Why Taking Breaks Can Be Good For Writers

Today’s post is inspired by the all-too-familiar phrase, “If you don’t write every day, you’re not a real writer.”

hamster wheel for sale
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Would we ever tell a teacher, “If you don’t teach every day, you’re not a real teacher.”?Would we tell this kind of thing to a lawyer? A doctor? A cook? A janitor? Take your pick of any profession out there. Which fits into the “If you don’t do X every every, you’re not a real X?

If we truly believe that to be a “real” something, then why don’t we make everyone work seven days a week? Why don’t we tell them they must work 365 days a year, except in the case of leap year. In that case, it’s 366.

Do you see how absurd this sounds? Why is it writers are held to this standard? There’s no reasonable explanation for it.

Here’s the truth: a real writer is one who writes.

Writing is the only thing a writer must do to be a real writer. It doesn’t matter how often they write. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow they write. It doesn’t matter if they write by daily word counts or by a certain number of scenes or chapters that day. It doesn’t matter if they write only one book at a time or work on multiple books at the same time. It doesn’t matter if they write first thing in the morning, in the afternoon, or in the evening. It doesn’t matter if they write in 15 minute chunks at a time or if they reserve two hours of nonstop writing at the keyboard. (Now, it might benefit a writer to step away from the computer to avoid eye strain, something I deal with, or to avoid hurting your wrist or back. But that has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a real writer.)

You know what does matter?

The quality of the story.

I realize this isn’t popular thinking. We’re led to believe that if we take days off or go on vacations (while leaving all writing behind), we’re lazy. Because if we truly loved writing–if it was our real passion–we would have to do it every single day. I’ve read the “write every day” advice in blog posts and books. I’ve seen it in videos and heard it in podcasts. It seems to be everywhere. I’m not saying that every single writer says this. But a lot do. And quite frankly, I’m sick of hearing it.

I think it’s time to change the mindset on this one. Breaks are good for the health and wellbeing of the writer. They allow the creative mind a chance to simmer over what’s going on in the story. They offer us a chance to spend time with friends and family. They offer us a chance to pursue something else that will help us grow as individuals. They give us freedom to be a more well-rounded person. And I think they will actually make us better writers.

I used to think that if I took the weekends off, I would lose momentum in writing. My daily word count goal is 3,000 words. I used to think, “I’ll lose 6,000 words if I don’t write on Saturday and Sunday.” But something funny happened. I noticed my daily word count went from an average of 3,000 words to about 1,500 when I pushed myself to write every day. No matter how hard I tried, I kept getting blocked because I hit a point in the story where I didn’t know what to do next. So I had to force myself to stop and give myself time to get the creativity flowing again. You know what happened? When I came back to the story, the ideas returned. The words came a lot easier. And I think I ended up telling a better story because I could see the characters moving around and hear what they were saying as if I was watching a movie. My average word count on days I wrote went from 1,5000 to 3,000 again. I’m able to get more done on writing days again. I owe that all to the breaks.

Breaks are great. Breaks allow writers to work smarter, not harder. I think breaks help buffer writers from burnout. I understand you’ll often make more money if you publish more often, but sooner or later, you’ll only be able to publish so much. We’re not robots.

We’re human beings. Human beings need rest. All writing every single day is going to get you is the sensation that you’re a hamster in a wheel that just spins around and around. It depletes you of your energy, and it takes time away from other things that are also important. Yes, writing is important, but it’s NOT the only thing that’s important. Next time someone tries to make you feel like you’re not a real writer because you don’t write every day, politely smile and leave them to their hamster wheel. Just because they want to run around in it, it doesn’t mean you have to.

The Inner Dialogue: A Method for Figuring Out Your Stories

So if you didn’t hear, a novel I’ve been working on since college is getting published, and I’ve been working with a professional editor to make sure that the story is the best it can be before publication. During the revision process, we agreed that the number of flashbacks in the story were actually getting in the way of the story, so I should nix them. Unfortunately, that meant a third of the book went out the window, and another third that relied on that first third had to go as well.

Yeah, that got me depressed for a little while, and it took a lot for me to climb out of that funk. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m actually here to talk about what happened with my story. Because you see, now that essentially the majority of the novel had been chucked out, I had to figure out where to go with the story. I couldn’t go the original direction of the story, because the flashbacks I’d tossed out were so essential to that direction.

Luckily, I was able to come up with a new direction for the story using a method that I’d never used before, which I call the inner dialogue. I can’t remember where I picked this method up,* but it’s stayed in the back of my mind for years, and I figured this was as good a situation as any to use it.

The inner dialogue is where you simulate a conversation with your inner writer (we all have one) when you’re struggling with what to do with a story. This could be trying to overcome writer’s block, figuring out why what a character is doing in the story feels wrong to you, having to rewrite a majority of the story, or any other issue you may be having during the writing/editing process of a story.

