March 27th, 2017
Turning Whine Into Gold
Every now and then, a bit of life wisdom hits you and takes seed. That’s how I felt a decade ago, when author Regina McBride and I were talking about the disadvantages of the writer’s life being conducted at home. “Home” to the majority of people is the place where you go to unwind after a long day of salaried or clock-punched work. So when those people notice that you are always home, they immediately assume you’ve had more than your fair share of couch-flopped soap opera watching.
Enter the expectations of extended family members, others in the neighborhood—even your spouse and children—who believe that in comparison to them, you clearly do not have enough activity to fill your days. After all, they are busy out in the world, while you are at home letting your imagination wander. Regina said she was constantly entertaining requests to watch other kids, to volunteer at school or sports teams or Scouts, to run errands for elders, teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, write newsletter copy or speeches for nonprofits (since writing comes to you so easily anyway).
If we said yes to all such requests, we couldn’t possibly achieve our writing goals. We have to believe that these goals are not frivolous, that they are worthy of our protection. So it’s handy to have a comeback tucked in your back pocket. Regina’s impressed me. She would tell them:
“I’m going to pass that opportunity on to someone else. Writing is the way I hope to make a difference. I am already doing my part.”
That quote saved me numerous times while powering up my writing career. Practice it. We need an answer at the ready because to stumble is to pick up your neighbor’s dry cleaning.
I am not suggesting that writers are lazy or insensitive to the needs of others. It’s quite the opposite. We feel the need deeply, and we always think we can do more. Since we’re highly capable, we know we can affect change. Where does our obligation to do so end?
A thin line exists between extreme capability and madness. Many bright, sensitive multi-talents end up imploding their psyches and surrendering potential author careers to a bloated sense of civic imperative. A successful author platform can help us impact change by bestowing greater power, but our work is so time-consuming that we must choose carefully how best to wield it. Even writers who lollygag at home all day, it turns out, need nourishing food. Sleep at night. A break from 24/7 responsibility—and another title, lest they be forgotten.
I’m revisiting this topic after reading the following quote from Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a lobbying organization founded by a group of Catholic sisters. Simply put, the woman does a lot, but writes:
“All of creation is one body. I’m only just a little piece of it. But the freedom of knowing that means I just have to do my part. I don’t know how to communicate how freeing that is.”
That nugget came to me in the middle of my own personal March Madness—a term I’ve co-opted that has nothing to do with basketball. My 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule was jammed to the max—and then, into my inbox, dropped the ten, 10-page manuscripts I forgot I’d said I’d critique for a contest. I had two weeks to turn them around.
While my alumni magazine assures me that most of those in my year are enjoying retirement, I accept that many writers have similar schedules. It’s all important work. Worthy work. But where does it end?
Think about that today, as you race through your busy life. We can conceive it all. We can feel it all. But maybe we don’t have to do it all.
Maybe being a storyteller is our part. Maybe it’s enough.
What are the misperceptions you’ve encountered about your writing life? What additional activities have you deemed “worth it,” and otherwise, how do you guard your writing time? All great comebacks welcome!
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Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.
March 24th, 2017
Ever wished you could have a do-over?
Join the club. We’re all members—including your characters.
Our longing to rewind time can range from the frivolous (I may have once backed my car into something incredibly loud right in front of a guy I had a crush on—and the loud thing may have been a “Watch Children” sign) to the torturous (if only, if only, if only you’d asked if your neighbor kept guns in the house before letting your child go over to play).
Highly motivated characters are often driven by an intense yearning or longing—this is paramount in the teachings of David Corbett, one of my favorite writers on the subject of character (who wrote the fine book The Art of Character, and who I made quick work of adding to our stable of contributing editors at Writer’s Digest). Corbett delves into thoughtful detail to show that such longings, to minor degrees or major extremes, can define who our characters are, motivate what they do (or don’t do), and make them more relatable to the reader.
As I make my own way as a novelist, in part because of the sorts of stories that have called me to write them, I’ve discovered that when it comes to yearning, the desire for a do-over is tops among the most agonizing, unshakeable, and all too familiar.
