My First Writer’s Retreat: Reflections and Lessons Learned

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend my very first writer’s retreat with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, and I’m already counting the days until registration opens for next year’s WFWA retreat. In the meantime, though, I’m sharing a breakdown of retreat-related highs and lows, in the hopes that it will help you get as much out of your writer’s retreat as I did (and avoid some of my mishaps along the way.)

What I did Right:

I took care of business as much as possible before the retreat.

Reservations were made, time off from the day job was requested and granted in advance, and bags were packed. Unfortunately for me, a double whammy of a sinus infection / strep throat reared its nasty head just days before the retreat began. But I acted fast and went straight to the doctor, starting antibiotics on the same day I first noticed symptoms. When you’re headed to a writer’s retreat, you want to be at your best, both physically and mentally. Nipping any unwelcome illnesses in the bud can make the difference between being on the mend during your retreat and being shunned by your fellow writers who are (understandably) wary of your germs.

I socialized with other writers.

I’m a natural introvert, so I’ll admit, chatting it up with strangers doesn’t always come easily to me. But I am so glad I came out of my shell at the WFWA retreat! Connecting with friends I’d already interacted with online, as well as making new writer friends, was hands down the best part of my retreat experience. There’s nothing better than discussing the world of writing and publishing with people who understand what you’re going through because they’re walking the same road with you.

Every writer’s retreat is different: some will focus more on butt-in-chair writing time, others may emphasize networking and/or craft. But no matter what kind of retreat you attend, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to connect with fellow writers. Make the most of that time and those connections. These are your people. They are your tribe. Forge those bonds and don’t let go.

I stopped trying to do it all and focused on what mattered most to me.

After the first full day of the writing retreat, which was bursting with workshops and small group discussions and writing time and a group dinner, I quickly realized that, as much as I loved soaking up knowledge and networking with my peers, I was on track to burn out fast if I kept pushing myself to maintain such a full schedule (especially since I was still not feeling my best physically.) My body and my mind desperately needed down time.

So I assessed the schedule for the remaining days and picked out the events and  discussion groups that I felt would benefit me the most—and I skipped the rest. Most importantly, I decided not to beat myself up for not doing it all.

What I’ll do Differently Next Time:

I’ll set realistic goals from the start.

At first, I had a somewhat unrealistic idea of how much I would be able to accomplish in three and a half days. I imagined myself writing thousands of words each day and socializing with my new writer friends and attending every discussion group / workshop and catching up on my sleep and hanging out by the pool with a margarita in the afternoons (because hey, I was technically on vacation!).

But although I’d left my husband and my job behind to focus on writing for a few days, I quickly discovered that, even in retreat land, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day. I still had to recognize my own limitations and prioritize how best to spend my time. Next year, I’ll set more realistic writing / word count goals for myself from the beginning, so I’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of chastising myself when, inevitably, I can’t do it all.

I’ll get out more.

Because the hotel in Old Town Albuquerque where our retreat was held was so beautiful, and because I was still getting over two infections, I was mostly content to stay put throughout the retreat. I did take a couple of excursions into the old town, but next year I would love to spend even more time exploring. Because, bottom line, these are vacation days, and I love exploring new places while on vacation. And, just as importantly, because I believe engaging with the outside world makes my writing stronger.

I’ll look for opportunities to contribute.

One of the things I loved the most about the retreat was the egalitarian nature of the discussion groups. Everyone was invited to contribute, and everyone’s contribution was welcomed. Best of all, the people facilitating the discussions were my peers. Maybe they had agents, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were published, maybe they weren’t. Either way, they still led fantastic discussions on topics they were passionate about. Next year, I’ll look for ways I can contribute to the conversation more actively, perhaps by volunteering to facilitate a discussion on a topic that’s close to my heart. After all, I got so much out of my first writer’s retreat, it’s only fitting I give a little bit back.

So there you have it: the highs, lows, and lessons learned from my first writer’s retreat. Here’s wishing you your own productive, restorative, and fun-filled writing adventures!

Pocketing the Power-ups from Your Writing, Gratefully

manuscript-picI ran into an old friend at our town’s fall festival a few weeks ago. You might already be guessing how it went: how are you, how are the kids, what are you up to nowadays. Then, the writing question. “Hey, weren’t you going to write books or something?”

I nodded and smiled. “Still writing.”

