How to Survive Your Toughest Draft

For the last couple of years, every time one of my writer pals would ask me what I was working on, the answer was the same breezy, “Oh, I’m still plugging away on that rockstar mom book I told you about ages ago.”

I’m pretty sure that more than a few of them wondered if I shouldn’t just give it up and move on to something else. Something that would actually get written. And if they didn’t, they were stronger, better writers than me because that was something I wondered every time I sat down with my laptop.

But I persisted, mostly out of sheer stubbornness, and I completed a very, very messy first draft in April of last year. In November, I finally had it shaped into something resembling a novel.

FINALLY!

I’m not sure why this draft took so much longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I could cite a busier-than-ever family life, or a robust year of paid freelance work. Maybe it was because most days, I can be best described as a “ball of anxiety with fingers.”

But I can tell you how I got through an interminable draft (and managed to avoid quitting writing entirely!).

I Was Selfish. My mantra this past year has been “eyes on your own paper.” I withdrew from social media, avoided contests, and spent a lot less time engaging with other writers. It was difficult, and I felt like a jerk, but I knew that my top priority needed to be getting my work done. I am thrilled for my friends who have been out in the world this past year, but I knew I would not be with them. Not right now. Right now, my entire focus had to be a bit selfish. Eyes on my own work.

But Not Too Selfish. Instead of focusing on what *I* wanted – to finish the draft, to write a great book, to get an agent, to get a publishing contract – I made a choice instead to focus on service. We’re writing books for people, specifically children and/or teens, to read. So while I wanted to tell the story of my heart, I kept in mind that, ultimately, that heart-story needed to be in service of the teenage reader. That guiding star helped me re-focus when my way wandered and kept me writing when it seemed I would never get done.

I lowered my expectations. For years, I wrote 1,000 words a day, five days a week. I had reasonable expectations of finishing a draft in a couple of months, of being able to query a book every year, of catching the attention of an agent in the near future. But this year, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible. I spent some time looking over those expectations in a bright light, and I realized that they weren’t doing me any good. I’m a goal-setter and a rule-follower, but that doesn’t matter much in the wider world. No one is lining up to give me a cookie because I did things in the right order, in the right way, at the right time. So I made 2017 the year of NO expectations, other than that I would keep my head down and keep writing.

I used a timer. In order to take some pressure off but still keep getting words down, I started writing for 15 timed minutes each day. That was it. When the timer went off, I stopped. If it was the middle of a sentence, so much the better! That way I had a starting point for the next day. There were days when I only logged 5-10 words on a tricky scene. But I counted those as writing sessions and just kept going.

I relinquished control. Years ago, a colleague of mine listened to me rant about how other people were failing to do their jobs and it was ruining what I was doing. She said, “Well, you can’t control the outcome. You can only control what you put in to it.” That rattled through my head this year. I can’t control what happens with this or any piece of writing. All I can do is control what I put into it. So that is all I worried about.

I reached out. A few times over the course of the year, I did reach out to other writers to share what was going on with me and to reconnect with their work. Getting out of my head was important, but even better was the chance to share in others’ creative processes, successes and challenges. I went out and saw art and live music, too, feeding my own creativity. Writing is so solitary that it’s nice to remember there are other artists out there traveling a similar path.

I looked for joy, not results. I won’t sugarcoat it: for months I was pretty sure I was going to quit writing entirely. Writing for me is a singular joy. Word counts and pursuing publication and developing platform are not joyful. Letting go of the results side of writing for goal-oriented me was painful for my ego, but it was manna for the creative part of my soul, the part that just wants to play with words and stories and doesn’t actually care if anyone reads them. That play without pressure was revitalizing in a way that I desperately needed this year.

Some might call what I experienced this past year Writer’s Block. But I don’t think that’s what it was, even after taking two years to draft a novel. After all, I wrote all the time, and the words flowed fine, when I could find the time to let them flow.

But something happened with this year, with this manuscript that tested me – and I was reminded again that writing fiction is not for the faint-hearted!

If you find yourself facing a similar time of slow production mixed with a bit of despair and a burning desire to quit the game entirely, I have some advice:

Take a deep breath.

Then: Head down, do the work however you can, don’t worry about the mess, keep your eyes on your own paper.

Find your joy.

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

What Did I Do in 2017?

The end of the year is close. When I changed the calendar from October to November, I felt as if I wasted the entire year. Of course I spent too much time on social media, binge-watched several TV shows, and stood for what seemed like hours in front of the coffee machine waiting for the cup to fill, but as far as writing, what exactly did I do this year?