We might sometimes get second chances, but an actual do-over is simply not possible—unless, in your story world, it is: Behold, the success of the Back to the Future franchise and some of my favorite fantastical novels, including Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. In those cases, the do-over is the story, and that’s exactly what draws us in.
For characters who do not have access to a DeLorean, this type of yearning comes in two flavors:
- Things they wish had happened differently.
- Things they wish they could do differently.
(As with soft serve, you can also serve up do-overs in swirl.)
The key difference here relates to the level of control the character had over the outcome. Cursing the fact that the universe did not smile upon you is a different thing from holding oneself responsible for disaster: a mistake, a bad decision, an err in judgment, a thoughtless word.
Getting Caught in a Storm
Countless stories are fueled by characters who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Two If By Sea, the protagonist has, by a freakish stroke of luck (if you could call it that), survived a tsunami that washed away his family. He wishes he hadn’t been staying at that seaside resort on that night, wishes they’d been with him when he happened up to higher ground, wishes anything about that day had transpired differently, but it’s no use wishing. He cannot go back; he has to find a forward.
This kind of longing need not drive your entire plot, or even your protagonist. A backstory along these lines can add complexity to any subplot or character. And you can exploit it to your story’s advantage.
What might happen if you:
- Brought someone back from the “dead” (Harlan Coben has used this in multiple thrillers, most recently Fool Me Once).
- Bring in a ghost (Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light does this literally—complete with an old house, secret passages, and family secrets).
- Gave him another shot at something he thought he missed out on (this one factors into my own novel Almost Missed You—and its title).
Beating Yourself Up
Ah, but it was your character’s fault. Or at least, it feels that way. Will she ever forgive herself?
If your plot needs a twist or a character needs dimension, consider these possibilities for the backstory or the present action:
- An accident. The most heartrending example of this I’ve read recently is from Lisa Duffy’s gorgeous The Salt House, out this June, where a mother holds herself responsible for the choking hazard that found its way into her infant’s crib.
- What’s been said. Forget sticks and stones—words hurt, and you can’t take them back. What does this character wish he had kept to himself? The reprimand that sent the rebellious teen packing? The new product idea that his rival stole? The affair his spouse had been trying to ignore? The drunken text? The angry email?
- The wrong choice. What does your character wish she’d said “yes” to? What does she wish she’d turned down?
- A roadblock. What if your character still thought she could fix things, but you snatch the opportunity away?
Remember: Chocolate and vanilla can be deliciously intertwined. Two out of three of these ideas factor into Almost Missed You, which is all about fate, and choices—and my next novel plays with some from Column A and some from Column B too.
Do it now: Ask your characters what they’d do over if they could.
How might they surprise you?
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Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press releases on March 28, and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.
She loves connecting with fellow writers (and readers) at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor and on Twitter @jessicastrawser.
March 20th, 2017
Aimie K. Runyan
I just started writing a new book—well, two of them, but that’s a story for another time. Yesterday I sat in front of my screen for hours and ended up with fewer than 600 words to show for it. It seemed like every bit of volunteer work, every mundane administrative task I had to do was calling my name. That’s not me. I’m the writer who can blissfully ignore e-mails and let the dishes pile up in the sink. My writing time is sacred.
But as I sat at the keyboard, frustrated beyond measure, I realized this phenomenon wasn’t new for me. When I began my last book, Daughters of the Night Sky, I experienced the same phenomenon. It took hours to eke out a few hundred words and I would end my writing session drained and cranky instead of the satisfying fatigue of having “left it all on the field” …or computer hard drive, I guess. With Night Sky, I actually slumped into a depression for a few weeks. I had attributed it to other stressors in my life, which were certainly part of it, but this time around it’s clear that the only thing dragging me down was starting a new project. I had thought I’d done everything I needed to do to be successful:
- I had clear goals for the scenes and the chapter
- I had a grasp on my themes, the voice I want to convey
- I know my main characters well enough to get in their heads
- There was enough left unknown for me to have the thrill of discovery.
For me, this should have been enough. Your mileage may vary, of course, but these are typically the only things I need to stave off writer’s block.