Usually that’s the end of that, but this person looked like I’d announced tragic news about myself. “Oh, no. Jeez, I’m so sorry.”

Ummm. I laughed to show this was not a topic to be mourned. “No, it’s okay. I like writing.”

The person shook her head sympathetically. I turned to other subjects.

Years ago I might have been exasperated by that person’s reaction. But it’s good to be here now, in a place where I can say I like writing and really mean it. The trying is the thing, now.  Always with an eye toward the career goals, yes. But you can’t forget to find fulfillment in the trying. In the writing itself.

And what you take away from the writing itself can be reason for gratitude. It’s the time of year for giving thanks, so this is a bit of a think piece on what we as writers might count as blessings.

giphy-almost-famous

Depending on the individual, a writer these days might be grateful for these kinds of things:

  • helpful critique partners, supportive writing groups, and online contests;
  • how-to resources, online message boards of info, and writers’ sites and blogs;
  • awesome published writers and books, both in and out of your genre, both contemporary and classic;
  • the internet as a research tool; libraries of all types and sizes
  • the internet in general, especially for its use as a rapid-fire communication tool (I still remember the days—quite clearly—when email wasn’t a thing.)

I’m grateful for all of these. But when you dig a little deeper,

giphy-princess-and-frog

you might be even more grateful for what the writing itself gives you.

By “the writing,” I mean the work: the drafting, revising, editing, stopping, starting, sending, receiving, rejoicing, venting, rebelling, re-starting. The quitting and rebooting, because that’s part of trying too. The asking and looking and finding, and giving and taking. The planning and plotting and tossing and deleting. The writing and rewriting. And then, more writing; starting again.

I think the work of writing gives new or improved traits to every writer. These traits are like Power-ups as you cross a rough landscape in an epic journey game, and when effectively used, they impact every part of the writer’s identity. Best, when these traits grow strong, we in turn become stronger writers.

Not to mention, it can take a while to get agented and published…like, years. And years. And then more years to situate yourself into a real-deal writing career. This is where an understanding of and a gratitude for these traits is a balm for impatience and frustration. Don’t forget to pocket the Power-ups that the work of writing is leaving for you along the uneven terrain, and don’t be afraid to use them to get over obstacles. They’re only going to help you achieve.

Here’s a Top-Five-style list of examples of Power-up traits. Just examples—so many others!—but ones I’m gratefully learning over time.

giphy-high-fidelity

  1. An ability to take note of everyday Muses—the people, events, sights, and sounds that incite construction of whole plotlines in the heads of writers. (As an example, did you hear “Hallelujah” last week, with the passing of Leonard Cohen? What’s up with those lyrics? How many stories might have been inspired by those words last week alone?)
  2. A continually refreshed appreciation of time. Might it be one need that every writer has in common?
  3. Refined skills in plot analysis of books, film, theater, even music. Not just comprehending plot triangle points, but grasping the tone and texture of plot, too.
  4. A higher degree of empathy for others, from the practice of designing natural motivations and actions for the characters we create, who, often, are nothing like ourselves.
  5. The capacity for teaching others, whether you’ve been at the head of a classroom or not. Writers teach through theme. Themes can be subtle or whop-you-over-the-head, and the really amazing thing is, you’re probably never going to know how many people were affected to action or change from what you taught them in your writing.

Of course, every writer’s list of what he or she gratefully takes away from the writing is different! So even if you didn’t see something here that rings at least partly true to you, I hope the work of writing is gifting you with Power-ups for which you are grateful, and that you get some time this holiday season to reflect and recharge with them.

How to GIF (and How NOT to GIF)

So, what is an animated GIF? It’s an all-singing, all-dancing graphic that decorates many a blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, and Pitch Wars bio.

Better question–why deploy GIFs? Well, because they’re hilarious (when done right). In a world where we’re trying to entertain, connect, persuade in 144 characters, gifs pack a ton of punch. It’s a visual quote, a reference to a movie, TV show, song, or other moment in time that layers in another level of meaning to whatever you’ve thrown out into the webuverse. But, it can get overwhelming.

brainleaking

Wanna gif, but unsure of where to start?

