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.

A game about how writing a book sucks out your soul

Bucket Detective

Writing is hard. Maybe hard enough to want to do anything to make it easier — like helping a weird cult that is up to their necks in some evil business.

That’s the premise of Bucket Detective, an hour-long dark-comedy game about a crummy writer who, desperate to finish his (terrible) book, agrees to help a cult in exchange for divine inspiration. It’s $4 on Steam or Itch.io, and … yeah. That’s kind of awesome.

I wish there were more games about the writing process and the insane lengths authors sometimes go to, honestly. I didn’t particularly care for The Novelist (a game about a novelist and his family struggles), and I’ve heard mixed things about Elegy for a Dead World (a game about writing fiction).

Alan Wake is a decent game about an author — and while it doesn’t focus on writing per se, it’s a fun Stephen-King-esque thriller about a guy whose wife goes missing, and pages from a book you don’t remember writing start showing up as you search for her.

Are there any games out there about writers/writing that you’ve played? Were they any good?

Planning a scene in your novel

Writing a novel

As I start my next manuscript, I’ve been toying with different ways to plan scenes.

Quick aside — go read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll try to post soon about why it’s so good. She has a lot of smart stuff to say about common writing myths and getting story right.

Anyway, back to scenes. I’ve done a lot of groundwork for imagining my world and characters, and I know my novel’s trajectory. But I’m an underwriter, which means I struggle with word count. I need ways to keep myself on course and incorporate that world-building little by little into the actual writing.

So I ask myself these questions to prepare for writing a scene, and so far I’ve found they work like magic:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • Whose POV will this be and why? What’s their emotional state going in?
  • What is the goal, conflict, and disaster?
  • What is the reaction, dilemma, and decision (emotional reflection)?
  • What is the twist that will keep people reading, or how does the problem get bigger?
  • How do things go wrong for the protagonist?
  • What choices does the character make here?

And then, once I’ve answered those:

  • What is the setting, and how can I set the scene as I begin?
  • What description the five senses will help me set this scene?
  • How can I anchor the characters’ behaviors to their past in this scene?
  • How can I deepen the characters’ misbelief (flawed worldview) in this chapter?

By this point, I’ve usually come up with a lot of ideas and gone way deeper into my brainstorming than I anticipated, so I’m ready to begin. But just in case, I sometimes also answer these last two questions:

  • What about my world can I reveal, or dig deeper into? What can I sprinkle in?
  • How else can I ask “why” to make the story richer and motivations more believable?

Since I use Scrivener, anytime as I’m writing that I hit on something I need to research more (including terms or general world choice), I leave myself a note on the side and keep typing.

Your turn. How do you prepare to write a new scene?

The importance of vulnerability

Nobody wants to show themselves failing. Yet that’s exactly what Kim Chance did in her latest video.

Let’s redefine that: Kim isn’t actually failing. She’s acquired a literary agent, which means she has a better chance of succeeding than the vast majority of writers whose manuscripts never get accepted. (See my interview with Kim here.) But the feeling of failing is admitting that you don’t have it together, that things might not work out, and that you’re scared shitless.

It takes a lot of courage to say, “Hey, I might not pull this off.” It takes even more courage to take a step closer to success, in front of the whole world — like Kim has on YouTube — and then fall short. We all go through this. But nobody wants to say, “I’m in the middle of the messy part that could be my failure,” with everyone watching. We only want to say, “I made it to the other side, and whew, it was tough, BUT I DID IT.”

Yet when Kim exposed herself — cried on camera, ditched the bubbly-happy persona she usually shows us, and let herself be completely vulnerable — she sent a message that was way more powerful and inspiring than any “We can do it!” speech. Because she showed us we’re not alone.

Of course, we all realize other writers have doubts and anxiety like we do. But to actually see that? Totally different.

“I guess what I lie awake thinking about is, what if it doesn’t happen?” Kim said. “What if [my book] Keeper doesn’t find a home? What if it doesn’t get published?”

