Switching It Up

Some people are really happy working in the same genre all the time.

I’m not.

I’m happiest when I go between very different genres, but I’ve discovered a surprising bonus to flightiness: working in a new genre whets my appetite for going back to the one that bored me in the first place.

For example, I wrote five “chick lit” books in a row. “Chick lit” is considered a dismissive term now, but at the time it was a helpful marketing handle. Anyway, when it was time to start manuscript #6, the idea of doing another chick lit novel was just a huge yaaaaaaaaaawn for me. So I didn’t. I started something else—a contemporary YA novel—just to see if I could.

I could: I got three offers of representation.

And when I was done with it, going back to chick lit sounded like a fun break from contemp YA. Fast forward a few years, and I was a little bored with both of those genres so I decided to switch it up again and I took a run at a historical novel, again just for fun. Not only did I discover a new facet of my writer’s voice, but—you guessed it—it made the idea of returning to my contemporary genres seem fun instead of boring.

I’m commitment-phobic by nature, so I guess none of this should have surprised me. But I’ve learned one other little trick for amping up your creativity too: restrict it.

You read that right: RESTRICT IT.

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I had to do another romantic comedy last fall when I was totally not in the mood to write one, but contracts are contracts. And I knew if I was bored then readers would be bored, so I looked for a way to make it fun. I decided to choose one of the corniest tropes I could find and then write a story that was actually good based on the trope. (FYI, it was the “secret baby” trope.) It turned out to be totally fun, and I think I did a pretty good job with the story.

But whichever genre I just finished writing in is always the one I feel burnt out on, so once again, when I finished the “secret baby” story, I felt like I didn’t want to write another romance ever again. But I love my readers and the idea of being burnt out made me sad, so I brainstormed ways to make it fun again. That meant finding a new restriction to challenge myself. I decided to do a chapter-a-week on my author Facebook page every Friday where I do a gender-flipped contemporary fairy tale. I polled my readers to see which fairy tale they wanted, and within 24 hours I had restricted parameters with a modern male Rapunzel character. Brainstorming the broad outline of that novel with some writing friends is some of the most fun I’ve had in ages. And the fact that I only have to do it once a week keeps me from feeling too resentful of working in a genre I’ve worked in fairly often already.

And the bonus, of course, is that each time I work in the just-for-fun fairy tale, it makes me itchy to get back to the historical YA I’m supposed to be finishing. Because did I mention I’m commitment-phobic? But switching it up allows me to make that work for me instead of against me. You just have to figure out how to hack your own brain; nothing makes me want to get back to a project I used to be tired of more than finding a new project I’m more tired of. And then round and round I go, with the time I spend enjoying my work far outweighing the time I spend feeling burnt out on it.

This is a bad principle apply to relationships, but I have to say, project infidelity works great for creativity!


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

Book Giving vs Book Recommending

My cousin messaged me the other day to sheepishly ask an etiquette question. The mother of one of her daycare kids had given her a book to read, and she just couldn’t make herself get into it. She’d tried and failed and tried again. It’d been sitting on her shelf for almost a year, and now it was becoming a daily reproach. What should she do, she wondered. Fake that she read it and pretend to like it? Force herself to finish it and pretend she liked it?

Most of all, she wondered if she could just give it back and admit it wasn’t her thing, but she was afraid it would hurt the mother’s feelings.

My cousin wasn’t rude. The book lender was. What a terribly short-sighted thing she did when she shared a book she loved with her friend.

No, really. I mean it. And ‘tis the season to talk about giving books, so we may as well because the principles go for lending too.

Here’s the thing. Most of us love sharing the things we love with others. And you can feel free to recommend books all day long until you run out of breath or name every book you ever read or both. But that’s very different than putting an actual book in someone’s hand. VERY. DIFFERENT.

Unsolicited “you’ll like this” books shoved at me by well-meaning people are very anxiety-inducing.

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Now . . . it’s possible this is just a function of my overall anxiety. But I suspect that lots of bookish friends feel this way no matter their anxiety baseline.

Here’s the problem: when you say, “You would try This Magnificent Book,” that’s a recommendation. When you hand me This Magnificent Book, that’s an obligation.

I will feel obligated to read it because it came from your personal library or the store. That is where Daycare Mama messed up. She meant to do right. I get it. But she done my cousin so, so wrong.

It’s because she acted with enthusiasm instead of discernment. I can’t fault anyone for trying to convince someone to read a book they love. The book in question was Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

Um . . . I love that book. Love it. And I recommend it all the time. But putting it into someone’s hands? That’s a demand to read it. And as much as I love that book, I would never, ever have suggested it to my cousin. And that’s because I know what she likes, so I recommend books to her all the time that aren’t always my favorite but I know she’ll love them.

