Do one of those things? I’ll donate $2.00, up to a max of $2,000.
While you’re at it…
5) Make your own per-comment or tweet pledge and I’ll tweet your pledge! (Be sure and use #NBHeifer so I can find you)
5) Click over to other participating blogs in the comments section leave comments there too.
Heifer International is an organization that fights hunger by giving families around the world livestock, training, or other assistance that helps improve their livelihood. Heifer has been recognized for its work in Fast Company and Forbes, among other places.
If you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you’ll consider making a donation. Over the past years we have raised over $15,000 together, which is really awesome. Here’s that link again to donate directly.
What does “raising the stakes” literally mean? And how does one go about raising said stakes? What kind of stakes are we even talking about raising, tentpoles or poker?
I’m here to make this as simple for you as possible.
Ask yourself these two questions
Essentially, what’s at “stake” in a novel is a shorthand for what’s important. Your reader wants to feel like they didn’t just spend $15 on a novel where nothing meaningful happens.
It is in your best interest to raise the stakes so the reader feels like they’re reading something where the things that are happening matter.
The best way to think of the “stakes” more specifically is in terms of rewards and consequences. If the character succeeds, they get something great. If they don’t, something terrible is going to happen.
Thus, the very simple key is to ask yourself these two questions:
What does my character think will happen if they succeed?
What does my character fear will happen if they fail?
That’s it! That’s all you need to know!
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. That’s because…
Your characters have to want something
So often I read novels by aspiring authors where things happen to characters and we see them bouncing around in sometimes exciting and chaotic fashion, but they don’t want anything in particular.
This is a problem. That’s because your reader is going to be inclined to want what your protagonist wants and will root for them to get that. If your protagonist doesn’t really want anything in particular, why should your reader care?
So for every major character in your novel, you should know three things both on a macro level and in every scene:
The things the character wants
What they think will happen if they succeed
What they fear will happen if they fail
And don’t forget this: Your reader needs to know these things too.
The motivations and fears can sometimes be implied or hinted at instead of explicitly stated, but if your reader doesn’t have a sense of what the important characters want and what they are risking to get it, you have a problem on your hands.
Tailoring the stakes to your novel
Now, what constitutes “success” and “failure” for your characters will vary greatly by novel and by genre.
In science fiction and fantasy, the character might be trying to save the world and thus failure may mean millions of people dying. In literary fiction or memoir, the character might be trying to navigate a relationship or find personal fulfillment. In mysteries, it may literally be a matter of life and death.
But regardless of the scale of the canvas of your novel, whether it’s billions of people’s lives or just one relationship, you have to find a way to make it personally matter for that character.
It’s not enough to be satisfied that your character was, in fact, the person who saved the millions of denizens of Muenster Forest from the Cheese Monster. What does it mean to your character personally?
How to raise the stakes
If you want to raise the stakes, it’s all about connecting the rewards and risks to the things your character truly cares about.
Luke Skywalker doesn’t just want to save the galaxy, he also wants to save his friends while thumbing his nose at his father when he proposes they go into business together.
Harry Potter isn’t just trying to escape Voldemort and ruin every day of Snape’s life, he’s also trying to find a connection to his deceased parents.
In novels where it feels like there’s a lot at stake, it’s not just about trying to save kingdoms or rescuing princesses from Death Star cell blocks. The characters’ quests are bound up in their identities as human beings. Or, uh, as cheese monsters. Anyway. They matter in the broader world as well as to that character as an individual.
So if you want to raise the stakes, think of it in these two ways:
How can I broaden the canvas so my character’s potential success or failure has a greater impact on the world of my novel?
How can I increase the amount that success or failure matters personally to my character?
At the end of the day, raising the stakes = giving a character more reasons to care. And if your character cares more, so will your reader.
There you have it.
Oh, and I still have no idea whether the actual origin of “raise the stakes” refers to tentpoles (moving) or poker (raising the bet). Does anyone out there know?
One of the hardest parts of being a writer is learning to be the right amount of selfish.
Writing a book is an endeavor that takes hundreds of hours. In order to ever get it done, you have to carve out time even as you’re juggling a job, family, friends, and the temptation to binge watch old seasons of Survivor. (Okay maybe that last one is just me.)
Earlier this summer, I had planned to take a one week hiatus from blogging, which turned into… a four month hiatus.
Well, a whole lot of things, including travel and work and unexpected surgery (fine now!) and more travel.
But most importantly: I realized I had to start prioritize writing a novel I’ve been working on for way too long. I had to prioritize myself.
Many people are embarking on #NaNoWriMo this month, and will likely bump up against the challenge of striking the right balance between carving out time to write and well, keeping your life moving.
Here’s what I learned along the way.
Figure out your actual “must dos”
We all have “must dos” every week that we couldn’t shirk even if we wanted to.
