Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 2 (Semi-Optional Step): Map Out Your Story

The second thing I do when I'm revising is to map out my story—in other words, I create a scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter reverse outline. Sometimes, if I'm doing a fairly light edit or if my original outline still lines up pretty well with the story's trajectory, I will skip this step. It's not as necessary if the edits I'm going to make aren't substantial ones that make changes to the plot structure. For the last book I edited—the developmental edits for Where the Watermelons Grow with my editor at HarperCollins—I didn't make any massive changes, and so didn't do this step. Right now, though, I'm in the middle of mapping out one of my WIPs so that I can revise it based on feedback from my agent, because some of the changes I'm going to make are larger ones that will impact plotlines and overall plot structure.

Often, though, my outline changes and evolves as I write my first draft, and so I need to update it to have a really clear picture of what exists in the draft I'm about to revise. This is especially helpful if—as I mentioned doing in my last post—I haven't read through the book prior to starting the revision pass; it allows me to hold the story in an easily-visible format while revising.

Reverse-outlining my story also helps me figure out in real-time where I should make changes to the novel once I begin really revising. As I outline, I'll usually make little notes to myself, like "Make sure to add stuff about the theme of visibility here" or "Could Queenie be in this scene somewhere?" (Both real notes taken from the revision that I'm beginning for one of my works in progress!)

This step is fairly straightforward, but can be time-consuming and, honestly, kind of boring. It's so helpful, though, to have the map to guide me as I dive into revision. Between this and my self-written edit letter, I'm easily able to see what I need to change, where I need to change it, and what I've already changed in the past.

I use the notecard function in Scrivener for this. Here's what I have so far on the reverse-outline for my WIP (I'm about halfway through):


I also know people who do this with actual notecards, white boards, notebooks, or Word documents. Whatever you have access to and whatever is easy for you to reference will work well!

In my next post, I'll be talking about how I start my actual revision pass.

If you missed Step 1 in this revision process, find the post here:
Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter


Revision is not something that comes naturally to me. I had written four manuscripts before I finally cracked what it means to really revise a novel, rather than check for typos and move a few scenes around. It took me years to figure out how to get down to the bones of my story, identify weak spots, incorporate CP feedback, and figure out how to strengthen the parts of my story structure that were failing. For a long time I'd draft a book, mess around with it for awhile, and then hit this point where I knew there was still stuff wrong with it because it wasn't getting agent interest, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

If any of the above describes you, dear writer, take heart! Over the next little while, I'm going to do a series of blog posts breaking down how I revise, going in-depth on each point. Every author has their own revision process, and mine may not be yours—but hopefully these posts will provide a jumping-off point to give you a better feel for what a revision process can look like.

Today's post deals with my very first revision step: I write my own edit letter.

For a lot of people, the first step in revision is to print or upload a complete draft of their story and then read it and make notes. I will be up-front and say that while this used to be my first step always, it's not anymore. I've learned that a) I have a finite number of times I can read my book in rapid succession without losing my ability to spot problems, and b) I'm not very good at picking up on the big-picture structural changes my book needs when I'm reading through it. On a read-through, I have a tendency to get hung up on smaller things, and miss the crucial big-picture ones. Therefore, while there are definitely rounds of revision that start with me reading my book through cover to cover, I tend to use them both randomly and judiciously. If I have recently read it, or otherwise feel like I'm doing a decent job of holding the story in my head, or feel like a read-through would be more valuable after I've applied the changes, then I hold off.

My true first step—really a pre-revision step—is that I almost always let my book sit for awhile and send it to CPs before I dive into revision. The exception is when I've made big changes to the plot while drafting and the draft wouldn't even make sense to a CP; for instance, with Where the Watermelons Grow, I was 3/4 through drafting before I decided I was bored of writing a straight contemporary story and wanted to add magic bees. Because the plot changed dramatically at that 3/4 point, I went back through and added the magical element from the beginning before I sent it off to critique partners.

But after I've finished drafting, let the book rest a little, and gotten feedback from CPs, my agent, or my editor (depending on which round of revision I'm on), my first step is always writing myself an edit letter.

Once you have an agent or an editor (often, even once you've got some good CPs), you will start receiving edit letters to help guide your revisions. Most agents and editors don't use Track Changes or other in-text comments to give feedback on big-picture issues that need to be changed; instead, they write an edit letter, a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the things they feel need to be changed or strengthened as you revise.

I get easily overwhelmed by the revision process and always need to spend a few days making a solid revision plan before I dive in; I'm totally not capable of holding everything in my head. As such, the first thing I do is write myself what essentially amounts to an edit letter—to myself, from myself. It's usually not as in-depth as edit letters I get from my agent, editor, or CPs, because I can use shorthand and still know what I mean later on. But it's essential for me to have a to-do list before I start revising, especially if I'm trying to collate feedback from multiple CPs, or if I've had ideas I want to change in addition to what my agent or editor asked for, or if my agent or editor pointed out a weakness in my story and I then brainstormed a new way to solve it.

I begin by combing through all the feedback I've received so far and writing it down, along with any ideas I've had independently. Sometimes this looks like a checklist; sometimes it looks more like a paragraph-by-paragraph freewrite of my story's problems. Unless it's a very, very light line edit, I usually will organize the revision items by size—big changes (changes that affect whole story threads, whole characters, or the structure of the plot itself) and small changes (things that generally only affect one scene, or require only a line or two of difference throughout the book). If I have a lot of items on my list, I'll even split them into big, medium, and small.

Here's an example of the first edit letter I wrote myself for one of my current works in progress:

This was a fairly light revision pass; sometimes I end up with a lot more points on that list. (Though the font size here is small so that it can all fit into one screenshot, so there really were more items than there might seem to be at first glance.)

Starting like this lets me organize my thoughts, collate feedback from different sources, and keep track of what I've done and what I have yet to do, since I will usually "check off" items on my list (usually by italicizing them) as I go. It also lets me draw attention to thinks I think I might forget, or things that will take a lot of work or finesse; these I usually bold. Mostly, starting like this helps me to work up the courage to dive into the revision pool—something that's always really intimidating to me when I'm preparing to start a big revision!

In my next post, I'll discuss mapping my book to figure out where the weak spots lie!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

So You've Written A Book. Now What?


Since my book deal went public last year, I've had a definite increase in the number of people who have come to me asking for tips on getting an agent/publishing deal. I totally get it—I spent years as that writer who never seemed quite able to break in, but couldn't figure out why not. When you're in that space, it can feel like being lost in the middle of a forest, unable to even figure out how to begin to reach your destination because everything is so confusing and the world is filled with so many contradictory directions.

On that note, I thought I'd share some of my advice to aspiring authors—especially those who have just finished their first manuscripts and aren't sure what to do next.

First, let me say: Congratulations! As far as I'm concerned, there is no publishing milestone more important than finishing that first book. Now that you've finished a book, you know that you can do it. You've figure out how to beat through the thicket of your muddy middle and emerge on the other side of "The End." That is an enormous accomplishment, and one that deserves to be celebrated!

Except—now what do you do?

1. First, let the book sit for a bit. I don't know a single successful writer who can finish a draft and then immediately dive into revisions the next day. Or rather, I don't know a single successful writer who can do that and make revisions that are really what the book needs. Drafting and revising are two totally different creative processes, and you really need to gain a bit of distance from the one before your brain can switch into the other. So before you come back to your finished manuscript, set it aside for a few weeks or a few months. Work on something new, cultivate a non-writing project, or...

