Writers face issues great and small that have an impact on how well and how often they write. Some are more serious than others, but they all deserve attention in order to make sure you’re the best writer you can be.
1.) Not Having Time to Write
Many writers complain about not having time to write, and this is a major setback. Children, spouses, work always seem to come first.
Solution: If this is the case, then you need to treat writing like an obligation. Mark specific time on your calendar. Get up an hour earlier. Write on your lunch break. Hire a babysitter or join a mom’s group so you have someone who can watch your children every once in a while. It might even take finding a writing buddy that you meet up with once a week so that you’re held accountable. Or, instead of taking bits of time here and there, try blocking off one weekend where you can lock yourself in and write.
2.) Never Enough Syndrome
So many writers, published and unpublished, seem to suffer from what is commonly deemed “Never Enough Syndrome.” This can encompass everything from feeling like you’ll never be good enough to wondering if you’ll ever have a good idea again to feeling like you can never share your work with others because you fear what they’ll think.
Solution: First, recognize that bestselling authors feel this way, too. You’re not alone. It’s scary to put yourself out there, so start small. Find someone you trust with your writing- a friend, mentor, family member- anyone you can show it to at the start. Slowly start showing it to more and more people. Or, open a book by an author you love. Pick out one single sentence. Really look at the words. You could’ve written that sentence. It’s just several words strung together. You can do that. Also, surround yourself with other writers who can help pick you up when you’re having doubts, or attend workshops and conferences so you can constantly feel like you’re improving your skills.
Along with Never Enough Syndrome, many writers suffer from anxiety and depression. It can be hard to write when symptoms set in. Just getting out of bed can be a victory.
Solution: Do whatever self-care you need. Talk to your doctor, a school counselor, or a psychiatrist. Whatever you do, don’t add to the weight on your chest by worrying about not hitting your current writing goals. Remember that your mental health is more important and needs to be addressed first. And once it has been, you’ll be in a better place to write.
If you are a writer, at some point in your career, you will have to deal with rejection. It usually comes from agents and editors turning down your book.
Solution: Find what makes you happy. A chocolate bar? A warm bath? A nice long run? Find that thing that will take the edge off your disappointment. Know that it’s not personal. There are so many reasons agents and editors reject a book- everything from already having a client who writes something similar to someone having a bad day and not being in the right frame of mind to read your work. Generally, you will never know why you were rejected, so don’t dwell on it. Instead, always make sure you’re writing something new so you’ve got something else to query or sub if this manuscript isn’t the one that lands you your agent/editor. (More often than you’d suspect, a writer’s first manuscript isn’t the one that lands them their agent/editor anyway.)
Writers spend all day thinking about and talking to characters who are only real in their heads. It’s a very lonely profession.
Solution: Join a writer’s group. Write at a coffee shop. Call up your critique partners to chat. Go to a writing conference. Join Twitter and discover all the writers on there. All of these can help you realize you aren’t alone out there in the writing world.
6.) Writer’s Block
The plague of writers everywhere, writer’s block seems to rear it’s ugly head at the most inopportune times. Maybe you’re in the middle of a chapter. Or you’ve finished one book and don’t know what to start next. Either way, writer’s block stinks.
Solution: Read. Read a lot. It might just get those creative juices flowing. Or, try brainstorming with a friend or critique partner. Go for a walk around the block to clear your head, or come back tomorrow after you’ve slept on it. Don’t beat yourself up. The more stressed you are, the less likely you’ll be to come up with a good plot point. Maybe a yoga or a meditation class could help if you find yourself falling into that trap.
Whatever struggles you face as a writer, know you’re not alone. There’s always hope and help out there. Have other issues you’re struggling with or solutions to the problems above? Post them in the comments!
My last post focused on where to find critique partners, and this week’s post is all about making sure you’ve got the right ones.
Here are some things you should look for in a critique partner to have the best chance at being compatible.
Can you be candid with one another
The point of having a critique partner is so that they can help you make your work better through constructive criticism. If your critique only tells you how good something is or how much they like it, they really aren’t helping you revise and grow as a writer. They need to be able to approach your work with a critical eye in order to help you gain deeper insights into your work and what issues might need addressing.