Here are some of the mechanics:

  1. Gif Libraries–My Top Three: Find the gif you want, and, depending on where you’re going to upload, save it as a file, or save the link. (Left-click on a PC; Command + mouse click on Mac).
    1. Giphy: I love Giphy. Search the library for all manner of gif-tastic nonsense.
    2. Google: YUP. Google. Get Googly with Image Search, then click “Search Tools” under the search bar. Click on  the “Any Type” dropdown and select “Animated.” And BOOM. Gifs galore. Okay, fine, it’s not exactly a “tip” to Google something, but maybe the filters are new info?
    3. Twitter: Has a GIF button embedded. The choices are limited, but it’s pretty snappy reference.
  2. How to Upload for Auto-Play: The whole point of a GIF is to auto-play so your followers immediately see your reference. So, here’s how ya do it.
    1. Twitter: Click on the GIF button to find something in Twitter’s library, OR, upload your own GIF file. No linkies here.
    2. Facebook: Unlike Twitter, Facebook auto-plays the links. So… Links only here!
    3. Blogs: Blogger behaves like Twitter, and auto-plays an uploaded file. WordPress, on the other hand, has a Giphy widget embedded in the HTML editor.

And here are some guidelines:

  1. Ye gods, don’t punctuate every sentence with a GIF. Unless you want to induce a seizure in your readers.
  2. Don’t grab just any GIF. Reference something that resonates with you. I mean, you wouldn’t quote Seinfeld if you didn’t watch it, would you? No, of course not. These are visual quotes, not popularity contests. If you love ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer?” I’mma expect to see the Scoobies all over your page. Marvel? Please let me see Hulk punching All of The Things. As for me? Well, if you know where this gem comes from, then you have seen into my soul.

smallwonder

Though, I suppose, when in doubt, post some kittens.

kittens

And honestly? That’s all there is to it. Your reference points should be true to your pop culture experience. So get out there, have fun, and get giphy with your bad self.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Requests From The Agent Round)

Hi there Pitch Wars people. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s the agent round. How’s everybody doing?

beaker-freak-out

That good? Excellent. Well try to breathe. I know you’ve got a lot invested in this, and most of you probably aren’t going to hear what I’m saying. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. The agent round doesn’t really matter. Look, it’s a great opportunity. There are some wonderful agents participating, and it’s great to get requests from people who really want to see your work. But if you don’t get the request you want from the agent you want, it’s not the end of the world. There’s a chance they didn’t even get a chance to read your entry. There are like 150 posts. That’s a lot of reading. A failure to request is not a rejection, and querying works.

To try to give a little context, I asked Pitch Wars mentees from last year who have signed with agents to share their stories. I’ll go first. I got one request in the agent round. I signed with my agent four months later from a cold query. Here are some other stories:

Sean Grigsby: I received three requests during the agent round. While waiting to hear back, I finished and began querying a completely different book that got me my agent.

K Kazul Wolf: My first time in PW I got a few requests, signed with an agent, who then dumped me shortly after. Second PW, I got zero requests and some pretty scathing responses the queries sent afterward. Almost two years after the first PW and 200 queries later, I signed with my dream agent. (Mike’s Note: This is really an amazing story. You can read more about it here.)

Becky Dean: I received six requests in the agent round, and while waiting on those, I sent lots of additional standard queries for the same book. I signed with my agent in February off one of those other queries.

MK England: I received nine requests during the agent round, but my fantastic agent came from a cold query sent immediately after. She gave me an R&R in late November, and I signed with her a few months later. Of the three offers I received, only one came from a nudged agent round participant. (Mike’s Note: Add her book on goodreads here. It looks Ah-Maze-ing.)

Kat Hinkel: I had 4 requests in the agent round. I queried my agent a few weeks after. Getting the requests was great but didn’t lead to my agent. But I think saying I was a #PitchWars alum in my query letter helped!

Suzanne Marie: I had three requests from the agent round, but I sent out twenty queries directly after. All of the PW requests were eventual passes. I signed with Sharon in December.

Leigh Mar: ZRC, babies. I had ZERO requests during Pitch Wars. None on my page, no ninja requests behind the scenes. I sent my first query Nov. 22. I got my first offer of rep on Jan. 29. I wound up getting two offers (one even came from a PW agent who did not request from me during the agent round). I sent 59 queries total and saw a 36% request rate (including many reqs from PW agents I queried after). Some stories just work better as a query than a pitch.

Lyndsay Ely: I had six requests from the agent round, but the agent I ended up signing with had requested materials via a Twitter contest months before. When she offered, I was able to send her my much stronger Pitch Wars version! (Mike’s note: Her book deal just got announced! Add her book on Goodreads here.)