She said, “I’ve been on submission a couple months now, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.”

That wasn’t the only fear she shared. She challenged herself to write the first draft of a new manuscript by June, before her baby is born. But she admitted she’s made no progress since that announcement.

“I am crippled with this fear that I can’t write a book. Isn’t that dumb?” she said. “But I just have this fear that I’m a one-hit wonder. I wrote Keeper and that was awesome, but what if I can’t do it again? What if that was it? What if that was my bout of creativity there in that one book, and now I’m trying to write the book of my dreams, the book that I would absolutely die to write, and what if I can’t do it?”

Yes, yes, a million times YES. I recently finished my second book last year and started querying it, and I’m already paralyzed by this fear. How can I move on to begin another project after this last one took two years of my life — hundreds of hours of time and energy — and nothing might happen with it? And that’s the norm. How do you find the motivation to do that all over again while facing rejection after rejection, or no response at all, from agents about the last book you wrote? How do you not get defeated by that? How do you not judge yourself by each and every “no”?

Kim said, “What if I let everybody down? What if I let [my agent] Caitlin down? What if I let you guys down? What if I let my family and my friends down? What if I let myself down? What if everything I’ve been telling myself is a lie?”

The stakes for Kim are even higher than they are for many of us. Personally, I don’t often share, outside of the internet, that I write books. That I spent night after night, week after week, working on a manuscript. Because as soon as you do that, people expect results. They don’t understand that the normal process is very slow-moving, that some authors don’t get published until their third or fourth or tenth book — and others, never at all. People think no news or bad news is a sign that you’re doomed to fail, that you’re a hack writer, that you’re chasing an impossible dream. And it’s hard not to believe them.

Kim said, “I know that somewhere out there, there’s somebody watching this who’s shaking their head, saying, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t want anybody to feel alone during this process. So as defeated as I feel right now, I’m gonna tell myself … I’m gonna keep telling myself what I’m always telling you guys. That dreams don’t work unless you do. And that no matter how hard it gets, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep fighting.”

Every part of a writer’s journey is tough, she said. And it is. It absolutely is. “Writing a book is hard,” Kim said. “Querying a book is hard. Writing a sequel is hard. Being on submission is hard. Being a writer is hard, guys! … But it’s one of the best jobs in the world. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. And I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

Me too, Kim. Me fucking too.

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.

 

BBC’s The Fall: The character development of Paul Spector

BBC Two's The Fall

BBC Two’s The Fall (available on Netflix) is one of my new favorite TV shows. It follows the life and crimes of serial killer Paul Spector and Stella Gibson, the detective in charge of bringing him to justice.

Paul Spector (actor Jamie Dornan) is one of the most fascinating characters portrayed on TV, so he makes an excellent case study for good character development — whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay or anything in between.

WARNING: Lots of spoilers for The Fall, “series” (seasons) 1-3, so read on at your own discretion.

From monster to sympathetic villain

In series one, we immediately learn who Paul Spector is. He’s a killer, no mistake about it, as we follow his perspective throughout the show. We also learn that he’s a husband and loving father. But his docility around his children only makes his actions that much more heinous and frightening.

By series three, Paul is in police custody and undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The evidence against him is overwhelming, not to mention he’s made a full confession. But as he’s suffering from amnesia (either real or pretend), we see a new side of Paul, a different kind of intimacy. There’s the intimacy of watching him strangle and beat his victims. Then there’s the intimacy of learning about his childhood and how he views himself.

Paul Spector Olivia

He’s complicated, and the beauty of his character development is that complexity makes him impossible to pin down. As the audience, we can only speculate about what’s going on his mind, the same way that Stella Gibson can only speculate (sometimes, perhaps wrongly) about what drives him. Paul continues to surprise us.