Photo: Estee Janssens

I didn’t want to dwell on my procrastination, but I thought if I took a good look at what I did – or didn’t do – this year, maybe I would learn something about myself as a writer and as a person that could help when making my goals for next year.

I know it’s scary, but play along with me. (Don’t make me do this alone!) Take out a pen and paper and start your list. First, what did you do and second, what did you learn.

Here’s mine:

  1. The first five months of this year I revised my YA contemporary novel. Every time you revise and open yourself up to critiques, you develop your craft. With this particular novel, I learned about dialogue, specifically what’s boring or repetitive, and how to make dialogue fun.
  2. I spent several months this year forcing myself to write a novel that clearly didn’t want to be written. A friend suggested now wasn’t the time to write it, but how could that be? You have an idea, you write. If I’d looked at the novel objectively, as she did, I wouldn’t have spent so much time forcing it.
  3. I wrote three rough synopses and four rough outlines for new books. I don’t just write for The Winged Pen, I read and cherish the writing tips. This year I took those tips and changed the way I start manuscripts. This helped me see the complete idea and the direction it needed to go.
  4. I wrote sixteen posts for The Winged Pen. The key here is writing. Some write for their jobs, some do fifteen minute writing warmups. The fact is, the more we write, the better we get.
  5. I critiqued six manuscripts and short stories (including my first paid editing job!) Critiquing is one of the best ways to grow as a writer. When we read and critique others, we identify mistakes we make in our own writing. And personally, reading good work from others pushes me to become a better writer.
  6. I wrote and revised one short story. Just like reading different genres, experimenting with different writing styles, genres, and lengths can open up new strengths and passions.I had attempted to write several short stories in the past, but finishing one gave me a new level of confidence.
  7. I read novels, short stories, and craft articles. Reading is necessary for all writers because it helps you grow as you learn new tips and develop new ideas. Reading also supports other writers, and for me, it is therapy.

As this year ends and we set goals for 2018, forget the times of procrastination and focus on what you learned this year. The Winged Pen wrote many posts to help and entertain you on your journey. Below are a few of my favorites.

The Winged Pen took writers from the big idea to the final product in the novel writing Master Your Craft series.

Need help finding critique partners? Here are a few tips. Another Magic Formula and How to Give a Good Critique.

The Pennies are big readers. Check out a few of our favorite books. Shannon Hale’s Real Friends and Neal Shusterman’s Scythe.

Have trouble navigating social media? These posts can help. Creating Your Social Media Platform and Twitter 101 For Writers.

The Winged Pen looked at diversity this year. Writing Other with Sensitivity and Writing About Native Americans – A Diversity Conversation.

And don’t forget our monthly Four on 400  contest. Four critiques on your first 400 words.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. Her middle grade science fiction novel is represented by Kathy Green of Kathryn Green Literary Agency. You can find Halli on Twitter.

 

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Need Stronger Backstory for Your Characters? The Emotional Wound Thesaurus to the rescue!

Bookcover for The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological TraumaAt The Winged Pen, we’ve written about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s wonderful writing books before. So we’re super excited to tell you about their newest one:

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.

Yay!!!!! *shoots off rockets*

A wound, in the writing world, is the hurt the main character carries around that keeps him or her holding onto a lie.

A few examples of wounds from The Emotional Wound Thesaurus:

  • Being Bullied
  • A Speech Impediment
  • Failing to Do the Right Thing
  • Witnessing Violence at a Young Age

A lie can be anything that the character uses to protect that wound from getting bumped again. The same lie keeps the character from moving forward and achieving his or her goal.

Replacing the lie with a healthier truth gives the character partial healing. Transformed, he or she can win the battle or the soulmate, seize the prize, or lead the team to victory.

Where do authors find the lies for their characters to confront? Like all other aspects of story, lies are all around us. Unfortunately, the flaws in our characters (and in our own character) that are perfectly visible to everyone else—friends, enemies, readers—are flickering, distorted images for us. Critique partners, editors, and beta readers can help us bring them into focus.

The title of my work-in-progress, THE WOUNDED BOOK, feels a little ironic to me today, because the long process of working on it has wounded me and healed me by turns. This is the mysterious alchemy of writing: we write what we know and sometimes healing our character’s wounds helps us heal our own.