Look, don’t freak out. You can and should feel free to recommend anything you want. But you MUST be judicious about which books you actually GIVE. Do you see? You must see this. You must never, ever curse another soul with the burden of a book not chosen with them in mind.

So. How do you choose a book for someone? First, it’s a sixth sense and you kind of have to be born with it, like I am. I am super good at matching people to books they’ll love. My streak isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I know exactly who I would give Rothfuss to, but it ain’t my cousin. In addition to nearly perfect book-matching, I also have excellent parking spot karma, but that’s a story for another day.

If you have only regular mortal level book matching skills, but you’d still like to try, here are a few things to consider: personality.

Actually, that’s it. You just have to think about their personality. Sometimes people with determinedly sunny worldviews will resist heavy nonfiction that examines the ugly underbelly of humanity even if you found it compelling. Sometimes, hardened cynics will not enjoy the delicious confection of a YA romance even though it gave you a perfect escape.

You see where I’m going with this? Anyone who knows my cousin should have guessed that Rothfuss was never going to be her thing. Austen? Now you’re talking. So a Mary Robinette Kowal recommendation would have made more sense.

It’s natural to want people you love to love the books you love. For example, any person who wants to understand me as a person just needs to read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. If that person loves it, we are meant to be soul mates. If they only appreciate it, we are certainly meant to be friends. If they dislike it or don’t get it, there’s no hope for us at all.

Honestly, it comes down to this: as much as you may want to share the books you love, if you love the person you’re sharing them with, you have to think about if they’ll love it too. And that takes consideration, reflection, and a pretty good understanding of their personality.

Now that I’ve scared you all from trying, I offer this as a place to start: a list of books BUNCHES of people have loved which give them broad enough appeal to be safe bets for most people.



Give me some time with your friend. I’ll figure it out.


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

Confessions of a Reformed Pantser

When I first started writing, I was working in romantic comedy. I didn’t really need to plot. We all know how those go: a “meet-cute” followed by a series of internal and external obstacles that keep the two characters apart, a kiss near the mid-point to show us why they should be together, more obstacles, and then sacrifices on each of the main characters’ parts that allow them to be together at the end, which is always happy.

But as I began to grow as a writer, I developed more subplots for my protagonists where they had to do some real internal growth, and sometimes the manuscripts grew unwieldy. 75,000 was the publisher’s sweet spot and when I had one reach 110,000, I knew I needed an intervention. I had to cut almost 25% of that manuscript, and with the exception of one scene I still miss, every scene I cut made it better. So how had I ended up with so much extra useless story? I didn’t have time to overtell stories when I was supposed to turn in two books a year.

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I looked around for solutions, and I realized I was going to have to plot. I had liked meandering through stories and figuring characters out. I could follow them around all day just observing them without them needing to do anything. Of course I knew readers needed more than that, but for me as a writer the fun was the discovery. However, also for me as a writer, the pain and time of editing out the excessive length had finally begun to outweigh the fun of discovery.

So I started with my first plot effort, which was using the Hero’s Journey. This only worked kind of well for a romance since the biggest obstacles are often internal, not external, and there aren’t generally “quests.” But it absolutely CAN work in romance: unfortunately for me it only got me to the halfway point in my next manuscript before I realized it wasn’t going to work anymore.

Then I switched to Dan Well’s Seven Point Structure. You can watch the whole series beginning with Part 1 here, and for many years that served me well. I would lay out the major plot points on notecards (real ones on first, then in Scrivener) and then, using Rachel Aaron’s method for boosting productivity, I would write a single sentence or phrase linking the smaller scenes between each major one. I would end up with 25-30 notecards/scenes, and each day I would do a short pre-write about what I was writing then dive into the writing. My productivity shot up, my manuscripts quit fighting me, and my stories got tighter.

But lately I’ve been working on a YA novel that doesn’t follow a straightforward romance plot, and I’ve found myself wandering out in the weeds again, lots of pages of “Nothing is really HAPPENING.” I couldn’t figure out what the story was realllllllllly about, or what my character really wanted. So I decided to try beat sheets, a concept I understood pretty well but had never actually used. Ten minutes later, I knew what my whole book was about. And that got me at least a third of the way through the new manuscript until I realized I didn’t always know what to expect my characters to do . . . and I should.

So after an exasperated call out on Facebook, several writer friends responding with suggestions that I took (it’s one of my finer qualities) and . . . they worked! First, I used KM Weiland’s blog posts on writing character arcs which tie character and plot development to each other intimately. Developing the character arc is what develops the plot, and sure enough, when I finished working through the series of questions she prompts you to answer about your character, I had begun to fill in some of the empty spaces between beats on the beat sheet, to understand that if the beat said, “This character and that character have a conflict about X,” I knew all the nuance and subtext of those conflicts and where each character was coming from before I even wrote the scene.