Here’s what you have to do:

Get a notebook and pen, or a typewriter and paper, or open up your preferred writing program on your computer. Imagine that you’re sitting down with your inner writer at a cafe, in your favorite writing spot, in a dark basement underneath a seedy dive bar, wherever you feel most comfortable talking to your inner writer. And have an honest conversation with them, writing down what you say and writing down what your inner writer says back. Think of it like texting, only you’re texting with a part of your mind you use for storytelling.

Bounce ideas off them, talk about the criticisms people have with the story, discuss what about the story is bugging you. Something about this method, writing out the problems and some possible situations to remedy this, allows your mind to open up and see new possibilities and solutions.

It might also make people wonder if you’re channeling spirits and doing automatic writing and/or if you’re having some sort of psychological crisis. But I think that’s a risk worth taking for finding what you need to make a story as good as it possibly can be.

Here’s an example conversation of me and my inner writer (who I’ve found to be very sassy during our conversations) discussing a hypothetical book idea I’ve been working on. My dialogue is written normally, while my inner writer uses bold letters:

So we’re doing this again, are we?

Yes, we are. Alright, let’s talk about my idea for a novel I’ve been working on. It centers on a group of cheerleaders.

I’m sure it does, you naughty dog.

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we’ve gone over what would happen to them once they arrive at the main setting of the story. But why does it happen? There’s always a catalyst that sets things up. Even if we don’t see it until the end of the story, there’s always something that starts the horror off.

Not always, baby boy. Remember The Haunting of Hill House? That really didn’t have a–no wait, that’s not right. The catalyst was that they entered the house for the investigation, and one of the subjects is mentally still very much a child, which puts her the most at risk to the house’s charms.

Yeah, catalysts in stories can be debatable or hard to pin down sometimes. But what could be a catalyst for this story. Why does this happen to these characters?

You were playing around with the idea of the setting being an illusion, weren’t you? Something created by the characters and the dark secrets in their minds. Can we do anything with that still? Maybe a variation?

You see where this is going, right? But it is very effective. I got ideas for this hypothetical novel just from doing an inner dialogue here in this blog post. And if doing it as a demonstration in this blog post can give me ideas for a novel, imagine what it can do for your work at home.

With that in mind, I just want to leave you with a couple of tips for doing this. You don’t have to use them, but I find them useful:

  • Be honest and write down everything. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll find it helpful to write down everything in these dialogues. Especially if you want to go back and see what you’ve come up with. Any thought, any idea, could prove useful, so write them down, even if your thoughts are kind of weird (mine certainly are).
  • Give your inner writer a voice. Like in your stories, the inner writer is also a character, even if they only exist inside you. That being said, you’ll want to give them a voice, motivations, everything you’d give a normal character. That way, they can speak to you just like any other character, and make the dialogue that much more effective.
    It also helps to give the inner writer’s dialogue some distinguishing characteristic, so it doesn’t get jumbled up with your own. A different font, italics, as long as it helps you differentiate, it’s all good.
  • Mark the dates and times of the dialogues. Often these dialogues can last a while. Mine lasted two weeks while I was trying to find a new direction. So mark the date and times you had these dialogues in the document you’re using. You’ll find it very helpful for later.

Nobody wants to find out a story is flawed or that they can’t figure out how to fix its problems. But there are a variety of methods to overcome these issues. Perhaps the inner dialogue is a good one for you, and will help you write, edit and publish your best work. You just have to sit down, and commit to talking to yourself for a little while. You never know what you’ll unlock.

*For some reason I think it might have something to do with Stephen King, but I think I’d remember if I came across this method in a King novel. If you have any idea where it came from, let me know in the comments. I’d like to give a proper acknowledgement to whoever or wherever I got the inner dialogue.

Only You Can Write Your Story

only you can tell your story blog post image
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I was listening to a song that was sung by someone other than the original artist, and I went through my music library because I wanted to hear the song sung by the original artist. Why? Because there was a certain “edge” in the way the original artist sang the song that the other person couldn’t get right. It’s the same song, but the artist brought their own style to it that makes me like the song a lot more.

Then I started thinking of how important our writing voice is. Writers, just like musicians, have their own style that they bring to the story that no other writer can do. This is what makes us unique. It makes us different. This is why I think it’s crucial for writers to embrace their creativity. Creativity is what helps writers explore their voice. It’s the natural flow of the story. It’s all in “how” things are worded. The “how” is key.

This is why I’m not a fan of critique groups. When critique groups come in, they often kill the writer’s voice because they impose their own voice into the story. I know that using critique groups is a safer way to go, but I think it can end up ruining what makes a writer unique.