Jobs. Kids. Spouses. Family.
There are some iron-clad commitments we’ve made and our lives would quickly start falling apart if we neglected them.
But there are also a lot of things we do that feel like must-dos because they’re part of a routine or because we feel a certain obligation to people… but the world isn’t really going to fall apart if we stop doing them.
Maybe it’s that thing you volunteered for or your book club or a weekly social gathering or even a time consuming task that you can afford to pay to have done for you.
It’s so easy to start confusing your actual “must dos” and your “nice to haves,” because often people do depend on your or at least derive some benefit from what you’re doing.
To me, blogging felt squarely in this category. I like giving back to the writing community, but the world will go on without new posts. I had to put it on hold to prioritize my writing.
Extreme calendaring can help
For the past year I’ve extolled the benefits of extreme calendaring, which basically boils down to putting nearly everything you to into a calendar and then spending a bit of time each week tracking how you spent your time.
This is a great way of seeing what’s really taking up your time and can help you figure out how much time you need to carve out for yourself. You may need to give some things up in order to have enough time for yourself, and extreme calendaring will help you see your tradeoffs.
Once you’ve accounted for your must-dos, immediately put in your “you” time, whatever that means for you. And then track your time week by week so you can “adjust your dials” and figure out the right amount to allocate.
But often it’s not even the literal time, it’s more about your mindset. You may need to…
Give yourself permission to accomplish your dream
Often what’s standing in the way of carving out the time to write is not other people. It’s you.
You’re the one who feels guilty or thinks it’s frivolous or thinks people are going to be mad at you if you say no to them in favor of staring at a computer screen thinking about imaginary people.
Chances are, you haven’t admitted to yourself or other people how important this dream is, because it seems crazy or you don’t know if it’s going to amount to anything or you’re afraid if you give voice to your dream it will dissolve in front of you.
If you just own it and tell the people you love how important writing is to you, chances are you’ll be surprised at how supportive they’ll be.
There’s only one thing all successful writers have in common: they did whatever it took to sit down long enough to write a novel.
Don’t neglect the people around you, but don’t give yourself over to obligations either. Be the right amount of selfish. You only have one life, so make it count.
That said, it’s totally okay if you want to tell the agent a bit about yourself. This can give them more of a sense of your personality.
Just don’t go overboard. Keep it concise. Remember, your goal is to give more of a sense of who you are and your personality.
Lisa Brackmann had a pretty great bio paragraph in her query letter for Rock Paper Tiger, which made her sound like an extremely interesting person (which, by the way, she totally is):
I have a background in politics, Chinese history and the entertainment industry. I am working on a pop biography of Zhou Enlai for a small press and with a partner wrote a feature screenplay based on a series of Taiwanese fantasy novels, THE IMMORTALS, which was optioned by ActionGate Films. I was also a contributing editor for TWILIGHT OF EMPIRE: RESPONSES TO OCCUPATION, a collection of essays about the American occupation of Iraq (Perceval Press, 2004). I lived in China, travel there often and speak decent, if not quite fluent, Mandarin.
Things that don’t really belong in a bio:
Why you started writing
How dedicated you are to writing
How many rounds of revision your book has been through
Trust me, agents have heard all of that a million times before.
Include all of your books
If you’re previously published, you should include all of the books you have published and/or self-published, along with the publisher and year. This is important. Don’t make the agent go hunting for who published them.
If it’s just a few books you can probably weave them into your bio paragraph, but if it’s a bunch you may want to just list them below your signature and point to them in the bio.
Only include publishing credits that directly relate to your project
As a general rule of thumb, only include publishing credits if they’re relevant to your book project. Don’t include publishing credits for the sole purpose of trying to show you write well.
That means if you’re writing fiction, published short stories in reputable journals are relevant. Academic papers or unrelated articles in a magazine are not.
The exception to this is if you’re, say, writing a novel about a very particular subject like poisonous mushrooms and you happen to have written some great articles on poisonous mushrooms. Then… sure. Include it.
Also, only include publishing credits that have at least a regional audience. Publishing a letter to the editor in your local paper isn’t quite going to impress.
Don’t overthink it
At the end of the day, this is the least important paragraph in your query letter. A great idea for a book trumps everything else.
Don’t agonize over this one. Just be concise, punchy, and focus the rest of your energy on your making your book sound as amazing as possible.
I couldn’t seem to concentrate. I wasn’t as productive as I used to be. Most importantly, I just wasn’t writing very much. The weeks would tick by and I wasn’t feeling like I was accomplishing anything significant.
Then I made two key changes that have seriously changed my life:
What is extreme calendaring? How will it totally change your life?
Read on, friends.
How extreme calendaring works
Before I get to some of the specifics, there is really only rule to extreme calendaring:
Track everything you do in a calendar in half hour increments
I don’t mean literally everything you do, you don’t need to like track every time you get up to go to the refrigerator, but anything substantive you’re doing: track it.
