Fighting the Darkness With Light (and Words)

I’m a terrible salesperson when it comes to my own work. I do have quick little pitches stored in my head that I use for emergencies, i.e., when people ask me what my stories are about. But then *gasp* sometimes people ask me more questions, and I usually find myself tacking on a warning that some of my story material ventures into the shadows and so maaaaybe they miiiight not want to read it. (See? Terrible salesperson). The reason for this warning is because I integrate more somber topics like sexual assault and addiction and bullying into the backstory or as a challenge for my characters to overcome (this post explains why I take that leap and venture to tougher topics, and this one by my dear friend Wendy Jessen provides excellent tips on how to tackle tough topics with sensitivity).

I’ve noticed that when I write contemporary stories (but also when I write fantasy)  that the realities of life have significant influence upon my stories. While my own experiences or observations don’t necessarily drive my works-in-progress, they certainly steer them. Sometimes my characters struggle with the same things that I or the people I know have endured. Most recently, my characters have started experiencing hardships that I see as screaming injustices in the world.

When I initially sat down and semi-outlined my current WIP (I am a pantser and probably always will be), my main character was struggling with his inability to form any sort of emotional connection in relationships. That was going to be the driving force of his arc, and he was going to be the only voice in the story. But I’ve been thinking about the meaning of his arc more and more, especially in the past few weeks, and while I still think this suits him, it somehow feels like it’s not enough for the overall story. Heart heavy with the self-doubt that is par for the course for pretty much every writer I know, I told a couple of my critique partners that I didn’t know if my story had enough meaning. Because you see, in the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about the bravery required to face hate and darkness in the world. My lovely critique partner Elaine assured me that my stories do have meaning, but that it would also be a good idea to take note of the other ideas that were in my head. Wonderful advice, and I took it, with the initial idea that this could be in the next story.

I’ve decided not to wait. My current story has room for another voice that speaks against the injustices of prejudice and hate. This means another character with another POV (thankfully I won’t have to create her from scratch, but she didn’t have a POV in the story before). The utter necessity of this is due to specific events in the recent news — events that made this quote come to the forefront of my thoughts:

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I don’t pretend to be a champion of social justice; I don’t possess that level of bravery. However, when I write that bit of darkness into my stories, I also provide a way to fight that darkness for my characters: light. They are good people that begin their story with significant struggles, and they traverse bumpy and painful landscapes, but they eventually come to believe and hope and heal and find their way to a resolution — no matter what — to an eventual better ending.

In living through or seeing injustice, whether it be prejudice, racism, sexism, or discrimination of any form, whether we ourselves are or hear of victims of crimes or assault or abuse, when we live through times of hate, we storytellers have the power to make things right again. We can help our characters through those trials. If you are fortunate enough, you will help some of your readers as well. In taking your characters and readers into the dark, the best way to drive out that darkness is to provide a light. And hope.

p.s. Now that I’ve figured this out about my own stories, I don’t think I’ll have a hard time talking about what my stories are about — in case anyone asks.

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HelenHelen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.

Permission to Write—Granted

This was going to be a completely different post. I was going to consider writing rituals—those choices of location and atmosphere that we feel inspire us to be more creative. I was going to talk about superstition, and how it can sometimes be a good thing, if, like a magic feather, it helps to trick your mind into performing.

So I started doing some research. What do other writers—ones with far more authority than I—do to get the creative juices flowing?

I began by paging through my copy of On Writing, by Stephen King, which I first read about seven years ago. But after only a few minutes of this, I was hooked. I opened the book to page one and read it straight through. I finished the next day (it’s not a very long book, and it’s an easy and engaging read, half autobiography and half pep talk).

I’m a more seasoned writer now than I was the first time I read the book, so I noticed different things this time around. Bits of advice that had seemed profound many years ago (avoid adverbs whenever possible, kill your darlings) were now simply nice reminders. What surprised me the most, though, was the message I took away from this second reading: with nearly every page, King grants us permission to write.

It turned out to be a message I really needed to hear that day.