The reason a certain reader is going to be attracted to your story is because you wrote it. A readers becomes a fan of a certain writer based on how strongly the writer’s voice has connected with the reader. There’s a reason why some readers put you on their “auto-buy” list. You bring something to the table no other writer can. You bring your own way of telling the story. You are using words in a way that no one writer can do.

This is why one person will like a book by one author but hate a book by another author. Sure, there can something to do with the content in the book itself. Some readers, for example, love strong heroines while others prefer them to be softer. That speaks more of the reader than it does the writer. You can’t worry over stuff like that. The reader’s preference is out of our control. If you try to write for every reader out there, you’ll end up with mediocre stories. (I know because I’ve tried this, and looking back, I wish I had done a couple of stories differently.)

Being true to your voice is going to require some risk. You’ll have to go into the story knowing that not everyone in this world will like your book. You won’t even please everyone who likes the genre you’re writing in. But, you will find some people who will fall in love with your stories because of the way you tell the story. They will seek you out. They will want your other books. They will prefer your books over another writer’s because of your voice.

It’s like the singer I was listening to. This singer doesn’t appeal to everyone. My husband, for instance, hates this particular artist because of the way she “sounds”. But I love her because of the way she sounds. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to producing a song any more than there is to producing a book. The more you write, the more you will discover your voice. The more you embrace your voice, the more authentic you’ll be to your ideal reader. So don’t fret over elements out of your control (like “why” someone won’t like your book). Instead of focus on elements you can control, like the way you tell a story. You’re the only one who can tell a story in your style. There will be someone out there who will love it.

The Beauty of Point of View

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The other day, a friend and I were reading the same blog comments left by two people with distinct points of view. One argued in favor of something, and another argued against it. I was surprised when my friend said the people were being a bit mean and condescending. When I read those comments, I didn’t think that at all. To me, it seemed like both were steadfast in their beliefs and presented them in a rather neutral tone.

As I was thinking on how differently she and I interpreted the exact same comments, it occurred to me that she and I are looking at these comments through our own perceptions. We are taking our background, our personalities, and our biases in making a judgment about the “tone” these commenters were using while presenting their case.

And that is what makes people “real”. For all I know, we could both be wrong on our interpretation. The two commenters could be friends and having a fun discussion. Neither she nor I picked out that they were having “fun”, but they might have been. You see, these commenters have their own backgrounds, personalities, and biases, too. Too many times we look at things and think we know exactly what’s going on when in reality, we might be wrong.

That is the beauty of point of view. When we’re writing our stories, point of view is what characters “real”. It makes them come alive. It makes them three-dimensional. They have their own backgrounds, their own personalities, and their own biases. All of that impacts their point of view. It is the lens they will at things that happen to them in the course of the story.

The more I study point of view, the more I’m fascinated by it. Every character has a point of view. No two characters in a story should see things the exact same way. They might agree on something, but it should be for different reasons, even if those reasons only vary slightly.

For example, if both characters don’t like the villain, they agree the villain is a jerk. BUT Character 1 may say the villain is a jerk because the villain stole something from her. Character 2 may say the villain is a jerk because the villain killed her sister. Both characters can have the same focus/goal, which would be to defeat the villain. They’re going at it from different angles (for different reasons). It’s possible the villain could have killed both of their sisters. This would be especially true if Character 1 & 2 are sisters. But even then, there could be a slight variation in perception. Character 1 could be the personality type that is quick to act, and this will affect her point of view. (She’d be the one that would want to jump at the villain right away.) Character 2, however, might be more cautious. (She’d want to make a plan to take down the villain before acting.) That would impact how they both perceive the situation they’re in, and it would lead to some conflict between the sisters while maintaining the conflict these sisters have with the villain.

The example above could be worked out a lot of ways. The characters’ point of view will determine the way the story plays out. That means every writer reading this could take that scenario, and each writer would have a different story. The writer creates the characters, so the writer is bringing his/her own point of view into the story. The writer already has it set on what kind of story this setup will be. It could be a short story, novella, a novel, or even a series. The writer could then break it down according to genre and sub-genre. So even at the writing level, we have the beauty of point of view. But then the writer creates the characters and the world, and from there the characters bring their own points of view to the table. That’s why even with the same set up, no two stories will be alike. There might be some similarities, but they will be distinct because they will all play out differently.

And this is good. It means there are many ways that stories can be told. It allows for creative freedom. Point of view is a wonderful tool at our disposal. Instead of trying to be like another writer, I think we should embrace the writer we already are. We can use our characters to explore new ways of looking at the world that we never even considered. We should allow the characters to be true to themselves instead of telling them who they are. We, as writers, set the initial stage for the stories. The characters are the ones who take the main set up and run to tell the actual tale.

