It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I left my editor job, packed up my NYC apartment, then I went to Paris, and now I’m home home in Texas and this whole spiritual-existential crisis (aka my dark night of the soul) I’ve been having is still with me. Contrary to what pop culture makes you think (ya know, girl runs away to find herself), living in Paris for a month actually doesn’t solve your problems (the wine and croissants were AMAZING though).
That said, I did do A LOT of edits for my Jan. 2020 YA anthology to get it into copyedits, YAY (you can learn more about it here and here). So when I got back I was like okay yay I’m going to finish revisions on my YA fantasy novel and it’s going to be AMAZING. I’m in Texas countryside aka my happy place where a lot of my inspiration comes from. Nature is often how I recenter so I figured it would just all click into place.
But then, it didn’t.
Long story short I was like a ghost wandering the halls (erm scratchy grassy fields) wailing about my book. After much convincing by friends, I emailed my agents and basically was like hii, I’m dying. We had a call and in it they said that there were too many cooks in my kitchen.
I think I’ve talked about this a bit on here but while being an editor and writers has its advantages, I’ve always felt like it helped editor-me more than writer-me (because I was better able to empathize with my authors). Though being an editor made me a better critical reader it also made me a more anxious writer. I feel like I’ve read a good portion of the fantasy books coming out this year on submission (or in team edit meetings). I know the market too well. So even though I’m not a publishing house editor anymore the first cook is the publishing professional side of me. Then my agents pointed out that I have a lot of friends who are established authors and that probably doesn’t help either and so forth and so on.
We talked about the kid lit industry and how it can become an echo chamber. Your friends want to read your work so you share it and then they give feedback and then random writer peeps online who you’re friendly with wanna exchange and so you do and they give feedback or maybe you don’t even exchange with them but there are fifty twitter threads on overdone tropes in YA and suddenly you’re not writing the book YOU wanted to write, you’re writing a book for a hundred people. And then it’s like OMG I need air but wait there’s no air, it’s stuffy in here because there are one hundred cooks in my kitchen and guess what, now I’m hangry because no food is getting made.
And as you see, I’m not just talking about your friends. I’m talking about the online and in person writer community as a whole. Part of why I left NYC to finish this book is because the NYC book community can feel like an echo chamber. But even if you’re not in a city with a strong publishing community, again, there’s social media. There’s your friends.
One of the biggest pieces of advice we’re given is to find a community, right? So it can feel weird to then be told, leave this community. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do. I had to shut the cooks out. And that didn’t mean ignoring my friends. That meant politely declining their requests to read my outlines or chapters. That meant not engaging in Twitter discussion after discussion. That meant sitting with my feelings because my feelings make up me and I make my book. Even though I had friends I visited / who visited me in Paris, I was alone. And even though I have family here, they’re out most of the time at work/school so again I’m alone, which is something I wasn’t most of last year. Both these experiences reminded me that part of being a writer is solitude. Again, we’re taught to find a community. We’re taught to live life and meet people so that we have inspiration-fuel for our writing. But I feel like we’re rarely reminded that it’s okay to withdraw. That sometimes you’ve got to shut the cooks out of the kitchen, no matter how many Michelin Stars they have.
I’m not going to act like by shutting the in person and social media cooks out everything suddenly got easier. Because again, one go the most belligerent and persistent cooks for me is the voice in my head. The voice that says everyone’s moving on without you, you’re alone out here, and you’re never going to finish this book. That cook is a total [insert expletive of your choosing].
That has been my hardest cook to shut out. And honestly the only way I’ve kinda succeeded in doing so is by showing up. Every day or every whenever you writer (cause you don’t have to write every day).
I show up. I open my laptop or my piece of paper (actually, I’ve found that journaling first really helps recenter me and clear me head). And I write or edit or whatever I need to do. It’s often slow at first because I’m not a morning writer. But then it starts to click.
That mean inner voice doesn’t necessary go away (at least for me). If I stop for too long, she comes racing back like oh, but you thought I was gone. But what does happen is I get better at ignoring her. Why? Because the work is in front of me. I showed up for the work, to that blank screen, to those pages needing to be revised and I trusted in a power higher than myself. And by trusting in that higher power, I begin to trust in myself. And I don’t necessarily mean a higher religious entity, I fully believe what Elizabeth Gilbert says in this TED Talk that writing is of us and also not really—that my creative talent is something I tap into. Again, this is just me personally. But looking at writing as a power I tap into vs. this great creative talent only I carry has allowed me to release guilt and some of the unnecessary burden creative folks often end up carrying.