You see, I was feeling a little down about all the time I’d been spending with my laptop. Maybe I was even slightly ashamed of it. “I, uh, write a bit,” was a huge—I mean huge—admission for me. As if my friends and family were going to demand a resume, a bibliography, and three years worth of tax returns to prove my credentials.

You may be familiar with imposter syndrome—that idea that whatever success you’ve had is a fluke, and you’re about to be found out. There have been some excellent Thinking Through Our Fingers posts on it, such as here and here.

Why is this so prevalent among writers? Is it because writers tend to be such an introspective bunch that self-doubt comes naturally to us? Is it because popular culture only venerates the bestsellers, the blockbusters, the top-forty hits? Or is it because the statement, “I’m a writer,” calls to mind stereotypes of pretentious know-it-alls who delight in correcting one’s grammar?

If you (or any of your friends) play golf, you probably don’t mince around with the word golfer. You don’t say, “Well, I golf a bit, but y’know, it’s just something I do when I have time. I haven’t been able to earn a living at it yet.” No. You say, “I’m a golfer.”

My husband’s hobbies are rock-crawling (extreme four-wheel-driving) and desert racing. And while I can’t say he’s never made a dime at it, I can affirm that he’s spent far more money on it than he’s ever made doing it. And he’s never apologized for it, because he loves it. It’s part of what defines him. He’s a rock-crawler. I’m a writer.

Say it with me. I’m a writer. There, that wasn’t so hard.

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So if you’re feeling a little down yourself, feeling like you’re maybe wasting your time, here are some words of permission by Mr. King himself.

“…when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy.” (p. 150)

“If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires…consider it hereby granted by yours truly.” (p. 150)

“In writing classes, if nowhere else, it is entirely permissible to spend large chunks of your time off in your own little dreamworld. Still—do you really need permission and a hall-pass to go there? Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? God, I hope not.” (p. 235)

“I have written because it fulfilled me … I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.” (p. 249)

So what are you waiting for? Write. Even if you never make a dollar at it. If it makes you happy, write.

For what it’s worth, you have my permission, too.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Back to School, Back to Writing

I didn’t intend to skip most of my writing days this summer. No, we weren’t gone on tons of family vacations. Most days we didn’t even have much going on. But I have 6 kids and they generate a lot of noise and distraction, so writing was super difficult to come by.

Now I’m sitting here, on my kids’ first day back to school with my thoughts jumping here and there, my own distractions (ahem, I’m looking at you Facebook and email!), and I’m struggling to get back into the swing of things.

Really, this is a pep-talk to me, but you’re welcome to come along if you can admit you have a problem (the first step is acknowledgement…).

How to bring focus back to your day

Writing isn’t our only priority in life. We have house cleaning, other jobs, kids to take care of, bills to pay, grocery shopping, etc. But it’s easy to waste the day clicking refresh on email or scrolling social media instead of actually getting anything done. But how do you get done what you need to and still write?

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How many of us save writing for “later” or when we’ve finished everything else?

Stop that and try these:

  • Make daily lists. Be specific. What do you need and want to accomplish today? Put in a specific writing goal whether it’s 100 words or 10k words. Check it off as you go along. If you are accomplishing everything and still wasting a lot of time, you may need to up your goals.
  • Accountability partner. Having a person you check in with throughout the day or at the end of the day helps keep you on task. You exchange lists and cheer each other on as you achieve your goals. They can also help encourage you (or threaten you) to work harder.
  • Yoga, meditation, and grounding exercises. Sometimes focusing is hard because our mind is anything but quiet. Finding ways to calm your thoughts is necessary to help you focus. Some need meditation, some need yoga. Being mindful of yourself is healthy. You will figure out what you need to calm the thoughts and focus.
  • Healthy diet. If you feel good physically, it impacts your mood and your ability to think. I was at a retreat last week and had healthy, fresh, non-processed foods every day. It really made me realize how much what we put in our bodies impacts our ability to work hard. If we don’t feel good, we don’t function as well.
  • Set a timer and turn off social media. Make yourself sit butt in chair, fingers typing for 30 minutes to an hour. Then get up and walk, dance, or move in general. Find a healthy snack or get a drink. Do another task, or get right back to it.
  • Reward yourself. Sometimes we’re like little kids who need some positive reinforcement to work harder. Say your goal is 10k words for the week (doable, right?). If you achieve that goal, maybe then you get to buy a pair of shoes, or get a massage, go to dinner with friends, buy a new book, whatever will motivate you. Find your “currency” and offer it to yourself as a reward for achieving a larger goal.