Write for the same age group
This may not seem important, writing is writing, right? Well, to a degree. However, someone who writes for the same age group is going to understand that reader and the pacing of the story. Plots and timing are going to be very different for an adult novel versus a middle grade novel.
Write the same genre
Like #1 above, writing the same genre can be helpful because someone who writes science fiction or fantasy might understand world building and what needs to go into it better than someone writing a contemporary novel. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. As long as a critique partner gets your work, that’s what’s more important.
Make sure they have time for you
People are busy these days. If they’re not doing their own writing, they’re off doing any number of other tasks. And there’s nothing more frustrating than sending out your work and never getting it back. On the flip side, make sure you have time to help them with their writing in return.
Try trading sample chapters to make sure you like their writing
Before you officially agree to partner, try trading sample chapters. Maybe you’ll hate their writing. Maybe you’ll love it, but it’s better to know before you commit yourself to a whole book.
It can be good to get different perspectives. Is your main character a female? Have a male critique partner read it and see what he catches. Or, if you’re a female writing a male character, see what a male critique partner points out as unnatural. (Side note: for certain works you may also want sensitivity readers if you’re writing outside your own experience.)
Other aspects that might signal you’ll be good partners include having the same sense of humor, liking the same authors/books, and being able to articulate feedback in a way that makes sense to each other. Keep these in mind when you meet potential critique partners, and you’ll be off to a good start.
What do you look for in a critique partner? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
I hope you’ll all find some time to dress up in your favorite costume today. And whether you’re out trick or treating or staying home handing out candy, I hope you’ll pay particular attention to the costumes that are out and about.
People often choose costumes based on their favorite characters, right? So make a game of trying to figure out why someone picked that costume. What about that character makes them stand out to someone of that age group? This also applies to villains. What about that villain makes them appealing? What quirks, what powers, and what weapons make them an ideal choice?
Once you figure out the answers to those questions, apply them to storytelling. Do people like Maleficent because of her cool, commanding costume? Is Loki a favorite because of his mischievous nature – or is it because he was played by Tom Hiddleston? What about the little girl dressed as Cinderella? Maybe she just loves the dress. But maybe she also loves that her costume allows her to believe that her dreams can come true with a little luck and some hard work.
Whatever the reasons, they can help you figure out what makes these beloved characters tick and what makes them memorable. And you can borrow these reasons for your own characters.
So while you’re out and about this evening, pay attention to these details to really take your characterization to the next level:
One of the easiest ways to make a character stand out is to give them something memorable to wear. (See the Maleficent example above.) Moreover, make sure you have a good reason for them to wear it. Or, play with what readers would expect your character to wear and change it up. Why does your character always stay covered from head to toe, even in the heat? Is it because they have scars they don’t want people to see? Everything they put on needs to say something about them. 2.) Accessories
Everything from the locket that holds the last picture of your character’s parents to the mismatching socks your protagonist threw on in the rush out of the house tell us something about your character. What would Cinderella be without her glass slippers? Also, what they don’t carry with them can also tell the reader something about your character. Do they refuse to carry a sword because they don’t believe in fighting? Do they always forget to grab their house keys? 3.) Weapons
Not only do kids like weapons (for good or bad), but a unique weapon can make a character stand out. What would Darth Maul be without his double-sided Lightsaber? Just another villain.
So whatever character you’re trying to write, make them stand out using key details that will make them feel real to your readers. These small details will go a long way in making your character unique, believable, and relatable.
Are you dressing up tonight? What are you going to be be, and why did you pick it? Share in the comments below!
How do you write a query letter- those few short paragraphs that have to sum up your entire novel and seemingly hold the key to getting a literary agent? First, you have to start with a finished novel. Once you’ve got a novel that been revised and edited multiple times, then you’re ready to sit down and write your query letter. But make sure you’ve researched agents and know who would be a good fit for you.
Start with either a hook or the more formal opening. The hook is my personal favorite way to start. It’s a line designed to capture attention and draw the agent in right from the start.
Cinderella: Don’t think a pair of shoes can change your life? Think again.
Peter Pan: All children grow up, except one. (This is a reworking of the opening line of Peter Pan. So if you’re looking for inspiration, see if your first line can help.)