Jim O’Donnell: With ninjas, I had 12 requests which led to zero offers. I signed with my agent almost exactly a year after PW started with the next book I wrote.

Wendy Parris: I had 13 requests in the agent round which was beyond exhilarating! Then the rejections started. I kept querying while awaiting responses, which was a good thing since none of my PW requests turned into offers. Six months to the day after the Pitch Wars agent round started, I signed with my agent off a cold query

Sheena Boekweg: My agent requested the full a month before Pitch Wars started. I had to put her on hold while I revised, which terrified me because she was such a dream agent. I think I had seven fulls out when I got into Pitch Wars, and a few sent a rejection after I told them I was revising. I ended up with 6 requests from the agent round. I sent off the requests and then sent the revised manuscript to the agents who had requested the full before agent round. My dream agent stuck around, loved the revision, and we signed about a month after Pitch Wars.

Julie Artz:  I got seven requests during the Agent Round, so I was absolutely positive I would get an offer and devastated when I didn’t. But I picked myself up, wrote a new story, and got an offer from the very first agent I queried with the new manuscript (albeit about six weeks after I sent her the full). People always say just keep writing. And they’re 100% correct.

Leah Collum: I had three requests in the agent round (including one ninja request.) I signed with a non Pitch Wars agent I queried based off a client referral.

Heidi Stallman:  I had 1 official request and two “ninja” requests during the agent round. After a slow start querying, I revised my first first three chapters (and changed their order) with my mentor’s help. I got my agent 5 months after the agent round with a standard query and my shiny new beginning (which alas, was the first thing my agent wanted revised). (Mike’s note: Heidi has the best agent in the world. Really. You can look it up.)

Michella Domenici: I got seven requests in the Agent Round. I sent lots of queries in November and the following months. In January, I revised my opening pages based on feedback from an agent. Here’s the fun part: in February, my agent requested the full based on the original opening pages from a November query! Looks like it was always meant to be.

E.S. Wesley: I got zero requests in the agent round, but tons of full requests after the agent round and sold my manuscript without an agent to a small press around Christmas. Queried my next manuscript in April/May, signed with agent in June. (Mike’s note: Add his book on Goodreads here.)

Elle Jauffret: I got three requests in the agent round, but received more than a dozen requests for my full when I cold queried shortly after. I signed three months later with one of these agents.

Cindy Baldwin: I got six requests in the agent round. I had a 20-25% request rate consistently for my pitch wars MS while querying, but ultimately exhausted my agent list without getting an agent. When I wrote my next book, though, with the help of my new PW CPs, I was able to create the strongest story I’d ever written! I began querying it in mid-March; within six weeks I’d had 10 agent offers, and within five months I’d sold that book at auction. My pitch wars MS remains shelved, for now, but the whole experience was a powerful lesson in moving forward and not giving up on my dreams! (Mike’s note: Add her book on Goodreads here.)

Isabel Davis: I had two requests during the agent round. Afterward, I queried wildly and got an R+R from an intern working at an agency. Even though this agency never ultimately offered, I felt like the experience was a fruitful one, especially for my PW book. I again started to query with my revised PW book, and landed an agent through the twitter contest DVPIT, 5 months after Pitch Wars.

Monica Hoffman: I got one request and one ninja request during the agent round. Neither resulted in an agent offer. I jumped into the query trenches after the agent round and it took 5 months before I signed with my agents through a twitter pitch party called #DVpit

Maria Mora: I got four last-minute requests in the agent round. I connected with my agent during #SFFPit, sent her a query, and signed with her six months later after an R&R.

Believe me yet? I can keep doing this all day. If you ask the Pitch Wars mentees from 2014, they’re going to tell you the same kind of stories. The important thing to remember is to take advantage of any chances you get. Some of those chances might come from the agent round. Some of them will come from other places. There are as many different paths to success as there are people travelling them. You are on your own journey. Keep your head up, and enjoy the path.

Spooky Recommendation: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

It’s Halloween, so there is no better day to talk about a book that still haunts me, years after reading it.  As a reader, I loved the book, but as a writer, there is so much to learn from it!

i-am-legend

I read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson a few years ago and I still find myself thinking about it all the time. Essentially, it follows Neville, the last man on Earth, when the world has been overtaken with vampires. The utter despair and loneliness of Neville’s situation is something that has stuck with me. Neville goes about his day, staking vampires as they sleep, fortifying his home, ignoring the voices of his neighbors who want to kill him at night.