I write, I revise and the more I work the easier it is to ignore that mean inner voice. Because when she says everyone’s moving on without you I say, maybe they are but it’s fine I’ve got this book and we’re working at my speed and that’s okay. When she says you’re alone out there, I say nope sorry I’ve got my characters and we’re having a grand old time. And when she says you’e never going to fish this book, I say, f-you because I’m finishing it right now. Word by word. Day by day. That’s how we finish a book.
And you know, maybe your most buttheaded cook isn’t your inner voice, maybe it’s a “well-meaning” friend who isn’t that well-meaning after all. Maybe it’s a parent or a relative whose validation you crave, but you’re not getting (& may never get <3). I feel you. I’ve dealt with all of those cooks. But the fact is–the tough love is–that only you can write your story and if you listen to them, if you keep waiting for their validation, your book will never get finished and that’s the greatest tragedy.
So when it feels like there are just too many voices, when you have no idea if you’re writing this story for you anymore…shut out your cooks. Make your own food. Write the book that only you can write. And I truly am saying this as someone in the trenches with you. I’ve been saying this to myself every day. I believe in us, we’ve got this <3
And if there are other strategies you use to shut out allll the voices and focus, let me know in the comments or on Twitter (cause yes, even though I said ignore the numerous YA opinion thread I’m online… haha, balance!)
Shortly after I got my book deal in 2016, my original editor, Brian, emailed me asking: “Which authors do you want to ask for a blurb?”
And honestly, it felt like such a life-changing, terrifying, momentous rite of passage. I pictured myself sending piteous requests to respected authors, asking them to bestow their blessings upon me and my untried book and feeling like everything hinged on whether or not they decided to send me praise.
Now, years later, I have been lucky enough to receive and be asked to give blurbs myself, and I’ve learned a little bit more about the process. One of the things I’ve learned is that in most cases, a blurb will not affect how well your book does, unless it’s given by Oprah Winfrey or J.K. Rowling, and then it can give your name a bit of a boost. Otherwise, it’s a nice pat on the back and nod of support from a more established author, and it makes you feel good about yourself.
Thank you to my fellow 2017 debuts Misa Sugiura, Rebecca Christiansen, and Wendy McLeod MacKnight for weighing in on the subject and helping me compile the following list of information and tips about blurbs!
Here is what I gathered, and I hope it helps clarify a bit about this part of the debut experience:
A blurb is a short snippet of praise given by another author. This author will often, but not always, write in the same genre and/or for the same audience, and they’ll be asked in hopes of attracting their readers to your name. The blurb will often appear on the back jacket or inside the book, but if it’s a huge author, like a bestseller, those will almost always take precedence over other blurbs and be placed right on the cover.
Who asks for the blurb? It depends. Speaking for myself only, my editor Brian reached out to agents and other editors to ask for blurbs for my first book. But I also directly asked authors with whom I was very close and friendly, and I did so again for my second book. And I have been asked to blurb by editors, agents, and authors alike. I think it’s important to check with your team, and I also think it’s safer and more professional to go through the author’s agent, when in doubt. I’ve asked all blurbs to filter through my agent from now on because I like to keep her in the loop, and she can also let people know when I’m not able or don’t choose to blurb – it feels less personal.
Subsequent books in a series don’t always get blurbs. If you look at a second or third book in a series, you will often see blurbs for the previous book. I didn’t know this until my second book was going into final edits! I reached out to my team, and they told me that although we weren’t going to request official blurbs, I could go ahead and ask friends if I wanted to, since we could put fresh words of praise on the Amazon page or other retail sites.
Be considerate regarding time when requesting a blurb. Many authors, myself included, want to read the whole book from cover to cover before we decide whether to blurb it (though not every author does this). When you ask someone to blurb you, you’re asking them for a favor, so you need to give them the courtesy of time. Also, be clear about the deadline by which you need their blurb. I think 8-12 weeks is common, though 8 might be pushing it a bit close.
Try to request from a variety of authors. It’s nice to request blurbs from a good mix of people, and not just the same giant superstars who get asked over and over again. If you loved someone’s book and feel that it could be a great comp for yours, or if you think their audience might mesh with yours, ask them!
Be gracious, thankful, and courteous. People are busy, so don’t take it as a personal insult if they aren’t able to blurb for you. And if they are, always, always, ALWAYS say “Thank you.” I’ve gone out of my way to help one or two people from whom I never heard even a single word of gratitude, and honestly, I would rather spend my limited time helping someone who is appreciative in the future.