The problem? This wasn’t writer’s block. Not the kind I typically waltz around in the murky middle when I’m not sure if the project is living up to my expectations or I don’t know that my plan for the book is on course. This is full on failure to launch. And the good news, is that I had an epiphany. I have a really bad case of nerves when I start a project I care deeply about. It’s likely why it took me ten years to start writing my debut Promised to the Crown in earnest.
Starting a new book is like the first mile of a marathon or the first hundred feet when you’re climbing Everest. If you think about all the toil that lies ahead, it’s very hard to be excited about the journey ahead. Especially if you’ve written a novel before, you know that there are drafts and drafts in your future. Then edits. Then beta reads. Then more edits. All before your agent and editors get to look at it. But the key to all of this? That’s not the problem for today.
Today all you have to do is get words on the damn page. Shovel sand in the box so you can get to building your castles down the line. I realized that I was letting myself get overwhelmed by the prospect of the task ahead of me. What’s more I was putting sub-conscious pressure on myself to make the first draft of this book as good as the polished draft of my last. If I had a boss come up to me with those unreasonable expectations, I’d get HR to intervene. Since I’m self-employed, I have to do something even harder: learn to live with my own foibles.
But now I’m aware of my fault, and as the saying goes, knowledge is power. I’m taking some proactive steps to help get my WIP—and my head—into fighting shape.
- I acknowledge that the blank page is daunting. By admitting this, and understanding this truth, I can move past it.
- I spend extra time getting to know my characters. Sketching them out, studying their personalities and motivations, can help bring the words out onto the page.
- Freewriting before a session helps gets the juices flowing. I set a timer for fifteen minutes and just write whatever comes into my head—generally pertaining to the characters or the story. It’s a great tool for opening the word gates because the pressure of making the words publication-worthy isn’t there.
- I adjust expectations. It will take several sessions to be able to hit my usual productivity. If I don’t obsess over the word count for a few days, it will happen faster.
- Just keep typing. Soon enough, I’ll get more invested in the story and it will all come together.
So far, it’s helping to get the words on the page and I’m sure I’ll add more tricks if future projects prove daunting (I take solace that this hasn’t been the case for every book!).
What tips do you have for getting over the “New Book Blues”?
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Aimie K. Runyan is s an author of historical fiction that celebrates history’s unsung heroines. Her first two novels, PROMISED TO THE CROWN and DUTY TO THE CROWN (Kensington), explore the lives of the early female settlers in Louis XIVs Quebec. Her forthcoming novel. DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY (Lake Union, November ’17) follows the Night Witches, the fierce all-female regiment of combat pilots who flew for Russia in the Second World War. She is active as an educator and a speaker for the writing community and beyond. Aimie lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and (usually) darling children.
March 17th, 2017
Great questions this month – so much to say, so let’s get started!
Laura Drake asks: I have a question – I’ve read (no, studied) the first half of Story Genius, and it’s changed the way I write. My weakness is plotting (I don’t). So the second half of the book is lost to me – putting together critical scenes, etc. Any suggestions for using Story Genius for pantsers who get hives at the mention of the ‘P’ word?
Here’s something that may come as a surprise: the second half of Story Genius isn’t about Plotting. It’s about exactly what you’re asking here: how to create critical scenes that move your story forward.
I firmly believe that Pansters can do this work, even if you don’t do it in exactly the way I lay out in Story Genius. I created Story Genius as a tool that writers can use to make every story better, with methods that are adaptable to one’s own familiar writing process. It’s not a formula, or a rigid set of rules you have to follow or else. My goal was to identify what it is that readers are actually responding to in every story they hear – to wit: how the protagonist navigates a hard-fought internal change the plot forces them to go through – and offer guidance on how to create that internal struggle, and then make sure it’s not only on the page, but driving the external action.
Here are 5 tips for Pansters that might come in handy to be sure that your story logic holds from the first page to the last:
- Post a sticky with your story’s point, your protagonist’s overarching agenda, and her misbelief near where you write, and always look at it before you start writing. Use it as a yardstick for what she does, and why. Refer to it when you work — and keep referring to it. This might sound strange, but the physical act of looking at it – seeing it written out in black and white – can really help focus your mind on what matters most.
