.”
So what’s the deal? Well … let me clear up a few misconceptions.
Nobody has time to write
We make time. That’s how it happens. Magic, right?
Pretty much all of us have day jobs, social obligations, errands to run, and various other life responsibilities.
Writing the book is the easy part
You heard me. Writing the book is the easy part.
What’s hard is revising it multiple times based on feedback from critique partners and betas, perfecting your query, snagging an agent even after they request a partial or full manuscript, staying motivated / patient while you receive a lot of criticism and rejection or radio silence, getting a book sold to a publisher, etc. etc.
It takes more than an idea
Trust me, just because you have cool ideas and great life stories and your friends love them does not mean they will be golden when you sit down to write them out.
Telling a good story out loud and writing a good story are two very different tasks.
We don’t do it to get rich
There’s very little money in writing. The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world are the 1 percent.
Nobody becomes an author to make millions. Most don’t even make enough to quit their day job. We write because we love it — because writing, though incredibly hard most of the time, gives us an incredibly genuine sense of fulfillment.
Mental illness is not a prerequisite
We all know the stereotype: Writers are loners, losers, drunks, cat ladies/guys, and all-around crazy people who stick their heads in ovens.
While many famous authors have suffered from mental illness, most research on the link between mental illness and creativity is lacking. Writers can be gorgeous, happy, social people. They can be short, tall, skinny, fat, gay, straight, white, black, and every shade in between. Yes, they can also have depression, anxiety, or any other number of mental health issues. And yes, there’s a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-loathing that accompanies the writing life.
But it’s important not to glamorize mental illness or position it as a prerequisite to being a legitimate creative person. A mentally ill person won’t “lose” their creativity if they get better. If anything, their illness is as much a detriment, if not more so, to their writing (and their life) as it is a factor in their success.
Asking us what we’re writing is a BIG question
Um, so, I don’t know if you realize this, but asking writers what our books are about is a question that FILLS US WITH DREAD.
Summarizing tens of thousands of words into a few sentences and making them sound cool is super hard. So hard that writers call that summary “the elevator pitch,” and it takes a lot of thinking and effort to make it good.
Of course, that means we need to actually create and memorize our elevator pitch before we can tell you it. So try to be understanding and kind if we’re not quite ready to share.
We work even when we’re not feeling inspired
Key word being “work.” Writers have deadlines. Yes, sometimes, if we’re un-agented, we set deadlines and goals for ourselves because otherwise we’d never finish our books — but rest assured, these are real deadlines and goals, and we appreciate when you respect them.
What we don’t do is write only when we’re feeling inspired or are on vacation or enjoying a perfect day or the kids are out. “This shit is easy,” said no writer ever. We write whenever we can, as often as we can, even when the words don’t want to flow and we’d rather be watching Netflix because writing is fucking difficult.
Writing is actual work. Legitimate work. Like, there’s business involved and stuff.
Being unpublished doesn’t mean we’ve failed
Probably one of my biggest fears — and I think a lot of writers’ fears — is that if we don’t have a big agent or a three-figure book deal and our books aren’t being made into movies (reality: 99 percent chance all that is not going to happen), then people will think we’re hacks and that we’re cute for trying but we should probably give up now and find a nice office job.
This is not a realistic measure of our success.
1) It takes years to write and revise a manuscript. Years. It’s a slow process.
2) Most writers’ debut books are not the first book they’ve ever written.
3) Sometimes, after you get an agent, your book goes on submission but then nothing happens.
4) Even if a publisher picks up your book, it takes years before it’s actually in print.
So if we don’t have “good news” or any real update for you and it’s been months since we last talked, please be patient. We have to be.
We really, really wish you’d buy our books
If we are lucky enough to get our book published, you buying it means more than you know. After all, as you just learned, we work on these things forever.
If you buy and read the book, extra points!
If you leave a review online — we’ll love you forever!
There are a lot of real, meaningful ways you can show your support beyond a simple congratulations.
What real writing looks like.
Writing is ‘boring’
If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the writer’s life is kind of boring. It involves a lot of waiting. In fact, when we’re querying or our books are on submission, we refresh our inboxes a lot. Like, A LOT.
It’s certainly not glamorous like on TV. Most of us aren’t Richard Castle.
So please, please, please — don’t ask us when the movie is coming out.
If you have any questions about what it’s like to be a writer, please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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.
You 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.
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:
- 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).
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.
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.
I 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?