For example, J.K. Rowling’s dementors in her Harry Potter books are a terrifyingly realistic metaphor for depression. I don’t presume to know what personal connection they may have had for her, but, as a reader, I recognized them immediately. In this video of her visit to the apartment where she first wrote Harry Potter’s story, she talks about how hard writing was.

Her belief in Harry’s story carried her through and presumably changed her life as much as Harry’s story changed millions of readers.

Writing believable characters is challenging, but worthwhile. It’s the inverse of reading a book that tells a truth you always suspected, but could never articulate.

I’m looking forward to “shopping” a little in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. I may finally diagnose my main character’s wound in a way that transforms her into the person I always meant her to be: a girl who encourages and challenges middle grade readers to become the truest versions of themselves!

Happy Writing!

Bonus: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus promises to be extra useful for creating characters when used with the well-loved Reverse Backstory Tool (from The Negative Trait Thesaurus.) It’s my absolute favorite for building strong characters.

More Bonuses: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus includes the new Backstory Wound Profile and the new Character Arc Progression Tool. You can download them free on Angela and Becca’s Tools for Writers page. There’s also a #writerspersevere giveaway in honor of the new thesaurus!

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. Find her on Twitter or on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale!

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Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Ten Steps to Tightening. This week, we’ll discuss Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses.

We are physical beings who experience life on this planet through our five senses. It’s true that our minds love to time-travel, pulling us out of the present moment, to worry about something we said in the past or to look forward to something about to happen in the future. Our characters, like us, do the same thing in their internal dialogue, which is good because it makes them real.

But the reader must also feel them living and breathing in the real world. Not only does this make your character more real, but it engages the reader by making them experience the same sensations. If your character smells burnt brownies or he chooses bubblegum mouthwash at the dentist, we don’t intellectually absorb that, we feel it with your character.

I struggle with this, too, because I don’t want my characters stuck in a sensory deprivation tank. I think it’s about feeling our way into our character’s body and environment, and not overthinking it. Some call it getting into the zone or entering a trance like a shaman writer. The physical experience of being on a subway is very different from the waiting room at the spa. The air, the light, the smells, the sounds and even the tastes are  different. But it’s even deeper than that, because the subway is different in the morning rush hour from late at night, and the zen spa is very different from the one at the mall.

The more mindful we are in our daily lives, the more we can bring that mindful experience to our writing. This means noticing how our bodies react to the physical world around us. Sometimes it’s easy to go for the standby descriptions, but if we tap into what we really, really feel, then our writing becomes  more authentic, and our readers will feel it.

Feeling Your Words
Instead of waking up with “bleary eyes,”  we can bring own unique experience of waking up tired. How do our eyes feel? Are they scratchy or is the skin around your eyes tight?

The next time something scares you, notice: what happens in your body? Instead of the usual “heart racing” and “shiver ran down spine,”  you can bring your own unique experience. Does your body clamp tight like a drawbridge? Does your hair prickle on the back of your neck or on your forearms? Does your heart pound, hammer, race, thud, pulse or beat in some other way?

Seeing Your Words
With visual descriptions, it’s about picking out the one or two things that stand out and are most important for us to understand the character or setting or whatever it is you’re describing. The reader can imagine the rest.

I loved Joanne Harris’s #TenTweetsAboutColour, in which she says, “In fiction, the objective is not so much to describe the color accurately, as to convey a feeling to the reader.” We can describe the  “blue sky” with any other synonym for blue, from azure to indigo to slate, but doing so is more clever than evocative. Instead, she suggests linking colors with a feeling or a sensation. She says: So: “ice-white” conveys something different to “milk-white,” or “bone-white,” or “moon-white,” or “ash-white.” Often even these color descriptions can become cliche, so we can add a feeling to the color like “blameless blue sky.”

And, of course, the same can be done with eyes. Instead of “piercing blue eyes” or “sparkling eyes,” try something different, depending on the feeling you’re trying to evoke. Are they “arctic blue eyes” or “forget-me-not blue” or “Hollywood-blue eyes”?

Hearing Your Words
This can also be applied to sound from a character’s voice to the sound of the wind through the trees. When you’re away from your desk, notice the timbre and tone of different voices, and if the sound of the wind is different blowing through the birch tree compared to the oak tree.

Smelling Your Words
Smell is our oldest sense. “Even a single cell animal has ways to detect the chemical composition of the environment,” according a researcher at Columbia University. Smell is such an evocative sense and brings the reader more quickly into your world than perhaps any other sense. You can describe a smell as acrid, sour, sharp, cloying, or you can evoke a feeling with it, like flowery, comforting, or repulsive.