2. Find critique partners, stat. A critique partner is different from a general writing buddy. A critique partner definitely isn't your mom, best friend (unless your best friend is also a talented writer who doesn't pull punches in giving you feedback), or spouse. Almost without fail, when I've talked to writers over the last year who didn't know where to go after finishing their book, they've told me something along the lines of, "My mom/best friend/husband has read it five times and they can't find anything else to fix." Let me preface this by saying that it's great if your close friends and family want to read. It's fun, they often give encouragement that helps you keep going, and they're usually good at spotting typos and grammatical mistakes and other small but embarrassing details.

However, if you want to truly succeed in publishing, you really need your book to be read by several critique partners before you ever send out a single agent query. And, I hate to say it, you particularly need your book to be read by CPs who are strong in places that you're weak, which can take a lot of trial and error to find. For several years before I signed with my agent, I really struggled to connect with CPs that pushed me beyond what I could do myself. I had one or two really fantastic CPs, but a lot of the people I had read and critique my work had the same weaknesses I did, which meant that they weren't able to pick apart the places I really needed help. I have always loved line-level writing—the way sentences sound when you read them—and so by the time I started trying to get published, I was great at that... but I couldn't write a strong plot to save my life. Because my CPs at the time also struggled with plot structure, they couldn't point out the places my plots were falling apart. And because of that, my manuscripts never quite made it to the point where they were able to attract agent and editor attention.

Once I got into Pitch Wars in 2015 and connected with lots of CPs who were plotting mavens, that changed. My next book was WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, and thanks to the help from my new CPs, that book ended up with ten agent offers and a publishing house auction. That was no accident—I had all the tools I needed to take my writing to the next level, but it wasn't until I found the right CPs that I was able to unlock that potential.

If you want help connecting with good CPs, I shared some resources here. There's also other authors on Twitter who will periodically host CP matchups. The most important thing to know is this: Sometimes, it's just going to take time. I've traded manuscripts with people who didn't end up helping me much, but it wasn't until after their feedback that I realized that. Sometimes, you have to trade first chapters or whole manuscripts with several different people before you find some who have the savvy you need. Also, if you're like me, just trading first chapters might not be enough; because plot structure is my weakness, things don't usually fall apart in my stories until about a quarter of the way through, so trading beginnings doesn't help me that much.

3. Study the craft. While you're letting your manuscript sit/finding good CPs/starting a new project, make sure that you're studying the craft. This is not an optional step. I will be totally honest with you: I went for a lot of years being kind of full of myself and thinking that I'd basically learned all that I needed to know about the craft of writing. (HA. Please don't be like me, guys. You know what they say about pride and falls.) Because of this, I didn't pay enough attention at conferences, I didn't seek out craft books, I didn't follow craft blogs. And you know what? My writing didn't really get better. For a long time, I thought that writing a lot was the best way to learn to write well, and while that's true, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never write supernally if you don't put in a lot of study hours, too.

And don't just study the aspects of craft that you're drawn to, either (another mistake I made). Study the things you don't necessarily think you'll need, because you might be surprised. If you're writing thrillers, study the conventions of literary prose; you might be surprised by how much extra punch your fast-paced stories carry if they're also written beautifully. If you're writing literary, character-driven stories, don't think—like I did for a long time—that that means you get a pass when it comes to studying commercial plot structure. A strong plot with good bones can take your quiet literary novel from "lovely" to "stupendous."

There are so many incredible resources online to help you study craft; I recommend finding a couple of authors whose work you really admire and whose style you'd like to emulate, and then going to their websites. Often, writers will have writing advice or resources, or at least a spot on social media where they talk about their own influences. Some writers, like K. M. Weiland, dedicate huge chunks of their career to educating other writers and have websites and books that are virtual treasure troves of helpful resources. There are also tons of resources on YouTube—bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has the entire course list of classes he teaches on there, for instance. Googling will take you a lot of places; you can search for "writing craft books," "writing craft blogs," "tips for fiction writing," specific things you need help with, and so on.

4. Learn how to query agents (if you're shooting for traditional publishing). Learn how to write a query letter and a synopsis (sorry, guys, you can't get out of the dreaded synopsis; there WILL come a time when you need one, even after you're published!). Learn what literary agents do. Figure out whether traditional publishing, indie publishing, or small press publishing is right for you. Research agents who represent your favorite authors; research agents who rep authors in your genre; research agents who share your interests. (My favorite resources for researching agents are the Literary Rambles blog, Writer's Digest's New Agents section, and ManuscriptWishList.com.)

Then, once you have done all the other steps on this list, have your CPs read your query letter and synopsis... and start querying!

5. Consider online contests. There are new online contests cropping up all the time, and while they're definitely a mixed bag, some are really fantastic—not only because they give you the chance to get your work before agents, but because they help connect you to other writers, as well. I was a mentee in Pitch Wars in 2015, and then found my agent after the first #DVPit Twitter contest; not only did these experiences give me good industry connections, but they led me to my closest writing friends and strongest CPs. These days, there are contests just for teen writers, contests that take place in one day, contests that span over months, contests that give you feedback on your whole book or just a part of it. Some of the contests that I can personally vouch for are Pitch Wars, Query Kombat, Baker's Dozen, Nightmare on Query Street, and TeenPit, but there's lots I'm not familiar with that can also be good opportunities. There's also lots of Twitter pitch parties, like PitMad, KidPit, AdPit, and SFFPit, as well as DVPit, which is for marginalized (writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, etc.) creators only.

My biggest advice if you're entering contests is this: Don't do it just for the agent exposure. That is a nice thing about it, but in my experience, by far the most valuable thing about writing contests is the chance to connect with other writers. No writer survives a publishing career without having a strong, vibrant, and thriving community; if you're serious about publishing, make sure you're also serious about building that community for yourself!

6. Consider conferences. Conferences can be invaluable chances to learn from more experienced writers and industry professionals, as well as making lasting friendships and connections. Conferences can also be chances to workshop or query with agents and editors, though just like with contests, it's important to focus as well on conferences as a chance to build your community, not just to meet agents.

You finished a book! Way to go! Now go forth and find yourself some critique partners!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Three Reasons I'll Never Leave Scrivener


Like a lot of writers, I spent years hearing about the mythical, magical beast that is the writing program Scrivener. When I finally took the plunge and bought it on sale a few years back, I was simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. There was so much to learn! And it seemed really complicated! And it didn't jump out to me as being something that was going to especially help my writing! Was it really WORTH it, I wondered, sneaking back over to my precious Word documents?

Since then, though, I've become a diehard Scrivener convert. The moments when I have to go back to working in Word are painful. There are a lot of fancier functions on Scrivener that I skip completely because they are, for me, unnecessary or distracting—but the basic ones that I do use are transformative for me. Really truly, to navigate Scrivener to the extent that I do you basically need about 10 minutes of video tutorials and a few more minutes to play around. That's it.

Also, I started out using the "novel" format when I opened new documents, but that honestly introduces WAY more clutter than I ever actually use. I usually select "blank" when I create a new document these days.

Want to know how I use Scrivener and why I love it so much? Here you go!

1. I can keep a metric ton of information in one file

I typically have one document per book. That's it. In that document, I'm able to keep everything I need—multiple revision drafts; research pictures, notes, and websites; queries; pitches; and so forth. In my Scrivener file for WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, I've got

—4 revision drafts
—Research on farming, schizophrenia, and middle grade conventions
—Notes on characters
—The outline I made when before I wrote the book
—A timeline of events in the book that I made during my last revision
—Outtakes
—Multiple to-do lists for various revision passes
—The query
—The synopsis
—Twitter pitches used during #DVPit
—A brief summary I wrote before I wrote the book, to give myself an idea where I was going
—My dedication and acknowledgements
—Some notes on a possible companion book

This is what the sidebar for the WATERMELONS document looks like (with the draft folders collapsed because otherwise I couldn't possibly fit it into a screenshot):


This is really easy to do in Scrivener. You use the green "plus" button in the top left corner and long press it; it will give you the option to add a new page, a new folder, or import a web page. 



