Writing: A Survival Guide for INFJs

Note: If you don’t know your personality type, I highly suggest taking the 16personalities test.

The day I discovered I’m an INFJ and read my first personality profile, it was like WHO ARE YOU AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SPYING ON MY LIFE? Suddenly, all my weirdness made sense. As I continued to learn about common strengths and weaknesses for my personality type, it was illuminating not just for my everyday life, but for my life as a writer.

They say INFJs make up the smallest percentage of all personality types—less than 1%. And from my very unofficial surveys it seems like writers ARE the 1%. It makes sense, since most INFJs are naturally creative. But while being an INFJ can make us feel unique, it also comes with a unique set of challenges, especially as writers. These struggles are something all writers may face (and on the flip side, not all INFJs may struggle with these), but if you find yourself having a particularly hard time in these areas (like me), here are some tips for surviving and thriving as an INFJ writer…

Struggle: We tend to be more sensitive to criticism and critique.

Ann - Offense! That's Rude!

Why this can be a problem: If you’re going to write a book, you’re going to need critiques and you’re going to face criticism.

What you can do: Realize that critique of your work is part of the process and business of being a writer. And it is NOT personal. When your critique partners read your latest manuscript and come back with suggestions, it’s easy to get defensive. It’s also easy to despair. Resist the urge to get sucked into either of those whirlpools. Find writing partners you trust and then remind yourself that they don’t hate you or your book, no matter how many comments they make on your manuscript. In fact, they want to help you succeed. Critique is essential to growth and success as a writer—and FYI, none of us ever reach a point where we’ve “made it” and no longer need feedback. If it’s not coming from your CPs, it’s going to come from an agent or an editor. Learn to see this part of the writing life as a positive, not a negative.

Criticism can be a harder beast to face. My advice? Don’t dwell on it. I know—easier said than done. But again, it’s par for the course as a writer. Reading is subjective. What one reader thinks is amazing, another might hate. Think about all the books you’ve loved…and the ones you didn’t. Yes, it might feel like a personal assault when someone dislikes our book, but in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion, and we don’t have to let that opinion become part of our identity—as a person, or a writer.

Struggle: We can be extremely private.

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Why this can be a problem: We try to go it alone.

What you can do: Find yourself a community of writers who know what you’re going through. You don’t have to tell them every detail of your life, but having friends who understand the ups and downs of the writing life—and who can offer encouragement and a safe space to feel all the feelings that come with it—is essential to staying emotionally healthy as a writer.

Struggle: We tend to be perfectionists.

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Why this can be a problem: We can be tempted to quit in the first draft, or edit and revise for ages, convinced our words are never good enough.

What you can do: Learn that first drafts and perfection do NOT go together. Writing is messy and it takes time. Find trusted CPs and send them your work even when you know it’s not perfect. In order for that manuscript to grow up into a book, it has to leave the nest. It will be okay, and so will you.

And remember, editing doesn’t stop until that book is in print. Any agent you sign with is probably going to request a few changes, and once you have that glorious book deal, you’ll be working with an editor who’s going to request a whole lot more. Learn to let go and not obsess over every comma. Or should that be a semicolon? Maybe I should just rewrite the entire sentence so I don’t have to figure out which one is right…(Don’t pretend you haven’t done this.)

Struggle: We hate feeling like we’re not making progress, routine tasks are an annoyance, and interruptions push us over the edge.

I'm Going to Lose It!

Why this can be a problem: Cranky writer snaps at anyone and anything that causes delays in their writing goals or interrupts writing time. Despair sets in and we begin to question our life choices. Is this really worth it? Is it ever going to happen? I should just give up.

What you can do:

First, give yourself grace. Life happens. Sometimes you have a week where everything goes according to plan and you hit your daily word count goal with ease. Other weeks, the kids get sick, or appointments stack up, or bad news leaves you mentally and emotionally exhausted. You’re lucky if you manage a paragraph. Realize that this is okay. It may be frustrating, but it’s also out of your control.