Blurbs will not make or break your book. There are so many other things to stress about; don’t make blurbs one of them! Most authors I’ve talked to (as well as their teams) see blurbs as a nice perk and a potential way to get a reader to at least pick up a book. It’s not a guarantee of a sale . . . nor is the lack of a particular blurb a sign that your book will tank. Take it for what it is: kindness and support from someone else, and a possible way to attract a new reader, and leave it at that.
I’m curious: do blurbs ever affect your decision to pick up a book or not? Have you ever bought a book because of a blurb? Why or why not?
I’m lucky enough to live in a city with many other young adult writers. I get to see them on a fairly regular clip and talk shop, as they say. I always feel immensely grateful for this. That I can sit down and make dinner and talk with people who understand what it is to live and work and write not just in the publishing industry, but within our little niche and corner of that industry.
The other day we were talking about promotions. There’s a general discomfort among writers about promoting our work.
How do you talk about your work?
How do I keep asking people to buy my book?
And even the writers who are more comfortable with the idea of asking people to buy your book— which, by the way, kudos to you my friend— there’s a kind of anxiety about how to even go about this in a way that works. In a way that doesn’t feel like you’re spam emailing people at 4am.
Here’s the thing I’ve realized, despite all of the discomfort. We wanted to publish our books to share them.
I’m going to say that again. We worked our tails off in order to share our stories with others.
That’s what self-promotion is.
I’m going to ask you to think about who you wrote your book for. Think about that person (or people!) as specifically as you can. Think about the other things they might like or dislike. Think about how they like to get to work or school. How they style their hair. Make sure they’re as real to you as any character in your mind. And then tell them why you wrote your book for them.
I write books about messy and ambitious girls who are coming to grips with the fact that they shape their own future and their own lives. I write everyday kind of love stories that are only radical because I do my best to normalize the vibrant and diverse world that is around me, that I grew up within. My latest book is about two ambitious girls who try very hard not to fall in love as they make a movie together, inspired by my love of the Paris and Rory ship from Gilmore Girls.
Guess what? I just promoted my latest work. And the thing is— some of you might now be interested in it. But some of you have just learned that my books are not for you. You’d prefer an epic adventure. A girl on a quest. An impossible mission. No worries, I love those stories too.
I mean, I just watched Captain Marvel this past weekend. I love epic stories and quests and impossible missions. I just happen to not write those stories. At least, not so far.
Here’s the thing about learning to speak to the people you wrote your book for— they’re the people that matter. They’re the people you want reading your book. They’re the people you always pictured picking it up— in a bookstore, maybe, but also in a library, or maybe borrowing from a friend— and reaching out to.
I think writers are all storytellers first. So tell the story of your book.
I get that there is a discomfort in asking people to hand over their money for your work. But if you didn’t believe in your work— you wouldn’t have written it. You wouldn’t have queried agents. You would have done that process over again and gone on submission with editors. You wouldn’t have worked and worked and worked until there was a finished product in your hands that was packaged and, dare I say it, sharable.
You want to share your work. You want to tell people about it. You want that reader that you envisioned— and please remember, it isn’t everyone— to know that your book is out there in the world.
I wrote my first book for teenage me. And whenever a reader tells me they love that book, I know that they are or were like the teenage and young twenty something girl that I was. And I know I’ve done my job. One more girl who was like me heard about my book. One more girl who feels less alone that she hasn’t always been good to her friends but she wants to find a way forward and clean up the mess that she’s made.
But my first book is not Captain Marvel and I know that it is not the kind of story for everybody on planet Earth (seriously go see Captain Marvel already). But it is a story for somebody. A whole group of somebodies that I envisioned were just like I was at seventeen. So I try to tell them that my first book is for them.
We don’t get to decide which books take off into the stratosphere. That’s a combination of timing the marketplace and a healthy dose of good luck. But we do know who we write our books for. And we wrote these books so that others could read our stories.
So don’t be afraid to tell someone about your work and where they can find it. They might just be the reader you were looking for.
One of the most common and simple reasons that I end up passing on submissions is that while the writer may pitch their project as YA or MG, the voice and/or perspective in the sample pages feels very grown-up. There’s a time and a place for books that are primarily intended to teach or send a message, where it’s okay to speak to young readers from an adult perspective. But instead, today, I want to talk about fiction and narrative nonfiction where the goal is to tell a good story for young readers, with any educational or moral takeaway being incidental to the entertainment. If this is your aim, whether you’re narrating in first or third person, you need to write from a young perspective.