As a general rule, I use pages for small things like queries and such, and folders for drafts, research, and outline—anywhere that I want to collect multiple subpages into one area. Scrivener automatically has a special type of folder included for your draft—it looks like multiple pages together, instead of like the blue folder. I usually use that for whatever my active draft is. When it's time to revise and I need a new draft, I right-click that and hit "duplicate," then use the special folder type for my current draft. It doesn't make any difference that I can tell, it just looks different so I can always tell which draft I should make changes to. 



2. I can navigate around my current draft quickly and easily

It took me some time to get used to it, but now I LOVE the ability to divide my manuscript into subsections. I typically will split the document into new pages with each chapter and then type a very brief description into the sidebar so that I know what happens in that chapter for easy navigation. I also often use the colored flags on my chapters to show me where turning points happen, so that I can get an easy visual feel for whether one section of my story is getting way longer than the others. Here's what that looks like in my WIP, which I'm about 11,000 words into:


It makes it super easy to navigate between chapters, keep track of what's already happened, and so on. I often will find myself writing a new scene and want to refresh my memory about something in an older scene, and be able to find it really easily because I remember that the older scene took place in the chapter that was about the transmission, or whatever. This feature is helpful for both drafting and revision. In revision, I also use the flags in other ways—to show me where I've identified problems that I don't have time to fix right now, for instance. I'm a really visual person, and also not a super organized person, and being able to see everything laid out like this helps me SO much. Changing the symbols is really easy—you just right-click the icon and it gives you a bunch of options:



3. The corkboard feature is perfect for outlining

In a perfect world, I'd be using the corkboard feature in the way that it was intended, the way it's shown in how-to videos—to give a brief overview of what was in each chapter so that I could see the outline of my in-process book as I drafted or revised. Honestly, though, I've never found that that helpful. Instead, I typically start a new folder in my sidebar, completely separate from my draft document, and call it "outline."


I then switch my Scrivener to corkboard view—


and use subpages in that folder to make "notecards" for my outlining method.


(Side note: MAN the plot for WATERMELONS changed a whole lot between the outline and the final draft!!!)

If you highlight the folder itself and not the subpages—like I have in the screenshot above—they show up as notecards in corkboard view.

My outlines look like this:


(Obviously, my cards are usually expanded enough to read all the text on them—this is just so that it's easy to see a whole book's outline. If you want more info on how I outline, check out this post.)

And there you go! That's why I'm a diehard Scrivener user, even when much of the program's more complex functions I don't find particularly helpful. Also, software tutorials are NOT my strong suit, so I apologize if any of this has been confusing! I've found that Google is a wealth of Scrivener know-how, though, and that simple searches can turn up the answers to basically anything you need.

Monday, May 29, 2017

How To Know Which Publishing Path Is Right For You


Lately I've gotten into a bunch of different conversations with downhearted aspiring authors in which said author tells me dejectedly, "I just don't feel like I'm ever going to get an agent. And I don't deal well with rejections. I'm thinking of just putting my book on Amazon to see what happens."

And I get that. I totally do. Guess what? I gave up on my first query attempt after a whopping ten queries. The rejections were just soul-killing, and it was apparent very quickly from talking to industry professionals that that book never had a fighting chance, anyway. And while I queried my second book much more widely, after more than 100 rejections on that book, I came perilously close to quitting writing—forever.

I am going to venture a sweeping guess that there isn't a single published author out there, no matter how successful, who doesn't understand the toll waiting and rejection can take on a new writer's soul. Remember how J. K. Rowling got twelve publisher rejections (after she was already agented) before Harry Potter sold, and even then it basically sold because the daughter of a publisher liked it? No author achieves success unscarred.

For many authors, indie publishing is absolutely the right way to go. I have many friends who are happy, successful, fulfilled indie authors. I have indie author friends who are hitting lists, achieving bestseller status, earning indie industry awards. They love the way that they're publishing, and I'm so happy for them. But—and here's the big caveat—none of these authors just put a digital file on Amazon and walked away. All of these authors studied, invested in, and excelled at the skills needed to be a successful indie author. They knew that their genres sold well in their chosen format. They knew the tricks to use to build a readership base. And they also, by and large, write very quickly and are able to put out several books a year, something that can be crucial to an indie author's success.

When my discouraged aspiring author friends come to me and announce their intention to just put the book on Amazon to "see what happens," I cringe a little inside—because I've seen what it takes to make a successful indie career, and that being an indie author takes every bit as much work as being a traditional author. And what's more, I've seen that being an indie author also involves just as much rejection as being a traditional author. As an indie, you aren't getting rejected by agents and editors, but you are getting rejected by a host of people who can be even more scary: the general public. You're getting rejected every time you pitch your book to a bookstore and they won't carry it. You're getting rejected every time you do a signing event and nobody stops by your table. You're getting rejected every time you try to handsell your book and somebody walks away instead of buying.

Rejection is part and parcel of a writing career. There is no point at which you don't experience rejection. And so rather than choosing the publishing path that seems to be the easiest in the moment, let's sit down and examine a better way to choose the publishing path that's right for you.

What Are Your Goals?

When I'm counseling friends who aren't sure what kind of career they'd like to have, my first question is always this one. What are your goals? If you think about where you want your career to be in ten years, what do you see? What are the things that spell successful author to you?

By and large, your author goals will dictate your publishing path.

—If you harbor a deep dream of being able to walk into Barnes and Noble or your local indie and see your book on the shelf—that's not typically something you can get as an indie author (although there are definitely exceptions, particularly when it comes to local bookstores who know you as a local author).

—If you dream of starred reviews and mainstream award nominations, a traditional publishing path is a must. While indie markets have their own awards (like the Rone), and you will still be eligible for location- or affiliation-based awards (for example—if you're a Mormon author, as I am, you're eligible to be nominated for a yearly Whitney award whether you're trad or indie), the shiny stickers that most readers are familiar with (such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Newbery and Printz Medals, etc.) are only awarded to traditionally published authors.

—If you want to have the largest degree of creative control, traditional publishing is probably not where you'll be happiest. In trad publishing, things like cover design, your book's description, and many of the finer points of editing are things you'll be involved in but not have final say over. Indie authors, on the other hand, have full control over all aspects of the publishing process, from layout to marketing plan.

—If you're an entrepreneurial sort and love the idea of building your author career like a business, you'll love being an indie author.

—If you want to turn out a lot of books each year and not have to wait for contracts to expire or the excruciatingly slow pace of traditional publishing, indie authorship is a perfect fit.

—If you don't want to have to worry too much about the extraneous details of your career—like cover design—and if you want support in marketing your book without having to hire a private publicist, then being a traditional author is probably your best bet.

—If you want to write for readers younger than 14, it will be much harder to achieve success as an indie. For middle grade readers and younger, reading is often still driven by "gatekeepers"—teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents. Many kids in this category still don't have smartphones or e-readers, they don't have unfettered access to transportation, and their parents often still want to screen their reading for objectionable content.

—If, on the other hand, you want to write something like adult romance? There's a huge and booming market for indie books and you'll likely do quite well.