Secondly, learn to prioritize. 99.9% of the writers I know (including myself) don’t write full time. We’re also students, employees, business owners, SAHMs trying to juggle writing and motherhood…all with tasks that *aren’t* writing screaming for our attention. It’s easy for writing to become that thing we do when we’ve managed to get everything else done. I don’t know about you, but I have a strong tendency to get overwhelmed by the length of my to-do list, and I don’t always prioritize that list very well. I want to check everything off the list as quickly as possible, but what I need to do is decide what HAS to be done today, and what can wait until tomorrow or the next day. If I have a graphic design job that’s not due for two weeks, I don’t have to finish it in the next eight hours, I can space it over the next few days. As much as I hate the stack of dirty dishes next to the sink, they’ll still be there after a quick writing session. Figure out what part of your day is going to be the best time for writing (said time may shift from day to day), and when that time comes, write. For me, it’s usually in the afternoon when the kids’ homeschool work is done and they’re free to watch cartoons or play video games. Sure I could be tempted to tackle that stack of dishes, but it’s a lot easier to write during that window of relative peace and quiet. Later, when the husband is home and the kids are running wild through the house with their Nerf guns, and the dog is barking because the neighbors have dared to pull into their driveway—then I can do those dishes.

Struggle: We tend to neglect self care.

Chris Traeger - I'm Dead

Why this can be a problem: Creative burnout is a real thing.

What you can do: This goes along with the last problem, in that it’s easy to push yourself TOO hard to juggle life and responsibilities AND write your novel. That’s why balance—and knowing when to take a break—is so important.

Confession—when I’m deep in a project, writing or otherwise, I forget to eat. Yeah, you’re not the first person to make that face at me. This is the point where I usually lose people. I have a couple of friends who totally feel me on this, but most folks hear that and are horrified. (“You forget to EAT? How is that even possible?”) Turns out it’s an INFJ quirk. I mean, I’m in the middle of a five hundred-word streak! Having to stop and make food is SO annoying. Do you know how long it takes to microwave that noodle bowl? Four minutes! I just…give me a second…if I don’t write this down, I’ll forget this brilliant line…it’s okay, I had breakfast this morning…I think…how long have I had to pee this bad?

Even on days where the words aren’t flowing, it’s easy to spend hours trying to squeeze something out of your brain and through your fingertips. When you’re not actively writing, your mind is still swirling, trying to craft that perfect sentence or fill in that plot hole. Soon you’re tired and cranky and your brain is mush. Every sentence sounds idiotic. Your anxiety is skyrocketing and you’re convinced you’re a sham—you’ll never be a successful writer. Who were you kidding? Whut R werds?

This is your hint that you need to take a break. Rest. Do something that inspires you creatively and/or relaxes your mind and body. Take a walk. Listen to music. Watch a film or read a book. I’m not a person who believes you have to write EVERY SINGLE DAY in order to be successful. In fact, I’ve found that I’m much more successful at meeting my goals if I include consistent breaks and moments of rest. Take time to recharge. Your manuscript will thank you. And when you do get back to writing? Take a muffin with you.

I’d love to hear from you! Did you connect with any of these struggles? What strategies have you implemented to help you overcome? 

Developing Complicated Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aroldis Chapman. For those of you who don’t know, he’s the star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Most believe he’s the reason the Cubs won the World Series this year. Watching him pitch is thrilling. I mean, he throws a 105 mph ball. His strikeout record is through the roof. Gifted athlete.

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And yet also, there’s this: Chapman was suspended for 30 games last summer. Because he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired shots at the garage door during an argument. Abusive partner. Moreover, in an interview with the New York Times, he maintained he’d done nothing wrong.

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What does this have to do with writing?

Everything. Because readers connect to flawed characters like Aroldis Chapman. Sometimes it’s because of the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude. Better you than me, pal.

'You're loving this, aren't you?'
‘You’re loving this, aren’t you?’

Other times it’s feeling sorry for someone who’s down on his or her bad luck. Or cringing at the train wreck of someone’s bad behavior. But mostly it’s because we want to root for people. Why else do we (or maybe it’s just me!) talk to the characters in our books or on the television? “Don’t go in the water! The shark is there!”

We like to root for people because of course, we’ve all made regrettable choices too. And we all hope to be loved and appreciated anyway, in the hopes we’ll do better next time. Real people are complicated, messy, layered, fragile. They lie. They lie again to cover the other lies. Their choices are motivated by ego, pride, selfishness, the secrets they keep, mistakes they’re trying to rectify, people they’re trying to protect, however inexpertly.

For example, Han Solo. Because everyone needs a little Han Solo in their day.

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At first, Han was motivated by the need to pay off the debt he’d been ducking. His choice to ferry Luke and Obi Wan is what launches the rest of the story — and it’s definitely not rooted in nobility or heroism, even though ultimately he becomes both of those things.

I’m a plotter, so I’m going to tell you the best way to craft strong, compelling, therefore flawed characters, is to plan them before you write them.