It’s hard to recapture a young mindset when you are no longer a young person, and tricky to figure out where to draw the line between character and narration—how do you communicate a sophisticated story in accessible language? Again, the key word here is perspective, or the standpoint from which you tell the story. Kids, tweens and teens see the world from a different place and in a different way than adults do, and whatever your audience, it’s your job as a writer to get on their level and tell a good story from there. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid: things which (at least to me) scream “I am an adult writing for Youths!”
We’ll start with some concrete ones—you’ve likely heard these before, but they bear repeating. (I’m talking mostly to middle-grade writers here, because that’s what’s been on my mind lately. But trying to capture a YA voice comes with its own joys and challenges, which I hope to explore in another post soon!)
Dated references. Many kids love old books, music, and movies. That’s fine! But if your young protagonist is only into Nancy Drew, Star Wars, and The Rolling Stones—especially if that comes with a side of disparaging contemporary media—it starts to seem like an older writer is projecting their youthful obsessions onto a 2010’s kid.
Absent technology. It throws me off when characters in contemporary stories use little to no tech, especially when there are inexplicably no cell phones in your story world. The fact is, most middle schoolers in the US have smartphones, and a huge amount of their schoolwork, recreation, and socializing happen through a screen. Kids are living their lives online, and if you ignore this in a story set in the present day, it will likely not feel authentic. (Plus, as agent DongWon Song mentioned on Twitter the other day, “If your plot can be broken by people having cell phones, you need more interesting conflicts.”)
Ill-considered slang. How kids talk is constantly changing. It’s really hard to get slang in dialogue right when it isn’t your natural mode of speaking—and even if you do get it pitch-perfect, it will date your story. Whether dated dialogue is actually a bad thing is a matter of some disagreement among readers and writers—I personally find it distracting, while others feel it adds authenticity. Either way, it’s something to be aware of.
Now we’re going to move onto the more abstract stuff, with the caveat that this is all just my personal observations and opinions. They are meant to be taken with a grain of salt, and are not universally shared among agents or writers! Okay, disclaimers out of the way, here are some story quirks that take me out of a young character’s head and show the writer’s age:
An obviously retrospective perspective. This might seem obvious to some, but I frequently see stories in my inbox that imply that the narrator is narrating their distant past; that the time/place of the story and their current standpoint are not the same place. For instance, a story opener like “In the summer of 1995, life was great” doesn’t place me in the summer of 1995, but rather gives me the voice of a contemporary narrator, telling me a story out of their past. This is fine if you’re writing adult fiction (see: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since”). But generally speaking, YA and MG stories are narrated in the moment. They’re about a young character and told from a young perspective.
A feeling of heavy nostalgia, or the sense that your character’s life is an idealized one. Once in a while, I’ll meet a young character who thinks things like Being a kid is so great! I don’t have any worries! But since kids have no frame of reference for adulthood, it doesn’t really make sense for them to see youth in an especially positive way—it’s just the air they breathe. And while kid problems, to adult observers, may seem simple in retrospect, in the moment they’re as big and scary and important as the problems we grown-ups deal with. More so, even. So it feels off to me when child characters are totally carefree or constantly appreciate their youth—it feels more like an adult’s nostalgia than something that would genuinely spring from that character. Being a kid, like being any kind of human, is really hard! Resist the temptation to view your character’s childhood through rose-colored glasses.
Relatedly and finally, stories scrubbed clean of darkness—to me, these show the hand of an adult writer. Of course there are parameters to what content can and should appear in books for young people. For instance, a middle-grade book probably shouldn’t have a lot of graphic violence. But even in MG, I don’t want authors to shy away from the dark, complicated, even ugly feelings that we all deal with, no matter our age or what problems we’re facing. Whether your character is exploring faerieland or solving a murder, or dealing with issues in their community, school, or family, I want to see them move through the full range of human emotions. Let them be joyful and curious, but let them be sad or angry or afraid too, if the story calls for it. Every dip and peak of life’s emotional rollercoaster feels HUGE when you’re young, so embrace that when you’re writing from a kid’s perspective.
So there you have it: some pitfalls to steer clear of when finding your kidlit voice. I’m of the opinion that you’ll probably be fine if you just remember that kids, while still growing, are real, complete people with the same range of feeling as adults—only the intensity dial is turned, always, up to eleven! What about you? What problems do you find yourself encountering when writing from a young perspective? What tips and tricks do you use to get into your character’s head?