The second way is to start a little more personally/formally by either saying that you’re seeking representation for your novel and that you think this particular agent would be a good fit. This can also be a place to include if you’ve ever met that agent at a conference or if you saw a Tweet they sent that made you think they’d like this novel. This shows that you’ve done your research on them.
Include no more than 3 paragraphs summarizing your plot. You don’t have to give away every element, but try to get the overall plot communicated. Make sure you’ve got enough tension laced throughout. And it’s okay to leave the agent hanging by hinting at the decision your character will have to make or that the balance of good vs. evil hangs in their hands.
Along with the plot, make sure there’s urgency in your query. Agents want to know that your novel is going to keep moving, so mentioning a timeline can go a long way.
Try not to name more than 3 characters in a query. Usually, this is regulated to the main character, the love interest or sidekick, and the villain. Too many names makes it easy to get lost.
Include the word count and genre of your novel in either the more formal opening paragraph or the last paragraph.
Mention toward the end (usually in the final paragraph) that the novel is complete. An easy way to do this is to say “My novel XYZ is complete at 79,000 words, and I would be happy to send it to you if you’re interested,” or “I’d be happy to send you the completed manuscript if you’re interested.”
Include a short biography at the end of the query letter with any relevant information. Are you a librarian? Include that. Have you had a short story published? Include that. Have an MFA degree? Include that, too. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself.
Follow submission guidelines. This is so important. This goes back to researching agents. Only include what they’re looking for- whether that’s a query letter, a short bio, and the first 10 pages or if they want a query letter and the first 50 pages. Not sending what they ask for shows you didn’t do your research. And agents won’t waste time reading the submission of someone who didn’t bother to read their guidelines.
Don’t send attachments when you send your query letter. If an agent comes back and asks for your manuscript, you can attach it then. But never attach anything to an original query. Paste all materials into the email.
Test out sending your query letter to people with a variety of email address (Hotmail, gmail, outlook, yahoo, etc.). It’s easy for formatting to get messed up, so by testing it out, you’ll know what you need to adjust before you send your wonky formatting to an agent.
It’s also a good idea to have someone who hasn’t read the book read your query letter. That way, they can point out what doesn’t make sense to them.
Then, after it’s all ready to go, send that query letter off, sit back, and relax. Okay, who am I kidding? Sending out queries is super stressful. Throw yourself into your next project so you don’t go insane checking you Inbox for responses.
Have a finished query letter? You’re in luck! Since my birthday is this Saturday, I’ve decided to give you, my readers, a present! Enter my giveaway for a QUERY LETTER CRITIQUE from literary agent Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis. Click on the Rafflecopter link to enter!
Looking for how to add tension to you novel? Think back to the old saying:
“If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two. If you fire a gun in act three, scene two, you must see the gun on the wall in act one, scene one.”
Essentially, that loaded gun triggers tension because you’re expecting it to go off, waiting for it to go off, maybe even wanting it to go off.
But why is tension in stories so important? Because without it, no one is going to read your story. Would you read about Cinderella if she never had to work a day in her life, waltzed into the ball, and married the prince? No, the heart of Cinderella is in her overcoming her circumstances, overcoming the tension in her life.
You could even go far as to say that tension is the heart of any plot. It’s what keeps the pulse moving, increasing and decreasing based on how much tension there is.
So what are some ways writers can add tension in addition to introducing a weapon into the scene, like Chekov prescribes above? Check out a few tips below:
The ticking time bomb: This is the fastest, and sometime the easiest, way to add tension because all you have to do is give something a deadline. Max has to clean up the raging party he threw before his parents get home. Lianna has to find the wizard before evil wipes out all the light in her land. Cinderella’s spell breaks at midnight.
Being trapped/lost/losing someone else: Whether it be in prison, a maze, or even mentally, being stuck can up the stakes. Now, your character has to escape, has to find a way out of their current situation. Or, if someone else gets lost along the way, they have to find a way to go back for them or save them before something terrible happens.
Being chased/followed: The opposite of being stuck in one place is having to flee from one quickly. The fear of getting caught is a great motivator of tension. Even just being followed on the streets, the constant looking back, changing direction, crossing the street, can go a long way in getting your reader’s heart pounding.