A man could get used to anything if he had to.

A simple sentence. A simple idea. But, somehow, I find myself, again and again, going back to it. How often to we get used to terrible experiences and situations because we have to? Forget the vampires. For me, that quote is the real horror that can seep beyond the confines of a horror story.

Later in the story, too, I am forced to question everything that I believe, and not just about the story, but about life itself.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS: At the end of the novel, Neville realizes that he has become what the vampires fear, the monster attacking their children. He hasn’t been a single man standing against abomination, but a relic of the old world terrorizing the new world.

The way the ending is achieved still gives me chills to think about. And if Matheson could paint a true horror of existence in his horror story, couldn’t this final revelation be another truth about the world? When have I been the bad guy? How do I discover what is true about myself or the world or others?

This was the book that made me question everything, and I have no regrets.

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Final Thoughts

I hope this blog series has really helped you evaluate what is working for and against the theme in your novel. To wrap it up, I have a few final thoughts.

giphy-7

  1. Everyone’s process is different. You may find these ideas easier to explore after you’ve completed your first draft. Or maybe you’re like me and need to write a few thousand words before you can really sit down and work on planning with the theme. Or maybe you are awesome and can do all this ahead of time. Whatever it is, it’s okay.
  2. Be flexible. You might do all this planning, but as you get into the book you realize that your theme is actually something else. That’s ok. Go with it and just do the theme work over for revisions. Don’t lock yourself into a story that isn’t working just because you were positive that the theme was something before you started writing the book.
  3. You can have more than one theme. The book I’m working on now seems to have two themes at the moment. One about community and one about want vs. need. Now, I’m hoping that I can find a theme statement that intertwines the two, but if not that’s okay. You might find yourself with a main theme and then maybe a few sub themes. That’s totally fine and normal and good! Don’t freak out.
  4. Your initial theme work is not going to be super, super deep. With each revision you will go deeper and deeper into the theme and you will find new ways to strengthen it. You may even add a sub theme in the final revision! Don’t worry if you feel like your early theme work is shallow. It probably is. This is what revisions are for.
  5. Theme is important to any book. Any genre. It’s the thing that makes a book stick with you. It is the thing that makes a story timeless. It takes a book from a fun story to something meaningful. It pushes it from like to love. You may need other tools to plan your action book or your mystery book. I’m not saying all you need are the thoughts I’ve laid out here. But you can not write a meaningful book without theme. Please don’t overlook this important step in your writing.

And that’s all I’ve got! I hope this has been helpful and I hope you feel more inspired than confused!

giphy-6

Happy writing!

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Plot

So, we’ve talked about theme, main character and character arc, side characters, and setting. Now it’s time to talk about plot.

First of all, remember that before tackling your planning with theme, I expect you to already have a general idea of premise and some direction for your book. You may have written a few chapters to get a feel for your world. You may not be a big time plotter. That’s okay. I’m not going to take you through in-depth outlining.

When your using theme to plan your plot, you really use it as more of a checks and balance system. You used your theme to figure out your main character’s arc, and plot is really just how you get your MC from point A to point B in their character arc. How you decide to do that is up to you and I can’t give you a tried and true process. But after giving all your side characters different relationships to the theme, you should be able to see opportunities for obstacles and tension with your MC and their journey. Use these. Layer them in. Some you will use for plot wide conflict, like with the antagonist. Some will just add tension to specific sections and scenes. Use it. Use it. Use it.

The biggest thing you need to do when plotting your novel is keep your theme in mind. Remember your two different theme statements for your MC. You need to find a way to change them from the initial false theme statement, to the final realization/true theme statement. This means you need to make sure your plot isn’t working against you. Make sure your plot is proving your final theme statement and not your initial theme statement.

That means it should work like this. Throughout the first half of the novel, your MC makes decisions according to their false theme statement. Some of these decisions may work out at first, but by the midpoint, enough should have gone wrong to give your MC a moment of reflection. This moment is brought about by a side character at, or near, the midpoint actually stating the true theme statement. But then, something happens right around the midpoint that throws your MC even further into their false theme statement. For a moment they thought about changing, but now they absolutely can’t. They are more committed to their false statement than ever before.