Hopefully some of these help me this year. Maybe they will help you as well.

What nifty tricks do you have to keep yourself focused and writing?

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576A6469Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 500 articles—family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about–helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Find Your Writing Fuel

Years ago, I was in a writing workshop led by my dear friend, Mette Ivie Harrison. She was discussing how many books she wrote before she sold one. I can’t remember the number. It was something like twenty. And then she spoke about something I never forget. Mette talked about how she consumes so many stories, so many idea, so many books. She’s always reading, sucking up all that inspiration like fuel. And she thinks all those ideas and plots and characters get churned around in her head, all mixed up and smooshed together and she spits them back out into a new form, her stories.

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Neil Gaiman said, “Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”

“If you want to be a writer,” said Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this idea that we as writers need to read. We need this fuel to create our own stories. Wow! An excuse to buy more books and spend loads of time curled up in my pajamas reading? I love that this need to read is part of our job!

I also love that writing fuel can be found in so many other places.

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows,. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work, (and theft) will be authentic.”

My brilliant friend, Elaine Vickers, is so good at this. Last year, as my parents were taking Elaine and I to the Las Vegas airport my mom was sharing stories about growing up in Star Valley, Wyoming.

While waiting for the plane, Elaine mentioned how much she loved one of the stories and how she thought it would be a great moment in a story. Oh! I hadn’t even thought of that. But since then, when people have told stories, I’ve thought more about this, about the possibility of using these small moments of inspiration in my stories.

So, yes, we need to read, read, READ! We need to suck up and consume all the stories and ideas we can. But don’t stop there. Be open to finding writing fuel everywhere you can. Go to art shows, travel, let your interests guide you to new and exciting ideas. And find your writing fuel!

 


blackanewhiterin

Erin Shakespear writes silly pictures books and middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.

 

Toning the Sagging Middle of Your Novel

As a writer, I fall somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter spectrum. I like to plot out basic story beats (Dan Wells’ 7 point plot is my current favorite) and then pants my way from one point to the next. This means that I’m generally pretty enthusiastic about drafting beginnings (when I get to set everything up) and endings (when all the drama unfold), but middles often stymy me.

As a novice writer, drafting my first fantasy novel, I solved that problem by adding dragons. Things dragging here? Throw in an unexpected encounter with a dragon. Don’t know what to do here? Add another dragon.

Needless to say, this isn’t an efficient long-term solution. (Or even a very good one to begin with).

So what can you do to draft a stronger middle?

Understanding the purpose of the middle is an excellent start—the midsection of the story is not just about filling time until you get to the exciting climax. The middle needs to be consciously building toward both the disaster and climax of the story, as events both increase tension and stakes. (For more on the middle, see Janice Hardy’s description of the three act structure).

But the middle needs to escalate not only the external plot, but the internal plot as well. Often, the middle contains a “point of no return” for the character, where they’ve committed to a choice or course of action that—whether it succeeds or fails—means they cannot go back to the person they were at the beginning of the story. Some irrevocable bridge is crossed.

James Scott Bell calls this the “mirror moment,” when the character recognizes some fundamental truth about themselves and their situation that changes their understanding of the world.

Janice Hardy describes something similar with her midpoint reversal: “Something unexpected happens and changes the worldview the protagonist has had all along. His plan no longer works or is no longer viable, and things have to change. This choice and new plan is what sends the plot into the second half of the middle.

“A good midpoint reversal will also raise the stakes, even if they were high to begin with. It often adds a level of personal consequence that wasn’t there before, or reveals a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. Sometimes it’s all of these things at the same time.”