As you plan, remember that important or transformational moments in your book should result as often as possible from choices your character makes. And those choices should not always be “the right choice.” When they flow naturally from who your character is, they won’t always be smart. But they’ll be true to your character. And fixing those mistakes will be part of your character’s arc.

My system for programming these choices isn’t elegant, but it works for me. First, I sketch my character(s), using all the best advice to help me develop who they are. Goals, motivations, habits, weaknesses, tics, backstory. What they want and how they change.

Then, as I put together my beat sheet, I sketch each plot point with a choice. And the choices don’t always have to be major – that would be exhausting to read. Even minor choices keep us moving forward.

For example, Walter White.

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The first choice he made, which launched his story of a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, was based on love. He was dying of cancer and wanted to ensure his family’s security after he was gone. Heartstrings.

But along the way, as he evolved into a far less sympathetic character motivated by power, he made little, off-the-top-of-his-head choices too – like calling himself “Heisenberg” – that ultimately became part of his legend.

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Whenever you find your characters reacting, ask yourself, is there a way to make this action a result of a choice? Sometimes the answer is no – totally. Like, a volcano buries their hometown, and a family must rebuild. Or, a civil war erupts and your character must flee. Or fight. But all that comes next must be rooted in choice, so that we can keep rooting for your character.

I’m curious to know if you’ve come up with other ways to ensure your characters are flawed and realistic? How do you plan for their failures and choices?

Taking a Cue on Character Motivation

Think theater for a few minutes. Whether you’ve been an audience member, a performer, or a director, you’ll probably agree that theater is pretty cool because it’s so alive—a story with breath and energy propelled forward in time, right before your eyes.

Where does that breath and energy come from? What’s driving the story?

Close your eyes; envision a stage. A big, fancy proscenium theater from a hundred years ago or a stark blackbox in some college building’s basement, doesn’t matter.

Put two actors on your stage. Paint them with some characterization: age, gender, family stuff, looks, likes. Give them a quick setting and given circumstances. Drama showcases conflict, so give your two characters a problem to solve.

Now what? Pretty boring if they just stand there looking at each other, right? Someone has to do something.

And then, the other one is going to react to what the first one did.

Action—the doing of things—pushes the story in a play. Here’s the secret to acting, and consequently, theater, in two parts:

Acting is doing. And acting is reacting.

The connection to writing, and the importance of these concepts to us as authors, are what I’d like to chat about in this post.

First, acting is doing. It isn’t “being” some mood or “feeling” some emotion—it’s all in the doing. The actions can be as consequential as stabbing the king, or as trivial as making lemonade. For an action to be natural, it has to be motivated. In theater, we say  “No movement without a purpose!” Every bit of motion and staging has to come from some good reason, or you shouldn’t do it.

This is true of your book, too.

Your characters shouldn’t make an aimless move. It might be a lovely sunset to walk a meadow, in which you elaborate upon the silky grasses waving and the swish of the heroine’s skirt. But is she there with a purpose that advances the plot? What’s her motivation for strolling said meadow?

If there’s no goal, she should probably forget the meadow and do something instead.

But maybe she’s out walking so that she can plan the theft of her neighbor Stan’s prize chickens, to sell them to have money to heal her sick child—then yes! Meadow loveliness makes a good juxtaposition for that complex motivation, while showing us three-dimensional characterization. She’s doing something, and look at everything the reader is being shown (instead of told).

To help ensure your scenes are based in natural motivations, let your characters always pursue the objective.  In theater, when asked “What’s your objective?”, we DON’T say “to be sad/mad/joyful/frightened.” Instead, we train actors to state objectives

1. in an infinitive action verb structure

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2. in terms of another character

In your head, as you plot and draft, try phrasing your characters’ objectives this way to better know their motivations, and choose actions that allow them to directly pursue the objective. What’s the heroine’s objective in the above scene? “To scheme the theft of prize chickens from Stan.” To scheme is an action verb in the infinitive, and it’s stated in terms of another character (Stan).

What’s the main character’s objective for stabbing the king? To move himself up into King Duncan’s position of power. (Title character in Macbeth)

What’s the main character’s objective in making lemonade? To prove to her sister Lenny that she’s clear-minded enough for an everyday task. (Babe in Crimes of the Heart)

If you are stuck for ideas on getting from Point A in your book to Point B, try spring-boarding from motivation. What does Character X want? The answer is his/her objective. What is Character X going to do to get what he/she wants? He/she does this, this, and that. Now, write the scene that shows these actions.