As your character runs with their false theme statement, things should unravel and unravel until finally you have brought them to their lowest point. Their dark night of the soul. How they recover from this dark night, how they finally decide to fight back, must reflect your final and true theme statement. This is important! How they get out of this hell you’ve put them through, what happens at the climax must support your theme, not undermine it! This will look a little different depending on if you are writing a negative or positive character arc.

HAMILTON: Alexander Hamilton has a classic tragic character arc. From the very beginning we see him talking about how he’s not going to throw away his shot and how he wishes there was a war so he can rise up. Remember, his false theme statement is that he can create his own legacy by taking risks and working nonstop. But about 40% of the way through the musical, George Washington tells Hamilton this, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Then the revolutionary war ends and Hamilton gets to meet his son and it seems for a moment that maybe he’ll just become a family man. Have Eliza and Phillip and “that would be enough.” But then we get the finale of the first act and Washington asks Hamilton to come and be the Secretary of the Treasury. Eliza begs him to stay and the music builds an builds until we finish the first act with Hamilton signaling that he is plowing right back into that false theme statement by saying, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

Then in the second act, things start unraveling. Hamilton has his affair with Maria Reynolds because he “can’t say no to this.” Hamilton has never made himself say no to an opportunity. He never throws away his shot. Then when his enemies find out, he can’t bear the thought of allowing other people to tarnish his legacy. He creates his legacy, remember? So, without thinking of how it will affect those who love him most, Hamilton writes and publishes everything about his affair. Because at least he took control of the information about him. He is still in control of legacy.

giphy-4

There is a glimmer of redemption after his son dies in a duel. But when Alexander is challenged to a duel with Burr, he doesn’t back down. He hasn’t fully learned this lesson about his legacy.

Until…Burr takes HIS shot. Hamilton has finally (literally) thrown away his shot, but it’s too late. And in the moments before the bullet hits him, he has his realization. “What if this bullet is my legacy? Legacy, legacy, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Do you see how this directly leads to the true theme statement, “You have no control who live, who dies, who tells your story.”

 

ZOOTOPIA: I will not be able to get as detailed with this one because I did not watch Zootopia on repeat for three months straight. But…I’ll give it my best shot. Now Zootopia is a classic positive character arc, so it is going to be shaped a little differently than Hamilton.

Officer Hopps begins the movie by claiming that Zootopia is the place where anybody can be anything and to prove it, she’s going to go and be a police officer. This is her false theme statement. But when she goes to Zootopia, things don’t work out the way she thinks they should. In a last ditch effort to prove everyone wrong, she gets 48 hours to solve a case. To do so, she must partner up with Nick Wiles, a fox. Now at the beginning of the movie, Officer Hopps shows some of her bias against foxes when she is nervous of Nick, but then she scolds herself for her backwards thinking and goes out of her way to show just how unbiased she is against foxes.  

giphy-5

But that same bias that she is fighting against in other people when it’s about her, still exists in her own heart about other animals, specifically predators and foxes. As the movie goes on, more and more of her biases seem to be proven right, when predators start attacking, and she is thrown right back into simply seeing herself as proving the biases against HER wrong, without focusing on the changes she needs to make in her own heart. I don’t know the movie well enough to tell you which side character must state the true theme statement somewhere around the midpoint, but I am sure it happens.

Finally, at her dark night of the soul, she realizes that her bias and efforts to prove everyone else wrong about her, have hurt her friend, Nick, and thrown Zootopia into utter chaos, bringing out ugliness and terrible bias. She gives up her badge and goes back to her parents’ carrot farm. But what pulls her out of this dark night? Remember, IT MUST REFLECT THE TRUE THEME STATEMENT! It’s the fox from her childhood, the one who hurt and bullied her as a child, probably helping to instill some of those biases she carried with her about predators and foxes. When she meets him as an adult and he’s gentle and sweet and apologizes for how he acted as a kid (and of course says something that helps her break the case, but that’s beside the point!) He helped heal this lingering bias in her heart, so now Officer Hopps can go back to Zootopia, solve the case, and stand up and say, “Change begins with you!”

 

I know this is a lot to process, both because there’s a lot of information and not a ton of specific instructions. But the main thing I want you to walk away from this post understanding is that your plot must support your theme. And when your MC is making choices according to their false theme statement, it must eventually lead to bad things. Once they begin acting according to their true theme statement we get resolution and healing.