In short, the events of the middle ought to be as crucial to the story as the climax or inciting incident. If you can remove them without damage to your climax, they’re not serving the story.

That’s all well and good, but how do you craft these escalating events that lead, inevitably, to the climax?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Build in a try-fail cycle. Or several. The protagonist needs to spend the middle section learning the skills that will allow them to defeat the antagonist—part of learning this is learning what does not work, as well as building a skill set. (Ideally, each try-fail cycle gets bigger and comes with bigger consequences.

2. Add conflict with increasing consequences. In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, Mary Robinette Kowal suggested asking, “what’s the smartest thing my character can do?” Give your character a choice—and then give that choice a consequence. For each choice/action, ask: did they succeed? If yes, add a “but”—yes, but then this happens to complicate things. Or “no, and . . .” then this complication happened. Using yes/but, no/and can be a helpful way of escalating consequences.

3. Borrow some ideas from Chuck Wendig (language warning).

When you’ve finished drafting, here are some helpful tips on revising the middle. Above all, the middle should be something that both challenges and delights you to write–just as it will hopefully challenge and delight your readers.

What tips do you find useful for drafting the middle section of your book? (Bonus question: can you tell what section I’m currently drafting?)

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.

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The Power of Mentors

Recently my friend and colleague Elaine Vickers drew an important distinction between being a writer and being an author. At first the distinction seems obvious. A writer’s work is the plain craft of telling stories. We can learn it from our reading, from our evaluating our own work, from workshops, classes, revision, and from reading what other writers have had to say about the craft. Author’s work is something else entirely, and I’ve discovered (as many have) that it is a lot more difficult to learn.

I have a master’s degree and PhD in creative writing, and I have taught writing at the university level for a lot of years, and I don’t think you can teach writers to be authors. You might be able to save people a little time, but in the end being an author is something you learn directly from people who have gone down this road. It comes from mentors.

This post isn’t about how to get a mentor, though that is a straight-up important subject, and something to take up another time. In this post, I’d like to share some ideas about being a mentor.

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As Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book Lean In, mentorship can’t really be requested (it always comes off wrong), but it can be offered. There are thousands of stories floating around about the bad behavior of well-meaning but desperate people who know they need mentorship but don’t understand that they won’t find a mentor by following them into the bathroom.

Sandberg talks about how people looking for mentors sound like the bird from this childhood classic, asking “Are you my mother?” This is pretty cringe-worthy for everyone. Sandberg spends a lot of time in the book discussing the ways leaders can make a difference by keeping their eyes peeled for proteges.

Sometimes mentoring comes through a sustained relationship, and sometimes it comes from serendipity, but the mentor should be the one to make the offer. A year or so after college, I was having brunch with my mother in the Heathman Hotel, and I kept looking at an older gentleman across the way. He and his wife were having breakfast with another man and his wife.

My mother said, “Hey, you’re being rude.”

I said, “I think the guy is William Stafford. He’s, like, my second favorite poet.”

“You should wait until they get the check and then go say something to him, but skip the part about him being your second favorite.”

I waited until the server dropped the check, and I walked over, “Excuse me,” I said. “Are you William Stafford?” I asked.

The man’s wife chuckled, and he said, “Yes, I am.”

I told him I really enjoyed his work, that I’d been exposed to his writing in a literature of the Pacific Northwest course I took while I was at the University of Oregon. He asked who taught the class. He asked who else was on the reading list, and I ran through it. I ended saying the professor included Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky in the course, even though he wasn’t sure Montana counted as the Northwest. Everyone at the table laughed, and Stafford said, “Well, you’re in luck today. That red-headed rascal across from me is Ivan Doig. Maybe he can clear things up.”

These two men asked me about my own writing. I didn’t have much to say, but I was honored that they’d ask. At the end of this short conversation, Stafford said, “If you don’t have plans, we’re going over to the Oregon Historical Society for symposium on Western writers. You’re welcome to come.”

I thanked them, shook their hands, and tried not to be too star struck, then I went back to our table and said, “Um, I know we have somewhere to be, but they just invited me to go to a writer’s thing. Can we go?”