The awesome part about focusing on an objective that impels natural action is that…

Acting is reacting, too. Actors on stage are trained to develop characters who listen, look, watch, and wait for what’s being said and done by the other character(s), and then—it’s time to react. And everything in the reaction will stem from that character’s motivations and how they’ve changed or strengthened in light of what the other character has said or done. Boom, new objective. Boom, new actions, new schemes, new tactics. Boom, action takes place…and then boom, it’s the first character’s turn to react.

It’s a constant climb on this ladder, all throughout a play…and a novel. She’s motivated to do this, so he’s motivated to do that. Tension increases, conflict mounts, and suspense and emotion heighten… in ways that progress naturally toward the end of the story.

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.

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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,

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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.

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  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.

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.

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  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!

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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.

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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.  

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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

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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.

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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.

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Characters

Once you know the theme of your novel and have a good idea of who your main character is, what they want, and how they change, you’re ready to start looking at your side characters.

Each of your characters will have a certain view or statement or opinion that has to do with your theme. Some of them will be similar to your MC’s. Some of them may be a kind of mirror that shows the same idea in a different situation. Other characters may have totally different ideas around the theme. This is where your tension comes in. Real, deep, meaningful tension. When these worldviews clash and cause their characters to do things that bring them into conflict.

The most obvious of these is the antagonist. The antagonist in your novel generally seems to take one of two slants with regards to theme. They either have an opposite theme statement from your MC, or they have a very similar theme statement that they’ve taken just a bit farther than your main character. I know that’s hard to understand, so let me show you.

Hamilton: The antagonist is Aaron Burr. Remember how Alexander Hamilton’s theme statement is about creating a legacy by not throwing away his shot? Well, Aaron Burr’s is pretty much the opposite. He has a legacy to protect and he is willing to wait for it. Totally, totally different.

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Zootopia: On the other hand, Zootopia is different. In the beginning it seems Nick is Officer Hopps’ antagonist, and they seem to have opposite world views. But the true antagonist of the movie is Assistant Mayor Bellweather.

Now, Officer Hopps’ theme statement at the end of the movie is “change begins with you.” But at the beginning of the movie, she is very much about proving everyone wrong who is biased about her. Basically, forcing her rosy, cheery world view on others. Bellweather is also trying to prove everyone wrong and force her world view, but she takes it too far. She uses violence and deception. She already has so much in common with Officer Hopps, it’s not too surprising that their theme statements are similar (with this sort of an antagonist, their theme view is close to the MC’s theme view at the beginning of the book. Facing off with the antagonist is part of the MC’s character arc and helps them change to that final realization/theme statement.)

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Of course, there are other side characters who are not just the antagonist. Make sure you give each of them some way of playing into the theme. Maybe you already know your characters and so as you think about them you’ll be able to see their part of the theme emerge. This is how I do it. I write the first about quarter of the book and discover my characters, then I start assigning them different theme statements.

But if you are in the first planning stages of your novel, maybe you’re still designing characters. In which case, it’s helpful to think about your theme and think about all the opposing views on it that you can, or different ways that theme can be wrestled with and design characters around the ideas that would create the most tension and conflict.

I know this is NOT how Lin Manuel-Miranda planned his musical, but let’s just pretend we are trying to plot the greatest musical ever and think about what kinds of characters we want.

We know the theme is about legacy and the statement is “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The MC and antagonist have opposite views on legacy, with one taking the bull by the horns and creating a legacy and the other waiting for it and protecting one.

But what other kinds of characters can we have around this idea? Well, how about someone who already knows their story is going to be told and feels the pressure of that? How about someone whose story is told incorrectly? How about someone whose story is never told? How about someone who doesn’t want to be part of the story but doesn’t have a choice? Maybe you can come up with other kinds of characters. At the very least, you should be able to figure out who each of these characters are in the show.

Now let’s do it for Zootopia. We already have our Main Character, who believes that in Zootopia anyone can be anything and she is going to prove it to everyone! Well, what kind of characters might cause problems for her? How about a character who knows Zootopia’s dark side and knows that there is a sinister bias against certain animals and has experienced it? How about characters who worry that the idea of being able to be anything puts their loved ones at risk? How about a character who feels like that attitude puts his police officers at risk? What about a character who uses that shiny idea to make himself look good but doesn’t actually have to deal with the problems he creates?

These are all characters in Zootopia, do you see how their views on the theme create conflict and tension?

In my current WIP, the theme is about becoming a community by addressing each others’ needs. I know I will have a character who uses the community for his own mockery/gossip/entertainment purposes. I know I will have a character who refuses to be part of the community. I know I will have a character with a very real need who does not let the community know so they can’t help her. I also have another character with a big problem that actually helps solve another person in the community’s problem, but only after they connect and share. I have a character who is part of a different community that doesn’t appreciate her and needs to break ties. And I have a character who feels too busy to interact with the community.