I never know what my characters will say and do until I’m writing in their point of view. I go into the story thinking I know what will happen, but I’m rarely ever right. I’d say 95% of the time, I’m wrong. The characters take the reins, and they end up telling me what they’re going to say and do. All I do is sit back and record everything down as it plays out like a movie in my mind. The best way to do is by getting deep into the character’s point of view. I don’t agree with everything my characters do. I wouldn’t do things the same way some of my characters do it. But I’m writing the characters’ stories, not my own. So I let them lead the way. There are times when I think the characters are taking the entire story off course, but I have learned to trust the process because every single time, they end up making a better story than I would have.

This is a huge reason why I can’t plot ahead of writing a book. When I tried, the characters ripped up my outline, threw it away, and did their own thing. If I forced them to stick to my outline, the story fell apart, and I hit a dead end. Now, I know some writers plot and do it well. I’m not one of them. This post might be primarily for those writers who are pansters. The reason I say this is because I can’t know my characters until I’m writing in their point of view. I can imagine what they’d do all day long, but none of makes any difference until I’m writing.

My way,  obviously, isn’t for everyone, but I thought I’d share it because I was excited to learn something new about point of view I hadn’t really thought about before. But I’m also bringing my own point of view to this topic. Take what you can use and toss the rest out. Only you can write a character’s point of view according to your own unique style.

I Had to Give Up Writing to Market in Order to Find My Passion Again

It’s been ages since I posted anything on this blog. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas. I had a lot of them. But as soon as I sat down and wrote a paragraph or two, my mind came to a screeching halt. I waited and waited…and waited some more for inspiration to come so I could finish the blog post. But inspiration never came. I deleted most of those drafts. Why? Because my heart wasn’t “in” writing anymore, much less trying to figure out how to tell other authors how they might sell more books.

I had lost my creative edge, and the scary part is that I didn’t even know it. Writing had started to become a chore. I was doing good to chug along and write my books. It’s like I was running on a gas tank that was almost empty. All of the gas left in my tank was going to my books. I had nothing left to give to a blog post.

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I got some criticism for writing a blog post on here about losing income. But it’s true. I did lose income. I lost about 1/3 of my income from 2015 to 2016. I barely remained steady in 2017. I was even tempted to go exclusive with Amazon by putting new books in KDP Select so I could take advantage of page reads in Kindle Unlimited. I had to spend serious time in prayer and talking with a couple of friends in order to make the best decision for me longterm. (KU is not a good longterm plan.) I knew this, but I had started to focus on short-term plans.

Which is why I was writing to market when 2016 came around.

I wrote to market for two years. Fortunately for me, I happen to love historical western and Regency romances, which happen to be popular genres anyway. But what I did was pick heroine types, hero types, and plot types that I felt had the best chance of selling well. I broke this rule with one book (which is now one of my all-time favorites). That book didn’t do as well as the others. The thing is, I know what is popular in my corner of the romance market. I know what pleases the most readers. How? Because of all the feedback I’ve gotten over the years and watching what other (very successful) romance authors were doing.

I always picked plots I was interested in doing. I could never bring myself to write something I didn’t like. But after two years of writing as fast as I could on projects that I felt would sell, I realized I had used up all of those ideas. I was exhausted. I knew I was burning out. Still, in January, I wrote another romance to market. Then February came. By this time, I was wiped out, but I already had a pre-order set for an April release, so I went through that month and pushed myself to finish that book. Thankfully, this book wasn’t a “write to market” book. It was a passion project. I was venturing into new territory I was excited about. If it had been a “write to market” book, I don’t think I would have survived the month as well as I did. Because even though it was a passion project, my joy for writing had already been hit hard.

And yet, as I write this, my income is still dropping. Writing to market was not a long-term solution to my problem. It was a temporary one. I don’t know if it’s because the market is saturated, or if my readers from early on were tired of the new stuff I was doing (since it was not longer my passion projects), or if it’s because I never went into KU, but my income never did return to what I made in 2015. Ads had minimal effect, and quite frankly, with tax payments based on last year’s income, I don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of money on ads, which are the latest promotional tool. (I’m sure the effectiveness of ads will run out in due time, just like the effectiveness of free, $0.99, and other tactics have diminished over the years I’ve been indie publishing.)

Anyway, when I saw my efforts were not paying off, I asked myself, “Why am I pushing myself so hard?” And it all came down to money. I wanted to make more money writing books. But the thing was, I wasn’t making more money. I was making less.

Early this month, I caught myself thinking, “I hate writing. I wish I could leave the computer and never write another word for as long as I live.”

And that scared me. When I was in the 6th grade, I first discovered how fun reading was, and from there, I started writing. I had always loved writing. Up until 2015, I couldn’t imagine never writing because I loved it so much. When I died, I was hoping I could continue writing in Heaven. So when did it all stop? Looking back, I realized it became “work” in 2016 when I started to seriously write to market. I stopped taking story ideas I felt was risky. I was no longer putting myself into every story. I was playing it safe.