—The most financially successful indie authors achieve success by honing in on a limited "brand" and putting out one or more books a year that fit that brand. If you're a jack-of-all-genres who likes to move between age categories and topics, you might have a more difficult time establishing yourself as an indie author. While traditional publishing often still expects you to follow your debut novel up with another in that genre, you typically have a little more flexibility and less pressure to put books out as quickly.

Obviously, there are exceptions to every "rule" on this list. Traditional authors still have to be heavily involved in their own marketing, and some indie authors achieve great success writing slowly or hopping from genre to genre. Many authors ("hybrid" authors) do both quite successfully—writing for traditional publishers and then pursuing novellas or other genres independently on the side.

This post is not intended to either dissuade people from pursuing indie publishing or imply that it's less worthy than traditional publishing. Both paths, however, take work, perseverance, and the ability to handle a good amount of rejection. And neither path will make you happy as a writer if it won't help you achieve your ultimate goals.

So next time you're feeling discouraged, get out a sheet of paper and jot down a list of your writer goals!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The World Is Wide Enough: Dealing With Jealousy In Your Writing Life


Let me just start this post off with a little honesty: generosity and the celebration of others' successes is not, shall we say, my strong suit. I am by nature a jealous person; I tend to have a lot of knee-jerk envy even in situations where envy is abjectly ridiculous. When I was on the agent hunt, I felt envious of friends who found agents before I did, or even people I didn't know who found agents before I did. When I was on submission (which was thankfully a very brief time for me, and so I definitely didn't have room for jealousy!), I felt envious of friends whose books sold in two days. When I was waiting to announce my book deal, I felt envious of friends who got to announce sooner than I did. Even now, in this happy place of my-dream-has-come-true and before the full anxiety of being a debut author has struck, I feel envious of silly things, things I won't even be eligible for for a long time: starred reviews, fancy author blurbs, second and third book deals.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I suspect that I'm not the only writer who struggles with the little green monster on the daily. And today, that's what I want to talk about.

When you're a struggling writer (and let's face it—we are all, at every point of the journey, struggling in one way or another), the sense of scarcity can be crippling. Every day, people are finding agents, getting book deals, holding their books in their hands, hitting bestseller lists. And with every author that achieves the milestone you're desperately seeking yourself, it can feel like your chance of succeeding just got a little further away.

But she signed with my dream agent, and now that agent won't be taking on new clients for awhile!

But if that editor offered on his book, surely she won't also offer on mine!

Her book is so similar to mine that surely no agent/editor/reader will want mine now!

His book is on more goodreads lists than mine, so it's sure to get more pre-publication buzz!

Her book sold for so much more money than mine, so she'll be a lead title and I won't!

I've been thinking a lot about this over the past two years, as I've battled my own jealousy demons. Often, a line from the very end of Hamilton comes back to my mind—just after Hamilton and Burr's infamous duel, as Burr realizes that their feud has cost him personally, as well as robbing the world of a fine and creative mind. I was too young and blind to see, he sings. I should've known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.

This is the thing I hold on to, the thing I remind myself of, when I'm in the grasp of envy. The world is wide enough. Another writer's success does not rob me of my own chance; the only thing stolen is the way my bitterness sucks away my joy, hopefulness, and inspiration. Sometimes, that reminder can be tough to hold on to—but for me, at least, it's been the only way to survive the emotional ups and downs of a writing career.

Here are my concrete tips for how I've learned to handle jealousy in writing relationships:

1. Allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Some people have the mysterious ability to take unpleasant emotions, look at them coolly, and then choose to discard them. My husband is one of these. I am most definitely not. I've found that the more I try to stuff icky feelings away, the more they tend to lash out in nasty and uncontrollable ways later. For me, a key part of overcoming jealousy is allowing myself to sit with that feeling, and having compassion for myself for feeling it in the first place, instead of lecturing myself about what a terrible person I am and trying to force myself to stop feeling what I'm feeling through sheer force of will.

2. What is the jealousy really telling you?

For me, jealousy is often a surface emotion, a glossy veneer over the thing I'm really feeling deep down inside: Fear. Fear that I'll never get an agent, or sell a book. Fear that my book will bomb and I'll lose the ability to do what I love on a professional level because of it. That fear can feel paralyzing, but often, being willing to name and confront it helps the jealousy that overlays it to subside.

3. Talk to a trusted friend.

I'm an extrovert, and I figure things out through talking through them. An important part of dealing with any difficult situation for me is finding a trusted friend or two with whom I can safely share my feelings. It's important that they're somebody who will neither condemn nor validate your feelings—they shouldn't be the kind of person who will say either "Oh yeah, you're SO much better than that other writer, YOU should've gotten the agent instead!" or "How could you be so small-minded? Just grow up and get over yourself!" My trusted friends are often fellow writers, who can intimately understand the struggles I'm sharing with them, but are enough removed from the situation that they're able to empathize without being drawn into the middle of the fray.

4. If it's appropriate, talk to the person who sparked the jealousy.

Often, this isn't the right course of action. But twice in my career, there have been times where having the vulnerability to be honest helped salvage relationships that were really important to me. Early last year, while I was at a really dark place in my agent search, one of my dearest friends got an agent in a pretty fast, fairytale scenario. It. Was. So. Hard. For days, I wrestled with bitterness and envy, until that friend and I finally talked it out. Not only did our friendship survive that shift, it grew stronger as a result. Likewise, this summer when my book sold quickly, that was tough on another dear friend who'd been on submission longer than I had. Luckily for me (since she's an awesome friend I would've been heartbroken to lose!), we both worked hard to make sure that we were on the same page in how we planned to deal with that transition.

If you're the one feeling jealous, be honest with your friend. Tell her that you love her, and that you're happy for her success, but explain why it's hard for you to hear. Try to come to an arrangement that works for both of you in terms of how, and how often, she brings up her exciting news to you.

On the other hand, if you're the one who's had success and you know your friend is struggling with it, be sensitive to her feelings. Ask her if she'd like to be kept abreast of your exciting developments, or if she'd rather not have all the details. Know that she's thrilled for you, but also sad for herself, and that both those emotions can exist together without invalidating each other.

5. Focus on the things you CAN control.

Sometimes, that might be drafting the book you're working on, or polishing up a certain aspect of craft you're struggling with. Sometimes, that might be offering to critique others' work as a way to both get out of your own head a little bit and grow as a writer—last year when I was struggling so much, I offered to crit more than I ever have in my life, and although on occasion that was tough, it was also immensely helpful both for strengthening my own writing and for feeling like I was doing something that was objectively, measurably helpful and successful. And other times, it might be focusing on something completely different: A non-writing-related hobby, or parenting, or your day job. Writing is a tough business, and it's imperative to place as much focus as you can on the things that are in your control, because—like it or not—many things just aren't.

6. If all else fails, fake it till you make it.

I won't lie, I kind of hate that advice in most contexts. Who honestly wants to be superficial and shallow in the face you present to the world? Still, there are times where this nugget of wisdom really is the right answer, and in my experience, jealousy is one of them. Relationships with critique partners, friends, and your writing community are precious; don't allow your jealousy to ruin them. If you're struggling with another's success, put on a smile the best you can and fake enthusiasm and congratulations until those feelings turn into something more genuine—especially if they're not a close enough friend for it to be appropriate for you to open up about your feelings. Recognize that jealousy is a real part of the writing journey, whatever point you may be at, and, in the immortal words of Elsa, be willing to do the best that you can and let it go.

.   .   .   .   .