In October 2016, I began working up the idea for a new story. It involved a dangerous race that started with the contestants entering into drug-induced amnesia. As you can imagine, memory loss was a big part of the story.
Fast-forward to January 2017. My parents moved back to Pennsylvania from South Carolina because my father needed extra help caring for his wife. Although I knew my stepmom was having issues, it wasn’t until I began seeing them every day that I realized she had Alzheimer’s disease. For the next two years, I helped my parents cope with the disease that stole my stepmom’s memory, then her personality, and then her life. She passed away just last month.
I’m almost certain the idea for that work-in-progress came to me independent of my stepmother’s memory issues, but it wasn’t long before I realized I was writing a fictional story about memory loss while also dealing with real-life memory loss. My life was imitating my art. It was a weird coincidence. For a time, I tried to hold my fictional world as far away from my real life world as possible. After all, helping someone cope with Alzheimer’s disease is stressful and heartbreaking. Fiction writing, I believed, should be my escape from that reality. So I wrote about my character’s memory loss without letting my real-life experiences influence it. You can imagine how that writing came out: flat, lifeless, and relatively pain-free. It was only after my editor expressed a desire to know more about my character’s frustration and sense of loss brought about by her amnesia that I began to dig deeper into the experiences my family was having with my stepmother’s disease. It was a painful thing to do, to put myself in the shoes of someone I cared about and really think about the losses she was experiencing. But whatever it cost me, the benefit to the book was well worth it.
I think it goes without saying that as fiction writers, we have to immerse ourselves in painful situations, difficult emotions, and heartbreak. That comes with the territory if we want to write stories about authentic characters living through authentic experiences. I also think it goes without saying that we should write about the things we care about, the things that matter to us most. A reader once told me that it’s always apparent if an author doesn’t care about the story they’re telling, and I think that’s true. An author can’t expect a reader to care about a story that they didn’t care about first. So maybe I’m giving you obvious advice when I say that, as writers, we need to put real emotion on the page.
For me, though, this obvious advice becomes harder to take when the emotions come close to home. I was very reluctant to think about my stepmom’s Alzheimer’s disease when I was at my writing desk. To be honest, the pain of her disease was something I was always anxious to shake off, whenever I could. But that self-protective behavior was robbing my book of emotional weight. I’m not saying I put a lot of that pain on the page. It wasn’t about the quantity of emotion, but the quality. Once my character experienced her memory loss authentically, a little went a long way.
That work-in-progress eventually became my next book, Crown of Oblivion, which comes out from HarperTeen in November. Every book I write teaches me a lot about writing, and this one taught me about allowing my truth to live in my fiction. After all, fiction writing should be fun, but it probably should hurt some, too, if it’s going to be worthwhile. In that way, it’s a lot like the experience of reading a really good book.
I’ve never been the kind of writer who writes best with multiple projects cooking at once. Some of my friends are at their happiest and most productive when juggling at least two different stories simultaneously, but I prefer to work on only one book at a time. Once I get that book to the end of whatever stage it’s at, whether it’s drafting, big-picture revisions, or line edits, and I’m waiting on feedback, that’s when I feel the most comfortable diving into a brand-new work.
Here are a few reasons for my personal preference:
If I’m writing two books in different age categories and/or genres, I find it easier to stay in one headspace rather than switching back and forth. The voice and feel of a dark YA fantasy, for example, are a lot different from those of a MG contemporary.
If I’m writing two books in the same age category and/or genre, my concern is that I’ll get confused. Each fantasy world will have its own rules, laws, magic systems, and inspirations, and I don’t want the elements of one book world mixing with (or becoming too similar to) those of another.
I thrive on to-do lists and checking things off as “Done.” Even in school, I never mixed subjects when studying or doing homework. I’ve conditioned myself to see one task through to completion before starting another.
Note that these reasons are all highly personal to me, and are the result of writing enough books over the years to know myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and how I work best. Some of you might have read through that list and thought, “She doesn’t like juggling projects for that reason, but that’s why I do like it!”
But no matter what your preference is, there’s no denying that at some point, you will most likely have to learn how to juggle.
You might have multiple deadlines if you write both for your day job and for your published books on the side. Or maybe you’re working on New Book while querying Old Book, and one agent rejects Old Book but asks to see New Book when you’re done, and then a second agent requests a revise-and-resubmit for Old Book. Or, while you’re editing a contracted book on deadline, you are lucky enough to land another book deal that gives you yet another set of deadlines.