Taking Your Sentences From Good To Great

There are lots of things to love about books: Sweeping plots, great characterizations, relationships that make your heart pound a little bit faster. And I do love those things—but there’s another thing that I particularly love, which is always something I look for in books I read and in books I write:

Lush, gorgeous sentence-level writing.

Poetic writing is one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s always the standard I strive for in my own books. Sometimes, finding just the right turn of phrase is something that happens in revisions; particularly when I was a newer writer, trying to focus too much on the sentence level while I drafted only led to feeling paralyzed by a need for perfection and losing momentum to finish the story. As I’ve grown and matured as a writer, though, I’ve learned to focus more and more on line-level writing while I draft as well as when I revise—and over time, it’s come to be instinctual in a way that still allows me to draft fairly quickly and efficiently, but also means that my first drafts tend to be cleaner.

Sentence-level drafting isn’t for everyone. The #1 most important thing in a first draft is just to get the story down, however rough it might be; you can always revise later and strengthen things then! But if you’re interested in taking your first drafts up a notch, here are some of the tricks I’ve taught myself to be aware of in order to make my sentences stronger as I write, rather than only strengthening them during revisions!

1. I take some time to let a story “marinate” before I write it.

The amount of time varies, but I typically spend at least a few months thinking over a story idea before I get to outlining or drafting. During this time I come up with the basics of the story—the main character, the setting, at least a vague idea of the plot (though often it’s very, very vague until I get to outlining, when it becomes clearer)—but I also spend a lot of time thinking about the atmosphere I want my story to have. What sorts of feelings do I want the story to conjure up in readers: Wistful, gloomy, nostalgic, peaceful, funny, creepy?

Taking the time to ponder what kind of atmosphere I want my story to have helps when I get to drafting, because then I know what I’m aiming for, and I can make sure that my word choices support that atmosphere instead of detracting from it.

2. I watch for the sounds of words and the feelings those sounds elicit.

Think of the words creamy and thickened. Both can describe essentially the same texture; yogurt, for example, could be referred to by either one. And yet don’t they conjure up totally different feelings to you? Creamy, to me, sounds rich, luxurious, smooth, indulgent. Thickened, on the other hand, makes me think of the gelatin that forms in my homemade chicken stock if I leave it in the fridge—not a particularly appetizing image! Some of this is connotation—the way these two words are commonly used—and some of it is the sounds inside the words themselves. Creamy has a lot of smooth, open vowels that help to elicit the feeling of something, well, creamy; thickened, on the other hand, is broken up with sharp, hard consonants, which have the opposite effect.

It can be helpful to watch out for word sounds both as they relate to the specific feelings you want your reader to experience (sadness in a sad scene, comfort in a comforting one, etc.), and in terms of your story’s overall atmosphere. A ghost story might have a tendency towards words that sound eerie or spooky, while a rom-com might go for fun and flirty banter.

3. I keep an eye out for strong adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and adverbs are the building blocks of description—we as writers wouldn’t get very far without them. But all are not created equal; the tree was big, for example, doesn’t give us the same feeling as the tree was colossal, and the tree was immense is also different. “Big” doesn’t carry the same feeling of size that colossal and immense do, both because the latter two adjectives both specifically mean ESPECIALLY big, and because “big” is much more common and less likely to elicit specific feelings in a reader. As I draft, every time I get to a descriptor, I pause for about two seconds to see if I can think of a stronger one to use. If I can’t, it’s no big deal and I go on, but much of the time I can.

4. Likewise, I keep an eye out for strong metaphors.

I use a similar process in choosing metaphors for my descriptions—in fact, I wrote a whole blog post here about writing strong metaphors, which goes in-depth into my process!

5. Try to steer clear of “to be” verbs—unless they suit your story’s voice for a particular reason.

It’s pretty common writing knowledge that “to be” verbs (was sitting, is running, etc.) are much weaker than their active counterparts (sat, runs, etc.). As I draft, I try to be aware of the verbs I’m using as well, and use as many strong, direct verbs as I can. The exception to this is when those “to be” verbs help the voice of my story—in my specific instance, I write a lot of Southern novels, and Southern dialect uses “to be” verbs very heavily, so I often have more of them in my book than I would in a book told in the voice of a Yankee. (A fact that has caused several of my not-Southern critique partners to scratch their heads!)

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Setting

giphy-2

 

I know what you’re thinking.

Um, the premise of my book is about a boy on Mars, the setting is Mars, I don’t care what the theme is, he’s on Mars dang it!