Wherever you're at in your writing career, remember this: the world is wide enough. The world is wide enough for your stories and theirs, too. The world is wide enough for lots of starred reviews. The world is wide enough for you to find a new dream agent, even if the one you always thought you wanted turned you down. The world is wide enough, and being willing to cheer others along even when you're struggling is what will, in turn, ensure that you have a solid cheering section when your turn comes. And it will: Because the world is wide enough for your success.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"you might be glad the Lord made you wait"


One night last year, I sat in our blisteringly hot non-air-conditioned apartment during the hottest summer ever recorded in Portland's history, utterly miserable. I'd started the summer off with the most exciting period in my writing life—after a year and a half of querying agents, the second book I'd queried had gotten a bunch of glowing agent requests right out of the gate. This is it, I thought, the idea thrilling through my veins like gold. This is how it starts. This novel is going places.

But then, only a few months later, every one of those full requests had come back as a rejection, one after another after another. And on that hot, miserable day, I'd gotten two rejections back-to-back, from the two agents for whom I had the highest hopes.

I sat on the couch that night, hooked up to my breathing treatments, staring at my computer, unable to muster the emotional energy even to scroll through Facebook. I felt mired in black fog, filled with an unhappiness that ran bone-deep. I couldn't bring myself to write. I couldn't bring myself to catch up on e-mail, or to read a good book, or any of the other things with which I usually occupy my treatment time. I knew, somewhere deep in that depressed fog, that what I most needed was a hint of Godly reassurance, a small bit of direction: Go on, or give up? And yet I knew, also, that I was way too dispirited to try to muddle through the lovely but complex words of a Bible passage.

I opened a browser and said a prayer that was a little stubborn, a little brazen. Lord, please help me to find the message that You have for me tonight, and please let it be on the main page of LDS.Org  (*the website for my church, which often has inspiring messages & videos on its main page) because I don't have the mental energy to hunt tonight.

I typed in the domain name, hit enter, and boom. Within ten seconds, my eyes had fallen upon this headline:

You Might Be Glad The Lord Made You Wait

I stared at it, not sure whether I felt more like laughing or crying at this further evidence of my long-held belief that God, up there in his high heaven, has a pronounced sense of humor. I read the article and then closed the computer. It wasn't the message that I had wanted, exactly, but it was restorative, nonetheless.

.   .   .   .   .

The next nine months of my writing life were, in many ways, soul-crushingly difficult. That book went on to make it into Pitch Wars, get a dramatic overhaul, pull in more agent requests, and then, over the next several months, rack up yet more rejections. By February, I knew that I'd reached the end of the road for that manuscript; I'd queried over a hundred agents, finally gotten feedback from a few of them that showed that my book would really never have a chance in its market without another substantial rewrite, and exhausted the list of agents I'd be interested in working with. It was a dark, dark moment: I had another manuscript that was nearly ready to go out, and I and my critique partners all felt like it had great potential, but I couldn't shake the feeling that my efforts really were all going to be doomed, regardless. I will be doing this over and over again for the rest of my life, I thought. Is it really worth continuing?

I reflected often on the tongue-in-cheek you might be glad the Lord made you wait message from the previous summer. When, I thought, would I finally get to the "glad" part, instead of just the endless "waiting?"

After much agonizing and soul-searching through February, I finally decided not to give up writing, for one simple reason—I'd given up before, and I'd learned that even if I put my fiction aside for years at a time, I'd always eventually come back to it. It seemed best to just plod ahead and avoid wasting my own time, if I knew that would be the case again. With fingers crossed, I finished revising the book I was working on—a middle grade novel called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—and started querying it, including entering it into a brand-new Twitter contest called #DVPit, for marginalized writers with diverse stories. (I am disabled/chronically ill, and WATERMELONS is about schizophrenia.) Within four days of #DVPit, I had my first agent offer, and over the next 10 days I had a dizzying string of further offers.

You might be glad, I thought as I deliberated and finally accepted one of the offers. You might be glad.

A few weeks later, after a round of revisions with my new agent, we sent my book out on submission. And within two or three weeks, we had our first offer. By about the one-month mark, I'd accepted an offer from HarperCollins Children's publishing, for a two-book deal from an editor who gushed about my book in a way that felt utterly surreal.

And suddenly, in that whirlwind summer week exactly a year after the miserable night where I begged for a message from God, I felt it. The gladness. The joy. The gratitude. My previous book, I knew somewhere deep in my gut, would not have done nearly so well, and would not have been as strong a debut novel, even if it had been picked up (which was highly unlikely). And suddenly, I was deeply, utterly grateful for the road I'd been traveling for the past few years, and the place it had brought me.

You might be glad the Lord made you wait.

And oh, my friends. I really, truly am.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Overcoming A Fixed Mindset In Editing


Every time I get ready to dive back into a draft of a book a round of edits after feedback, I feel slightly paralyzed. Maybe you've forgotten how to do this, an insidious little voice whispers inside me. Maybe you're not up to the challenge.

Maybe you just wrote a bad book, and you're not good enough to fix it.

It feels a little bit like sitting at the top of a roller coaster: You know that once it gets going, it'll be fun. You know that you won't regret buying your ticket, and you know that when you get off you'll feel charged with adrenaline. And, in the case of a book, you know that you'll emerge with a stronger and more vibrant manuscript, a book more closely aligned with your vision for that story. You know that rewriting is the heart of writing and that you've successfully edited books in the past, taking them from crappy first drafts to solid—maybe even moving—final ones.

But still, right up there at the top of the coaster? It's kind of a stomach-flipping, scary, actually-I-don't-want-this-ride-to-start place to be.

Since I'm currently stuck at the top of this roller coaster—I've gotten some initial CP feedback back on my latest manuscript, and while I'm excited about diving back in and making it stronger, I'm having a hard time shaking off that naysaying little voice trying to convince me I don't have a prayer—I've been thinking a lot about this the last few days. The epiphany I landed on tonight was this: Really, all of this boils down to one issue.

A fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.

These two terms have become pretty commonplace in the last decade, so I won't define them at length, but suffice to say they're exactly like they sound—seeing skills as things that are either innate (fixed) and stop at a certain threshold, or as things that are flexible and can be learned (growth). Research has shown that not only are people who have a growth mindset better at learning skills and adapting to new situations, they're also happier and more likely to take on challenges with excitement instead of being paralyzed by fear of failure.

If you're old enough to be reading this blog, it's very likely that you, like me, grew up in a fixed-mindset culture. We praise prodigiousness and overnight sensations (ignoring the fact that prodigies are really just kids who manage to put in the roughly ten thousand hours required to become an expert in something very young, and that nearly all overnight sensations only become so after a years- or decades-long slog behind the scenes) and make a big deal out of things that come easily. We reward and sensationalize "natural talent" and focus much less on hard work and effort, to the point that many of us have the innate and often unrecognized feeling that if something doesn't come quickly to us, we'll never attain mastery.

What I realized tonight is that each time I get ready to plunge into a round of edits, that fixed-mindset upbringing is what's responsible for that little voice whispering in my ear, the conviction that maybe I just wrote a bad book and I'm not good enough to fix it. Fixed-mindset culture assures me that this is true—that I don't have the skills to take my book from crappy first draft to polished finished draft, and that I'll never be able to learn them. My own fixed mindset keeps me mired in fear, unable and unwilling to step into the revision trenches and do the work that needs to be done.

In essence, every time I hit this point, I find myself needing to pep talk my way back into a growth mindset. I remind myself that I've revised successfully before, and that I can do it again. I remind myself of how many finished manuscripts I've got behind me now. I tell myself that it's okay if I don't get it right the first time, because it always takes multiple rounds of revision before things are as strong as they can be.