That encounter was so simple and generous, and it changed me forever. I learned that writers were real people, and you could meet them in a hotel restaurant. It planted the most simple idea in my head that I could do this, too. What it has also done for me is give me a template for how to be gracious to those who are just starting. It showed me that everyone needs to be on the lookout for the new person coming down the road.

On the couple of occasions that I’ve done work with high school writers I’ve found myself in a similar situation, not as the new guy, but as the person who was a few steps ahead. At the end of a reading or workshop, there’s always one kid (sometimes more) who lingers. I love these people. They’re usually from small towns where the ratio of athletes to artists is something like 66:1. Their questions are all cut from the same cloth.

  • Do you write everyday? (I try.)
  • What software do you use? (Ulysses.) What’s that? (It’s complicated.)
  • Where do you get your ideas? (It varies but mostly from sitting in diners.)
  • How do you keep writing when you don’t want to write? (I signed a contract. I know this is the worst answer ever.)

I love these questions, and I hate them. There is a part of me that wants to sit these people down and say, “There are no short cuts.” I know they want this to go faster than it does. I spent decades wanting things to go faster than they do. I wanted getting an agent to go faster than it does. I wanted being out on submission to go faster than it does. I wanted the contract to come faster than it does. This isn’t good mentoring, though. And I have to remember that I was once that kid crossing a restaurant to introduce myself to a poet.

Advice is really important, and when it’s about the author’s work, it’s hard to come by. Right as I went out on submission, I got some amazing advice from one of the writers who wrote some advanced praise for my manuscript. He sent me an email with the subject line: “keep typing.” The message inside that email was just as important:

Hi Todd:
Good luck as everything creeps forward! The ticket is to work quietly on your new project whatever it is. We’re writers.

What spellbindingly good advice. I didn’t ask for it, but there it was just the same. At that point, I realized at some point in the future, I’d be in a position to send an email with the subject line: “keep typing,” and I will.

I don’t believe writers have an obligation to mentor, but we really do have to help each other along. Anyone who makes headway in this game needs to pay it forward. At least that’s how I’m planning to play it.

I really don’t want anyone to feel obligated to help me, and I don’t want that pressure either. In graduate school I suffered through a couple of contrived mentoring arrangements, and it felt like a strange cocktail of awkward situations. The mentor and I met and fulfilled our obligations, but the relationship didn’t arise naturally. Here’s a breakdown of the feelings:

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So, I’m not sure there’s any way to make this work if there’s not an organic evolution. It’s so easy for these kinds of things to turn phony.

As a writer with a couple of books under my belt and a couple more projects in the pipeline, I feel that it’s important to recognize the mentoring I’ve received. Writers who have spared some of their time to help me understand what the next leg of my own writing journey might look like. These people are the only ones who know what it’s like to wait on a contract that seems like it’s never going to come. They the ones who can tell you all the reasons to never respond to negative reviews on Good Reads. They can help you keep your cool when you’re out on submission. They can explain what pass through income is. All of this knowledge will come through channels, and later when you know these things, you take your turn.

In the end the best thing you can do as a mentor is share your enthusiasm and support. In many ways, this is the most important thing. Remind people that behind all the authors, there’s still a writer. The theorists were wrong. There was no “death of the author.” You can keep a journal of your own process, and you can be ready, like my most recent mentor, to send a simple message at the right time.

Keep typing. We’re writers, that’s what we do.

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Todd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddrobertpetersen.com and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Giving up Control

It was time to move on. I’d been with a small publisher for over a decade and loved my time there, but something had shifted, both in me and in the industry. The stories I felt compelled to tell no longer fit the audience of my small publisher.

TTOF - Giving up Control

On top of that, I’d been researching a subject near and dear to my heart for a novel that scared me in that awesome and almost paralyzing way that tells you it’s something you have to write.

Tackling that book meant getting a New York agent. I’ve been writing seriously for over two decades and publishing almost as long, but to New York publishers, I’m brand new.

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