Sssshhhh, yes, yes, I know. Your story premise and events probably require a certain setting. You should be able to organically tell what you need just by having a rough idea about your story. It has to happen in a small town, or a school, or a haunted house, etc.

But when dealing with theme, I want you to think beyond just the basic idea of setting. I want you to see the setting not just as the place, but the time of year, the weather, and all the objects that surround your MC.

Now that we’re thinking of setting in a more broad light, go read this post by Rosalyn Collings Eves on objective correlatives. Rosalyn talks about using the setting and objects in the setting to convey your main characters emotional state. You should also have some sort of plot wide objective correlative. Something that comes up several times throughout the story and helps reflect your MC’s character arc. This object should be important to the theme somehow. You should be able to state how it plays into it.

In Zootopia, there are several things, but the one that plays most into the theme is Officer Hopps’ fox spray, don’t you think? The way her relationship changes as to whether or not she needs that represents her journey through the theme that “Change begins with you.”

In Hamilton, I have a harder time fully pinning it down, but I’d say it’s probably Hamilton’s relationship to “bullets” and “shots” and “duels.” There are three significant duels in the story, and I think each of them represents an important turning point for Hamilton. Plus the idea of how he relates to “throwing away his shot” and finally in the end when he asks the question, “will this bullet be my legacy?” It all plays into the theme of “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’ because Hamilton was a genius and did amazing things for America, and yet we mostly just remember him as the guy who was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel and died.

giphy-3

In a book by a CP of mine, the theme is about carrying the weight of another’s burdens on your shoulders. And the plot wide objective correlative is this constant pressing heat and drought. And as the story gets worse the heat gets worse, until finally everything comes to a head and the MC realizes she can’t do this all on her own and asks for help and finally, finally the heat breaks and the rain comes. Do you see how the OC mirrors the theme?

It is harder for me to tell you how to plan this. I think you just have to think about it. think about where you can insert “touch points” into your story. Think about an object that can represent the theme and then make it important to your MC. Think about a part of your setting, how can it change throughout the story to reflect your MC’s emotional state?

I can’t tell you how to figure it out, just that you need it. this is the kind of thing that really helps you add layers to your story.

Pros and Cons of NaNoWriMo

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_participant

Steph here, three or four time loser of NaNoWriMo. That’s not even counting all the times I’ve lost Camp NaNoWriMo. And yet, I am doing NaNoWriMo again and, this year, I have to win. I’m a high school teacher and I have a few students who want to do it as part of our newly formed Creative Writing Group. Nothing like a teenager to hold you accountable.

If you are on the fence about whether or not to participate, gather round and I’ll share a few of the pros and cons with you:

What is NaNoWriMo?

You can check it out at their website, but basically, it is a challenge to write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November. To sum up, if you do NaNoWriMo, your November will look like this:

kermit-writing

Pros

Community – Outside of the actual crafting of a story, the best part of writing, for me, will always be the amazing online community. In November, writers from all over the world will be on the NaNoWriMo forums and on twitter, trying to write a novel. It’s a great time to do something with a larger community and meet other writers. Even if you aren’t doing Nano, there will be plenty of word sprints for you to jump in on.

Accountability – For me, I sometimes do better with a goal and a deadline. Nano will give that to you with beautiful charts and graphs to go with it. Your goal is the end of November and the site will break down your daily word count based on how much work you have left to do.

You’ll actually get started – If you’ve always wanted to write a book, but never tried, Nano is the perfect time to just get it done. Or, if you are a seasoned writer, tired of hearing people regale you with tales of all the books they were going to write, this is the perfect opportunity for you to challenge them to shut up and do it.

Cons

Falling Behind – I’m the kind of person who gets overwhelmed if I fall behind, and in Nano it is easy to fall behind. I think I’m doing fine, then all the sudden it is November 25th and I have 8k words a day left to hit my goal.

Start of the holidays – I always think the holiday will give me a ton of time to write, but it usually means that I get extra busy and have less time to write than usual. But… if you can make it work during Nano, you can make it work any time, and that is an important lesson to teach yourself.

You spend a lot of money at coffee shops – If you are on a tight budget, like me, this is a bad thing. Otherwise, if you love Panera (also like me) it’s a good thing!

Let me know in the comments: Have you done NaNo before? Are you doing it again?

1 2 3 7