Writers, Keep Your Promises

Hello writers! Nice to see you again!

During November I did NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month), as I have for the last four years. But something different happened this time.

See, as I draft, I’m usually also leaving notes for myself. My first write-through is ridiculously messy. Brackets all over the place, bits of outline here and there, cut scenes left behind so I don’t forget what I was doing when I come back to it. It’s completely unreadable by anyone’s eyes but mine.

I call this my Draft Zero. It is choppy, and sparse, and almost never does what I want it to. But it’s the bare bones of my story, and having it helps me go back to revise later, rewrite, move things around, and clarify things.

As I wrote this time, I tried to be more aware of a couple of things. I’m a big fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and they often talk about Scene/Sequel format, and Promises to the Reader. I attempted to work a Scene/Sequel awareness into drafting, but it just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing it right, and I felt too much pressure to make something blow up. (Thanks a lot, Howard.)

But the more I wrote, the more I’d find myself seeing things as a reader might. A little revelation of, “Wait, if I introduce this really cool thing here, I need to make sure I use it at the end.” Or, “Oh wait, they don’t know what that thing is…I should foreshadow it more before I use it like this.”

To be honest, I’d never considered Reader Promises in stories until I’d heard these authors talk about it. And the thing was, it made sense in a logical way, but I’d never seen it in practice, or looked for it. So it took hearing it repeated many, many times before I started seeing it. Once I knew what to look for in my own reader/viewer reactions, I started to notice it. Whenever something felt off, or I didn’t like something about a story, I would try to figure out why. Almost always, it came down to an unfulfilled promise.

Example: I just watched NOW YOU SEE ME again the other day. I LOVE that movie. Mostly. I love the mystery element of it, because the twist is one I never saw coming. The only problem I have with it is the very, very end, and I’ll tell you why it bothers me.

We spend the entire film watching four magicians pull tricks, follow anonymous instructions, build these amazing acts, and they are followed by another magician who shows us exactly how they did it. The entire first ninety-eight percent of the movie is all about telling us how magic is done, and how easy it seemingly is to make the rest of us believe that magic is somehow real.

And at the end? That last two minutes? They tell us magic is real. There was zero foreshadowing for that. Nothing in the whole rest of the movie even hinted at magic being real.

It was so anticlimactic it made me forget about the movie for months until I saw the DVD in the $5 bin at the store. I immediately remembered how much I hated the end, but also remembered how much I loved the first ninety-eight percent, so we bought it.

All this is to say, as writers we need to make sure we’re telling the story we promise to tell. If you begin a story with a murder and end it with a couple kissing and not discovering who the murderer is, you’ve either started or ended with the wrong thing.

How about an example of the right way to do this? In STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson, (my apologies that I keep talking about it, I’ve been rereading this over and over for two months because it’s helping with my draft) the main character, David, is terrible at metaphors. If that were it, it would probably come off as kind of weird and maybe not every reader would catch it and it wouldn’t really make sense. But Sanderson makes it a point to tell us about it in more ways than one, throughout the book. David not only knows he’s bad at metaphors, but is constantly trying to think of better ones, impress others with them, and explain them when they don’t make sense.

And so it’s immensely satisfying when, at a point about two-thirds of the way through, he gives us a metaphor so ridiculous that it actually does make sense. And it succeeds in impressing a certain other character. Just thinking about it makes me smile, because the moment is perfect.

Keeping track of the things you’re promising takes practice, and beta readers. You can practice by looking for what your expectations are as a consumer of media, and then watching for how the creators fulfill (or don’t) that expectation. And when your beta readers say “oh, I hope THIS happens!” that is a good sign that you’ve foreshadowed something. If you want to foreshadow it, leave it. If you don’t want to, take it out, or make it more subtle. You don’t want unnecessary foreshadowing to get in the way of the main story.

Try it out! Maybe, if you’re going to see STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS this week, you have some expectations already. Maybe you don’t? Maybe your expectations will be blown away in the first minute of the movie. But whatever the case, try (though it will be difficult) to keep track of what you expect to happen.

Where did that expectation come from? Where and how was that promise made? And how, if at all, do the creators fulfill it for you? Is it satisfying? Does it make you feel happy? Sad? Bittersweet? Or does it make you grimace in dissatisfaction?

Let’s hope there’s none of that last, though okay?

Whether it’s with STAR WARS or some other book or movie you’re finishing this week, try this. Let me know how it goes.

May the Force be with you,

-DC

On Getting Unstuck

What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing? When you know you have a beautiful swan of a story, but there are messy, muddy parts you don’t know how to fix, or maybe even how to finish? What then?

