Steph is really bad at bios. She teaches high school English in Virginia, has a soft spot in her heart for dark YA, and the first thing anyone says when visiting her apartment for the first time is, "Wow, you have a lot of books." Check out her blog at www.thefakesteph.com. (The link is the kiss below in the social media icons.)
“New year, new you.” Facebook reminded me that a few years ago, this phrase was very important to me. Each new year brings with it a chance to start fresh and turn your life into whatever you want it to be. For me, it’s usually a time of year filled with hope for the future.
This year, I don’t have that hope, at least not the way I’ve had it in the past. The idea of writing out a big list of goals makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry. So instead of telling myself how many projects to complete or making a year long chart to track my progress with stickers, I’m going to simply meet myself where I am.
What does that mean? It means I’m going to forgive myself for not being ready for some arbitrary timeline in my head. It means I’m not setting big goals, but instead focusing on the areas of my life I want to flourish and setting small, attainable goals that I can revisit often. It means letting myself have some quick wins instead of a slow-moving progress bar.
I can’t handle the big picture right now. But I can handle the first step in the right direction. I’m going to stick with those steps until I have the energy to look up to the horizon and see those big lofty goals that I’ve been carrying around in my heart.
That’s my wish for you, too, if you feel beaten down or overwhelmed, that you find the strength and courage to take one step, no matter how small, and then another. Whether you’re trudging along with me, relying on those quick, small victories to motivate you, or focused on something bigger in the future, we can all keep moving forward. For now, let that be enough.
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 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.
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:
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.
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?
Someone needs to explain how dating works to me. I’m really bad at it, and, in books, dating is almost always the product of… stalking.
That can’t work in real life… right?
And I get that a lot of the examples that immediately spring to mind are older: Confessions of Georgia Nicholson, Twilight, Stephanie Plum. But I read a lot and I don’t think this phenomenon has disappeared.
When I think about stalking=dating in the real world, I can come up with a few examples, too. I have a friend whose parents started dating because her mom made every excuse she could to visit her dad’s place of employment in high school. They are still happily married.
Then, there are the less successful stories. I had a friend who wanted to marry rich, so she started hanging around places where she thought she would meet rich men. This worked for getting her dates, but not so much for a lasting relationship. Another friend is intent on going out with a guy and stops by his workplace to flirt at least once a week. Nothings come of it, but, who knows? Maybe there is a “yet” at the end of that sentence.
There is something to be said for making yourself available for the object of your affection. Nobody can flirt with you if you are holed up in your room playing Dragon Age. (Just me?) But… where is the line between being available and straight up stalking?
Personally, I haven’t tried this since high school. But mostly what I remember is I was so obsessed with “being available” for one particular person that I missed out on a lot of other opportunities that could have bloomed into teenage love and dramatic breakups.
So tell me two things in comments: 1. What is the most realistic love story you’ve ever read? and 2. Have you ever stalked anyone into dating you?
Or keep scrolling for the reveal at the bottom of this post! Seriously, all of us here at To The Shelves are in LOVE with this cover and hope to one day be as lucky. (Well, I, Steph, feel that way and am happy to project it on my fellow mentees.)
ABOUT E.S. WESLEY
A long-time mentor and counselor, E.S. Wesley has worked for years to protect, encourage, and empower young adults to navigate a life that rarely makes sense. He believes all people are just waiting for someone to relate to their stories, so he makes up stories in the hope that someone will read and find a home there.
His stories are often strange and twisty.
Wesley lives with his wife in Texas, where he’s always writing. Texas has a lot of things that he likes, but Shelly is the best of them. Second best is his son, who introduced him to his wife. Sometimes we do things out of order—that just makes life more interesting.
I’m so jealous of all the people who will be picked for the Pitch Wars class of 2016 soon. I was fortunate enough to participate in last year’s class, and I couldn’t be happier about the outcome. My book from last year’s Pitch Wars is coming January 2017, I’ve got an amazing agent, and we’re getting ready to sub a new book in the next month!
I’m not sure I could have done it without Pitch Wars. I learned so much from my other mentee comrades, from my mentor, and made connections and gained confidence I’ll need to carry me forward for years.
But enough about that. We’re here for the cover reveal of my Pitch Wars manuscript from last year, THE OUTS!
ABOUT THE OUTS
Caleb’s been changing ever since the memory-stealing blackouts—the Outs—started. He used to be a good, dependable, honor-student, but now his parents have vanished, and something inside tells him their disappearance is his fault.
That something has a voice—a voice that’s pushed him to kidnap a little girl. Caleb believes he did it to protect her, but now he’s starting to wonder if he’s the one she needs protection from.
Then there’s his friend, Kitzi. Kitzi knows a secret she can’t share, locked in her head behind layers of brain damage. Kitzi wants to help Caleb, but she suspects a connection between this little girl and the Outs. If she can survive Caleb’s mistakes and the strange girl’s reality-bending fits long enough to put the pieces together, her secret might save them. Or it could mean the end of everything.