That last idea—that it's okay if I don't get it the first time, that struggling with something isn't the same as failing, and that it's just fine if it takes me several tries to get it "right"—is an especially important one for me to hold on to when I'm at the top of the revision coaster. Other things that are important for me to remind myself are:

—I'm always learning. Just because something seems like a daunting fix doesn't mean I won't be able to adapt and learn the skill I need to fix it.

—Challenges are fun! As much as part of me would love to be able to write perfect books with minimal effort, I also know from experience that diving in to a challenging round of edits and then seeing how much stronger the book has become is a thrilling experience.

—I can take as long as I need.

—It doesn't have to be (and never will be) perfect; it just needs to be strong, dynamic, and hitting the right emotional notes.

—I'm surrounded by friends and critique partners who can help me identify my book's weak spots and give me a pep talk when I'm feeling down.

—It's okay to be scared. As I'm constantly telling my three-year-old, being brave means doing hard things even when you're scared.

What are some of the ways you overcome a fixed mindset when you're writing or revising?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Adding Sensory Details (Plus a Postscript)


Here we are, writers, in our final post in this descriptive writing 101 series! And I've saved one of the most important—but also, in many ways, the easiest—techniques for last.

We all of us experience life through our senses, and some senses in particular have the particular power to evoke memories and emotions—both in real life and as we read. Few things can ground a reader more deeply in a character's POV, and in a setting, than the author's use of well-rounded sensory details, especially if those details are combined with some of the other techniques we've discussed, like metaphor and relationship-based description.

As writers, it's easy to fall back to using only one or two senses; often, we rely heavily on sight as we're describing what a reader should see in his mind's eye. One of the things that I like to do as I'm revising is keep an eye out for how often I'm bringing in descriptors that call on all five senses. Not every scene will need to have all of the senses invoked, but being mindful as I revise of how often I'm using them is very helpful.

This passage from Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races is an excellent example:
My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the war horse with a red cloth. I lick my teeth—they taste like salt—and watch my father tie the matching armband around his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.
I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we never tire. 
In these two paragraphs, Stiefvater has given us so much sensory detail: The color of the cloth and the armband, the salty taste on Sean's teeth, the clumsiness as Sean's father ties the armband, the physical sensations as Sean remembers riding the stallion (wind, jarring ground, sea spray, the energy implied in "we never tire"). Right there, we have three different senses involved, each one of them pulling us deeper into the scene and helping us to feel it, the way the very best writing does.

It's also helpful to me to think about what kinds of sensory experiences I have in my own life: What times and places do I tend to notice scents? What about sounds? Colors? Textures? Sensations in or outside of my body? What emotions tend to be associated with different senses? (Scent, for example, is tied in pretty heavily with memory and nostalgia for me.) As I think about these questions, it helps me to hone in on which senses are going to be the most evocative in any given scene.

And just as certain people tend to pay more attention to certain senses, your characters will behave the same way! An artist might see things as textures and light, while a musician might notice the tones and resonance all around her and a baker might be more likely to fixate on scents. In Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen, the sweets-obsessed protagonist imagines that she can taste the winter weather:
If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
This is an excellent example of sensory detail being combined with other descriptive techniques (in this case, metaphor) to produce a paragraph that is as delectable as it is immersive!

Your assignment for today's post, if you choose to accept it, is simple: Write a brief scene, trying to incorporate all five senses.

And this, my friends, brings us to the end of our series on descriptive writing! I hope that these posts have been helpful and given you some ideas for new things to try to bring your descriptive writing to the next level.

As a little postscript, I will add one thing that I didn't write a post on because there's not a ton to say about it, but which is also important in good description: I know I began this series ragging on adjectives, but they're (obviously) still an important fundamental when it comes to descriptive writing.

However, not all adjectives are created equal. As with other descriptive techniques, adjectives are stronger the more unique and specific they are. Just like picking metaphors, it's a good rule of thumb to use in selecting the right adjective for your descriptions is that the first idea is almost never the best one. Let things percolate. Use a thesaurus. Try writing the scene from a different angle and see what you come up with.

And most of all? Have fun!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives


Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a little bit intimidated by addressing this particular topic, only because my brilliant friend (and former Pitch Wars mentor!) Rosalyn Eves has done it so well and thoroughly in her own wonderful post on objective correlatives. Check it out here! Rosalyn explains and breaks down the objective correlative in a terrific and easy-to-follow way, and you'll understand my take much better if you've read hers first.

That said, I couldn't in good conscience do a blog series on the things that are crucial to me in descriptive writing without addressing objective correlatives—a tricky, cerebral concept that can be hard to grasp but adds so much power into a narrative when used well. The use of objective correlatives is a way to communicate emotion (and induce emotion in the reader) without ever actually naming that emotion, or describing it in more traditional ways like physical reactions. As such, objective correlatives may at first glance seem to have not that much to do with descriptive writing—but as far as I'm concerned, they've got everything to do with each other. The goal of immersive descriptive writing, in my opinion, is to emotionally invest your reader in your narrative to such a point that they feel like they are there, living it, breathing your POV character's breath; objective correlatives can be a great way to do this. And, depending on what sort of objective correlative you use, it can also reinforce your setting, strengthening it until it's a character in its own right.

I was first introduced to the topic of objective correlatives at the 2015 LDStorymakers conference, in a presentation by author Martine Leavitt (the same presentation Rosalyn mentions in her post). An objective correlative is, essentially, kind of a grand-scale metaphor: rather than being a sentence-level structure where you implicitly inform the reader that one thing is standing in for another (for example, "he was a rock, the kind of man who would move for nothing"), an objective correlative is something that is usually woven into the text in such a way that the relationship is implied rather than stated—though, as with any rule, there are exceptions, as (confusingly enough) regular metaphors can be a type of objective correlative in certain situations. (Rosalyn goes into more detail about this in her post above!)

Often, though not always, an objective correlative is carried throughout all or part of a story, like a sort of extended metaphor. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Harry's phoenix-feather wand functions as an objective correlative, symbolizing his sense of belonging to the wizarding world, the first place he's ever felt at home. In the final book, when his wand breaks during a confrontation with one of Voldemort's creatures, we feel Harry's shock and grief—not only because the wand itself was so beloved to him, but because it carried a deeper meaning in the narrative, and its shattering represents the breakdown both of Harry's innocence and of his beloved and safe wizarding world. And at the end, when Harry has vanquished Voldemort and gained the most powerful wand in the world—a wand that could earn him glory for the rest of his life—instead of choosing to keep it, he uses the Elder Wand only to repair his old phoenix-feather wand before breaking the Elder Wand and tossing it off a cliff, showing that the sense of belonging he's found in wizarding culture is far more important to him than fame or glory.

Think of all the things that little objective correlative, which is a relatively tiny plot in the overarching Harry Potter series, has described to us: We've learned about wizarding culture and its quirks ("the wand chooses the wizard!"); we've learned about Harry's deepest motivations and desires (belonging, acceptance, a safe place to call home), we've viscerally felt Harry's emotion at the peak of his distress in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Without ever telling us "Harry was sad because of what the breakage of his wand represented to him," Rowling has pulled us deeper into her story, her character, and her setting through this objective correlative.