Her skin smelled like chlorine from the pool.

The subway air was damp with the scent of humans, which neither their stringent deodorants or perfumed shampoos could hide.

Tasting Your Words
When I was a children’s yoga teacher, I would do a mindful eating exercise in which each child would get a raisin. They would observe it, smell it, touch it, listen to it as they shook it in their hand. They would share what they experienced through each of these senses. Then they put the raisin in their mouth, feeling it first before biting into it. I would ask them if they tasted anything? Where on the tongue do they taste it? Is it sweet? Grapey? Sour?  Do they chew it one side or both sides?  How long is it chewy for? Does the taste linger? You get the point. I don’t think we have to go into this much mindfulness every time we eat, but if we can bring a little noticing, it will enrich our writing! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

With that I give you all permission to go eat and smell and taste and hear and feel the world!

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Editing Tools.

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Playing with Language

Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with a look at first and last pages. This week, we’re diving into making your language shine.

After the long slog of drafting and re-drafting and revising and editing, it can be hard to remember what you even liked about your book in the first place. When I get to this stage, I like to take a pass at my manuscript that’s all about play.

This is one of my favorite rounds of editing, and it was born way back in the days before streaming television, when my husband bought me the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three as a gift. I watched all the episodes, of course, but the DVDs were also great because of all the extras. (Did we have more time back then? Did I call in sick to work?)

Anyway, one of the DVD extras was an interview with one of the Buffy writers, Jane Espenson, who talked about writing and editing and workshopping and polishing a script until it gleamed. She’d hand it to the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who would go through the script and take all the best lines and find a more unique way to say them.

She said she learned quickly to try to turn her dialogue on its head wherever she could.

That story has always stuck with me. Whether it’s because I too suffered under an uber-controlling, perfectionist boss who always knew better than me what word to use where, or because I just enjoy playing with language, but I’ve grown to love this editing pass on my novel, where I search out my time-worn and clichéd phrases and trade them out for something delightful and fresh.

Of course, you can be too delightfully fresh with your language. No one wants to read a book that is written so creatively you have to pause every sentence to figure out what the author means. So here are a few dos and don’ts for hacking away at your stale phrasing:

DO…look for the expected and see how you can change it up. Do you describe a sunrise as a symphony of pink and orange? See if you can tweak it a bit by trying something more like this:

Pinks and oranges played dueling themes across the lightening sky.

DO…take your character and their interests into account. Is your character into computer programming? Maybe she would describe a sunrise in those terms:

Bits and bytes of pink and orange arranged themselves into perfectly programmed layers.

Pro Tip: Writer Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each of her major characters based on their interests, backgrounds and dialects. A reference like that would come in super handy for this pass.

DO…check in on your dialogue. Can you tell what character is speaking without dialogue tags?

See if you can give your characters their own distinct voices. If you open up any of the Harry Potter books and see that a character is saying, “Bloody hell!” you’d have a pretty good idea that Ron was speaking. Or, to borrow again from TV, Chandler Bing from Friends wouldn’t be the same without his trademark, “Could this sunrise be any more pink?”

DO…consider where your story takes place and where your characters are from. I have yet to hear my Oklahoma in-laws utter the word “car” – it’s always “vehicle” with every syllable distinctly pronounced.

Even sprinkling in a few region-specific words will give your readers a feel for the where of your story or character, which deepens the reading experience. Consider how a few of the people I know say “hello”:

From England: Howya?

From South Africa: Good Day!

 From Brooklyn: Hi, hi.

From Oklahoma: Howdy.

From Oregon: Heeeyyyyy…

DON’T…go overboard. This is an easy step to get carried away on, and that leads to passages that are overwritten and dialogue that sounds stilted or over-the-top. Your reader shouldn’t need a decoder ring to get the gist of your story. So if you find yourself editing your sunrise into purple prose like this:

The sky blushed as his lover the sun eased her way into the sky, draped in a negligée of glorious rose and peach…

…then you’ve gone too far! Step away from the keyboard and save your creativity for another story!

When I’m drafting, I’m so focused on telling the story that I need to just get words on the page. Too often, this leads to a few turns of phrase that are drier than stale toast. By adding in an editing pass specifically for playing with my language, it not only helps me polish my work, it also helps me recapture the fun and joy of creating a new world with words.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Chapter and Sentence Length.

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.