Secrets/Lies/Who can you trust: Finding out someone has lied to your character can result in an immediate loss of trust, and when you don’t know who to trust, that instantly puts things on edge. Characters start questioning themselves and those they thought were on their side. Are their plans still safe? Should they call off the attack they had planned? Tension. Even a devoted husband planning a surprise birthday party for his wife can soon look suspicious through the eyes of a wife certain he must be hiding an affair.
Rumors: Gossip can kill. The wrong words whispered into the ear of the king by his loyal advisor could sentence your main character to death. Someone hinting a character is really an undercover cop might be enough to convince the mob boss to do him in. Even going out late at night can set your neighbors’ tongues wagging and have deadly consequences. Just look at the episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” where neighbors turn on one another when it’s rumored one among them isn’t entirely human.
Being threatened: The promise of an event can almost be as tension building as the event itself. Even if the threat isn’t immediate, just having it out there lingering can add slow burning tension. This is what the Chekhov quote is essentially getting at. Maybe it’s could be enough to have the gun go off in the end of the story, but as Chekhov tells us, it’s even better to let that threat simmer for a while, adding tension with each passing scene.
Action scenes: Assuming these are fast-paced and full of heart-pounding action, then this is a quick way to add tension fast. It goes back to bringing in that loaded gun and having it be shot at our heroine as he or she breaks out of the lab with the formula for the cure that the world needs. As an add-on to this one, make sure that you actually include physical descriptions like your main character’s heart pounding and palms sweating, as those will also help add tension.
Rage: People can be unpredictable when they’re angry. They can go off the rails. They can do bad things, things they wouldn’t even normally consider, things that might just keep your reader reading.
Making the wrong decision: You can sometimes hear people shouting during movies for someone not to go to the basement alone in a horror movie…because you know the killer is down there! Making a wrong decision can throw your character into danger and probably give your reader anxiety as they wait to see how this will affect the plot.
Give the reader information the character doesn’t have: If the reader knows your character is walking into a trap set by the main character’s best friend who we’ve discovered is the killer, there’s going to be some tension as the reader waits to see how this plays out. This might be more easily done in third person, but it’s not impossible to do through strong clues and actions in a story told in first person.
In the end, there are a myriad of ways to add tension. You just have to find the right combination to keep your story going and your readers on the edges of their seats. Having enough at stake helps get your readers invested, too, so make sure that your character faces not only obstacles to what they want, but that what they want is big enough to justify going through those obstacles to get it.
What’s you favorite way to add tension? Or do you have an example of a book that does it well? Share it in the comments.
Fall, that time of year when leaves are changing and sweaters are being pulled out from closets. It’s also time for Halloween, costumes, and turning regular old pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns.
I like to think of pumpkins like a first draft of a story. They’re fine. They’re complete. They’re pretty solid. From the outside, at least.
But, if you were to cut that pumpkin open, you’d find a gooey mess inside, carefully hidden under that solid veneer.
That’s what you need to revise. You need to scoop out the messy stuff, using a spoon, a knife, even your fingernails when it comes down to those last stubborn bits of orange goo that cling so tightly to the sides you think you’ll never get them out. You toss it all into a bowl and assess the situation.
You separate the orange goo from the seeds, those inklings and good ideas to make use of later. You cover them in salt and bake them in the oven and turn them into something worth keeping by giving them a little attention.
Next, you need to…plot…I mean plan. This is when you need to look at the whole story. Look at the pumpkin from the outside. What face is it calling for? What shapes lend themselves to its curves? What needs to happen next to bring it to life?
Start carving away. Cut away the unnecessary bits. Refine the story. Maybe the face begins to take shape, and you realize you don’t need that extra tooth because it’ll be overwhelming or that the eyes should be triangles instead of circles because they fit the character better. You slowly learn what the story needs and how it’s going to appear to your reader.
After you’ve got the face cut out, you go back in and refine. You level out where the smile isn’t quite even. You make sure those triangle eyes are the same size. You look at the little details to make sure it all comes together evenly.
Finally, put a small candle inside and close the lid. Watch as the pumpkin takes on a face of it’s own and comes alive, polished and full of the heart you put into it.