But just to make sure that each scene had a point and moved the action forward, I took one more step and tried the scene and sequel method as I drilled down into each beat. I suggest Googling this one because there are several good articles explaining it, including the one I used, but the guy was kinda condescending and annoying so I’d rather you found a more pleasant one on your own. Basically, while KM Weiland’s character arcs helped me figured out what each character wanted in a scene and made it easy to imagine how they would act/react, scene + sequel helped me give each scene enough tension.

The idea of scene + sequel is that each scene must have a Goal (what she wants), Conflict (something standing her way), and Disaster (she fails) followed by another scene that has a Reaction (what does she do), Dilemma (faced with no good choices), and Decision (chooses the least of the evils and presses forward). But it was much easier to figure out each of these when I understood my characters so well.

And again, with the magic of a five minute pre-write every day, the words come pouring out. I think these characters are fully fleshed out. I think they’re constantly doing interesting things. And I think that soon, in a novel or two, I’ll find that this combination of methods don’t work for yet another kind of story and I’ll go hunting for new strategies.

But that’s the key: no stagnation. Try a bunch of different approaches until you figure out which one opens up the story path, and know that unless every story you tell is the same (that’s bad), exploring different paths isn’t taking you off-course: it’s finding you the shortcuts to better, tighter stories.

Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..


Make Time to Create

My mother was an artist. She got her degree in commercial art and taught high school art for many years. On her own time, she liked to pursue a variety of creative projects, from needlework to portraiture in oils. Most of that, though, I remember from my childhood.

By my teen years, I don’t have as many memories of her pursuing creative projects. Some, but not many. She tackled quilting and sewing through my young adult years, but she’d largely left illustration and painting behind, largely abandoned her passion projects.

She was tired. Tired from working full-time as a teacher for deaf kindergarteners. Tired from coming home to my father who would immediately pull her into his yard projects: landscaping, gardening, pruning. Always. They never stopped. She didn’t have nearly as much energy as she wanted for both the things she wanted and needed to do, so she gave up the wants and tended to the needs.

My whole life she had worked full-time, raised three kids, and due to my father’s constant frail health, tended to him in his severe, sometimes life-threatening illnesses.
I didn’t know that the entire time, she was waiting, in hibernation or maybe chrysalis, waiting for the day she knew she would inevitably outlive my father and free up the time and energy to devote to her artistic passions. She loved him. She had no desire for him to die. She just knew that someday, in her future long widowhood, it would be time to convert one of her kids’ empty bedrooms to an art studio and lose herself in projects for hours on end without interruption. And she was content to wait for that time. It was resignation. But no resentment.

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She was right about my father dying early. He died only a month past his 60th birthday. But by then, my mother was already dying too. Breast cancer. And when I had to creep into her room at dawn one morning to tell her that my dad had died, she nodded, having known for a day or two that it was coming, having gone to the hospital weakened from chemo to sit on his bed for hours to tell him how she loved him and would miss him.

Then she cried.

There would be a lot of tears, of course. But there was also one crystalline moment of anger so stark that it haunted me in ways I couldn’t understand. It was the moment in the days between his death and burial when she sobbed to me, “I thought I would have more time on my own to do the things I wanted.”

She wasn’t blaming my father for that loss of time. She had done it to herself, and she knew it. She was grieving the time she would never get, the time she’d thought she was banking. She was grieving the time she’d given up while she waited for a future where she would get to do her art at will, to immerse herself in it without guilt, to play and explore and create without restriction and limit.

She died two months later, too sick between his funeral and hers to do her art.

That day, her outburst, the uncontrolled grief and rage from my normally peaceful mother, stuck with me for years. At first I thought it was because I was shaken by the way it revealed dynamics in their marriage I was uncomfortable with. Slowly, I realized it shook me because I realized it was the starkest example of avoidable regret I would ever see, and that she had recognized too late that it hadn’t needed to be that way.

Sometimes I feel judgment from others for my willingness to not make meals, to set firm boundaries with my kids about when they can interrupt my work and when they can’t, to overlook my messy house until it transitions from untidy to dirty and I’m forced into action, when I leave home for days to attend conferences to improve my craft or mentor others and I must depend on others for child-tending to make it work, when I’m immersed in the work of my masters program and ignoring the world, when I skip an (unnecessary) administrative church meeting to meet with my critique group.

I care a little, sometimes. About the judgment, I mean. I care until I remember my mother’s anguished, “I thought I would have more time.”

So I make the time. Of course I do.

I can’t afford not to and there’s no way to bank it.

So I make the time.


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..