Sometimes, the luxury of seeing one book through to completion just isn’t possible. If you like to focus on a single project at a time like me, here are some ways I have handled juggling in the past:
Know which book to prioritize. Books for which you have signed a contract always take precedence. Deadlines given by your editor or agent are more pressing than deadlines you give yourself or your stubborn urge to work on something else (calling myself out here!). In the example I gave above, I would prioritize the revise-and-resubmit of Old Book over the completion of New Book because it’s a lot farther along in the process. If you have no specific deadlines, work on whichever book you feel most motivated about. Inspiration can wane, so ride that wave while it lasts!
Block out time to work on each specific book. I’ve found it helpful to divide a week in a half and tell myself that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are for working on one book, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are for the other. Sunday can be a catch-up day if I’m falling behind on one, or I use it to rest. Or, if I’m really pressed for time, I’ll work on one book from 8:00am-12:00pm on Monday, and after lunch, transition to working on the other starting at 1:00pm.
Know what motivates you on a given day. Knowing yourself and your habits of productivity is important as a writer. I like doing copyedits and line edits, so I might do those in the morning to get myself warmed up and save drafting for the afternoon, since it’s often much harder for me. On the flip side, I might prefer to draft in the morning when I’m fresh and save the easier line edits for the afternoon. It all depends on my mood and level of productivity for that day.
Keep separate notebooks and flip through each before working. If you’re like me and you have a notebook for each project, it’s handy to look through your notes, character arcs, outlines, etc. before diving into work. It helps keep you organized and get into the right world and mindset.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran a Twitter poll asking what topic I should write about for my next Publishing Crawl post, and “writing multiple projects” won by a landslide! I hope these tips help you out, and I would love to hear from other writers as to what they do when juggling books. Feel free to share your tips in the comments if you have any!
As some of you might know, I’m into boxing (the kind where you punch things). As some of you might not know, I’ve been coming back from an injury recently.
I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy— lots of stretching, lots of small and methodical movements, lots of careful placement of my body as I do activities that I’ve been training to do for quite a while.
I promise this has to do with writing, just bear with me.
As a result of the injury, I’ve had to go back to a lot of fundamental movements with my boxing (and also, my biking and my running). I’ve got to do a lot of exercises that specifically engage parts of my body— low abdominals, the soleus muscle in my calves, and my hips.
It’s boring work. But because I’ve been doing it, I have been able to ramp back into boxing classes and ramp back into training on the whole.
What does this have to do with writing?
Well, I’ve been drafting. Drafting, as I mentioned before, is something I tend to do by going around in circles. Drafting is also my least favorite phase of writing. I am much more of an editor or a sculptor when it comes to my work, then I am a raw creator.
But the injury has got me thinking. About all of the basic, underlying movements that I took for granted for so long. Made me think about how those small foundational movements build into something larger and more important over time. Those foundations can lead to injury when you increase your training too much. Or they’re the ones that can actively help you heal when you’re on the road to recovery.
So I’ve been thinking about the foundations and the basics in my writing, too.
My third book is ultimately about friendship. Every time I go over a passage, I ask myself if the scene has that underlying framework. It’s a simple idea: is this scene about friendship? But it’s amazing how much asking myself such a foundational question changes the tenor of what I’m writing. It’s amazing how many times I’m trying to drive forward the main storyline of my book with only one of the three point of view characters in a scene. True, not every character has to be in every scene. But, if the main component driving your primary storyline is friendship, then that had better be in the majority of your scenes.
I’d gotten so lost in the mechanics of my plot, I’d forgotten to check in with the most fundamental promise that my story must deliver upon— is this a story about friendship?
So, I’ve started asking myself simpler questions as I draft. I’ve been asking myself the basics of setting and character. What does the bookstore look like where the story happens? (I’d forgotten to describe it). What does a character do when she’s nervous? (I hadn’t ever asked myself). What kind of car does another character drive (she rides a bike, which, is a story in and of itself).
And inevitably all of these small details add up. Not just into a larger story. But also— they make my themes richer. They make the slice of contemporary world that I have built more vivid. Locking each of these foundations into place makes the overall writing more effortless (though, for me, drafting is never really effortless).
It is, all in all, a bit like boxing. If my core is engaged and I’m breathing right and my chin is down and I rotate my hip properly— the punch just flies. It was the foundational effort that produced a better, more fluid punch. It was foundational movements that helped me heal, helped me be able to start training again. It’s a lot of effort dedicated to simple things. But they add up to something greater in the end.