Last year at the Storymakers conference, I was really intrigued by Martine's brief explanation of objective correlatives, and since I was at that very moment outlining a new WIP, I decided that I was going to pick an objective correlative to use throughout my novel as a way to show my protagonist's sense of overwhelm with the situation that she was in. That book takes place on a farm, and an important subplot revolves around the fact that the area is in an unprecedented drought that's placing great stress on its rural inhabitants. As such, the weather—the heat and crush of an unusually rainless North Carolina summer—seemed like the perfect thing to use as an extended metaphor. As I drafted the book, whenever I found myself wanting to describe my main character's emotions, I would describe the weather instead, specifically choosing descriptors that evoked the sense of heavy oppression that fit not only the actual temperature but also Della's sense of hopelessness at trying to care for her mentally ill mother. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said over and over again, but Mama didn’t act like she’d heard me at all. She just kept on crying, not making any noise, her eyes puffing up and turning as red as her hands. I clumsily unscrewed the spray bottle and dumped everything inside it down the sink, my own eyes watering—it smelled like straight-up bleach, not thinned out with anything at all. 
“You gotta wash your hands, Mama,” I said, remembering what Mrs. Gregory had said last year in science lab about touching bleach, but Mama didn’t answer. I reached into the sink and grabbed a washcloth off the faucet, running it under water till it was as cold as the sink could get it, and then crouched down and wiped Mama’s hands off one at a time. It might not be enough to stop her hurting, but it was all I could do while still holding crying Mylie on my hip. 
The heat of the kitchen pressed down hard on me, warming up that washcloth till holding it felt just like being wrapped up in the humid air. Mylie rubbed her face into my shoulder, her arms holding tight onto my neck like she was afraid of what might happen if she let go, and whimpered. 
“Stowy?” she whispered. 
“Not now, Mylie.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to tell another Bee Story again. Instead I just held Mylie and looked out the window over the sink and wished, more than ever, that the sky would just open up and cry all the tears I couldn’t.
That book—called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—ended up being the book that earned ten agent offers, and without fail, to this day every single person who has read it has commented on how vivid the heat was, how they felt hot reading it, and how the extended metaphor of the drought helped to pull them deeply into the story and really feel what Della felt as they read. My hope (which, based on that reaction, seems to have succeeded!) was to ground a reader both in Della's emotional overwhelm and immerse them in the setting in such a way that they seemed to be right there, experiencing all that heat and frustration along with Della.

An objective correlative can also be used on a smaller scale, though, in just one (or just a few) scenes, to illustrate a certain concept or emotion. In my last WIP, one of my favorite objective correlatives was one that was mostly confined to a single scene:

“You know, Annie Lee,” said Mama, and I jumped a little. Her voice was strange and floaty. “I knew a girl once, back when I was in high school, who got herself stung by a Portuguese Man’o’war while she was swimming out in Wilmington.”
A Man’o’war was a jellyfish, a horrible kind with lacy tentacles that could be thirty feet or longer, and if it caught you it would wrap those tentacles around your arms and legs, tangling you up in it and stinging over and over again. I stuck my hand into my pocket, the warm familiar smoothness of George Washington’s faces calm and comforting.
“They had to cut it off her, there on the sand,” Mama went on, “and she spent the next five years getting plastic surgery over and over again to get rid of all those hard red scars. But you know the thing that’s never made sense to me?” 
I waited, but she didn’t go on. “What?”
“She kept swimming after that day.” Mama shook her head. “Her family went to the beach a few weeks every summer, and she said she still kept swimming.” She paused. “I don’t think I could’ve done that.” 
I turned the quarter over in my fingers. Daddy had been able to make it pass over and under every finger of his hand before disappearing it, poof, into the air.
“Losing your daddy,” Mama said, her face tired and grey-blue in the light of the computer screen, “it was like being wrapped up in those tentacles, Annie Lee.” She looked back at the screen, at whatever she’d seen there.
“Sometimes, it still is.” 
If you're feeling a) confused and or b) overwhelmed by this whole concept at this point, don't despair. It's a tricky idea, and one that can seem hard to wrap your brain around! If you'd like a practice exercise today, I'm totally stealing from Rosalyn's (fantastic) class on objective correlatives at LDStorymakers 2016. The assignment is simple: Pick an emotion and then pick an object or image (anything will do!). Write a paragraph, or more, using that image or object to try to make your reader feel that emotion. The above jellyfish excerpt was actually based on what came out of that class exercise for me—if I remember right, my image was a picture of a jellyfish and my emotion was sadness. Now it's one of my favorite passages in that book!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Building Strong Metaphors


Any lover of lush prose will tell you: There is no more valuable tool in a descriptive writer's box than a well-placed metaphor. Good metaphors are like a book's salt—they can draw out all of the other flavors of the narrative, adding punch and depth in just the right places, turning fairly run-of-the-mill descriptions into things worth pausing over and savoring. (Want proof? I'm still, weeks after reading it, in awe over Julie Berry's fabulous grape-crushing metaphor from the excerpt I quoted in yesterday's post!)

Few things can bring a description to life the way a metaphor can... at least, that is, as long as it's a good one. Weak metaphors, like weak adjectives, serve at best as merely-adequate sentences, the kind of prose a reader skims but doesn't become immersed in. At worst, weak metaphors (also like weak adjectives!) can pull a reader right out of the story. Metaphors that are too out of left field, or that attempt to combine too many different ideas, or that are simply over-used, definitely don't earn you any extra reader investment.

So how do you make sure that you're writing the good kind of metaphors, and not the bad? Here are my own personal rules for writing metaphors (of which I'm quite fond—as you've probably noticed from the fact that I've used several in this post already!):

Rule #1: The first idea is almost never the best one.

This applies to a lot of things in writing, and metaphors are no exception! For me, at least, I've found that when I'm trying to describe something, the first metaphor that I reach for is usually one that's clich├ęd and common. You know what I'm talking about—her eyes were like stars, his jaw was set like stone, it was as soft as a pillow, etc. etc. etc. While these metaphors are a step up from just using a weak adjective like "bright," "hard," or "soft," they're so embedded in our cultural consciousness that they become invisible, entirely lacking the power to make a reader see things with that pop and fizzle you'd like to evoke.

Both while drafting and in revision, I try to keep an eye open for these overused metaphors when they pop up. I've been paying attention to them for long enough now that I often catch them as I'm drafting, but inevitably a few sneak through to be caught later—and that's okay. This kind of thinking takes practice, and it's 100% all right if your descriptions begin fairly simple and unevocative and build over time during revisions.

When I do find that I'm about to use, or have already used, a weak metaphor, I pause for a bit of brainstorming. This is actually a game I love to play while I'm falling asleep at night: I pick an image from my WIP that I know I'll be describing the next day, and then I try to think of as many metaphors as I can to describe it until I hit on one that feels right! I do something similar when I'm mid-writing-session.

In my just-completed WIP, for instance, I knew that I'd need to describe early on one of the characters, an elderly homeless man. Initially, in thinking about the sorts of metaphors I'd use to show what he looked like, I hit on two: his skin like paper, and his bones thin and birdlike. Both of those were unsatisfying, though, because both of them are metaphors that are used relatively often to describe people who are old with weathered skin. So instead, I spent one of those before-sleep brainstorming sessions trying to come up with other things that worked well. What I ended up with was this:

He was old, with a mostly-grey beard and skin like the bark on the birch tree by my apartment, as thin and saggy as if it had seen a hundred years of sun and wind. 
It's still a first draft, and it's entirely possible that in the future I may punch that metaphor up further or take it out entirely. But for right now, it's a much better option than paper-thin skin or birdlike bones!

Rule #2: The best metaphors fit well with the overall story and its setting.