Choose a calendaring system you’re actually going to stick to. Some people I know swear by their paper calendars, I personally love using Google Calendar across all my devices.
The reason you’re tracking everything in one place is twofold:
You’ll actually see what you’re doing with your time – You probably don’t realize how much time you’re wasting doing things that aren’t very important to you. When you’re not tracking your time, you may not actually realize that your quick dip to check your Twitter feed turned into a two hour black hole.
You’ll get in the habit of sticking to your calendar – Did you put a three hour block in your calendar to write? Cool! Now do it.
There are some nuances in how I’d suggest setting things up, but if there’s just one thing you take away from this post, let it be this one: track your time.
Reducing the time I spend on things that don’t actually make me happy is one of the absolute best ways I’ve found to get myself out of ruts and find happiness.
Spend an hour planning each week
The first thing you should enter in your calendar? An hour each week to plan your week. I personally start every Sunday morning with an hour blocked off so I can plan out the rest of my week and look back at how productive and happy I was the previous week.
I’m a big believer in thinking of your time in terms of week-long chunks, because it’s enough time to plan ahead but not so far in the distance that too much unexpected is going to come up to throw a wrench in things.
Thinking in weeks also helps with tracking how much time you’re spending on things, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Start with your must-dos
Just about everyone has things they absolutely have to do in order to make their life function: work, commutes, picking up kids from soccer practice, etc.
Start with those and put them in the calendar. If you’re using a calendar app or website like Google Calendar you can also take advantage of “repeat” functions so you can block out time for recurring things like appointments and, you know, showering and getting ready for the day.
Don’t neglect breaks and things that make you healthy
One of the first mistakes I made when I started extreme calendaring is that I blocked off every minute of the day as if I would never need a break. I thought with the right mindset I could just jump seamlessly from one task to the next.
No one can really work that way. You need rest in there too.
Fill in time for things that are going to make you healthy and happy:
Half hour breaks, especially after strenuous mental tasks
Leisure that’s important to you (TV/sports/reading… It’s okay! Be human!)
Fill in your discretionary time
Once you have your must-dos and some reasonable breaks accounted for, you now have a sense of your discretionary time.
It’s a heck of a lot less time than you thought it was, isn’t it? Wow!! You don’t actually have that much time!
THIS IS GOOD AND IMPORTANT TO KNOW.
There really isn’t as much time in the week as you would like to think. So don’t waste it.
Start filling in the things you want to accomplish! This can be anything: writing, blogging, building a desk with your bare hands, sitting under a shade tree, extra time with your family… whatever is important to you.
Fill up that calendar until bedtime for the whole week.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: What about that friend who likes to show up unannounced? What happens when my kid gets sick and I have to scrap an entire day?
You may need to adjust your calendar in a flash when things come up unexpectedly. But starting with your plan at the start of the week will help you see your tradeoffs when you have a decision to make about how to spend your time.
Visualize each day and do what you said you were going to do
Every morning I wake up and look at my calendar to mentally walk myself through the day.
This is important: visualize yourself doing the things on your calendar.
It’s so easy to talk yourself out of writing just because you don’t feel like doing it that day. But when you’ve known since 8am that you’re going to start writing at 1pm, suddenly when 1pm rolls around it’s so much easier to just… start writing.
It may take some habit-forming to get good at sticking to your calendar, but after a few weeks it will feel like second nature.
Track your time
Did you exercise? How many hours did you spend writing? How much time did you spend hanging out with friends?
Whatever is important to you and your happiness: track it. Like literally add it up and write it down every week.
Why? This will help you “adjust your dials.”
In that hour you have set aside to plan your week, think back on whether you just finished a good week or a bad week:
Did it feel like you didn’t get enough writing done? You may need to bump up the amount of time you spend writing next week.
Did you feel overcommitted? You may need to carve out some more alone time.
Did you feel scattered and exhausted? You may need to add in some more breaks.
Tracking these things through time will help you establish a baseline that will be your foundation. I now have routines that are rock solid because I know they’ll make me happier and more productive.
For instance, I know roughly how much time I need to spend writing (~10-15 hours) and blogging (~3 hours) each week in order to feel like I’m making forward progress.
You are what you spend time on
Tracking my time has been one of the most transformative things I’ve done.
When you spend more time on things that make you happy and less time on things that don’t make you happy… you’re happier. It’s not the solution to all of life’s problems, but tracking your time helps you see the tradeoffs you’re making in life without realizing it.
When you know agreeing to take on a project or attending an event will take you three hours, you know exactly what you’re giving up in order to do it.
Extreme calendaring has made me a better decision-maker, it’s made me a better friend, and it’s made me a happier, more productive writer.