There are excellent compilations of quotes by world-famous writers on overcoming writer’s block, but for this post (and for a panel I was asked to be on at a recent workshop), I wanted fresh material. So I turned to some of my equally wise and wonderful author friends, who’ve written everything from the hilarious to the serious, fiction and non-fiction and poetry, kid favorites and even a Newbery Honor. Here’s what they had to say:

Ruth McNally Barshaw: Take a walk. Look through magazines. Make a zillion lists. Exercise. Go someplace you haven’t been before. Go to an art gallery or museum and look at art. Commune with nature — walk in the woods. Talk with someone who inspires. Read a good book. DRAW.
Edith Thornton Cohn: Usually if I’m stuck, I’ve taken a wrong turn in the manuscript. So I back up & rethink it.
Anna Staniszewski: I second what Edith said. I go back to where the story was working and try to figure out went wrong. I also close the document and brainstorm on paper.
Janet Sumner Johnson: A blogging friend of mine once suggested making a bullet list for what comes next and go from there. That’s always really helped me. But I agree with all the other suggestions too!
Cynthia Levinson: For me, it’s insufficient research. But I’m a NF writer. Yet…it might still apply.
Kristin Wolden Nitz: I often make forward progress when writing by hand in accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s strategy she put forth in WRITING DOWN THE BONES. The short version is that you “rent” a table at a coffee shop for office space. Then you sit down and start writing without stopping for the next hour or more. No editing. Sometimes I call this Thinking with a pen…I used to get my best ideas when I was mowing the lawn or shoveling snow when I lived in Michigan. There was something about the long straight lines of snow or grass.
Kami Kinard: Usually I switch projects for a while… hours or days… or I read. So far, those two methods haven’t failed me.
Maggie Moris: A couple of things: I just got the book, “Around the Writer’s Block. Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance,” by Roseanne Bane. Several writers recommended it. Also, if you physically move your body for a short series of exercises where the left hand taps the right shoulder/side/knee/toes – pick one, and vice a versa, this apparently lights up the brain’s cross wiring. I also agree with painting, or playing with modeling clay, or other forms of making art.
Margarita Engle: Scribble! Don’t expect perfection. Just let the pen flow, knowing that you can make corrections later.
Susan Hill Long: Setting a timer and writing till it goes off. Over and over. On the rough days, that’s what it takes for me. I love my timer.
Peggy Harkins: Take a walk. Somehow when my body gets moving, my brain does, too.
Tracy Holczer: Usually I get writer’s block when I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in the narrative. It’s my brain’s way of telling me I’ve hit a dead end. The only way for me to break through is to go back and figure out where I went wrong. Sometimes that means taking a break from the writing and doing research, reading craft books or brainstorming with writing friends. The answer always comes and then the writing flows again.

Louise Galveston: I get blocked when I’m dreading a scene, especially if it involves a new world with lots of description. So I focus on dialogue on the first pass. Also I use the same playlist for a project so my brain hears the music and is conditioned to be productive-helps me, anyway.
As always, I’m overwhelmed by the wisdom and generosity of my fellow writers. Thanks to all who contributed to this post. And readers, what advice would you add?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂 
 

Take Care of Yourself!

Last Saturday, I ran a 50-mile relay with two of my siblings and two close friends. This does NOT mean that I ran 50 miles; I ran two five-mile legs of the relay with a couple of hours to relax in between. As I was reflecting on possible blog post topics for this week, I first thought of the relay as a metaphor for writing–I draft a manuscript, and at various points, I pass the baton to my critique partners or beta readers or agent or editor, and I can take a breath and a break while the manuscript still moves forward.

But then I realized that what I did last Saturday doesn’t just have to be a metaphor for writing. There are valuable, direct lessons from that race that influence all of us as writers, and the overall message is this:

Take care of yourself!

Here are some important aspects of that message, all of which probably seem obvious, but all of which writers have a particular temptation to ignore:

First, and most obviously, EXERCISE! This is extra important for me because I get grumpy when I don’t exercise, in much the same manner that I get grumpy when I go too long without writing time. Physical activity is valuable for all writers, whether this means walking, running, swimming, team sports, dance… Whatever gets your body moving will make you healthier and happier, which will clear your mind and improve your writing.

Second, EAT BETTER! I’m not advocating radical or extreme measures here, but again, you will feel better and think better and write better if the fuel you’re putting the right kind of fuel into your body, and the right amount. (Full disclosure: I eat junk food and drink soda almost every day. But I do make sure to eat more good stuff than bad stuff!)

Third, SLEEP! Our critique group has an ongoing (and hilarious!) Facebook conversation, and one of the things some of our members do sometimes is post the gibberish lines they typed when they fell asleep at the computer. Although they are loads of fun to read (“God only knows what the guardians would do to him if they ever found out about pigs…”), they do illustrate the principle that our best writing doesn’t happen when we’re overly fatigued.