Continue reading BBC’s The Fall: The character development of Paul Spector

Here’s a trick for eliminating unnecessary exposition in your novel

dark willow buffy bored blah

As I revise my novel, one of the problems I’m working on is too much exposition, especially in the beginning chapters.

I’ve devised a little trick to help as it’s not always apparent to me when I have too much.

What is exposition, anyway?

Author Beth Amos defines exposition as “information that is offered to readers to help them understand the plot, characters, or setting in a story. Exposition is telling, not showing, and passive rather than active.”

What is too much exposition?

Amos has a nice way of explaining when you’re hitting the danger zone with exposition:

The key is to use it piecemeal, doling it out in small chunks and only when absolutely necessary. To involve readers in your story, you need to maintain their interest and pique their curiosity. You do that by revealing just enough details to make a character or situation intriguing without insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling it out for them. And if you can offer those same revelations through dialogue and action, so much the better.

Think of real life. When we meet a person for the first time, we know nothing about their past, their personalities, or even much of their present day life. Over time, if we continue to be exposed to this person, we will glean these details through the person’s actions, interactions, and conversations. The more puzzling and complex a person seems, the more our interest is piqued. In contrast, when you meet someone who is so fascinated by his own life that he proceeds to tell you every aspect of it in excruciating detail, the impulse is to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Here’s my trick to reducing exposition:

I’ve been rereading each scene and chapter looking only for tell-ish exposition — anywhere I’m stepping out of the “present” to explain something so the reader better understands the deeper context — and I highlight it in yellow. I especially look for exposition that feels like it could be taken out without affecting the action or flow of the scene. In other words, it’s just not that relevant or necessary.

If the highlighted portion is more than two lines, I trim it down to two (or less). But instead of simply deleting the offending text, I cut and paste it into a text document in my Scrivener project that I titled “Scraps.” This way, I’m not losing the extra information — and I don’t forget what it is, either. I’m taking it and moving it to the side, out of the way, so I can recycle it later, or so I can remember why it was so important in the first place.

What this has taught me:

First, it’s made this exercise has made it much easier to spot heavy exposition in my novel. It really is true that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look for everything (character, exposition, description, etc.) at the same time — you need to take a pass for one thing, then a pass for another.

Second, I’ve learned to take out the bits I don’t need and find more creative ways to incorporate them. For example, in my novel, I realized I had told the reader what my character’s unusual routine was each morning when I could have shown her going through it at the start of the story.

What techniques do you use to eliminate unnecessary exposition in your stories?

How to decide if you need an editor for your book

nope gif

I’ve been hearing a lot of advice about book editing lately, and I wanted to clear something up:

You do not need to hire an editor for your book.

Well, not necessarily. Let me explain:

A lot of writers are self-publishing these days, and that’s fine. And if you’re self-publishing, it is in your best interest to hire a professional editor for your book. But writers sometimes state that this is a requirement no matter what.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

If you plan on traditionally publishing your book — which means you want to query agents and secure a publisher, all that — then you do NOT need an editor prior to querying. You do not need to pay anything involving your novel (and editors do not come cheap).

Here’s why:

Sure, you can increase your chances of publication if your novel is more polished from a good round of editing. But while an editor will make a lot of developmental suggestions, they’re not going to do the work for you — you are.

You can get the same result from working with critique partners or beta readers, who will do it for free or in exchange for a critique of their own writing.

But what about grammar? And punctuation? And typos?

Fix. this. yourself.

If you want to get into the writing business but you don’t know when to use a comma and when not to, then you’ll only do yourself a favor by learning. Take a course on grammar, or buy a grammar book and teach yourself. Just learn the rules — or at least get a friend who’s good at that stuff to proofread your book.

Hiring an editor is a waste of money when there are no guarantees in traditional publishing. Save your money and instead spend your energy honing your skills and making sure you can beat the odds. Study your craft and learn how to revise, how to proofread, how to stick it out until you have a damn good novel and a fine query and synopsis on your hands. Be the most versatile writer you can be.