It’s generally accepted that there are two schools of thought in how people approach writing: Pantsers and Plotters. Each has their benefits and challenges to the writing process.
What is a pantser?
People who “fly by the seat of their pants.” These writers don’t meticulously plan out the plot before they start writing. Pantsers aren’t wed to a story idea, which means they can be open to the creative muses that arise in the middle of writing – without it threatening the rest of their plot. These are the people who can walk into an airport and book the next departing flight to an exotic locale and not look back.
Downside: When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s easy to get lost. A story you thought was taking off could get stranded along the way if writers block sets in. For example, they’re the ones who didn’t book their tickets ahead of time to Dracula’s castle and had to wait 2 hours at the ticket window, losing valuable time because they didn’t plan ahead.
What is a plotter?
People who have exact road maps that they follow on the path to writing the words “The End.” Plotters know their scenes and what needs to be written. These are the people who have detailed itineraries to follow. They’ve been planning for months and have booked hotels and trains weeks in advance.
Downside: If they stay too tightly to their course, they may miss out on the things off the beaten path. For example, they bought the tickets to Dracula’s castle ahead of time but rushed through the rooms in order to make it to their next scheduled activity.
While these two different camps work well for many writers, perhaps there’s another approach somewhere between the hopping on the next flight and scheduling down to the minute. It’s what I call a Traveler because not only do you travel between the two extremes, but you do it like someone traveling the world would do by being open to new ideas while exploring your intended path.
While there will always be travelers who stick to their carefully detailed itineraries or the ones who have no itineraries at all, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the ones who know what country they want to go to. They’ve done enough research to know some of what they want to see. But, they’re not afraid to veer off course when they learn there’s a hidden waterfall that only the locals know about or to drop everything to go hear Desmond Tutu speak. Because it’s these special moments, the ones you didn’t expect, that create the best memories and will be the most memorable for your readers.
So if you’re a pantser, try and at least look at the path so you’re not wandering around lost or trying fourteen different directions until you find the one that leads to the right path. And if you’re a plotter, don’t forget to stray from the path every once and a while. You might just discover something that will give your story the edge it was missing.
Are you a pantser or plotter? Or do you think you’re more of a hybrid Traveler? Let me know in the comments!
Getting a literary agent can seem like finding the Holy Grail! You’ve accomplished your goal, and all is right in the world. However, what most people forget is that it’s usually a long, strenuous quest that leads to Literary Agent Land. Of course, you could be one of those lucky few, those fairytales in the flesh, who gets an agent in the first few days (or weeks) of trying. It’s not impossible; it does happen. But the odds are that you’re going to have to face a few more feats on your own journey.
At least, that’s what my journey felt like.
But let’s start at the beginning. Fresh out of my MFA program, I was ready to query my thesis project. It was as shiny as I could make it, but I had no idea where to begin. I did all the right things. I researched how to write a query letter. I found the agents who represented the books that I loved. I submitted queries without any attachments. And…..crickets. Okay, I got a few little requests here and there, but nothing stuck.
I felt like a failure. No one wanted my amazing book? Well, maybe that’s because my novel needed a complete rewrite (but that’s another story….literally!). I regrouped. While I was waiting to hear from agents, I’d written another book, a better one. This time, I had a better plan of attack, too. I was going to query a smaller group of agents who were the ones I actually wanted to work with. I’d do it in smaller batches to see if my query letter and first few pages were garnering the right level of attention. I also added a conference to the mix.
I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop, where I met top agents and got to pitch them my book. Better yet, they loved the idea! So…is that where I met my agent? No. But I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have landed my agent without Midwest Writers Workshop because while there I talked with an agent who gave me an R&R (a revise and resubmit request). Based on her feedback, I changed the opening of my novel so that it was stronger and more attention grabbing. I also learned from Midwest Writers Workshop that I should be on Twitter because virtually every writer in the world was on Twitter.
So I joined Twitter, and I saw that an agent I was following (who liked fairytale retellings!) was having a contest on her blog. I posted the first 250 words, and I waited. Well, I lost the contest because a winner was randomly selected to win the free query critique. Yet, I won in the end because that agent requested the first 10 pages from me based on my first 250 words.