My stress level went through the roof. Whenever I wrote, I was asking myself, “Will someone object to this? Will someone give me a 1-star over that? Will someone stop buying my books because I put this in it?” Everything I wrote (with the exception of two books) revolved around what I thought the market wanted.

I didn’t realize I was paying attention to something Dean Wesley Smith calls “critical voice”. I just got through reading his book Writing into the Dark last week (scroll down the page to find it). Anyway, the book mainly tells writers how to write without plotting, but in it he mentions how harmful critical voice is to writing. And he’s right. Critical voice was in full control when I was writing to market. Critical voice stepped in and stopped me from pursuing books I really, really, really wanted to write because, “No one is going to buy it because of (insert reason here).”

I had a good list of things I had to avoid writing while I was focused on the market, and because of this, I ended up having to work within a narrow parameter of what my critical voice had told me was acceptable. I still picked things I was interested in, but I wasn’t able to go beyond the box I had put myself in. And that was slowly killing my creative voice. I didn’t even know this was happening. That was the scary part. It’s only now as I’m looking back that I can see what was going on. I shake my head and wonder, “How could I not see it?”

This is something all authors are probably going to have to come to terms with at some point. Yes, writing to market can yield high income. (I’ve seen writers do it.) But is it possible to do this for the long term? Can they keep producing these books in a way that is fresh and new? Can they keep doing this at breakneck speed?

This is a bit of a side note, but I’ve noticed that (at least on Amazon), in order to stay relevant, I had to get more books out. Romance authors are now putting out two or more books a month. I’ve seen a couple of authors doing one book a week. Yes, they’re novellas, but still…  And the other day, one author was going from one book a week to two books a week. How long can this momentum stay up? I’m a firm believer that it’s possible to write fast and write quality, but even I can’t see how going that fast is a manageable long-term strategy.  But I’m not the only one who noticed this trend on Amazon. Cait Reynolds did a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog called “Kindle Unlimited: Good Plan or KU Hamster Wheel of Death?” (The post is hilarious, especially with the hamster pictures.) I have this article on my desk and read it at least once a month to remind myself that KU (and Amazon) is built for speed. You must constantly have new books out to keep income up. And there’s a point where I can’t write any more books that I currently do each year.

So I need a long-term strategy because I want to love writing. I want to keep writing. And more importantly, I want to love what I’m writing. I want my passion back. I want my creative voice to flourish again. Just recently, I finally decided I’m going to stop writing to market. I have officially dropped out of the rat race. I’m going to start embracing projects that I can give my whole heart into. If it fits the market, fine. If not, fine. But I’m not going to let that critical voice rule over me anymore.

It was amazing how quickly this single decision changed things around for me. I took a few days to decompress and re-evaluate my life. I did a lot of self-reflection.  But within a week, something magical happened. I got the joy back. I got my passion back. Finally, I have fresh and new story ideas again. I have characters who are exciting to write about. I didn’t expect this to happen so fast, but it did.

And last week, for the first time since 2015, I wrote because I “wanted” to. I had no idea there was such a huge difference between writing because I “had” to and writing because I “want” to, but it’s a huge difference.

What about you? Have you had any revelations about your own writing lately?

Slaying Giants

This blog post will contain some Christian references, but it also focuses on writing.

Sunday’s church sermon was on how David killed the giant, Goliath. The visiting pastor talked about how big and tall Goliath was, and how he wore heavy battle armor. This Philistine was intimidating to the Israel people. Who could defeat this menacing giant?

To urge someone to come forward to fight Goliath, King Saul offered one of his daughters to marry and for the family to be exempt from paying taxes. Still no one answered the call until a shepherd boy expressed his interest in 1 Samuel 32-33:

“‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ David told him [Saul]. ‘I’ll take care of this Philistine.’”

“Saul replied. … ‘You’re only a boy and he [Goliath] has been in the army since he was a boy!’”

However, David was not deterred even when he threw off the weighty armor Saul gave him to fight the giant. David would slay Goliath on his own terms.

The odds were against David. But with one swift swirl of his slingshot, the rock hit Goliath on his forehead, and the giant fell dead to the ground.

This reminds me of our own writing battles. We work hard to make our work the best we can do. We edit and edit, research and research for historical accuracy, we promote and promote to secure readers and yet at times we feel just like the Israel people – intimidated and hopeless.

This year I made an oath that I would depend upon God and not worry. There are a few days that hopeless feeling returns once more within me, such as this weekend at a writers’ conference.

It took a couple of hours for me to set up my booth, so I could sell my books during Saturday’s lunch and conference breaks. I had practiced reading from my recent historical, clean and Christian romance, When Hearts Rekindle, wanting to entice those hearing my Friday night reading to visit my book booth on Saturday.