For me, that meant much of the adaptation process involved using cloud-based technologies. I’m one of those people who hordes stationary and never uses it. If I can’t find something with a search in my e-mail or Google drive, I will never see it again. It also means that I can write from anywhere, and switch devices if I need.
I set up my organization on Trello.com. Trello is an online corkboard. Each board is a collection of lists, which have have cards on them that can be reordered or filled with information. I made a LOT of lists: Act 1, Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, Act 3, Plot, Characters – Major Players, Characters – Other, Setting, To Do. It looks like this when it’s empty:
I filled in what I knew for each column, which wasn’t much: a few scenes that made me excited to write, a couple of characters, the main plot, and a character arc or two. Writing this now, the idea that I almost sat down to write this story with so little information is terrifying. Moving on.
At this point, you need to know that eventually all these lists will fill up. But they are going to look empty for a while.
For me, my “Plot” list had the most information, so that’s where I started. I added a card that said “Pre-Writing Query Summary” and wrote out a few paragraphs that identified the main characters and conflict. Then, I made sure I had a card for the main murder mystery and any subplots, including character relationship arcs. Because I had written the pre-writing query summary, I had an idea of where I wanted to go.
Next, I gave each card that represented a plot or relationship arc a color. This is important for later. At this point, I wanted to jump right into the ACT lists to plan scenes, but I forced myself to write a beat sheet. A beat sheet is basically a plot outline that highlights several beats, such as the inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc. I used a beat sheet from Save the Cat, a screenwriting book that I’ve read several times. (You can find a description of this beat sheet here, while the Save the Cat website has tons of filled out beat sheets for popular stories.)
And…. ha! Yep, I could fill in some stuff, but there was a lot I couldn’t fill in yet. Good thing I didn’t create scenes or start writing (even though I wanted to!).
I left my mostly blank beat sheet and moved on to my “Character” list on Trello. I went through each plot card and made a character card for every character I knew I would need for each plot. Most of them ended up on my “Major Players” list, but some ended up on my “Other” list.
I used a list of questions from Robin LaFever’s blog to explore my characters (Cindy shared this post). I did this for every character on my “Major Players” list. Every. One. Some of those characters ended up playing a much more minor role than I initially thought, but I understood all of my characters so much better.
Now, I went back to my beat sheet and tried to fill in more. I still didn’t know enough to get it all right, though. So, I tried something I’d never done before: Time Lines.
Using LucidCharts in Google Drive, I made two timelines. The first was for my main plot. I started with the murder and worked my way backwards and forwards – what lead up to the death? What came after? How did the players respond to what was happening and what would that look like. It gave me a bigger picture of what was happening in my story and really helped me narrow some ideas down for my beat sheet.
The second time line I made was for my main character and her current girlfriend and ex. I gave each character a different color and plotted the ways their lives intersected…. from birth. It told me a lot about them that I hadn’t figured out yet: why had they chosen their careers? How long had they been working towards it? When did they start dating? When did they break up? What are their significant anniversaries? I then took all of this information and added it to the character cards on Trello.
At this point, I could flesh out my beat sheet, but I still had one major list to complete before moving on to my ACT lists. Setting. I had a few general ideas about setting in my mind: there is a school, an apartment, a police station, a furniture store. I gave each location a card and really thought about what it would look like. That meant for my school, I thought about how many teachers and students attended, how the classrooms were assigned, what the principal’s office looks like, how far the nurse’s office is, what the parking lot looks like. For the apartments I thought I might use, this meant searching for apartment layouts and adding a picture, thinking about the quality of furniture there, how it is decorated.
I added a lot more information to these cards than I ever used in the writing, but I also got way more details into the draft–and kept the details consistent–because of this planning. For example, I made a card for the entire town and wrote about the different areas – which sections had money? Where are my main locations located within the town? What does the town value? Who has power? I referred to these cards over and over again while drafting.
So far, this has all appeared pretty linear, but that feels a bit disingenuous. Yes, I focused on one list and then the next, but I constantly went back to cards on other lists to add information because I kept discovering more. At some point I thought I would run out of things to know about my story, but it never happened. Even during drafting, I kept finding more. And I know when I sit down to revise in September, that I’ll keep learning more.
Okay… now for the fun part.
Remember I said I color-coded each plot card? Now I get to use that color coding in the ACT lists. I started in “Act 1” and started adding scenes based on the beat sheet. Each scene received a color or two that indicated which plotlines it connected to. At this point, I also began dividing the scenes into chapters. I indicated this with “1: Martha arrives home to find out her husband has aged himself into a 12 year old.” (This is not actually what my story is about.)
I thought after all my planning, adding scene cards would be easy, but this turned out to be the most difficult part of the process. It was also the most helpful. I still can’t believe I almost skipped this step to start writing.