And it’s the foundations in character and in story that have been seeing me through all of this drafting. That have been slowly adding up to a book about three girls trying to save a dying bookstore. About three girls who think they know each other, but really, they’ve got to learn to better understand one another on a fundamental level.
Sometimes, we’ve all got to go back to the basics.
The PubCrawl podcast is officially back! JJ and Kelly reunite with a sprawling discussion about organization and goal setting as it applies to writing and publishing. JJ has kicked her reading rut at last, and Kelly is deeply in love with spreadsheets, per usual. We missed you!
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S.M.A.R.T. goals are Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic and Time-Bound
Aspirations are things that you’re working toward, and hoping for, and might have limited control over.
As Octavia Butler wrote in her journal, “So be it, see to it!”
Write down your goals! Whether in a journal, or a list, or a spreadsheet–having your goals in front of you, so that you can refer back to them and check in on your progress is so important.
Break your goals down into pieces, and small concrete actions that you can take. Work backwards from your end goal and identify all of the steps needed to get you there. And then it’s just bird by bird, baby!
Burnout is too real
2018 clobbered us all.
What We’re Working On
JJ is writing Guardians of Dawn!
Kelly is planning on attending some conferences this year, and of course, working on agent stuff that can’t be discussed publicly.
That’s all for this week! Next week we will be having a Q&A episode! So as always if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below, send us an ask on Tumblr, or tweet using the hashtag #askpubcrawl! You can also support us on Patreon, where you’ll get access to our suggestion box, patrons-only feed, and our Quarterly First Pages show!
I’ve had the pleasure over the past few summers to teach at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. One of my favorite courses was a Dark Fiction class for middle grade students. It was an opportunity to walk young writers through fiction that really pushes the boundaries.
Unsurprisingly, many of my young writers go a little too far. One infamous story featured a villainous assassin targeting a list of grandmothers. It was a great opportunity to talk about the differences between villains and more nuanced antagonists. Getting that part of the story right can be so pivotal. Antagonists are counterpoints, creators of conflict, tools to sharpen our main character against.
With that in mind, let’s walk through a new method for keeping up with the antagonists in our stories. It’s a method I call the three rings of conflict. Please enjoy my elementary school level drawing:
The Immediate Threat
Some of the best stories employ a revolving cast of immediate threats designed to test the protagonist. The immediate threat is the person or object in a given scene with whom our main character feels the most tension. Put simply, they’re the person who keeps our protagonist from getting what they want. Draco Malfoy comes to mind for this role.
The best part about our immediate threat is that they don’t even have to be evil. In Chamber of Secrets, Dobby ends up playing this role on several occasions. You could also argue that Hagrid is the immediate threat to Harry’s health as often as Malfoy. I’d be surprised if there were two consecutive chapters in the entire series that don’t involve someone causing trouble for our boy HP. Why? The presence of a threat creates conflict, and conflict moves the plot forward.
While these threats don’t typically evolve into overarching threats, they do grow in power or increase in danger as their relationship to the protagonist transforms. Consider Draco Malfoy, who begins as a petulant brat but inevitably transitions to potential murderer.
Surprise Friends/Surprise Enemies
These shapeshifting characters often end up being the most dynamic tools in our antagonist arsenal. Give us the heart of gold character who ends up betraying everyone. Or how about a few of those stony characters with heartbreaking backstories?
I’ve found two distinct ways to use these characters. The first way establishes reader expectations and chooses a specific moment to subvert them later. This is a great tool for sharpening climactic moments, leaving the reader and protagonist equally shocked when a side character diverts from their expected path.
Another method is to use that character to draw tension out through ambiguity. Instead of delivering a single moment of revelation, have the character move back and forth throughout the novel. This creates an unsettled feeling in the reader and the protagonist.
The Overarching Enemy
Last but not least, the final boss. This threat looms above all else. If you’re reading a series, this character might not actually appear on the page for several books. Voldemort’s first efforts are dark—certainly—but always tempered versions of the actuality. The cruel boy from the journal is just a glimpse of the true version that manifests later in the series.
But here’s the key: Harry spends time thinking about the overarching threat in every book. There are scenes breaking down the vaunted prophecy. Whispers of a return. If Harry’s not busy facing an immediate threat, he’s often wrestling with the threat that he’ll one day have to face. That slow-burning tension creates a huge payoff for the moment where we finally encounter Voldemort. Our fear—and Harry’s fear—have both been brewing for several books.