For all my efforts, I sold one book, my first book, Seasons of the Soul, which includes a spattering of personal accounts of my two different autistic sons. It took me time to get over my sinking feeling of all my efforts to result in one sale; however, grateful I am for that sale. But to be honest, I had hoped for more, not a lot, but perhaps three to four sales. At least with that, the $10 booth would have paid for itself.

The next day I shook myself awake from my despair and renewed my commitment to God. As a Christian, I must believe the word of the Lord, “all things are possible to him that believeth.” (Mark 9:23) That does not mean there are not troubling times.

However, overall, each year gets better and so, I say to you, keep trudging along. Do not let your fret overtake you and continue to write, tweak your manuscripts and move forward. You are doing better than when you started. Why? Because you have learned from your past mistakes and so you are more prepared today than you were yesterday. Grab your pencil and paper – or should I say your word program and computer? – and  type and write! God bless.

 

Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

How to Write an Interlude

Have you ever been in the middle of a novel, and it’s been told almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, and then in one chapter it’s suddenly told from the POV of a character who may work in an office dealing with the fallout of the events of the novel, or of a love interest left at home waiting for the protagonist to come home, or from the villain who is slowly losing their mind as they see the price they are paying for their power? If you have, then you have come across an interlude, a break from the main narrative of a fictional story in order to receive the viewpoint of another character or characters, often to further the story or to give us an expanded perception of the story.

Interludes occur a lot in fiction. The Harry Potter novels had quite a few of them (the very first chapter of the series was an interlude, focusing on the lives of the Dursleys and the effect of Voldemort’s death on the Wizarding World rather than on Harry himself). The Help had one in the novel, written like a news article reporting on the events of the Christmas charity ball and the attendees’ individual thoughts. And my own work features interludes, including in my WIP Rose.

But how do you write a good interlude? I have some tips in this article that might prove useful in answering that very question.

But first, let’s ask ourselves this: why write an interlude at all? Don’t we want to stay focused on the main story? Well, not always. Sometimes changing POVs can help fill in information the reader may need without being expository or awkward as it might be in the main narrative. For example, in the first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister,” explains to the reader, from both the Muggle and the Wizarding point of view, how much Britain has been affected since Voldemort’s return. Now I’m sure JK Rowling could have told us that very well from Harry’s POV, but seeing it from both the Muggle Prime Minister and from the Ministry’s upper echelons’ POV adds a new dimension to the story that we might not have gotten from just Harry’s POV.

The interlude in The Help does something similar: in its interlude chapter, which isn’t told from the POVs of any of the main characters, we get the interactions between several characters at once, major and minor, as well as their thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t get that if the author had stayed in the POV of one of the protagonists.

So an interlude gives us, the reader, important information that we can’t get through the normal narrative.

But how do we write an interlude? Well, we should be careful about how we do it. If a reader is used to one particular POV, the sudden shift to another with just a turn of the page could be very jarring and ruin the illusion of the story. Thus the author must alert the reader immediately that an interlude has begun. This should be done in the very first sentence. Let’s take our Half-Blood Prince example:

It was nearing midnight, and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

See how Harry’s not mentioned at all? See how it sets up who we’re focusing on, what their location is, and what they’re doing? That’s a great way to start an interlude and alert a reader to the change of POV so they’re not thrown off course.

Another way to alert readers in the first sentence is by changing more than just the POV. In my WIP Rose, there’s a chapter in the latter half of the book where the POV changes from the protagonist to the father of one of the other characters. At the same time as this change, the narration changes from a narrow, first-person POV to a semi-omniscient,  third-person POV.  A change like that is a very good way to alert the reader of the change, though it does have its risks, and can cause readers to do a double or even a triple take.

This actually extends to more than just what person the narration is in: in The Help‘s interlude, the shift to a reporting style changes not just the POV and how the story is told, but in the book the margins are increased to make it seem like you’re actually reading a column in a newspaper. That is a very effective tool in alerting readers to how different that chapter is.

A third way to alert the reader to an interlude is to alert them before the chapter even begins. In Rose, I start my interlude chapter by naming it An Aside. Because that’s what it is, an aside to see things from this other character’s POV, as well as to further the story.  It’s as simple as that.

And after you alert the reader to the change in perspective, it’s as simple as writing a regular chapter. Tell the part of the story that needs to be told in this chapter, and as long as you tell it well, then you’ve written a good interlude. At least, that’s always been my experience.

Even if you don’t ever find yourself writing an interlude (plenty of authors simply don’t), it’s always handy to know how to do it. And knowing what an interlude is meant to do, as well as how to alert the reader to the interlude, is essential to knowing how to do it. And if you can master those, you can make any interlude part of a great story.

Do you write interludes in your fiction or find them in the books you read? What tips do you have to writing them?

 

Just a quick note: as 2017 is winding down, and this may be our last post for the year, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for reading our posts. You are the reason we do what we do, and we always appreciate you coming back over and over and letting us know that what we put out there is helpful to you in your careers.