However, this request came at a very odd time for me. I was sitting in the Atlanta airport about to embark on a trip to Antarctica. (If you’ve read my About Me blog post, you’ll know I love to travel.) That’s right ANTARCTICA…a place where I would have no Internet access for a couple of weeks.
I had materials out with a few other agents, so I did what any sensible writer would do when heading off on such an adventure- I wrote a book for my sister on how to handle any literary matters that might arise in my absence. That manual covered everything from how not to respond at all if I got a rejection to how to properly send materials if I got a request and, of course, what to do if I got an offer.
Well, while I was happily off playing with the penguins, that same agent came back and asked for the full manuscript. My sister obliged by sending it. Then came the offer. AN AGENT WANTED TO REPRESENT ME!!! Of course, I didn’t know any of this until a few weeks later, although thankfully my sister had followed the guidelines I’d set out for her and told the agent I was out of town and would respond to their offer immediately after I returned.
I found out about the offer while sitting in the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, using a shady internet connection that I only used BECAUSE I HAD TO KNOW IF I HAD ANY OFFERS!
The first person I told that I got offer was this old guy sitting next to me in the airport because I whispered, “I got an offer,” as I stared around trying to locate my parents in the airport terminal.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind as I informed other agents that I had an offer, got another offer, and ultimately had to make a decision. But I know I made the right decision in the end.
So if you’re still looking for a literary agent, query the agents you really think would be a good fit for you, and stay with it. Sometimes it takes one or two or ten books! Don’t give up. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re frolicking with penguins in Antarctica or sitting on your sofa in Reno when the offer comes. The feeling of joy will be the exact same.
Everybody loves a good villain, right? So the reverse must also be true: everyone hates a bad villain. Worse, they’ll stop reading if your villain suffers from Stupid Villain Syndrome (SVS).
SVS is when your villain meets one or more of the following criteria:
They’re not scary enough for the reading level of the book. They’ll come across as comical and mustache-twirling if they’re not sinister enough.
They’re not strong enough to physically pose a true risk to your protagonist’s goals. Readers won’t be invested if they feel no one is truly opposing your protagonist. Nothing will feel at stake for the protagonist.
They choose incompetent sidekicks. Ruthless villains want sidekicks who can carry out their orders successfully. While protagonists might be able to get away once or maybe twice, they shouldn’t be continually able to outsmart sidekicks. It makes the villain appear weaker by association.
The villain over-explains his or her plan in the end, resulting in giving the protagonist time to escape or think of a plan. While a plot should be twisting and keep readers guessing and some explanation might be necessary to clear up certain earlier plot points, don’t use this method to give your protagonist time to come up with a brilliant plan. Your villain can gloat and revel in the moment, but just not too long.
If your hero needs time to untie the ropes that bind their hands or to get off the railroad tracks like in old cartoons, try instead to perhaps have your hero’s sidekick or another character cause the needed distraction to give the protagonist time to escape. Try to have your villain give as little explanation as possible and give your protagonist the smarts she needs to piece the rest together on her own. Or maybe, split the dialogue so that half the reason why the villain committed the murder is given while the protagonist is danger, and the other half comes when the villain lies dying or realizes they’re trapped. At the very least, have your protagonist escape while the villain is giving their speech to show how foolish they were not to kill them right away.
A good thing to keep in mind to avoid SVS is actually a quote from actor Tom Hiddleston:
“Every villain is a hero in his own mind.”
The villain is often the one that took the path the hero could’ve taken but chose not to. Yet, the villain probably had very legitimate reasons for taking that path. Something drove them to it just as something made the hero pick a different way. We spend enough time with the hero to get their reasoning, so make sure we have enough time with the villain to get their reasoning before the final few scenes when they have to over explain. (However, I will point out that SVS doesn’t apply as fully to mystery and twist endings since it’s not always obvious who the villain is. But, there better be enough breadcrumbs that readers believe the credibility of the villain after the big reveal.)
Overall, your villain deserves, nay, needs to be just as complex as your hero in order to avoid the pitfalls that come with SVS, and avoiding SVS will go a long way in strengthening your villain, which by proxy strengthens your protagonist and probably gives you a stronger, more intriguing plot!