- Since the plot revolves around one single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates from the first scene to the last, write your scenes in order — even if at first blush they’re thin, skating along on the surface, or feel clunky. Resist the urge to skip ahead.
- Once you’ve written a scene, stop. I know that this is the hard part for Pantsers, but it’s SO powerful! Pull out a Story Genius Scene Card and test it. That way you’ll discover:
- If the scene is, indeed, a critical part of the cause-and-effect trajectory.
- If every character in the scene is acting in accordance with their agenda.
- If the scene itself arcs – that is, if something changes externally.
- If everything in the scene matters to the protagonist, given her story-long agenda.
- If what happens in the scene causes your protagonist internal conflict, forcing her struggle internally with what action to take.
- If your protagonist has a small “realization” at the end of the scene that changes how she sees things, affecting her ongoing plan in some way.
- What must happen next in the story.
- If, in creating your Scene Card, you discovered that there were still things that you need to know in order to really understand why your protagonist is doing what she does in this scene, let yourself dive into her past again to ferret out the info you’ve realized is missing. Resist the urge to race ahead. (Do you see a pattern here? I’m trying to get you to slow down just a tiny bit. Writing forward is fun; I get that. But writing 300 pages that go nowhere? Not so fun. Make sure your pages go somewhere.)
- For every scene you write, allow yourself a few minutes to brainstorm worst case scenarios for your protagonist based on what she wants/fears and keep a running list of anything that leaps to mind – for the scene you’re working on, and for future scenes. Remember, though, that these worst-case-scenarios must be an organic part of the plot’s overarching cause-and-effect trajectory, rather than some random externally dramatic thing that happens. That’s what will make your novel an actual story rather than a bunch of things that happen.
I hope that helps and doesn’t result in another case of hives — I’m itching to find out (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-). That said, perhaps you might want to keep a bottle of Calamine lotion at hand, just in case?
The next question allows me to address what some of you, whether Pantser or Plotter, may now be wondering: “Just why the heck is it so important to understand – in an in depth, story specific way – why my protagonist is doing what they do before I write it? Can’t I just figure it out later, in the next draft, maybe?” There are many answers to that question. The following is one of them.
LittleMissW asks: I’ve just been told that my protagonist is unlikable at times. When he’s angry he can say very hurtful things to the people he loves. He can also think derogatory things about people (for example, he describes an over-weight woman as being big enough to have her own gravitational pull). For me, this is what makes him real. We all lash out when we’re hurt or angry. We all have the potential to be judgmental and catty. But the impression I get is that it’s not okay to be unlikable. When does a character cross the line between being realistic and being irredeemable?
I wrote about what “likeable” means right here a couple of months back, but this is such a great question that I want to answer it. If I can sum up, this what I hear you asking: How can you have a character say or do things that, on the surface, appear ugly or mean, without making the character unsympathetic — which is why people would see him as unlikeable?
In a fabulous bit of synchronicity, the same day I was going to tackle this question, fate – in the form of an article by writer George Saunders in The Guardian — provided a spot on example of exactly how a writer can solve the problem you’re struggling with. Here’s Saunders laying out, step-by-step, how a writer can dive beneath the surface of an unlikable act, to discover the reason for it, so said act then telegraphs a very different meaning. In other words, here is how you allow a character to do something mean, and yet remain likeable:
“I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity.”
The takeaway is this: we don’t come to story to find out what someone did – Bob snapping at the barista; your protagonist making fat jokes – we come to find out why they’re doing it. What drove them? What in their lives taught them that that was all right? What inner conflict drives their choices, their action? Give us that and we don’t need characters to be redeemable, or even likeable at all.
Which, of course, means that Saunders’ Bob didn’t have to have a bittersweet “likeable” reason to snap at the barista in order to rivet us, so long as he had a deliciously revealing one.
And now, I’m once again open for questions for my next column – leave them here in the comments, or shoot me an email at: lisa@wiredforstory
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Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com