From all of us to you, Happy Holidays and a good New Year. We look forward to sharing wisdom back and forth between ourselves again in 2018.

What is the Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character

The original Mary Sue illustration, not just making fun of the character, but the stereotypical girl who might write Mary Sue stories. *shiver*

If you’ve been around the fiction or Internet scenes awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue,” and wondered what it is. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about what the term actually means. Some people think it’s a super-powered, almost perfect character. Others think it’s a character meant to be an avatar for the author to go be heroic in their own story. Others think it’s a female character who’s a badass and has amazing skills. And a few people thought it was the name of a steamboat featured in a popular song (that’s the Proud Mary).

Except for the boat, all of those definitions are technically both right and wrong. Not only that, but the term Mary Sue actually carries some negative connotations, and the application of the term to a character, particularly a protagonist, can be seriously detrimental to a character and the story they feature in.

So what is a Mary Sue? Well, the term dates back to 1973, when author and editor Paula Smith wrote the satirical short story “A Trekkie’s Tale” for her sci-fi fan fiction magazine Menagerie. The story centered around a character named Mary Sue, a fifteen-and-a-half year old girl who says stuff like, “Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” and is the youngest lieutenant in the fleet. In the course of the four-paragraph story, both Kirk and Spock fall in love with her, the whole crew gets captured by androids, she tells Spock she’s half-Vulcan before freeing them, they all come down with a disease that Mary Sue is only slightly less-affected by, she nurses them back to health at the cost of her own life, and becomes an intergalactic heroine who is given all sorts of posthumous awards and tributes for “her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”

As I said, the story was satirical, and was a parody of most fan fiction at the time, which was mainly the authors inserting themselves into their stories and having adventures that elevated them to the status of being more amazing than any other character or even the world itself. But that’s the essential issue with this sort of character: the entire story serves to show how awesome these characters are. The character just waltzes through life, universally admired by all and able to easily overcome any obstacle. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and if something does happen to them–usually death–they are immediately celebrated for being an awesome hero.

The problem with this sort of character is that it’s boring. The story isn’t about immersing the reader in an interesting world or taking them on an incredible journey. The author has decided this character is the most important character of all, so they write the story to highlight their greatness at the expense of their actual story. Imagine if Harry Potter wasn’t about a likable boy–one who wishes he grew up in a loving household, is happy to be in a world full of magic and friends, struggles through homework like the rest of us, and is clearly uncomfortable with his destiny and his fame–but instead was a perfect wizard whose past is only touched upon, and breezes through everything, from classes to fighting Voldemort, with nary a bad thought or a frown to trouble him. Important features like the cool magical world, Horcruxes, or the messages of love and tolerance that define the story would be downgraded in importance or thrown away to focus on Harry, how cool he is, how smart he is, how adept at magic he is.

Sounds boring, right? There’s absolutely nothing about the character to identify with or any exciting conflicts to overcome. And the vast majority of people agree. In fact, after “A Trekkie’s Tale” came out, the story went the 70’s version of viral, making “Mary Sue” a term applied to characters who exist only to show off off how amazing they are at the sacrifice of great character development or world-building, and forever marking the trope as a sign of bad storytelling. Menagerie even put out a statement in 1976 stating they hated Mary Sues (as well as their male counterparts, Marty or Gary Sues). And the hate continues today, with the Sues being rejected by all literature lovers, whether familiar with the term or not.

And in that statement right there comes the issue that has grown from the identification of the Sue trope: the baseless accusation. A lot of people, whether through ignorance or maliciousness, have accused characters from all sorts of works of being Sues. Usually these characters are front and center in their stories, highly adept at a number of skills suited for their environment, and, because the trope was first defined with a female character, female. For example, Rey from The Force Awakens was accused by some of being a Mary Sue,  as she is a protagonist, skilled in scavenging and fighting, and is apparently a Force prodigy. However, as defined above, Rey does not fit the mold of the Sue: the story does not become a tool to highlight her greatness. Rey is a flawed character, with skills that make sense given her environment and a need for someplace to call home. And while she is Force-powerful, she’s not using it to easily defeat her enemies with a flip of her wrist like a Sue would. Clearly the shoe doesn’t fit.*

But that there’s the issue: the Sue label can be applied so easily to characters possessing certain traits, and because of that, some writers are afraid to write certain characters or even to write at all due to the stigma of the Sue label, which can turn away audiences if too many people start believing a character isa Sue. And this is especially bad for female leads. Paula Smith, the woman who first named the trope, once led a panel of women writers who all said they never write female leads, because every time they’ve tried the characters have been labeled Sues. And in researching this article, I found a Mary Sue “test” where, if you answered the first question as “Yes, the main character is female,” it’s automatically a Sue.