In high school, I spent a semester building my own creative writing course (the perks of being a homeschooler!) that was comprised largely of reading and underlining my favorite books to try to figure out what made them tick, and writing lots of short stories to use the tools I'd learned. This is an approach I both recommend and don't recommend—had I been a little less clueless I would've thrown some good craft books in there, too, but at the time I was kind of snobby about craft books—but that's beside the point. One of the big epiphanies from that class was the day that I was reading Shannon Hales' THE GOOSE GIRL and realized, with a minor thunderclap, how much power Hale's metaphors had because they were tied in so well to her story and its setting. For a character who could speak the language of birds, Hale used bird metaphors. For scenes that took place in a stable, she used stable metaphors.

Often, the most powerful metaphors are ones that evoke and strengthen an aspect of the story itself—the setting, a specific relationship, a character's feelings. Early in THE GOOSE GIRL, for instance, Hale describes her main character, Ani, coming into her horse's stable like this:

Ani entered the first stable. The familiar smells of warm bodies and clean hay greeted her like a friendly touch.
At this point in the book, Ani is a princess, the daughter of a permanently-disapproving mother; Ani feels caged and awkward in her life, unable to ever do anything that makes others proud of her. Her one refuge, which she mostly isn't allowed, is her connection to animals, and the metaphor that Hale chooses to describe the smells of the stable—like a friendly touch—immediately brings home to us just how much of a relief it is for Ani to be away from the perpetual stress of the palace and into the one place she feels peace and friendliness.

This rule isn't hard and fast, of course; there will definitely be times when the metaphor best-suited to a specific description doesn't have much, or anything at all, to do with your overall story. (Birch trees, for instance, aren't ever mentioned by name again in my WIP that I know of, though there are scenes in a forest.) But it's often worth pondering, as you're sitting down to describe something, whether or not your choice of metaphor can tie in to a larger theme.

Rule #3: Good metaphors are unique without being strange.

Every now and then if I'm having a hard time finding a unique way to describe something, I'll say something about it to my husband (my best brainstorming buddy). Inevitably, he comes up with something super whacky, like "The food was so bad I felt like a dinosaur choking on a planet", which is the real true example he just spouted off when I told him to give me a weird metaphor. And, while that sort of over-the-top silly description can be perfect for a madcap adventure or a zany, voicey satire (which goes right back to rule #2!), usually this isn't the kind of metaphor that's going to work best for most books.

The strongest metaphors manage to strike a balance: They're unique, but they don't cross the line into strange. You want something that is fresh and new enough to make your reader pause, but not so far out of left field that she's left scratching her head about it. In general, you want to make sure that your metaphors match your story's tone—you wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of violence-centric metaphors in a quiet MG, unless violence was important to and consistent with your story's plot and tone. Metaphors should build and enrich your writer's voice throughout the book, not detract or distract from it.

Unofficial Rule #4: It's okay if it takes time.

For me, at least, learning to write with metaphors this way has been a long work-in-progress, a process of years of teaching my brain to recognize when my description is weak and figure out how to brainstorm my way into a solution. If you're feeling overwhelmed at this point in our Descriptive Writing 101 series, that's okay. Good descriptive writing takes time—time to absorb and practice techniques from book-to-book, and time to add layers and depth to your description from draft to draft.

On that note, who's up for a challenge? If you'd like to practice the techniques I talked about in this post, here's your assignment: do a little metaphor brainstorming of your own! Think of a character, setting, or object that you'd like to describe, and then make a list of as many potential metaphors for that thing as you can. Look at your list to see if any of them have particular resonance with any of the characters, plotlines, themes, or settings in your story—or if any of them just seem to fit with the thing you're trying to describe, whether or not they echo your overall story. Give yourself permission to take some time and let your brain marinate over the assignment a little bit. There's no rush!


Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Relationship-Based Description

One of the fundamental building blocks in good descriptive writing is what I think of as "relationship-based" description (or, sometimes, "reaction-based" description). This piece from our descriptive writer's toolbox packs a double punch, because not only does it allow us to show our world to the reader in a more vivid way, but it also allows us to take our characterizations much deeper—and, ultimately, characters who feel deep and with whom readers connect on a deep level are the heart of any impactful book.

So what, you ask, is relationship-based description?

Pull up a chair, friends, and let's explore this concept.

In every scene, you'll have a point-of-view character, whether that's your book's protagonist or somebody else. You'll have a point-of-view character even if you're writing in third person—and in general, the more dialed-in to that POV character you are, the more invested your reader will be in the scene, too. (This is true for everything except 3rd-person omniscient narratives, but I'll make a sweeping generalization and say that in most genres, close 3rd-person is much, much more effective.)

In the best descriptive writing, all of the observation and description in the scene is filtered through the POV character's worldview. This means that what they notice at any given moment will be influenced by everything from their background, lifestyle, and childhood experiences, to their current occupation, current mood, and current goal.

Everyone in a scene will react to stimuli differently, just as we do in real life; for example, as a musician, I notice very different things when I'm sitting through an amateur musical performance than one of my friends, who doesn't have musical training, does. Likewise, as a mom, when I'm out with my daughter I notice things differently than I did before she came along—I'm much more attuned to how situations could become dangerous (don't run out into the road! Don't touch the hot stove!) and also tend to notice things that are at waist-level and below much more than I used to. And I could go on; for all the different aspects of who I am (writer, disabled person, etc.), there are ways that that identity affects the way I process things around me.

Keeping these character-specific filters in mind boosts both the punch of your descriptions and the depth of your characterizations, making it doubly awesome.

Recently I read Julie Berry's THE PASSION OF DOLSSA (which I highly recommend), and couldn't help but mark this beautiful passage, which is an excellent example of what I'm talking about:

Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozets with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bottom... Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.

In these few lines, we're given insight into so many things: how the narrator feels about the girl she's describing, how the girl treats her suitors (isn't that line about crushing them on the roof of her mouth absolutely perfect?), what role the grape-harvest/winemaking plays in the culture of their village. Berry could have just written something like this:

Astruga was a good-looking but shameless hussy who moved from boy to boy and then left them, flaunting her attractive body to reel them in one after another.
We'd still have had all the pertinent information about the character in question. But the way it's presented now, we have so much more than that—we're pulled deeper into the world, deeper into the head of the POV character, and deeper into the author's lush and beautiful voice, all at once.

In my original draft of this post, I had two original examples written out to show how this sort of relationship-based description can be used to convey a character's mood and backstory. Unfortunately, my computer rudely ate it, and I was never able to remember what those examples said well enough to rewrite them (doggone it! I was really mad!). For more examples, though, I highly recommend checking out this post by the inimitable Maggie Stiefvater, in which she talks about using literary devices to tweak reader emotions and breaks down some great examples of relationship-based description from The Dream Thieves.

So, lovely readers, here's your challenge for today, if you choose to accept it! Choose a character, a setting, or an object that you'd like to describe, and also choose a relationship (between two characters, between a character and himself, between a character and an object or setting) that you'd like to highlight. If needed, make a brief list of ways that that relationship might affect the way your POV character sees the thing/person/place you're trying to describe. Then get out your pen and write a paragraph (or more!), choosing your descriptive words carefully, putting yourself as deeply as you can into the viewpoint of your POV character.

Alternatively, if you'd like to practice but you're having trouble coming up with something to use, here's a prompt: Pick one setting and one relationship from the following lists, put them together in some descriptive writing, and see what you can come up with!

Setting:
A moss-covered forest
A crowded suburban Super Target
A mountain trail
A high school hallway
A kitchen
An urban backyard patio
A farm

Relationship:
A character who's about to break up with his/her significant other
A character who's about to propose
A character who resents his/her mother
A character who's obsessed with a specific possession
A character who's got PTSD after a bad car accident
A character who feels inadequate at everything he/she tries