Future you will thank you.

5 answers to the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Every writer knows this question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Typically, writers respond with something along the lines of, “Um … I dunno! Ha ha ha!” And inwardly does this:

writer scream

Next time you’re asked this question, give people an answer they can understand … or at least one that’ll make them never want to talk to you again.

Answer: “I had this crazy dream …”

“One day I woke up from this crazy dream, where my underwear was on fire, and everyone was staring at me, and then I had to ride this crazy rollercoaster with a bunch of hamster people. And that’s how I got the idea to write a book about a dystopian future.”

Answer: “I browsed the internet.”

“People post the darndest things on the internet. They take pictures of their food. They rant about who died on television shows. They post a lot of GIFs. They’re basically characters who write themselves. I just copy down everything they say on Facebook.”

Answer: “Television.”

“I was basically so angry about my favorite show getting cancelled that I re-wrote the ending and changed all the names. … Yeah, that show. You know that one. I can’t believe the network, right?”

Answer: “I spend a lot of time with cats.”

“Well, I was sitting around, petting my ten cats, and I started to wonder … What if, like, they’re really people, reincarnated into cat bodies? And we let them watch us take baths and pick our noses and stuff? And we never let them go outside?! And we torture them by talking in baby speak all day! Really we’re just terrible enslavers of an entire once-human race!”

Answer: “I steal everyone else’s ideas.”

“Everyone who asks me this question usually follows it with, ‘You should write about this great idea I had,’ so I turn their ideas into novels and make lots of money, and I don’t have to share a penny. I am totally rolling in cash right now. I am up to my eyeballs in money.”

picard

Writing life: The moment you know it’s all gonna work out

Rowling gif

As you may know from this blog, I’m deep into revisions on a young adult fantasy book. It’s my second completed manuscript, and while that alone is an accomplishment worth being proud of, I feel like I’ve achieved an even greater milestone in my writing life:

I am more comfortable with revision than I ever used to be.

Revision is scary. Okay, that’s an understatement. After I wrote my first book, I found revision fucking daunting. I used to relentlessly Google things like, “How do you revise your book without getting overwhelmed?”

When I got to my second novel (this one), something changed. I joined a local writer’s group, and eventually I started setting quarterly goals so I would get my first round of revisions done. That quarterly schedule turned into weekly goals, which turned into a real revising habit — and now I sit down to revise nearly every day, without fail.

The secret, I learned, was that there is no secret. Revision is hard. It’s always going to be hard, and it’s a necessary evil if you want to get published. But there are ways you can make it easier.

Writer’s groups and critique partners make revision a hell of a lot more approachable. I suck at identifying critical issues with my novel — maybe less so now, but still, I’m way too close to the damn thing to know what I should even try to fix.

That’s the rub: When you try to revise without feedback, especially when you’re new to revision, you’ll probably identify “problems” to fix while missing the bigger issues that you should be focusing on. I remember I spent hours revising the first few chapters of my first manuscript — churning out draft upon draft — and guess what? It wasn’t a very efficient use of my time, and I zoned in on smaller, nit-picky issues like word choice when I should have been thinking about whether the story made sense and what needed more developing.

Revising in a vacuum is a useless exercise.

When you have other people read and critique your novel, you get a reader’s perspective, which is so crucial for identify the real problems with your novel. Readers pick out things you would have never thought of — things that matter. They don’t obsess like you do over your prose and making it “perfect.” They’re much more willing to accept your style.

Critiques can hurt, but they’re mighty powerful. And eventually, you get used to them, and you don’t take criticism personally anymore. Once you do — what’s there to be afraid of? Certainly not revision. No, sir.

Being comfortable with the revision process is one of the best feelings in the world as a writer. It means you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the name of making your novel better.

Do I ever still worry what readers will think? Of course. But I’m finding that I can survive whatever they throw at me. And that makes me so much more confident that I’m going to achieve my dream of being published one day.

go type gif