But this is not the Sue, and there’s only one test to define one: is the story written simply to show off how “amazing” a character is, rather than tell a story involving a likable character with an arc? If the answer is yes, that’s the sign of a Sue. That’s all you need to identify one, and that’s all you need to avoid writing one. Stick with telling a story about a character who isn’t perfect, but has room to grow through the events of the story. You can still insert yourself as a character (God knows I did it with my novel Snake), but treat your insert as you would any other protagonist, someone who has to struggle both inwardly and outwardly in order to accomplish their goal. The Sue label may still get hurled, regardless of the gender of the character, but at least you’ll know that the accusation has less sticking power than if you actually wrote a Sue into your story.

What’s your take on the Mary Sue trope? Did I miss anything in discussing it? How do you avoid the trope?

*Plus no one accuses Luke of being a Gary Sue, despite Mark Hamill himself stating the character is an author insert (Lucas = Luke S.), he’s great at piloting any sort of ship, and he’s proficient enough in the Force to blow up the Death Star barely two days after learning it exists.

Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

Recently I wrote a post on “Handbook for Mortals,” which covered the controversy about a first-time author and former band manager whose YA novel made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, and how the Twitter YA community uncovered that the author got there by making bulk orders from bookstores. All in order to apparently get a movie deal with the author as the main character. Yeah, that happened.

Well on Monday the author of that very book, Lani Sarem, wrote an article for the Huffington Post defending herself. She pointed out that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and that she ordered the books for conventions and book signings, going through the bookstores rather than her distributor so that sales counted towards the NYT Bestseller List. She also said that plenty of people had bought books at these signings/conventions, and that she’d already locked down the rights for the movie so she could have more control over the five movies (seriously? Five?) based off the series she was writing, and to star in the film.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the wake of this article. Some is sympathetic, and others not so much. And Sarem does make some points. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the years, authors do order in bulk for events like conventions and book signings. And authors do show up in adaptations of their works from time to time. Could all the media coverage of this book and its author, including the coverage from two weeks ago, have actually been detrimental to something positive?* Did one Twitter community accomplish something that another failed to do with the Ghostbusters reboot?

Well, I did some research, and slept on it, and I thought about it. And while there are some interesting points, there’s still some stuff with this situation that doesn’t ring right. Not least that movie thing (five? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! Let’s get to even one and see how that goes! And you as the lead? Really? I don’t know if that’s a sign of a control freak or a narcissist or both).

First off, the buying in bulk thing. Yeah, authors do buy in bulk for events. However, most of the time they buy through their distributors, as it comes with a discount, and it still counts as sales. It’s also considered more honest than what Sarem did. She literally says in her defense she bought through bookstores simply to get on the NYT Bestseller List, which would get her the movie deal. And while she’s technically right that there are no “rules” against doing something like this, there’s a subversiveness about it that doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that, as I mentioned in the previous article, behavior like this got her fired from a band she managed. Heck, tactics like this was used in an episode of Lucifer, and it felt just as subversive there as it does here. It actually reminds me of the time I played an online game and used a cheat code to get to maximize my stats just so I didn’t have to do the hard work of building them in the first place.

And that’s the major problem here: Sarem was looking for ways to immediately reach the top and get her movie deal, rather than get their through hard work and talent. Even if she wasn’t doing technically anything “wrong,” it was still dishonest and meant to be a shortcut to fame and success. That’s why people are upset, and made such a big deal about this. Sarem used a cheat code, all for a film deal, and it got exposed. That’s why she was taken off the NYT Bestseller List.

Because in the end, there is no defense for trying to skip hard work and make things easy. Especially when it comes to literature.

So while Sarem may have a good defense, there’s plenty here that just doesn’t sit right. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize there are ways to get a great novel on top of NYT Bestseller Lists, and this isn’t one of them.

Also, Sarem’s cover art may have been stolen from another artist. I’m not kidding you, the cover of the book apparently bears a striking resemblance to an art print called The Knife Thrower by Australian artist Gill Del Mace. And if you look at them, they’re very similar (can’t post it here because of possible copyright issues, but here’s a link to the creator’s website if you want to check it out). Where does it end?

But what do you guys think? This seems like it  might become an ongoing issue or story, one I may revisit on this site in the future, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Was Sarem being dishonest or innovative? Did Twitter go insane again, or was it a cross between Spotlight-style reporting and grassroots activism? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

*As for the quality of the book, I’ve looked at reviews from both before and after the initial wave of articles about Sarem’s unique methods. Some like it, but a lot more find it a mess that seems to have been written by a junior high schooler. Of those who’ve written reviews after the controversy broke, they admit they know of the controversy, but they try to focus on the book itself, which I’ve done myself with different movies and films. If they’re definitely trying to stay unbiased, then the reviews don’t bode well for Sarem regardless of the efficacy of her tactics.