So, how do you bring this method to the page?
That’s totally up to you. I draw a grid for each chapter and mark which antagonists appear in which sections. Keep in mind that you do occasionally want scenes without an antagonist. After all, sometimes our characters deserve to have an ice cream party that’s drama-free. But most of the time, I can pinpoint areas in my book where the pace slows too much or the reader loses interest simply by finding the chapters where those antagonists are absent. Or perhaps in chapters where I’ve repeated the same threat too many times in a row.
I hope this acts another tool in your arsenal. As you go back to your stories, keep in mind the wise words of Wreck-It Ralph: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”
I can almost hear ominous music in my head as I type that word. They are a constant fact of life for the professional writer. They are crucial to keep everything running on schedule. And, to tell the truth, they suck.
Writing a book isn’t like the due dates for homework and school projects that we grew up with, or the quick turnarounds for various tasks often required at our jobs. It isn’t a matter of days or weeks (I hope!!) but months or even, in some cases, years. In a way, the task is simple–just get the words on the page–and at the same time, as we all know, it’s a hugely difficult thing to pull off. The closest analogy I can think of is training for a marathon.* You have the Date; you start preparing months beforehand. You can’t do it all at once or your body would break down. So you do a little bit every day, and get closer and closer until you’re finally at your goal.
Yet that analogy doesn’t entirely capture why deadlines are so important. The thing about writing a book is, if you are or aspire to be a traditionally published author, you’re not gonna be the only person working to get your book out into the world. You have a whole team–your agent and editor, publicist and marketer, copyeditor, and so on–who need you to do your job, so they can do theirs. They need a manuscript on which to work their magic: turn it from a Word document floating around in the cloud to a beautiful book sitting pretty in bookstores across the world.
So maybe the right metaphor isn’t a marathon, but a relay race, with the manuscript being the baton. Everyone in publishing has deadlines too in order to get books out the door. When writers are late, the other people in the relay race have to either push back their deadlines to reflect that, or work like crazy once they get the manuscript to hit the original date (possibly pushing other books to the back burner in the process). And that is exhausting, and the whole team is impacted. All this to say: as a writer I know deadlines are terrible, but as a publishing person I know they’re necessary. And surprise, surprise, I am on one now for a first draft of a new book.
So now that I’ve reminded you why deadlines are important, let me share some advice for blazing through them. (Or, as is more often the case for me, limping past the finish line and hitting send at 11:58 the night before. Still counts!)
In order to complete any monumental task, I think you’ve got to know yourself pretty well. Know how your brain works, know your strengths and weaknesses, know what’s been helpful in the past and what hasn’t, and synthesize all that information into a routine that works for you and for this book. For instance, I’ve recently come clean to myself that I’m pretty useless in the evenings after I come home from work. I tried–for hours every night, I’d stare at my WIP, downing tea and junk food to stay awake while eking out maybe a couple hundred uninspired words. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize why it wasn’t working: because at night, my brain was filled up with agenting, emails, meetings, strategy, an endless to-do list; with little room left for creative thinking. But brains are just like muscles; we can’t push them endlessly without rest. Since coming to that realization, I’ve started spending my evenings reading, hanging out with friends or my long-suffering fiance, and sometimes even eating an actual dinner. Then I go to bed early, so I can get up at 5 or 5:30 and write before the rest of the world wakes up.
However, being honest about your shortcomings doesn’t mean you can’t work to develop new skill sets. In addition to being bad at writing in the evening, I’m also historically bad at writing on the road. Something about hotel rooms has always rendered me unable to focus. But in the past year I’ve had the enormous privilege to travel to promote my books, so I really, really truly need to learn to write on the go. I’m working on this now–experimenting, trying different things and making notes on what works. For instance, I’ve found that having a playlist for my WIP really helps; then no matter where I am, I can put on headphones and immediately be in the story world, the right headspace to write.
When you’re building your kick-butt deadline-smashing writing routine, do a little self-examination first. Where you’re falling short of your writing goals, is it because you are a human being who needs rest, or is it because you haven’t formed a writing habit yet? If it’s the former, forgive yourself and revise your routine the same way you’re revising that novel. No one can be productive 100% of the time, and nor should we–life is about living, even on a deadline. This is the time to seek support from your publishing team, friends, and family, and be transparent with them and with yourself about what you need.
If it’s the latter, though, you know the drill: butt in chair, hands on keyboard. I love this Neil Gaiman quote: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
*Take this with a grain of salt, as I have absolutely never trained for a marathon.