As I wrote down scenes of things that needed to happen, I started to find my plot holes. Things that didn’t make sense, subplots that didn’t feel natural. Things I otherwise would have found while drafting or in revision. I fixed them in the cards before writing a single word.
I could also see the distribution of my plots over the course of the whole book. The color coding allowed me to make sure that my main plot dominated, but that my subplots were evenly sprinkled throughout the book. I cut subplots and characters at this point because I realized they didn’t work with my story.
I also hit a stalling point in my third act. I couldn’t figure out how to end it. Part of me was tempted to start writing and figure it out, but I took a few days and worked on act three. I realized that my problem wasn’t act three, but issues with act one and act two. And I reworked major things in the book. Once I had all my scenes card done, I started writing.
In many ways plotting the whole book onto scene cards felt like I was able to do a round or two of revisions before even starting my book.
Here’s the honest answer to why I pants: I’m impatient. I sit down to flesh out my ideas and my characters and the next thing I know I have a draft. It doesn’t help that I fast draft (I write or attempt to write a sh*tty first draft in two weeks). It’s easy to tell myself to go ahead and pants it because it’s only two weeks of my time. If it’s terrible, I can plot it and try again.
But, this is the thing: I never actually try again.
More than that, my life has become so over-committed in the last few years that two weeks to write IS a big deal. I haven’t finished the first draft of a manuscript in THREE YEARS. That is terrifying to me. I used to finish multiple first drafts a year, even if I didn’t revise all of them.
So, when Cindy wrote her posts about switching from pantsing to plotting (Why I Switched and How I Plot Now), I was intrigued. Reading her posts and all of the resources she listed, I decided to try plotting. I thought it would:
Fix any plot holes I had before I encountered them in the story.
Make sure I didn’t drop subplots and characters and allowed the development of the story to happen smoothly.
Write my draft easier.
Did it work? Yes. Enough that I am officially a plotter.
For my current project, I didn’t just switch genres, I switched categories. I went from working on YA sci-fi to adult mystery, something I had never written before. It scared me, so it seemed like a good project to plot.
What did I learn?
Plotting is fun – it is all the good parts of creating a story, like discovering the quirks of the characters or the setting or figuring out the motivations behind the antagonists actions. It’s also HARD. There were times when I wanted to just stop and write the thing, but I made myself wait; I was impatient only because I had a problem with my plot.
The first two acts were relatively easy to plot. I learned pretty quickly that a character who I thought would be an important side character didn’t actually have a place in the story and removed her. I was also able to make sure that my subplots were evenly spread throughout story, adding tension, personal stakes, and making my main character feel like a real person who has other things going on. Essentially, I fixed things that usually wouldn’t get fixed until revision.
Then, I hit my final act, and… everything stopped. I spent two days like this:
Then I realized that the reason I didn’t know how to bridge from my lowpoint to my climax was that I didn’t have enough clues for my mystery. At the suggestion of one of my fellow PW15 mentees, I decided I needed a red herring. Once I figured that out, it was SUPER EASY to go back and weave it into previous scenes.
But that wasn’t the only way to solve my problem. This was a mystery and my character isn’t a cop. She needed a way to find out certain information. She needed someone with a certain skill set…
I added that character into one of my subplots. This character enriches the world, helps that subplot feel real, and, at the end, brings that subplot in to help the main plot finish strong. I almost want to say it was easy. But it wouldn’t have been had I plotted the first two acts and waited to solve the problems of my final act. Figuring out how to better set up my conflict for a powerful conclusion would have launched me into revision hell, emphasis on the hell.
So this is to say, I drank the Kool-Aid. I am now a plotter. Stay tuned for my second follow-up to Cindy’s post: How I Plot Now and maybe a few thoughts on how drafting feels now.
It’s okay if you get overwhelmed at work and take a break from writing. Lots of people make it work, but that doesn’t mean you can stay healthy trying to force it. Gather ideas, fill your creative tank with books and music and movies, and be ready for when you can physically and emotionally return to writing. Don’t let the idea of how you are “supposed to write” spoil and become a poison.
It is not a betrayal of your friends to feel sad that you aren’t where you want to be right now. Remember that the success of other’s has absolutely nothing to do with you. It doesn’t mean you are an awful writer, it doesn’t mean that you will never be successful, it doesn’t mean anything at all except that your friend’s hard work met some good timing. Your sadness may be irrational, but it is okay to feel it. But just for a moment. Then, get lost in your happiness for other’s.
Most importantly, give yourself some grace. You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to succeed. Neither of these options reflects on you as a person. Be honest, keep writing, and take care of yourself.
To The Shelves is a collaborative blog developed by a group of writers who all participated in the Pitch Wars 2015 writing contest.
The blog will launch May 1 with a Pep Talk because encouraging yourself and other writers is an incredibly important part of the writing process for me, and I want to make sure it is something we take seriously here on the blog! That post will soon be followed by posts on craft, writing as a business, writing process, and writers talking about books!
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