Fourth, BE OUTSIDE IN THE SUNSHINE, BREATHING FRESH AIR! Enough said.

Fifth, SPEND TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU HAPPY! Whether you go to lunch with a friend, snuggle up with your kids, go on a date with your significant other, or gab in a car while asphyxiating yourselves with your own relay-induced BO, spending time with people who make you happy is an incredible boost, and one that even the most introverted writer needs on a regular basis.

After all those tips, here’s my final one: ALL THINGS IN MODERATION, INCLUDING MODERATION! There will be times when you sit at your computer, day and night, binge-scarfing chocolate and isolating yourself from the world. And that’s okay–sometimes that’s just what you need during or after your endurance is tested. Sometimes that’s how you take care of yourself, for a little while anyway.

Readers, we love you. So, one more time, take care of yourselves! Your writing will thank you.

What tips do you have for writers to take care of themselves? Which of the above are the most important to you? Which are the hardest and the easiest for you to live by?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂



It’s About Time

I have been engaged in many conversations lately regarding time. Not necessarily the philosophical element, but the way to utilize it better. I used to be an expert on wasting time, finding things that I “had” to do that made me feel busy but rarely left me feeling satisfied. I used to blame the people around me for not having time, but when I did, it got lost in pretty much any way possible.

A year ago, I decided I’d had enough. Enough of my own excuses. Enough blaming my family. Enough spoiling the time I had.

However, there were some modifications that had to take place. I am naturally a morning person. In college, most of my essays were written between 4:30 and 7:00 am. I can wake up, take a deep breath and face the day. However, the job I have now requires that I be at work by 7:20 in the morning, and between exercising, showering, and the religious time I spend with my kids, trying to fit in another hour or two of writing would require me to rise much earlier than mental cognition allows. As such, I have had to retrain myself to be productive.

Chances are, if you are not gifted the opportunity to write full time, such modifications are probably necessary as well. I have a few suggestions for the best way to reprogram your productivity.

Establish a Sense of Place. 

I know some people have the luxury of an office, a place where they and their writing can become one. My desk is in the center of my home, sharing the open space that contains the living room and dining room. I have three kids, a busy husband, and no room in my house to have a space of my own.

But just as the routine of putting kids to bed at night *theoretically* helps them settle for the evening better, the sense of place is more a way to notify the brain it’s time to write. I open my laptop, turn off facebook, stop the things that make me feel productive but are really procrastination in disguise, put on my cute red SkullCandy headphones, and turn on my classical music. I notify my kids and spouse that I need to get some writing in, and when they interrupt (it will happen), my response is a kind but firm, “I’m writing”.

And then I do.

Period.

Be Deliberate

Determine how much you need to accomplish every day to get where you want to be. If you are writing in nap-time, write for all of nap-time. If you have mentioned that it is necessary for two hours to be spent writing, make those two deliberate hours of working. It may be, when you are first starting, that you need to provide yourself with some motivation. You may be familiar with the Pomodoro Technique. I like this strategy as well because it gives me an excuse to be a little healthier. When my time limit is up, I will often then do 20 squats, throw in a few push-ups, etc.

Don’t think this is only a beginning technique. I had half this post written, found myself getting distracted by ALL THE THINGS and set a timer for ten minutes. I will use it as well, to jump start drafts or revisions.

If you, like me, have had to retrain your natural writing time,

Be Aware of the Cost and Benefit of EVERYTHING

One of the things I have really asked myself lately is

What is the cost? 
and 
What is the benefit? 

If something is going to take a half hour or an hour, time when I could be spending either with my family or on my writing, it has to earn that time. I have dreams – big ones – and none of them involve binge watching a series in record time, being on a higher level of Candy Crush than all my other friends, etc.

I take time out each week for self-reflection, thanks to these incredible journal pages by Jamie Raintree who founded the Motivated Women Reflection Journal Project. I am seriously considering what I want, what I’m doing to get there, and that kind of centering sets the tone for my week. I’m on the board for two community organizations because I belong to a community and feel the importance of giving back. I help edit several articles for the WFWA quarterly ezine because I like the association with an organization that is trying to encourage others. I run two clubs at the high school where I teach because I could see there were students who would benefit from that kind of affiliation and I knew I could work it in with minimal disruption to what I have going on. I am not, however, a member of the PTA, have never run a book fair or a bake sale, or anything of the like because the cost was too high for me.

Managing time, like everything else takes practice. But chances are you are reading this because you have dreams, goals, or maybe deadlines you are avoiding. We cannot escape time, we can’t earn it back, and it slips away faster than we often realize.

The trickiest thing about time is the accountability for how we spend it lies within ourselves.

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.