Now, not all theme work will look like this. In the WIP I just finished, the theme is about being two seemingly opposite things at the same time and finding hope in that. And so, instead of giving each character a different idea about that, I gave them each a different pair of opposing feelings or ways of being that they were struggling with. My main character struggled with the idea that she could be living and dying at the same time. Her father struggled with faith and doubt. Her mother felt torn between her duties as a mother and a wife. Her friend struggled with feeling both proud and embarrassed of her neurodiverse brother, who was struggling with being both normal and different at the same time. See how this is different than the kind of theme statements we talked about above, but how they still helped me create characters that deepen the theme?

There are so many ways that your characters can interact with your theme, you just have to make sure that each of them do and that you can form a statement about how they relate to the theme.

Once you’ve figured out how your characters interact with the theme of your book, it’s time to look at your setting….in my next post. 🙂

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Main Character

Once you’ve figured out the theme of your novel, it’s time to start nailing down how that is going to play out and shape your manuscript. The easiest place to start with this is the main character.

I’m going to use Hamilton

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and Zootopia to illustrate this first.

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I’m also going to take you through the thought process on my current WIP so you can see it in action (also, it will help me jump back in and finish drafting this thing so it’s a win-win.)

First, you need to think of your theme in two ways. The first is as a general sort of topic, try for just one or two words.

Hamilton: LEGACY

Zootopia: BIAS

My current WIP: COMMUNITY (or WANT VS. NEED. Not totally sure yet.)

 

Now I want you to come up with a sentence that sums up the “truth” about this topic that you want your story to get across. The realization that your MC will have at the end of the book.

Hamilton: YOU HAVE NO CONTROL WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY.

Zootopia: CHANGE STARTS WITH YOU.

My current WIP: We are each part of a community and we use the community to address each other’s needs.

 

That sentence you just wrote is the end of your main character’s arc. Now, that means that your MC needs to start the story believing the opposite. This will help you figure out your main character’s weakness/lie they believe. We’re going to call it your character’s false truth or false theme statement.

Hamilton: I can create a legacy for myself by taking risks and doing big things.

Officer Hopps: I will make the world a better place by making sure EVERYONE ELSE does what they should according to MY world view.

MC in my current WIP: I am not important but maybe I can make everyone happy by granting their wishes.

 

These two statements will create your MC’s character arc. At the beginning of the story, they believe the false theme statement, but by the end they should understand the second theme statement. Your entire story revolves around getting your character from false theme statement to true theme statement.

With this idea in mind, it’s time to think about your MC’s internal and external struggle. The external struggle is what we really think of as the plot. But the internal struggle are those motivations that power the choices that fuel the plot.

So…

What does your MC want most? (external struggle)

and…

How does this reflect the internal struggle around theme that I just laid out?

Theme should relate to the external struggle, but the meat of your theme will be found in the internal struggle and the two of these need to be related. The interplay of internal and external struggle, character arc vs. plot doesn’t look the same for every book.

Sometimes the external struggle and internal struggle are very obvious and similar.

Look at Hamilton. His goal is to create a legacy and everything he does is powered around that goal. All of his external struggles are a result of his trying to fulfill that goal. So to me, the external struggle and internal struggle nearly overlap.

In Zootopia, it isn’t quite as obvious. Officer Hopps’ external goal is to become a police officer and, in the process, prove everyone wrong who ever put limitations on what small animals can do. Her internal struggle is about overcoming her own bias. These two struggles strongly mirror and affect each other (as the external and internal struggle always should.)

My current WIP: My MC’s external goal is to make her new neighborhood like her old neighborhood and have a fourth of July barbecue. A real community. Her internal struggle is about seeing herself as an important, integral, and change-making part of that community.

 

Now that you know the beginning and ending points of your MC’s character arc and have an idea of their external and internal struggle and how they relate, you’re ready to fill out those character sheets full of questions.

Yep, NOW.

Why not before? Because you are designing/creating a character. And you need to make sure that you are creating a character who really would believe that false theme statement at the beginning of the book. So questions about backstory are especially important. What has brought your MC to this place? Now that you know the attitude he/she needs to have, you can create a backstory and character details that support that.

At this point, you may be able to see some plot points. You may even be able to fully map out the character arc. But we’re not done planning yet, because next Thursday I’m going to talk about planning your supporting cast and they will be vital to your conflict and tension!

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